obama's war
COMMENTS comments

Afghanistan and the Counterinsurgency War

Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.) Fmr. Adviser to Gen. Petraeus

A growing number of people are saying we need to come back home. We need to cut this off at this point and focus on protecting ourselves here and use our resources to go after terrorists camps if they crop up. They say mssion creep is what we're looking at here, and that we've gone from hunting Al Qaeda -- the initial reason for this engagement -- to nation building in two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan.

These are long, hard wars. I've fought in both kinds. I would not choose to fight a counterinsurgency campaign if I had the choice.

What we learned on Sept. 11 was that vipers can grow in ungoverned spaces, and that in a globalized world, they can harm us. We cannot police every ungoverned space in the world. But in Afghanistan, there is an enemy that harbors Al Qaeda, and that provides a base from which we can again be threatened.

Or at least they could harbor Al Qaeda. Right now the Taliban does not attack us, and Al Qaeda has slipped across the border into Pakistan.

The Taliban does attack us, but only on the ground in Afghanistan.

Right. And if we weren't there, they wouldn't be coming over here to attack us.

If we were not there, I concur.

They're not global jihadists.

They are not global jihadis. They would resume control of Afghanistan. Assuming that Pakistan continued any degree of pressure on Al Qaeda, I believe that Al Qaeda would relocate back to Afghanistan.

It is also possible that were we to pull up stakes and no longer fight in Afghanistan, that Pakistan would then come to a complete truce with the Taliban and with Al Qaeda. In fact, I think that's the most likely scenario, at which point we would be unable to use bases in Afghanistan as a place from which to put pressure on Al Qaeda.

But why not use our assets in surveillance and securing our borders, doing a better job of policing terrorism?

There is a certain amount of counterterrorism we can conduct if we don't have bases inside Afghanistan, if we don't have bases inside Pakistan.

It sounds far cheaper and less ambitious.

It is absolutely cheaper. It is, I believe, less effective. The hard part in a counterinsurgency campaign, in a counterterrorism campaign, isn't killing your enemy -- it's finding your enemy. The more boots on the ground we have in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, the closer relationships we have with those governments, the more advisers we have working with them, the better relationships we have with [their] militaries, the more information we derive on their enemies and on our enemies. And those overlap. They don't absolutely coincide.

Col. Andrew Bacevich (Ret.) Author, The Limits of Power

Given the success we've had thus far in securing the population in Iraq and Afghanistan, does this idea make any sense whatsoever?

Can anybody possibly believe that the United States of America ... has the resources necessary to conduct a global counterinsurgency campaign? Over what? The next 20, 50, 80 years? I think [there] is something so preposterous about such proposals that I just find it baffling that they are treated with seriousness by supposedly serious people. ...

You said it's partly generational?

It's probably generational in that young people -- and this is not necessarily a bad thing -- have bigger dreams, bigger ambitions. Older people tend to perhaps be more given to pessimism or cynicism. I mean, I would like to call it realism, but others might view it differently.

I hesitate to say that older people have a better understanding of the human consequences of unrealistic and naïve projects, because I know that these younger fellows, like Nagl and [CNAS fellow Andrew] Exum, have lost friends. But at the same time, I guess I puzzle over why their personal losses don't cause them to question the implications for the policy proposals that they support.

We've lost over 5,000 American soldiers over the past eight years, between Iraq and Afghanistan. We think Iraq is now finally winding down. At the same time, we ratchet up Afghanistan. So if we do indeed have a full-court-press application of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, certainly at least several hundred more American soldiers are going to die.

And I think it's very, very important to be absolutely certain that no alternative exists that would enable us to achieve our interests in Afghanistan without all those soldiers being killed.

I think the people who insist and know it has to be done through counterinsurgency have not seriously examined all the alternatives.

Isn't undermining Al Qaeda a worthy mission?

Absolutely. One of these things I just really don't get is that there seems to be some presumption that Afghanistan is jihad central, that if we can simply succeed in pacifying Afghanistan that the problem of violent Islamic radicalism goes away or is solved.

There's no reason to think that. Violent Islamic radicalism is a transnational phenomenon. Yes, ungoverned spaces would seem to provide a great sort of opportunity for organizations like Al Qaeda to find sanctuary. Afghanistan is not the only ungoverned space on the face of the earth. ... We know that Al Qaeda networks cells can operate in ungoverned spaces like Hamburg, Germany and London, England and Brooklyn, New York. So one of the things that I just don't understand is why people think that fixing Afghanistan is going to fix the larger problem. It won't. ...

