Military Embraces Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan
Monday, September 29, 2008 at 11:38 am
This is the ninth in a series: The Rise of the Counterinsurgents
Insurgents pour north from the barely-guarded Pakistan border to the southeast, through Paktika Province, in the heart of Pashtun-controlled eastern Afghanistan. Their objective, according to the U.S. military command, is to attack the capitol city of Kabul, and to cut off the eastern province of Khost, where about 5,000 U.S. troops live on a large base called Salerno, about 12 miles from the Pakistani border.
Along the way, they go straight through southwestern Paktia Province, where 100 or so U.S. soldiers — the 1-61 Cavalry, based at a small outpost in Zormat — use a 250-watt radio as one of their most important weapons in a protracted, arduous counterinsurgency campaign.
“We’re talking about what kind of religion Islam [is], how to use it,” explained Lateef, 23, a DJ at Voice of Unity Radio, “about suicide bombers, which wars to fight, why suicide attacks are bad.” With his partner, Marwan, Lateef spends eight hours a day — 8 a.m. to noon and 6 p.m. to 10 — putting anti-Taliban and anti-Al Qaeda messages on the airwaves.
They operate from a boxy wooden shack near the dining facility at Combat Outpost Zormat. The spartan conditions — there’s one microphone, a small mixing board and a laptop in the radio station — gave rise to the cavalry troop’s nickname for Marwan and Lateef’s efforts: Radio in a Box.
To help the medicine go down, Marwan and Lateef include programming about the history of Pashto literature; listener feedback read live on the air, and local music from Zormat, broadcast from cassettes featuring up-and-coming musicians.
“It’s classy,” Lateef said, one cold evening, while Voices of Unity played the day’s news.
“It’s not rock,” explained Marwan, 24, who wears his hair fashionably long and tousled, “and not pop.”
“Modern,” Lateef interjected.
And, arguably, influential. According to a study by the Human Terrain Team, attached to Task Force Currahee — the U.S. military team based at Salerno and built around the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division– Paktia Province has a literacy rate of 2 percent. Craig Charney, the primary U.S. pollster to operate in Afghanistan, pointed out that the level of Taliban sympathy in the east is the highest in the country.
The 1-61 Cavalry’s commander, Capt. Chad Collins, 30, pointed out that the rumor mill remains the local population’s primary means of disseminating information. So it counts as an encouraging sign when a half-dozen Afghan villagers interviewed one day out, in the far regions of the cavalry troop’s sector, said they were familiar with Voices of Unity.
The insurgency has planted improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, throughout the the area, to the point where patrols led by the 1-61 Cavalry steer clear of what few roads the sector has. Yet Collins views the radio station run by the two young men as integral to his battle plan.
“The frustration and the challenge,” said Collins, “is that success in Afghanistan is not related to specific military objectives.” Instead, when his soldiers return home next year, he wants to ensure that the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army he partners with are able to secure the area on their own. For Collins, the key thing is that local government — “not the tribes,” he said — is “capable of self-rule” and that the government can “provide for its constituents.”
While there may be a debate within the Army as to the proper role of counterinsurgency, in Zormat, the question is settled. Collins — like most of his soldiers, a veteran of the Iraq war — is a counterinsurgency true believer. The captain is more likely to beam with pride over plans to improve the district’s infrastructure than over the number of enemy fighters killed. “It’s a doctrinal shift,” Collins said.
Asked to envision a successful end-state to his cavalry troop’s mission, Collins — a tall, broad-shouldered man from Pryor, Okla., with a law degree — immediately speaks in the language of counterinsurgency — a method of warfare that emphasizes economy of force, intimate knowledge of host populations and politico-economic incentives to win that population’s allegiance.
“It’s not that I’ve rid this land of enemy fighters, though that’s a small fraction of what we do,” he said. “It’s that I’ve empowered indigenous forces to stand and fight on their own against enemy forces.”
David Kilcullen, the former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus and current adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, once analogized the war on terrorism to a global counterinsurgency. Afghanistan — and particularly eastern Afghanistan — provides a key test.
In Iraq, the adoption in 2007 of a counterinsurgency strategy — at least in Baghdad and Anbar province — helped reduce vn violence to levels last seen in 2004. But there were no Al Qaeda operations in Iraq until instability, caused by the U.S.-led occupation, allowed the terrorist organization to establish a franchise there. As a result, it’s difficult to see Iraq as a simultaneous counterinsurgency and counterterrorism war.
Afghanistan is a different story. Looking south from Salerno, a mountain ridge appears from a distance of several miles. Insurgents have camped there, using its protection to fire 107-mm rockets, a classic tactic of Afghan guerrillas.
