A Million Steps
October 10, 2012 12:00 A.M.
Helmand Province, Afghanistan - In early 2011, National Review published "With the Warriors," my description of the savage struggle to control Sangin District in the southern part of this province. More than 200 British and American service members have died or lost limbs inside a 25-square-mile maze of flat farm fields interlaced with thousands of irrigation ditches and jumbled clusters of high-walled compounds, with a population of about 50,000. Clad in sneakers and farmers' clothes, the Taliban blended in, shot their AKs from a distance, and, if hard pressed, scampered across the shallow Helmand River to safety in the badlands to the north. As related in that article, the Taliban had placed hundreds of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which took a daily toll. The Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment suffered 25 killed and hundreds wounded.
In mid-September of this year I went back to Sangin to see how things were going. The First Battalion of the Seventh Marine Regiment (1/7) was controlling twice as much territory with half as many Marines, at a cost of six killed and 28 wounded in five months. Although 1/7 had encountered some 300 IEDs, the district infrastructure had steadily improved. Since my last visit, 40 miles of road had been paved. Over a hundred storefronts lined the main street of the town of Sangin, offering an array of goods to hundreds of exclusively male shoppers. Within sight of the north-south highway, cows, goats, and flocks of sheep grazed; the farmers returned waves and the children, expecting candy, ran toward military vehicles.
At Outpost Fires, a half mile west of the highway in the midst of the fertile farm belt called the Green Zone, the scene wasn't as tranquil. A year and a half ago, the 48-man platoon from Kilo Company stationed there had taken two killed, nine amputees, and seven serious gunshot wounds. Bravo Company of 1/7 had held the same ground with light casualties until early September. Then a group of about 40 Taliban engaged the Marines at a distance of 30 yards inside the high cornfields. Despite being hit in the neck by a bullet, Sergeant Jordan Hintz rallied his troops to hold the line. Lieutenant Mike Lashutka, his right forearm shattered by an AK round, cinched a tourniquet around his bicep and called in rockets on the enemy position. (The software for the fire mission was called Precision Strike Suite for Special Ops Forces, or PISS-OFF.) The fight ended with one Afghan coalition soldier killed and three Marines wounded. Five fresh graves, seen from the air, marked the Taliban losses.
In itself, it was another close-in fight in the bush. More troubling, the thousands of acres of corn were so high that the Afghan soldiers had decided to avoid any ambush by patrolling only after the corn was cut. (The waist-high poppy fields, harvested in May, offered less concealment - and many of the Taliban were among the harvesters.) Colonel John Schaefer, the overall commander of the Marines in the region, explained the situation bluntly: "Afghan forces love static security. Inside a fort, they're complacent, and the insurgents simply flow around them. The Afghan officers say they'll patrol when the corn is cut down."
The lack of patrolling had allowed a roving gang of about 50 Taliban to again assert a presence. This meant that the Marines of 1/7, although eager to hand over the district in its improved condition to Afghan forces, had to keep up the pace to prevent the Taliban from regaining control.
"We patrol hard from the first to the last day of our deployment," Sergeant Major Keith Coombs said. "That's how to stay alive. Don't slack off."
The commander of 1/7, Lieutenant Colonel David Bradney, had no illusions about permanent progress. The Taliban kept coming back, and the war went on.
"You could say I'm brushing back water," he said. "But another U.S. battalion is replacing us, and I don't want them hit in the face when they first arrive."
A few days after the fight at Outpost Fires, Lieutenant Kurt Hoening led a ten-man patrol out through the tall cornfields to check on another post, called Pabst Blue Ribbon. A farmer hailed them and complained that they were stepping on his crops but refused to lead them along any path. Instead, he demanded money to fix his roof, which had collapsed in a recent rain. The Marine rain-makers laughed, and in the 90-degree heat they plunged back into the stifling corn. They were following their practice of never taking the same route twice, to lessen the chances of stepping on an IED. Along the way, they occasionally sank into chest-deep canals. When a cobra slithered away through the muddy stalks, they didn't give it a second glance.
This time the patrol emerged from the corn next to a compound where a black-turbaned mullah was preaching to young boys in the courtyard. As he hustled them inside, the dozen men who had been lounging about folded their arms and glared at the Marines, refusing to respond to friendly greetings. The patrol continued and soon arrived at Pabst Blue Ribbon, a tiny compound occupied by nine Marines and a dozen farmers - part of a home guard called the Afghan Local Police. Due to "green on blue" killings - Afghan soldiers' murdering coalition soldiers - the police weren't allowed to carry weapons inside the fort. They were cheerful and friendly, though, and disdainful of the nearby hamlet and its hostile mullah.
