Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Military News

What does a 'win' in Afghanistan look like? Tampa stakeholders have differing views

Few communities in the United States have as much at stake as Tampa in what happens next with Afghanistan.

Two major commands at MacDill Air Force Base are deeply involved in the long-running war there. Air Force refueling wings help fighters and bombers hit enemy positions. Two busy veterans hospitals care for the injured. And the area is home to many Gold Star families whose loved ones were casualties of the fighting.

Like the nation as a whole, people touched by the war here had mixed reactions to the plan announced Monday by President Donald Trump for the future of America's involvement in Afghanistan. Not enough force, in the view of some questioned by the Times. Maybe it's time to withdraw, a mother who lost her son reluctantly suggested.

Trump called for increasing pressure on Pakistan, boosting India-Afghan trade, pushing decisionmaking down to battlefield commanders, an end to so-called nation building, and increased reliance on the Afghans in winning the fight.

In his speech, Trump also emphasized finally "winning" the war — a concept that looks different to each of those interviewed. Here are highlights.

• • •

Scott Neil, 49, of St. Petersburg is a retired Green Beret master sergeant and was among the first American troops in Afghanistan, in 2001.

"More of the same from those that didn't win anything in the first place," he said of the speech.

Though Trump avoided specifics, it was widely reported that Congress has been told about 4,000 additional troops will be headed to Afghanistan on top of the 8,400 there now.

"That only equals about 400 trigger pullers," Neil said. "That's not enough of those that need to do what it takes. … We are stretched and we will be forced to stretch more."

Putting more pressure on Pakistan, long a haven for jihadi training, support and supply, makes a lot of sense, Neil said. But not just military pressure.

"In Iraq, it took an interagency effort with all partner nations to defeat money laundering, finance — all the things we have not been effective with," he said.

Indo-Afghan trade makes sense, as well, Neil said.

"India has 900,000 customers for Afghan products — but not through access to their market through Pakistan," he said. "Solve that and solve cash flow."

To Neil, "winning is what the original mission success was in the early days — unseating al-Qaida from sanctuaries and Taliban-controlled areas and removing those Taliban members that had those deep al-Qaida relationships from power."

• • •

Scott Mann, 49, is a retired Green Beret lieutenant colonel from Riverview who helped create the Village Stability Operations program, helping Afghans handle their own security.

"I was glad to see the president call out Pakistan and is looking to hold them accountable," Mann said.

"I am less enthused in the language I am hearing that he is going to press the attack, and decimate (jihadi groups). If we are only going to focus on surgical strikes, it is a repurposed Obama drone strategy.

"If there is anything we learned after 16 years, it is that 80 percent of the physical and human terrain in that country is outside the reach of the central government. … What we should be looking at is more of bottom-up local strategy, like the Green Berets have done in places like the Philippines and Colombia."

Mann said he is glad Trump avoided timetables. Winning, Mann said, means "denial of safe haven for (jihadis) and for civil society to handle its own affairs."

• • •

Mike Nicholson, 28, is a medically retired Marine sergeant who lost three limbs in Afghanistan in July 2011.

"I think it's an incredibly difficult situation and it's going to take more than a small troop surge to accomplish a desirable outcome," Nicholson said.

"I wholeheartedly support giving military leaders freedom to operate and to make decisions based on conditions on the ground. If we can eliminate the terror groups … and give the Afghan people economic options to make their country productive, I think that would have a huge impact on the region."

Nicholson defines winning as "not having 40 percent of the country being controlled by terrorists. The Afghan government has to rein in the corruption or we're going to continue fighting an uphill battle. We can wipe out the Taliban and (ISIS in Afghanistan) but that means nothing if there's not a stable government to lead the country in the aftermath."

• • •

Thea Kurz, 56, of Ruskin is the mother of Army Sgt. 1st Class Matthew I. Leggett, who was 39 when he was killed in Kabul in August 2014. Leggett was the most-recent Tampa-area resident killed in Afghanistan.

"I have always supported the military because of my son," Kurz said. "I understand there will always be battles, because that's the way us humans are. My only concern is that America gets involved in things we should not be in or that it is not going to work.

"I understand that the president and government don't want to admit that the situation over there is a nightmare for the troops. It is good that local commanders will have more direct authority. But the damage that is being done to our troops and morale of our troops, to parents and families — at a point maybe it is time to start pulling out, rather than continue to fight, just to prove to the world that we are the best."

Kurz said she does not believe winning in Afghanistan is possible.

"We did not win in Vietnam and I don't think we can change the culture and beliefs of the Afghan people."

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

     
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