Saturday, February 24 , 2018, 10:36 am | Fair 56º


Harris Sherline: Facing Reality in Afghanistan

Political leaders' assumption that sending more troops would bring the war to a quick end oversimplifies the complex issues.

The ongoing clash between the left and right in the presidential campaign has highlighted the argument that the United States should not have opened a second front in the war on terrorism by invading Iraq and concentrated instead on defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. However, we probably won’t know if that assertion is correct until the complexities of the situation are sorted out by historians 50 years from now, with the perspective of hindsight.

Harris R. Sherline

As the war in Iraq moves closer to winding down, America’s politicians have been turning their attention to Afghanistan, with many of them declaring that as we bring our forces back from the Middle East that as many as 50,000 additional soldiers will be sent to Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been increasing in strength and aggressively attempting to dislodge U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces and reassert their control of that country. 

Many political leaders seem to assume that by sending additional troops to Afghanistan that it would be relatively easy to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda and quickly bring the war to a successful conclusion. However, as is generally the case in U.S. politics, complex issues are oversimplified and hyped to influence public opinion, often with little or no basis in reality.

In July, retired four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey visited NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) and Afghanistan and submitted an “after-action report” that “provides a strategic and operational assessment of security operations in Afghanistan in support of U.S. European Command.”

The report provides a frame of reference for evaluating the situation in Afghanistan by making six “bottom line” assertions:

» Afghanistan is in misery. Sixty-eight percent of the population has never known peace. Life expectancy is 44 years. It has the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the world.

» The magnificent, resilient Afghan people absolutely reject the ideology and violence of the Taliban (90 percent or greater) but have little faith in the ability of the government to provide security, justice, clean water, electricity or jobs.

» The courageous and determined NATO forces (the employable forces are principally U.S., Canadian, British, Polish and Dutch) and the Afghan National Army cannot be defeated in battle. The Taliban will increasingly turn to terrorism directed against the people and the Afghan National Police. (Added emphasis.)

» 2009 will be the year of decision. The Taliban and a greatly enhanced foreign fighter presence will strike decisive blows against selected NATO units; will try to erase the FATA and Baluchi borders with Afghanistan; and will try to sever the road networks and stop the construction of new roads.

» U.S. unilateral reinforcements have provided additional Army and Marine combat forces and significant enhanced training and equipment support for Afghan security forces.

» There is no unity of command in Afghanistan. A sensible coordination of all political and military elements of the Afghan theater of operations does not exist. There is no single military headquarters tactically commanding all U.S. forces. (Emphasis added.)

Gen. McCaffrey’s report includes additional important observations, some of which are noted as follows:

» The battle will be won in Afghanistan when there is an operational Afghan police presence in the nation’s 34 provinces and 398 districts, when the Afghan National Army expands from 80,000 soldiers to 200,000 soldiers with appropriate equipment, training and leadership and embedded NATO LNO teams (Afghanistan is 50 percent larger than Iraq and has a larger population).

» The war will be won when we fix the Afghan agricultural system, which employs 82 percent of the population.

» The war will be won when the international community demands the eradication of the opium and cannabis crops and robustly supports the development of alternative economic activity.

» Without NATO, we are lost in Afghanistan.

» A major U.S. intervention across the Pakistan border to conduct spoiling attacks on Pashtun and criminal syndicate base areas would be a political disaster. (Emphasis added.)

» This is a 25-year campaign. (Emphasis added.) We must be patient in our expectations. We must do no harm in dealing with Pakistan. 

The last conclusion is perhaps the most important, although it probably will be the most problematic for Americans, who generally have little patience and are being led to expect an end to the war in Afghanistan in short order after we have withdrawn from Iraq.

Unfortunately, that’s not likely to happen.

Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his own blog,

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