You would think we’d have learned something from the ’80s when, thanks to Michael Vickers, the CIA’s elite Special Activities Division helped the Afghans drive out the Soviets. The tipping point came when we supplied the mujahideen with FIM-92 Stinger missile launchers that downed the killer Mi-24 Hind, Russian helicopters. We had no boots on the ground. It’s a case study of what a light footprint looks like.
Unfortunately, we haven’t applied this lesson in the current Afghan conflict. Osama bin Laden, the reason we’re in Afghanistan, was thought to be within our grasp eight years ago. Gary Berntsen served as the commander of all CIA forces in eastern Afghanistan and led the agency’s team in Tora Bora. In his book Jawbreaker, Berntsen alleges that Osama bin Laden could have been captured at Tora Bora if the U.S. military-specifically, United States Central Command-had devoted more resources to the operation. And in 1996, Clinton rebuffed Sudan’s offer to turn Osama bin Laden over to us while he was living in Sudan. So we apparently had bin Laden twice within five years.
Over $1 trillion has been spent on Iraq and Afghanistan. Nation building takes years and years of support in blood and money. In Afghanistan, Russia learned the hard way, and we’re doing the same. According to the CIA, there are 4,371,193 Afghan males fit for military service. About 100,000 serve in the Afghan military. There should be more. The CIA and Special Forces can help train a larger Afghan/Pakistani force. That’s assuming the Afghans even want our help.
You have to wonder why the Taliban continue to harbor al Qaeda. Because of al Qaeda and bin Laden, the Taliban lost control of their country. The Taliban had been ruling for years-a situation we didn’t seem to have a problem with. Do you think there is any real reason for loyalty between al Qaeda and the Taliban? There certainly shouldn’t be.
Money has a way of changing loyalties fast. The Taliban fight each other over territory and leadership roles. The chaos created when Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed proved this to be true. With the help of our intelligence, how hard would it be to turn these groups against each other, further weakening their alliance?
Afghans must take some blame for this mess. For one thing, they could learn to diversify their crop. Over 90% of the world’s heroin trade comes out of Afghanistan. Government officials looking to change the system are killed. The election was a fraud. There’s no motivation for change. Is that our responsibility? We are not dealing with a young, motivated population like we witnessed in Tehran. There is no Green Revolution in Afghanistan. With a mere $700 income per capita, Afghans are motivated by survival, not democracy.
In Afghanistan, we have had great success killing members of Osama bin Laden’s family and more than half of al Qaeda’s leadership. We should continue to destroy them with the most sophisticated armaments we can bring to bear. In Esquire, Brian Mockenhaupt reports that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can hover over a single target for 24 hours using about a hundred gallons of fuel, until the next UAV arrives for its shift. Compare that to an F-16, which can stay above a target for only an hour and burns about a thousand gallons of fuel. Double that, since we rarely send an F-16 by itself. Thanks to 600 hours of surveillance footage provided by the Predator UAV, an F-16 was able to kill al Qaeda’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. We are killing terrorists by getting to know them.
The role of our military is to keep America safe. We are doing that by killing al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan, and will continue to do so wherever they go. But we are not good at fighting insurgents, or at nation building. We have become targets as we try to keep the peace, and we are taking heavier casualties.
UAVs are the future. Our strikes have become even more surgical. First-generation MQ-1 Predator and second-generation MQ-9 Reaper drones have wreaked havoc on al Qaeda. And the third-generation Predator C Avenger began test flights this year. I’ve attached a clip to show you a UAV strike. These strikes can be piloted as far as 8,000 miles away from one of our air bases in Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas, Arizona, or California. Not far from the Las Vegas strip, we’re killing al Qaeda.
E.J. Smith is Managing Director of Richard C. Young & Co., Ltd. an investment advisory firm managing portfolios for investors with over $1,000,000 in investable assets.