"These Afghans want us here," Sergeant Eric Johnson, a squad leader, said. "They won't stay exposed out here without us. If we leave, they leave."
The next day, the Bravo Company commander, Captain Peter Ankney, dispatched more patrols to locate and attrite the roaming insurgent gang. Again Lieutenant Hoening took out a squad and some local police. At a spot where the trail narrowed and crossed a footbridge, the dirt showed signs of having recently been disturbed. Hoening called up explosives experts, who dug by hand until they uncovered and cut the wires leading to two plastic jugs full of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer easily converted into explosives.
After both IEDs had been blown in a large explosion, Hoening weighed his choices. The land mines were a hasty perimeter defense. This meant that if the patrol moved forward quickly, they might well engage the Taliban before sunset. The lieutenant was one of the few who hadn't been in a firefight that resulted in the award of the Combat Action Ribbon, which any Marine would be proud to wear. But Hoening wisely decided to find an alternative route back.
"There are more IEDs up ahead," he said. "We get up there, shooting and scooting, and the sun starts going down - no, it's not worth the risk to my Marines."
Before leaving, the local police commander insisted that the Marines blow up an empty compound nearby that was frequently occupied by Taliban snipers. The Marines refused; only the Afghan district governor could order a compound destroyed. In that case, the police commander said, we won't patrol with you. Hoening shrugged off the threat, knowing the police weren't going to stay out in Taliban territory by themselves.
The incident reflected a pervasive attitude of entitlement inculcated by ten years of American generosity. From President Karzai on down to the local commander in an obscure hamlet, the feeling was that Americans need Afghans more than Afghans need Americans. Skepticism about the sincerity of Afghan-government officials at any level permeated the Marine ranks, from the grunts to the officers.
A few days after Hoening's joint patrol, the coalition high command indefinitely suspended all such joint patrolling with Afghans. Thousands of joint patrols came to an abrupt end, and the morale of both coalition and Afghan forces declined. The reason was a spate of green-on-blue killings. A few days after the suspension, President Karzai compounded the setback. As part of some political scheme, he abruptly fired Helmand's governor, who for years had staunchly backed the coalition and fought the poppy trade.
Together, these changes mark a major turn for the worse. Over the past several years, the coalition has partnered throughout the country with Afghan soldiers and police. The goal was for the Afghans to gain skills, confidence, and independence by following our example in operations. That process has ceased, with no known replacement program. Now, without American firepower, reinforcements, and medical evacuation, Afghan forces are even more reluctant to patrol. The Taliban have gained freedom of movement and a psychological edge.
When you accompany our men on patrol, you cannot help but admire their fortitude. Each grunt - Army or Marine, adviser or squad member - straps on 95 pounds of armor and gear, goes through the checklist of tactical procedures, and steps in line behind the point man with the metal detector. They will walk carefully in single file for the next several hours. Over the course of his seven-month deployment, each one will sally forth about a hundred times, covering six to eight miles in every day or night patrol. He will take over a million steps, never knowing when the sudden blast and puff of black smoke will come, signaling death or maiming.
In 2011, Kilo Company uncovered - one way or another - about 300 IEDs. Some men patrolled with tourniquets cinched to the outside of their legs, so that they could quickly stop the bleeding if the legs were blown off. Eighteen months later, Bravo Company had found 60 IEDs in the Green Zone. Like the other companies, Bravo had lost personnel, and it was down to 110 men. Ten had been wounded; some had lost limbs. The grunts of Bravo thought they had had it "easier" than Kilo Company, because they had lost "only" 10 percent of their comrades. They felt safe enough to carry their four tourniquets in their pockets instead of wrapped around their legs.
Day after day, year after year, one rifle company after another has slogged through the fields to wrest physical control from the Taliban. It's not just the grinding courage, walking through minefields one hundred times. Over the course of his deployment, the average grunt - Marine or Army - carries that 95-pound pack strapped to his upper torso for more than 500 miles. The heavy armor protects him today but takes a structural toll 20 years later. He faces certain pain in middle age. "If we don't find a breakthrough in treating degenerative arthritis," Roy Aaron, a leading orthopedic surgeon at Brown University, has said, "the effects on these young men will be severe." We haven't thought about that.
In the field, the men are like wolves in a pack. There's a pecking order, not always set by rank. They accept one another's weaknesses, take perverse pride in living (and smelling) like mountain men in the 1840s, and hunt in pack style, covering for one another, responding by trained instinct to one shout or one burst of fire, and always looking for the edge, for the moment of kill. The Taliban understandably avoid them, while the vast majority of the Afghan soldiers, police, and local home guards want to be like them but know they can't quite get that instinct of the flowing pack.
