Michael's Dispatches

Afghanistan is making undeniable progress, but it could all unravel


19 June 2011

It's time to make big decisions. These decisions will have a huge impact on the future of Afghanistan. The biggest question at hand: How many troops will we keep here and for how long?

The answer to that question must not be dreamed up in political strategy sessions or in focus groups. Buzzwords and abstractions won't do.

This is about real people — our soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines, our allies — and the people of Afghanistan. It's their lives that hang in the balance, and our judgment must respect the challenge they face and the progress they have made.

Let's begin with a few facts. For the strategy we used, we never had enough troops in Afghanistan to defeat our enemies and stand up a civil society. It can be argued that today, we still do not have enough.

Despite this, the coalition and the Afghans appear to finally be turning the tide in our favor, and a great deal of this can be credited to President Obama for deciding to send more troops. Unfortunately, the President has stated that we will begin bringing troops home this year.

This puts him in a bind. To keep his word, the President may have to undermine the very success that he facilitated.

And especially since the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, others can be expected to ratchet up the political pressure on Obama should he not begin the drawdown on schedule. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican frontrunner for the 2012 election, said this last week: "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over… we've learned some important lessons in our experience in Afghanistan. I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals. But I also think we've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban."

Gen. David Petraeus is the boss here in Afghanistan. He has been tasked with making a recommendation on troop withdrawal. He arrived in Washington last week, where he is recommending a timetable for the drawdown of the 30,000 “surge” troops sent to the country in 2009.

Obama had promised that those troops would start coming home in July, but conditions on the ground always matter more.

On June 5, I asked Petraeus in his Kabul office for insight into his recommendation to the President. He told me he has not yet told anyone what his recommendation will be.

Many people are waiting. Not even his staff knows.

Petraeus, tapped to take over the CIA upon his retirement from this post, has accumulated a long string of unlikely successes in Iraq, and increasingly in Afghanistan. These efforts have been far more than mere war. Our people triumphed in the kinetic fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan years ago; the far greater difficulties have been the second wars fought in both countries during the long nation-building phases.

Any politician who says we are not nation building in Iraq or Afghanistan should be dismissed. Nation building is the course we chose, and nation building is what is occurring. Slowly.

In Iraq, a government was shattered and rebuilt. In Afghanistan, there was no government to shatter. Afghanistan was just an area where a lot of people lived, and today it's being built up from mud and sticks. For instance, there was not a single meter of paved road in Ghor Province.

A country is being built from scratch and nobody has more experience at the messy and difficult job of “shatter and create” than does Petraeus. He knows his business, his profession and his art, and he knows more about the current war than anyone alive. His recommendation will carry significant weight.

But while we do this critical work, our young warriors are still dying and being wounded in large numbers. People at home are asking if Afghanistan is worth the sacrifice. And then there is the economy, still struggling and endangering our country strategically. The war here is very expensive.

Is it worth it? This is a hard question. We made the judgment that this war was worth fighting when we put our warriors into the arena in the first place. We've already jumped and now we are deciding whether to land on our heads, our rears or our feet. We cannot unjump. Our people are fighting as you read this. When we ordered our military to go, we cloaked ourselves in great responsibility to support them and to achieve success.

Our troops have two responsibilities, which are tightly interwoven: Win the war and create Afghanistan. It is not the troops' place to consider the global economy. They are not to consider unfolding debacle in Libya, the long challenges in Iraq or the dark side of the moon.

And so when Petraeus makes his recommendation to the President, his recommendation should not include any consideration of the U.S. economy, the debt or jobs in America. He is the man in the arena. The man in the arena does not collect parking tickets, or work at the concession stand or concern himself with the electric bill for the stadium. He beats his opponent to the ground. Or, in this case, beats some opponents into the ground and builds a country simultaneously. His recommendation to the President should be pure, devoid of outside considerations.

We must be honest about what we can accomplish. This is a century-long process. A little Afghan girl is watching me write this opinion. She appears to be about 4 years old, and she keeps peeking around the door smiling at me while her mother is cleaning the house and her father takes care of the property. The girl follows me around the house. A storm is coming and a lightning bolt just zapped the electricity. I am unarmed but safe in Kabul, and if this little girl is lucky, and we do not abandon Afghanistan, she may one day end up in a university.

Petraeus told me that at its peak, violence in Iraq was four times higher than current violence is here. This seems about right. I can drive around Afghanistan in many places. I've been back in Kabul for almost two weeks and have not heard a single gunshot or explosion, though I did feel an earthquake.

