Kabul, Afghanistan – American troops in Afghanistan are fighting what will soon become Barack Obama’s war — not just because he will inherit it, but also because he has claimed it. This is “the right battlefield,” Obama has said. The war in Afghanistan “has to be won.”
How can that mission be accomplished? Extensive interviews with American military commanders, European diplomats, and Afghan officials lead to this conclusion: Although we are not currently defeating the Taliban and other belligerent groups in Afghanistan, we can prevail — if the incoming administration is prepared to fully resource a sophisticated counter-insurgency strategy similar to that implemented by General David Petraeus in Iraq.
#ad#A subtle and often misunderstood point: The war in Iraq was not turned around by “surging” more troops into the country to do more of the same. Rather, the key was transitioning to counterinsurgency — COIN — a form of warfare that requires many boots on the ground.
Before Petraeus took command in Iraq in early 2007, most American troops there were cooped up in large Forward Operating Bases — FOBs — that had to be supplied, maintained, operated and, of course, guarded. Meanwhile, outside the wire, terrorists were taking over neighborhoods and towns — killing, exploiting, coercing, and intimidating the locals.
A small number of elite troops would “commute” to this war — going out from the FOBs, often at night, to look for terrorist leaders, kicking down doors, arresting suspects, killing those who resisted, sometimes getting themselves blown up by bombs planted along roads the insurgents knew the Americans would have to travel. Reliable, actionable intelligence was scarce, so sometimes troops kicked down the wrong doors and killed the wrong people, stoking Iraqi resentment of the American “occupiers.” In sum, this was a flawed and failing strategy.
Petraeus initiated dramatic changes. He moved troops out of the FOBs and into Iraq’s mean streets. He brought in reinforcements and stationed them in Iraqi communities as well. Yes, that gave the terrorists more targets in more vulnerable postures. But once Iraqis understood that these warriors were there to provide security for them, their attitudes underwent a transformation.
They began work with the Americans, supplying them with intelligence no satellite or drone could produce: identifying the bad guys and pointing out the houses, schools, and mosques in which they were hiding, storing weapons, and holding prisoners. Before long, al-Qaeda terrorists and Iranian-backed militias were on the run.
As COIN experts in Afghanistan explain, successful counter-insurgency requires four discrete steps: shaping, clearing, holding, and building. Shaping implies such tasks as sitting down with local leaders to ask their consent before bringing in troops. Clearing is the “kinetic” part — eliminating the enemy through the application of lethal force. Cleared areas must then be held — security forces need to stay on to prevent the bad guys from returning. Short-term, these forces can be foreign, but — as soon as possible — responsibility should be transferred to indigenous authorities whom our troops have trained for the task and whom we advise as long as necessary. Finally, there is a development component: building the local economy and helping establishing governance so that communities liberated from terrorists can stand on their own two feet.
This is a long and arduous process. But it has worked against tough insurgencies — while other approaches have not. For that reason, American officers and troops are working hard to master the range of skills needed and to adapt what has been learned in Iraq to the different — and in many ways more difficult — conditions in Afghanistan.
However, to achieve success will require additional manpower and equipment: everything from helicopters to body armor. Obama, during the campaign, pledged to provide such resources. Gen. Petraeus and the commanders on the ground in Afghanistan should tell the President-Elect exactly what they need. Obama should listen. If he does, Republicans as well as Democrats should support him.
Afghanistan will be Obama’s war but it also will be America’s war — just as Iraq was both Bush’s war and America’s war (though many people refused to acknowledge that). A robust COIN is the change we need to win it.
– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.