This War Can Still Be Won
by Fernando M. Luján (a major in U.S. Army Special Forces
and a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security)
[Opinion Page, New York Times (27 Sep 2011)]
Returning home after fourteen months in Afghanistan, I've sensed
a growing gloom over the American war effort there. Many of the
policy wonks, politicos and academics I encounter here seem
resigned to failure.
While sipping their Starbucks, a few mutter the word
unwinnable. They speak in grim sound bites: A gunfight
on the United States Embassy's doorstep. A helicopter shot out of
the sky. But before people outside the Beltway accept this
hardening conventional wisdom as fact, allow me to offer a
I am an Army Special Forces officer by trade, and spent the past
year leading a small team of Dari- and Pashto-speaking Americans
whose mission was to embed with Afghan Army units. We went weeks
wearing Afghan uniforms and sleeping at tiny outposts, eating
local food and staying up late speaking with Afghan soldiers in
their own languages. While I can't pretend to know the
intricacies of Afghan-Pakistani politics (nor can most
experts on the evening news), I can describe the truth
on the ground.
The southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand were ground zero
for the 2010 Afghan surge and the area where we devoted the full
weight of our resources and resolve. The headlines hide deeper
trends in places where the Taliban until recently enjoyed
uncontested rule. Riding around with Afghan soldiers from dozens
of different units, we heard one message everywhere: "Last year
we couldn't even move out of the front gate without being shot or
blown up. Now we control as far as you can see."
And the civilian population is starting to stir in these newly
reclaimed districts. In little-known places like Arghandab,
Panjwai and Nad Ali, Afghans are moving back into their
long-abandoned homes. Weekly tribal shuras – like town hall
meetings – are beginning to flourish in areas where not
even a handful of elders would attend a year ago, for fear of
being assassinated. The Taliban are not standing idly by. Pushed
out of many of their strongholds, they have shifted tactics,
focusing on high-profile attacks on softer (usually civilian)
targets. But we fail to see the subtleties at home.
In May, after one such attack in Kandahar, I joined some Afghan
officers watching the local news coverage, expecting looped
footage of explosions and chaos. We were all surprised to see
four small children, their faces blurred, in an impromptu news
conference. They recounted how the Taliban had given them candy
and persuaded them to don suicide bomber vests by promising that
they wouldn't die and that their impoverished families would be
Regardless of their political views, all Afghans regard children
as off limits. That night, watching the children tell how they
were recruited, the Afghan captain at my side, a tough Pashtun
named Mahmoud, shrugged and said in Dari, "They're getting
But optimism in Afghanistan should not be mistaken for
naïveté. We've paid a terrible price for the gains
we've made, and Afghans know we're leaving. Insurgents still
control many areas and are certain to attempt a counteroffensive
as foreign troops withdraw. My optimism is rooted instead in an
intangible metric, gleaned from the thousand cups of tea we drank
and the hundreds of patrols we walked: the Afghans have the will
to win, with or without us.
There are still corrupt, lazy, incompetent senior officers in the
ranks, clinging to positions they've bought or traded for. Yet
for every one of them, I met five young, hungry soldiers eager to
take up the fight. Men like Jawad, a brilliant 23-year-old
intelligence officer, or Jamaluddin, a sergeant major who had
revolutionized his entire battalion from within.
I watched them wake up early every morning to drive unarmored
Ford Rangers down some of the most dangerous roads in the world.
They unfurl huge Afghan flags and fly them from every truck. I
watched them run toward the sound of gunfire, despite often
having only a Vietnam-era flak vest or less to protect them.
These men are Uzbeks, Hazaras, Tajiks and, increasingly, Pashtuns
– former rivals now working together. They are the
beginnings of a nation.
Winning is a meaningless word in this type of war, but
something is happening in the Afghan south that gives me hope.
Rather than resignation, America should show resolve – not
to maintain a large troop presence or extend timelines, but to be
smarter about the way we use our tapering resources to empower
those Afghans willing to lead and serve.
For all our technology and firepower, we will succeed or fail
based on what happens after we bring our troops home. Young
Afghans like Mahmoud, Jawad and Jamaluddin will be the ones to
stay behind. Many of them lack education, training, equipment,
even uniforms – and they serve for years in dangerous
postings with only the rarest opportunity to visit their
families. But the best of them keep doing their jobs in the face
of hardships we can't even imagine.
None of them accept failure as a foregone conclusion. Neither