Over the past several days, I have shared both several observations from my most recent trip to Afghanistan as well as a few things I think that policy makers in Washington can do to help the war effort. Today, I am going to return to a few themes I have dealt with in the media and on the blog but in a different format. A picture is worth a thousand words, and maybe these graphic representations, taken from my field notebook, can help explain how I view the conflict.
Most of these graphs were drawn in the course of a conversation I had with Col. Joe Felter, who is one of my heroes. Joe led a platoon from 3rd Rangers in Panama before becomming a Special Forces officer in 1st Group and earning his doctorate in political science from Stanford. (Here (.pdf) is an example of Joe being really smart.)
(Fig. 1) I drew this graph, which will be familiar to many, to illustrate a dynamic that frequently takes place in international interventions. The x axis is time, while the "$" on the y axis represents the financial committment of the international community, and the "C" represents the capacity of the host nation to effectively absorb and administer international aid. As we progress along the x axis, funding drops off while capacity increases, leaving a shortfall toward the tail end of the intervention. The shaded part, meanwhile, demonstrates where corruption, waste and fraud is likely to take place. In Afghanistan, we are in the shaded section of the graph at the moment, which is one of the reasons I wish we could decrease international aid and bank some of it for the future.
(Fig. 2) This represents the "normal" theory for violence in an insurgency. The x axis maps control, and the y axis represents levels of violence. When an area is under the control of either the government or the insurgency, there is very little violence. It's when an area is contested that we have violence. This is one of the reasons why violence can be a poor metric for success or failure. Kandahar, Helmand and Kunar Provinces account for 65% of the violence in Afghanistan, but the former two provinces have arguably been in the process of falling toward government control. Ghazni Province, by contrast, is not that violent these days, relatively speaking, but I think that is in part due to the fact that it is, based on reports, in large part under Taliban control. (Mea culpa, I have admittedly used the lack of violence in northern Afghanistan as part of an argument that things might not be as bad there as reports suggest, but of course there are other things, such as a large Tajik population, that serve to limit Taliban gains. And yes, I do know the Taliban has enlisted support from some Tajiks, but this is limited as far as I can tell. My thoughts on northern Afghanistan are probably a whole 'nother blog post.)
(Fig. 3) This is my big worry for the "normal" theory as it applies to Afghanistan. What if, even after getting an area under the control of the government, we never really pacify it because the behavior of the government itself is in part driving the conflict? Insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan might also distort the normal theory by thwarting security gains. (I should also say something about the fact that the normal theory assumes the conflict is binary and that the insurgency and government are both unitary actors, which is not the case in Afghanistan.)
(Fig. 4) Ignore this. Joe and I were merely discussing some stuff in Iraq that has only minimal relevance to Afghanistan. Oh, and those big blue blocks are where I censored some of my notes, which includes names and phone numbers and such.
A friend of mine pointed out this passage in the press conference with Sec. Gates. This is about as clear an articulation of U.S. and allied goals as you will read:
SEC. GATES: I think part of -- I think the key here is identifying our objectives carefully. What do we need to accomplish to achieve our goals? Our goal isn't -- as the president said, our goal isn't to build a 21st century Afghanistan. Our goal is not a country that is free of corruption, which would be unique in the entire region. Our goal -- our goal is -- what is necessary, in my view -- our goal is: What do we need to do, along with our partners and the Afghans, to turn back the Taliban's military and violent capabilities to the degree that the Afghan government forces can deal with them, and to provide some minimal capability at the local, district and provincial level for security, for dispute resolution, for perhaps a clinic within an hour's walk?
What we are trying to work our way toward is what are -- what -- just what do we have to do to be able to turn over security responsibility to the Afghans, with us in the background and perhaps -- and a train-and-equip mission like we've increasingly taken on in Iraq?
And I think one of the things that the administration has done -- and frankly, one of the benefits of the protracted review a year ago and the review that we've just been through -- is keeping us focused on not getting too ambitious and not setting goals that we can't achieve, and trying to have a minimalist approach that focuses on al- Qaida and on the Taliban and on Afghan capabilities, both military and civilian.
The civilian piece is a challenge, there's no question about it. But we've got 1,100 U.S. civilians; we have thousands of partner civilians in Afghanistan working to help provide that capital.
And I would say it's important to have it not just in the central government in Kabul but to have it at some minimal level also at the local district/provincial level. And one of the virtues of the local police initiatives that we're seeing, the local security initiatives, is that they are empowered by the local tribal elders or the shuras. And so they're taking leadership of this. And as far as I'm concerned, if that can provide security for that village or that area, we've accomplished our objectives.
Sometimes I wish I were just in the "Pointing Out All the Things Going Wrong in Afghanistan" business. Part of my job responsibilities, though, include being in the solutions business. Accordingly, and to mark the release of the much hyped December review, I posted commentary on Foreign Policy last night outlining five concrete ways in which policy makers, legislators and intelligence officials in Washington, DC can help the war effort in Afghanistan. I am going to cross-post the meat of the recommendations below, though you can view the original here. I tried to get a little creative, though I should point out that all of these suggestions grew in at least in part out of conversations I had with folks in Afghanistan this month. (Per usual, I steal all my best ideas from smarter people.) The views expressed below do not represent the views of ISAF, I should hasten to add, though they probably do represent the views of many frustrated civilian analysts and junior officers doing the heavy lifting in this war.
