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My unit returned to the United States in June 2007.  For many, including me, the homecoming did not feel so good. We were welcomed to a packed gymnasium with a booming marching band and screaming loved ones, but the presence of the families of our fallen soldiers served as a sobering reminder of the losses many of us had not had time to fully process overseas. I struggled to deal with my failure to bring home all my men. I visited the homes of their devastated families, and witnessed the turbulent reintegration of many of my surviving soldiers into stateside life. Difficulty coping with the hardships of our tour was compounded by the fact that some soldiers were returning to broken family lives. The combination led to post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, depression, and societal alienation.

Meanwhile, I reflected frankly on our accomplishments. On the one hand, I was proud of the relationships, security, and projects for which we had worked so hard. On the other, I questioned how lasting our impact had been. Our replacement unit suffered still greater casualties and was not supported by the provincial governor. Consequently they pulled out, burning our bridge with the Waigul Valley. It was as though the situation was worse than if we’d never gone in the first place. Once we’d set up a permanent presence there, we took ownership of all its problems.  Now, we have lost credibility and have made enemies out of potential partners.

My frustration deepened over how detached the majority of Americans were from the war in Afghanistan, which has been waged with a fraction of the manpower, publicity, and controversy that have characterized the conflict in Iraq. Nearly six years after first toppling the Taliban and yet with no end in sight, the war in Afghanistan surprisingly escapes the clamor for U.S. military withdrawal characteristic of Iraq. A major topic of debate in other NATO countries, the issue has only recently begun registering in Washington and the American media. As in the case of Iraq, we went into Afghanistan naïve and unprepared, thinking that overthrowing the ruling regime meant victory and that everything would take care of itself afterward. Additionally, Iraq served as a huge diversion that led us to pay even less attention and devote fewer resources to Afghanistan. Only now, in the face of increased violence, are we beginning to wake up to the consequences of our distraction.

In recent months the U.S. has gradually increased its combat forces and expanded its presence throughout the country. Nevertheless, three main failures will make the situation worse before it gets better.

First, inadequate control of the Pakistan border allows an endless stream of fighters, weapons, and munitions to flow into Afghanistan. Coalition military forces’ traditional inability to cross the border—coupled with Pakistan’s woefully undermanned, undertrained, and under-resourced border forces—render Pakistan’s western tribal areas an insurgent sanctuary. But rather than strengthening these forces with $10 billion so far in U.S. military aid, Pakistan purchased high-end weapon systems aimed at fighting India. The lack of Pakistani political resolve to confront these problems, Taliban support from Pashtun elements in the Pakistani military and intelligence services, and inadequate American diplomatic pressure on Pakistan allow this harmful status quo to persist.    

Second, the Karzai government continues to be propped up by the U.S. and NATO, no closer to real independence than it was a few years ago and more susceptible to the Taliban threat. Its modest successes are overshadowed by the fact that its influence barely extends past Kabul. The large, rural population heightens the importance of Afghanistan’s provincial, district, and village governments—such as those my unit tried to assist in Waigul. However, many of these grassroots bodies are a reflection of their duplicitous, corrupt leaders. Afghan security forces have made steady progress as a fighting force despite being treated as a second-tier priority by the coalition.  However, they fail to present a serious challenge to insurgents without outside help.

Finally, corruption, instability, foreign naïvete, and a lack of cooperation between military and civilian actors riddle Afghanistan’s economic development, wasting billions of aid dollars, deterring foreign investment, eroding public confidence in the government (and the U.S. and NATO), and making the Taliban seem like not such a bad alternative.

Insufficient U.S. manpower and questionable NATO willpower, in the face of a determined enemy with a long-term commitment to victory—not to mention a bet-hedging, war-weary Afghan population—exacerbate these problems. Sadly, frequent tactical successes by small units like those in the Waigul Valley occur in the context of overall strategic failure.

The U.S. must apply more diplomatic pressure upon Pakistan. We must mentor local governments and train young leaders, involving civilian agencies that have more expertise than the military in nation-building. We must formulate a coherent economic development plan that focuses on building basic infrastructure like roads, schools, and medical centers that will be the bedrock of private-sector growth—again, incorporating civilian expertise instead of pushing everything through military channels. We must give common villagers a compelling reason to support us that outweighs the substantial risk that they incur by doing so. Finally, we must surge more coalition troops to stop Taliban advances and restabilize the country. Afterwards, we must reduce our footprint and make a transition to a supporting role in order to develop the capacity of Afghan security forces to defend themselves.

When I look back at the 16 difficult months I spent in Afghanistan, I am convinced that our small unit’s tactics are the correct way to fight, but that they are useless without a real and coherent strategy supporting them. Only by addressing that costly failure will we be able to make “Operation Enduring Freedom” a reality instead of a hollow phrase.        

Erik Malmstrom C’03 served as an Army infantry officer in Afghanistan from March 2006 to June 2007. He is now a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar pursuing an MA in Social Sector Planning and Management at Makerere University and working in microfinance in Uganda.


Losing the Waigul Valley By Erik Malmstrom


Malmstrom and his late commander
meeting with village leaders.

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