This week the nation heard another verse in what is becoming a very old poem: a speech outlining a new strategy to win the war in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is suddenly important again, and our new leaders say they will show us the path to victory. The enemy has always assumed they could wait us out in an endless guerrilla war. Now, after nearly 16 years, we seem to be emulating that tactic while ignoring the fact that they live there and we don’t.
According to reports, we are sending roughly 4,000 troops to add to a little under 9,000 troops who are currently in Afghanistan. That’s 4,000 men and women, little more than a large urban high school, to strike that great victory. Anyone who has been to Kunar or Helmand provinces knows that the equivalent of a badly understrength brigade is not a drop in a bucket so much as spit in a sieve.
With parental consent or emancipation, it is possible for someone to enlist in the military at the age of 17. In a little over two years, we may well be seeing the first soldiers arrive in Afghanistan who had not even been born when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred. At the same time, a soldier I know who first deployed to Afghanistan as a private first class in 2002, where he participated in Operation Anaconda, is retiring soon as a first sergeant.
A soldier sent to Vietnam in 1964 could be told he was helping prevent communist domination and another world war and perhaps think, “maybe I am.” Telling him that in 1973 was beyond farce. Talk of victory in Afghanistan in 2017 seems no less absurd.
The president is right that Pakistan has always been the elephant in the room. When suicide bombers detonate themselves in Afghanistan, there is an excellent chance they spent at least some time in Pakistan first. Whatever meaning much of the border might have had dissolved in the 1980s, when over a million Afghans fled to Pakistan from the Soviet Union’s bloody onslaught. Some of them and their sons still return to the fight, and generally not as friends of the U.S. or the Afghan government.
I remember showing up at the Pakistan border shortly after my 23rd birthday in February 2006. We took over from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. I was the definition of a private and had been with my company barely six months. We had no real strategy at the ground level other than secure a few passes through the ridgelines that lined the border between Paktika province and Pakistan.
We smiled and nodded as the unit we replaced said to avoid the ridgeline and keep our heads down. We had artillery and air support, and despite being low priority compared to the carnage in Iraq at the time, we figured we had it covered. Fifteen months of grueling patrols later, we were the guys in dusty uniforms and ripped gloves, offering advice. Our replacements did not listen to us either. Nothing had changed. All we accomplished was to pick at the scab and hope it would not scar over too badly.
The unit that replaced us at the end of that tour was also from the 173rd Airborne Brigade. These were the same soldiers we had replaced when I was a brand new private in 2006. Their noncommissioned officers seemed depressed and the junior personnel did not care what we said. Not long after we left, our outpost was abandoned to the insurgents rampant in that valley.
I have to wonder if some dusty soldiers in dirty uniforms and torn gloves with 10th Mountain patches will be waiting in Afghanistan for the 173rd with another warning and receive another shrug some day soon.
Because, no matter what, the new guys always believe that things will change.