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I have been working in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, the capital of Nangarhar Province, for the past three years on reconstruction projects for both the government of Japan and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Jalalabad is a small city of approximately 170,000 people that sits astride the main road between the Torkham border (Khyber Pass) and Kabul. It is estimated that 70 percent of Afghanistan's GDP flows along this vital route. The people in this part of the country pride themselves on being well educated and have always gone to great lengths to ensure the current insurgency does not adversely impact the flow of trade and goods. Nangarhar Province was once free of poppy cultivation, and local tribes kept Taliban infiltration and attacks from across the Pakistan border to a reasonable minimum.
The security situation has deteriorated dramatically in Nangarhar Province since the start of this year's fighting season. The American Army is responsible for the eastern region of Afghanistan, and it has a large base at the municipal airfield in Jalalabad. The Army seldom fights in Nangarhar Province but does fight almost daily in Kunar Province, which is our next-door neighbor to the north. The special forces teams are busy raiding into the "southern triangle," which is composed of the Khogyani, Sherzad and Pachir Wa Agam districts. These raids, however, have produced little tangible results on the ground.
Four days ago, we sent out teams of locals to survey the local DVD shops. We had heard they had closed after the Taliban had bombed several late at night after putting up night letters telling the owners to close their "un-Islamic" stores. It turns out that every DVD shop in the city has closed. These shops were popular and lucrative; shutting all of them down is a big deal and an indicator of how much power the Taliban is able to project in a city thought to be completely under the control of the central government.
From the traditional military point of view, this sudden resurgence of the Taliban should be welcomed news. It is now operating in the open at a time when both Afghan and American military power has never been greater. In fact, the Taliban plastered night letters all over the village of Base Ekmalati, which is located only 100 meters outside the wire of the main Army base at the Jalalabad airport. Our response to this unmasking of the Taliban should be force projection into the districts to uncover and kill insurgents — that's what we always planned to do in situations like this when I was a Marine infantry officer. We war-gamed situations just like this all the time back in the 1990s, but force projection is not the response we are seeing from our forward operating base-bound (FOB) military.
The military continues to talk about focusing on protecting the population, but all of the troops are based on large FOBs and go outside the wire only in large convoys of large MRAPS (Mine Resistant Ambuer Protected vehicles). Once they have completed their mission — say, a visit to villages A, B, and C — they return to their large FOBs. That is not securing the population; it is securing the FOB. Living outside the wire with the people, spending all your time in country mentoring Afghan security forces and dealing with local problems is the only way we can bring security to the Afghan people. Going on presence patrols where at most you spend an hour or two outside the MRAP is not bringing security. Given our penchant for distributing food and other items with the American flags and USAID stenciled all over, however, we are bringing insecurity to the people who receive our aid. Once we head back to the FOB, somebody has to answer to the Taliban as to why the Americans were there and the reason the villagers accepted American food and supplies.
This is what most Afghans see when they see the American military. The vehicles, body armor, sunglasses and helmets serve as both a physical and psychological barrier between our soldiers and the Afghan people.
Unless we radically change both the military and aid approach currently used in Afghanistan, we will lose regardless of how low we set the bar for success. Our military has got to stop prioritizing "force protection" as their principal mission and make "force projection" the backbone of all military operations. Failing to find, fix and destroy the Taliban fighters who are operating in the open will result in losing control of Jalalabad City. When that city goes, the whole country is sure to follow.
Retired Marine and founder of Free Range International, a small consulting firm and a blog
Combatting the Taliban in Jalalabad, Afghanistan »