“So long, pal” provides an update on the war in Afghanistan (The Economist, September 22, 2012). In the wake of repeated, high-profile attacks by Afghan forces on their NATO counterparts, the senior NATO commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, USMC, has suspended most joint NATO-Afghan patrols. Now, all such patrols require approval from a general officer. Concurrently, new efforts are underway to improve training and recruitment for Afghan units. The article is worth reading and contains much good analysis.
However, the article fails to address three fundamental problems with that war.
First, military patrols are generally ineffective in establishing government control over territory. Patrols invite attack, thereby allowing a patrol to engage insurgents. But even under optimal conditions, there are too few patrols and too much ground to permit patrolling to become an effective means of exerting military control over an area. Counterinsurgency doctrine calls for ratios of 1 to 20, that is, 1 military/police for every 20 citizens. Whether that ratio is sufficient in a nation with as scattered a population and rugged terrain as Afghanistan is unknown. Even the most optimistic forecasts do not envision Afghanistan forces reaching that ratio. Patrolling failed as a tactic in Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere. There is no reason to believe that it will work in Afghanistan.
Second, language and cultural barriers further impede the effectiveness of patrols as well as pose major obstacles to establishing real trust and genuine cooperation between NATO personnel and Afghan forces. Without substantial linguistic skills, the only way a patrol can distinguish between friend and foe is on the basis of hostile actions. The story of our occupation of Afghanistan is a long narrative of misunderstood locals, situations wrongly perceived as hostile or as friendly because foreigners did not know the language and the culture. This is not an effective way to make friends.
Third, even if one overcame both of those problems, Afghanistan has a corrupt central government that exerts little influence in most areas of the country. Local powers govern Afghanistan. Pretending otherwise does not change the actual situation.
I want uniformed military leaders who believe that victory is possible (remember John Paul Jones who in the face near certain defeat declared, “I have not yet begun to fight”). But, I also want those uniformed leaders subordinate to elected civilian leaders who have less invested in the fighting and more responsibility for the larger view.
An important criterion for a just war is that the war has a reasonable chance of success, i.e., moving toward real peace. The fighting in Afghanistan fails this test. If success were possible, surely we could have achieved it in less than a decade. Furthermore, if success were possible, then our elected leaders would have no reason to conduct the war with minimal Congressional scrutiny, e.g., using deficit financing to pay for the war. NATO and the U.S. do not have vital interests at stake in this war, something which public scrutiny can highlight. We cannot stop Afghans from killing one another. We can stop the pointless killing of Afghans by foreign military personnel and the equally pointless NATO and U.S. military casualties in Afghanistan.