5 years, 9 months ago
The Guardian recently carried an important story of a tribal meeting in Afghanistan, and while the tribal elders were not in communication with Fort Leavenworth, it was nonetheless a laboratory for counterinsurgency.
Shura is the Pashto word for a meeting. Every week the local elders gather at the Bermel district centre for a shura, where they discuss their problems, grievances and anything else that comes up. I was at one last November, on Thanksgiving, and I wanted to go along and see what progress had been made.
At the outset the leader of the Bermel Shura thanked the Americans for their help with development in the area. “Security is improving,” he told the room, full to capacity, and “the Taliban do not like what you are doing”.
Regardless of his opening statement about security, he highlighted the ever-present fear of the Taliban, and of reprisals.
“Maybe what I say will be reported to the Taliban after two hours. There are a lot of Taliban in the mountains,” he said.
“It is my request that the coalition forces put pressure on the Pakistan government, because without the support of the Pakistan government, the Taliban cannot cross the border.”
I felt like I was listening to a broken record. Here, again, Pakistan was being blamed for the troubles of Afghanistan. He went on to say that he felt the Taliban were weak, too weak to attack properly this year, but they “have power to shoot rockets at us, to replace the IEDs.”
An Afghan National Army commander addresses the elders of Bermel district, Paktika province at their weekly Shura. Photograph: John D McHugh Then an Afghan National Army commander stood up to speak. He told his countrymen that his goal was for security and peace.
“When somebody is doing bad things in your village, you should correct him,” he told the men, and “if that is no good, you must report him to coalition forces.”
He spoke at length, as seems to be required at a shura. He reminded the villagers that they must be active in the fight against insurgents.
“We have suffered for 30 years. When some foreigners come, you should stop them. If I go to your village, all the people will know I am not from your tribe. When I am talking to you guys you will recognise immediately that I am not from the Waziri tribe. Why don’t you follow the Taliban day and night?”
He insisted that the people must support the Afghan army in their battle against the Taliban.
Next it was the turn of Captain Rivaux of the civil affairs team. He started by expressing his disappointment with the week. He spoke of problems with contracts, elders encouraging their villagers to disrupt work on roads and flood protection. “I hear a lot that the security is improving, but it’s really not,” he said.
Captain Rivaux should be congratulated and advised to continue his good work. To use an expression by Michael Yon, The Captain’s Journal has been on PAO “happy tours,” and we don’t like happy tours. He isn’t a PAO, yet he is in contact with someone other than his military counterparts (as a civil affairs officer). He is willing to engage in truth-telling, and then to point to disappointing behavior. The Captain’s Journal likes field grade officers who tell the truth. Continuing:
“You are all part of the plan for security,” he pointed out. “When you let the enemy move through your village, you might as well pick up a gun and go with him, because you are helping them.”
Then he went on to tell them a story. “The people in Bandar, the Taliban came to their village, and they picked up rocks, and they said, you have your guns, but we will protect our country with stones. And the Taliban were outnumbered by the people with rocks. And they left. No one was injured.”
Just as the last time I was here, the Afghans did not look impressed. They listened, but there didn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for attacking the Taliban with rocks.
After the meeting, I stayed behind to talk with some of the elders. They spoke freely to me, but still the Taliban fear was present. One of them asked me not to show his face in my photographs, or use his name. They told me of their hopes for Afghanistan. They are tired of fighting they said.
I asked about their feeling towards the American troops, whether they really thought that they were helping, or if they were contributing to the problems. They told me that they were “very, very thankful” for the support of the US troops. One of them said: “If the Americans leave Afghanistan, we will be left with a lot of suffering.”
It seems to me that there is plenty of suffering in Afghanistan already, so I hate to imagine what he thinks would happen to make things worse.
But if Captain Rivaux is disappointed, the problems in Afghanistan are in a way the same as they were in the Anbar Province, and in a very important way different. The Sunni tribes in Anbar were heavily armed and very stubborn. The U.S. Marines had their hands full for many months, and al Qaeda never had a chance when they embarked upon their campaign of brutality. But when Shiekh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha finally began his fight with al Qaeda he had the protection of U.S. forces day and night (such as an M1A1 tank parked in his front yard). Force projection (and population protection) was and still is a precondition for the population standing on their own. Captain Rivaux’s disappointment is real and energetic, but misplaced. Afghanistan needs U.S. troops.
Another related report comes to us from Reuters.
The Taliban in Afghanistan are getting weaker, the U.S. ambassador tells local councillors in the eastern city of Ghazni, but he is met by a wall of shaking heads and tutting noises; ‘no, no’, some reply.
While Afghan government and international forces point to some success in restricting Taliban guerrilla attacks across the south and east, suicide bombs — 140 last year — roadside bombs, kidnappings and threats have created an atmosphere of fear.
“We don’t want food, we don’t want schools, we want security!” said one woman council member.
“Ok, let me ask you,” replied U.S. ambassador William Wood. “Are the Taliban weaker now?”
“No,” the councillors said, shaking their heads.
“But are these Taliban or criminals?” Wood asked.
“Taliban,” they replied.
This is a stupid conversation. Just stupid. We should be asking the population whether security is better rather than telling them it is so. The conversation heads even further down hill when the word ‘but’ is used, and frankly, it makes no difference to the people whether the troublemakers are criminals or Taliban (or both), because winning hearts and minds doesn’t apply to the troublemakers whether their motivation is religion or wealth. They’re either jihadists or members of organized crime. They must be killed.
Force projection is the precondition for the population being able to stand on their own. They cannot fight the Taliban right now. They must see safety come to their towns and villages, and they must be armed, trained, and convinced that the U.S. won’t desert them. Oh, and by the way, did you take note of what they say that they need? Food? Schools? No. Security. We have a long way to go.