With President Obama recently publicizing troop withdrawal timetables from Iraq and much of the tactical focus shifting to Afghanistan, it will quickly be forgotten that there are still more than 140,000 United States servicemembers deployed in Iraq. I am somewhat fearful that they will be overlooked in these next several months. While the conflict as a whole may be in its twilight, it is still a very real and daily struggle and danger for the thousands still serving there. In our haste to fixate on more “juicy” matters, we must not neglect them in the slightest.
Nevertheless, while historians and commentators who have never seen things first-hand spend the next several decades robustly debating whether we have achieved victory or suffered defeat in Iraq, other conflicts will continue to steal national attention. Afghanistan will be the first. At the risk of appearing insincere with my aforementioned remarks, I, too, wish to throw in my own comments on the subject.
While Iraq has been undeniably awash in sectarianism, tribalism, and even regionalism (unfortunately at the expense of much-needed nationalism), there are a few factors which quickly differentiate it culturally and tactically from the situation in Afghanistan. Foremost among them is terrain.
Iraq is, by and large, exceedingly flat (except for the northern borders), and broken up predominantly by two rivers and a confusing network of canals that make otherwise terribly arid land a fantastic location for crops. There is a relatively well-established highway system, paved roads, and even a fair degree of order to how settlement has been arranged. Above all else, the people go where the water is. Roads connect such localities, and eventually all roads lead to Baghdad and a few other towns. What is not irrigated remains, as it has been for millennia, vast tracts of dusty, sandy wasteland. While roads have been, at times, extremely dangerous to travel by vehicle, a clever reallocation of most air traffic to odd hours of the night has permitted relatively easy travel to and from any given location in the country. Helicopters routinely “taxi” missions through most of the night under the cover of darkness, and will only venture out during the day to transport MVPs and support ground combat operations. For the most part, it works well.
But in Afghanistan there are no such luxuries. In addition to the standard difficulties that desert flight presents (dust storms, and disorienting dust clouds), the terrain itself is such that battlespace dominance is extremely difficult. Helicopters are restricted to certain altitudes, yet various mountains throughout the country impede their travel to more manageable elevations, or force pilots to brave the exponential dangers of higher altitude flight. Combat aircraft crash records quickly indicate this.
Not only does the terrain prohibit the relatively straightforward flight paths seen in Iraq, but even roads are scant. Those that do exist are not nearly as well-maintained as the roads found in Iraq, many are simply dirt (and therefore subject to whatever bizarre weather patterns the country experiences), and tend to wind precariously through the hills and mountains. Their infrequency further prevents battlespace dominance from the roads – relegating troops all the more to foot travel, which is slow, relatively inefficient, and a task for which their limited numbers are grievously undermanned. There is much terrain to cover – and difficult terrain – yet few equipped to do it.
The end result is that regional isolation is simple, permitting Taliban and Al Qaeda elements to quickly establish in small areas, take root, and potentially flourish as coalition forces lack the manpower to conduct thorough presence patrols. Thus, once-gained ground has sometimes been quickly lost in their absence. Not only are the regions isolated, but so also would be any troops left to secure it – if there were even sufficient numbers to do so.
The infamously lawless regions of Afghanistan that border Pakistan have also presented themselves as a profound problem, since the open border has permitted pro-Taliban and Al Qaeda elements to move from an area of combat (Afghanistan) to the relative safety and sympathy of Pakistan – which has done little to check their movements. Yet like Iraq, until Afghanistan’s borders have reached a low level of porosity, material, funding, weaponry, and fighters themselves will continue to move into the country unabated. Pakistan’s unwavering support for such an endeavor is essential – but not at all exhibited at present. That must change.
Culturally, however, there are also some significant matters differences. Until the fall of Saddam, the people of Iraq were fairly simply distilled into three general categories (I am excluding the Kurds because they have operated free of Saddam’s control since Desert Storm). First, are the Baathists – Saddam’s party of Sunnis that remained fiercely loyal to him and him alone. They were a small, highly feared minority. Second was the Sunni population (a minority representing but 17% of the population), who because of their sectarian alignment with Saddam and the Baathists, were left well enough alone, and enjoyed greater autonomy and less harassment than the third group: the Shiites. While Iraq was predominantly Shia, they were the lesser class of citizen, frequently the target of Sunni and Baathist discrimination, and generally looked down upon (especially to the south, where Shiites were quick to side with the United States during Desert Storm and paid for it dearly later).
