Progress in Afghanistan gets rockier

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan - The CH-47 helicopter carrying Gen. John Craddock and his aides banks sharply, and the machine gunner positioned by the open rear door strains in his harness. The kaleidoscope below rolls from the verdant greens of the Helmand River basin to brown scrublands and then the bleached-white desert. Soon, the CH-47's shadow is joined by those of a Marine Cobra gunship and an armed Huey helicopter. They are escorting the supreme commander of the NATO alliance into one of the most isolated outposts in the global war on terrorism. It is the very heart of Taliban territory.

The helicopters touch down in a stinging swirl of sand and dust at Forward Operating Base Dwyer. The compound is little more than an encirclement of concrete barriers and concertina wire serving as a firebase and ground-combat headquarters for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Helmand province. Craddock emerges from the chopper to shake hands with marines clad in full body armor, their faces dripping with sweat. They seek relief from the 120-degree heat in the shade of their lean-tos. Inside the mess tent, where visitors are briefed, dust chokes the air.

Isolated and forlorn, FOB Dwyer sits west of the crossroads town of Garmsir. Though life may be miserable on this flat patch of land, the location has this to recommend it: unobstructed fields of fire separate it from the Taliban insurgents who are using rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombers, and massed infantry in increasingly bold attacks on U.S. and NATO outposts and bases. At FOB Dwyer, there is no sneaking up on Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson and the rest of the men of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.

The soldiers of the U.S. Army's 503rd Infantry Regiment were not so lucky. On the night of July 13, an estimated 200 Taliban insurgents nearly overran their outpost in mountainous east Afghanistan; the assault left nine U.S. paratroopers dead and many more wounded. On August 18, Camp Salerno near the Pakistan border repulsed an attack by as many as 10 suicide bombers backed by infantry. On the same day, a force of approximately 100 Taliban insurgents ambushed an elite French-led reconnaissance patrol, killing 10 paratroopers. It was the deadliest day for French troops in 25 years.

Those attacks and a rising number of roadside bombs and suicide bombers help explain why 2008 is on pace to become the deadliest year in Afghanistan for allied forces since the Taliban was toppled in 2001. In the past three months, more foreign troops have been killed and wounded in Afghanistan than in Iraq. That fact reflects the success of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, as well as a strategic shift by a Qaeda-enabled insurgency of Islamic militants who find safe haven in neighboring Pakistan. The impact of those sanctuaries is evident in larger-scale and more-sophisticated Taliban attacks, including a mass prison break in Kandahar province in June that freed hundreds of imprisoned insurgents, and the July 7 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed 41 people.

In the midst of Afghanistan's warm weather "fighting season," Helmand province in the south has earned a reputation as a hotbed for the resurgent Taliban. Canadian forces responsible for this area in NATO's Regional Command South have suffered more than 90 casualties since deploying here in 2006, leading Ottawa to threaten to withdraw its troops unless reinforcements arrived this year. Commanders thus sent the 2,500 marines of the 24th MEU to Helmand to shore up a shaky alliance. In many ways, the marines' experience in nearly six months of counterinsurgency operations in the province is a microcosm of the fitful progress, intermittent backsliding, and mounting challenges that have come to characterize the wider Afghan war.

"These marines have taken the best practices of counterinsurgency doctrine and applied them, and they've shown once again that if you just provide people with security, they will get on with their lives," Craddock tells a reporter accompanying him on a recent trip to Afghanistan. A cerebral general with a quiet intensity, Craddock knows better than most, however, that security is just the initial prerequisite in the holistic strategy of development, jobs, and governance that creates the virtuous cycle of any successful counterinsurgency. From the beginning, operations in Afghanistan have lacked the coordination and international commitment to sustain that cycle.

"We can get the security piece perfect," Craddock concedes. "But if the Afghan government and army aren't ready to step in and help hold and rebuild, it will all be for naught."

He notes, for example, that NATO has promised more training teams for the critical task of mentoring Afghan army units, but member nations have stubbornly failed to deliver on their commitments. "Shame on them," Craddock says. "Corruption is still tearing at the fabric of the Afghan government, and that also has to change. So I fear we are losing momentum in Afghanistan. If we don't turn things around soon, we'll start slipping backwards."