This isn't Baghdad. During peak times in Iraq, you couldn't go 30 minutes in Baghdad without seeing or hearing something. The most dangerous city in Afghanistan is Kandahar, yet I have driven around Kandahar many times, including recently, without a shred of armor. I could never have survived this in Fallujah, Basra, Baghdad, Baquba or Mosul. I have driven this year, without troops, to places in Afghanistan where last year I would have almost certainly  been killed, such as Panjwai. You don't need thick intelligence reports to translate those realities.

Shouting at an oak tree will no not make it grow faster, and ignoring a sapling in this desert will leave it to die. An acorn was planted in 2001, and we mostly ignored it for more than half a decade while our people fought so hard in Iraq. Today, that acorn is a scrawny, 10-year-old oak tree that was so neglected until 2010 that it nearly died. Its skinny branches are still so weak that a sparrow dare not land, and while we focused on Iraq, the enemies here stayed busy nibbling away at anything green. Yet over the past year of extra care, there are clear signs of life and new growth.

Meanwhile, our enemies here are being monkey stomped. The rule of monkey stomping has never changed. Don't stop stomping until the enemy stops breathing. This enemy has earned respect for its courage, resilience and will-not-quit spirit, but there is only so much it can take.

At this rate, the Graveyard of Empires, the Undefeatables, will need a new advertising campaign. Our enemies here are turning out to be the Almost Undefeatables. The many good Afghans want to move forward. They want their kids, boys and girls, to see better days.

The bottom line is that there are unmistakable signs of progress in Afghanistan, and Gen. David Petraeus is about to make a very important recommendation.

His judgment should be trusted.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Douglas Gugino · 10 years ago
    how many times can one say thank you for your reporting and thank you to Gen P. and the entire USFOR - Afghanistan.

    May the spirit of God (for the true meaning outside and above religiion) grant the Taliban "eyes to see" !
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jake MacGregor · 10 years ago

    You have eyes & boots on the ground. I trust your insight implicitly. The strategic peril, economically, to the USA has never been higher. I have very close friends in country. I have lost friends there. We are faced with a Hobon's choice.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Joe Papapietro · 10 years ago
    The Obama administration does not have the heart to fight and win a Global War on Terror. These are not separate fights in disparate Middle Eastern countries. It's one fight against one enemy: Radical Islam. Until Obama and our allies are ready to deal with this reality it's time to bring our sons and daughters home.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    xb · 10 years ago
    libya debacle ?
    it s too early to say that. I AM french....
  • This commment is unpublished.
    LauraG · 10 years ago
    Maybe that "earthquake" you felt was the homicide bomber that blew himself up right there in Kabul yesterday. 9 dead. I don't know how many wounded and maimed for life.
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    Bill Dettmer · 10 years ago
    All the good work and progress of the past two years, everything General Petraeus has accomplished, is put at risk by the corruption and self-serving behavior of Karzai and his cronies.

    You can beat the Taliban on the ground (at least temporarily), and you can reverse the trend of other foreign powers becoming mired in failure there...in the short term. But ultimately, when we leave---and we will leave---in the absence of a non-corrupt central government, Afghanistan will likely revert to fractionated, fundamentalist tribalism.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Johnny G · 10 years ago
    "And so when Petraeus makes his recommendation to the President, his recommendation should not include any consideration of the U.S. economy, the debt or jobs in America. He is the man in the arena. The man in the arena does not collect parking tickets, or work at the concession stand or concern himself with the electric bill for the stadium. He beats his opponent to the ground. Or, in this case, beats some opponents into the ground and builds a country simultaneously. His recommendation to the President should be pure, devoid of outside considerations." What you said is very true. Problem is Pres. Obama MUST consider these other problems in making his decision. The General's recommendation needs to be focused but Obama's can not be made in a vacuum. Keep up the good work and be safe!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Curtis Riley · 10 years ago
    Unfortunately, I think Bill Dimmer is right on. The Karzai Admin. is corrupt and from my sources has not attempted to improve. A corrupt free Afghan Government was supposed to be one of the pillars that was absolutely necessary for success as the Obama Admin. defines it. Also, Pakistan playing both ends was also supposed to stop, however, this cannot be done due to the supply routes to Afghanistan, etc. I hope you are right Michael, but I believe that in the long term, things do not look good.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Shea Brown · 10 years ago
    Michael, you write, "Our troops have two responsibilities, which are tightly interwoven: Win the war and create Afghanistan." Since when are our troops supposed to be nation builders? What do you mean by "create Afghanistan?" When did soldiers become "nation builders?"Soldiers can be warriors or occupiers, they are not nation builders. You also write,"We made the judgment that this war was worth fighting when we put our warriors into the arena in the first place.,,and "When we ordered our military to go, we cloaked ourselves in great responsibility to support them and to achieve success." Couple of points; "We" did not make the decision this invasion was worth it, the Bush Admin did. Every mission deserves re-evaluation at every level. And most importantly Michael,,, why are we choosing to occupy Afghanistan? The mission statement is a piece of this puzzle you totally ignore. Best of luck to you. I would love to hear your response to my questions. Peace. Shea.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Johnny G · 10 years ago
    You Mr. Brown may not have cared for the Bush Admin. but in our form of government "We" are in fact represented by the elected people of which the President is the primary policy maker. Pres. Obama saw fit to continue the general policies of the Bush Administration. In 2012 "WE" will speak again and decide how to proceed.
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    Jess Owens · 10 years ago
    Maybe our troops became nation Builders in the Philipines after the Spanish American War. Or maybe in Central America during the Banana Wars. Or, perhaps, after WWII in Europe and Japan.One can argue the results are mixed but not that it isn't done. Civic Action is part of the package.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    bmnbvmnbh · 10 years ago
    fuck afcrapistan, bring the troops back, guard the borders, give bacon to new arrivals, and deport every muslim-looking piece of crap from the US. Terrorism problem solved. Let afcrapistan fend for itself by selling all the heroin they can to the stupid brits. Let them colonize Britain instead.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Brian · 10 years ago
    Sorry but if the Obama Administration does not have the heart to fight and win a Global War on Terror than neither do the Republicans including all running for President. Who do you think authorized the military action in Yemen? Who do you think nominated Petreaus to run the CIA? The damn facts always have that Kenyan bias so lets just ignore them. Geez. And Qaddafi will be out in a month. Did you listen to what Bob Gates has been saying lately? Guess what! President Obama loves America as much as you do. No more and no less.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Cam · 10 years ago
    The facts are that there was an attack with 4 dead in Kabul day before yesterday from a suicide bomber, and as long as Mike holes up in his house, he won't know the truth either. He's walking around Kabul alone. He said he was going to Kandahar, now he said he was there recently, all with no fighting. That is NOT what I'm hearing from real live breathing troops, and the dead ones tell no tales.

