Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini's photos of the men who will take over a war
In his December 2009 speech to cadets at West Point, President Obama committed to sending 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan, while laying out the closest thing to a war strategy that we’ve had since 2001. “We must deny al-Qaida a safe haven,” he said, and “we must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government.
The death of Osama bin Laden will raise the inevitable question: What are we still doing in Afghanistan? The answer, of course, is that the mission in Afghanistan is about something bigger and more ambitious than eliminating Al Qaeda’s leaders—most of whom, in any event, are probably living in Pakistan, as bin Laden was when the United States finally tracked him down. No, the mission in Afghanistan isn’t about killing Al Qaeda members.
Nearly four years ago I flew in a Black Hawk helicopter to the Korengal Valley—a remote chasm in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, where I lived side by side, under near-constant fire, with American troops of the Tenth Mountain Division for nearly a week. At the time, the KOP, as it was called, was just one more obscure outpost in a war that most Americans weren’t paying much attention to. The worsening civil war in Iraq and mounting U.S.
In The Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan By Seth G. Jones (W.W. Norton, 414 pp., $27.95) I. With the war in Afghanistan hanging in the balance, it is useful, if a little sad, to recall just how complete the American-led victory was in the autumn of 2001. By December, the Taliban had vanished from Kabul, Kandahar, and much of the countryside. Afghans celebrated by flinging their turbans and dancing in the streets. They dug up TV sets, wrapped in plastic, from hiding places in their gardens.
On August 26, 2008, Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, touched down for a secret meeting on an aircraft carrier stationed in the Indian Ocean. The topic: Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The summit had been arranged the previous month. Mullen had grown anxious about the rising danger from Pakistan’s tribal areas, which Islamic militants were using as a base from which to strike American troops in Afghanistan and to plot terrorist attacks against the United States. He flew to Islamabad to see the country’s army chief of staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
No matter what you think of it, the kind of troop increase that President Obama announced tonight is going to be expensive. With an estimated $1 billion dollar price tag for each additional thousand troops deployed, the new strategy will drive costs well above the $130 billion originally budgeted by the administration for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal year 2010, likely requiring a supplemental spending bill to pass sometime early next year.
This summer, Stephen Biddle wrote one of the more influential and oft-cited articles in support of the current U.S. mission in Afghanistan. In "Is It Worth It?" in The American Interest, Biddle argued that by the narrowest of margins, the United States had strategic interests that necessitated the maintenance of a robust military presence in Afghanistan. In "Is There a Middle Way?" in the most recent issue of TNR, Biddle has focused instead on the operational elements of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan.
General Stanley McChrystal's request to send more troops to Afghanistan has induced sticker shock for many Americans--including, apparently, President Obama. The integrated counterinsurgency, or COIN, strategy that McChrystal wants to pursue has many components: protecting Afghan civilians, rapidly expanding the Afghan army and police, reforming government, providing economic development assistance, weaning Taliban fighters and leaders away from Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, reconciling them into the new government, and targeting those who refuse.
Steve Coll is pessimistic: The history of the Afghan Army since 1970 is one in which the Army has never actually been defeated in the field, but has literally dissolved for lack of political glue on several occasions. Coll watched the Soviets learn this the hard way. He writes that a strong and legitimate government, perhaps in which Karzai and Abdullah work together, may be the only way to avoid another repeat.