1. Cut Funding for the War
This may seem a bit counterintuitive, to say the least. But right now, the massive amount of money flowing into Kabul is fueling the conflict. In a bizarre way, both the Taliban and the Afghan government currently have an interest in perpetuating this conflict: Both parties are making millions of dollars from the aid and development money saturating the country. These funds are distorting incentives and presenting ample opportunities for kickbacks, bribes, and other forms of corruption. It is little wonder Transparency International rates Afghanistan the world's third most corrupt nation.
The United States and its allies should only spend the money in Afghanistan they can properly manage and oversee. They should also focus on developing ways to spend resources more wisely in Afghanistan. One way to do so -- and here any congressional aides reading this should grab a notebook and pen -- would be to allow aid and development funds not spent in one fiscal year to roll over to the next. Well-constructed aid programs, such as Afghanistan's National Solidarity Program, have trusts established that allow funds not spend in one year to be spent later. But within the U.S. government, that's not the case: Money not spent is lost from year to year.
Military officers, for example, are familiar with the concept of the "SPENDEX," where all ammunition not used in the course of the year is fired -- sometimes wildly -- at the end of a fiscal year, so ammunition allotted for the next year is not cut. The same principle applies to aid -- but instead of wasting bullets, the organizations waste dollars. Rather than face the prospect of reduced development funds in the future, development and military officers are under pressure to spend every penny they are given. But doing so simply feeds the Afghanistan's distorted economy, which only benefits the insurgency and corrupt Afghan officials. We must first fix the perverse incentives in our own system in order to fix those in Afghanistan.
2. Compromise on Combat Enablers
Every day, the president is faced with the difficult task of determining how many resources should be expended on foreign engagements when compared with competing domestic priorities. Obama has decided to implement a soft "cap" on troop numbers in Afghanistan, limiting troops deployed to the number he and the Department of Defense agreed upon in the fall of 2009.
At the same time, however, the president and his team should be flexible enough to support the commanders in eastern and southern Afghanistan with the critical "enablers" they need to be successful tactically. More than anything else, our field commanders need more heavy-lift rotary-wing assets in Afghanistan. With a limited supply of helicopters, it is incredible difficult to operate in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. The president should commit more CH-47 helicopters to Afghanistan immediately, even if he has to "trade" David Petraeus an infantry battalion in order to keep the overall number of troops more or less the same. The military also needs more intelligence platforms, including drones and observation blimps. Finally, the development of local security programs like the Afghan Local Police could be sped up if more Special Forces A-Teams were committed to the effort.
3. Reinvent, Don't Replace, the Special Envoy
Trying to replace a diplomatic giant like the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is a fool's errand. The president should not even try. But he will still need officials responsible for coordinating U.S. policy between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The comparatively low-key acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Frank Ruggiero, should keep Holbrooke's team in place to do just that.
As far as the regional "super envoy" job that Holbrooke attempted to fill (with mixed success, it must be said), it might be best left to a respected United Nations diplomat -- such as Lakhdar Brahimi, who had earlier successes enlisting the support of Afghanistan's neighbors. State Department officials and CENTCOM commander James Mattis, along with envoys in Kabul and Islamabad, could then be used to properly allocate diplomatic and military resources between the two countries.
In Afghanistan, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry is likely headed home soon. The president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should spend more time searching for his replacement than trying to replace Holbrooke. I'm sure Gen. Petraeus would appreciate an attempt to lure former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker out of semi-retirement and back to the region.
4. Find and Pressure Dual Citizens
Analysts regularly note how difficult it is to apply pressure to corrupt Afghan officials and local power brokers. However, many of these officials possess citizenship in countries other than Afghanistan or have children residing in other countries. To my knowledge, no effort has been made to compile a list of these individuals and use the laws of the United States and other Western countries to prosecute corrupt officials outside Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence agencies should busy themselves compiling this list immediately.
There is a precedent for this approach. Mahmood Karzai, brother of the Afghan president and an American citizen, is currently the subject of a federal corruption probe in New York. Western governments can surely build cases against other Afghan political actors judged to be involved with illicit activity -- or at least use the threat of investigations as a source of leverage over them. For many Afghan power brokers and their families, a Western passport is their escape plan from Afghanistan should the country descend into a chaotic civil war. U.S. intelligence services should pressure these power brokers to act responsibly today by endangering their plans for tomorrow.
5. Go Long
Afghans live in fear that the international community will abandon them. Although the Taliban is unpopular, normal Afghans are just trying to survive, waiting to see how this conflict will turn out. Pakistan, meanwhile, is hedging its bets, supporting proxy actors like the Quetta Shura Taliban and Haqqani Network that might counter Indian interests in Kabul after the United States and its allies eventually withdraw. The insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan are one of the two Achilles heels in the NATO strategy, the other being governance in Afghanistan.
One way the United States might counter both Afghan fears as well as Pakistani predictions is by signaling a long-term military commitment to Afghanistan. As the United States and its allies transition from a resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, we should be prepared to leave behind 25,000 to 35,000 special operations forces and trainers beyond 2014. Afghan leaders, including President Hamid Karzai, have long desired a concrete U.S. security commitment to Afghanistan. Such a residual force will both protect U.S. interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia after the departure of the bulk of U.S. and NATO troops, and will also signal to Pakistan that their strategy of employing hard-to-control violent extremist groups poses a larger long-term threat to Pakistan's stability than it does to the government in Kabul.