    Let's ask Mike why, as a war correspondent, he's not following Galloway's example at Ia Drang, why isn't he in the field, reporting the war with the 'hard earned' money he gets from hitting the PayPal button? Interviewing Generals in a well armed environment isn't something I'd like to pay for, since those Generals are free, obviously, to write or speak for themselves. (comment is too long?)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Cam · 10 years ago
    As for the Obama Administration, Kenyan bias present and accounted for, stringing the war effort along until he can stage a draw down, and negotiating for superbases indicating a future uptick in battle is an act of cowardice. Mike knows this, he saw it in Iraq. Now Iraq is dismissed, but where is al-Qaeda going (and where won't I accept assignments in the meantime)? Iraq.

    Do not underestimate the tenacity of the enemy. If we leave now, they'll pour back into Afghanistan just like they're pouring into Iraq, Yemen, north Africa, anywhere there's no real government left. We will be defeated.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dan Farrand · 10 years ago
    The Obama administration has already committed to taking $400b from defense over the next 10 years. Now they want another $400b on top of that. The US is faced with a choice. We can fund the war in Afghanistan at $100 billion and loose our strategic, technical, quality dominance 10 years from now. Or we can abandon Afghanistan and perhaps preserve the global balance in the future.

    In my view we must abandon Afghanistan.

    There are other cultural and societal factors at play that are even greater threats to the US in the long term. Unfortunately those are political and General Petraeus and US military leadership in general, have to stomach for crossing civilian leadership so they are largely irrelevant to the larger contest that is playing out
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Steve B. · 10 years ago
    I typically agree with you. In this particular case, I discover myself disagreeing.
    I believe that "nation building" was a priority since day one of OIF as there was sentiment that a stable Iraq could serve as a model for change within the greater Arab world. However, I think the primary mission of OEF has been the disruption of our enemies' ability to project violence within the US and that any practical government left for the Afghanis was an added benefit of our involvement in their country.

    I wrote to exactly this issue in my latest blog: http://bit.ly/kHj9Ld

    Thank you for your dedicated work.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    BlueStarMom · 10 years ago
    this as well. Kandahar quiet?? Panjwaii quiet? My son had his CIB within 2 weeks. They take incoming daily from the Taliban. When they arrived they were taking over the area from an ally, the allies rules of engagement was to respond to threats, our ROE, wait until they are shooting at you then get permission to shoot back. Ridiculous!!!

    I have a brother in Baghdad as a contractor, he has been there for years, he said it is bad and getting worse. He gave me a website to read that has the REAL news coming from Iraq, very different than we get in the MSM!
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    Republicus Maximus · 10 years ago
    They say Truman decided to drop the bomb. And the fact is if he had decided not to, he would have been run out of town on a rail - it was actually a forgone conclusion to drop it. It's the same story about BO, if he had not increased troops, he would have possibly been credited with losing Afghan on his watch. History and time will ultimately show Obama as an anti-american on par with Stalin, Mao, and others.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike · 10 years ago
    It's apparent to me that the objective had changed somewhere along the way in Afghanistan. But like it or not, once you topple any sense of order in another nation, you own the responsibility to leave it a better place (this scares me about our involvement in Lybia).

