As we flew in to Forward Operating Base Frontenac, the terrain was mountainous — jagged hills cropping up suddenly in the middle of southern Afghanistan's lunar rocky landscape.
But the day — the whole trip — was like a flashback to Iraq. There was Admiral Mike Mullen speaking to the troops, telling them their new strategy is to protect the population, just as previous commanders had done with troops in Anbar, and Mosul, and Baghdad in 2006 and 2007.
"We can tactically win," the admiral said. "But if we're killing local civilians we're going to strategically lose."
He didn't have to argue the point. There were nods in the crowd. A Stryker Company he was speaking to had taken more casualties than any unit since 9/11 when kicking this new strategy into high gear – 21 KIA so far, one of the largest losses borne by a single unit in this entire war.
But the Stryker guys had been through this before. One told us how they'd been at the frontline of counterinsurgency in Iraq, and they'd seen it turn things around after initially being skeptical the plan would work.
"We've closed the gap on human intel," Lt. Col. Jonathan Neumann told us, ticking off what he saw as gains tallied against soldiers lost. He told a ragged group of reporters traveling with chairman Mullen that the intel from Afghans, which started flowing once locals were convinced the Americans would stay, meant his guys had been able to sweep up caches of weapons and stockpiles of explosives at a record rate.
He said they still faced a steady stream of IEDs — improvised explosive devices — but he said the construction and composition of the bombs was generally more primitive, and they were finding more of them. "We've hit them so hard, they're making mistakes," the colonel said. But he also admitted the drop in lethality of the bombs being used against them was probably also due to what he called the "snowbird syndrome," where top Taliban commanders, including bomb engineers, spend the winter across the border in Pakistan . . . planning the spring campaign.
He was also laying out his campaign in broad terms: to develop the relationships with locals so that they will turn their backs on the Taliban.
It's the other side of the "win trust and confidence" coin of COIN (or counterinsurgency): keep up the pressure on the remaining Taliban fighters with raids. The ultimate goal is that the Taliban leaders would find no one willing to give them shelter, food or aid when they returned, so they would leave — and the low-level Taliban fighters left behind, with no place to hide, would leave as well, or take off the black turban and go back to farming.
We asked how he felt about trying to accomplish all this by the President's target drawdown date of July 2011. His reaction to it, rather than the outrage by some in Washington, was one of relief. He said it gave his troops something to shoot for, and most importantly of all, he concluded, "It means we won't be here forever."
Camp Nathan Smith – Kandahar City
At our next stop, another flashback. Admiral Mullen sat down for a shura with five colorfully-dressed Afghan elders who had risked their lives just showing up for this meeting — just like Iraqi chiefs used to gather with U.S. commanders in Ramadi, or Tikrit or Kirkuk. Another five elders were invited but never showed.
For security reasons, they hadn't been told who they'd be meeting with (only that is was an "important American").
Mullen pulled up his chair to their table, instead of sitting across the room from them at the executive table set up for him. Then he pulled out a notebook, and asked them to tell him what they need.
They did not hold back. For two hours, while Mullen's staff kept cups of tea coming, the admiral heard everything from demands for a new dam (or two, if we Americans could swing it), to complaints that their young men need an army training facility built in Kandahar, instead of having to go all the way to Kabul, where the elders say their southern Pashtun ways make them the butt of abuse from Northerners.
But the most striking message of all was this: Stop fighting for us.
"You must understand our culture," one said. "It's insulting for you to die for us. We should be dying to take back our country, not you."
That was the lead in to his demand that the Americans start sending more money and training their way. "One of your soldiers costs a million dollars a year. One of ours costs $6,000. So spend that money on us, and we get 165 of our soldiers for one of yours." Mullen told him he had a good point, and carefully wrote it down in his green spiral notebook.
Of course, the elders did add that they wanted their forces to continue fighting alongside U.S. forces, because the Americans have air support. "If we are fighting with you, and we need an air strike, it comes right away," one elder said. "If we're on our own . . . "
Not so much, he essentially shrugged.