The consequence of this simplicity is that tribalism, while present, held less weight than it would have otherwise. By sectarian alignment, they universally hated another sect/party, or were the ones being discriminated against by the Sunni minority or the Baathist superminority. Tribalism was not permitted to have the strength that it naturally holds in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, lacked a strong central government or a single, feared leader. While the Taliban was sufficiently discriminatory and ruthless to be considered a threat, many simply aligned with them for the ease of it, and other terrain-isolated regions were banded around tribalism and warlords. Much more than Iraq, violence and a lifetime of constant conflict was the norm. Localities simply vacillated between fighting for various warlords, tribes, or the Taliban. Boundaries and even loyalties remained vague.
A teenaged male growing up in an isolated area may habitually join the local warlord or fighting faction (be it tribal, warlord or Taliban), and be thus quickly indoctrinated into a warmongering culture. When they were told to fight, they fought. This they have been doing for decades. When one warlord or another was dispatched and replaced by another, alliances shifted and men suddenly found themselves fighting on the same side as others they invested years in ruthlessly killing, which suggests that their specific loyalties played a lesser role than their participation in a fight. Perhaps it gave them purpose. It was, undeniably, an innate aspect of their culture. Until one has experienced such things, it is extremely difficult to explain them. Universal rights and wrongs to not particularly exist in the Afghan culture (if there is such a thing). Alliances were formed and broken mostly as a matter of convenience. This dearth of deeply-revered convictions is fairly common in Islamic culture – perhaps in part because the Koran itself lacks the Judaic-style commandments that serve as the pillars of all Judeo-Christian cultures. In this void, convenience and self-interest quickly surpass some universally-acknowledged truths.
It is in this culture that a society that is adapted to, accepts, and perhaps even celebrates violence has been given unhealthy root. Driving out something so deeply engrained in the social, religious, and tribal habits of Afghanis will pose a far greater challenge to coalition forces than it did in Iraq. Iraqis simply needed to overcome sectarian resentment, and years of living under a single megalomaniac. Afghanis, however, must reverse their culture altogether. It will not be an easy task – especially with the limited military and Civilian Affairs personnel available to do it. Their terrain-based isolation only worsens the matter.
These do not, however, amount to insurmountable odds. Successes in the unification of Iraq and the slow process of overcoming sectarian squabbles should serve to further embolden US troops to the task in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it has given them superb practice in the field. They will need it.
Several measures can be undertaken to assist them in this process, however, and it would behoove all coalition forces to unite towards this goal. Foremost, troop numbers must be bolstered to not only root out and eliminate Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, but sufficient numbers must remain in these “secured areas” to keep them away permanently. Unless the Afghan citizenry are constantly exposed to the benefits of some form of democracy, they will continue to treat it as a passing ideology that will soon depart and permit them return to their culture (and truly a cycle) of violence.
Just as it was essential in Iraq, Afghanistan’s borders must be resolutely sealed to prevent ideological and manpower reinforcements to Taliban and Al Qaeda elements within the country. At the moment most of the blame for their growing ranks can be directly blamed on Pakistan’s total failure to quell Taliban and Al Qaeda factions within their own country. Their participation is crucial to the improved security and stability of Afghanistan. In fact, such a situation may be truly impossible without their unequivocal support. At present, it does not exist, and they have actually begun “ceding” large portions of their country to Taliban ideologies. This must necessarily stop.
Additionally, the suicide bombing tactics that so successfully demoralized and impeded troops in Iraq must be firmly halted in its infancy in Afghanistan. As must also the concept of IEDs. Both have gone up exponentially in practice within the country, but with a sealed border, there are insufficient volunteers and ordnance to sustain the practices. Gaining mastery over these highly effective insurgency tactics will permit concentration of combat efforts to small arms fighters, which are far better organized, numerous, and established in Afghanistan than they were in Iraq. Slowly and methodically coalition forces, with heavy reinforcements, can begin a sustainable mission of terrain denial.
The next phase of combat operations will not be easy by any means. In truth, it may require a massive reallocation of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, rather than home where they nation would prefer they be. Yet to continue to approach the Afghan conflict halfheartedly will result either in total failure or an even greater prolonging of a conflict many presumed would be complete years ago. But it must happen. To continue to permit the presence of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces will perpetuate a greatly heightened threat to US and Western interests and citizens throughout the world. The ideology must be terminated, since, as primitive as it may appear from the outside, and as ragtag as the individual fighters may be, their leadership has proven to be powerful, well-connected, well funded, far-reaching, and hateful of all those unlike them. As a nation, we have been shocked at their capabilities once already, and it would be tragic were that to happen again.
The process will necessarily take time, but that should in no way detract from the United States’ vested interested in its success. It remains essential to our safety, and that of much of the western world. It is tragic, however, that so few nations are willing to concede that and offer their assistance. Once again, the United States will find itself prosecuting a war of global significance that most others will view with timidity or outright apathy. This does not defeat us however; and instead only serves to sweeten the victory.
Thanks, Melody, for making me think.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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