Sangin District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan — In late March, I rejoined the platoon whose maneuvers I described in the March 7 edition of National Review. To reach the platoon, I first checked in at the operations center of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. While there, I watched the deaths of two insurgents. A real-time video feed from an overhead aircraft showed a motorcyclist and his passenger, carrying a pickaxe and bulging sack, driving past a crowded market in Sangin District. They stopped on an open strip of road, where one man hacked out a shallow hole. The other then placed an improvised explosive device (IED) in the hole. Minutes later, a Hellfire missile killed them both.
While the air strike was routine, the location was disturbing. In Sangin, the United States and its coalition partners had spent millions of dollars to provide electric power, schools, clinics, and roads. Yet the bombers on the motorcycle had driven brazenly through the market, unafraid of betrayal by those the coalition had aided for years.
The next day, when I reached the 3rd Platoon of Kilo Company, the troops were still living in cave-like rooms inside an abandoned compound. The big news since my last visit was the blimp tethered above Kilo Company’s outpost down the road. Its cameras streamed video night and day into the company’s two-desk command post. The Taliban, wary of the all-seeing eye in the sky too high to shoot down, had pulled back a few miles, to the annoyance of the 3rd Platoon. After half a year of steady combat, the men were wearing down, most having lost 10 to 15 pounds. They joked that the Taliban were inconsiderate.
“We have to walk farther to get into a fight,” Lt. Vic Garcia told me.
Before we left on patrol, the platoon gathered for a group photo. The picture showed a tight-knit band of armed warriors, stolidly purposeful of face. Since October, the 3rd Platoon had evacuated an average of one casualty per week — and they had one more week to go before deploying back to the States.
As we left the wire, Cpl. Colbey Yazzie unslung his Vallon metal detector and moved ahead to take point. An unassuming Navajo with a warm smile, Yaz was the platoon’s talisman, having discovered and detonated over 40 IEDs buried in the fields.
“How do you do it day after day, Yaz?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he grinned. “Just habit, I guess.”
“That’s not it, dude,” Sgt. Philip McCulloch said. “You’re awesome, man, the best in the battalion.”
As Yaz began to sweep back and forth, a dozen Marines fell into a single file behind him. Across Helmand Province, hundreds of similar patrols were on the move. Home to about 1.3 million Pashtuns, Helmand is a vast, flat desert interrupted by a few rivers fed by snowfields to the north. Most of the population lives in the Green Zone, a system of canals that sustains fertile farm fields along the banks of the rivers.
Near the patrol base, shepherds were tending cows and sheep, a sign they expected no attack by Taliban gangs. Several men rushed up to us, demanding payment for vague claims of battle damage. Every American battalion has millions of dollars to spend on local projects, and most farmers wanted a cut. We have created an Afghan culture of entitlement rather than self-reliance.
We walked past a farm compound that had been shattered by a bomb strike. Three waifs stood solemnly in the rubble. In a small field next to the compound, their father was scattering seed among poppy plants. He refused to look at the Marines.
#page#Next to a fording point across a stream, Yaz found and cut a thick white electric wire. Buried somewhere close by was a plastic jug of explosives. One end of the wire led toward a compound where several women and children huddled nervously. After marking the spot for later examination by ordnance experts, Lieutenant Garcia gestured to Yaz to push on. The triggerman was long gone and there wasn’t any sense upsetting the women.
In its seven-month deployment, the 3rd Platoon had encountered over a hundred IEDs. The farming community knew the identity of the men who planted the mines. Out of fear, conviction, or both, the farmers remained silent.
Farther on, small groups of men glared at us. The white flag of the Taliban defiantly fluttered over an abandoned farmhouse. Out in the fields, farmers, women, and children hastened to shelter, a signal that the enemy lurked nearby. Staying in file, the Marines knelt and prepared to return fire. The sniper assigned to cover Yaz’s back scanned the empty fields to the front with binoculars. Garcia radioed the mortar crew back at base to stand by. When a helicopter gunship flew over for a look, McCulloch testily told the pilot to leave the area lest the Taliban be afraid to open fire.
