Force alone not way to win

Army rethinking anti-Taliban effort

December 26, 2008|By David Wood | David Wood,

FORT BRAGG, N.C. - In a sandy clearing in the pine woods, Special Forces soldiers and civilians are struggling with the riddle of Afghanistan.

Why is the United States, seven years after it invaded and threw out the Taliban, still falling short in the war?

From their varied backgrounds - infantryman, farming expert, foreign aid officer - they work under U.S. Army doctrine: You can't beat insurgents with military force.

For years, everyone from politicians to generals have advocated "more troops," and the Pentagon is deploying about 4,000 additional soldiers and Marines during the next two months. Some 20,000 more are likely to be deployed this spring and summer.

But military officers acknowledge that pure force can be counterproductive, especially in regions already hostile to outsiders, where civilian casualties and destruction inevitably accompany combat operations. As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates observed recently about Afghanistan, "We cannot kill or capture our way to victory."

Instead, counterinsurgency experts here say they believe the U.S. must focus on building stability into the lives of ordinary Afghans. That sounds simple and obvious - but it's a 180-degree turn from the current strategy. And it requires sending to Afghanistan Americans skilled not just in war-zone work, but in meticulously fitting development to local needs.

The United States can't "fix" Afghanistan's poverty, illiteracy and other causes of instability. But Special Forces counterinsurgency experts say they believe they can stem the rising Taliban insurgency by refocusing the U.S. effort. Instead of just chasing insurgents and heaping development projects into a district - such as roads, schools and health clinics - first determine the causes of local conflict. Then work to fix those specific problems.

Listening carefully to local people, they say, can help determine why a particular village or town is dominated by the Taliban, who are often disliked for their harsh methods. Probing further can determine what can be done about it.

This bottom-up strategy reverses the entrenched U.S. approach: attacking insurgents where they gather, and determining in Washington where to build schools and roads. Then measuring "success" by checking off project lists - not by measuring gains or losses in local stability.

"Our approach ties your actions to the root causes of instability," said Thomas Baltazar, a retired Special Forces colonel who heads the Office of Military Cooperation at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Baltazar's team, in a series of training sessions here, taught this new approach to soldiers and development experts who deployed to Afghanistan last month.

But it's an uphill battle. Figuring out the causes of conflict can be a frustrating process of talking again and again with local villagers. Taking action on causes of instability - whether that means training local cops and judges, or helping local governments learn to budget and manage contracts - can require long-term investments whose success is hard to measure with the kind of specific numbers sought by skeptical politicians.

This kind of work is also dangerous.

"If you are helping people build stability, you are taking power away from the insurgents," said a Special Forces officer who just returned from Afghanistan, who asked not to be identified because he is not an authorized spokesman.

"Mother Teresa would have been beheaded out there."

Simply building a school or health clinic is safer, quicker and an easier sell to bureaucrats and congressmen who control funding.

"This is new warfare," said John Mott, a Montana-bred cowboy who works on livestock management with a local government in eastern Afghanistan. "This is not the Peace Corps, it's a counterinsurgency. If it were as simple as shooting bad guys, I'd be all for it. That's easy to do.

"This other," he sighs, "is slow and frustrating - everything Americans hate to do."

Americans were proud of a new school recently opened in Paktika Province in eastern Pakistan. But conflict flared immediately. Fighting broke out, and the Taliban arrived to threaten the teacher with death. It turned out that unpopular and corrupt police assigned to protect the school were extorting bribes from villagers, and the Taliban became heroes for chasing the cops away.

Afghanistan "is a complex environment, and you got to ask a lot of questions and peel back the layers," said Jim Derleth, senior adviser on conflict and stabilization at the U.S. Agency for International Development. In general, he said, "We are not doing that.

"But if we don't understand what is going on with the local population, how can we be effective?"

In this case, American dollars would have been better invested in helping the local government select a new police chief and remove the corrupt police. That would have won the villagers' good will, especially if some of them were hired as cops - and would have kept the Taliban away.

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