The Best Defense

Quote of the day: A soldier's deepest wish

From Six Weeks, the book about British junior officers in World War I that I've mentioned before, here is a stanza from a poem by Sub-Lt. A.P. Herbert, who fought at Gallipoli, and later saw his battalion destroyed at the Somme:

We only want to take our wounds away

To some shy village where the tumult ends,

And drowsing in the sunshine many a day,

Forget our aches, forget that we had friends.

I really like those lines. The emotion they convey is more complex than it may first appear, especially the last five words.

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The Best Defense

Afghanistan: As good as it gets?

By Gary Anderson

Best Defense chief buzkashi correspondent

Before we have an argument over who lost Afghanistan, we should make sure it is really lost. I'm sitting in Afghanistan as I write, and I can say that it hasn't gone anywhere. A score of pundits, many of whom have never been here, have written the place off.

At some point, we need to ask ourselves what we really expected from Afghanistan. As I remember it, we went in to rid the country of al Qaeda and associated foreign fighters. In 2001, the country was ruled by the Taliban, and they were giving sanctuary to Bin Laden and his minions; so we toppled their government, and put one in that would not tolerate al Qaeda. In the process, we decimated the terrorists' haven there. That is pretty much where we are today. So what is lost?

Somewhere along the line, we got into mission creep. Instead of being satisfied with a relatively stable but likely decentralized state, we encouraged our local allies to build a strong, centralized democracy on European lines in a country that lacks the infrastructure and traditions to have anything of the sort. That vision may simply have been a bridge too far. In its most peaceful periods, the entity that we call Afghanistan was more a region of communities that a nation-state. Those rare periods when it came under strong central rule were often the result of an exceptionally energetic and militarily capable leader, and central governance rarely survived that individual's passing. Afghanistan differs from Iraq in that respect. With its relatively flat terrain and fairly sophisticated road system, Iraq has always had a strong tradition of centralized rule.

Just because Afghanistan is not becoming France or Germany overnight, we should not infer that it is incapable of keeping foreign fighters out of the areas that its security forces control. Many provinces and districts are remarkably well ruled at the local level, even when the government in Kabul fails to give them the type of support that they desire or believe they deserve. Most of these places fall within the security bubble provided by the Afghan National Army (ANA). Although imperfect and immature, the ANA has become the most respected Afghan governmental institution, and many of its commanders show an ability to work with local governments and non-governmental organizations that exceeds the standards of Central Asia and the Middle East. That may be as good as it gets in the near term.

As to the places that the Afghan surge never reached, we may need to rely on other means than conventional governance to keep al Qaeda and its surrogates out. That may come in the form of an agreement with the Taliban in areas that they still control to exclude al Qaeda and other foreign jihadists. We might also employ some combination of paying local militias to hunt the foreigners down and counter-terror operations by special operations forces.

While less than optimum, Afghanistan today presents much less of a haven for international terrorism than its neighbor Pakistan. Contrast Afghanistan with Somalia, a country we decided to abandon to its own fate in 1993 when we decided that it was not a threat to United States national security. Today, we see an active network of al Qaeda affiliates operating openly. Lacking even the semblance of a national government to work with or bases with which to launch counter-terror strikes, we are forced to tinker at the margins of a growing base for international terrorism. There are countries on the verge of becoming like Somalia, but that are not as bad off as Somalia is, or Afghanistan was, when we first arrived.

The real benefit of the lessons we have learned in Afghanistan through the expenditure of much blood and treasure may be in keeping places from Yemen and Mali from getting to the point where Afghanistan was in 2001. If, by using a relatively small cadre of Special Forces trainers and civilian advisors, we can stabilize troubled states before they fail or fall to radical Muslim insurgents, we should do so. In that regard, our experience in El Salvador in the eighties and early nineties of the last century may be more instructive than Iraq in the counter-terror operations of the future. However, we have learned much from both Iraq and Afghanistan. We largely know what works and what doesn't. The only tragedy of Afghanistan would be to forget what we have learned as we seemed to after Vietnam.

We haven't lost Afghanistan, it was never ours to lose, but we have given them a chance to decide what they are going to be. That's likely to be as good as it gets.

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps Colonel, is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School. He has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a counterinsurgency and governance advisor for the Department of Defense and the Department of State.

Thorne Anderson/Corbis