My earlier post on ISAF deserves some nuance.
The installation known as ISAF HQ has, I believe, some 2200 full-time residents and some unknown number of local service contractors (even though it was originally built for only 1000, but that’s another story). Many of these people are in support roles; somebody has to manage the utilities, chow, mail, vehicles, armory, etc. etc. The business end of the operation is Gen. Petraeus, his direct staff, and a dozen deputy chiefs of staff that track various aspects of the operation. One of these is the chief of the Stability Division. Subordinate to Stability is a section called Development, charged with, well, developing the country in all aspects except governance, which has its own section. But when I say “charged with”, I should point out that this section does staff work. We have no power, and no budget, but we manage the information flow up the chain of command and communicate priorities and expectations down the chain.
But this is not the whole of the effort obviously. As you can see from the ISAF org chart, there are subordinate units where the work actually gets done: the regional commands (RCs), who manage the combat operations and many of the small-bore infrastructure improvements; and the training mission. The RCs do, in fact, have their own staffs, including a fair number of engineers (or at least that is my understanding). And this doesn’t even count the two biggest players in the infrastructure development business: U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This is where most of the money and most of the engineering talent resides, although it’s important to keep in mind that most of the work is done pursuant to contracts . . . billions of dollars worth of contracts. Whatever theoretical independence these organizations have, their leadership knows perfectly well that Petraeus has the informal clout to get his way. Indeed, the fact that we are still here owes much to Petraeus’ personal credibility and political standing.
So . . . why are we still here?
My personal answer is: momentum. Ask the average red-state American about our presence in Afghanistan, and he may have a vague recollection that the Taliban gave sanctuary to Al Qaeda, the architects of the 9-11 attacks. But I can testify that, here at ISAF HQ, Al Qaeda is almost never mentioned. Our war against the Taliban has degenerated into simply playing the side of the Afghan civil war that we happen to be on. Yes, the Taliban brought theocracy and oppression of women, but the Northern Alliance (for want of a better term to describe the government we support) has brought corruption and buggery . . . and none of it is our business.
Against my better judgment, I might be persuaded that the opportunity to bring religious freedom to Afghanistan might make our presence here worthwhile, but not only are we not doing that, but we are actively collaborating with the government’s Islamizing ambitions. The Afghan military, for instance, has established “Religious and Cultural Affairs” RCA units – commissars, basically, that enforce Islamic religious conformity among the ranks. Once upon a time, we in the West made much sport of these when the Russians had them; now, of course, our own military is rife with commissars enforcing various aspects of political correctness in the name of Diversity. So perhaps it will not surprise you to learn that we are facilitating contacts between these RCA units and Islamizing organizations in Great Britain.
We are, however, putting some effort into Women’s Liberation. This is where the power of staff members with specific agendas gets exercised. They are conducting a number of programs in health and education that are directed specifically at women, and have plans to establish “gender” set-asides in facets of the mining industry. This last was most clever; there will be far less official resistance to all-female workplaces than there would be to mixed-sex shops that hire by merit. Internally, these staffers speak the language of the feminist left; operationally, however, they don’t seem to be stupid, and they know enough to probe for weaknesses and back away from strength. Time will tell how the population greets the changes they create once they become more manifest, but thus far they have been picking their fights and only pushing on doors that are open. Even the Taliban recently began to moderate its public statements about the role of women, realizing that their absolutist vision isn’t selling all that well.
But then, the Taliban vision has become a tough sell across the board. From what I have seen thus far, I have come to believe that Gen. Petraeus’ counter-insurgency strategy might actually work – if by work we mean suppressing the Taliban to the point that the Afghan National Army can contain it. But it is important to understand why this is working. We are, in essence, buying the cooperation of the populace with all this free stuff: billions of dollars’ worth of buildings and roads and power plants and medical supplies, so much so that even after the government steals most of it, the lives of Afghans are materially improved. The Taliban offers them only the opportunity to sit in the cold and dark at best; at worst, to get shot and bombed in the name of an “authentic” nationalism that appears increasingly abstract, since our forces do almost everything we can to respect the local traditions.
The problem is, what happens when we leave? What happens when the Afghans are called upon to fund, operate and maintain all this infrastructure we have given them? What happens when government officials don’t have any more USAID contracts to loot and began lining their pockets with the sustenance of the population. These were the very conditions that gave rise to the Taliban back in the 90s.
Gen Petraeus, at some level, gets this fundamental problem, which is why he now speaks openly of creating five permanent bases in the country. His counter-insurgency strategy involves never leaving, and continuing to pour what remains of America’s wealth into this dusty rat-hole of a country.