Warriors…

Just a few thoughts from an underemployed grunt in the middle of a quasi-warzone…obviously they do not relate to any specific units or even personal experiences.  Just trying to make sense of the nonsensical as I get ready to move on to a full-on desk job…

Douglas MacArthur once said in his final address at West Point:

Yours is the profession of arms, the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory, that if you lose, the Nation will be destroyed, that the very obsession of your public service must be duty, honor, country.

Others will debate the controversial issues, national and international, which divide men’s minds. But serene, calm, aloof, you stand as the Nation’s war guardian, as its lifeguard from the raging tides of international conflict, as its gladiator in the arena of battle.

For almost my entire adult life, through four years at West Point, a year of “finishing school” at Ft. Benning, the home of the Infantry, a year of training in Germany, and three months in Afghanistan I have enjoyed the privilege of being surrounded by so many people who can truly embody this level of commitment to the profession of arms.  We are not the ones who go around looking for a fight, but when one presents itself, we are the first to arrive on the field.  We are physically fit, well trained, and truly dedicated to the mastery of our profession.  We often drink too hard, curse too much, live too fast, and push our limits sometimes beyond our capabilities.  Our only true fear is failure and to that end we are willing to shoulder any burden, go any distance, and push ourselves far beyond the breaking point of our fragile bodies.  And all that we ask is that we are given a clear mission, enough support to keep ourselves alive throughout its duration, and adequate care for those who don’t make it all the way…

And yet, here we are…ten years into the war in Afghanistan and our enemy appears to be virtually as strong as ever…Instead of taking the fight to the enemy, we are trying to take development to the people and, in the absence of security, failing miserably.  Rather than warriors, we are expected to be statesmen, ambassadors, aid workers, economists, and just about everything else except for the profession we chose.  We sit around, drink lots of tea sometimes, smile and make empty promises we will never keep, then move on to our next “key leader engagement”.  Meanwhile our enemies bed down, consolidate, and dig in only a day’s walk from our bases, occupying the territory we are supposed to secure…But of course these days, they are an Afghan problem…our time and our lives are not worth the effort…

Sure, this is truly an Afghan fight and the only way we are going to leave anything resembling a stable country as we prepare for our pullout of forces is by getting the Afghan Army and Afghan security forces to pull most of the weight.  However, I fear our unnatural risk aversion (unnatural in the sense that it goes against just about every facet of the warrior spirit) may be degrading our ability to perform our most vital function, that of establishing security and defeating an increasingly active and brazen insurgency.  No matter how you try to describe the new trends in modern combat, from counterinsurgency, to stability operations, to security force assistance, to *insert politically correct buzzword of the day* war will always be a dirty game fought by rough men with guns who kill each other and die together in the hope of achieving their goals and something bigger than themselves or, more realistically at ground level, simply because they were young, looking for adventure, told to fight, and paid for their efforts.  To try to package a war as anything else is simply a gross glossing over of reality more befitting of a conference hall than a warzone.

It is weird to think sitting in the middle of “warzone” that I haven’t really determined whether Americans truly believe there is actually a war going on here at all.  For a large part of our involvement in this country, our commitments have been relatively low with few casualties and few kinetic operations.  We relied on various warlords to buy security while we protected our security assistance force within the confines of Kabul and other major cities.  Then, I guess something weird started to happen.  We began feeling like we were losing the “war” which we never really admitted was going on in the first place.  We began to see a resurgence of the Taliban in places like Kandahar, Helmand, and Kunar and then decided, in classic American exceptionalist fashion, to throw money and troops at the problem, removing combat units from Iraq and pouring them into Central Asia.  In breaking with his predecessor, Obama called this the critical battle of the war on terror and oversaw a further surge of troops and resources as well as concerted offensives to retake Helmand and areas of Kandahar.  We also increased our targeting of enemy leadership cells in Pakistan, further expanding the conflict to include an entire region which was coined by the late Richard Holbrooke as “AF-PAK”.

