The only way to reach Viper Company of the 26th Regiment, First Infantry Division, is by helicopter. When I fly in, Capt. Jimmy Howell greets me. "I'm holding a shura [meeting of village elders]," he says. "We won't be shot at until they leave." The steep-sided Korengal Valley, 70 miles northeast of Kabul, is the scene of the war's fiercest fighting, claiming 57 American lives over the past three years.
Sure enough, an hour after the elders leave the shura, 30-millimeter shells strike the outpost. Cpl. Marc Madding, an Afghan army adviser, begins firing .50 caliber rounds at the enemy position, laughing as an Afghan soldier scurries from the latrine with shells bursting behind him. Capt. Howell adjusts mortar and artillery shells on the hillside, followed by an A-10 aircraft dropping 250-pound bombs. It's another afternoon in the Korengal, the hot spot in a district that's recorded some 1,990 similar engagements since mid-2005.
Overwhelming American firepower forced the wily fundamentalist insurgents to maintain a respectful distance. A few days earlier, an enemy unit had let down its guard and lost 15 combatants to a well-staged American ambush. Most of the fundamentalists killed were from villages that frequently receive food and medical aid from the U.S. Army outpost. The following day, an American soldier was killed outside a nearby village.
In what Rudyard Kipling called "the arithmetic of the frontier," fundamentalism and tribal hostility fuel persistent attacks, year after year, here in the Korengal. It's not well known stateside, but the Taliban are just one of many fundamentalist gangs waging war against our forces here. Like the U.S. Cavalry fighting the Apaches in the 19th century, it is problematical whether the Americans should push deeper into this treacherous valley or simply bottle up the local fighters.
Whatever the strategy in the Korengal, the broader war across eastern Afghanistan is showing signs of progress. Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, commanding Joint Task Force 101, has deployed his forces in a 300-mile swath that runs from south of Kabul northeast to the Pakistan border. Partnered with Afghan units in over 100 patrol bases along the populated river valleys, JTF 101 has driven the fundamentalist fighters back into the hills and blocked the infiltration routes from Pakistan. The price for an AK-47 rifle smuggled in from Pakistan has doubled in the past four months. For Maj. Gen. Schloesser, the art of command hinges on applying sufficient power to prevent sanctuaries inside the remote valleys without diverting too much power from the populated areas. The restrained military goal is to control the majority of the population around Kabul and to the east, not to pacify the entire region.
The next challenge is to gain control over the southern portion of the country. In the next few months, 10,000 American soldiers and marines will join NATO forces down south. The steady gains by JTF 101 showed that enemy fighters are not fanatics determined to die. Similarly, by the fall the Taliban will be driven back from the populated areas in the south, as they have been in the east.
But as long as Pakistan is a sanctuary, U.S. forces here will be on the strategic defensive, no matter how skillful their military tactics. We can't stay forever. The basic question is: How to consolidate the battlefield gains? That depends upon how the mission is defined. President Barack Obama has avoided promising to build a vibrant democratic nation. "The achievable goal," he said recently, "is to make sure it [Afghanistan] is not a safe haven for terrorists." Such a minimalist policy can be achieved in one of two ways.
The first is to apply the classic counterinsurgency model: After the military push the enemy from a populated area, the police take over, while government appointees provide honest governance and basic services. This approach pursues the expensive nation-building that Mr. Obama has not endorsed. It requires thousands of additional police trainers and hundreds of civilian advisers in the districts. These advisers also serve as watchdogs against corruption, acting as a shadow government to restrain officials prone to skimming and payoffs. It's a sound approach that is slow and expensive.
The second option is to expand the role of the Afghan army to act as the facilitators and watchdogs of governance. Today, American commanders like Capt. Howell routinely participate in shuras or councils. They can gradually hand off such governance-related tasks to Afghan officers.
To do so requires funding a military pension plan conditioned upon retiring a generation of superannuated senior Afghan officers and promoting the younger generation. Afghan battalions would remain in set locales for years instead of rotating every few months as many now do. By homesteading, the Afghan army would develop sources to make arrests or deals beyond our ken. Unlike the police, they could ward off retaliatory attacks. In a de facto way, the military -- the most respected institution in Afghanistan -- would become the real backbone connecting the locals to the central government.
The new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan is retired Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who commanded the NATO force there a few years ago. While lacking presidential envoy Richard Holbrooke's flamboyance and adulatory press, Gen. Eikenberry doesn't ruffle feathers and understands the political-military dynamic. In 2004, for instance, he deftly removed control over the fledgling Iraqi army from the incompetent Coalition Provisional Authority. As our ambassador in Kabul, he can facilitate an expanded managerial role for the military in government activities while fostering the civilian political process.
If that sounds like double-talk, it is. An activist Afghan military is reminiscent of earlier eras of shadow military influence in Turkey (or in Pakistan, Jordan, Mexico, Argentina, etc.). During internal strife, however, many governments have expanded the powers of their military. It should not be the job of America to build a European-style democracy in Afghanistan. The Afghan military is more trustworthy than either the police or the civilian bureaucracy.
Capt. Howell of Viper Company has been called out of the Korengal for a few days to receive the U.S. Army's highest award for leadership. Then it's back into the fray. There's a price we must pay to ensure the Taliban don't reclaim Afghanistan. But let's not add to the cost by expanding our national objectives. We can't manage the skein of tribal loyalties and jealousies. The fastest way to reduce the size of our involvement is to build up the Afghan Army and quietly encourage it to play an active, expansionist role in governance.