Vets offer ground perspective on Afghanistan
Veterans of the war in Afghanistan offered divergent views on the so-called “long war” Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The veterans — three soldiers and a Marine — shared their experiences on the ground and debated the merits of President Barack Obama’s plans to increase troop levels in Afghanistan while drawing down forces in Iraq.
The hearing, chaired by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., came almost 38 years to the day after Kerry famously testified before the same committee against the Vietnam War. He acknowledged the similarities between the two conflicts, but underscored the need for lawmakers to hear from today’s combat veterans.
“History proves that soldiers on the ground have intimate knowledge that is vital to their commanders and to us as policymakers,” he said. “Our job this morning is to listen and learn from your perspective.”
Each of the soldiers endorsed the troop buildup in Afghanistan, saying it offers a chance to fix some of the strategic and tactical mistakes of the past.
“I realize that many of the goals that we set for ourselves at the onset of the war may no longer be fully achievable, but we must try to stabilize and secure Afghanistan before it slips further into violence,” said former Army Staff Sgt. Christopher McGurk, who served in eastern part of the country in 2003.
“I strongly believe that the mission in Afghanistan combined with our efforts in Pakistan was and is the true front in the war on terror, something I did not believe while fighting in Iraq,” McGurk said.
Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Genevieve Chase, who served as an intelligence soldier with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan in 2006, said troops should be allowed to extend their tours, if requested.
“In a culture where a man’s trust and respect is earned with time, loyalty and devotion to a cause, we rotate out units every six to 12 months,” she said.
She also said security missions should take priority over infrastructure projects.
“Although the concept of the [provincial reconstruction teams] was altruistic, their application has been hindered by a number of issues, all secondary to the lack of security,” she said. “What good sense does it make to build schools, provincial centers, bridges and wells when there is no support or security provided for the villagers to utilize them?”
Former Army Reserve Capt. Westley Moore, who served with the 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, in eastern Afghanistan in 2005, noted the differences between the battles there and in Iraq.
“Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is a very rural fight, and cannot be fought out of Kandahar or Kabul,” he said. “In Iraq, the saying was, ‘As goes Baghdad, so goes the rest of the country.’ This is not the case in Afghanistan.”
Moore also said the war will require continued political will and more manpower than the 17,000 additional service members expected to arrive this summer.
“The Taliban is executing a doctrine based on exhaustion, where their entire strategy depends on our political and national will faltering,” he said. “Many of them are fond of saying, ‘The Americans have the wristwatches, but we have the time.’ ”
Former Marine Cpl. Rick Reyes, a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, was the only one of the four to oppose escalating the war in Afghanistan.
“More troops, more war, is not the answer,” he said.
Reyes said during his tour in Afghanistan in 2001, translators were paid based on the number of tips they provided — a practice that yielded numerous suspects but few terrorists.
“I started to feel like we were chasing ghosts,” Reyes said. “How can you tell the difference between members of the Taliban from an Afghan civilian? You can’t.”
Still, Reyes agreed with his fellow witnesses that a complete withdrawal isn’t the answer, and that additional intelligence and civilian workers could benefit the military mission.
Retired Col. Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor who has written extensively about the military and national security, also testified and questioned the strategic value and long-term cost of the “long war.”
A West Point graduate who served in Vietnam and whose son, Andrew, was killed in Iraq in 2007, Bacevich also drew parallels to the Vietnam War.
“The mystical war against communism finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism,” he said. “As in the 1960s so, too, today: Mystification breeds misunderstanding and misjudgment. It prevents us from seeing things as they are.
“As a direct result, it leads us to exaggerate the importance of places like Afghanistan and indeed to exaggerate the jihadist threat, which falls well short of being existential. … With the long war already this nation’s second most expensive conflict, trailing only World War II, and with the federal government projecting trillion-dollar deficits for years go come, how much can we afford and where is the money coming from?”