KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – With a dry wind blowing across the dusty terrain, Gen. Stanley McChrystal arrived to this crucial proving ground for the pending surge of 30,000 troops.
McChrystal, the commanding general in Afghanistan and the architect of the troop increase that President Barack Obama announced Tuesday night, gathered in a cavernous tent with a group of U.S. and NATO field commanders and civilian staff from the State Department.
They sat in rows of metal folding chairs in what looked like a makeshift classroom. The State Department staff took notes. The military field commanders and officers just listened.
McChrystal marked on a white board the message he wanted to deliver to the troops in Kandahar, which will become perhaps the most crucial theater of battle for Obama’s new strategy to deploy a quick surge of troops intended to hasten the attack on the Taliban and break the momentum they have created so that U.S. troops can begin a drawdown by July 2011.
McChrystal scribbled on the four “buzzwords” for the war’s new strategy: credibility, clarity, confidence, capability. He scribbled words that described the “diversity” of the insurgency and the key parts of carrying out a sophisticated new campaign.
He explained to the brass and staff gathered there that the key to counterinsurgency was not keeping track of how many insurgents are killed, but more importantly keeping tabs on how the insurgents had been sidelined, and made irrelevant to the lives of Afghans.
Afterward, McChrystal described how attacks since 2007 had gone up 300 percent: he said that with Obama’s decision to add more troops, “everything changes right now.”
“Even though it’s eight years, this is not the end, this is not even the beginning of the end, I think it’s the end of the beginning,” he said.
Increased troop deployments, which could start within weeks, are expected to arrive first right here, in the violent southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.
More U.S. troops have been killed in the south than anywhere else since the war began
in 2001. Some of those fighting the war here have doubts about whether new troops will make a difference in what has become a dangerous and unpopular campaign. Others believe the supporting troops can not arrive soon enough if McChrystal is to succeed in his strategy to change the tide of the war.
But Kandahar City, Afghanistan’s second largest and the one of the birthplaces of the Taliban, appears to be the place where this strategy will be tested.
Kandahar stands at the forefront of the battle for southern Afghanistan, called Regional Command South, according to the Canadian commander of Task Force Kandahar, Brig. Gen. Daniel Menard.
“Kandahar city, being the center mass of the population is by far my priority number one, but also a very important centerpiece right now of Gen. McCrystal’s plan here in [Regional Command] South,” he said. “So we are in the middle of all this, at the forefront of all
Under Obama’s Afghanistan plan, at least one battalion of U.S. troops will join the 1,500 already under Menard’s command. There are 2,800 Canadian troops in that country's Afghanistan mission. Canada has lost 133 troops, most of them in the last three years since taking responsibility for Kandahar Province.
“Every day we have troops in contact. Every day we have indirect fire on our troops. And every day I would say we deal with a kind of IED threat,” Menard said.
Under McChrystal’s new strategy, Task Force Kandahar will begin to implement a plan to establish a ring of US and Canadian troops around Kandahar city. The purpose of the ring will be to “hold and build;” which means keeping the Taliban out, providing security to the city’s residents and building up Afghan security forces. 85 percent of the province’s population lives in Task Force Kandahar’s area of operations.
“The Intent is to insure that around the city … we create a ring of stability, so that we have a true buffer zone of people that believe in something else than the insurgency,” Menard said. “The importance of stabilizing the area is key, because if we do this we will then turn the population into a population that will support us and therefore marginalize the insurgency. And that is what we are after.”
Some of the troops who are responsible for turning the plan for Kandahar into reality had to wake up early this morning to watch Obama’s speech, which aired here at Task Force Kandahar's base, the sprawling Kandahar Airfield in Southern Afghanistan, before the sun came up. Around 50 U.S. troops, some dressed in work-out gear for their morning jog, watched the speech on two TV screens in the base’s American recreation room.
Obama’s speech was largely aimed at waning public support for the war. A CBS poll this week showed that 69 percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan is going badly.
In interviews with more than a dozen junior American military officers and enlisted men and women on the sprawling Kandahar Airbase earlier this week, opinions largely reflected those of the wider America public.
A surprising number expressed doubts that a troop surge would work. Others said their mission in Afghanistan in is not clear.
Others said they believe the war In Afghanistan is not worth any more American blood or treasure.
“We need to turn efforts toward our own country,” said a captain with the 4th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, who asked not be named. “This is an Afghan problem. We’re not going be able to solve an Afghan problem. We should turn inwards; the United States has its own
problem. I don’t think there’s any need to shed more American blood for this country.”
Amidst an eight-year war and a financial crisis at home, many troops say that trying to stabilize one of the poorest and most corrupt counties in the world is beyond the capabilities or will of the United States.
A sergeant working on supply convoys to forward operating bases off Kandahar Airfield said the troop surge was two-fold. “It’s good and it’s bad,” he said. “It’s good to have more people, more help. But it’s a chance for more soldiers to die.”
The soldier, on his fourth deployment after three tours in Iraq, said his 100-person unit recently lost a soldier to an IED. He believed Afghanistan was a “lost cause.”
“I think no matter what we do it’s not going to change much. You can’t help anybody who don’t want to be helped,” he said.
First Lt. Glenn Nieradka, 37, couldn’t disagree more. He’s with the 5th Stryker Brigade of the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, and leads a platoon of scouts from a base located in the dangerous countryside outside Kandahar.
He said the “surge” would help his mission to fight the Taliban and to implement the counterinsurgency doctrine of protecting the Afghan population. He voiced the frustration shared by many troops that there weren’t enough U.S. and NATO boots on the ground to deny safe havens to Taliban and other insurgents.
“Where we’re at, we could use more troops, and I think a surge in Afghanistan would step on the necks of the Taliban,” Nieradka said. “We’re doing the best we can, but we can’t be everywhere at once.”
Another soldier, Spc. Kyle Mitchell, 27, patrols roads to find and defuse roadside bombs with an Explosives Ordinance Detonation team.
“It’s way, way, way undermanned here,” the combat engineer said. “I tell my family all the time there aren’t close to enough troops here. To be on the roads here and what they’re doing with IED’s and whatnot. More is better.”
Although counterinsurgency doctrine says far more troops are needed than 30,000, most here say no matter their personal feelings, the troop escalation can only help improve security and hold more ground.
Obama’s address did lay out danger that withdrawing from Afghanistan could pose, saying his three-month review of the war showed him that the war is in “our vital national interest.” In making that statement, he seemed determined to address those skeptics across the spectrum of American, and military opinion, and seemed to read the minds of what some troops here needed to hear.