Finally, if you really can't get enough of my commentary on Afghanistan, here I am on the Diane Rehm Show yesterday. I got a little testy when one guest made some statements about the insurgency without backing them up with hard evidence. But looking back, I really should have apologized for being somewhat rude.
A few weeks ago, I asked for some help from the readership in compiling suggested readings for company and field grade officers about to deploy to Afghanistan. The response I received was overwhelming, and there is simply no way I can include all the wonderful and varied texts suggested by officers on the ground in Afghanistan, veterans of the conflict there, civilian researchers, journalists and amateur students of Afghanistan and the conflict. My original intent was to write this post before leaving myself for a two-week trip to Afghanistan, but I am glad I waited to write this upon my return. This is hardly an exhaustive list but is rather stuff you can actually find the time to read in between rehearsing small unit battle drills and filling out your life insurance forms. Enjoy, because all of the works listed below are genuinely fun to read.
Afghanistan: Its History and its Peoples
If you only read just one thing ...
... read Barfield's Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. Witty, learned, well written, this is the single-volume introduction to Afghanistan that all officers deploying to Afghanistan should read. I heard David Petraeus himself say he has "a lot of time for [Barfield]," and this book was on his shelf as well as the desks of half his staff.
And if you have a little more time ...
... I really love the two books by David B. Edwards. Heroes of the Age: Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier is my favorite, but Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad will be most relevant to military officers.
Your (primary) Adversary
If you only read just one thing ...
... read Ahmed Rashid's Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. This was the only book I read on Afghanistan before deploying there as a young rifle platoon leader in early 2002. I was sent to Kuwait just after the 11 September attacks and read Taliban while there. It has since been updated, but looking back on it, my otherwise incurious 23-year old self did well to pick this one out and have relatives send it to me.
And if you have a little more time ...
... I recommend you introduce yourself to the work of Antonio Giustozzi. I read and enjoyed Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-2007, but you're best off reading chapters of his latest edited volume, Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field. You should also seek to introduce yourself, scholarly speaking, to the insurgency where you will be operating. Martine van Bijlert is very good on the insurgency in Uruzgan, for example, while Anand Gopal is worth reading on Kandahar. Others, obviously, have written well on other areas in conflict, and you should take a little initiative and reach out to people at places like the Afghan Analysts Network for help in learning about the area into which you will deploy.
If you only read just one thing ...
... read David Galula's Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. No single volume can ever prepare you for fighting low-intensity or limited conflicts. And counterinsurgency theory sadly remains more a collection of assumptions and "best practices" based on historical experience rather than empirically tested lessons that can be applied to new conflict environments. That having been said, fighting a counterinsurgency is more about having the right mentality than executing a step-by-step playbook. It's about education, not training. The training you do for counterinsurgency should look a lot like the training you would do for conventional warfare: small unit battle drills, marksmanship, physical fitness, and medical skills training. But spending a Sunday afternoon with Galula's slim volume will do more to get you in the right frame of mind for fighting an insurgency than anything else you will read.
And if you have a little more time ...
... read The Logic of Violence in Civil War by Stathis Kalyvas and The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. The former will make you think more critically about the latter as well as a bunch of assumptions that continue to underpin our strategy and operations in Afghanistan.
The people of Afghanistan are the result of a particular set of geographical and historical circumstances. They are sui generis. So too are you. Know how unique and, to the Afghan perspective, how weird you really are.
If you only read just one thing ...
... this essay by Mark Lilla will get you thinking about how unique we Westerners are in having, among other things, this curious separation of church and state. There is a lot of intellectual history packed into this short essay, adapted from a longer book that someone should buy Sarah Palin for Christmas.
And if you have a little more time ...
... Hilary Mantel's historical novel of the English Reformation will reinforce some of the themes in Lilla's essay and is fun to read as well. Don't shy from reading other good books of intellectual and religious history of the United States and the West while you are in Afghanistan. It always helps, when studying another culture, to know your own and recognize its quirks as well.
If you are not one of the 500+ people coming to this afternoon's event featuring Bob Woodward, Dave Barno and yours truly, you can watch it live on C-SPAN at 1:30 p.m. or by following this link to the C-SPAN website. Read the report here (.pdf). You will want to watch this event live, because I have just gotten off a plane from Kabul via Dubai, am severely jet-lagged, and just may say some ridiculously crazy stuff. The support staff here at CNAS is trying to determine exactly how much coffee I can ingest between now and 1:30 p.m., so count on me to either fall of the dais or be particularly intemperate/amusing in my remarks. (Oh, and I have not trimmed my beard in a month. Nate said I could not henna the thing, but I think it would have been awesome if I had.)
I landed at Dulles this morning at 5:15 having just returned from Kabul and read the news of Richard Holbrooke's passing just after the plane touched down. I am not sure what will become of the position of Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. If one tries to replace Holbrooke the man, it will be difficult. You would have to drag Ryan Crocker out of retirement or something. But maybe the position will evolve into something different -- less a "super envoy" and more a D.C. coordination cell for U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Regardless, I join others in mourning the loss of a true and tireless public servant.
As readers of this blog know, I have been in Afghanistan for the past 10 days wandering around the country, speaking to everyone from Afghan government officials to aid workers to NATO military officers to Afghan policemen to Afghan parliamentarians to ... you get the point. I will be here for another few days hanging out with some journalists and civilian researchers in Kabul to hear their take on the war and the greater political situation before heading back to the United States next week.
The purpose of this post is to highlight some initial observations, which I will then explore in greater detail in further blog posts beginning next week. I have not yet finished gathering evidence, but I have spent all the time I am going to spend outside Kabul and with Afghan and NATO military units, and I do not expect these initial observations to change too much between now and the time I depart.
