Graveyard of Empires: Nine Months on the Ground in Obama’s Afghanistan

Genoways-thumbnail The new issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review has a number of interesting pieces on the war in Afghanistan. VQR editor Ted Genoways on the issue:

Everything seemed to be going exactly to plan. For the first week after Operation Moshtarak was launched under cover of darkness on February 13, NATO and Afghan troops lived up to the offensive’s lofty name—a Dari word meaning “together,” selected to reinforce the operation’s joint effort. The Afghan National Army made up some 60 percent of the thousands of troops advancing on the dusty redoubt of Marja, an agricultural town latticed with canals and ditches irrigating the poppy fields that made it a crossroads for heroin traffickers and pro-Taliban forces in the Helmand Province. Locals, as asked, voluntarily stayed in their homes to avoid IEDs emplaced by insurgents and shared intelligence with international commanders. Even Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) got in the act, arresting two “shadow governors” of Afghanistan’s northern provinces and raiding a house in Karachi where Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s military commander, was captured.

Coming nearly nine months after General Stanley McChrystal was appointed by President Barack Obama to be commander of forces in Afghanistan, the coordinated action in the southern provinces and across the border in Pakistan appeared to be an astounding exoneration of the general’s new counterinsurgency plan. And not a moment too soon. After eight long years of military stalemate and political neglect, US troops were scoring measurable victories, and the fresh focus on winning the confidence of ordinary Afghans appeared to be paying major dividends. For the first time since the shedding of burqas and shaving of beards in the exultant early days of the invasion, the Afghan people seemed to be rallying around NATO forces.

Then, on February 21, troops sweeping for insurgents on the run from Marja intercepted Taliban radio chatter near the main road in Oruzgan Province. Little Bird helicopters, flown by elite US Special Forces, were called in. Pilots discovered a tight-knit convoy of two Land Cruisers and a pickup, all overloaded and riding low, lurching up the Khotal Chowzar mountain pass toward Daykondi Province. They concluded that the vehicles were heavy-laden with arms and insurgents. They opened fire, destroying the convoy. But when ground troops moved in to collect Taliban casualties, they instead found twenty-seven dead civilians—including at least four women and a child—and fourteen more wounded. These were ordinary Afghans, it turned out, fleeing the renewed violence. President Hamid Karzai swiftly denounced the attack as “unjustifiable” and called it “a major obstacle for an effective counterterrorism effort.”