Stalemate in Afghanistan

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LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan—The bomb was buried beneath a foot or more of hard-packed earth on the road through Padkhabi-Shana, 50 miles south of Kabul. How long it had been there, only its creators knew for sure. But even with their sophisticated sensory equipment, a team of US engineers passed over the bomb’s location at least once without detecting it.

Sometime on the afternoon of March 19, an insurgent fighter riding a red motorcycle rode up to where the bomb was located and activated it before abandoning his bike and fleeing for safety. He was no doubt in a hurry because a force of US, Jordanian and Afghan soldiers from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force had just entered Padkhabi-Shana, and would be passing over the bomb very soon.

That same afternoon, the ISAF convoy rolled past the abandoned bike and over the bomb. What happened next—the twisted metal, the serious injuries—was an uncomfortable reminder of the reality that coalition forces in Afghanistan face on a daily basis nearly a decade after the US-led invasion swiftly toppled the Taliban regime.

Extremists and ISAF troops operating in Afghanistan both possess unique battlefield advantages over the other. ‘Asymmetric’ is how Western analysts describe the conflict. But neither side’s advantage is decisive.

The extremists’ ability to improvise vehicle-demolishing explosive devices allows them to limit ISAF’s movements and therefore its ability to influence Afghanistan’s development. But ISAF’s quick-reacting aircraft prevent the insurgents from capitalizing on the chaos sown by their increasingly powerful bombs.

‘Air power is one of the asymmetric advantages we have in Afghanistan,’ says Lt. Col. Brad Lyons, commander of the 34th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, deployed to Afghanistan last year.

The result is a stalemate at the lowest level of the Afghanistan conflict.

Wars are waged on three levels of increasing breadth: tactical, operational, and strategic. But at every level, the ISAF coalition faces major challenges that cast doubt over the alliance’s strategy for bringing the conflict to an acceptable resolution. Time is running out as voters, elected officials and even senior generals grow impatient. The United States, ISAF’s senior member, will begin withdrawing some of its about 100,000 troops this summer; number two member Britain has vowed to quit Afghanistan before 2015.

One way or another, the war is ending. But if it’s going to end on terms favourable to ISAF members and the Afghan government in Kabul, something must change—and fast.  

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