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Eleventh-Hour Counterinsurgency

by Bing West

We must quickly prepare the Kabul government to win its own war

The Obama Surge began in July of 2009 with the entry of a Marine brigade into southern Helmand Province. For three years, a British brigade had struggled in Helmand, meeting fierce resistance in every district. The surge was meant to firmly establish Coalition control in this province and elsewhere, with the goal of eventually handing the country over to the Afghan army.

The surge has one more year to produce results, and then Obama has promised to begin withdrawing our troops. So how is the Helmand campaign going, and what does it portend about other areas?

Having just returned from my third trip in a year to the province, I’d say that depends on how you assess success. In a sentence, the Marines are doing well, the Afghan army is tagging along, and the people are standing on the sidelines.

Most of Helmand is a sand-and-dirt wasteland, though the Helmand River runs 100 miles from the north to the southwest through the center of the province, irrigating a “green zone” about 20 miles in width. The main crop is opium poppies; this one province produces close to half the world’s supply. The Marine strategy was to seize and hold the river valley, then pounce upon the Taliban and drug stronghold of Marja, located near the center of the province.

This February’s assault on Marja by thousands of Afghan soldiers and U.S. Marines, the war’s largest operation in eight years, received intense press coverage. At first it was overhyped as a success, because the fighting ended in a few weeks. Unfortunately, the new district governor failed to gain traction, and the Taliban began a campaign of murder and intimidation that continues today. Marja left a bad taste, since it showed that the Taliban could adapt its tactics and string out the war.

In late July, I accompanied Lt. Col. Kyle Ellison, the commander of Marine Battalion 2-6, to remote Outpost Justice, deep in Taliban-controlled territory in western Marja. Sgt. Christopher Austin, 23, was in charge of a combined squad of eight Marines and nine Afghan soldiers, with no interpreter. Austin carefully pointed at a row of stout houses a hundred meters away.

“We get hit from there twice a day,” he said. “So watch it. They ride up on motorcycles, pick up cached AKs [rifles], blaze away, and drive off. We don’t bomb the houses.” The Taliban knows our rules of engagement well.

On a bare hill behind the small settlement fluttered the flags of a cemetery. “When we score a kill,” Austin said, “they take the coffin up there in a parade of bikes. It looks like Hell’s Angels, but not a one of them carries a weapon. So they’re safe.” Austin addressed his commander: “We want to ambush them tonight in the vil’, sir.”

“How many?” Ellison asked.

“We’ve counted eleven to 20,” Austin said.

Ellison looked around. “You need four men to man posts,” he said. “Plus four as a quick-reaction force. Set your ambush tonight with eight, but don’t let them cut you off.”

A Pashtun interpreter in his second year in Helmand told me, “The Taliban fear the saman dirian [Marines]. They say samandari have much enthusiasm. They like to fight.” Austin showed that. The Marines excel at raw firefights. In Marja, they will gradually exact a toll from the shoot-and-scoot bikers. As this patient strategy of attrition continues, the trend points toward Marine control across the populated districts of Helmand by next summer.

Checking the Taliban momentum with American power, though, is a midpoint, not a solution. After showing the Afghans that we are in charge, we will need to get them ready to take charge themselves — the army and the civilians. And some of our efforts to win over the populace may be making this goal harder to achieve.

Here’s an example. When Ellison left the outpost, he strode along the dirt road. I suspected he was trolling, hoping the Taliban would engage and lose a man or two, which is how most direct-fire engagements end. He headed toward a mosque where several men were loitering. The mullah hastened across a poppy field to parley. Ellison listened to his complaints about the shortage of work and a Taliban neighborhood gang that had burned his motorcycle. Point out the Taliban compound, Ellison said, and I’ll take care of that. The mullah refused. Okay, Ellison said, I’ll give you ten dollars a day to pull weeds out of the canal and get the water to your crops. It’s not my canal, the mullah replied; it belongs to the community. Give me ten men to clean it.

This “give me” attitude is one of the ways in which we have created a culture of entitlement rather than self-help. This mistake originates at the highest levels. According to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, “the central mission in Afghanistan right now is to protect the people, certainly, and that would be inclusive of everybody. And that — in an insurgency and a counterinsurgency, that’s really the center of gravity.”

That sort of gibberish has caused our current predicament. Counterinsurgency is based upon a social contract: Our soldiers bring money and honest government officials; in return, the people cease passively and actively supporting the insurgents. The Mullen approach misapplied counterinsurgency by giving away $30 billion since the invasion without demanding self-security in return.

We have been giving the villagers free goods for nine years. Annually, the 31 Provincial Reconstruction Teams and District Support Teams and our military spend $3 billion on projects that are wildly popular. In fact, they are the only projects in many districts. The one acronym most Afghans have memorized is PRT.

In return, nothing has been asked of the communities that have benefited. Indeed, until a few weeks ago, Karzai was opposed to village self-defense for fear it would give rise to another set of warlords. Because of all this, an attitude of entitlement and dependency has taken root. Now, suddenly, we, the givers, are asking the villagers to depend upon themselves and upon a government that depends upon us. That will be a hard sell. Until they believe the Taliban are losing, most Pashtun villages will not defend themselves or identify the secret Taliban who intimidate them, and who are their cousins and neighbors.

Our battalions are spending too much time on nation building: Every battalion gives a briefing that shows security as only one of its four Lines of Operation, or LOOs. Security, they say, is no more important than governance, economics, or the rule of law. That military catechism is a fantasy, because the tribal response to all these well-meant priorities has not been commensurate with our efforts.

