Violence Up On The Forgotten Front

Our guest blogger is Colin Cookman, Special Assistant for National Security at American Progress.

In the deadliest ground combat exchange between international forces and Afghanistan insurgents since the 2001 U.S. invasion, 10 members of an elite French paratroop unit were ambushed and killed in fighting with over a hundred Taliban fighters. Another 21 French soldiers were wounded in the battle, which took place only 30 miles east of Kabul. The French casualties coincided with another sustained Taliban attack, as a group of Taliban fighters launched waves of mortar and rocket attacks on Forward Operating Base Salerno, in eastern Khost province, as cover for attempted suicide bomb attacks by between 10 and 15 militants. On Monday, Afghanistan’s independence day, a suicide car bomber attempted to breach Salerno’s gates, killing at least a dozen Afghan laborers near the entrance.

The sophistication and scale of these attacks are another sign that the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating badly. This deterioration has been borne out in public opinion: a new CBS News/New York Times poll found that 58% of those surveyed believe the conflict in Afghanistan is going badly, compared to 28% who perceived it to be going well. Contrast that with the situation in 2003, when only 14% believed things were going badly and 76% thought they were going well, and it’s apparent how much has changed in the five years since the Bush administration diverted its attention to Iraq. 2008 is on track to surpass 2007 as the deadliest year in Afghanistan since military operations began there in 2001, and international coalition death tolls there have surpassed those in Iraq for the past two months, a trend likely to continue through August.

There has been belated acknowledgment on the part of top military leadership about the cost of neglect in Afghanistan and the need for a more integrated international effort and a stronger commitment to training Afghan forces. While additional soldiers alone will not be sufficient to address the serious governance and development challenges that enable the Taliban to challenge the Karzai government for the consent of the Afghan people, a lack of military forces is equally detrimental when it causes commanders to rely on airstrikes or transitory patrols rather than consolidating security and building up institutions like the Afghan army and, more critically, police. In an interview with the Middle East Bulletin in July, former Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan commander Lt. General David Barno noted a shortfall of over a thousand police trainers and mentors, leading him to conclude that “until the police system overall is dramatically improved … the counterinsurgency approach is going to continue to be increasingly difficult because the police are the first line of defense locally against insurgents, criminals, and others that might challenge the central government”.

US News and World Report writes that the Pentagon is planning on deploying an additional three brigades to Afghanistan, the first of which is expected to arrive in November from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, in response to longstanding requests from commanders on the ground. Unfortunately, the fact remains that the balance of our overstretched forces between Iraq and Afghanistan is a zero-sum equation. Back in July, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen acknowledged as much when he said that “I don’t have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq”. The point remains true today, and absent a strategic redeployment from Iraq the situation in Afghanistan is likely to only get worse.