Sisyphus, Sean Naylor and C-SPAN
First, many thanks to all correspondents and contributors for the tremendous and very thoughtful response to the previous post, “A Tale of Two Captains.” More to come in a couple of days about Capt. Harrison’s work, including an update dispatch from him in Konar.
But first, here’s a strikingly apt flashback to 2006—when Army Times journalist (and author of the excellent Not A Good Day To Die) Sean Naylor and I did an interview together for C-SPAN’s “BookTV.” The topic was “The War in Afghanistan.”
We thought the piece was pretty timely then. I just watched it two days ago. Not only has very little changed in AfPak since that air-date in ‘06, but very little has changed since 327 B.C.
I was citing Alexander the Great’s campaign in the Afghan kingdoms 2300 years ago. I made the point that that ancient superpower army had its hands full against a cunning and resourceful hit-and-run foe who employed the tactics of insurgency, rallied and regrouped within mountainous and cross-border sanctuaries and recruited reinforcements from tribal populations in the north and east. In the interview, Sean Naylor said this of our troops:
They are fighting a counter-insurgent, counter-terrorist campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda and allies of al-Qaeda that are hiding out in the mountains, regrouping in Pakistan, coming back across the very porous Afghan/Pakistan border and gathering strength in the Pashtun tribe lands in Eastern Afghanistan.
In a piece that appeared in Small Wars Journal , titled “Sisyphus and Counterinsurgency” Major Niel Smith wrote:
In Greek legend, Sisyphus was a king condemned by the gods to roll a huge rock up a hill only to have it roll down again for eternity. Students of counterinsurgency often feel like Sisyphus, as the United States Army continually resists institutionalizing counterinsurgency across the force, only to have to re-learn the lessons at a heavy price later before preparing to discard them again.
Watching the C-SPAN interview three years later, it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room–in this case, the huge rock being rolled up the hill over and over again.
June 12, 2009, Lara Jakes of the Associated Press reported:
Gen. David Petraeus said the number of attacks in Afghanistan over the last week hit “the highest level” since the December 2001 fall of the Taliban. . . . “Some of this will go up because we are going to go after their sanctuaries and safe havens as we must. . . . But there is no question the situation has deteriorated over the course of the past two years in particular and there are difficult times ahead,” he said.
Three years after the C-SPAN interview, we are back down at the bottom of the hill, with the same rock ready for pushing.
Despite all this, I’m encouraged. I think we have outstanding commanders in place, whose thinking is bold and innovative and who are adapting fast to a situation that has bedeviled Western military men for more than two millennia.
Which brings me back to Major Jim Gant and Capt. Michael Harrison from our previous post. Can their successes be replicated on a wider scale? Is working with tribalism instead of against it part of the answer?
And can we do a little better this time, rolling that rock up the hill?