Clear, Hold, and Hope

Lt. Col. Kent Hayes knows all about the blood, sweat, and excruciating effort needed to lay the initial security piece of the counterinsurgency puzzle. The rangy executive officer for the 24th MEU explains that the Marines' original plan to act as a roaming strike force in Helmand had to be torn up after the first battle with the Taliban. The enemy unexpectedly stayed and fought fiercely for more than a week rather than relinquish Garmsir. An estimated 400 insurgents died. Marine commanders immediately realized that the town was a critical resupply and logistics hub for insurgent operations throughout the province.

"Our original mission was to act as a quick-reaction force for the ISAF commander in Kabul so he could throw us at any escalating crisis in this area," Hayes says. But Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, understood the strategic importance of Garmsir and instead ordered the marines to stay in the town and implement a classic counterinsurgency operation of "clear, hold, and build." Hayes says that his troops are "not normally in the business of owning ground, but I guess you could say we've rented Garmsir for a while."

After clearing the town of insurgents, the marines held it by establishing routine neighborhood patrols to keep the Taliban at bay. The MEU's civil-affairs unit reached out to the district governor, tribal sheiks, and local imams in Garmsir and the surrounding region, organizing the first shura -- or traditional governance council -- that the area had seen in three years. Local leaders were empowered to pick and prioritize development projects.

With improved security, the Red Crescent humanitarian organization moved in with aid for 1,400 displaced families. The marines, using their own money from the Commander's Emergency Response Program, launched small reconstruction projects: digging wells and repairing irrigation canals; delivering medical services; rebuilding damaged homes; even buying a new speaker system for the local mosque.

The Afghan Civilian Assistance Program, which the United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development support, started longer-term projects.

Within weeks, an abandoned bazaar reopened and was swarmed with shoppers. By late summer, nearly eight weeks had passed without the 24th MEU having a single contact with Taliban insurgents, whom the locals were increasingly willing to identify for the marines.

Hayes is unequivocal in naming the key to the 24th MEU's success in Helmand province: "It's a real simple concept -- we learned during this mission that the best way to combat this type of enemy is to mass forces and stay. We actually replaced a small British force that was spread thin trying to cover too much ground with too few troops. Instead, we flooded a town that was strategically important to the enemy with overwhelming forces. That's the way you can win this kind of fight -- with boots on the ground."

No Staying Power

After two tour extensions, however, the 24th MEU is scheduled to leave Afghanistan this month. Until the Pentagon can follow through on recently announced plans to deploy an additional 4,500 troops to Afghanistan early next year -- still well short of the 10,000 urgently requested by U.S. commanders here -- there are no fresh U.S. or NATO units to take the place of the marines. That fact highlights an inconvenient reality: NATO and the United States remain chronically short of troops and equipment in Afghanistan. Taliban commanders understand that, too.

Heavy pressure from the U.S. to squeeze additional forces out of NATO at last spring's Bucharest Summit netted only about 2,000 troops; and badly needed helicopters donated by the Czech Republic are still languishing in that country because NATO lacks the money to transfer them to Afghanistan.

The plan now is for the 24th MEU to pass along the mission of "holding and building" in Garmsir to the Afghan army and the national government in Kabul. Yet Afghanistan's 63,000-man army is woefully inadequate to sustain security gains in a country of 30 million people, a majority of whom are illiterate and live at subsistence level.

Six years after taking power, a weak central government in Kabul struggles to extend its control beyond the capital. Afghanistan has few roads and some of the most challenging terrain in the world. Government corruption is so pervasive that one knowledgeable Afghan official in Kabul privately estimated that government employees siphon the equivalent of $5,000 per Afghan citizen from the pool of international aid each year. Afghan's 79,000 national police, meanwhile, are better known as shakedown artists than law enforcers.

"A year ago when I was here, there was a lot more optimism that the country was moving in the right direction," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a decorated combat veteran and West Point professor who accompanied Craddock on his recent trip to Afghanistan. "Now there's this sense of concern and surprise among NATO and Afghan officials that the enemy has gotten much stronger and better equipped, and is willing to take on their forces. I don't think the situation here will yield a disaster in 2009, but it's getting worse and violence is skyrocketing. The question is, what are we going to do about it?"

The situation in Musa Qala, another town in Helmand province, may foreshadow what could occur in Garmsir when the U.S. Marines leave. After capturing and holding Musa Qala for much of 2007, the Taliban was ejected by the Afghan army earlier this year. What happened next was sadly indicative of the lack of follow-through that has so often marred operations in the Afghan war.