All we care about is that Al Qaeda not use the place as a sanctuary. You don't have to occupy the country in order to prevent that from happening. Through a program of intensive surveillance, supplemented with some kind of regime of precision strikes, we can succeed at the very least in keeping Al Qaeda on the run or hidden in caves.

Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn Director of Intelligence, ISAF

Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn

There are a lot of Afghan civilians that don't like the way the coalition has operated. They don't like their houses being bombed, their children being killed, the women being killed. They don't like the detention policies of recent times and even torture. So, there are many people that are very skeptical about the American approach.

… If we didn't kill another Taliban in the next six months we could be more successful than if we killed 15,000 of them. And so I think that our measure of success should not be -- and according to the commander, is not how many people we're taking off the battlefield, how many people we're killing or capturing.

The measure of success is going to be how well we protect the population. …

[Afghan Taliban chief commander] Mullah Mohammed Omar issued a booklet on how to engage the population. He is instructing them: "Always be careful during your operations. This is our mission, to keep people and their property safe." Sounds like your directives.

That's exactly right. It's a very smart approach. This is a very savvy enemy, and Mullah Omar's been doing this a long time. He understands that the big advantage that Taliban have is their presence on the battlefield, which is very hard to trust and discern. And then there's just this incredible deep ethnic understanding of how people here will respond to the stimuli that he puts out there.

But I really don't think that the local population looks at the Taliban and says, "Yep, this is what we want."

Well, some of them do. They join them.

I would say the majority are not ideologically bent. I think that a lot of them are joining because they have little faith in the government that they see.

I think what they see is an Afghan government that does not respond to their needs. Mullah Omar runs a sharia court, and they resolve a problem the day it occurs or the next day. Whereas the government, somebody's having to take the time to go back up to the national government, and figure it out. And it takes, in some cases we've seen weeks to turn around.

So, that makes it a competition for hearts and minds?

It's an incredible competition. It is a competition that I don't believe we have studied hard enough. And it's something that I know we're in the process of trying to come to grips with.

We talked about learning their language, spending more time on the ground, getting out of our large vehicles and out from behind our sunglasses and all this gear that we wear, and literally just getting out among the population, so they see us as human beings. And we treat them as such -- rather than looking like something out of Star Wars to them.

Seth Jones Author, The Graveyard of Empires

Seth Jones

There were expectations that both the U.S. and the Afghan government could improve law and order in the country. And those expectations have not been met. So there is a credibility gap. ...

Wasn't that credibility lost, or at least deeply tarnished, long ago?

The Afghan government's credibility has been declining for the last several years. The Asia Foundation polls, for example, show deepening concern about corruption at the national, provincial and local levels, as well as failed efforts to establish security from army and police forces in rural areas.

And tolerance, at least, if not support for the Taliban on the rise.

It's interesting. I would say that most insurgent groups actually don't have a lot of support. When you look at the Haqqani network, it doesn't have a large support base in Afghanistan. Its command-and-control mode continues to be across the border in Pakistan.

Even in Afghanistan with the Taliban, a range of tribal elders have said to me, "Our problem with the Taliban is that they try to adopt a top-down ideology." One tribal elder said to me: "I'm a Pashtun. If I want to grow my beard long, I'll grow it long. Nobody tells me how long to grow my beard. This is my problem with the Taliban."

So, even on the Taliban front, it's not clear that levels of support have significantly increased. But what is clear is that levels of support for the government have gone down. So in a sense, it's almost a race to the bottom in Afghanistan.

And I guess if this is a hearts-and-minds battle to some degree, it's a race between a brutal authoritarian Taliban and a weak state. Is that the context at this point?

The choices that are really imbibed in the U.S. strategy are one between a weak, central government and a very hardcore, ideologically motivated, senior Taliban leadership. And I think what's missing is an approach that deals more successfully with local institutions, including and especially tribal institutions.

Celeste Ward Senior defense analyst, RAND Corporation

Counterinsurgency gets a lot of credence coming out of Iraq. Is it an appropriate sort of approach to the problems on the ground in Afghanistan?

I think if you look at Field Manual 3-24 (PDF), and you listen to a lot of the rhetoric of the population-centric counterinsurgency that's most prominent now, it's virtually indistinguishable from the notion of nation building. …

Where does it become nation building?