Bottom Line Up Front: There is cause for much encouragement about the way in which this conflict is being fought at the tactical and operational levels. There is an equal amount of cause for pessimism when confronted with remaining strategic obstacles, both of which concern the insurgency's ability to regenerate.
Caveat Emptor: First, I analyze this conflict as a specialist in small wars and insurgencies -- not as an expert in the culture, peoples and history of Afghanistan. So I am strongest, if I may say so, in my analysis of security conditions and weakest in terms of my analysis of political trends or Afghan culture. Second, I traveled here as an invited guest of the ISAF command, which asked me to provide feedback on NATO operations. The command gave me all the support I desired to see the things I wanted to see, but of course the reason I am staying an extra few days to speak to people outside the ISAF "bubble" is because I understand how the ISAF "lens" is only one of many lenses through which one can analyze this conflict. (Which is one of the reasons they bring in mischievous outsiders like me to question their assumptions in the first place.)
I'll start with the many, many good things I have seen while here. (All of this, of course, is based on a limited but considerable sample size.):
1. Our intelligence at the tactical level is greatly improved. Eighteen months ago, as I traveled around Afghanistan for the former commander here, intelligence officers were outstanding in terms of providing information on the enemy: size, disposition, composition, most likely course of action, etc. When it came to providing political intelligence on "white actors" or explaining local tribal dynamics, though, most intelligence officers did not have much to offer. What a difference 18 months makes. This time around, when an intelligence officer began a briefing, he or she usually began by explaining the human geography of their area of operations and only later focused on the insurgency as a part of that human geography. I am so impressed with how sophisticated the analysis provided by intelligence officers today is when compared with not too long ago.
2. Counterinsurgency, as practiced at the tactical level, is the best I have ever seen it practiced. Again, I was tremendously impressed with some of the battalions I spent time with. Yesterday, Ranger Jeff Martindale took me up and down the Arghandab River Valley and allowed me to spend some time with one of his companies. I came away really impressed with the company commander, the ODA team leader, the platoon leaders, and the noncommissioned officers fighting in the northern ARV. Really, really sophisticated, and in high spirits as they're going about their work. This was an armored company doing this mission in the light infantry country of the ANV, so their efforts were all the more impressive for that. As an aside, I'll concede that this armor unit is probably losing some of their gunnery skills while in Afghanistan. But make no mistake: U.S. combat arms units are doing a lot of killing of the Taliban in Afghanistan and running the kind of complex, kinetic operations that would knock the socks of a JRTC O/C. So this idea that U.S. soldiers have lost their "warrior spirit" on account of counterinsurgency or have forgotten how to fight conventionally is nonsense. These men are calling for fire, coordinating assaults, and killing Taliban every day of the week under conditions worlds more demanding than anything a U.S. unit went through at the NTC or JRTC in the 1990s. Anyone who thinks U.S. soldiers sit around passing out Snickers bars all day as part of counterinsurgency operations needs to visit the Arghandab.
3. The coordination between special operations forces and general purpose forces is the best I have ever seen it. This applies across the entire theater. I have been traveling with Col. (Ret.) Pete Mansoor, and I have been joking with Pete, who was a brigade commander in Iraq when I was a Ranger platoon leader there, how far we have come from the days when I used to make his life so miserable by conducting late-night raids and leaving him the mess to clean up. SOF and GPF are fighting one fight -- and they are together having a devastating effect on the leadership of the insurgency. Simply stunning.
Now for the bad news:
1. We have two "Achilles heels" in the current strategy: Afghan governance and insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan. What these two weaknesses have in common is their combined effect on the ability of insurgent ranks, which have been decimated this year, to regenerate either through sanctuaries (to include external support) or by exploiting grievances caused by bad governance. I'm going to be honest and say that I do not see a coherent or otherwise effective strategy for dealing with the sanctuaries in Pakistan. I do not see it anywhere in the U.S. government or within NATO, whose writ only extends to the borders of Afghanistan anyway. With respect to governance, I have seen some isolated rays of hope at the local level, but it is easy to see how, as long as Afghans consider their country the third most corrupt country on Earth and look elsewhere for the rule of law, insurgents will continue to recruit and recover their losses.
2. We might not be taking governance as seriously as we should if we want to win. If I were to land in Afghanistan having never visited before and were asked what the international community values in terms of its objectives, I would argue that based on what I can observe -- to include the metrics tracked and the resources allocated -- killing the enemy is vastly more important than fixing local governance. That may be okay, but a lot of smart analysts argue that we have thus far failed in Afghanistan because we have not taken governance seriously enough.
3. The interests of the international community and the interests of GIRoA might seriously diverge as we begin to transition. Transition, for the United States and others, means turning over responsibility for the security of Afghanistan. Transition, as I am hearing Afghans explain it, means creating a functional state with the infrastructure to support its economic growth and meet the expectations of its people. Someone, I suspect, is going to end up really disappointed. No prizes for guessing who.
Again, I will expand on all of this in posts next week and will also explore other topics. Take this analysis for what it is worth and in light of the caveats I supplied up front as well as any others you can think of.
