Shachnow: Afghan War 'Complicated'
President Obama's new plan for Afghanistan is a complex strategy for a complicated war, in the view of one retired general who lives in Southern Pines.
Retired Major Gen. Sid Shachnow said Thursday that he gives it a grade of 65 percent.
"It is a tough time to be president," Shachnow said. "It is a tough time to be a soldier. It is a complicated war, but you have to accept things as they are, not as you would like them to be. Whether we should be there or not, we are there, and things are not going well for us."
As a boy, Shachnow escaped a Nazi concentration camp in his native Lithuania and fled with his family to the United States. He learned English, joined the Army, and rose through the ranks to become a Green Beret soldier and eventually command the Special Forces school at Fort Bragg.
Now Shachnow teaches future generals from time to time at the Army's Command and General Staff College and pitches in raising money to help badly wounded veterans make the tough transition to civilian life through the Senti-nels of Freedom program.
Shachnow sees the country in a difficult situation now as a result of poor military decisions in the past.
"Because our strategy was flawed," he said, "you can't fight counterinsurgency on the cheap. You can't do that."
Obama's plan calls for an immediate 30,000 troop surge with added support to come from allied nations training Afghan police and military to take over following U.S. withdrawal in 2011.
Shachnow said he likes some of that plan, but is not happy about a publicly announced end date.
"The president had to take into account political and foreign policy factors," the general said. "He came up with sort of a 65 percent solution. I didn't like the idea that he announced a withdrawal date. Of course, there is a little waffling going on with his saying we will 'take into account' the situation at the time."
The problem with setting a specific date for disengagement, as he sees it, is that it immediately tells the two nations most affected that the U.S. is not willing to commit to a long-term solution.
"You alienate two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan," Shachnow said. "You are saying, 'Don't look at us as being in this for the long haul.' That is not a winning strategy but a withdrawal strategy."
If the purpose was, as claimed, to put pressure by saying they had only that window of assistance to take charge of their own affairs, that could have been done privately, Shachnow said.
"It would have been better to give that date without making it public," he said. "You could have had that, but not announce it."
The plan will do what the commander in the field asked.
"It will give Stan McChrystal the basic troop strength asked for," Shachnow said. "With NATO and other allied forces added in, he will maybe come out at 40-plus-thousand more troops."
'Doing the Heavy Lifting'
This is not an easy war to fight, Shachnow said.
Soldiers in the field are bound by complicated rules and go into battle with worries their predecessors in other wars did not have, according Shachnow.
"Somebody asked a soldier, 'Now that you are going to be deployed, what are you most worried about?' and the guy said a court martial," Shachnow said. "It is such a legally complicated landscape for our soldiers. A mission is almost treated like a law enforcement action.
"Guys are running around with cameras, collecting evidence. They turn over prisoners to local authorities and they decide what to do. Sometimes they just turn them loose, and they go right back to fighting us."
Rules, laws and treaties made when previous conflicts ended complicate the situation for soldiers in the field today, he said.
"We have international courts, rules countless laws out there now," Shachnow said. "When they are written, they are written looking back at our last experience. Now, a guy trains one way, then he's thrown into battle as a half-assed policeman and a half-assed soldier. Considering that, they do a remarkable job navigating through all this by having all these constraints.
"We are tied down in international treaties. Who owns them? Who enforces them? An Al Queda fighter doesn't wear a uniform, doesn't obey laws. Who holds him accountable?"
The top commander of today doesn't have the authority of a supreme commander like Eisenhower or MacArthur had in World War II, Shachnow said.
"We are doing the heavy lifting," Shachnow said. "A lot of countries are benefiting. Countries in the Middle East as well as in the West stand to benefit from this, but it is difficult to get them to the table to do something constructive in proportion to what they are capable of.
"Back here at home, some Americans are getting a little tired. We are spending a lot on homeland defense, and other countries are spending on building up their economies.
"Our citizens are feeling sour on this whole issue. I am feeling a little sour on it. We did a lot of the heavy lifting during the Cold War, and when the Cold War was over, many countries prospered."
Those nations could help more than they are, as he sees it.
"There is a lot of capability out there, but even some troops from those countries that are with us -- some 40 -- come in with such restrictions that they are of limited value," he said. "Some of them put where they can fight, where they can go, how they can be used.
"Stan McCrystal is dealing with a very much more complicated situation than people think. You have to tell German troops one thing, Australian troops another.
"Very few fight the way we fight: taking casualties. Others are only willing to do nation building. Each one of those things has to be negotiated."
'Constantly on Alert'
Other limitations are imposed by considerations of policy that limit action in the field, Shachnow said.
"We have to minimize civilian casualties," he said. "Speaking bluntly, that puts our soldiers at greater risk. McChrystal wants to preserve infrastructure. A soldier in a firefight has to make a strong case that determines whether he gets support, whether it is air support he needs, or bombing, taking out a bridge."
That, too, can cost lives. And this war is different because the enemy is different, Shachnow said.
"You never know who the enemy is," he said. "In conventional war, the enemy is to your front. Support is generally to your rear. Here you look 360 degrees. Attack can come from any direction, and the enemy could be a woman in a burqa, a kid, even some individual that looks very innocent. You are constantly on the alert."
'Hidden Price to Pay'
The result bodes ill for costs not counted, bills that will come due in the future, he said. As in Vietnam, there will be an unforeseen price to pay.
"Domestically, we really cannot afford this war," Shachnow said. "We are stuck at a bad time, so many other domestic programs need funds. Our economy is not doing all that well. You name it. Our conditions really do not support this long- term costly engagement. But we are there."
Bills that come due after the war will be staggering, according to Shachnow.
"I think, when this is all over, Iraq and Afghanistan are going to cost us," he said. "Remember, after Vietnam, there was the Vietnam Syndrome. Wait until this one sets in. I think it will sour us on any engagement in the future."
The wounded who come home from these wars will need great care, both medical and mental, he said.
"Psychological casualties are staggering," Shachnow said. "The number of those with post traumatic stress disorder, the number with brain injuries, are very different from what we have done in the past.
"There is still a hidden price to pay. When you finish we will have a large number of disabled vets to care for the rest of their lives.
"We will have a military that has pretty much worn out its equipment. That will have to be replaced. Our military has had to pull back on technological innovation. They are going to have to catch up, and that will cost."
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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