Commentary: A way forward in Afghanistan

Special to McClatchy NewspapersMarch 26, 2009 

"It is their war, and they have to win it." – President John F. Kennedy on Vietnam

When I was a police advisor in Afghanistan's Helmand Province in 2007, I woke up one morning to some impressive explosions more than 20 miles away. When I checked with the Tactical Operations Center on my base, no one knew who was fighting.

The next morning, a prominent elder in the area came with his police recruits for training. I asked him if he knew what the fighting the night before had been. He replied his police recruits and militia had repelled a force of roughly 100 Taliban armed with recoilless rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

I told him he should have called me so my soldiers and I could have helped him fight our enemy. He replied he was fine, and his men and their homes were safe, for now. He said he just needed more ammo.

What President Kennedy said about defeating the communist insurgency in South Vietnam also applies to the radical Islamist insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq today. Ultimately, those are the Afghans' and the Iraqis' wars, and they have to win them, and American policies must be informed – though not dictated – by what worked and what didn't work in the past.

When Saigon fell in 1975, there were no American combat troops in Vietnam. North Vietnamese soldiers driving Soviet-made tanks and advised by Soviet military advisors defeated the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

Fifty-eight thousand Americans gave their last full measure of devotion to create conditions in which the ARVN could succeed and South Vietnam could survive, and then U.S. forces handed the war over to the South Vietnamese and left them to fend for themselves. Many ARVN soldiers fought bravely, but they were defeated.

The American military at that time put overwhelming emphasis on killing the enemy and seizing and holding terrain. Soldiers in the artillery, aviation and infantry branches were trained to close with and destroy the enemy, as their commanders and predecessors had done in World War II.

It was a mistake, however, to apply the doctrine and assumptions that were valid in conventional conflicts to a counterinsurgency. Killing the enemy is only part of the solution in such a war. The most important piece was having professionally trained, focused and experienced advisors work with the ARVN, the police and the South Vietnamese government. American forces bled themselves white trying to create conditions for the South Vietnamese to succeed, but they failed in the most critical aspect: advising and training indigenous forces to take over the fight.

According to U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Doctrine (FM3-24), the best a foreign force can do is to create the conditions for indigenous forces to take over. Ultimate success is up to those localforces.

Presently, however, the vast majority of combat advisors are selected for duty on an ad-hoc basis. They're given two months of training at Ft. Riley, Kansas, and then they deploy to train, advise and assist the Afghan and Iraqi forces that will win or lose these wars.

After two months of training and a year training and fighting alongside their Afghan or Iraqi counterparts, soldiers on transition teams return to their original branches. They carry their knowledge and experience back to their conventional units, but they rarely get to train the next wave of advisors or return to be advisors again. This is an effective program, but we can and must do better.

There's a proposal to create a permanent standing Advisor Corps of 20,000. The Advisor Branch would have its own doctrine, and returning advisors would be able to train those preparing to deploy.

This would ease the painful and sometimes fatal learning curve that new advisors experience in a combat zone.

The task of advising indigenous forces in combat is difficult and dangerous - and critical to our national defense, now and for the foreseeable future. Advising indigenous forces isn't the only exit strategy from our current conflicts, but supporting our allies is a powerful tool to prevent future conflicts and advising indigenous forces will continue to be our Achilles heel until we do something about it.

The tragedy of Vietnam cannot and must not be repeated. Ho Chi Minh had no intention of attacking America, but al-Qaida in Iraq and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan do.

If we fail to build Afghan and Iraqi institutions that can win those wars, we'll set ourselves and our allies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq up for endless war. Training indigenous forces to take over the fight is how we and our allies will find peace.


Army Capt. Brandon Anderson, a combat veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, wrote this commentary for McClatchy Newspapers. He led a transition team in Afghanistan's Helmand Province in 2007 and fought as an infantry platoon leader in the 2nd Infantry Division in Anbar province, Iraq, from 2004 to 2005. Currently, he's a member of 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. The opinions contained here are his own and not those of the U.S. Army.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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