The paratroopers of Chosen Company had plenty to worry about as they began digging in at their new outpost on the fringe of a hostile frontier village in eastern Afghanistan.
Intelligence reports were warning of militants massing in the area. As the paratroopers looked around, the only villagers they could see were men of fighting age idling in the bazaar. There were no women and children, and some houses looked abandoned. Through their night scopes they could see furtive figures on the surrounding mountainsides.
A few days later, they were almost overrun by 200 insurgents.
That firefight, a debacle that cost nine American lives in July 2008, has become the new template for how not to win in Afghanistan. The calamity and its roots have been described in bitter, painstaking detail in an unreleased Army history, a devastating narrative that has begun to circulate in an initial form even as the military opened a formal review this week of decisions made up and down the chain of command.
The 248-page draft history, obtained by The New York Times, helps explain why the new commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is pressing so hard for a full-fledged commitment to a style of counterinsurgency that rests on winning over the people of Afghanistan even more than killing militants. The military has already incorporated lessons from the battle in the new doctrine for war in Afghanistan.
The history offers stark examples of shortcomings in the unit’s preparation, the style of combat it adopted, its access to intelligence, its disdain for the locals — in short, plenty of blame to go around. [continued…]
The last time Taliban forces swept across the Shomali Plain, they left behind a wasteland of scorched vineyards and decapitated fruit trees that farmers have spent the past eight years nursing back to life.
Now, the inhabitants of this fertile region north of Kabul are fearful that the whirlwind will come again, destroying their hopes and hard work. Yet they are deeply conflicted about whether American and NATO troops should remain here to defend them, or whether the Western forces are exacerbating problems that Afghans should settle among themselves.
These growing concerns echo the urgent debate taking place in Washington, where policymakers are sharply divided on whether to commit more troops to Afghanistan or pull them out, as well as on how to define the mission — as an effort to shore up Afghanistan’s troubled democracy or to focus more narrowly on killing Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.
“If the foreigners leave, one man will just set fire to the next man’s house,” said Mirza Mahmad, 50, who was playing marbles with his grandson in this central Shomali town. “When I was a soldier, we defeated the Russians with old clothes and borrowed bullets, and they got stuck in the mud of Afghanistan. We need the Americans, but if they don’t win the trust of the people, they will get stuck here in the mud forever.” [continued…]