"After we recaptured Musa Qala, the government was very slow to start any reconstruction, and there are still no new schools or hospitals or clinics," Gen. Mohammad Zaher Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said in an interview. He pointed out that unemployment is actually worse in Musa Qala today than when the Taliban controlled it. "In some cases, the Taliban have even convinced the locals that they governed better," he said, because the insurgents don't have the bureaucratic red tape that the government has and, for all their brutality, aren't as corrupt or open to bribes as are underpaid Afghan government officials and judges. "So, yes, it's very important in these operations to show people that it's the Afghan government that will step in and make their lives better."

The failure to do so was painfully obvious to McKiernan. "There is some governance and development finally beginning to take hold inside Musa Qala," the general explains. "But when you travel just a few kilometers north or south, you run into the presence of the Taliban again."

A Sense of Siege

The NATO flags arrayed outside ISAF headquarters in Kabul flew at half-staff during a reporter's recent visit. In the early years of the operation, flags were lowered for three days to mark the death of any NATO or allied soldier. But casualties mounted so quickly this year that headquarters' staff was forced to shorten the commemoration period to one day. June was the worst month of the war for ISAF soldiers: 49 were killed in action.

The rising toll partly reflects the allied forces' decision to take the fight to the Taliban in areas where the insurgents previously roamed free, such as in Helmand. ISAF officials point out that 70 percent of the violence is still concentrated in about 10 percent of the country's southern and eastern regions.

After more than $120 billion in investments by the international community over seven years, ISAF officials can cite some impressive achievements in Afghanistan, among them school construction and a rise in student enrollment from 1 million to 6.5 million, including 2 million girls formerly denied an education under the Taliban. Eighty-two percent of Afghans now benefit from basic health services versus 8 percent in 2001. The "ring road" connecting many of the country's far-flung provinces with the capital is nearly completed.

Yet officials concede that the Taliban has grown stronger. The spike in allied casualties is partly the result of the Taliban's using more asymmetric attacks -- suicide bombings, roadside bombs, kidnappings, and assassinations, the signature techniques honed by al Qaeda in Iraq and other Iraqi insurgents.

This development squares with intelligence indicating that Islamic extremists once drawn to Iraq are now flocking by the hundreds to Pakistan's tribal areas, where Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants are thought to be hiding. Al Qaeda is known to provide training, equipment, and suicide martyrs to its old allies in the hydra-headed Taliban insurgency, itself a "syndicate" of loosely affiliated Pashtun clans, subtribes, and terrorist groups.

Flush with hundreds of millions of dollars from taxing poppy and opium traffickers, and free to recruit in the Pashtun region's ubiquitous madrassas, or Islamic religious schools, the Taliban faces few attacks in Pakistan other than an occasional strike by a U.S. Predator unmanned aircraft, such as the one that killed four Islamist militants on September 4, and an occasional cross-border raid similar to the controversial operation by U.S. Special Forces on September 1 in south Waziristan that killed as many as 20 people.

Pakistan vehemently criticized that operation as an infringement on its territory. After its own brief offensive in the tribal areas in late August, Pakistan announced the suspension of all military operations against the Taliban and Islamist militants for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends in early October.

"Overall, the Pakistan military has significantly reduced its level of activity near the border, which we think is connected to the informal cease-fires that the civilian government has reached with insurgents in the tribal areas earlier this year," said ISAF spokesman Mark Laity. "As a result, we're seeing many more insurgents crossing over from Pakistan than in the past."

Of equal concern, U.S. military intelligence analysts perceive a new Taliban strategy behind the bands of insurgents infiltrating across the border and establishing cells in the villages and towns around Kabul. Their suspected purpose is to undermine the Afghan government and sow fear through high-profile terror attacks. The mujahedeen fighters exploited a similar strategy against the Soviets and their puppet government in Kabul in the 1980s.

A series of spectacular attacks -- an assault by Taliban commandoes on the swanky Serena Hotel in January that killed eight; an assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai in April; the Indian Embassy bombing in July; the killing of four International Rescue Committee aid workers in August -- has begun to create a sense of siege in the capital. The Taliban is "working very hard to establish footholds around all the major approaches to Kabul," said a U.S. intelligence officer. "We think they mean to stay and fight through the winter."

