Best Defense

Could we kill our way out of Afghanistan? Ask Jim Gourley…

By Chris Zeitz Best Defense responder in Afghan debate I served in Kunar under McChrystal and Petraeus as ISAF commanders. This vantage point is an excellent perch to answer that question. Both commanders advocated counterinsurgency but with somewhat different areas of emphasis. We were, generally speaking, more kinetic under the latter than we were under ...

U.S. And Afghan Forces Battle Taliban In Kunar Province
KORENGAL VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN - OCTOBER 27: U.S. soldiers board an Army Chinook transport helicopter after it brought fresh soldiers and supplies to the Korengal Outpost on October 27, 2008 in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. The military spends huge effort and money to fly in supplies to soldiers of the 1-26 Infantry based in the Korengal Valley, site of some of the fiercest fighting of the Afghan war. The unpaved road into the remote area is bad and will become more treacherous with the onset of winter. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

By Chris Zeitz

Best Defense responder in Afghan debate

I served in Kunar under McChrystal and Petraeus as ISAF commanders. This vantage point is an excellent perch to answer that question. Both commanders advocated counterinsurgency but with somewhat different areas of emphasis. We were, generally speaking, more kinetic under the latter than we were under the former. On Election Day in 2010, there were more than 100 engagements in Kunar. This was a shooting war.

Implicit in Gourley’s question lies the debate over counterinsurgency.

Counterinsurgency has been criticized, defended, resurrected, and then hastily buried by many with much more impressive credentials than I possess. Several flaws in the implementation of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan need to be addressed though. Our efforts in Afghanistan, given the vast geographic space and demographic diversity of the country, were studies in resource mismanagement. This does not mean that the cost of the war was cheap; in fact there needs to be an examination of the great expense that produced such limited results. If forced to sum up the failings of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, I would say that the bureaucracy consumed suggestions of varying quality – including some good suggestions – and spat these out haphazardly in practice. What works in one area at one time will not work in another. But that point was lost.

The Pech River and Kunar River valleys and are good examples of this. This area in Afghanistan has provided several widely known works. Lone Survivor and the myriad works of Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger in the Korengal are well known stories. Our forces dispersed throughout Kunar, conducted numerous operations, patrolled and trained Afghan security forces, and then yielded terrain as the fight shifted toward the larger cities. Different courses of action were adopted by different commanders at different times. In fact, the Soviets ventured into these valleys as well. Some of the news clippings from their campaign sound remarkably like ours. Some of the villages that were scenes of significant combat operations were even the same.

If anyone tried to kill their way out of Afghanistan, it was the Soviets. It didn’t work.

We tried to clear, hold (killing is a major component) and build. We tried this in Aranas, Kamdesh, Korengal, Marjah, etc. We went out with Afghan forces even farther than that. The issue was not that we had the wrong goals. The issue was that we had vague goals that were not likely to be achieved in one or two years in a handful of remote villages. We were a kinetic force trying to wield humanitarian aid across a vast expanse, all while learning how one even does that.

I have been reading about this war and this region for more than five years now. If I were to deploy today, I would do better in the Pech than I did in 2010. We knew how to clear and hold. But, I still don’t think I would have enough knowledge today for the stated objectives of building the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Chris Zeitz is a veteran of the US Army who served one year in Kunar, Afghanistan, from 2010-2011. While in the Army, he also attended the Defense Language School in Monterey and studied Arabic. 

John Moore/Getty Images News

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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