Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
On a recent embed with U.S. Marines in a remote spot of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, the Taliban, or Taliban-linked insurgents, seemed so elusive and invisible that it was easy to doubt whether they actually existed.
Only the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) planted crudely under dirt tracks indicated insurgents were lurking somewhere in Helmand’s vast cornfields and desert plains. Every home or compound that was visited and searched by the Marines I accompanied on foot patrol appeared to be safe or occupied by harmless residents who just wanted to get along with their lives.
The Marines, who had been ambushed by a group of insurgents and successfully cleared a path laced with bombs a day or so before, were by and large convinced that someone, somewhere in these villages, knew where the insurgents were or when they were likely to turn up next.
Patrolling villages in “Taliban country”, is an essential plank of the U.S. military’s counter-insurgency, the strategy championed by General David Petreus in Iraq and largely credited for quelling the insurgency there.
Most U.S. military officers in Afghanistan swear by Field Manual 3-24 (FM 3-24) — the military’s counter-insurgency (COIN) bible. They admit to having “drank the Cool Aid” and most are confident it is the best hope Washington has of gaining the upper hand on the Taliban, securing the support of the population, while trying to keep civilian casualties as low as possible.
But with reports that as many as 40,000 more U.S. troops have been requested for Afghanistan by the commander of foreign forces there, Army General Stanley McChrystal, many are beginning to question whether COIN is too costly, whether it’s misguided and if more troops actually feeds the insurgency.
In his recent assessment of the war in Afghanistan McChrystal said that protecting the population was of paramount importance in efforts to defeat the insurgency. This is one of the core mantras from a French scholar and military officer, David Galula, whose work heavily informs the FM 3-24.
Galula, however, was writing in the 1960s, with reference to France’s struggle against Algeria’s National Liberation Front. As such some scholars such as Thomas Rid at the Woodrow Wilson Institute have said that because counter-insurgency as a military doctrine is the product of a colonial age, rooted in 19th centruy scholarship, it may essentially be outdated or inappropriate for a 21st century war in Afghanistan.
In a recent interview with news channel Al Jazeera, former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said that COIN principles were outdated and would not work in Afghanistan. Even the idea of conducting a western-style democratic election was laughable to him and had echoes of how the Soviet Union tried to impose communism on Afghans in the 1980s.
More soldiers will inevitably foster more discontent within the population, Brzezinski said. A few years down the line, the insurgency would have grown leading to another call for more troops, perpetuating a troops-violence-troops cycle.
The supporters of COIN maintain that it’s the only way to ensure that a viable state can be built and supported. This blog post on the AfPak Channel says that what appears to be going on in Washington, particularly after President Barack Obama’s strategy review of Afghanistan back in April, is an attempt to combine COIN with counter-terrorism, something which “threatens to leave the U.S. with no clarity of strategy, doctrine, tactics and objectives.”
Another crucial part of Afghanistan’s future stability is the power of its own security forces. Right now the Afghan army, which is seen as broadly successful and relatively effective, is far too small. Only 650 Afghan troops pushed into Helmand with 4,000 U.S. Marines this summer.
Marine commanders on the ground say the Afghan army needs to significantly expand together with Afghan police. The police are paid between $70 and $100 a month to work one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, as they are often the first target of insurgents. They are also by and large poorly-educated or illiterate and because they are locally deployed, they tend to have loyalties to certain tribes and are known for turning a blind eye on insurgent activities in some areas.
Afghan army officers themselves are sometimes at odds with the U.S. approach. Foreign troops respond to insurgent gunfire using sophisticated weaponry and stronger force. It is a tactic some Afghan officers say is unnecessary and provokes local anger, even before foreign troops can advance into villages. “I think language is the strongest weapon of all, not guns, I think we should do a lot more talking” one Afghan sergeant in Helmand recently told me.
None of the villagers I interviewed in Helmand last week seemed happy to see Marines turning up at their front door, at best some were indifferent. In one shura I observed, the tone of the Marines, who are often decades younger than the wizened, bearded elders they try to communicate with, seemed frustrated and they appeared convinced the local elders were hiding information from them.
The elders are never asked whether they are happy to see their new neighbours, it is taken as a given that they should be grateful for their presence. The line often used to try and turn them into informants is: “you give us information on the Taliban and we will build you a school”.
(Photos: on a foot patrol with U.S. Marines in Darwishan, Helmand; a U.S. Marine takes a break while on patrol in Mian Poshtay, Helmand; Afghan soldiers search a compound in Mian Poshtay, Helmand. Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)