… Let me start with the concept of clear, hold and build, which is a familiar counterinsurgency dictum. And if you think about it in theory, it makes a little bit of sense. You want to clear the enemy from an area, and then, you hold the area and protect the civilians, and then you build.

The problem is it's terribly vague about what exactly it is that you're required to build and to what point. Are we building sewage plants? Are we building electricity plants? Are we building security forces? And how do I know when I'm done? And so, a lot of these ideas that have become chants or incantations don't stand up to a lot of scrutiny, or at least don't provide sufficient specificity to constitute a strategy.

And then, you get mission creep.

And then, you get mission creep. And then, I've got to build the Afghan economy or the Iraqi economy to some unspecified unknown point, where you get to "We'll know it when we see it." And that's a difficult sell for the American public I think.

I remember after 9/11, and the sort of progressive argument was against the counterterrorists who said, "Well, we got to go out and kill folks." The liberal crowd, or progressive crowd, was saying: "No, you have to drain the swamp. You have to eradicate those conditions that lead to these fundamentalist groups, terrorist groups, if you will, arising." It seemed all pretty reasonable at the time. But isn't that what counterinsurgency now has grown from that soil?

I think it does grow from that soil. And I think as a national strategy that makes sense. But when you're talking about a particular country, then you need to be very specific about what that really means to drain the swamp, and how I know when I'm done.

The problem with Afghanistan is that it's such a poor country. It's, I believe, ranked 219th of countries with per capita GDP. And, you know, quite an ancient, mostly tribal culture that to develop them to some point that would even be recognizable as modernity will take decades, and untold billions of dollars.

And so, if that's what we intend to do by draining the swamp, then I think we need to be explicit about that. And if that's the strategy, then let's call it that instead of calling it counterinsurgency, which sounds a bit wonkish and a bit more abstruse and less explicit about the strategic tradeoffs and decisions that the nation is making about commitment of its resources.

Rory Stewart Author, The Places in Between

We're not going to win a counterinsurgency campaign. We're not going to defeat the Taliban. We're not going to be able to fix the Afghan state. That's not to say those things are impossible. Those things might happen very slowly under Afghan management. But we, the United States and our allies, are not in a position to do those things.

A maximalist approach you called it?

Yes, a maximalist approach because their vision of counterinsurgency encompasses everything: rule of law, governance, development, state-building. In fact, when you read their manuals, it almost looks like a World Bank policy document. It proposes a vision so broad that it can encompass Swedish humanitarians and American Special Forces officers.

It has a moral language that can appeal to the mass media. It's so abstract and vague that it's very, very difficult to pin down what's wrong with it. It's a hypnotizing vision. It's very easy to get people on board with, and very difficult to say: "Well, wait a second. How exactly are you going to do this? What kind of resources do you think you need? How much time is this going to take? And how does any of this contribute to our two key objectives, which are protecting the United States and helping Afghans?" …

The Taliban understandably believes they can outwait us. And of course, to some extent they can. There's a real limit to how long we're going to have the political will domestically to put out for this kind of operation.

Richard Holbrooke Special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan

Is what we're doing [in Afghanistan] nation building?

It's nation rebuilding. There is a nation in Afghanistan, and until it was wrecked by the Soviet invasion in 1978, it was a poor but proud and functioning country. It was an agriculture export country. It had its own traditions and arrangements. ...

Who is our enemy? Who are we fighting? Who is the Taliban?

Our enemy is Al Qaeda and its allies, people who have publicly said they wish to attack the United States again, people who have publicly called on nuclear physicists and engineers to help them gain access to nuclear weapons, which, as the whole world knows, Pakistan has.

In Afghanistan we're fighting the Taliban.

We're fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, yes.

And the Taliban is not Al Qaeda.

[The] Taliban is not Al Qaeda, but they've very closely allied. ... This is the key point, and I'm asked it all the time. Al Qaeda is mainly in Pakistan. We're fighting the Taliban next door in Afghanistan. Why are we fighting the Taliban in one country if the main enemy is in the other country?

Well, the answer lies in looking at the Taliban in western Pakistan. They are the allies of Al Qaeda. They're [integrally] related. Take a guy like [Siraj] Haqqani and the Haqqani group. Haqqani is in western Pakistan. He is an intermediary, in essence, between Al Qaeda, who targets the United States, who seeks nuclear weapons to attack us, and the Taliban. And he fights Americans in Afghanistan and kills them. He captured two New York Times reporters in recent months, both of whom have, thank God, been released. And he simultaneously carries out joint efforts with Al Qaeda.