Nation building by LOOs was also part of our military doctrine in Iraq, but it does not explain our success in that insurgency. True, the Sunnis did eventually rebel against al-Qaeda and the Islamist extremists, but they did not come over because of improved governance; in fact, they loathed the American-installed Shiite regime in Baghdad.

Instead, they decided to join the Americans because we were the strongest tribe. I asked Abu Risha, who led the Sunni tribal rebellion, why it took three years of blood and fighting before the Sunnis came over. He said, “You Americans could not convince us; we had to convince ourselves.” When they joined up, it was on the premise that the Americans would be staying. But that is not the case in Afghanistan. The Taliban repeat President Obama’s pledge that we are leaving soon, so the people stand aside.

From Marja, I visited Operating Base Geronimo in nearby Nawa district. When I was there last summer, the pace and nature of the fighting was similar to what we are seeing now in Marja. But Nawa has distinctly improved; it is good enough to be considered a showcase. Nawa had an Afghan battalion commander who was willing to leave the wire, a new police chief, a decent governor who had grown in self-confidence, an assertive district council, and a bustling farmers’ market.

Lt. Col. George Nunez, the adviser to the local Afghan battalion, was optimistic. Having advised an Iraqi battalion during the hard fighting in Anbar Province in 2006, he had a level eye. “Before the summer of 2011,” he said, “we should turn Nawa over to the Afghans. We’ll leave advisers. But most Marines should be out of Nawa in a year.”

The Marine battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jeff Holt, was more guarded but still optimistic. “We’ll place the Afghan forces in the lead,” Holt said. “Beyond that, I can’t predict.”

I next flew to Garmsir district at the bottom of Helmand, where Lt. Col. Ben Watson had deployed Battalion 3-1 in 50 outposts across 350 square miles of farmland. Each outpost held an American and an Afghan squad. Watson had deployed the combined units systematically, week after week, snapping up territory from the Taliban like Pac-Man. Garmsir had improved at an unexpected rate. Watson was in the process of seizing the Safar Bazaar, the gateway from Pakistan into southern Afghanistan. With the combat drawing to a close, Watson was fighting a political battle to persuade the Afghan government to allow the local villagers to raise a police force.

I left Helmand convinced that the Marines will basically clear the province over the next year. I was less certain that our national command in Washington has a clear-eyed view of what is possible in that timeframe. Benevolent counterinsurgency and billions of dollars will not persuade the Pashtun tribes to turn meaningfully against the Taliban, particularly if they believe the Americans are leaving in a year. The people will not throw out the Taliban; that is the job of the Afghan security forces. The priority mission for our forces should be to train those forces and instill in them the confidence required to win.

Defeating an insurgency requires balancing three tasks: 1) destroy the insurgent forces; 2) remove the insurgents’ appeal and win over the people by building a nation with honest governance and the rule of law; 3) train an indigenous force.

Regarding task 1, we cannot destroy the Taliban. They are too elusive and have a vast sanctuary. It’s not enough for our Special Operations Forces to hammer the Talib leaders, as they are certainly doing. The rural districts also have to be controlled by Afghan forces, and that hasn’t happened yet.

Regarding task 2, we don’t have the time or resources to build a nation when its top leaders are so feckless. Corruption is rife at all levels, and their commitment to opposing the Taliban is shaky. Admiral Mullen has said, “Afghanistan has to be stable enough, has to have enough governance, has to create enough jobs, have an economy that’s good enough so that the Taliban cannot return.” That certainly requires a vibrant nation. Yet President Obama has scoffed, “Nobody thinks that Afghanistan is going to be a model Jeffersonian democracy.”

Our battalions are trying to build a nation from these unpromising materials because senior officers from Mullen on down have bought into an unproven theory of liberal counterinsurgency. “Soldiers and Marines,” according to the doctrinal field manual entitled “Counterinsurgency,” “are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors.” If the president has rejected nation building, he must make that clear to his military commanders and let them concentrate on fighting and training. If he hasn’t, he must figure out a way to hold Afghanistan together as a nation once the Americans are gone.

So task 3 — training and instilling confidence in the Afghan forces — should be the first priority at present. In my combined-action platoon in Vietnam, it took 16 months before we could turn over the village to the Popular Force platoon. Every day we taught them on the job how to fight and how to have confidence that they could kill the Viet Cong.

If we expect to cut loose the Afghan forces a year from now, we have to get serious about preparing them now. This war will turn on whether they show they can beat the Taliban, not on American soldiers’ protecting the Pashtun tribes from their Taliban cousins.

Our domestic political clock is approaching midnight. We need to fix dates to tasks. Otherwise, we will be suddenly rushing the transition without having properly prepared the Afghan units.

I know — we tried this approach in Vietnam. There the war ended badly and millions were killed. So even as we turn the war over to Afghan forces, we must keep some American combat units, air power, logistics, and large advisory teams committed, and the U.S. Congress must allocate aid every year for perhaps another decade. This means over $60 billion in 2011. After that, it would seem politically prudent to cut back in order to retain congressional support. Still, we are facing more than $40 billion in 2012, and a like amount for years after that. The surge is working, but surges are temporary by nature, and Afghanistan is a long-term problem.

– Mr. West, a former assistant secretary of defense and former combat Marine, is just back from his eighth trip to Afghanistan.

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