As our resources poured in, we began to see the Taliban influence retracting, the Afghan army growing a little more competent, and our own efforts seeming to provide territory regained, influence re-established.  Then of course as the winds of political Washington changed again, we were promised a pullout, a drawdown of forces, a reduction of US casualties, and a further emphasis on allowing Afghans to fight their own fight.  And now, we sit on our bases waiting for permission to leave the wire, avoid all possible risk by flying in overwhelming force on every operation we choose to undertake, and allow our “enemies” to create safe havens, bed down areas, and networks just outside of our accepted safe areas of operations.  While we make big plans to engage them, they are still a far cry from providing real-life everyday security on the ground.

If this were truly a war, we would go out looking for fights.  We would partner ourselves with our Afghan counterparts, seek out the locations of our enemies, and engage them over and over again.  We would keep them off balance, appearing to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.   We would move on their safe havens, disrupt their networks, push them deeper and deeper into obscurity, and show the people once and for all that our side was committed to winning and to providing real security for the long haul.  And in the process, we would take casualties, lose a few friends, get our noses bloodied a few times as we learned difficult lessons of rough terrain and asymmetric warfare, but over time we would improve our skills and capabilities, adapt on the fly, and overcome all our obstacles…after all, we are warriors, that’s what we do…

Instead we find ourselves caught up in our own local and national politics.  We fear taking risk or casualties because with only a one-year tour, what can we really accomplish anyway?  Haven’t they been fighting here for centuries?  And who wants to have to explain to families back home why their sons and husbands were killed in a far-away place for a country that was going to hell anyway?  Let’s just stay safe over here, let the Afghans decide if they want to fight once in a while, and let our special operations guys and the warlord militias we support go out and take down high value targets whenever then get a chance…Meanwhile, we can drink a lot of tea, learn a couple things about culture, talk about development projects which we probably won’t implement because of the “security situation”, and come home we lots of cool stories about receiving indirect fire once in a while and being “in the suck”…and when we go outside the wire, we can walk around places we already essentially control and talk to more Afghan police officer and army guys to see if they are actually putting up a real fight against somebody or simply trying to enjoy getting a paycheck while being away from their families and loved ones—not a whole lot different from ourselves…

If we are truly at war here in Afghanistan, let’s go out and fight it.  If we are not, let’s determine what we are doing and find the quickest way to pull our combat forces away.  Warriors are not very good at the development game but they are exceptionally skilled at seeking out and destroying a determined enemy and establishing localized physical security.  We can ruggedize ourselves quickly, learn our terrain both physical and human, imbed with our Afghan brothers, and teach them first-hand through real battlefield experience how to win the fight long after we leave.  We have gone too long without a comprehensive strategy for this country, wasted too much in search of unattainable and unperceivable goals, and sacrificed too much of our time and resources under vague and unoperationalizable guidance.  If there is a war to be fought here, we would gladly sweat and bleed for it.  But if we are just here to bide our time let’s find a better place for our services…

No amount of thinking, reading, talking, or writing will allow you to understand Afghanistan or the problems this country faces.  This place is truly as diverse as the many mountain peaks and valleys which make up its rugged landscape.  Yet the first step to making progress is admitting that we simply don’t have all the answers, all the resources, all the time.  The second step is determining exactly what we are doing and what our mission should be by figuring out what value we can add as warriors to the complex systems and networks at play.  After that, we just need to get to work…

Cheers,

Brian

6 OCT 2011, 2330 AST, Orgun-E, Paktika, Afghanistan

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About briangdonnelly

I'm pretty much a random traveler and free thinker. Right now I live and work with the Army in North Carolina. I grew up in Missouri but am from the northeast US and have traveled a lot with the Army and life in general so I can't say I really have a "home" except where I chose to catch a few hours or rack each day. Overall, life is pretty awesome and I'm looking forward to changing the world. Hit me up if you care... Peace, Brian
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