The skill of American servicemen is the problem; the enemy fears it, but the Afghan forces have come to rely upon it. Every Afghan soldier wants to see an American somewhere in the formation. In the short term (like tomorrow), coalition control in the Afghan countryside will be severely challenged by the cessation of joint patrols. Our military chose not to provide the Afghan units with artillery or mortars because of mistrust about how they would employ them. Now we have withdrawn the advisers and U.S. squads that provided both the moral spine and the overwhelming indirect fire support. In response, many Afghan units will cease aggressive patrolling and pull back within tribal and other boundaries, where they feel comfortable.
The high command insists that green-on-blue attacks are not primarily due to Taliban infiltration or influence. Instead, they are attributable to cultural sensitivities: Afghans will always resort to random xenophobic violence. That explanation aggravates the political problem here in the States. If the Afghan culture causes the murders of our troops by those we are trying to advise, what is our mission? This tendency among Islamic tribes hurtling headlong into the ninth century cannot be solved in a few months. The frustrating reality is that there's no remediable root cause for isolated, unpredictable, and devastating acts of treachery.
The U.S. and NATO high commands proclaim themselves to be "absolutely committed" to partnering with Afghan forces, at the battalion level and above. "Absolute commitment" is an elastic term. At our senior headquarters, Europeans and Americans sit side by side in rows of clicking laptops. No Afghans are visible, because they can't write in English or work the keyboard. In the field, our grunts have left outpost Pabst Blue Ribbon. The loss of trust and camaraderie on both sides will not be reversed if and when they temporarily return.
So where do we go from here? Abetted by the mainstream press, the White House wants to avoid the question, saying only that there is no change in President Obama's plan for American troops to be out by the end of 2014. This is neither a mission nor a timeline. It is an end date that hopefully will be changed. We will need support personnel and anti-terrorist units in Afghanistan for many years.
Cynics believe that if Mr. Obama is reelected, within a month he will receive a report from the coalition generals that enables him to bring home many more U.S. troops in 2013 and to pull almost all U.S. units out of combat. Our generals would be indignant that domestic politics were postponing military decisions affecting the lives of our troops. Indignation aside, we are drifting. Our fundamental war strategy of partnering has ceased at the district level, where the war will be determined. No general should tolerate the perception that politics are determining life-and-death decisions. Cynicism among our front-line troops lurks only one headline away.
Mr. Romney is a candidate, not the commander-in-chief. It would be sufficient for him to say: "We have ceased partnering with Afghan forces on the front lines. That is a dramatic change - so what has changed about our strategy? What have our troops been ordered by the commander-in-chief to do, and for how long? When I am president, I will order our generals to report their best advice and strategy within a week. They've been at it for ten years. I will demand straight answers immediately. A date like 2014 is not magic. The question is, What is gained each successive day as our troops die?"
Balancing risk, reward, and uncertainty, there are alternatives to the current drift. One option is to accelerate the withdrawal of our troops without any public announcements. Another is to run the added risk of putting in more advisory teams. In either case, it is likely that the Taliban would take over large parts of the Pashtun areas.
Once on their own, Afghan government and military officials will manipulate, clash, fight, posture, and settle things in a messy, bloody way that our mainstream press will ignore. Nothing comparable to the disasters in Cambodia and Vietnam will occur, and in any case, our press and politicians largely ignored or misinterpreted those disasters. The Taliban cannot seize cities without logistical support, armored vehicles, and heavy weapons that the Pakistanis will not provide. Although the Taliban are supported by Pakistani generals, those generals live in comfortable compounds paid for with our tax dollars. As long as we dole out that money in small amounts tied to specific deeds, the Pakistanis will be stingy with their aid to the Taliban.
Our basic goal is to prevent al-Qaeda terrorists from reestablishing sanctuaries inside Afghanistan. Given our network of spies and our airborne intelligence and strike capacity, such sanctuaries cannot be rebuilt. We can greatly reduce our casualties and the number of our troops - provided that we support the Afghan forces for as long as needed.
Our current strategy, however, is one of drift. What are our front-line troops expected to do for the next two years? Are they going to increase their unilateral patrolling to compensate for a decrease in Afghan patrolling? Or will our grunts allow gaps to open for a Taliban resurgence while the Afghans stay inside their forts? Should Americans be the front-line defense and die in place of Afghan soldiers our generals do not trust? Will we risk more of our men because the Afghans are risking fewer of theirs? What is gained, and at what cost?
These are not tactical or military questions. They are the most important policy decisions that any commander-in-chief faces. There is no reason to drift along for two or more months before determining the new direction in Afghanistan. The president should explain now to the American people what his new orders are, and why.
- Mr. West is a former assistant secretary of defense and Marine who reports frequently from the front lines. He is a co-author, with Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Dakota Meyer, of Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War, just published by Random House.