Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
NATO generals visit Afghanistan, behind a wall of security
By David Brunnstrom
U.S. General Stanley McChrystal says that if NATO forces hope ever to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan, they must shake off their garrison mentality, get closer to the people and share the risks they face.
Despite this, there was blanket security for a visit last week of the alliance’s top Brussels generals. In a paper setting out his Afghan strategy, McChrystal criticises the 42-nation International Security Assistance Force for a preoccupation with protecting its own personnel, thereby distancing itself “physically and psychologically” from the Afghan people it should be protecting.
“To gain accurate information and intelligence about the local environment, ISAF must spend as much time as possible with the people and as little time as possible in armoured vehicles or behind walls of forward operating bases,” McChrystal writes.
”When ISAF forces travel through even the most secure areas of Afghanistan firmly ensconced in armoured vehicles with body armour and turrets manned, they convey a sense of high risk and fear to the population,” he says. ”ISAF cannot expect unarmed Afghans to feel secure before heavily armed ISAF forces do. ISAF cannot succeed if it is unwilling to share risk, at least equally, with the people.”
The words of the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan had already been circulating for several weeks before the unannounced visit by NATO’s Military Committee, comprising Brussels-based military representatives of the 28 NATO states, and generals from other ISAF countries.
Yet they were clad in full body armour at all times during the trip, spent in Kabul and the provinces, except when they were in their heavily guarded hotel or in secure briefing rooms. They travelled at all times in convoys of armoured vehicles, protected by Humvees with turrets manned, in armed helicopters, or by fixed-wing aircraft. They saw virtually nothing beyond the walls of the very bases McChrystal referred to. And the only Afghans most met were a few ministers, and the staff of their Kabul hotel.
As an extra security measure, journalists in the delegation were required to keep the visit secret until it ended. The embargo was lifted only after the generals were back inside the fortress-like Kabul military airport protected by acres of blast walls, Hesco bags and barbed wire, and hundreds of ISAF soldiers.
While some would say Kabul is no longer among the most secure areas of Afghanistan after a series of suicide attacks in the past year, the irony was not lost on some members of the delegation. “It doesn’t look too good,” said one senior officer peering out from beneath the brim of a Kevlar helmet through an inch or so of orange-tinted bullet-proof glass at Afghans staring at the convoy from the dusty streets beyond. ”But this is done in the interests of public opinion at home — so that ISAF can say it took the proper measures and won’t get blamed if anything happens.”
Senior NATO officers acknowledge that any attempt to alter what McChrystal calls ISAF’s “operating culture” will be tough, and particularly unpalatable will be his argument that accepting some risk in the short term for the sake of winning confidence of Afghans could save lives longer term.
”How many are going to be comfortable with the prospect of higher casualties when they already have problems with public opinion?” one asked.
Such concerns are very real in a country where more than 1,500 Western troops have been killed since 2001. And gestures aimed at building trust can sometimes backfire. In Kandahar province in 2006, a Canadian officer who removed his helmet and put down his gun in a gesture of trust while visiting village elders was badly wounded by an axe blow to the head by a man yelling “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest).
McChrystal’s vision is also likely to fall foul of restrictions that some nations put on use of their troops that have often enraged soldiers exposed to greater risks.
“Certainly we need to change the way we operate and be more among the people,” said the chairman of the Military Committee, Italian Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola. However, he added: “It will be the local commanders who will decide the best way to be among the people, with the natural desire to protect our own people too.”