My friend is on his fourth and last deployment to Afghanistan assigned to a unit training the Afghan National Army. He had a WTF moment the other day when he boarded a Huey UH-H1 and flew over the Jalalabad Pass, “Is this Apocalypse Now?” I guess his disillusionment finally surfaced. Can you blame him? Riding in a Huey? I thought the fleet was officially retired from the Active inventory last October 2009! Appropriately, this seasoned warrior closed with “Savages Don’t Surf!” Very cheeky since “savage” is one of the more acceptable noms de guerre for the enemy in Afghanistan.
And the “…don’t surf” refers of course to Robert Duvall‘s LTC Kilgore telling Martin Sheen’s naïve Captain Willard, “Charlie don’t surf”—cleverly invoking a commander’s hubris and brazen disregard for danger in the pursuit of an objective to satisfy a whim.
Only missing was Wagner blasting out of loudspeakers as his slick flew to some dusty objective. But supercharged rhapsodies were playing in Kabul this week to “…scare the hell out of the Savages” while more happy talk ensued about Afghans and NATO being “shoulder to shoulder” and emerging as a lethal military force ready to assume security in late 2011. None of which bears any resemblance to the reports we’ve been receiving from concerned advisors and trainers on the ground.
LTG Jim Caldwell, commander of the NATO Training Mission, Combined Security Transition Command, leads the reforming and training of the Afghanistan National Security Forces. After nine months at the helm, Frontier 6—the General’s call sign—finally briefed the press this week and provided an assessment of this critical mission. Since early 2002, the training mission’s primary focus has been to develop infantry-centric skills. One would think that by now the “training wheels are off,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, independent Afghan operations have routinely been abysmal failures, the Afghans remain tethered to the US and NATO for logistic support and there’s a lack of effective intelligence capability, medical support and transportation units.
“Savages Don’t Surf” could be the indelible catch-phrase for what we’re trying to accomplish in Afghanistan before we finally withdraw. It’s as if LTG Caldwell, no matter his experience, talent, newly available resources and commitment from NATO partners, can only, at the end of the day, provide a temporary solution. The looming deadline in October 2011 to double the force and create stand-alone Afghan military units gives Frontier 6 only 14 months to field a legitimate Army before the clock runs out. Whatever fledgling Afghan force is cobbled together and deployed to the four winds to take on the complex and dangerous security mission that is counter-insurgency, the beach will not be safe without serious US combat support. Which means that whatever the tune playing from the podium, our sons and daughters are stuck indefinitely in this tar baby.
What’s so frustrating is that the command will never admit the inevitable perpetuation of the mission nor its futility. And even if someone ever does, we’ll never know because the Ride of the Valkyries will be drowning out the General. “Shall we dance?”—as the Huey pilot remarked to Robert Duvall—sounds about right. So why wait, we might as well crank up the volume and drown out the spin.