Finally, there has been some silly analysis arguing that my most recent report for CNAS is a Palin-esque refudiation of counterinsurgency. I am sorry to upset my critics further, but I have never been so confident that "getting the inputs right" in 2009 (and to borrow a favorite phrase of Gen. Petraeus) was the right decision by the president and his national security staff. My paper written with Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Dave Barno is both a) a recognition that counterinsurgency does not take place in a resource vacuum and that you cannot sustain it indefinitely and that b) we have to start thinking seriously about both how we are going to transition between now and 2014 and how we protect U.S. interests beyond 2014. (Pres. Obama: "I want to start leaving in July 2011." Pres. Karzai: "I want full sovereignty by 2014." My job: To figure out how to make all that happen.) I thought that was clear, as did my friend Gulliver, with whom I have often sparred on this war. But maybe it was not. That having been said, I completely agree with a CT strategy for Afghanistan. Just, you know, in 2014 -- and after setting the necessary conditions.
A few months ago, LTG (Ret.) Dave Barno and I sat down to try and figure out how the U.S. military and its NATO allies might transition from a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan to something less resource-intensive between July 2011, when the president envisions U.S. troops beginning a withdrawal, and 2014, when Hamid Karzai wants the government of Afghanistan to have full sovereignty over its territory. The result of our thinking is a new report that will be released this week [update: read it here] and formally rolled out next week in an event at the Newseum moderated by Bob Woodward. The purpose of this post is to get you all to sign up for the event, which you can do by following the link. (Act now: we already have 300+ RSVPs.)
I am actually in Afghanistan myself at the moment, traveling around the country speaking with U.S. and allied military officers, Afghan politicians and military officers, locally based journalists, civilian researchers, NGO representatives, and many others. (As usual, plenty of people on my travels thus far have stopped me to introduce themselves and say how much they enjoy this blog, which is humbling and appreciated.) I am scheduled to arrive back in the United States about eight hours before the event, so my beard will be long, my hair unkempt, and my observations fresh. Please join us.
[For those who will not be able to make the event, I will write several long blog posts on my observations here between now and Christmas.]
The researchers here at CNAS are often asked by company-grade and field-grade officers about to deploy to Afghanistan for tips on what they should read prior to deploying. I am going to post a reading list on the Afghanistan page of the CNAS website, but before I do that, I want to solicit opinions from the blog's readers: Have you deployed to Afghanistan? What books or articles did you find particularly informative? Leave suggestions in the comments section, please. Thanks. This will no doubt be of especial use to young lieutenants and captains.
On Tuesday, 9 November 2010, 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, USMC, was killed in Afghanistan. Four days later, his father, Lt. Gen. John Kelly, USMC, gave the following speech. He did not mention his own son's death. He tells the story of two other Marines instead.
This is powerful stuff. Semper Fidelis.
Nine years ago two of the four commercial aircraft took off from Boston, Newark, and Washington. Took off fully loaded with men, women and children—all innocent, and all soon to die. These aircraft were targeted at the World Trade Towers in New York, the Pentagon, and likely the Capitol in Washington, D.C.. Three found their mark. No American alive old enough to remember will ever forget exactly where they were, exactly what they were doing, and exactly who they were with at the moment they watched the aircraft dive into the World Trade Towers on what was, until then, a beautiful morning in New York City. Within the hour 3,000 blameless human beings would be vaporized, incinerated, or crushed in the most agonizing ways imaginable. The most wretched among them—over 200—driven mad by heat, hopelessness, and utter desperation leapt to their deaths from 1,000 feet above Lower Manhattan. We soon learned hundreds more were murdered at the Pentagon, and in a Pennsylvania farmer’s field.
Once the buildings had collapsed and the immensity of the attack began to register most of us had no idea of what to do, or where to turn. As a nation, we were scared like we had not been scared for generations. Parents hugged their children to gain as much as to give comfort. Strangers embraced in the streets stunned and crying on one another’s shoulders seeking solace, as much as to give it. Instantaneously, American patriotism soared not “as the last refuge” as our national-cynical class would say, but in the darkest times Americans seek refuge in family, and in country, remembering that strong men and women have always stepped forward to protect the nation when the need was dire—and it was so God awful dire that day—and remains so today.
There was, however, a small segment of America that made very different choices that day…actions the rest of America stood in awe of on 9/11 and every day since. The first were our firefighters and police, their ranks decimated that day as they ran towards—not away from—danger and certain death. They were doing what they’d sworn to do—“protect and serve”—and went to their graves having fulfilled their sacred oath. Then there was you Armed Forces, and I know I am a little biased in my opinion here, but the best of them are Marines. Most wearing the Eagle, Globe and Anchor today joined the unbroken ranks of American heroes after that fateful day not for money, or promises of bonuses or travel to exotic liberty ports, but for one reason and one reason alone; because of the terrible assault on our way of life by men they knew must be killed and extremist ideology that must be destroyed. A plastic flag in their car window was not their response to the murderous assault on our country. No, their response was a commitment to protect the nation swearing an oath to their God to do so, to their deaths. When future generations ask why America is still free and the heyday of Al Qaeda and their terrorist allies was counted in days rather than in centuries as the extremists themselves predicted, our hometown heroes—soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines—can say, “because of me and people like me who risked all to protect millions who will never know my name.”
