Archive for February, 2010


Sunday, February 14th, 2010

It’s a very difficult moral dilemma, to weigh the life of a young man of great promise against the chance of Afghan children to go to school and gain the chance of entrée to a larger world than their poor farming villages.

But an outstanding 28-year-old Army officer, Captain Daniel P. Whitten of Grimes, Iowa, beloved husband, son and brother, chose to put his life in this balance.

He was killed by an improvised explosive device on Feb. 2 in Zabul Province, Afghanistan.

I met Dan in late November 2009 while embedded with the military in Zabul, where he lead Charlie Company of the 508th PIR, 82nd Airborne Division. For three days, I trailed Dan and some of his subordinates as they prepared for an air assault on a dusty Ghazni town, Faisabad.

Dan was full of good humor and vitality, and seemed to relish almost every aspect of his job. It wasn?t an easy one ? commanding a company of 120 paratroopers spread out over four remote combat outposts, many hours drive from other American bases. In my time with Dan?s men, I stayed at a forward operating base called Nawbahar, which was a 19th century British mud brick fort out of the movies. There was no running water, just a well; no toilets, just burn bags; and the paratroopers slept in extremely cramped quarters. Yet they enjoyed their life.

Something civilians often don?t understand ? and I didn?t until I did embeds ? is that a lot of men in their twenties enjoy living in rough conditions in the middle of nowhere, as long as they are given responsibility and have the sense that they are doing meaningful work. Dan seemed to me to have found a calling ideally suited to his temperament; he seemed sure of his purpose in a way few of us are, especially so young.

Dan was special, even among the high caliber of officers I knew from the 82nd Airborne, almost all of whom are Army Rangers. Tall, big-boned and handsome, he had the West Pointer?s confidence and the ideal American officer?s ability to put others first. He had already earned two Bronze Stars for his efforts. Yet when it came time to edit my article, I realized I had far more material on Dan?s subordinates than him. That was as he?d intended.

Dan was kind and witty and socially at ease, and remembered everything I told him. We?d talked about my writing on Afghan archeology, and so, in the helicopter that took us back from Faisabad, he drew my attention to a mysterious large tower he had passed on previous trips. I could tell at once that it was very old. This tower isn?t known to Afghan archeologists: Dan?s sharp eyes and intellectual curiousity may have made a discovery.

According to Capt. Derrick B. Hernandez of the 1-508, Dan and his men had finished a three-day operation on the Ghazni Province border when his Humvee struck an IED that wounded one of his men.

?Dan then jumped into another vehicle and recovered his original vehicle. Seven kilometers later, his truck again struck another IED, this one instantly killing Dan and Pfc. Zachary Lovejoy and seriously wounding three others.?

Dan died doing work that had meaning to him. As Derrick pointed out in a speech he gave at Dan?s memorial in Zabul, Dan could have had any assignment he wanted. He chose to return with 1-508 to one of the most remote and insecure places in Afghanistan.

On his first Afgthan deployment Dan was aide-de-camp to Major Gen. Joe Votel, and was marked for a bright future. Gen. David Petraeus was among those at Dan?s funeral in a packed Cadet Chapel this Friday at West Point, Votel said Dan had the ability to ?make the unbearable bearable.? Unfortunately no one was around to do that on Friday.

I don?t know how many people in Southern Afghanistan appreciate what our military are doing over there; some mutter that the US is in Afghanistan because we want their land. What?s certain is that it?s only in areas with an American presence that government schools are operating in Zabul.

Dan knew there was a significant risk that he would be killed more or less at random, without the chance to meet his enemies in a fair fight. He was murdered by evil men who literally want to keep the people of Afghanistan in the Dark Ages.

We have lost 696 men like Dan in Afghanistan. I would suggest that one way to honor them is not to enter into negotiations with his murderers, or to give Afghanistan back to them.

Lurching Toward Disaster in Afghanistan

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

We are rapidly lurching toward disaster in Afghanistan. We’re on the brink of losing the country, not to mention the lives of some of our finest young men and women.

Between the spring of 2002 and 2006, I saw nothing but progress. Afghanistan never would be Switzerland, but it was on the road to becoming a normal developing country.

But from last year to this, we have made the wrong choice at a number of junctions.

First, we allowed a fraudulent election to occur. Worse, we allowed Abdullah Abdullah to think we did not back his candidacy, pushing him to withdraw from the runoff he had earned. Under Mr. Abdullah, Afghanistan would have had a chance for a fresh start.

Many said that Mr. Abdullah, as a non-Pashtun, couldn’t rule Afghanistan. Well, they used to say a non-Sunni couldn’t rule Iraq. Non-Pashtuns are 60% of the Afghan people. It’s time one of them had a chance to rule.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama claimed, “We will reward good governance, reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans—men and women alike.” Starting when?

A second mistake was when Mr. Obama decided that sending more troops was the answer but spent little time figuring out what these troops were supposed to do. Are security problems best addressed through military action, or could we accomplish more with tribal leverage and improved governance? This remains unexplored.

A third problem is that the timetable laid out by Mr. Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal ignores the clear unreadiness of the Afghan National Army (ANA) to take over security responsibilities. The commanders I’ve talked with in Southern Afghanistan estimate that it will take at least three years for the ANA to fly solo, and longer for the police. So why is Mr. Obama still referring to July 2011 as the date the ANA can take over?

A fourth mistake: Last week, we caved in to the Pakistanis yet again. We pledged to give them aid and even drones, even as they say they’re not mounting any more assaults on the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas this year.

Fifth, and worst, Gen. McChrystal seems to be doing his best to hearten the insurgency and dismay Afghan progressives. Our commanding general told the Financial Times last week that the point of the surge was to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, rather than clearing and holding insurgent-ridden areas of Afghanistan.

Gen. McChrystal gets it wrong on other issues. He envisions Pakistan—a country that provides sanctuary to the Taliban—as a facilitator of talks, though most Afghans believe Pakistan is trying to destabilize their country. He imagines the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia—both the source of dubious charities that fund the insurgency—as venues for the talks. And he remarks that insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is “most likely to cut a deal,” noting that he is a “former prime minister.”

Hekmatyar is better known as a psychopath who began his political career by throwing acid in the faces of female students when he attended Kabul University in the 1970s. He’s on our list of international terrorists and should be captured or killed—not negotiated with.

Happily, some officials see the situation for what it is, as shown by the recently leaked November cables from U.S. Ambassador (and retired Lt. Gen.) Karl Eikenberry to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In his Nov. 6 and 10 cables, Mr. Eikenberry wrote: “More troops won’t end the insurgency as long as Pakistan sanctuaries remain.” I was told in November by Lt. Col. Dave Oclander, a battalion commander of the 82nd Airborne in Zabul province, that about a third of the insurgents are in Pakistan on R&R at any given time—a luxury our troops and the ANA don’t have.

The ambassador suggested that the administration invest in development (electricity, water and education) and governance, since they are a direct path to stabilizing the country. He deplored “further militarization of our effort, instead of civilianization and Afghanization which are our real aims.”

When the American Embassy requested $2.5 billion for the budget for development and governance last summer, the request was rejected. But the surge will cost perhaps 10 or 20 times that much annually, without building a government Afghans can trust. Why should we send 30,000 more Americans to hand over the country to its worst elements?