Civilian Casualties

U.S. and coalition officials are also dealing with the blowback from a series of errant allied air strikes such as the one on August 23 that, according to the Afghan government and the United Nations, killed more than 90 civilians. The ISAF disputes those figures but has reopened an investigation into the bombing. That incident followed a July 6 air strike that killed 27 civilians at a wedding party, most of them children and women, including the bride.

A number of analysts blame the ISAF's liberal use of airpower in part on its effort to compensate for a lack of troops on the ground. According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, allied forces have dropped an average of 80,000 pounds of munitions a month in Afghanistan since June 2006, compared with an average of 5,000 pounds in 2005. Largely as a result, civilian casualties have skyrocketed 68 percent in the past year.

Taliban propagandists seize upon the civilian deaths. The incidents also erode public support for the coalition's presence and exacerbate tensions between the ISAF and the Afghan government, which complained bitterly on September 1 after Western troops reportedly killed three Afghan children and wounded seven other civilians in an errant artillery strike.

"Whenever there is an incident with civilian casualties, Karzai's phone just lights up and his office is overrun by tribal elders screaming about foreigners killing the Afghan people," said a senior NATO official in Kabul, acknowledging that the Afghan government has begun to demand ultimate authority over allied air strikes.

On a recent evening, McKiernan arrives in his office for a late-night interview. With a sigh, he sinks his athletic frame into an armchair, the strain evident on his drawn face. As ISAF commander, McKiernan tracks the big picture in Afghanistan, and he has identified three critical "imperatives" for succeeding in Afghanistan: improving the capacity of the Afghan government and security services; bolstering the will and commitment of the NATO alliance and other allied nations; and denying the Taliban uncontested sanctuary in Pakistan.

"Look, I've been a soldier for 36 years, and I want to be absolutely adamant about one point -- we're here to win. Failure is not an option in Afghanistan," he says. "I know that may sound like a cliche, but it's true. I'll also tell you the Afghan people are worth fighting for. The vast majority do not want to see the Taliban re-emerge back in power. So we will win, and the insurgency will lose. How long that will take, and how much suffering will occur before we reach that point, well, I can't answer that question."

The Ticket Home

At Kandahar Air Base in southern Afghanistan, a Dutch colonel escorting a group of recent visitors steers carefully on the blacktop to avoid old Soviet land mines that drift along with the mud during the rainy season. He points to surrounding hills from which Taliban insurgents still fire rockets at the base. Thankfully, the rockets are notoriously inaccurate.

"One hit about 20 meters in front of my door last week," the Dutch officer volunteers. "Rather than explode, it just showered the front of my barracks with gravel."

Kandahar, once home base for the Taliban, remains especially uneasy. After the daring prison break here on June 13, which freed an estimated 350 Taliban prisoners along with hundreds of common criminals, the insurgents mined roads and destroyed bridges leading into the city. Hundreds of Taliban then amassed in the Arghandab district just to the north. For a while, Afghan government and NATO officials feared that the Taliban was poised to launch an all-out assault to retake Kandahar.

What happened next was a rare bright spot in what has been a gloomy fighting season in the Afghan war. Using its own Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters, the Afghan Defense Ministry deployed Afghan army reinforcements from Kabul and elsewhere to Kandahar. In just days, and with limited ISAF help, they routed the Taliban. U.S. officials say that the Afghan army is now taking the lead in 70 percent of operations in eastern Afghanistan.

These nascent successes underscore, however, that U.S. and allied commanders came late to the realization that creating viable Afghan security forces is their ultimate ticket home. A multiethnic army serves as a critical foundation for societies, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, that are torn by ethnic divisions and insurgencies. Yet the responsibility for training, equipping, and mentoring the Afghan army and police was initially assigned piecemeal to individual NATO nations. Precious years were lost.

"Unlike Iraq," Azimi said, "where more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops were deployed and tens of millions of dollars devoted to training their security forces, in Afghanistan there was a gap of two or three years after the fall of the Taliban where no one really focused on the Afghan army." Afghanistan's population of 30 million is larger than Iraq's, but its modest 63,000-man army (with 80,000 authorized) is dwarfed by Iraq's army of more than 580,000 soldiers. "Given our present security problems and geographic challenges, it's pretty clear that we simply do not have enough soldiers," Azimi said.