Andrew Exum Adviser to Gen. McChrystal

In Afghanistan, it's entirely possible that we wage the finest counterinsurgency operations ever devised by man, that we wage incredibly moral and ethically responsibility campaigns, that we wage a campaign in which we put protecting the people front and center, and we could still lose this war.

And this is something that people don't want to talk about in American counterinsurgency circles. But the reality is that when you engage in a counterinsurgency campaign as a third party, your success or failure is largely dependent upon what the host government does and fails to do.

So we could be perfect in Afghanistan. And so far -- I want to be clear about this -- we have been far from perfect. But we could change everything over the next 12 months and still fail in Afghanistan, because the government of Afghanistan is perceived as illegitimate.

And when I say illegitimate, I mean the people of Afghanistan do not have faith that existing institutions are those most appropriate for society; that they think that the government should either be different or they think that the Taliban presents a better alternative.

This is one of my favorite examples: In southern Afghanistan, the Taliban now has ombudsmen. They send people out into southern Afghanistan, and they say: "How are we doing? What do you think of your local shadow governor? Is he appropriate? Is he just? Is he doing a good job? What do you think about our operations in your district? Do we interfere with your poppy harvest?" They ask questions like this.

And you know what it is: a direct challenge to the way that NATO, ISAF and the government of Afghanistan have been doing business for the past eight years. It's especially a direct challenge to perceived corruption in the government of Afghanistan. And make no mistake about it: We are seen as being entirely complicit with the corruption of the government of Afghanistan. ...

So from the perspective of the Afghan people, they want governance; they want somebody to be in there doing the good job on behalf of the Afghan people. But they haven't seen it from either the Taliban or the Haqqani network or the people that we reinstalled in power after 2001.

You talk about the perfect counterinsurgency campaign putatively. Is a full-fledged reconciliation effort part of that?

... Most counterinsurgency campaigns have to end with either some sort of reconciliation process or some sort of political agreement. They rarely end in complete, overwhelming victory, so there has to be some sort of reconciliation process that takes place, at least at the lower levels.

The problem in Afghanistan is that, as the social science literature and as all the historical literature on insurgents leads us to believe, is that control very rarely follows collaboration. Collaboration follows control.

And unless you establish control over the population, unless you are able to provide security, unless you are able to, in large part, defeat the insurgency on the battlefield, it is going to be very difficult for you to get some sort of collaboration from low-level insurgents or from mid-level insurgents. To bring people into the fold, so to speak, you have to exhaust the insurgency in the same way they're exhausting you.

If you try to buy everybody off at the very beginning -- which is what some people try to say that we did in 2007 -- you're very rarely going to get a friendly security situation. ...

Bilal Sarwary Journalist

Bilal Sarwary

The Obama administration has adopted a new strategy. They're talking about counterinsurgency now. When you hear the plan for the new approach, what strikes you?

... Afghans are hopeful and optimistic because there's a new president, and his name is Barack Obama. …

But Afghans are very skeptical. And you can't blame them for what they've gone through. So they would like to see Obama's words in practical terms. And right now it's not happening.

Maybe there are no more civilian casualties for the moment. But the local villages and the provinces -- the writ of the central government is very weak, doesn't exist at all in a lot of places. There's a lot of corruption. People have not seen in their villages, a lot of them, a new bridge, a new water pump or a clinic or a school.

And I think these are the things that matters to Afghans a lot. They may not like the Taliban. But what choices do they have? And that's what I come across each time I go to a province. Taliban are making more headway. …

I ask because one thing you hear a lot in Washington is the new counterinsurgency campaign means, in part, protecting the population based on relationships with tribal elders, spending more time amongst the people. Could you speak to the experience of a tribal elder or a village, as the Americans come -- what is that experience for them?

I remember a tribal elder from the southeast, he said: "The Americans are like nomads. They come with their tents and then the next day they're gone."

And I think there's something to that because if you are a local villager, what you would like to see is a permanent presence of either the foreign forces or the Afghanistan government. … And you're talking about a country where, for decades, there has been no concept of a central government. You've always had a very strong society and a very weak government.

So one of the things that local people would like to see is the active presence of their government, reconstruction, so that they could see some changes in their lives and maybe then the presence of the foreign forces. I think that is something that a lot of people have been talking about. But right now, the Afghans cannot come forward and express their views clearly because again they know who are in charge when the Americans and the Afghans leave the area.

