RETURNING home after 14 months in Afghanistan, I’ve sensed a growing gloom over the American war effort there. Many of the policy wonks, politicos and academics I encounter here seem resigned to failure.
While sipping their Starbucks, a few mutter the word “unwinnable.” They speak in grim sound bites: A gunfight on the United States Embassy’s doorstep. A helicopter shot out of the sky. But before people outside the Beltway accept this hardening conventional wisdom as fact, allow me to offer a different view.
I am an Army Special Forces officer by trade, and spent the past year leading a small team of Dari- and Pashto-speaking Americans whose mission was to embed with Afghan Army units. We went weeks wearing Afghan uniforms and sleeping at tiny outposts, eating local food and staying up late speaking with Afghan soldiers in their own languages. While I can’t pretend to know the intricacies of Afghan-Pakistani politics (nor can most “experts” on the evening news), I can describe the truth on the ground.
The southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand were ground zero for the 2010 Afghan surge and the area where we devoted the full weight of our resources and resolve. The headlines hide deeper trends in places where the Taliban until recently enjoyed uncontested rule. Riding around with Afghan soldiers from dozens of different units, we heard one message everywhere: “Last year we couldn’t even move out of the front gate without being shot or blown up. Now we control as far as you can see.”
And the civilian population is starting to stir in these newly reclaimed districts. In little-known places like Arghandab, Panjwai and Nad Ali, Afghans are moving back into their long-abandoned homes. Weekly tribal shuras — like town hall meetings — are beginning to flourish in areas where not even a handful of elders would attend a year ago, for fear of being assassinated. The Taliban are not standing idly by. Pushed out of many of their strongholds, they have shifted tactics, focusing on high-profile attacks on softer (usually civilian) targets. But we fail to see the subtleties at home.
In May, after one such attack in Kandahar, I joined some Afghan officers watching the local news coverage, expecting looped footage of explosions and chaos. We were all surprised to see four small children, their faces blurred, in an impromptu news conference. They recounted how the Taliban had given them candy and persuaded them to don suicide bomber vests by promising that they wouldn’t die and that their impoverished families would be provided for.
Regardless of their political views, all Afghans regard children as off limits. That night, watching the children tell how they were recruited, the Afghan captain at my side, a tough Pashtun named Mahmoud, shrugged and said in Dari, “They’re getting desperate.”
But optimism in Afghanistan should not be mistaken for naïveté. We’ve paid a terrible price for the gains we’ve made, and Afghans know we’re leaving. Insurgents still control many areas and are certain to attempt a counteroffensive as foreign troops withdraw. My optimism is rooted instead in an intangible metric, gleaned from the thousand cups of tea we drank and the hundreds of patrols we walked: the Afghans have the will to win, with or without us.
There are still corrupt, lazy, incompetent senior officers in the ranks, clinging to positions they’ve bought or traded for. Yet for every one of them, I met five young, hungry soldiers eager to take up the fight. Men like Jawad, a brilliant 23-year-old intelligence officer, or Jamaluddin, a sergeant major who had revolutionized his entire battalion from within.
I watched them wake up early every morning to drive unarmored Ford Rangers down some of the most dangerous roads in the world. They unfurl huge Afghan flags and fly them from every truck. I watched them run toward the sound of gunfire, despite often having only a Vietnam-era flak vest or less to protect them. These men are Uzbeks, Hazaras, Tajiks and, increasingly, Pashtuns — former rivals now working together. They are the beginnings of a nation.
“Winning” is a meaningless word in this type of war, but something is happening in the Afghan south that gives me hope. Rather than resignation, America should show resolve — not to maintain a large troop presence or extend timelines, but to be smarter about the way we use our tapering resources to empower those Afghans willing to lead and serve.
For all our technology and firepower, we will succeed or fail based on what happens after we bring our troops home. Young Afghans like Mahmoud, Jawad and Jamaluddin will be the ones to stay behind. Many of them lack education, training, equipment, even uniforms — and they serve for years in dangerous postings with only the rarest opportunity to visit their families. But the best of them keep doing their jobs in the face of hardships we can’t even imagine.
None of them accept failure as a foregone conclusion. Neither should we.
Fernando M. Luján is an Army Special Forces major and a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security.