The Afghanis must contribute to their own security

BY Herschel Smith
12 years, 11 months ago

From Stars and Stripes:

SHAH JOY DISTRICT, Afghanistan — An old man approached U.S. soldiers and Afghan army troops and told them he knew of a madrassa where it was rumored that Taliban fighters had indoctrinated young men to become suicide bombers.

U.S. soldiers saw the tip as a huge break. Shortly after they had moved into the area in August, a Taliban suicide bomber had struck during a patrol in the Shah Joy bazaar, killing two civilians and wounding 12 soldiers.

The discovery of the Taliban religious school was the biggest find during a three-day operation in late October in Zabul province’s Chineh villages, which U.S. troops described as an important Taliban stronghold. No weapons or explosives were found, but graffiti inside the mud-brick compound indicated that the building had served as a Taliban safe house.

In a remote region where U.S. and Afghan security forces are scarce, villagers have largely thrown their lot in with the Taliban, either by choice or necessity. The madrassa tip was a small sign, the Americans hoped, that those sentiments may be beginning to shift.

“I think the people right now are not convinced — especially as you get farther away from the district centers — that their security interests lie with the government,” Shields said. “Our job is to convince them that their security interests do lie with the government, and that we’re here to stay.”

Long on the back burner, Zabul province has been considered primarily a transit route for Taliban fighters moving from safe havens in Pakistan into southern Afghanistan. Until recently, there were few international forces in the province.

But Zabul has suddenly gained importance as U.S. and other NATO military planners seek to improve security around the city of Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban and the most important city in southern Afghanistan.

In August, the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment from the 5th Stryker Brigade out of Fort Lewis, Wash., became the first large U.S. combat force to operate in Zabul.

The battalion’s battle space is huge, stretching over almost 1,600 square miles. And with almost no effective government throughout most of the province, it has been tough to establish relationships.

There are only two major towns in Zabul — Shah Joy and the district center of Qalat. Most of the population lives in scattered farming villages set among arid brown hills, where residents are lucky if they are visited by Afghan army or police patrols once a week or even once a month, according to Lt. Col. Burton Shields, the 4th Battalion’s commander.

Although the Taliban presence is evident throughout Zabul, according to U.S. troops, contact with insurgent fighters has been minimal. In addition to the 12 troops wounded in the August blast, three soldiers were killed when their Stryker was hit by a roadside bomb in September. “The enemy here is very smart,” said 1st Lt. Christopher Franco, the executive officer for Company C. “They definitely won’t engage us unless they know they have the advantage. And when they can’t, they’ll throw down their guns and come out and pretend to be our friends. It’s frustrating.”

So far, efforts to engage with local villagers have been largely unsuccessful. In Shah Joy, U.S. troops are often met with outright hostility — children throw rocks and even dead birds at them nearly every time they pass through, said Franco, 24, of Port Orchard, Wash.

During one patrol, soldiers from Company C sat down with elders in a village to discuss their problems.

“We asked what can be done to improve your situation here,” Franco said. “They said, ‘Our problems will be resolved when you guys leave and we can sit down and talk to the Taliban leaders.’ At least they were honest.”

During the three-day mission in the Chinehs, a number of soldiers said that even though the area had been identified as a suspected Taliban stronghold, the villagers were the friendliest of any they had encountered in Zabul. But when officers asked about the Taliban, they were usually met with blank stares or polite, noncommittal responses. Most villagers denied knowing anything about the Taliban. Some made slashing motions across their throats.

“You stay here for one and a half hours in our village, and when you leave, the Taliban will come in our homes and beat us or worse,” said one man.

Replied 2nd Lt. James Johnson, 23, of State College, Pa.: “Well, there’s nothing I can do to help you, if you don’t help yourselves.”

You may find a good land cover map of the Zabul Province here.  This kind of story is being hawked by advocates of disengagement from Afghanistan.  We aren’t wanted, they say.  We shouldn’t make too much of a sentiment like this.  The U.S. Marines weren’t wanted in the Anbar Province either, as the Sunnis were the sect evicted from power in Iraq.  But the campaign for Anbar was a success without their consent – at least, initially.

More than likely, they simply fear the Taliban (‘” … the Taliban will come in our homes and beat us or worse”), and don’t feel that the U.S. will be around long enough and in the force necessary to make a difference.  This is yet another of the thousands of examples we have covered that argue for more troops and adequate force projection.

But hear the case of Lt. Johnson again.  There aren’t enough troops in America to secure Afghanistan unless the Afghanis themselves contribute at least something to their own security.  Leave aside the issue of the ANA and ANP for the moment.  It is unimaginable that an insurgent could threaten and intimidate folk in, let’s say, Jones Gap, South Carolina for very long.  He would be met with guns and knives and mean dogs and people willing – even happy – to use them them all.

It is the insurgent who would be in danger, not the folk, and in a place like the upper part of the State of South Carolina or Western North Carolina one had best watch how he conducts himself.  In Anderson, S.C., the exploits of folk who shot the ole boy who thought he could go around intimidating people would soon become lore and legend for the children to hear.  This is not exaggeration.  I know the folk in Anderson and Jones Gap.

The Afghanis themselves must make the first contribution to their own safety and security, and without this commitment, more U.S. troops won’t change things in Afghanistan.  Lt. Johnson was raised in a place where the first and foremost obstacle to a full blown insurgency is the people themselves, and this is the way it must be to defeat the Taliban.