The patrol wanted to fight. They measured themselves by how many enemy they killed. After waiting a half hour and getting no action, they returned to base.
After accompanying the 3rd Platoon on a few more patrols, I moved on. Three days after I left, Sgt. Dominic Esquibel, the 1st Squad leader, stepped on a mine. In the Iraqi battle for Fallujah, Esquibel had won the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor, but he refused to wear it because he wanted no personal recognition. He had stayed on active duty for one last tour in order to watch over his squad in Afghanistan. When I talked to him in the hospital, he was fighting to keep his right foot.
“I thank God it was me,” he said, “rather than one of my men.”
The next day, Yaz lost his right leg, and Corpsman Redmond Ramos sustained severe injuries trying to aid him.
“The IED maker had been watching me,” Yaz told me from his hospital room. “He set three mines. When I knelt to disarm one, another blew up under me. He was real smart.”
And he was real protected by the Pashtun code of silence. Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commander of the 22,000 Marines in Helmand during March, said the Taliban “have lost the support of the people within the province.” Perhaps. But the villagers remained silent about who among them were sowing the fiendish mines. Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, has referred to the population as “professional chameleons,” providing support first to one side, then to another. This is understandable. A survey in Helmand and Kandahar last summer found that 71 percent believed the Taliban would return once the American forces left.
Kilo and the other companies of Battalion 3-5 had killed several hundred Taliban, and captured 80. The slipshod Afghan criminal system sentenced 15 of them to prison for at least a year; the other 65 were released or received token sentences. Every month in Afghanistan, there are about 1,400 IED attacks, requiring the collusion of many thousands of farmers. Yet fewer than 3,000 Taliban are being held in Afghan or coalition prisons, compared with 24,000 insurgents imprisoned in Iraq at the peak of the surge there in 2007. Most Taliban who are detained quickly walk free. On a per capita basis, Sweden has a higher prison population than does Afghanistan.
#page#The 3rd Platoon went to Sangin with 53 troops and concluded their seven-month tour with 25 killed, missing limbs, or otherwise wounded and evacuated to the States. It took raw grit to patrol day after day, knowing that a large number of them would not return in one piece — or, in some cases, at all.
“The only way of approaching a war like this,” Garcia said, “is to block out the hurt. I tell my squad leaders they have to be the best. The skipper [Capt. Nick Johnson, the company commander] tells us we have to be the best company. Same attitude across the battalion. You compete to be the toughest. Never let the Taliban feel they have the upper hand.”
The platoon’s parent unit — the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment — had suffered the heaviest losses (30 killed) of any battalion in the ten-year war. What was gained? They had broken the long-held control of the Taliban over Sangin District. What comes next? In March, Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Sangin to congratulate the Marines there for having “killed, captured, or driven away most of the Taliban.” He told reporters that a strategy was in place “to actually put us on the path to success.”
The strategy Gates mentioned consisted of four tasks. The first two are summarized as “clear and hold.” Across Afghanistan, each day nearly a thousand American platoons like Garcia’s sally forth through mine-laced fields and roads, waiting for enemies not in uniform to shoot first, so the platoon can fire back. This is a defensive, grind-it-out tactic based on attrition, and, as stated above, it has greatly degraded the Taliban’s capabilities, effectively clearing their fighters out of many districts.
That doesn’t necessarily deny the Taliban control of the population — the “hold” part. One obstacle is the rules of engagement: Out of respect for the culture, American troops do not enter farm compounds. They also do not patrol at night, when they cannot detect IEDs. And because the Taliban do not wear uniforms, they can live near an American base — as long as their neighbors do not betray them.
The current plan is to continue this approach for four more years while gradually withdrawing our forces. The approach can work, given enough time, money, and troops. In 2010, 499 Americans were killed; in 2011, the intensity of fighting portends a similar loss. The financial bill will be above $100 billion for the year.
