As the 10th anniversary of America’s war in Afghanistan nears this October 7, I am once again visiting this war zone..
I have been to this country so many times in the last decade and many of my visits here have taken me to Afghanistan’s volatile border with Pakistan.
This is where I find Brigadier General Gary Volesky, whom I first met years ago in Iraq where he served three tours of duty. He is on his first deployment to Afghanistan.
We flew above the border to see this troubled border where Taliban insurgents based in Pakistan continue to flow into Afghanistan to attack Afghan civilians and American troops.
Volesky’s mission is similar to that of his predecessors the last 10 years, stop the flow of these enemy fighters who cross the treacherous terrain into Afghanistan every day.
“There are a wide range of insurgents that are operating, the Taliban, Haqqani, L.E.T (Lashkar-e-Taiba) elements,” Volesky tells me.
I visited this border in March 2003 and heard pretty much the same thing from commanders at the time. Retired Marine Lieutenant General John Sattler told me then, “we need to be proactive, we can’t just sit here.”
But the best efforts of American troops and their NATO allies in this region, Taliban fighters continue to operate over wide areas of the region. Just this year the number of border attacks has increased five-fold, from approximately 60 to 300 this year.
And insurgents have even shaken the capital city of Kabul with a recent series of high-profile attacks launched by the Haqqani Network that operates from this border region.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Taliban was quickly defeated on the battlefield by a small number of American troops and precision airstrikes and wasn’t expected to pose much of a threat after many of its fighters fled ..
“I think it’s fair to say that the insurgents went to ground, some likely in the more remote areas of Afghanistan, but some across the borders,” retired Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill who commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2002 told me.. With a force of 8,500 American troops at his disposal he says, “it was difficult to find them with that small force. We did the best we could.”
With priorities shifting to the war in Iraq it would soon be clear that doing their best was not enough. As the war dragged on, senior military commanders acknowledged the shortcomings in the fight in Afghanistan. I remember Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, acknowledging in September, 2009. “we very badly under-resourced Afghanistan for the better part of four or five years.”
With the war in Iraq winding down, the attention once again shifted to Afghanistan. American troop numbers averaged 20,000 for much of the last decade, but peaked at 100,000 last year with the arrival of surge forces. It was if the U.S had to begin all over again.
But the human and financial costs of this war have already been numbing. 1,678 American troops have died here and more than 14,000 have been wounded. It is believed that at least 14,000 Afghans have also died during that time. The cost of conducting this war is now approaching $400 billion.
96,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan, but the withdrawal has now begun with the goal of having Afghans provide for their own security by the end of 2014. By the end of next year, the 33,000 surge troops will be gone. It will then be up to the Afghans, training now for a force of more than 350,000…with a very long way to go. But U.S. commanders see hope in these challenges.
When I ask Brig. Gen. Volesky if he thinks the US will be successful here. He tells, “I know we’ll be successful.” When I ask him how he defines success, he says,” that the afghan security forces are able to deal with the issues that they encounter, that they can handle those issues and they take over security primacy.”
Volesky smiles and says “there are 24 houreach day and I am going to use all of them. Volesky has always been an optimist, and it has paid off in the past. Let’s hope it does this time.