Letter from a Soldier

The resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal after the debacle of the Rolling Stone article delayed the start of a major Afghan offensive operation under restrictive rules of engagement. President Obama’s replacement, Gen. David Petraeus suddenly went from the vilified Gen. Betrayus of the Iraq troop surge strategy to the best man for the job in the longest war in American history.

The reality is that another capable American general is locked into a war-fighting strategy dictated by an administration that will not fight to win the war against terrorism.

A recently received letter from a soldier serving in Afghanistan is worth sharing for its insight.

“We haven’t fought a nine-year war. We’ve fought nine one-year wars.”

The soldier who wrote that is pursuing a military career; therefore, the lieutenant’s name will not be disclosed. The letter, quoted and paraphrased below, contains no confidential military information disclosures. A Gulf War II veteran, the lieutenant received a commendation for a series of reports containing suggestions on how to improve operations in Afghani villages that were implemented and proven sound. His sobering words about the war belie those of the pundits critical of the war on terrorism and the Presidents who order soldiers into harm’s way.

 “We’ve been playing the great game in Afghanistan for nine years now. After spending the time here that I have, I’m certain we will be nowhere close to pulling out by July 2011. At best, we probably have another five years here. The main reason is … our military is a superior killing force, and that is not what is called for here.”

Negotiating with the Afghan government, tribal and village leaders to win hearts and minds “is necessary in my opinion, but far outside the purview of a” soldier. Military commanders are asking soldiers “honed to close with and destroy the enemy … to do verbal judo with Afghani leaders.”

The COIN strategy, counter insurgency operations against the Taliban and tribes opposed to the present Afghani government, becomes more like the morass of the Vietnam War with each passing month. Obama’s reticence to allow the military to fight to win means few positive gains in Afghanistan, more dead and maimed soldiers, and faltering support from Congress and the public.

Looking at the “Big Picture:” $20 billion spent on “quick impact projects,” water wells, schools, kilometers of paved roads, etc., since 2001; In return, the deadliest two months of the nine-year war.

“One of the challenges we face here is in ourselves as a country and an organization. Leaders coming into Afghanistan get a little overwhelmed by all this and end up chasing what they think is a novel tactic: Offering wells, schools and quick impact projects to the ‘good villages’ in the hopes that the ‘bad villages’ will see this and want to come on in for the big win.”

Afghanistan is a country where “respect and honor are the primary currency.” The million-dollar “American Giveaway” projects “make us appear shallow, materialistic … like we are trying to replace honor with money. Money can rent an Afghani all day long, but it can never buy one.”

Unfortunately, those projects make for better reports to send up the ranks than the ones about regular sit downs with village elders and polite inquiries about how the grandchildren are doing in school. In reality, the soldier writes, those meetings “get us more allies. It gets us more reporting, and reduces attacks.”

Members of Congress want Pentagon reports on the war showing progress—any kind of progress. Even if that report is of progress that has little or no influence on defeating the Taliban and capturing or killing Osama bin Laden. That was the reason for going to war nine years ago, but our soldiers are heavily armed psychologists, sociologists, counselors, negotiators and construction managers.

“This only creates a welfare mentality among the recipients of the projects, resentment among non-recipients, and makes us look like gullible stooges. Afghans, like most people around the world are interested in long-term survivability.”

That’s not to say the road, water well and school projects are completely ineffective. “Elementary school attendance is up to 85% from about 40% when we arrived, 2,000 kilometers of road have been paved. What have we received in exchange for this tactic? Again, looking at the big picture, June 2010 was our deadliest month. Our $20 billion bought us more deaths, more IEDs, and more attacks than we’d had in the war up to this point.”

The lieutenant writes about the frustration of watching as some units learn this lesson while others never do. And every year the units change and troops “see this play itself out again and again … and the new guys start all over again. We haven’t fought a nine-year war. We’ve fought nine one-year wars. If we could buy our way out of this conflict, it would have happened by now.

Worst of all to me is having to witness this first hand.” It is “frustrating… to watch bad strategy repeatedly play itself out.”

Parts of this soldier’s letter could have been written 45 years ago during the Vietnam War. A demoralized military, lacking support from their own civilian commanders and the public back home, won nearly every battle despite perplexing rules of engagement, but ultimately lost the war.

“There’s a decent chance that we will lose here. It won’t be because the enemy was better than us. It will be because we failed to adapt, we over thought, and we remained a military where followers of poorly thought out orders will be promoted over those that attempted to creatively implement their own.”

Under the present Afghan war strategy, we are exporting a “welfare mentality,” one that fosters a segment of America’s growing nanny-state dependants and distrust of American government. It hasn’t worked here at home and it is not working in Afghanistan. The soldiers on the front line understand this fact and are baffled that their commanders and civilian leaders at home do not.

“It’s very frustrating at times to see this play out again and again. Some units eventually learn the lesson. Many don’t, but inevitably a unit will be replaced when their time is up and the new guys start the dance all over again.”

After months of dodging mortar and rocket attacks living in combat conditions in the midst of the most unconventional war America has ever engaged in, soldiers yearn for the end of military service. Soldiers like this lieutenant accept a longer view of duty. There is no quit in America’s finest warriors.

“Lately, I’ve had bass fishing and women and wine on the brain. I need a rest, and there’s a good chance I’ll be back here in 18 months watching a rerun of everything.”

The soldier’s letter from the Afghan battlefront echoes the sentiment that a failed strategy is, and has, prevented a clear victory and indicates little hope of achieving one under the current strategy and rules of engagement.

“About three weeks from my writing this until my replacements show up. I’m not sure if I have a future in this military, as I am not one of those yes-men. In fact, I take open umbrage with them on a regular basis. The one who says the emperor has no clothes is the first on the chopping block.”

A misguided Afghan war strategy ended the career of demonstrably capable Gen. McChrystal, and now is driving talented, motivated soldiers out of the lower ranks. The scheduled drawdown of troops in Iraq brings the world one step closer to a soon-to-be nuclear armed Iran with grandiose ambitions of Middle East domination. The semblance of peace and democracy in Iran is about to shatter.

Disillusionment at home and within the ranks could end Petraeus’ career, perhaps even the war in Afghanistan, without defeating the Taliban. Surrendering to bin Laden’s terrorism emboldens, not lessens, the threats to the United States and the world posed by Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and the supporters of radical terrorism. The other lesson from Vietnam to remember is that a demoralized military may be unable to defend the United States at a time when the members of the next “Greatest Generation” are called to duty.

The enemy this country and the coalition forces face in the war on terrorism has been identified and war declared. A choice must now be made to fight to win, or withdraw from the battle—and huddle at home awaiting the attack that will certainly follow. Either alternative is horrible to contemplate, but the choice must be made.