    Calls for immediate pullback ignore the ramifications of the same actions we took in this exact same nation with the exact same people once the soviets left. Yes, lets go ahead and leave at once. Lets allow salafists to turn this place into a religious theocracy. Lets doom the women of this country to lack of rights, education, and health. Lets allow an already dreadful illiteracy rate of 70% climb even higher with the resulting destruction of schools. Lets allow what schools do remain standing teach anti-american ideals and a disgustingly radicalized version of Islam. Lets ensure Afghanistan remains the worst place on earth... And you would be able to point the blame for all of it right at us.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Steve B · 10 years ago

    While I no doubt share your desire to keep all of those terrible outcomes as you describe from occurring in Afghanistan, I am not sure we share the same measurement of cost that we are willing to bear to see it through.

    In a perfect world, someone in the know would present the percentage chance that we can at ANY point exit Afghanistan without the atrocities occurring as you describe. If that authority isn’t at least 90% convinced, then I say not one more dollar should be spent and certainly not one more American life lost in this uncertain pursuit.

    IMO, if we leave now, we are still leaving having accomplished our mission.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    BlueStarMom · 10 years ago
    me literally sick to my stomach that Obama is my son's CiC. I also know I am not alone feeling that way.
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    BlueStarMom · 10 years ago
    no matter what the ramifications because that is what Obama promised! He does what he wants! The Pentagon and the DOJ said NO regarding Libya, not the answer he wanted to hear so he took the advice from General Counsel so he could get his way!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael · 10 years ago
    I have always appreciated your on-the-ground insight, however I believe you are blinded to the realities of Afghanistan by your respect for the troops. I share that respect (my son is a grunt in the Marine Corps), however the dream of democratizing a 4th-world Islamic society simply isn't possible. We need to realize this fact and adopt a different war strategy and purpose.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    BlueStarMom · 10 years ago
    be gone, they would be gone if we allowed our troops to actually fight them! THEN we could support a new Afghanistan.

    Is it possible for Afghanistan to have a functional existence? I believe it is..after the Civil War, the Afghani's did drive the Taliban out of their country with our help. They were trying to bring a quality of life to their citizens but the Taliban came back and assassinated Massoud.

    Had we gone in balls to walls and neutered the Taliban, we would be years into helping to support their Police and Army.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike · 10 years ago

    Yes, we did accomplish our original mission. At this point it is in fact what you want to see come of all the hard work invested.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dane Harper · 10 years ago
    Ten years and Russ ran wth tail between its legs. Teh years and no wake up call for Pakistan? Ten years of dusty, hot, freezing, boring and boring as Hell stuff waiting for something to kill or maim you? Invade Pakistan or make like a scalded cat leaving Karzai to play footsie with the Taliban. ;-)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    david mullins · 10 years ago
    With the jobless and the status of the economics, most unemployed or homeless people in the US cares nothing about foreign countries?
    What is the focus in Greece.
    The majoroty of the people are suffering here in the US as well and nobody seems to care in government. If fact they make it worse.
    US Army Retired
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Barbara Whipple · 10 years ago
    Thank you Michale, sadly they didn't listen to the General as far as we can tell the president has announced they will start getting troops out of their.
    Sadly politics is more important than freedom :sad:
    God Bless
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Corine · 10 years ago
    Curious as to why no mention of any and all construction being done now and planned in the future in Afganistan????
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Marvin L · 10 years ago
    We have managed to put a band-aid on the problem but if we leave it alone now it will, no doubt, fester and cause us more problems in a few years. Mike makes a good point about the lack of resources allocated to the Afghanistan mission. The improper resourcing has left us much farther from being done than we would expect after 10 years. Many changes in the last two years have moved the ball forward. I hate being there as much as anybody but I fear pulling out now will make Afghanistan fertile grounds for terrorists to freely branch out from their Pakistan safe havens.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Adam Neira · 10 years ago
    Blessings to Michael Yon and the good men and women serving in ISAF. People must remember that the courageous ISAF personnel are trying to stabilise the country for the benefit of the Afghan people. It wasn't too long ago that women and girls were being killed for having the temerity to seek education. The issue of talks with the Taliban is important. It remains to be seen however whether or not the leadership clique of the Taliban can reign in their troops. As is the case with the battle between good and evil, when the opportunity for real trust building and peace increases so does the power of the dark forces.

    Prayers for Afghanistan.

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