Last week, Secretary Hillary Clinton apologized to Pakistan for the accidental killing of about a dozen of its troops during an airstrike some seven months ago, and in exchange Pakistan has begun to permit the transit of truck-borne supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan. Islamabad had been demanding a huge, twenty-fold increase in transit fees, which Washington refused to pay, lest it seem that we were acceding to extortion. However, the administration agreed to ask Congress for $1.2 billion to defray the cost of what Pakistan insists are counterinsurgency operations, and the Congress may, quite properly, view it as extortion, too.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan we are either making progress or not, depending on whom you ask, and when you ask it. Today, six Americans were killed by a roadside explosive device, the principal cause of most American casualties in the last decade. People with military experience wonder why we persist in driving down unsecured roads, something which, in our first week of tactical training, we are all cautioned never to do. Doesn't sound like much progress here.
On the other hand, senior officials will aver that we really are having success in training the Afghan army, a prerequisite for our principal objective: leaving Afghanistan. But although it does occasionally have some tactical success in some areas, it is unlikely that the Afghan army will ever be a cohesive armed force, and many critical areas are under the control either of the Taliban or tribal leaders who couldn't care less about democracy or Afghanistan.
And these areas are likely to stay that way, too, because the biggest advantage we can give the Afghan army is something that we will not provide without our presence: air strikes. Because our war effort is designed to use as few troops as possible, and because the enemy has no air force, air power has come to be the deciding vote on the battlefield. Indeed, nearly the entire effort against enemy forces inside Pakistan has been air-delivered ordnance.
The independent variable is not aircraft. We can launch precision-guided munitions and drones far from the target, and it isn't necessary to base conventional aircraft inside Afghanistan because they can be re-fuelled aloft. But we won't provide close air support troops for Afghans in contact unless we are certain of the target, and that means Americans on the ground and in control of strike requests.
As we leave, violence in Afghanistan will increase, and what little remains of our influence will dissipate. Sixteen billion dollars in assistance has been pledged to Afghanistan, but we should have already learned elsewhere that money may buy allegiance, but allegiance doesn't count for much.
For the Americans remaining there, it will be tough going, whether they are on patrol or penned into vulnerable fortifications with little purpose. In the meantime, Afghans will have to become used to fighting on equal terms with the enemy, something they may not be prepared to do.