By nearly all accounts, the situation began to change for the better after the United States in 2007 assumed overall control of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan and greatly increased the resources and personnel devoted to training and mentoring Afghan forces. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has approved $17 billion for the effort, with plans to essentially double the size of the Afghan army to 120,000 troops.

War by Consensus

Despite the increased U.S. contribution and the growing consensus on the need to build an Afghan army as quickly as possible, American commanders remain frustrated by NATO's failure to deploy the promised number of Operational Mentor Liaison Teams ("Omelets" in NATO-speak). These 12-to-19-person training teams serve as a vital link between forward-deployed Afghan army and police units and ISAF support such as airpower, medical evacuation, and resupply. The inherent danger of their mission was driven home in June when 18 police trainers from the Security Transition Command were killed in action. It was the worst month of the war for the command.

Some NATO member states such as Germany now refuse to allow their OMLTs to accompany Afghan units into combat in the volatile southern and eastern parts of the country. Others have failed to field the training teams altogether, apparently because of the financial costs. The result is a shortage of 20 mentoring teams and 2,300 trainers.

"As we've tried to generate these training and mentoring teams that NATO nations agreed to supply, we've fallen flat on our faces," Gen. Craddock, NATO's supreme allied commander, admitted. "I've talked at every meeting of the North Atlantic Council [NATO's governing body], and at every foreign ministers council. At one [meeting] I brought a big cup and labeled it 'Contributions,' and I reminded all the defense chiefs that their respective heads of state agreed to meet this requirement, so where is your bid? And I didn't get anything! So yeah, I'm frustrated."

Privately, European officials respond that the United States was so distracted by Iraq in recent years that it was slow to realize that the situation was deteriorating in Afghanistan. Sometimes governments in Europe have also moved cautiously in increasing support for a war that is widely unpopular with their citizens and has proven surprisingly bloody for nations that thought they were joining peacekeeping operations.

"When NATO agreed to expand its control to southern Afghanistan in 2006, no one really anticipated the difficulty of the fighting," said one European official in NATO. "Maybe we were in denial, but this has been a culture shock for a lot of us." American officials were frustrated when the alliance had 35,000 troops in Afghanistan but only 8,000 troops in the volatile south, he said, and they are still unsatisfied with NATO's 52,000 troops in Afghanistan and 22,000 in the south.

"The curve in troop deployments keeps going up, the number of nations contributing forces has increased, and national restrictions on troops are slowly being relaxed," the official said. "So we're heading in the right direction, but the progress has admittedly been slow and painstaking."

Untamed Border

The towering mountains of the Hindu Kush and the warlike Pashtun tribes that inhabit them have witnessed more than their share of fighting over the centuries, from the retreat of Alexander the Great's armies 2,000 years ago to the massacre of nearly the entire British garrison in Afghanistan at the Grandamak Pass in 1842 to the humiliation of the vaunted Soviet military in the 1980s.

Today, it is the United States and the Western alliance that are trying to tame the "Durand Line" border that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was drawn up in 1893 by Britain's colonial government in India but never recognized by local tribes. A visit to a lonely outpost at the mouth of the Khyber Pass suggests that the fate of not only Afghanistan but also Pakistan, and ultimately the wider war against al Qaeda and the Islamic extremists drawn to this region, may hinge on the outcome of the current border campaign.

The Khyber Border Coordination Center sits in the shadows of the Hindu Kush next to the remnants of an old mud fort. During the visit to its modern tactical operations facility, a reporter observed officers sitting at computer stations, monitoring flat-screen televisions that broadcast video from unmanned aerial drones. At their fingertips are satellite phones, tactical radios, and ordinary cellphones. What is unique, however, is the array of national uniforms inside the center, where teams of Afghan and Pakistani army officers work, eat, and live together, alongside their NATO counterparts.

"This outpost represents a historic event. This has never been tried before," says U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Milley, deputy commander of NATO's Combined Joint Task Force-101, which is responsible for eastern Afghanistan. As he speaks, Afghan and Pakistani officers fidget and eye each other uncomfortably. "We're trying to build mutual confidence and trust between the officers of two countries who have never had much of either," Milley says.

Because of its unusual nature, the center has no direct operational mission in the effort to interdict insurgents. Instead, the hope is that the center will facilitate regular intelligence-sharing across the border so that information can move up each nation's chain of command. Milley concedes that the arrangement at the coordination center -- the first of six planned joint border outposts -- is very much a work in progress.