As we sit here right now, we should not lose sight of the fact that America is at risk in a way it has never been before. Our enemy fights for an ideology based on an irrational hatred of who we are. Make no mistake about that no matter what certain elements of the “chattering class” relentlessly churn out. We did not start this fight, and it will not end until the extremists understand that we as a people will never lose our faith or our courage. If they persist, these terrorists and extremists and the nations that provide them sanctuary, they must know they will continue to be tracked down and captured or killed. America’s civilian and military protectors both here at home and overseas have for nearly nine years fought this enemy to a standstill and have never for a second “wondered why.” They know, and are not afraid. Their struggle is your struggle. They hold in disdain those who claim to support them but not the cause that takes their innocence, their limbs, and even their lives. As a democracy—“We the People”—and that by definition is every one of us—sent them away from home and hearth to fight our enemies. We are all responsible. I know it doesn’t apply to those of us here tonight but if anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service, and not support the cause for which they fight—America’s survival—then they are lying to themselves and rationalizing away something in their lives, but, more importantly, they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to the nation.
Since this generation’s “day of infamy” the American military has handed our ruthless enemy defeat-after-defeat but it will go on for years, if not decades, before this curse has been eradicated. We have done this by unceasing pursuit day and night into whatever miserable lair Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their allies, might slither into to lay in wait for future opportunities to strike a blow at freedom. America’s warriors have never lost faith in their mission, or doubted the correctness of their cause. They face dangers everyday that their countrymen safe and comfortable this night cannot imagine. But this has always been the case in all the wars our military have been sent to fight. Not to build empires, or enslave peoples, but to free those held in the grip of tyrants while at the same time protecting our nation, its citizens, and our shared values. And, ladies and gentlemen, think about this, the only territory we as a people have ever asked for from any nation we have fought alongside, or against, since our founding, the entire extent of our overseas empire, as a few hundred acres of land for the 24 American cemeteries scattered around the globe. It is in these cemeteries where 220,000 of our sons and daughters rest in glory for eternity, or are memorialized forever because their earthly remains are lost forever in the deepest depths of the oceans, or never recovered from far flung and nameless battlefields. As a people, we can be proud because billions across the planet today live free, and billions yet unborn will also enjoy the same freedom and a chance at prosperity because America sent its sons and daughters out to fight and die for them, as much as for us.
Yes, we are at war, and are winning, but you wouldn’t know it because successes go unreported, and only when something does go sufficiently or is sufficiently controversial, it is highlighted by the media elite that then sets up the “know it all” chattering class to offer their endless criticism. These self-proclaimed experts always seem to know better---but have never themselves been in the arena. We are at war and like it or not, that is a fact. It is not Bush’s war, and it is not Obama’s war, it is our war and we can’t run away from it. Even if we wanted to surrender, there is no one to surrender to. Our enemy is savage, offers absolutely no quarter, and has a single focus and that is either kill every one of us here at home, or enslave us with a sick form of extremism that serves no God or purpose that decent men and women could ever grasp. St Louis is as much at risk as is New York and Washington, D.C.. Given the opportunity to do another 9/11, our merciless enemy would do it today, tomorrow, and every day thereafter. If, and most in the know predict that it is only a matter of time, he acquires nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, these extremists will use these weapons of mass murder against us without a moment’s hesitation. These butchers we fight killed more than 3,000 innocents on 9/11. As horrible as that death toll was, consider for a moment that the monsters that organized those strikes against New York and Washington, D.C. killed only 3,000 not because that was enough to make their sick and demented point, but because he couldn’t figure out how to kill 30,000, or 300,000, or 30 million of us that terrible day. I don’t know why they hate us, and I don’t care. We have a saying in the Marine Corps and that is “no better friend, no worse enemy, than a U.S. Marine.” We always hope for the first, friendship, but are certainly more than ready for the second. If its death they want, its death they will get, and the Marines will continue showing them the way to hell if that’s what will make them happy.
Because our America hasn’t been successfully attacked since 9/11 many forget because we want to forget…to move on. As Americans we all dream and hope for peace, but we must be realistic and acknowledge that hope is never an option or course of action when the stakes are so high. Others are less realistic or less committed, or are working their own agendas, and look for way sot blame past presidents or in some other way to rationalize a way out of this war. The problem is our enemy is not willing to let us go. Regardless of how much we wish this nightmare would go away, our enemy will stay forever on the offensive until he hurts us so badly we surrender, or we kill him first. To him, this is not about our friendship with Israel, or about territory, resources, jobs, or economic opportunity in the Middle East. No, it is about us as a people. About our freedom to worship any God we please in any way we want. It is about the worth of every man, and the worth of every woman, and their equality in the eyes of God and the law; of how we live our lives with our families, inside the privacy of our own homes. It’s about the God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable right.” As Americans we hold these truths to be self-evident. He doesn’t. We love what we have; he despises who we are. Our positions can never be reconciled. He cannot be deterred…only defeated. Compromise is out of the question.
It is a fact that our country today is in a life and death struggle against an evil enemy, but America as a whole is certainly not at war. Not as a country. Not as a people. Today, only a tiny fraction—less than a percent—shoulder the burden of fear and sacrifice, and they shoulder it for the rest of us. Their sons and daughters who serve are men and women of character who continue to believe in this country enough to put life and limb on the line without qualification, and without thought of personal gain, and they serve so that the sons and daughters of the other 99% don’t have to. No big deal, though, as Marines have always been “the first to fight” paying in full the bill that comes with being free…for everyone else.