Amrullah Saleh Director, Afghan Intelligence

Amrullah Saleh

Obama's new policy of using counterinsurgency, soft power -- what's your opinion of that approach? …

By virtue of being an Afghan, we are insurgents, anti-insurgent, counterinsurgent. We have lived a big part of our life in such a situation. There are two ways to solve this.

One way is to saturate Afghanistan with counterinsurgency forces. It's one method which will work. You basically deny every inch of this country to the insurgents, and fortify the borders, and make it very difficult for infiltrators.

Fortress Afghanistan?

That is a very costly exercise. The other thing is do not invest too much on Afghan security forces, spend more on development, more on infrastructure. But put real pressure on Pakistan and say: "Not only we know you are doing it, if you do not stop we will make Afghanistan a very hard country to infiltrate. We will stand beside them and we are going to bring change. Change not according to your favor." That will work.

But then it will take enormous numbers of soldiers in order to secure the borders … saturate the country with counterinsurgency.

Here is the thing -- the West must not underestimate this war. You have to come with full political will. This cannot be solved with half measures. Extremism, terror and violence, weapons at the hands of extremists, directly threatening peace and stability in this region, directly threatening peace and stability in the Middle East, a vital region for U.S. interest.

God forbid if we are weakened and if we are perceived as failing. The impact and repercussions of that will be very expensive and costly for Europe and the Western world in general. I am not saying these things to create fear, and by creating fear, create a cause for our own protection. No. The war on terrorism, war on extremism is started. And the mission was very clear: We defeat extremists. We have not defeated them.

Karl Eikenberry U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan

Karl W. Eikenberry

When we talk about counterinsurgency, we talk about a strategy which is to clear -- security operations, military forces, police forces that go into an area to clear the enemy out.

And then the next phase is what's called the hold strategy, and the hold phase. And during the holding operations, security forces are there to reassure the people that they're going to stay protected. They're not going to leave.

And then following that is the building phase of the COIN [counterinsurgency] strategy. During the building phase, this government that starts to take control then delivers necessary services to the people. …

One of the most difficult aspects that all of us face here is the urgent need to re-establish government in an area in which there's been no legitimate government for years. And that government then having the wherewithal to start to deliver to the people what they need -- justice and basic social services, health, education, being able to provide the people with emergency relief services. This capacity in many parts of Afghanistan is severely lacking. ...

So over the next year, there will be an increase within the United States embassy on our civilian side, where we will have an increasing number of civilians who come here that have the sets of expertise and the programs behind them that help the Afghan government to develop the necessary capabilities that they need in order to achieve success in this integrated counterinsurgency strategy.

But it seems that you've got the difficult problem of getting Afghans to trust Afghans. We've encountered many Afghans who say that they're not so worried about the U.S. forces -- especially if they stop getting their homes bombed -- but they are worried about the Afghanistan police or the Afghanistan army or for their government to be an honest broker.

Well, you've hit upon a critical problem. Our belief is that the Afghan National Army is a respected institution. We got an early start here in Afghanistan, as you know, back in 2002 where we took a very long-term, well resourced approach towards helping to build a new Afghan National Army. We had a lot of success there.

You're behind on the police?

We're very behind on the police unfortunately.

And people fear the police?

They do certainly fear the police in certain areas of Afghanistan. Not across the board. It wasn't until late 2005, early 2006, unfortunately about four years since the fall of the Taliban, that we developed an integrated, well resourced, coherent approach towards the building of a police force within Afghanistan.

We began to adopt the model in early 2006 that had been very successful with the building of the army. But unfortunately it was four years late in coming, and over that four-year period of neglect, the Ministry of the Interior and the police force of Afghanistan -- let's say it developed some not necessarily good habits.

And so with the effort that we've had underway to develop a comprehensive and well-disciplined police force -- it's unlike the army where we were really starting from scratch. With the police force of Afghanistan in a position where four years of in many instances, at least in some instances, really cancerous growths had occurred within that ministry, it was the need then to try to reform an organization that was proving very resilient at resisting reforms.

Now we've had, over the past several years, with very good leadership that has now been placed over the Ministry of the Interior, and with more thoughtful programs -- I think that we're starting to make good progress in the police. But they still remain, let's say four or five years in terms of their overall development and quality behind that of the army. …

And what about the issue of how you build trust between Afghans and their judicial system?

