Byline: Bing West
There's a way out of Afghanistan, and it's not by winning more hearts and minds.
The end of the ground war in Afghanistan, already America's longest, remains years in the future. Even as he assures America that "we are on track to achieve our goals," President Obama has set 2014 for a complete handover of combat duties to local forces. Three factors have made the conflict so intractable--and two of them are beyond America's control. First is the sanctuary the Taliban enjoy just across the Pakistani border. Second is Afghanistan's wretched leadership.
The third factor, though, is the emphasis America's senior officers have placed on winning hearts and minds as an end in itself, rather than as a means to identifying and killing insurgents. This policy has sapped the warrior ethos and fostered risk aversion. Tasked with nation-building chores better suited to the Peace Corps, most conventional U.S. forces have seldom engaged the Taliban. Instead, Special Operations Forces--about 7 percent of the total U.S. strength--have accounted for most of the Taliban's losses.
Obama's surge of 30,000 troops has broken the Taliban's momentum. The biggest progress has been in Helmand province, where the Nawa district has been called the strategy's "proof of concept." Nawa, however, proved what Americans can do; it didn't prove what Afghans will do. In July 2009 I accompanied the first Marine patrols into Nawa. I stood by and listened as Sgt. Bill Cahir met with the elders of a dirt-poor village and promised them funds and protection. In return, he asked them to give the Taliban a message: "You're no longer welcome." The elders refused. A few weeks later Cahir was killed in a Taliban ambush nearby.
In the year and a half since, U.S. Marines have combined with Afghan soldiers to patrol the area relentlessly. They've recruited new members for the local police; arranged the dismissal of the old, unreliable police chief; and invested millions to improve villagers' lives. But none of the villagers has ever identified the Taliban in their midst who killed Sergeant Cahir.
In a recent survey of Nawa residents, 60 percent said that the Marine presence doesn't protect them, and that the Taliban should be given a place in the national government. …