  1. On November 12, 2009 at 9:58 am, Warbucks said:

    Thanks for the excellent map link with your posting.

  2. On November 12, 2009 at 1:26 pm, anan said:

    Nice map. I think Afghans are volunteering to defend their country. So far, more Afghans have volunteered to join the ANSF than the capacity of bootcamp. The issue is less the Afghans than the international community refusing to sufficiently resource the Afghan National Army Training Command, and CSTC-A/NTM-A.

    It is interesting that several Iranian, Russian and Indian offers to assist in training the ANSF have not been accepted. At the same time ISAF hasn’t sufficiently contributed itself.

    I think it is important to place ourselves in the sandals of Zabul residents. They see a large trained standing Taliban armies with strong command and control operating openly inside Pakistan. They see the Taliban as well organized, professional, with its own legal system, emissaries and diplomats. Zabul villages generally do not organize themselves in large numbers to achieve common objectives. Any small confederation of Zabul villages expect that they would be wiped out if they defy the Taliban. Therefore they can’t defy the Taliban openly.

    What they can do is offer some of their sons to join boot camp for the Afghan National Army (if the locals insist, these sons could serve in ANA brigades that generally don’t operate in Zabul for the first 2 or 3 years of their service.)

    ISAF (lets not forget the Romanian battalion operating alongside 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade) might also consider handing out cell phones with preloaded minutes. They should ask the villages to publicly support the Taliban, and offer them money and supplies (but not men, since they would be killed alongside the Taliban.) However, the villages should secretly report on the Taliban to ISAF and the ANSF. In return these villages can be given reconstruction projects.

    This is the most that Zabul villagers can be expected to provide.

  3. On November 12, 2009 at 4:27 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Yes, this is a good rundown of what the villagers can be expected to do, but not the most. It is the least. The most would be something like when the Taliban come calling to intimidate them, shoot them in the head through the doorway, and then parade their bodies around the village to show what happens to Taliban. If they did that there would be no Taliban in Zabul.

    That’s the point.

  4. On November 14, 2009 at 8:58 am, TSAlfabet said:

    Interesting discussion. It gets to one of the core issues of this fight.

    Captain, you say, “But hear the case of Lt. Johnson again. There aren’t enough troops in America to secure Afghanistan unless the Afghanis themselves contribute at least something to their own security.”

    Might this not be a chicken-or-the-egg argument?

    When and how does the momentum shift in this situation? Do the Afghans rise up against the Taliban first and hope (and pray, alot!) that the U.S. will come to the rescue to prevent their wholesale slaughter? Isn’t this what essentially happened several times in the FATA’s when some tribal chiefs took the initiative and formed lashkars against the Taliban? Invariably, these lashkars had initial success with the Taliban “lite” forces, ejecting them from their area only to be followed by a massacre of the lashkar by larger, more determined, better-equipped Taliban/AQ forces when the Pakistani military did nothing to help. And on top of that, all of the tribal chiefs got their heads lopped off for their trouble. Or is it the other way around? Do U.S. forces, for example, move into the largest town in the district like Shah Joy –whether the villagers like it or not as you point out happened in Anbar– and starting taking control of the population and security? Will the Locals start to swing our way once they are convinced of our commitment and then rise up with our active assistance, or will they just sit back and let us do it all? Chicken or the egg?

    The comparison to South Carolina is maybe not quite apt. It is one thing to stand up to an “ole boy” or two, but a better comparison might be a shadowy group of paramilitaries that have absolute sanctuary across the state line; who preach a message of resistance to the corrupt and intrusive Federal government– one that resonates with the 1861 history of the region; that have better weaponry, better training and better intel — they probably have sources who are neighbors, police officers, county officials; they are ruthless when it comes to anyone who makes any show of resistance. No doubt an awful lot of the folks that you talk about in Anderson and Jones Gap would fight. And die. And fight on. But others, without some outside help of some kind would not. And these thugs aren’t going anywhere because they have lots of bad guys getting trained and equipped right across the state line where you can’t touch them.

    Amen to the call for more forces. But it is a telling comment in the quoted story where “Franco” describes how the children in Shah Joy throw rocks and dead birds at them “nearly every time they pass through…” Emphasis on the words “pass through.” At some point, we either stop “passing through” places like Shah Joy and instead take up residence and take control, or we admit that we are just putting on a show of force that is doomed to failure.

    The Afghans are uneducated but they are not stupid. They can see the storm clouds gathering here. Even the brave folks of Anderson and Jones Gap, when they see the hurricane coming their way, take cover. We can’t demand that the Locals stick their necks out for the axe with the hope that the U.S. will come to their aid when we are showing every sign of preparing to leave them high and dry.

    We should be angry. We should be very angry. But not at the Afghans. We should be angry with the U.S. leadership (Admin and Congress) that has no idea what to do, won’t listen to their military experts, continues to expose our troops to hazards while desperately looking for a political exit to a war that they said was the “good war” when it was time to get elected but one that they clearly do not believe in.

    This is one of those Poker moments when you have to decide to either go all in or cash in your chips and walk away from the table. If the U.S. goes “all in,” then the Afghans (and enemy) will know it and just that resolve will do wonders for emboldening the Locals. If we keep dithering like this, however, no amount of Local resistance will make any difference.

  5. On November 22, 2009 at 11:06 am, TSAlfabet said:

    This is encouraging: Afghans rising up to protect their own villages against the Taliban.

    In the NY Times, no less:

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan and was published November 12th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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