The need over the next five years, the next 10 years, to help this government of Afghanistan to improve its accountability, to fight problems of corruption, to a show a more impartial justice towards the people -- that's absolutely essential.

Steve Coll Author, The Bin Ladens

The purpose of counterinsurgency doctrine is to serve strategic objectives, to meet and secure objectives that are subordinate to vital national security interests of the United States. That is, it's a tool; it's not an end. And I think one of the challenges that the president faces is to distinguish between his ends in Afghanistan -- and in South Asia more broadly -- and his means. ...

What you're saying is it's not a strategy. It's tactics.

It's a tactic that's joined to a broader political and national security strategy, yes. I worry when people regard counterinsurgency as an end in itself -- as a sort of destination.

It is a way of thinking about complex political-military problems. It is a tool box that is designed to address unconventional military environments. It is an important innovation in military thinking but it is not an end in itself. The end is vital American national security interests. ...

[In Afghanistan,] the classic counterinsurgency task of separating the population from the insurgents is doubly complicated because of the role that the Taliban have developed as a parallel government, as a parallel source of teaching and religious instruction. And yet we know the Taliban are unpopular, so it's not as if you're fighting a lost cause.

The other problem is that Afghanistan has an obvious history of reaching a point of national hindsight on foreign troops in which a consensus develops that whatever good they announce they intend to do ... we've had enough of them.

And there is no scientific way, I would assert, to know exactly how many foreign troops the Afghan body politic can digest without revulsion. And we are on the cusp, I think, intuition would suggest, of forcing such a question into the forefront.

You mention parallel government, often referred to as shadow government. Give me a definition of what you're talking about.

In rural Afghanistan there has never been a heavy presence of the state. So many functions of the state have always been handled by informal groups and informal authorities. This includes education, religious education, the conferral of religious authority through an informal education system. It often includes justice, disputes among neighbors over grazing rights, over land rights, over redress of violent crime. There is a long tradition and a very sophisticated, informal system in rural Afghanistan for handling these kinds of state functions informally.

Well, the Taliban are now, in many places, asserting themselves as the legitimate, informal arbiters of these questions. In that context you can see why there's ambivalence about the Taliban. On the other hand, there's a recognition that they are part of a legitimate, informal system that has long roots. ...

I think counterinsurgency strategy properly conceived includes a regional political dimension. It includes diplomacy. It includes an understanding of leverage points outside of military combat. It includes a clear-eyed recognition of where the insurgents are and, in this case, recognizes that the Taliban are not only an Afghan force; they're also a Pakistani force. And it would contemplate a comprehensive approach with politics in the lead to try to suppress the potential, marginalize the influence of the Taliban.

Even if you see the strategy that way, you still have a question: For a few years, do we need more troops on the Afghan side of the border?

I think for the American people, that's the only question that matters. But I think for the Obama administration that decision has to be placed into a regional context. Otherwise you're in danger of making the wrong choice.

George Packer The New Yorker

George Packer

The Taliban, by every account, are a very smart fighting force, that what it lacks in weaponry it's made up for in tactics and in intelligence.

I was in Wardak Province in May [2009], embedded with the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division. And I was seeing what counterinsurgency in Afghanistan looked like sort of in the early stages. We were barreling down the really rotten roads of this country and kicking up a lot of dust in the eyes of villagers.

And our presence was known from miles away. And then the soldiers would spill out of these armored vehicles and heavily burdened with all their equipment. And it doesn't look like the Green Beret with his knife and his soft hat. You know? It looks like war.

But what I noticed was the better units -- and it really varies almost from company to company. That's something about counterinsurgency I've learned. It all depends on who's leading it. It's so fluid and improvised that you've just got to hope that this captain knows what he's doing.

I ran into a captain who I didn't think knew what he was doing. And they were kind of entrenched and in a position of, you know, "We're just keeping danger out and going in and looking for bad guys." And a few miles away another captain had built up a pretty good relationship with the district authorities, and when his men went out they actually walked out from their combat outpost down the street and could go into the district headquarters or to the local police station.

So we are an alien force here. We look weird. We have way too much equipment. We don't speak the language. We are big and clumsy.

But I think it's too dismissive to say that counterinsurgency is irrelevant or is impossible, because I've seen these young soldiers learn it and do it in a way that impresses Afghans. Whether it can be replicated across the country is a whole other thing that anyone would be right to be skeptical of.

posted october 13, 2009

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