Beyond that ridge is an more distant one, barely visible — but still an outpost for insurgents, who fire 128-mm rockets at the base. That further mountain range is in Pakistan, where U.S. intelligence believes Al Qaeda has built and fortified a safe haven, and where insurgent resupply lines carry weapons, money and fighters into Afghanistan.
The differences between Afghanistan and Iraq have emerged as a major point of point of argument between the Democratic and Republican presidential contenders, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain.
At Friday’s presidential debate in Oxford, Miss., Obama proposed sending an additional two to three Army brigades to Afghanistan, a troop increase of the size requested by U.S. commanders there. McCain endorsed an unspecified troop increase, but called Obama reckless for proposing taking military action against Al Qaeda in Pakistan. While Obama focused more on the drift of the Afghanistan war, McCain warned more about what he described as “very fragile” success in Iraq unravelling in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal.
Leaving aside the politics of the two wars, combating the influx of insurgents from Pakistan has been an an arduous affair. Security in Afghanistan has declined markedly over the past year — so much so that Afghanistan veteran Brandon Friedman of VoteVets, a U.S. veterans organization, calculates that Afghanistan is now 15 times more dangerous for U.S. troops than Iraq.
Capt. Christian Patterson, a spokesman for the U.S. military command in eastern Afghanistan based at Bagram Airfield near Kabul, said that the insurgency is in the middle of a transition.
“Enemy attacks are increasing in coordination and many of their techniques have not been seen before here in Afghanistan,” Patterson wrote in an email. “Though there is an increase in foreign influence, it is not, by any means evident in most events. It is only evident in a handful. The increased levels of efficiency amongst enemy forces has usually been along the border areas.”
While Patterson didn’t say so, the increase in foreign fighters coming to Afghanistan is like the 2003-2006 period in Iraq — when foreign jihadists travelled to the country to attack U.S. and Iraqi forces. At Zormat, members of the 1-61 Cavalry said they had killed an insurgent earlier this year who had been implicated in attacks in Iraq.
The pattern of attacks faced by the 1-61 Cavalry fits a decades-old pattern of insurgent activity. The IEDs placed along Zormat district’s craggy dirt roads recall the 1980s-vintage Afghan mujaheddin frequent mining of the roads, in the hope of immobilizing Soviet armored columns.
According to N. Blaine Cooper and Forrest Robertson, respectively the lieutenant and platoon sergeant of the 1-61 Cav’s First Platoon, their platoon hasn’t encountered a sustained battle since May 10, when the platoon — known as the Hooligans — decisively defeated an insurgent assault that lasted hours.
In southwestern Zormat, it appears, the insurgency prefers to avoid playing to the U.S.’s strengths as it seeks to advance northward.
Collins’ soldiers, like many in Afghanistan, are trying to expand their traditional areas of strength. In addition to becoming amateur broadcasters, waging a counterinsurgency has required them to become development workers.
It doesn’t always have the desired result. Soldiers and officers told a story about a recent trip to a destitute village — one of many in 1-61 Cav’s area of operations — where they delivered food, school supplies, cooking oil, winter blankets and cheap, portable radios.
But by the time the soldiers left, the Taliban had arrived, rounding up the humanitarian aid and burning it. Not only were the locals less inclined to accept the aid when the soldiers returned a few days later, they complained about the exorbitant prices of food and fuel. It was not evident to the soldiers that the villagers connected the high cost of living to the Taliban’s sabotage.
Counterinsurgency has also required the 1-61 Cav to become diplomats, an endeavor with its own frustrations. On a recent morning, Cooper and his commanders drove to the Zormat district center to watch the local shura — a kind of city council — in action.
The shura, however, had other plans. A half-hour after it was supposed to start, Cooper’s lieutenants walked through the light-blue office building where the shura meets and found no one there. “They’re absent,” noted an incredulous officer. “What’s wrong with them?”
Indeed, the only Afghans at the gates of the building weren’t shura members. They were would-be contractors, carrying color photographs of toilets, half-built walls and a stack of floorboards, intending to impress the Americans in hopes of securing a lucrative contract to rebuild a damaged shrine.
Cooper stuck to the counterinsurgency script as written 80 years earlier by the legendary British viceroy T.E. Lawrence: “It is better to let them do it themselves imperfectly than to do it yourself perfectly. It is their country, their way and our time is short.”
He turned to the hopeful contractors, and instructed his interpreter to inform them that any deal “has to come from the district,” rather than the Americans.
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