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Critical Mass in Afghanistan

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, March 23, 2009

MAYDAN SHAR, Afghanistan -- Though the president has yet to formally spell out his strategy, the Obama administration's attempt to turn around a failing war is already beginning here, at a dusty crossroads 25 miles southwest of Kabul.

Thanks to a late decision by the Bush administration, U.S. forces based here and in surrounding Wardak province have just increased by a factor of 10. Consequently, the counterinsurgency strategy that rescued the U.S. mission in Iraq -- and that President Obama is betting on in Afghanistan -- is being fully applied for the first time in this bigger, poorer and increasingly violent country.

Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade are moving into outposts along a road leading west from Kabul toward Iran, and patrols have begun along the crucial southern highway to Kandahar, which also branches from the junction here. U.S. commanders are working with the local governor on a list of development projects to be funded with the Army's quick response funds. Special Forces are meanwhile training and arming a pilot "public protection force" that is roughly comparable to the neighborhood militias of Iraq.

To most eyes in Washington, Afghanistan has been looking worse by the week -- casualties this year are more than double what they were at this point in 2008. But U.S. commanders here, in Kabul and in Kandahar spoke confidently about reversing the war's momentum when I and several other journalists met with them over the last several days during a tour organized by the staff of commanding Gen. David D. McKiernan. "It's a war, and in a war, mass matters," said Brigadier Gen. Mark A. Milley, the deputy commander for the sector including Wardak province. "Over time this will work -- it has worked over and over again through history."

The commanders are upbeat in part because for the first time in seven years they believe they are getting enough resources. Though the Bush administration articulated lofty goals, it "undersourced this campaign from the beginning," said a senior officer in Kabul. Oddly, the Obama administration appears likely to meet most or all of McKiernan's requests for troops, civilian experts and aid even as it talks down those expectations.

After several years in which the U.S. military fecklessly tried to defeat the Taliban with sweeps and Special Forces raids, the counterinsurgency doctrine developed by Gen. David Petraeus has been unreservedly embraced. Milley says what is emerging in Wardak is not just more troops but "counterinsurgency mass. You have to mass money, bridges, water, power, agriculture and roads, and you have to mass good governance at the local level." The Wardak campaign has budgeted $500,000 in initial aid spending for each of the province's six districts -- or about $3 for every household.

In Wardak, as in southern Afghanistan, U.S. forces are embracing local leaders while quietly sidestepping President Hamid Karzai -- whose relations with American military leaders and diplomats have grown toxic. Wardak Gov. Mohammed Halim Fidai is an English-speaking former refugee who has spent much of his career working for U.S.-funded NGOs and has enthusiastically embraced the new strategy.

Yet Fidai concedes that his constituents are considerably less cheerful than he is about the sudden appearance of Americans in force. "The public is afraid their villages can be converted into battle zones," he said over lunch in his compound, which faces a U.S. base whose population has grown from 100 to more than 1,000. They're also worried the new "protection forces" will bring back the warlords who terrorized Afghans through most of the last two decades.

Polls show a chance to win over the population: Less than 5 percent say they support the Taliban, while more than 60 percent still accept the presence of foreign troops. But even "10 percent can keep a fight going for a long time," says Milley. "They can create an atmosphere of fear. And they can create a perception in the minds of people in Afghanistan and in Paris and New York that this is a losing battle, that you are in this graveyard of empires, in this terminal situation that you cannot win."

That is what the commanders here seem most worried about: not that their added forces will fail to clear the Taliban from the roads around Kabul and the Pashtun heartland of the south but that Western governments -- including an ambivalent Obama administration -- will give up on the war before the counterinsurgency strategy can pay off. Everyone expects a surge of violence and American casualties this year; no one expects a decisive improvement in the situation for at least several years beyond that.

McKiernan believes the Afghan army, now at 80,000 members, will have to grow to 240,000 before it can defend the country on its own -- and that raising it to that level will take until 2016. Would Obama be willing, or politically able, to devote the entirety of his presidency to a war that has already lasted seven years? The thousands of American soldiers and civilians pouring into the country deserve that strategic patience; without it, the sacrifices we will soon hear of will be wasted.

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