Marshall: Getting up close and really personal in Afghanistan

First in a series:

U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall was embedded with a Special Forces A Team, the weekend of July 20. This is a log of the experiences. SOMEWHERE OVER SOUTH ASIA -

Friday, July 20, 2007: We're in a lightning storm at night over the Himalayas. The ride's pretty rough, and the worn out interior of this airplane makes me wonder about its mechanical condition. But the pilot has his wife and children on board. So I assume we'll make it to Lahore, Pakistan, the second of four stops on my way to spending about 24 hours embedded with a Special Forces A team on a small, remote fire base along the Pakistani border. If all goes well, the trip will last about 84 hours door-to-door, 41 will be in the air. I should be back in time for congressional votes Monday night.

I've been skeptical of our Iraq strategy since the summer of 2003 and have regularly shared my misgivings with administration, congressional and military leadership. I've also repeatedly sought permission to embed with frontline troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to get an uncensored, uncontrolled, up-close impression of how these engagements contrast with my counter-insurgency combat experiences in Vietnam. I think my experience gives me better perspective and judgment.

This is my 11th trip to the war zone. And I've certainly had some informative ones. Three were with the (then) Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Pete Schoomaker, but congressional trips to a war zone - even when you're behind the scenes with the Army Chief of Staff - are a long way from where the rubber meets the road in conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Effective counter-insurgencies are driven from the bottom up. Ideally, above the platoon, company or battalion level, command should set broad rules and then take direction from, and give support to, the combat units in daily contact with local populations.

Big hearted, savvy, patient troops are more effective than good shooters. Mean tough guys are a disaster. What's needed is tough Peace Corps types, Peace Corps with a punch, a Special Forces-like operations backed by conventional power used sparingly and discreetly.

So I've been arguing for a smaller conventional presence on the ground and a more expanded Special Forces-like combat operation. Not so much of the direct action, Delta Force, kinetic missions, but rather more use of traditional Special Forces.

We've been playing what the military calls "whack-a-mole." Hit the enemy here and it pops up over there. Time permitting, maybe I'll write something tomorrow that fleshes out why this may be a losing game for us. I'm not the only one who thinks it might be. Many military planners are coming around to this point of view.

I hope my frontline visit with this Special Forces A team gives some insights into our strategic/tactical military challenge. I don't like missing votes, but this was an important.

The House sergeant at arms insisted that I be given a briefing about the danger, a first for any congressional trip. And thankfully, Nancy Pelosi waived the rules to permit the trip after twice trying to talk me out of it. She said she would defer to my judgment in light of my military experience. I didn't mention that experience sometimes warps judgment.

Jim Marshall represents the 8th Congressional District in Georgia.