Author, historian and former Marine Steven Pressfield is on what I consider the dream tour of Afghanistan with Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander, Joint Forces Command. You know that question, “Who would you want to be sat next to on an interminably long plane flight?” My answer would be Mattis, he is whip smart, a keen student of history and a seasoned combat commander.
Well, Pressfield sat across from Mattis on a G5 across the Atlantic and then joined him on a tour of the Afghan war zone, including visits with VIPs, grunts and Afghan troops, and blogs about at his site. I’m envious to say the least.
Mattis really impressed me when he came out against the first Fallujah assault as response to the killing of the Blackwater personnel; he argued his Marines shouldn’t be used as an instrument of revenge. I've been further impressed with what’s been coming out of JFCOM under his direction. I’m told he’s been looking into various Air Force/Navy and Army/Marines projects that lack joint context to solving what are joint problems.
I really liked Pressfield’s "Gates of Fire", first rate historical fiction, though haven’t read any of his other books. It's well worth your time to read his blog posts of his trip with Mattis. Pressfield also gives what I thought was a pretty darn insightful summary of his visit to the war zone, even if it was from within the "bubble," as he characterized it. While he says he’s not a journalist, he clearly has a good eye for detail, and he does a good job capturing the big picture of the challenges we face in Afghanistan. I’ve got to think, spending as much time as he did with the good general, it reflects more than a bit of Mattis’ own thoughts on the situation.
“The campaign has two extremities. At the top-end is the NATO/ISAF/American Machine. This Machine is made up of men and money, of massive bases and O’Hare-sized airfields, of vehicle parks and tarmac aprons chockablock with MRAPs and Black Hawks and C-130s and Tomcats. Its elements include drones and laser-guided missiles, satellite imaging and biometrics. It is thousands of tons of supplies and construction materials; rooms full of captains and majors manning laptops; it is PowerPoints, flow charts and projections, focus groups, think tank treatises. The Machine is also constituted of a can-do attitude, a fierce and dedicated work ethic, a commitment to integrity and transparency and an attitude of good intentions that no one who has seen it can ever doubt. All of it is powered by a will and a level of professionalism that is without peer for putting a man on the moon or a thousand-pound bomb down a chimney. That’s the input end of the dynamic. That’s the Machine.
At the bottom, at the receiving end, is the villager, the tribesman and the Afghan man in the street. From where he stands, the Machine is a marvel. It is rich beyond imagining. It can call down death from the sky or beyond the horizon; it can see in the dark and strike without warning out of nowhere. Its intentions are good. Its heart is in the right place. But what can it do for him? He has seen clever men manipulate the machine and wicked men take vengeance on those who have been reckless enough to befriend it. He may be illiterate, this man of the village or the street, but he is not stupid. He has seen great powers come and go. In his own or his father’s lifetime he has lived through domination by the Soviets, the Afghan communists, the warlords and the Taliban. Now the NATO Machine has come. If our man can tap this apparatus for a job or a contract, he will. Every little bit helps. Most Afghans, we are told, view the Coalition presence favorably. I would too. The Yanks and their allies bring in cash and development projects, and they’re a far more benign presence that Genghis Khan or the Brits or the Russians, who were there for reasons of conquest or self-aggrandizement. The Americans just want to help. The Machine wants to bring security, development, education. It wants to get Afghanistan up on its feet. Can it?
In the middle lies the space between the Machine and the man of the village, the man of the tribes. Here is the payoff point. This ground is occupied by the Marines and Army troopers and allies who man the frontier posts in the mountains, who hold down the outposts in the south and east. This space is held by the Marines in Helmand who fight and camp with their Afghan counterparts, who wash in the canals and eat the same lentils and flatbread, who haven’t had a shower in the past twenty-one days and won’t have one for the next three months. These are the guys who put a human face on the Coalition effort. They’re the young warriors who make friends and learn the lingo and constitute the person-to-person payload that the Machine above (which is as remote to them as it is to the Afghans they operate beside) has come halfway around the world to deliver.
My question is: are there enough of them? Have they penetrated deeply enough? Will they stick around? Does the Coalition possess the patience and political will to give their efforts time to bear fruit?”