KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- They rendezvoused in Afghanistan this week at the end of very different journeys, the Cold War intelligence chief called back to duty at the Pentagon and the cerebral Army general who arose at a time of profound institutional soul-searching. Their professional partnership, characterized by deep respect but also occasional tension, has already left its imprint on the oversized legacies of Robert Gates and David Petraeus. Respectively the longest-serving and most consequential secretary of Defense in modern times, and the preeminent military leader in generations, Gates and Petraeus met again this week at the eleventh hour to contemplate a familiar question: Can they salvage another failing war and reverse the battlefield fortunes of a war-weary America?
There are not enough PowerPoint graphics in the world to truly divine the answer to that question. The mysteries are simply too profound, even for two as faithfully committed as Gates and Petraeus. That kind of belief can blind just as surely as it enlightens, and despite positive momentum shifts in the Afghan campaign, there remain potential fatal flaws in their strategy. They include continued insurgent sanctuary in Pakistan, a deeply flawed partner in the Afghan government, and above all the passage of time in the United States’ longest-ever war that has dangerously narrowed its margins of error. Yet in their extensive travels and musings in Afghanistan in the past week, Gates and Petraeus also provided a glimpse of a counterinsurgency campaign at a potentially critical pivot point, seen through the eyes of its chief architect and advocate.
A HARD FIGHT
If you had to choose a single spot where the manifest troubles of America’s nearly decade-long war in Afghanistan congeal, you would be hard pressed to find a better vantage point than a gash at the feet of the Hindu Kush called Forward Operating Base Joyce. That is where Gates’s helicopter descended on Tuesday out of a crystalline halo of sunlight and dust as he made a tour of the country on the eve of this month’s White House review of Afghan war strategy. A rough collection of blast walls, containerized housing, and weaponry set against dung-colored mountains, FOB Joyce puts the “cautious” in the cautious optimism U.S. officials have lately expressed about progress in the war.
In the shadow of a high ridge that demarks the Durand Line and the border with Pakistan, FOB Joyce sits near the mouth of a latticework of remote valleys that spill from the mountains into Afghanistan. They form a natural infiltration route for Taliban insurgents and extremists who enjoy sanctuary on the other side of the border. Meanwhile, the 15 local tribes and sub-tribes that inhabit this remote section of Kunar Province are ideologically conservative and historically resistant to perceived invaders going back to the armies of Alexander the Great and the British and Soviet empires. Earlier this year, their relentless attacks on U.S. combat outposts forced Regional Command East to abandon the nearby Korengal Valley altogether, which Taliban propaganda exploited as an ignoble retreat. Attacks on U.S. forces stationed at FOB Joyce have increased by 200 percent just since last year.
“Every single day in this valley, we are either dropping bombs or shooting Hellfire missiles, because this is a very, very kinetic fight,” said Maj. Gen. John Campbell, the intense, silver-haired commander of the 101st Airborne Division, which has responsibility for the border region. Expanded to seven brigades as part of this year’s surge of 40,000 allied troops to Afghanistan, Campbell’s troops have captured or killed 3,800 insurgents in the Regional Command East region since midsummer, dropping 850 bombs in the process. “Out here we’re fighting the Taliban and a few al-Qaida, but probably the most dangerous enemy we face is the Haqqani network, because they have sanctuary in Pakistan,” he said. “We should make no bones about that fact, because they go back and forth across the border at will.”
After pulling forces out of the Korengal Valley, the U.S. strategy going forward is to consolidate the roughly 140 combat outposts and forward bases it has strewn throughout the mountains in order to better focus securing major population centers in the region. “We can’t fight in every single valley, because there are thousands of them, so at some point I’m going to recommend that we transition out of those small combat outposts where we’re surrounded by high ground and there’s only one way in and one way out,” said Campbell. “We have to set the conditions to bring our forces out of the mountains and reposition where the population lives.”
That Regional Command East has yet to even transition to a more population-centric counterinsurgency posture reflects the past year’s main focus on expelling the Taliban from strongholds in southern Afghanistan. The intense fighting is a sure sign, however, that the war in RC East remains hotly contested and years away from a decisive conclusion.