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Graveyard of Empires: Nine Months on the Ground in Obama’s Afghanistan


ISSUE:  Spring 2010
(Elliott D. Woods)

Everything seemed to be going exactly to plan. For the first week after Operation Moshtarak was launched under cover of darkness on February 13, NATO and Afghan troops lived up to the offensive’s lofty name—a Dari word meaning “together,” selected to reinforce the operation’s joint effort. The Afghan National Army made up some 60 percent of the thousands of troops advancing on the dusty redoubt of Marja, an agricultural town latticed with canals and ditches irrigating the poppy fields that made it a crossroads for heroin traffickers and pro-Taliban forces in the Helmand Province. Locals, as asked, voluntarily stayed in their homes to avoid IEDs emplaced by insurgents and shared intelligence with international commanders. Even Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) got in the act, arresting two “shadow governors” of Afghanistan’s northern provinces and raiding a house in Karachi where Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s military commander, was captured.

Coming nearly nine months after General Stanley McChrystal was appointed by President Barack Obama to be commander of forces in Afghanistan, the coordinated action in the southern provinces and across the border in Pakistan appeared to be an astounding exoneration of the general’s new counterinsurgency plan. And not a moment too soon. After eight long years of military stalemate and political neglect, US troops were scoring measurable victories, and the fresh focus on winning the confidence of ordinary Afghans appeared to be paying major dividends. For the first time since the shedding of burqas and shaving of beards in the exultant early days of the invasion, the Afghan people seemed to be rallying around NATO forces.

Then, on February 21, troops sweeping for insurgents on the run from Marja intercepted Taliban radio chatter near the main road in Oruzgan Province. Little Bird helicopters, flown by elite US Special Forces, were called in. Pilots discovered a tight-knit convoy of two Land Cruisers and a pickup, all overloaded and riding low, lurching up the Khotal Chowzar mountain pass toward Daykondi Province. They concluded that the vehicles were heavy-laden with arms and insurgents. They opened fire, destroying the convoy. But when ground troops moved in to collect Taliban casualties, they instead found twenty-seven dead civilians—including at least four women and a child—and fourteen more wounded. These were ordinary Afghans, it turned out, fleeing the renewed violence. President Hamid Karzai swiftly denounced the attack as “unjustifiable” and called it “a major obstacle for an effective counterterrorism effort.”

The bitter irony: General McChrystal was nominated to be the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan after a similar tragic bombing on May 4, 2009, killed more than 147 civilians, mostly women and children, in the village of Granai in the Bala Baluk District of Farah Province. Fed up with the rising civilian death toll of General David McKiernan’s heavy-handed approach and fearing the political fallout it wrought within Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ousted McKiernan, in hopes that McChrystal would install a smarter, nimbler strategy that favored “brainpower over firepower.”

The five stories that compose the portfolio for this issue trace the progress of that shift in strategy and its implementation, month by month: Jason Motlagh’s summer-long investigation of the Granai bombing; J. Malcolm Garcia’s account of the run-up to the chaotic reelection of President Karzai in August; Louie Palu’s startling photographs of the rising violence in southern Afghanistan at the height of the fighting season; Elliott D. Woods’s shattering description of how slow improvement under McChrystal’s village-level diplomacy during the fall months could be undone by a single act of needless brute force; and Neil Shea’s detailing of the anticipation and cabin fever of the long winter months, known as the talking season, and the outsize challenge US-led forces face in Afghanistan.

Taken together, these stories reveal an irreconcilable tension between the urgency created by President Obama’s establishment of a timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan and the attempt to achieve that goal by the patient winning of its citizens’ trust. In Marja, where military objectives were achieved rapidly, the long-term challenge of establishing order is off to a rocky start. Haji Zahir, the new government-appointed mayor, has only recently returned from a fifteen-year exile in Germany, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, writing for the Washington Post, reported that tribal elders at their first meeting with Zahir were understandably skeptical that he could grasp—much less remedy—their problems. Afterward, John Kael Weston, a State Department official in attendance, grimly observed, “If the government doesn’t deliver in two years, these gentlemen right here are going to be cheerleaders for the Taliban.”

That’s a lot of pressure, under any circumstances, for a military trained for tactical operations and rescue-relief, not local politics and nation-building. But in Afghanistan, where the line between combat engagement and civilian aid is often blurred and where choices must be made at a moment’s notice, countless lives are on the line. Still, it’s not an impossible task. The tremendous show of rapid relief expertise in Haiti (as documented by Chris Hondros in this issue) and the ongoing friendly presence in Muslim Kosovo (as documented by Dimiter Kenarov) demonstrate that such American military missions are not fated to fail. The question is not whether our military can outmuscle a ragtag insurgency; it is more a matter of wills. The Taliban suspect that the American public will lose its stomach for this war. And they may be right.

As we watch our troops struggle against years of pent up animosity toward US-led forces—and a generations-long commitment to opposing all invaders—it’s easy to see how Afghanistan has earned its reputation as a “graveyard of empires.” Obama succinctly summarized the situation in his December speech before the cadets at West Point. “Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards,” he said, before making a litany of recent woes. “Our new commander in Afghanistan—General McChrystal—has reported that the security situation is more serious than he anticipated. In short: the status quo is not sustainable.” The president can hardly be challenged on this point, but whether his renewed resolve to improve the status quo will succeed or fail remains to be seen. What is clear: the war is now McChrystal’s war, and Afghanistan—win or lose—is now Obama’s.

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