"I'd say our military-to-military coordination with the Pakistani side is good, and I talk to my counterpart on the other side of the border every day. But it's not perfect," Milley tells a reporter. "The Pakistani Frontier Corps soldiers are all locals, so they know what is moving on their side of the border and what people are up to. I'm fairly confident that when they see bad guys moving, they'll let us know most of the time. Will they let us know all the time? No."

But trying to exert minimal control of the 1,600-mile Afghan-Pakistan border with only a handful of joint border outposts shows that the relationship between these traditional rivals remains antagonistic. Privately, U.S. intelligence analysts say that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate still attempts to wield influence inside Afghanistan by maintaining close ties to elements of the Taliban insurgency, and both U.S. and Afghan officials have accused the directorate of supporting the terrorists who bombed the Indian Embassy in July.

In the meantime, the Combined Joint Task Force-101, anchored by the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, tries to detect and interdict insurgents spilling out of the countless valleys and gorges of the Hindu Kush into Afghanistan. That "valley-to-valley fight," they say, is made all the more difficult by tribal, ethnic, and clan relationships so complex that people in a single valley can speak as many as seven Pashtun dialects. The nearly impenetrable tribal dynamic has worked against any application of the "Anbar model" used in Iraq, which allowed U.S. commanders to reach tactical alliances with tribal sheiks willing to turn against al Qaeda.

"That tactic of making alliances with certain tribes and clans to fight against others was used by the Soviets, and people in Afghanistan have a bad memory of it," says a senior Afghan officer. "It's a discredited concept here."

Meanwhile, as long as the syndicate of about 14 terrorist and insurgent groups that make up the Taliban and its allies operates freely on the other side of the border with Pakistan, commanders of the joint task force know they will essentially have to fight a rearguard holding action.

"The border remains one of the most important strategic operational issues I confront, because there is infiltration from every significant sanctuary on the Pakistani side," Milley says.

Increasingly, the Taliban is using newly constructed roads to hasten its movement toward Kabul, and to conduct ambushes that disrupt development projects and interdict allied supply lines. In June, for instance, Taliban forces set fire to a military supply convoy of 50 trucks just 40 miles south of the capital, killing some 40 local contractors. Ninety percent of U.S. goods to Bagram, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, come overland by road on an eight-day journey from Pakistan's Karachi port through the Khyber Pass.

"Roads are fundamental because the Taliban knows that people will use them to move products to market and break the insurgency's grip over their lives, and roads also connect the Afghan government to the people," Milley says. "Another of my top priorities is securing the Khyber Pass road as the main east-west axis, which like all roads in Afghanistan leads to the capital. And Kabul remains the center of gravity in this country."

Ungoverned Spaces

After the briefing at the Khyber Coordination Center, visitors sit down to a traditional Afghan meal that the local officers prepared. They smile at Gen. Craddock, who had come from halfway around the world. Asked his impression of the border campaign briefing, Craddock's answer reflects the military knowledge that insurgencies that enjoy uncontested sanctuary have rarely, if ever, been defeated.

"Look, this is the Hindu Kush, and there aren't enough soldiers in anyone's army to seal this border off completely," he says. "But we do need to control major access points and make it as difficult as possible to cross illegally." More important, Pakistan has to be persuaded to increase pressure on insurgent safe havens, he adds.

Top U.S. military officials forcefully insisted on that when they met with their Pakistani counterparts on August 26 aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in the Indian Ocean.

"We already know that when insurgents can just roll back into a safe haven whenever we pressure them, that's just a terrible situation," says Craddock, recalling one of the primary lessons not only of counterinsurgency warfare but also of the 9/11 attacks. "The ungoverned spaces where no legitimate authority exerts control breed trouble for us. We know that."

Lifting off from the Khyber Pass outpost, Craddock's helicopter followed the green ribbon of the Kunar River west toward Kabul. Only a short flight away in the other direction was the most dangerous ungoverned space of them all -- the mountain area in which Qaeda terrorists have surely regrouped and where Osama bin Laden is likely hiding. He and his top associate, arch terrorist Ayman al-Zawahiri, have lost many fellow jihadists in the seven years of fighting that has raged since 9/11. But their strategy of trying to lure the United States and its allies into a protracted fight on their home turf -- and their dream of repeating the victory they won over the Soviets -- remains very much alive.

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