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We Don't Need Another Hero

Last summer NATO and Afghan government forces moved into the south and east of the country. For the first time in decades these provinces are coming under control of the central government. This is good news for the common folk and bad news for the Taliban and opium growers who thrive on lawlessness. Unsurprisingly, the level of violence in Afghanistan’s eastern and western provinces ratcheted up last year in response.

The NATO commander during this period, British Gen. David Richards, did a fantastic job with the forces he had available. He understood the basic premise of counterinsurgency warfare: less is more. The fewer battles fought and the less damage and killing done, the better our relationship with the Afghan civilians who hold the power to either give shelter to the enemy or turn them over to us.

This is important: You beat an insurgency -- not by killing the insurgents -- but by isolating them from the population and rendering them irrelevant. When the population no longer supports the insurgents, they lose. They can no longer operate.

The current situation in the southern town of Musa Qala is an excellent example. Last fall, Musa Qala was a battleground. Realizing that he was losing support of the population, Gen. Richards brokered a truce that left the town under control of local tribal leaders and a local police force and kept both Taliban and NATO forces outside the town, allowing the people to rebuild their homes in peace.

The Bush administration and the US military were highly critical of the deal, believing it gave the Taliban a "victory". We now know that was not the case. The Taliban broke the bargain and took over the town last weekend -- and the townsfolk immediately got on the phone to NATO forces and provided information that led directly to a surgical air strike that killed the Taliban leader and his henchmen.

The Taliban may temporarily hold the town, but they lost the support of the people. The citizens of Musa Qala no longer hide the insurgents and it's only a matter of time before they're evicted from the town for good. The operation -- with the support of the people -- is already under way. Where last October NATO was perceived as the cause of war's inevitable collateral damage, this time NATO and Afghan national forces are seen as the good guys.

Just after all this happened, command of NATO forces in Afghanistan shifted to the US and Gen. Dan McNeill. Gen. McNeill is described as a "war fighter to the bone" and his arrival likely signals the end of the type of deals with tribal leaders that saw support in Musa Qala shift away from the Taliban towards NATO and the Afghan government.

Just when we finally get a counterinsurgency expert like Gen. Petraeus in Iraq, we get an old-fashioned "war fighter to the bone" in Afghanistan. Time will tell whether Gen. McNeill understands that the Taliban aren't the enemy; they are Afghans. They are brothers, sons, fathers, cousins and husbands who will keep fighting until they are co-opted or isolated and made irrelevant.

Afghanistan doesn't need a "war fighter to the bone". The country needs roads and bridges. water and electricity, and an economy and jobs. Attempting to kill all the insurgents just creates more insurgents and turns the general population against the central government. I hope that, despite his reputation, Gen. McNeill will read Gen. Petraeus' new counterinsurgency manual and use it as his play book.

Posted by American Pundit at February 6, 2007 2:52 AM
Comments
Comment #206782

AP,
While I haven’t heard these bonafides for General Petraeus before, I agree that the massive killing and damage of warfare IS our enemy. What most concerns me is the situation of the rugged Afghanistan/Pakistan border and the ability of insurgents to find safe haven in Pakistan. That bodes for a long struggle.

Thanks for the analysis and news reports, I’m not sure I would have seen this angle without your post.

Posted by: gergle at February 6, 2007 3:34 AM
Comment #206794

AP,

The bull in the China shop approach only works when you go in with overwhelming force.
It is encouraging to see that at least some of our military leaders can grasp that concept. We can only hold our breath with General McNeil.

Now had we had this kind of leadership in Iraq, perhaps things would be quite different.

Posted by: Rocky at February 6, 2007 11:23 AM
Comment #206815

Afganistan has a long history of defeating invaders. The best we can hope for is keeping it from being a base for jihadist.

“As you lay dying on Afganistans plains
and the women come out to carve up your remains
jes’ roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
and go to your God as a soldier…”

R.Kipling

Posted by: BillS at February 6, 2007 3:17 PM
Comment #206877

That’s interesting, but NATO is not an invader (certainly most Afghans don’t feel that way) and keeping Afghanistan from being a base for jihadists is the primary mission, not some consolation prize.

The method of doing so is the subject under discussion.

Posted by: American Pundit at February 6, 2007 11:57 PM
Comment #206965

Gergle-
Well, as in all guerilla campaigns, the decision to harbor and aid the Taliban and al-Qaeda depends largely on the civilians on the ground, whether we try to coerce it, or instead let them come to the conclusion that the best way to keep us out of their hair is to keep the Taliban and al-Qaeda out of ours. Nobody likes a war being fought in their backyards. Have our enemies be the ones to break the peace.

gw-
We’ve been in power for all of two months. The country’s shape has been your party’s responsiblity. It’s a responsiblity your party failed. That’s why the Senate now belongs to the Democrats.

You just don’t want to admit the Republicans could have done anything wrong to get themselves kicked out. That’s the real joke. How can you blame the Democrats for decisions done under your power?

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at February 7, 2007 2:05 PM
Comment #207102

gw-
The Democrats were the minority! There’s a reason we praise David standing up to Goliath and not the other way around. In the timeframe that matters for policy on the Iraq war, the Republicans had all the power they needed to push through a war plan that could work. It is only by their choices and their mistakes that things have occured otherwise.

What you should consider is just who the Republicans are asking for votes from now. They know their asses are on the line, and I think some are honestly relieved to be in a position to once again represent their people, rather than just the national party.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at February 7, 2007 9:33 PM
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