We Can Still Win In Afghanistan

The inbox was peppered with hyperlinks to Dexter Filkins’ recent story in the New York Times magazine, "Stanley McChrystal’s Long War." One message came from Kathryn Lopez at National Review, asking if I had seen the article and for any thoughts.

It should be said that I respect the work of Dexter Filkins. Mr. Filkins is a seasoned war correspondent whose characterizations of Iraq ring true, while "Stanley McChrystal’s Long War" resonates with my ongoing experiences in Afghanistan. Despite the great length of the article, the few points that did not resonate were more trivialities for discussion than disagreements. Mr. Filkins did a fine job.

To be clear, I have developed a strong belief that the war is winnable, though at this rate we will lose. Mr. Filkins seemed to unfold a similar argument. In my view, we need more troops and effort in Afghanistan—now—and the commitment must be intergenerational.

In Mr. Filkins’ article, a couple of seemingly small points are keyholes to profound realities, and to a few possible illusions. For instance, the idea that Afghans are tired of fighting seems off. Afghans often tell me they are tired of fighting but those words are inconsistent with the bitter fact that the war intensifies with every change of season. The idea that Afghans are tired of war seems an illusion. Some Afghans are tired. I spend more time talking with older Afghans than with teenagers, and most of the older Afghans do seem weary. Yet according to the "CIA World Factbook," the median age of Afghans is 17.6 years; meaning half of Afghans are estimated to be this age or below. The culture is old, but the population is a teenager. Most Afghans today probably had not reached puberty when Al Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks. Eight years later, Afghanistan is more an illiterate kid than a country. The median age for U.S. citizens, according to the same "Factbook," is 36.7. In addition to the tremendous societal disconnect between Americans and Afghans, there would be a generational gap even if those distant children were Americans. Clearly this could lead to frustrations if we expect quick results.

We ask Afghans for help in defeating the enemies, yet the Afghans expect us to abandon them. Importantly, Mr. Filkins pointed out that Afghans don’t like to see Americans living in tents. Tents mean nomads. It would be foolish for Afghans in “Talibanastan” to cooperate with nomadic Americans only to be eviscerated by the Taliban when the nomads pack up. (How many times did we see this happen in Iraq?) The Afghans want to see us living in real buildings as a sign of permanency. The British at Sangin and associated bases live in temporary structures as is true with American bases in many places. Our signals are clear. “If you are coming to stay,” Afghans have told me in various ways, “build a real house.” “Build a real office.” “Don’t live in tents.” We saw nearly the opposite in Iraq where pressure evolved to look semi-permanent. The Dr. Jekyll–Mr. Hyde situation in Iraq seemed to seriously catch hold by 2006 or 2007, by which time Iraqis realized we were not going to steal oil and might decide to pull out while leaving them ablaze in civil war.

Michael Yon is a former Green Beret and Winter Haven, Florida native who has been reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan since December 2004. To continue reading his complete column, click here.