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US Forces Adapt to Non-Combat Role in Afghanistan

  • Malcolm Brown

The U.S. military takes pride in its war-fighting ability, but its experience in Iraq and Afghanistan is forcing a re-examination of non-combat roles. Commanders accept that bombs and bullets alone will not win what the Pentagon refers to as "the long war," in which American troops are engaged in nation building, as well as combat. Malcolm Brown reports on how that is playing out in Afghanistan.

After confronting a resurgent Taleban last year, U.S. and allied troops have been warned to expect an even greater onslaught in 2007.

While American forces express confidence that they can defeat the enemy on the battlefield, the outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, says that ultimately the war cannot be won by force alone.

"The non-military aspects of success in Afghanistan are increasingly prominent: the delivery of education, the delivery of good governance, the delivery of justice systems, the delivery of a good economy."

Defense analyst John Pike says that in order to deliver, the American military is having to adapt. "The U.S. Army does know how to do this. It's just that not very many soldiers in the Army are trained in this particular specialty. So, it's been very much a learning experience on the part of infantry, armor, artillery soldiers to learn these civil affairs skills and to apply them in practice."

In addition to their military duties, U.S. troops are helping to restore, and in many cases, create Afghan infrastructure.

Task force commander Colonel John W. Nicholson defines the goal as separating the enemy from the general population. "It is there that we win this war; by connecting the Afghan government, with the people, and by transforming their environment. So, at the end of that, they believe their best hope for the future is with the government of Afghanistan."

To bolster that government, international forces continue to train members of the Afghan National Army. It's another of the non-combat roles American troops are being called upon to perform.

John Pike, who runs his defense-related website from an office in Alexandria, Virginia, says the U.S. military is trying to balance competing needs.

"Finding the balancing act between being good at conventional and good at unconventional is a balancing act the U.S. military is still looking for. Unavoidably, getting better at the unconventional, counterinsurgency operations is going to come at the sacrifice of some excellence in the stand-up fight. But I think that's a sacrifice the U.S. Army is prepared to make."

Given Afghanistan's rugged terrain and the legacy of decades of warfare, it is a balancing act that American commanders expect to be performing for a long while.

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