The comforting news for every American is that our men and women in uniform, and every Marine, is as good today as any in our history. As good as what their heroic, under-appreciated, and largely abandoned fathers and uncles were in Vietnam, and their grandfathers were in Korea and World War II. They have the same steel in their backs and have made their own mark etching forever places like Ramadi, Fallujah, and Baghdad, Iraq, and Helmand and Sagin, Afghanistan that are now part of the legend and stand just as proudly alongside Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, Inchon, Hue City, Khe Sanh, and Ashau Velley, Vietnam. None of them have every asked what their country could do for them, but always and with their lives asked what they could do for America. While some might think we have produced yet another generation of materialistic, consumeristic and self-absorbed young people, those who serve today have broken the mold and stepped out as real men, and real women, who are already making their own way in life while protecting ours. They know the real strength of a platoon, a battalion, or a country that is not worshiping at the altar of diversity, but in a melting point that stitches and strengthens by a sense of shared history, values, customs, hopes and dreams all of which unifies a people making them stronger, as opposed to an unruly gaggle of “hyphenated” or “multi-cultural individuals.”
And what are they like in combat in this war? Like Marines have been throughout our history. In my three tours in combat as an infantry officer and commanding general, I never saw one of them hesitate, or do anything other than lean into the fire and with no apparent fear of death or injury take the fight to our enemies. As anyone who has ever experienced combat knows, when it starts, when the explosions and tracers are everywhere and the calls for the Corpsman are screamed from the throats of men who know they are dying—when seconds seem like hours and it all becomes slow motion and fast forward at the same time—and the only rational act is to stop, get down, save yourself—they don’t. When no one would call them coward for cowering behind a wall or in a hole, slave to the most basic of all human instincts—survival—none of them do. It doesn’t matter if it’s an IED, a suicide bomber, mortar attack, sniper, fighting in the upstairs room of a house, or all of it at once; they talk, swagger, and, most importantly, fight today in the same way America’s Marines have since the Tun Tavern. They also know whose shoulders they stand on, and they will never shame any Marine living or dead.
We can also take comfort in the fact that these young Americans are not born killers, but are good and decent young men and women who for going on ten years have performed remarkable acts of bravery and selflessness to a cause they have decided is bigger and more important than themselves. Only a few months ago they were delivering your paper, stocking shelves in the local grocery store, worshiping in church on Sunday, or playing hockey on local ice. Like my own two sons who are Marines and have fought in Iraq, and today in Sagin, Afghanistan, they are also the same kids that drove their cars too fast for your liking, and played the God-awful music of their generation too loud, but have no doubt they are the finest of their generation. Like those who went before them in uniform, we owe them everything. We owe them our safety. We owe them our prosperity. We owe them our freedom. We owe them our lives. Any one of them could have done something more self-serving with their lives as the vast majority of their age group elected to do after high school and college, but no, they chose to serve knowing full well a brutal war was in their future. They did not avoid the basic and cherished responsibility of a citizen—the defense of country—they welcomed it. They are the very best this country produces, and have put every one of us ahead of themselves. All are heroes for simply stepping forward, and we as a people owe a debt we can never fully pay. Their legacy will be of selfless valor, the country we live in, the way we live our lives, and the freedoms the rest of their countrymen take for granted.
Over 5,000 have died thus far in this war; 8,000 if you include the innocents murdered on 9/11. They are overwhelmingly working class kids, the children of cops and firefighters, city and factory workers, school teachers and small business owners. With some exceptions they are from families short on stock portfolios and futures, but long on love of country and service to the nation. Just yesterday, too many were lost and a knock on the door late last night brought their families to their knees in a grief that will never-ever go away. Thousands more have suffered wounds since it all started, but like anyone who loses life or limb while serving others—including our firefighters and law enforcement personnel who on 9/11 were the first casualties of this war—they are not victims as they knew what they were about, and were doing what they wanted to do. The chattering class and all those who doubt America’s intentions, and resolve, endeavor to make them and their families out to be victims, but they are wrong. We who have served and are serving refuse their sympathy. Those of us who have lived in the dirt, sweat and struggle of the arena are not victims and will have none of that. Those with less of a sense of service to the nation never understand it when men and women of character step forward to look danger and adversity straight in the eye, refusing to blink, or give ground, even to their own deaths. The protected can’t begin to understand the price paid so they and their families can sleep safe and free at night. No, they are not victims, but are warriors, your warriors, and warriors are never victims regardless of how and where they fall. Death, or fear of death, has no power over them. Their paths are paved by sacrifice, sacrifices they gladly make…for you. They prove themselves everyday on the field of battle…for you. They fight in every corner of the globe…for you. They live to fight…for you, and they never rest because there is always another battle to be won in the defense of America.
I will leave you with a story about the kind of people they are…about the quality of the steel in their backs…about the kind of dedication they bring to our country while they serve in uniform and forever after as veterans. Two years ago when I was the Commander of all U.S. and Iraqi forces, in fact, the 22nd of April 2008, two Marine infantry battalions, 1/9 “The Walking Dead,” and 2/8 were switching out in Ramadi. One battalion in the closing days of their deployment going home very soon, the other just starting its seven-month combat tour. Two Marines, Corporal Jonathan Yale and Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter, 22 and 20 years old respectively, one from each battalion, were assuming the watch together at the entrance gate of an outpost that contained a makeshift barracks housing 50 Marines. The same broken down ramshackle building was also home to 100 Iraqi police, also my men and our allies in the fight against the terrorists in Ramadi, a city until recently the most dangerous city on earth and owned by Al Qaeda. Yale was a dirt poor mixed-race kid from Virginia with a wife and daughter, and a mother and sister who lived with him and he supported as well. He did this on a yearly salary of less than $23,000. Haerter, on the other hand, was a middle class white kid from Long Islaned. They were from two completely different worlds. Had they not joined the Marines they would never have met each other, or understood that multiple America’s exist simultaneously depending on one’s race, education level, economic status, and where you might have been born. But they were Marines, combat Marines, forged in the same crucible of Marine training, and because of this bond they were brothers as close, or closer, than if they were born of the same woman.
