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March 28, 2012

Time to Rethink Afghanistan

Kevin E. Dayhoff

So far, 2012 has not been a good year for the war in Afghanistan. Just last Monday a New York Times/CBS poll quantified what most Americans already know in their gut: support for the war is dropping sharply among both Democrats and Republicans.


According to the Times’ article, “Support in U.S. for Afghan War Drops Sharply, Poll Finds,” “the survey (a copy of which may be accessed here,) found that more than two-thirds of those polled — 69 percent — thought that the United States should not be at war in Afghanistan. Just four months ago, 53 percent said that Americans should no longer be fighting in the conflict, more than a decade old.”


Inadvertently, the Times article explained part of the problem when it quoted “Michael E. O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution, who is close to American commanders in Afghanistan, said that the opinion polls reflected a lack of awareness of the current policy…”


Yes, Mr. Hanlon, you are correct. Ten years of war and at this point in time, most Americans cannot tell you why we are still risking the lives of our young men and women.


The rest of the quote from Mr. Hanlon reads: “…the current policy, which calls for slowly turning over portions of the country to Afghan security forces, like the southern provinces, where American troops have tamped down the violence.


“I honestly believe,” said Mr. Hanlon, “if more people understood that there is a strategy and intended sequence of events with an end in sight, they would be tolerant…”


Here’s the takeaway: “The overall image of this war is of U.S. troops mired in quicksand and getting blown up and arbitrarily waiting until 2014 to come home. Of course, you’d be against it,” said Mr. Hanlon.


Bingo. Increasingly the overall image of this war has become the feckless foreign policy of sending young men and women into quicksand to get blown-up arbitrarily.


The additional context of the troubled mission-drift approach to the war may be found in a recent telling interview with the top commander in Afghanistan, detailed by Jennifer Hlad and Chris Carroll in Stars and Stripes.


U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen was quoted as saying that “he believes the majority of non-commissioned officers; staff NCOs and young officers are ‘extraordinarily well-trained.’


“Repeated tours in Afghanistan, and prior to that, in Iraq, don’t inherently reduce the effectiveness of the force or reduce the effectiveness of small-unit leadership… I’m confident the institution is solid,” said General Allen in the article, “Allen: Investigation of Afghan killings to look at leadership climate.”


Anecdotally and unscientifically, all intuition and instincts indicate that General Allen has unwittingly responded to what has been, heretofore, only whispers in the hallway.


Although the military would rather keep it in the family, the concern is growing that the core backbone of the military, the non-commissioned officer – NCO - corps is breaking down under the pressure of relentless and endless back-to-back tours of duty.


Read General Allen’s quote carefully and a picture emerges. Yes, of course, there is no doubt that American military non-commissioned officers are well trained. That was thrown-in for industrious concealment.


However, peel away the layers of the onion with the words, “don’t inherently reduce the effectiveness,” in the quote. The takeaway is that multiple tours do not “inherently” reduce effectiveness, but that is exactly what is taking place.


The context is, of course, a collective soul-searching that has resulted from the horrible news that 17 Afghanistan villagers were killed in an alleged rampage several weeks ago by an American soldier.


As more information of the incident is revealed, what we have learned is that the horrific act has not been attributed to a rogue soldier with a questionable past – but a highly decorated sergeant who was the veteran of multiple deployments to the Middle East and thought of highly by the soldiers who served with him.


The incident and the emerging portraits of the U.S. soldier charged with the killings, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, is changing the debate on the merits and cost–benefit analysis of prolonging the war efforts.


Especially since the 38-year-old non-commissioned office is being described, in various accounts, including The Seattle Times, as “an exemplary front-line soldier. Bales’ prior record of service included more than a decade with his Lewis-McChord brigade, and he was part of the cadre of seasoned soldiers that has helped sustain more than a decade of warfare overseas…”


What is fundamentally more troubling is that, anecdotally, various accounts shared by returning veterans indicate grave concerns for the U.S. conduct of the war. Moreover, they have expressed concerns as to whether it has been worth the loss of friends and further endangering the lives of fellow men and women in uniform.


Ten years of one tour after another in an unforgiving hostile environment for ungrateful Iraqis and Afghanis, and an American public that is showing increasing frustration and war-fatigue, is starting to wear the NCO corps thin.


NCOs are the heart of the military. NCOs make the military work.


The current downsizing initiative of the military is also not helping things either. Stars and Stripes calls to our attention to another caution from a military publication. “A total of 64,500 Army non-commissioned officers will be screened by retention boards, starting with a sergeant major board on June 4, according to a report by the Army Times.


“Fifty percent of the Army’s senior NCOs will be considered for possible involuntary separation over the next several months as the boards meet, the Army Times reports.


Writing for the Los Angles Times, Laura King said, “Over the last three months, a series of highly damaging events has forced U.S. commanders and officials to adopt a posture of nonstop crisis management.”


It might be time for our nation’s leadership to stop and take a memo, “When in a hole, stop digging…”


. . . . .I’m just saying. . . . .



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