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.
U.S. Leader Says More Afghan Forces Needed
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.
But Grattan said the most critical shortage was the lack of Afghan forces. While the centerpiece of NATO commander General Stan McChrystal's strategy to win this war has been to partner with the Afghans, Grattan's battalion in Khan Neshin had to work with no Afghan soldiers at all, and could work only with a few dozen border guards and barely a dozen policemen, although others are in training.
Since parts of Helmand remain in Taliban hands, the Marines combine their work in holding the ground they have secured with raids into enemy territory.
On the way to raid Safaar Bazaar, 20 miles northeast of Khan Neshin, Grattan rode in an armored vehicle flying the Jolly Roger. His goal was to disrupt a Taliban haven. "They can't be left thinking any place is safe."
The raid began with a convoy of 40-plus vehicles fording the Helmand river. In a ruse, the Marines pushed west into the desert until darkness fell. Then they turned and looped north, stopping only to dig out bogged-down vehicles. Staying hidden, they reached an attack position just after 2 a.m. They swooped in at dawn on Thursday.
For all the deception, the Taliban had still known the Marines were coming. Rather than fight in the open, they chose to fight from a distance and tie down the Marines. They slipped away from Safar Bazaar -- and left behind a deadly ghost town pocked with IEDs.
Bomb disposal technicians moved through the silent marketplace, lined by squat brick buildings. The metal shutters had all been pulled down.
Then one Marine lay down in the dirt in the middle of a street and began to brush the dust from a pressure plate linked to a massive bomb. Other Marines took shelter where they could at the edges of the street. Everyone but a wandering donkey and a handful of Kuchi, Afghan nomads, had disappeared.
The Taliban Strikes
For all the technical expertise involved, the work still comes down to one brave man, alone and exposed, face to face with a bomb. The man I was watching asked not to be named.
"I am just glad to be helping save lives," he told me. Since July, two of the battalion's disposal technicians have died while defusing bombs.
As I sheltered with some Marines beneath an awning of thatched twigs, some used black humor to break the tension.
"I wish they'd get back to shooting at us, rather than this s***," said a Marine. As two Cobra attack helicopters flew over, one man joked: "Shoot the road! Shoot up the bazaar!"
After an eternity, we watched as the lonely man in the street disarmed the pressure plate and placed a charge to blow the bomb apart. "Get back into cover. Watch out for secondaries!" he yelled. "Controlled det! Two mikes!" he warned, meaning that a controlled explosion was due in two minutes. Then came the blast. When the debris settled there was a six-foot crater in the tan dirt of the street.
As the Marines resumed clearing the town, cutting open locked metal shutters, searching buildings, the Taliban struck. At 12.40 p.m. two mortars slammed into homes beside the market. They seemed to be coming from beyond some fields to the left.
The Marines began to fire back, and soon I heard the deep sound of cannons from the light armored vehicles (LAV) nearby on my left.
The Marines saw men piling their mortar tube into a truck and escaping. After six hours the soldiers had cleared about 100 yards of the town's main street.
An order came not to bother trying to recover any more IEDS -- to destroy them instead. There were six more in the town, and the technicians destroyed them.
By now help had arrived to search for the Taliban firing team. Choppers were circling, jets were overhead, and above them a Predator drone scanned the terrain.
Finally, the crew of an armored vehicle on a hill saw men hiding in a clump of trees, unloading a rocket from a truck. The Americans unleashed hell – mortars, explosive rounds and artillery. When the thuds and explosions had subsided, orange flame and smoke covered the fields.
Obama Will Rapidly Expand Forces in Afghanistan
It was hard to imagine anyone could have survived, but from a distance no one could tell. The Taliban disappeared, the smoke cleared and the silence returned. Before sundown the Marines finished clearing the marketplace, jumped back into their trucks and drove back to Camp Payne.
Via such raids, and their work around Khan Neshin, Grattan's battalion has established a 20-mile security zone along the Helmand River. But the American drive south is still 70 miles short of Pakistan and a chain of smuggling towns that dot the border. It has also left pockets of Taliban strength, including the 30 mile stretch of riverside that separates Grattan's bases in the district of Khan Neshin from other Marine units based farther north. And when the Americans are not in Safar Bazaar, the Taliban return.
To sustain gains on the ground in a country of more than 250,000 square miles, even an augmented American force will clearly need the help of Afghan troops. In Helmand, the offensive launched in July by just over 5,000 Marines was backed by only 700 Afghan troops. But brigadier general Larry Nicholson told aides that, for an effective counter-insurgency campaign, he would rather have 700 Marines and 5,000 Afghan troops.
"It is not enough just to send in the troops," one senior commander told me. "We will be wasting the lives of our fallen servicemen unless Karzai and his government match our commitment."
This week, the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, said he had won a promise from Karzai to dispatch a brigade of 5,000 Afghan soldiers down to Helmand. And Obama's plan includes a commitment to a rapid expansion of Afghan forces.
"We must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government," said the president Tuesday night, "so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future."
On the ground, many troops are skeptical that such promises will be delivered; many believe much more radical measures are needed -- like the training of a reliable police force, recruited from local tribes, that could garner support from the mainly Pushtun people from which the Taliban draw their fighters.
"This part of the world is fiercely suspicious of outsiders," said one U.S. military intelligence officer, who was personally skeptical the military campaign could ever succeed. "Simply sending more troops from the north of the country is not going to subdue the revolt."
Stephen Grey is the author of "Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA's Rendition and Torture Program" (St Martin's Press). He is an award-winning investigative reporter who has contributed to the New York Times, BBC, PBS and ABC News among others. While embedded with the Marines in Afghanistan this fall he contributed reports to the Sunday Times of London.