The mission orders they received from the sergeant squad leader I am sure went something likfe: “Okay you two clowns, stand this post and let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass.” “You clear?” I am also sure Yale and Haerter then rolled their eyes and said in unison something like: “Yes Sergeant,” with just enough attitude that made the point without saying the words, “No kidding sweetheart, we know what we’re doing.” They then relieved two other Marines on watch and took up their post at the entry control point of Joint Security Station Nasser, in the Sophia section of Ramadi, al Anbar, Iraq.
A few minutes later a large blue truck turned down the alley way—perhaps 60-70 yards in length—and sped its way through the serpentine of concrete jersey walls. The truck stopped just short of where the two were posted and detonated, killing them both catastrophically. Twenty-four brick masonry houses were damaged or destroyed. A mosque 100 yards away collapsed. The truck’s engine came to rest two hundred yards away knocking most of a house down before it stopped. Our explosive experts reckoned the blast was made of 2,000 pounds of explosives. Two died, and because these two young infantrymen didn’t have it in their DNA to run from danger, they saved 150 of their Iraqi and American brothers-in-arms.
When I read the situation report about the incident a few hours after it happened I called the regimental commander for details as something about this struck me as different. Marines dying or being seriously wounded is commonplace in combat. We expect Marines regardless of rank or MOS to stand their ground and do their duty, and even die in the process, if that is what the mission takes. But this just seemed different. The regimental commander had just returned from the site and he agreed, but reported that there were no American witnesses to the event—just Iraqi police. I figured if there was any chance of finding out what actually happened and then to decorate the two Marines to acknowledge their bravery, I’d have to do it as a combat award that requires two eye-witnesses and we figured the bureaucrats back in Washington would never buy Iraqi statements. If it had any chance at all, it had to come under the signature of a general officer.
I traveled to Ramadi the next day and spoke individually to a half-dozen Iraqi police all of whom told the same story. The blue truck turned down into the alley and immediately sped up as it made its way through the serpentine. They all said, “We knew immediately what was going on as soon as the two Marines began firing.” The Iraqi police then related that some of them also fired, and then to a man, ran for safety just prior to the explosion. All survived. Many were injured…some seriously. One of the Iraqis elaborated and with tears welling up said, “They’d run like any normal man would to save his life.” “What he didn’t know until then,” he said, “and what he learned that very instant, was that Marines are not normal.” Choking past the emotion he said, “Sir, in the name of God no sane man would have stood there and done what they did.” “No sane man.” “They saved us all.”
What we didn’t know at the time, and only learned a couple of days later after I wrote a summary and submitted both Yale and Haerter for posthumous Navy Crosses, was that one of our security cameras, damaged initially in the blast, recorded some of the suicide attack. It happened exactly as the Iraqis had described it. It took exactly six seconds from when the truck entered the alley until it detonated.
You can watch the last six seconds of their young lives. Putting myself in their heads I supposed it took about a second for the two Marines to separately come to the same conclusion about what was going on once the truck came into their view at the far end of the alley. Exactly no time to talk it over, or call the sergeant to ask what they should do. Only enough time to take half an instant and think about what the sergeant told them to do only a few minutes before: “…let no unauthorized personnel or vehicles pass.” The two Marines had about five seconds left to live.
It took maybe another two seconds for them to present their weapons, take aim, and open up. By this time the truck was half-way through the barriers and gaining speed the whole time. Here, the recording shows a number of Iraqi police, some of whom had fired their AKs, now scattering like the normal and rational men they were—some running right past the Marines. They had three seconds left to live.
For about two seconds more, the recording shows the Marines’ weapons firing non-stop…the truck’s windshield exploding into shards of glass as their rounds take it apart and tore in to the body of the son-of-a-bitch who is trying to get past them to kill their brothers—American and Iraqi—bedded down in the barracks totally unaware of the fact that their lives at that moment depended entirely on two Marines standing their ground. If they had been aware, they would have know they were safe…because two Marines stood between them and a crazed suicide bomber. The recording shows the truck careening to a stop immediately in front of the two Marines. In all of the instantaneous violence Yale and Haerter never hesitated. By all reports and by the recording, they never stepped back. They never even started to step aside. They never even shifted their weight. With their feet spread should width apart, they leaned into the danger, firing as fast as they could work their weapons. They had only one second left to live.
The truck explodes. The camera goes blank. Two young men go to their God. Six seconds. Not enough time to think about their families, their country, their flag, or about their lives or their deaths, but more than enough time for two very brave young men to do their duty…into eternity. That is the kind of people who are on watch all over the world tonight—for you.
We Marines believe that God gave America the greatest gift he could bestow to man while he lived on this earth—freedom. We also believe he gave us another gift nearly as precious—our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines—to safeguard that gift and guarantee no force on this earth can every steal it away. It has been my distinct honor to have been with you here today. Rest assured our America, this experiment in democracy started over two centuries ago, will forever remain the “land of the free and home of the brave” so long as we never run out of tough young Americans who are willing to look beyond their own self-interest and comfortable lives, and go into the darkest and most dangerous places on earth to hunt down, and kill, those who would do us harm. God Bless America, and….SEMPER FIDELIS!