American military commanders in Afghanistan have warned that President Obama's new strategy, announced Tuesday night during his speech at West Point -- even though it will mean a commitment of another 30,000 troops -- will fail unless backed by dramatic action by President Karzai's government.
As Taliban are driven from their strongholds by U.S. and allied troops in the country's most war-torn provinces in the south, U.S. troops insist these gains will be pointless without trained Afghan soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats ready to fight beside them and to take charge of the areas when they are secured.
As I saw on a recent four-week trip to southwest Afghanistan's Helmand Province, one of the more dangerous areas of the country, an influx of more than 10,000 Marines this summer has already dramatically altered this war -- taking thousands of people out of rebel hands and bringing the return of schools, health clinics, refurbishment of canals, and a program to provide an alternative crop to illegal opium poppy.
But from junior soldiers to senior generals, the military were clear to me that these short-term gains had no purpose and would ultimately result in failure unless the Afghan government led by President Karzai took decisive action to take charge of these "liberated" districts.
And American forces are facing an enemy that is using more sophisticated tactics of attrition to its own minimize losses and maximize pain for the occupiers. The insurgents have learned to fight from a distance, compensating for the Americans' massive advantage in firepower. The insurgents have mastered the IED (improvised explosive device), using explosives made from fertilizer. Their next best choice is a stand-off weapon like a mortar or a rocket.
At the end of October, I joined a group of Marines from the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance on a raid on a Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province, the most dangerous province in Afghanistan. The Marines were hitting a town known as Safar Bazaar, once the largest drug markets in the area. A year ago, a strike like this into the Taliban's heartland would have led to a firefight. This time, it led to a deadly waiting game, of a type that has become increasingly common in Afghanistan.
The Marines were operating out of Camp Payne, a forward operating base, east of newly captured Khan Neshin. Camp Payne is the most southerly combat post in Afghanistan.
When I joined them, it was clear the area had been transformed since the summer. The Marines and civilian agencies have in four months opened a school, funded the rebuilding of long-derelict canals, held shuras (town meetings) with elders, opened a radio station, funded a job creation scheme and are doling out cheap loans to tradesmen. All this has helped to prove the value of evicting the Taliban.
But Lt Col Tim Grattan, the battalion commander, said it would take further forces to really secure Helmand. "There is no doubt we can interdict and deny the Taliban a route in from Pakistan," said Grattan, "but we need the forces to do it."
Grattan had deployed to Helmand with just two companies of infantry, under 40 percent of his battalion's strength. He blamed what he called an "artificial cap" on troop numbers set back in Washington.