Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

NATO generals visit Afghanistan, behind a wall of security

By Reuters Staff
October 21, 2009

                                                      By David Brunnstrom

k1U.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.k2

 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.”


The title of the article says it all. If Nato’s top brass in Afghanistan moved around in “a wall of security,” it means they know that they are not welcomed there; they are there as hostile occupiers, and hostile occupiers cannot “win the hearts and minds of the people,” as General McChrystal naively thinks.
Wherever George Bush traveled, and wherever Baraq Obama travels, the host countries close the routes they
travel and secure the perimeter for 5 miles around. They don’t do that when the Pope visits, because he is welcomed by the people; but they do that for warmongering leaders because they are responsible for the
that ravages of war, and they are hated outside their domain. And, of course, that applies to the Generals that manage those wars.

McChystal’s plan for winning the minds and hearts of the people is good for domestic consumption in the U.S., but it is hypocritical. The PBS documentary program “Frontline” showed video of U.S. soldiers visiting Afghan villages, searching males for weapons, and telling them sternly: “If I see you with a Taliban, I know you are with them,” on quote. Translation: “if I see you with Taliban, you are dead.” (PBS, October 13, 2009) What can the villagers do when the Taliban visit the village? Tell the Taliban, I cannot talk to you because the Americans will kill me? Then, the Taliban will accused them as collaborators of the U.S. forces and kill them!

On another instance, the U.S. forces busted into a house and killed an Afghan woman and a child. All the villagers marched in the center of the village later and chanted: “Death to America,” and later complained to reporters that “searches of homes, and beating of Afghan civilians have become a daily [U.S. forces]
business.” Reuters, October 16, 2009) Add to that the behavior the top brass – who are responsible for all the aforementioned abuses above – going around walled in armor and machine gun totting guards, and the claim of General McChrystal that his plan is to win the “hearts and minds of the Afghans” seems to be quite preposterous in practice.

There are, therefore, two faces of the war in Afghanistan: 1) The U.S. domestic and global propaganda war that portrays the U.S. war in Afghanistan as an effort to help the Afghan people, and 2) the real brutality of the war in the villages, and the desperation of the Afghans with a war that has turned their lives upside- down, without any prospect of improvement as long as the U.S. occupation continues. And to add insult to injury, the Norwegian friends of Obama gave him a Nobel Peace Prize for “thinking to continue the war in Afghanistan for another ten years.” And the irony of it is that Americans on a 2-1 margin believe that “Obama’s thinking” on Afghanistan is “unclear!” (ABC News poll, October 21, 2009)

U.S president Roosevelt said after the Japanese attack on Perl Harbor on December 7, 1941: “December 7 is a day that will live in infamy.” As as that anniversary is coming soon, we shall not forget that there were 8 years of “infamy” in Afghanistan already, and another 10 years of “infamy” are brewing in Obama’s Nobel decorated thinking, while the Nato’s top brass in Afghanistan is trying to win the hearts and minds of Afghans hiding “behind a wall of security!” Nikos Retsos, retired professor

Posted by Nikos Retsos | Report as abusive

Damn good comment by Nikos R

Posted by Borat83 | Report as abusive

Obama should give the troops help or pull them out of Afgan.

Posted by gus907 | Report as abusive

The winning of “hearts and minds” plan HASN”T been implemented yet Professor. Even if it had should we just put our generals out there for taliban snipers to hit? Should our president walk around not guarded even in our own country? Of course not. Professor’s are overpaid idiots who don’t know how to teach by the way, not impressive at all to drop that at the end. Josh Cruez, Working Shmoe.


It did not work in VN. It will NEVER work if we are not invited to be there – which we have not been in Afghanistan,

Give the new legitimate Afghani 60 days to come to terms with the joint direction and strategy.

If we are wanted – then help them win their country back. If not – leave…

Posted by Tom Walter | Report as abusive

Hearts and Minds sounds like Viet Nam, which was working until Congress pulled the plug.

It’s a slow process and you will win some and lose some along the way. Just never lose sight of the goal.

Posted by jhncal | Report as abusive

Excellent article and insight.

The ISAF generals will next suggest tying little bells around the necks of insurgents, so ISAF forces can hear them approaching.

Posted by dom youngross | Report as abusive

“No poll shows the Taliban achieving double-digit popularity in the past eight years in Afghanistan.”  /jul/05/the-moderate-taliban/
“In the three months since the Marines arrived (in Nawa, Helmand Province) , the school has reopened, the district governor is on the job and the market is bustling. The insurgents have demonstrated far less resistance than U.S. commanders expected.” tent/article/2009/10/21/AR2009102104144. html
Your models are old and you need to see what’s happening now fellas in Afghanistan.

Posted by Steve Real | Report as abusive

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