COMMENTARY | Only four days ago, I returned from Afghanistan after spending five weeks with the U.S. Marines in Helmand Province. It was my sixth visit since April 2007; I embed with and write on Marine-Army-National Guard operations. And unlike most journalists (and 99 percent of America) my son serves; he’s a U.S. Marine, and last year I was able to spend a few days with him when he was deployed to Afghanistan. So, I look at President Barack Obama’s troop-withdrawal decision from a personal and professional basis.
Let me begin with the caveat that my comments cover Marine Corps operations and efforts in RC Southwest (Helmand & Nimroz Provinces), in which they’ve been in charge since last year. The Marines took over from the British forces, who now fight (as Task Force Helmand) under Marine control.
In short, it’s going very well, so well that Marine Col. Norman Cooling (2 Marine Expeditionary Force (Fwd) Operations Officer) told me last week, “We’re winning.”
By every metric, he’s correct. Firefights are few, job creation is up, and schools that had two students in March now have 50. Farmers are growing wheat instead of poppy, and in the few areas where there is still fighting (Musa Qala and Sangin), the Taliban is using IEDs instead of trying to combat the Marines in firefights.
In the Garmsir area, the locals contacted the local Afghan army and helped them seize 350 pounds of explosives and IED-making equipment when I was there. Further, as opposed to the several-a-day firefights we had last year in Marja, in my recent five weeks, I only heard three (just three!) rounds fired. In short, the locals like the security, jobs, and governance we bring, and co-operate by turning in Taliban at every opportunity. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it.
So why do I feel Pres Obama’s making a mistake?
It’s because the Marines are spread too thin, and to pull any of them out now will disrupt their training the Afghan Army. It will also embolden the Taliban to attack again.
A major part of U.S. policy is training the Afghan army and Afghan police to fight, and while Afghan army training and recruiting is going well, they need another year or two of intensive training before they can operate independently. They can fight (and fight well), but we’re teaching literacy, leadership, logistics, and other important concepts as they fight, and that takes time. If we pull out and leave an un-prepared Afghan National Army, then the people lose heart as the Taliban surges (as they did in 2002 when Bush pulled the troops out for his war in Iraq), and then we need to return — again — and do the job correctly.
Taking 33,000 troops out in the next year is purely a domestic political decision; I was on little patrol bases where seven Marines and four Afghan soldiers were responsible for a several-mile area; for the U.S. to withdraw fully 35 percent of current forces in Afghanistan will lead to yet another Taliban resurgence, and subsequent Pakistani-ISI meddling.
And on a personal level, I’ve proudly watched my son leave for war five times since 2003 — but a major part of my ability to do so is because of the intensive training and preparation all Marine receive before they deploy, as well as the thorough thought and planning the Marine generals, colonels, and senior leaders give each mission. For once, I’d like to see the same preparation, effort and attention to detail from our Congress and president in planning a war — as much as our young men and women give in fighting it.