“Clear and hold” cannot succeed by itself, both because the American troops are foreigners and because the math doesn’t add up. There are fewer than a thousand American outposts to secure 7,000 Pashtun villages. The Taliban wander in and out of the villages as frequently as American units do. At some point, the Afghan soldiers (most of whom are not Pashtuns) will have to fight their war without us. So, according to Gates, the third part of the strategy is to expand “the Afghan national security forces to the point where they can handle a degraded Taliban threat.”
Attrition can degrade and demoralize an enemy force, but today the Taliban still enjoy a sanctuary in Pakistan that is 1,500 miles in length. After Osama bin Laden was killed, Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader responsible for thousands of coalition deaths, remained snug and secure inside Pakistan. Although Taliban losses in districts like Sangin have been severe, the madrassas, or Islamist schools, in Pakistan provide a stream of zealous Taliban recruits. It is unclear when the attrition by American forces inside Afghanistan will exceed the replacement rate from Pakistan.
#page#Meanwhile, the Afghan police remain unreliable, while Afghan-army battalions sustain extremely high turnover rates. In Sangin, most of the Afghan soldiers tagged along in the formation, while Marines like Yazzie cleared the way. Put plainly, we won’t know whether the Afghan forces can stand up to the Taliban until our forces have withdrawn. But it is not until the end of 2014 — four more years — that Afghan security forces are expected to take over the combat mission.
Apart from clearing out the Taliban by attrition tactics, denying them control of the population, and building up the Afghan forces, there is a fourth task for our battalions, called the “hold and build” phase. Our counterinsurgency doctrine states that “soldiers and marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors.”
That expectation has proved far too ambitious, if not downright arrogant. The 12 million Pashtun tribesmen whom our soldiers “secure and serve” — to use General Petraeus’s term — have remained steadfastly neutral, while accepting every dollar we give them.
Soldiers, not villagers, win battles. Our core mission must be to instill in the Afghan soldiers the belief that they can crush the Taliban. That’s not an impossible task. Today, the Marines have largely cleared Helmand, where for four years the Taliban had been viewed as invincible. The next step is to gradually move the Afghan soldiers into the front. Every American battalion commander, however, knows the serious defects in the Afghan army and does not want to risk failure by pulling back too quickly.
There is a path to accelerating the handover: Bulk up our adviser teams while reducing our conventional forces. Shift from protecting a neutral population to cultivating a fighting spirit in the Afghan army. Every day, Afghan soldiers accompany American soldiers on patrol; they are useful at spotting the Taliban, after which the Americans conduct the battle. The Afghans can be put in the lead if we replace 700-man U.S. battalions with 200-man adviser units that have adequate combat power and experienced leaders.
The surge of American troops has shattered the momentum of the Taliban. It’s unlikely they can regain that momentum. On May 15, Defense Secretary Gates said: “We’ve turned a corner, because of the Taliban being driven out and kept out. . . . Military pressure could create the circumstances for reconciliation.” One precedent is our Vietnam-era negotiations with the North Vietnamese, although they did not work out so well. But the central question remains: Why are we fighting, if the Taliban — unlike al-Qaeda — are not a terrorist threat to U.S.?
No strategy is risk-free. But since the secretary of defense has chosen to emphasize “reconciliation,” it is time to begin a quiet, steady withdrawal of our combat units. Karzai may cut an opaque deal with the Taliban, whom he refuses to call an enemy. If he does, it will signal that a decade of fighting by brave Americans like Yaz was due to a simple misunderstanding among Afghan brothers. As happened after Vietnam, a generation of American soldiers and Marines will then question the wisdom of their seniors who insisted upon the Sisyphean strategy of nation building in a tribal country 7,000 miles and a thousand years away.
– Mr. West, a former assistant secretary of defense, served with the Marines in Vietnam. He is the author, most recently, of The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan.