Still fighting a real war: my latest column in the North County Times

Ten days ago the Taliban launched a dramatic suicide attack against a major airbase in southern Afghanistan.  I know a lot of people who are there, and despite the waning attention of the media and the American people they continue to fight in a war that is a savage as it has ever been.  Below is my most recent column in the North County Times about that attack:

On Friday, Sept. 14, two Marines were killed in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Sadly, that is not a novel occurrence, as they were a few of the many combat deaths from Afghanistan in the last week or so.

What is novel, however, is that these Marines were not out on patrol in the hinterlands, but instead were killed in an insurgent attack on one of the coalition’s main airbases.

The Marines who were killed were members of a Marine aviation unit that supports ground forces as they battle the Taliban. They were on a joint US and British airfield named Bastion, which is home to the helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft that fly and fight each and every day that the war grinds on and on. They died doing what Marines have done for over two centuries: fighting our nation’s battles.

These Marines, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, died in an attack that exemplifies the complexity of the insurgent war that we are fighting in Afghanistan. They lived aboard a base that until last Friday was largely considered as safe as it gets in a war-torn country.

The Bastion airfield, which is a joint American and British base, abuts the Marine Corps base known as Camp Leatherneck, which is the home to Camp Pendleton’s own 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’s forward headquarters. It also is adjacent to the Afghanistan National Army’s Camp Shorabak, which is the headquarters and home for the Afghan’s military units responsible for the Helmand Province. All told there are several thousand uniformed personnel garrisoned on the complex.

Despite the defenses resident on the installations, the enemy was able to penetrate the perimeter, kill two Marines and wreak havoc on the airfield’s flightline and facilities. Six AV-8B Harrier attack jets were either damaged or destroyed, and nine other coalition troops were wounded in the assault.

From the safety of our living rooms in the United States, this seems absolutely intolerable and unacceptable. How could the Taliban attack such a well defended base? How could this have happened?

The reason is that our enemies are both cunning and willing to sacrifice their lives to further their cause. The enemy is also well-trained, well-equipped and completely dedicated in their convictions. In addition, they are patient. Very patient.

A difference between the counterinsurgent wars of the last decade and more “traditional” forms of combat are that our forces have been fighting from the same bases in the same places for years on end, and being in the same place offers a tremendous opportunity to the enemy. He can unwearyingly study the base defenses, waiting to attack until he is fully prepared. He can employ a network of informants to learn about the targets that he wants to hit, and the routines of the people who live and work there. As an indigenous person he or others can infiltrate the base to aid in its planning efforts.

With the benefit of time, the enemy can gather intelligence on the targeted base, plan an attack that exploits weakness, and rehearse the assault again and again until they get it right. In short, the enemy is doing exactly what our forces do.

Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are fighting a real war in Afghanistan, with good men and women paying the ultimate price to maintain the freedoms that we at home so easily take for granted. As they try to bring stability and peace to a turbulent and dangerous foreign land, they are fighting an enemy with centuries of hard-fought experience at war, and they fight well. All of the dumb ones died long ago, and the adversaries that we face today are as schooled in the ways of war as we are.

That is why two of our nation’s sons died last Friday. We are fighting a war in which the enemy gets a vote, and he grimly knows how to cast it.


Column from the North County Times: Drawdowns are necessary as wars end

Here is my latest column in the North County Times.  2014 is just around the corner, and that year will mark the end of our commitment to the war in Afghanistan.  Coupled with the end of the war in Iraq, 2014 will see the first time since the dawn of the 21st Century that we have been a nation at peace.

Whether we stay at peace or not, the end of combat operations overseas precipitates the reduction of military forces.  That is the subject of the following column:

All wars come to an end, and our current foray into Afghanistan is no different. Last year saw the departure of American forces from Iraq, and 2014 is the year when combat operations are to be handed over to the Afghan National Army.

This places the military and government in the ironic situation —- with the successful completion of the conflicts overseas, the very people who made it happen find themselves beneath the budgetman’s axe. Is that fair?

Historically, the size of the military has always shrunk after a war ends; indeed, it is perfectly normal. Our professional military system requires that the active and reserve components be ready to fight and defend the nation at the drop of a hat. The size of the military was more than adequate for Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s and the initial operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Counterinsurgency, however, changed the game. Desert Storm and the early campaigns in the war on terror were based on destroying a cohesive, centralized and organized enemy. The doctrine of the U.S. armed forces is to overwhelm the foe with an onslaught of combat power that they cannot react to to counter the assault; it took only days to liberate Kuwait and a matter of weeks for the high-tempo combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to shatter Saddam’s forces and the organized Taliban.

What followed, though, was a path to a Vietnamesque guerrilla war. Instead of being able to employ the technical and tactical advantages that are the hallmark of American “shock and awe,” we faced an enemy who changed his tactics to those of the insurgent. Instead of slugging it out toe to toe, they embraced the booby-traps of the Vietnam War and created the improvised explosive devices used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Counterinsurgency is a manpower-intensive way of war that has not fundamentally changed since Hannibal crossed the Alps over 2,000 ago —- you need lots of boots on the ground with the dedication and grit to fight the enemy on his own terms, and as a result the Army and Marine Corps grew in size.

With the war’s end and the current financial crisis it is necessary to look critically at the military establishment and prepare it for the challenges ahead. The president has begun the process by focusing on the Pacific Rim as that part of the world becomes more and more strategically significant. What tools are needed there? What skills must our military employ? How can the nation best employ its military resources?

Those are the questions that face the Pentagon as it looks into the future. The military is often accused of being prepared the fight the last war —- and to ensure that it is ready for the next one, a significant change in momentum is necessary. It is time to get the military back into being the world’s premier agile fighting force that is prepared to fight across the spectrum of conflict; we should remember the lessons learned fighting against insurgents, but not be hampered by devoting resources to capabilities in that area that are no longer needed —- including the number of people in uniform.

It is a harsh reality to face, but it is not unprecedented. Our best hope for a strong America is having a military that is prepared to meet any challenge, and in order to do so we need to refocus and rebalance our military. A significant part of that rebalancing is a thoughtful reduction in troops. It is fair to expect that the military will shrink after a decade of war, but that reduction must be made with studious attention and not made haphazardly.

It’s not personal. It’s just business, but a business that the Pentagon simply must get right. We will always be thankful for the sacrifice of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it is time to prepare for the future and ensure that the American military, although a bit smaller in size, remains second to none.