Small Wars Journal

On the War's Front Lines

On the War's Front Lines - David Ignatius, Washington Post opinion.

Here's what you would see if you traveled this week to Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the two big battlegrounds of the Afghanistan war: a conflict that is balanced tenuously between success and failure. The United States has deployed enough troops to disrupt the Taliban insurgency and draw increasing fire, but not enough to secure the major population centers. That's not a viable position. I visited four US bases in the two provinces this week, traveling with the military. I was able to hear from local commanders and talk with a few Afghans. I'll describe what I learned, positive and negative, so readers can weigh this evidence from the field. Then I'll explain why my conclusion is that President Obama should add some troops.

We began in Kandahar city, at the headquarters of what's known as Regional Command South, which oversees the battle in the two provinces. It's a city on the edge of the desert, surrounded by jagged, slate-gray mountains. Just over the border to the east are the Taliban's supply lines in Pakistan. America's NATO allies have been running the war in Kandahar province, but they have been badly outgunned. So several months ago, the United States sent an Army brigade of about 4,000 troops with Stryker armored vehicles. That disrupted the Taliban insurgents, but they have responded with more roadside bombs along Highway 1, the main route that connects Kandahar to Afghanistan's other major cities...

More at The Washington Post.


James (not verified)

Sat, 10/31/2009 - 8:25pm

On the subject of corruption: I don't really know how we get rid of it there when we can't get rid of it here. And here, we actually believe that it is wrong.

In other parts of the world, corruption is seen as part of the income that the job provides -- sort of like tipping the waitress, the cabbie, the sky cap, or whatever. If you want good service, you'd better pay something beyond the established fee.

That said -- I believe it is possible to achieve a modicum of corrupt stability, and I think that the COIN side (more troops, clear, hold, build, etc.) is correct. The cost of not doing so is far greater.

As for the risk to our other global interests, the long term solution is to expand the size of the military -- get back what we threw away after DS/DS (Gulf War I).

The current regime won't do that though. Just as LBJ didn't want the Great Society to be victim of some "piss ant war" (Vietnam), this President's priorities are healthcare and global warming.

Pol-Mil FSO

Fri, 10/30/2009 - 3:38pm

Maybe I lack perspective, but I think that this op-ed is right on the mark, with my only quibble being the description of Kandahar Air Field as being a part of Kandahar City. (They are separated in a psychological as well as geographical sense, and, until 2009, the inhabitants of KAF had almost no SA on what was actually going on in Kandahar City.)

It quickly becomes obvious to almost everyone that actually visits southern Afghanistan that there is a lack of troops to execute the "shape, clear, hold, and build" strategy, doctrine, TTP or whatever it's supposed to be called (an argument over proper terminology is besides the point). I think that it is also beyond debate that the Marines have brought stability to districts like Nawa and Garmsir. The problem, which again just about everyone recognizes, is in the build phase, especially on the governance line of operation. This is actually the responsibility of the Afghan government although when I hear about anti-corruption measures and similar schemes it seems to me that some in Afghanistan and Washington do not comprehend the limits on the U.S. and coalition role in this area. I do not have a good answer on fixing the governance problem and I haven't seen any other proposed answers that show a lot of promise.

Notwithstanding the above-noted flaw, I haven't seen any viable alternatives presented by the population-centric critics. The CT-cum-drone war approach is unrealistic for reasons that have been mentioned in many venues and an enemy-centric approach in Afghanistan suffers from unavoidable constraints that turn it into a replay of the attrition-based Westmoreland strategy. Withdrawal from Afghanistan is the realistic alternative to population-centric COIN but the supporters of this COA have to offer a better appraisal of the consequences than the false mantra that the Taliban do not present a real threat to U.S. national interests.

A final thought - I think that most observers would agree that the Marines did a good, or even great, job in western Iraq. Why don't the critics give them credit for knowing the best approach to take in southern Afghanistan? I don't buy the argument that they are executing an approach that they believe to be a bad idea because if that were true it would quickly become known.


Fri, 10/30/2009 - 2:56pm


I can only speak for myself, but yes. I prefer that arguments get advanced on their merits, rather than because their proponents have the loudest voices or the most soapboxes. Weak arguments and bad assumptions eventually get exposed. If we sell a COA to the public that rests upon weak arguments and bad assumptions, then the public will react rashly when those arguments and assumptions are exposed (example: Iraq). That imperils the entire mission and, as we saw from 03 to 08, invites greater politicization of the war effort.

It is better to have an honest debate and realistically inform the public of the merits of a COA, as well as the uncertainty and risks so that when the risks materialize into real problems, there is less surprise and our political will does not collapse. If leaders are unable to convince the public of the merits of a COA, then how will they sustain enough public support when that COA slams headfirst into reality?

Brian Burton (not verified)

Fri, 10/30/2009 - 2:25pm


OK, but you be making the same argument if the "coordinated public relations effort" were making the opposite argument?


Fri, 10/30/2009 - 1:34pm


If this were a true debate, then I think your criticism would be fair. But this is not a debate. The op-ed pages are not just giving us their opinions. They are beating a drum. This is not a public discourse. This is a coordinated public relations effort. I see no problem with pointing out the lack of objectivity, if only to highlight the motivation for writing an article.

Brian Burton (not verified)

Fri, 10/30/2009 - 10:05am

Gian, with much respect, judging from your comments on many of the articles that come up on SWJ, it seems like something only counts as "investigative analysis" or "objective criticism" if the author happens to reach your preferred conclusions. I agree that this particular column is weak, but knocking Ignatius for an op-ed column or Filkins for a book review seems kind of pointless. They're opinion pieces. There's plenty of mediocre writing on all sides of the Iraq/Afghanistan/counterinsurgency issue that appears on the opinion pages of newspapers around the world everyday. By all means slam what you don't like, but give us substantive criticisms rather than whining that people writing op-eds and book reviews aren't objective. Frankly, that's kind of the point.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Fri, 10/30/2009 - 7:42am

There is no balance to this piece or the provision to the readers (as the author implies) of a balance of evidence so that the reader can decide on the proper course for Afghanistan. This entire article is premised on the metaphor of "clear, hold, build." I use the term metaphor intentionally because most folks it seems, especially journalists and pundits, have no real idea what it actually means on the ground in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Ignatius makes it seem like when the army or marines do clear, hold, build it acts like a form of pixie dust, or better yet like the poppies from the movie The Wizard of Oz where it is all just thrown out there and then magic happens, the places are pacified and made happy. The premise to Ignatius's piece is that clear, hold, build works--he doesnt explain how it works mind you---and that really the only trick now is for the President to send a few more troops in order to spread the pixie dust a little bit more and then voila, we will have a condition in Afghanistan where we can claim success.

Is this the best and the brightest of the fourth estate? Is this the best that our nation's journalists can give us, this half-baked and incomplete, scribe-like chronicling of what the field commanders want and believe? Ignatius's piece reads just like Filkens's lame review of "The Fourth Star" from last week; no investigative analysis, no objective criticism. Instead, and sadly, it all reads to me as nothing more than court reporting.