Knitting Together an Afghan Strategy
NATO tests the "ink-spot theory."
This is Fred Kaplan's first report from Afghanistan. For the second part, click here.
KABUL, Afghanistan—NATO's headquarters in Afghanistan occupy the same plot of land that the British army held in the 19th century during its two attempts to control the country, which both resulted in humiliating routs. "Third time lucky," said Brig. Nick Pope, with a nervous smile.
Fourth time, actually, since the Soviets laid their stakes on this ground too, until their own empire-shattering retreat.
Pope, a British officer who insists that lessons have been learned from the mistakes of the past, is the present-day commandant of the Kabul headquarters, a sprawling, almost uniquely green enclave in the northeast section of the Afghan capital, housing over 1,200 personnel from 27 nations. It's a long way from the area that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created to defend in Cold War times. Yet nearly a dozen officers I spoke with, during a NATO-sponsored trip here last week, proclaimed that the future of the alliance rests on this mission's success.
NATO, it turns out, does have a strategy for Afghanistan—an intriguing mix of military force, economic development, and political empowerment that combines classic counterinsurgency theory with high-tech communications and more than a dollop of precision air power.
The big question, though, is whether Afghanistan is too far gone—too corrupt, barren, impoverished, and primitive, too dependent on poppy, too terrorized by the Taliban, too wide open to the Pakistani border—for any strategy to matter.
Either way, the Western campaign here is huge, much bigger than most press accounts indicate.
The air base in Kandahar, an hour's flight south of Kabul and the center of constant clashes with Taliban insurgents, is breathtakingly enormous—a 9-mile perimeter holding 10,000 personnel, a 10,000-foot runway (in the process of being doubled in size), hangars and parking spaces for over 100 jets and helicopters (each of which averages 70 hours of flight time per month, mainly for convoy escorts and medevac but also for the occasional bombing and strafing runs), as well as a handful of Predator drones. The base is, as one British officer puts it, "one of the busiest military airfields in the world"—and it's getting busier and bigger all the time.
(The day after the group I was with left Kandahar, insurgents blew up a bus carrying local workers to the air base. The workers had been, and their survivors still are, building the pieces of the airfield's expansion—the enlarged runway, additional housing, and so forth—a development that the Taliban clearly wants to delay or halt.)
Back in Kabul, an elaborate underground Command Joint Operations Center monitors and coordinates all military activity. Three enormous screens display detailed maps marking the location of U.S., NATO, and insurgent forces. Communications centers receive requests for air support—and transmit the orders to provide it. A bigger center is being constructed to link joint operations to a new joint intelligence command.
The point is, NATO seems here to stay for a long time—or at least it wants to convey this impression to the Afghan government and people, to the Taliban insurgents, and, not least, to itself.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of army recruits by Arend-Jan Boekestijn; photograph of poppies on the Slate home page by David De Lossy.