You and Whose Army?

Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey ’08GSAS takes on conventional wisdom about politics in the military.

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2010
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The view from the back of a CH-47 as American and Afghan soldiers descend into the Kunar River Valley along the Afghan-Pakistani border. / Photo: Jason DempseyThe wood was a high-quality variant of cedar that was being cut down illegally and spirited into Pakistan, where it was made into furniture. “So our idea was, let’s try to track the wood, because it would tell us how people are getting across the border. It’s harder to track a guy who might be carrying a rifle, but you can track a giant truckload of logs.”

The job was complicated by hair-trigger tensions between the Pakistani border patrol and Afghan soldiers, which the Americans often had to mediate. And then there were those rockets that kept crashing down around Camp Joyce.

“One day we get a hit on the radar that’s sufficient enough to fire counterfire immediately, because we know exactly where the rocket came from. We’re shooting our mortars back at the border, at this launch point, trying to get the guys who just fired their rocket. We’d established some communication channels with the Pakistani border patrol, and I get this text message from a Pakistani guy that says, ‘Hey, please adjust your fire, you’re firing within 200 meters of our border post.’ It’s a hilarious message, because it says ‘plz’ instead of ‘please,’ and at the end it says ‘thanx.’ I’m thinking, ‘It’s a crazy war.’

“I also think, ‘Screw them,’ because the rockets appear to be fired from a place they should have been easily able to see from their border post. We adjust our fire and move away from them, but my initial impulse is that they had to have seen it. Finally, we get helicopters so we can fly up to the Pakistani border post, and on the way we see some guys coming down on the Afghan side. We’re wondering who the hell they are, wondering whether to shoot them or not, and we hold our fire because we realize it’s Pakistani guys on this side of the border. So we get to the border post and we say, ‘How come you’ve got a patrol on the Afghan side there?’ ‘Oh, well, that’s where we get our water; we go down to the well on the Afghan side, because if we go on the Pakistani side, they’ll kill us.’” They being the Taliban. “We also realized that someone could easily be firing rockets from 200 or 300 meters down without the border patrol being able to do anything about it — the terrain is so insanely difficult.”

Such was life on the Durand Line in A.D. 2009.

As for the wood, Dempsey’s team eventually made a discovery: enormous piles of lumber on the other side of the Pakistani border post, all bundled and ready to be picked up. “So we’re sitting up at the border, looking at all these piles of wood on the Pakistani side, and then a donkey train that we’d seen earlier but lost track of is all of a sudden coming right toward us. I thought: ‘Are you kidding me?’ And it’s a group of kids, teenagers, pulling this wood up, and they say, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ They don’t even know that what they’re doing is illegal, because it’s what everybody in the valley does. We’re talking to them, and they tell us the name of the guy who pays them. Wait a minute: We know that that guy also harbors insurgents who travel in and out.

“So by pulling on the thread of the lumber trade, we found out where the border police weren’t effective, where government people were being paid off, and where local warlords were able to push local government officials to look the other way.”

The Sniff Test

“One way we in the military tend to approach these wars is with a sniff test: ‘Is this in and of itself a decent thing to be doing? Are we making somebody’s life better?’” Dempsey pauses for a sip of espresso. “We can argue all day about how these wars fit into the grand scheme of American power and international relations. But from the Army perspective, it’s always, ‘Can we make a difference in the lives of the folks there, or are we wasting our time?’ From my perspective, I think we can make progress, and do good. Now, whether or not it fits our national interests appropriately, or can be done in a timely or cost-effective manner, that’s for somebody else to decide.

“We can do what the American public asks. We just ask the American public to understand that there are limitations to what we can do. We can run around the hills and kill known insurgents nonstop, but if there’s not good governance, if we’re not giving an economic alternative, we’re wasting our time, because more insurgents will pop up to replace them, and there’ll be second-order effects that would negate any progress. So we know we have to pursue all these efforts in concert, in a way that gives more steps forward than steps back.

“A year ago the president announced that we were going to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Those troops are just now getting there. Only now are the right systems arriving with the people. But because we talked about those 30,000 a year ago, there might be a public perception that they’re already in place. ‘They’ve been there for a year, why haven’t they done anything?’ But we just got there.”

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