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Cost and confusion

November 11, 2009 - Jim Anderson
Tim Lynch is a retired Marine who operates a “security consulting firm” in Afghanistan called Free Range International.

He writes a blog by the same name offering his insights into Afghanistan and the ongoing war. There are many interesting posts. Lynch is a supporter of the war, but not of the overall strategy being employed.

A former infantry officer, he started his work in Afghanistan as the project manager for the American Embassy guard force in 2005. The next year, he started his own company and has been operating “in every corner of Afghanistan ever since.”

I can’t speak for his credibility or agenda — but his blog seems to try to tell it straight.

“We are spending blood and gaining not one damn thing to show for it,” he wrote recently. “We are spending billions of dollars we do not have and gaining not one damn thing for that either. These are facts and for a guy like me who spent the happiest years of his life as an officer in the United States Marine Corps it is most upsetting to face up to these facts.”

Lynch wants a change in strategy to emphasize a “bottom up” approach.

“... In a majority of this country it is completely safe for foreigners, especially Americans,” he writes. “The Afghan people are dirt poor but despite the incredibly slow and incompetent reconstruction efforts remain both grateful and hospitable.”

Lynch wants the army and civilian contractors embedded with the locals, including the Afghan security forces, to gain greater trust and achieve measurable progress. Most of the problems currently plaguing Afghanistan can only be solved by Afghans, he continues.

“The military is asking for more troops but to do what?” he asks. “Unless they move off the FOB’s (Forward Operating Bases) and out into the local population they do little more than create an even more target rich environment for the various armed opposition groups (AOG) which plague the countryside.”

“What we need are small agile formations integrated with and augmented by civilian contractors who have the ability to remain on contract for years at a time. The civilians fill the crucial role of demonstrating commitment to the local people, and front specific knowledge to the frequent rotations of military personnel.”

As distasteful as some may find it, partnering with tribal leaders may be the only path to progress, Lynch insists.

“Afghanistan has never been effectively ruled by a central government in Kabul and the one that is there now is no exception,” he writes. “If we want to try a bottom up approach it is going to have to be done by partnering with tribal leaders ...”

Lynch’s assessment is not entirely in conflict with the views of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. McChrystal has asked for 40,000 or more additional U.S. troops to provide additional security while minimizing civilian casualties. McChrystal has a stated goal of “flipping” Taliban fighters to support our cause. Whether that strategy could reach the depths of the “bottom up” approach advocated by Lynch remains to be seen.

Also unanswered is the price we’re willing to pay to achieve what?

President Obama says Afghanistan is critical in order to prevent the Taliban from providing haven, support and bases to Al Qadea.

“The problem is that Al Qadea has all the support and bases it needs in Pakistan,” Lynch reports. “I am on record as saying that Afghanistan would never allow Al Qadea back inside its borders no matter who was ruling and the truth is Al Qaeda has spent eight years reconstituting in the Northwest Frontier and doesn’t need Afghanistan — they are fine where they are.”

As the president mulls Gen. McChrystal’s troop request, media coverage has emphasized troop levels. Maybe a more important question is how to define our goals.

We are, essentially, protecting a corrupt central government in the name of fighting Al Qadea and other extremists. But most observers agree that global-minded terrorists have possibly abandoned Afghanistan.

Confused? Maybe that’s why recent polls show that a majority of Americans oppose sending more troops.

Even “success,” under McChrystal’s plan, will require a costly commitment that may in the end be perceived as a draw.

Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, has argued that there would likely be no push to spend hundreds of billions of dollars and lose hundreds or thousands of American lives in Afghanistan if we weren’t already there.

The president has apparently determined that withrawing our ground forces in Afghanistan is not an option. If that’s the case, only he can define our goals there outside of the rhetoric of “fighting terrorism.”

It’s one subject on which it might be fair to suggest he’s dithering.


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