I'd never seen a four-star admiral taken to task like that. But that's exactly what Mullen was looking for — the unvarnished, sometimes unrealistic demands of the locals that he doesn't hear all the way back in Washington.
Later, on a plane bound for Iraq, Mullen told us that what struck him is Afghans' "desire to take control of their own destiny," especially "the one statement that said essentially, 'Put us in the lead. We are appreciative of the sacrifices we have made but those need to be our sacrifices,'" Mullen paraphrased.
The other thing that struck the admiral was "the emphasis on corruption, corruption, corruption," he said. "That really didn't surprise me, but the strength of it" (as in the sentiment) did.
The third thing that made an impression on the chairman was the elders' "Not now, but right now," attitude. "We've got to stop talking and we've got to start delivering," he said. "That's all of us. So one of the things I did was commit to come back and see them. And obviously I'll work as hard as I can to generate results. That's what they need to see."
Patrol Base Jaker, Helmand
At our last stop, Patrol Base Jaker, Marines at a small outpost at the edge of the village of Nawa toured Mullen through the town market.
They'd stopped some of the traffic to the market, just to make sure it was manageable, as they brought the top American in uniform through their A.O. (area of operations). And despite the blocked road, the market was still hopping.
They said it was even busier on market Fridays, with up to a hundred shopkeepers cramming a long row of stalls, set up along a canal facing the Marines' base. One Marine officer told me that was a tenfold surge in activity, since the time of the Taliban.
Come spring, the Marines planned to take the fight to the last major unconquered town in Helmand — Marja, expanding the "inkspot" of security for the locals.
It was another Iraq flashback of sorts for me and the officer I was speaking to, as we stared at the buzzing market from the watchtower at the corner of the base. It was the same thing his guys had done in al Anbar in Iraq.
First they took Fallujah block by block and left, turning it over to overly-green Iraqi forces. The insurgents came back, welcomed by the locals who now hated the Americans for the first campaign's bloodshed. So the Marines had to take the town again — another hard fight. It took a while before the people saw them as providers of security — helped, of course, by the fact that Sunni militants who'd been attacking the Americans a) split with al Qaeda over its demands the province be run under strict Islamic rules, and b) needed the Americans as allies, as their tribes were increasingly attacked by Shi'ite militants. (But that's another story.)
The Marines say the principle of convincing the Afghans they're here to help — as these young men believe they convinced the Iraqis they're here to help — is the same.
I spoke to another Marine officer who'd also done a couple tours of Iraq. He was coming down off the adrenaline high of walking the admiral through town, relieved and thrilled that nothing bad had happened. He'd done this before — walked other officials through towns his guys had won back and won over in Ramadi and Fallujah. "It's a bit like 'Groundhog Day,'" he said. "But at least I know what I'm doing. I've done this before." Like his battle buddy, he thought the strategy would work, because he'd seen it work before.
The chairman said he got the same steady stream of cautious optimism from those he met — where he'd been looking for criticism or any signs of negativity. "I pushed hard, and had my people push hard," to root out complaints about the president's speech or General Stanley McChrystal's way ahead for the Afghan campaign, Mullen said. But he couldn't find any grousing — even among the Stryker unit that had taken so many casualties.
"Nobody said to me this is impossible," he said, describing a closed door meeting he had with a dozen of the troops, with none of their officers present. "Usually when I get them to a point, they'll open up, and they'll say, 'Are you kidding me?' about this or that plan," he said. "And there was none of that. That aligns with, I think, where MacChrystal has been, which is this is doable, this is what we need to do. They understand that."
Maybe that won't convince the skeptics back in Washington, but it was a common theme: the troops we all spoke to sound convinced this will work. And winning over the guys doing the fighting is half the fight.
The other half of that: convincing the folks you're fighting for. The Afghans, like the Iraqis once upon a time, are going to prove a much tougher audience.