The headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul looks more like a college campus than the nerve center of a military operation involving more than 90,000 troops from 41 countries, its staff officers roaming the halls in each nation’s distinct patterns of camouflage. On July 3, on a wooden deck at the back of his office in the compound, shaded by trees and a garden umbrella, U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, who recently became ISAF’s commander, and that of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, sat down to discuss his new role. Tall, lanky and earnest, with the loping stride of a long-distance runner McChrystal runs 10 miles before his morning coffee the general went to Afghanistan after a top job with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. He knows Afghanistan well. The conflict there, McChrystal told TIME, is a “tough war, a very tough war.”
That it most certainly is. In October it will have been eight years since U.S. forces first went into combat in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and its local supporters in the Taliban. That makes the war there the second longest in U.S. history. More than 1,200 coalition troops have died in Afghanistan; some 730 of the dead were American, but other nations have suffered too. Britain has lost 175 soldiers in the conflict, and Canada 124. And the deaths in uniform are the easy ones to count: they do not encompass the thousands of Afghan villagers who have been killed by the Taliban or by errant coalition actions. Last year alone, 828 civilians were killed by U.S., allied or Afghan troops, 552 of them in air strikes. It is precisely because so many Afghans have been killed that the war is, in effect, starting anew. McChrystal’s task is to recalibrate the war effort so local people can see that the coalition’s actions increase their security, in turn allowing them to get on with their lives. Up to now, the deaths of Afghans in the fighting have done little to aid the allies and a lot to turn locals against foreign forces and the government of President Hamid Karzai, which those forces sustain. This is a place as British and Russian armies discovered and were sent packing after their discoveries where the waters of vengeance run deep. “If the Americans kill an Afghan father, the son will take revenge and pick up a gun and will stand against foreigners,” says Abdul Qadir, 38, who runs a shoe-shine business on a Kabul street. “People hate Americans,” echoes Ezatullah, a driver from the town of Maidan Shahr, “because they kill innocent people.”
To drain the hatred and give Afghanistan the room to build institutions and an economy that just might, one day, heal the wounds of 30 years of war, President Barack Obama and his generals are shifting strategies. Their new doctrine emphasizes protecting the Afghan people over killing insurgents. “What we really want is the equivalent of a peaceful takeover, where the Taliban are forced out,” McChrystal told TIME. Three days later, the general issued a “tactical directive” to ISAF forces reinforcing the point: “We will not win based on the number of Taliban we kill,” McChrystal wrote, “but instead on our ability to separate insurgents from the people.” To that end, the directive explicitly enjoined force leaders “to scrutinize and limit the use of force like close air support against residential compounds and other locations likely to produce civilian casualties.” In truth, the new policy was already being applied: on July 2, nearly 4,000 Marines and 650 Afghan troops stormed into Helmand province in southern Afghanistan aboard helicopters and armored vehicles. But within hours, the Marines issued a statement declaring they had “not used artillery, and no bombs have been dropped from aircraft” in the offensive’s opening thrust. You know a war has turned topsy-turvy when U.S. Marines brag about the weapons they’re not using. The change in tactics and command was necessitated by a grim truth. The war in Afghanistan is not going well. The Taliban, funded in large measure by the opium trade, which is centered in Helmand, now controls wide swaths of Afghanistan. Over the past four months, a recent U.N. report says, the number of “assassinations, abductions, incidents of intimidation and the direct targeting of aid workers” has been higher than last year. Increasing numbers of foreign fighters “most likely affiliated with al-Qaeda” are fighting alongside the Taliban. “There is no question but that the situation has deteriorated over the course of the past two years,” General David Petraeus, who as chief of U.S. Central Command oversees the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said recently.
The Second Afghan War
The offensive in Helmand is the first step in what has become America’s second Afghan war. The Marines have met little resistance, although U.S. deaths spiked elsewhere in the country. On July 6, seven U.S. troops were killed outside Helmand the highest daily toll in nearly a year. Using an age-old strategy, the insurgents seem to have melted away when pressured, only to pop up and attack elsewhere. In Helmand, U.S. troops will set up small outposts instead of pulling back when the operation is done. They’ll live near the locals and offer protection in advance of Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 presidential election. Then McChrystal’s forces and civilian advisers will begin trying to build economic and governmental institutions.
See pictures of suicide in recruiters’ ranks.
Watch a video on the challenge for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.