From David Adams and Ann Marlowe, via the WSJ.
From the beginning of 2007 to March 2008, the 82nd Airborne Division’s strategy in Khost proved that 250 paratroopers could secure a province of a million people in the Pashtun belt. The key to success in Khost—which shares a 184 kilometer-long border with Pakistan’s lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas—was working within the Afghan system. By partnering with closely supervised Afghan National Security Forces and a competent governor and subgovernors, U.S. forces were able to win the support of Khost’s 13 tribes.
Today, 2,400 U.S. soldiers are stationed in Khost. But the province is more dangerous.
Mohammed Aiaz, a 32-year-old Khosti advising the Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team, puts it plainly: “The answer is not more troops, which will put Afghans in more danger.” If troops don’t understand Afghan culture and fail to work within the tribal system, they will only fuel the insurgency. When we get the tribes on our side, that will change. When a tribe says no, it means no. IEDs will be reported and no insurgent fighters will be allowed to operate in or across their area.
Khost once had security forces with tribal links. Between 1988 and 1991, the Soviet client government in Kabul was able to secure much of eastern and southern Afghanistan by paying the tribal militias. Khost was secured by the 25th Division of the Afghan National Army (ANA), which incorporated militias with more than 400 fighters from five of Khost’s 13 major tribes. The mujahedeen were not able to take Khost until internal rifts among Pashtuns in then-President Mohammed Najibullah’s government resulted in a loss of support for the militias in Khost and, eventually, the defection of the 25th Division in April 1991.
The mistake the Najibullah government made was not integrating advisers to train the tribal militias and transform them into a permanent part of the government security forces. During the Taliban period between 1996-2001 the 25th Division dispersed amongst the tribes. Many fled to Pakistan.
When the U.S. invaded in 2001, the 25th Division, reformed under the command of Gen. Kilbaz Sherzai, immediately secured Khost. But the division was disbanded by the new Afghan government for fear of warlordism.
Today, some elements of the 25th still work for the Americans as contract security forces. However, the ANA now stationed in Khost is mainly composed of northern, non-Pashtun Dari speakers, and it is regarded as a foreign body. Without local influence and tribal support, the ANA tends to stay on its bases.
Part of this is our fault. We built the ANA in our own Army’s image. Its soldiers live on nice bases and see themselves as the protectors of Afghanistan from conventional attacks by Pakistan. But to be effective, the ANA must be structured more like a National Guard, responsible for creating civil authority and training the police.
We saw how this could work in the Tani district of Khost starting in 2007. By assisting an ANA company—with a platoon of American paratroopers, a civil affairs team from the U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, the local Afghan National Police, and a determined Afghan subgovernor named Badi Zaman Sabari—we secured the district despite its long border with Pakistan.
Raids by the paratroopers under the leadership of Lt. Col. Scott Custer were extremely rare because the team had such good relations with the tribes that they would generally turn over any suspect. These good tribal relations were strengthened further by meeting the communities’ demands for a new paved road, five schools, and a spring water system that supplies 12,000 villagers.
Yet security has deteriorated in Khost, despite increases of U.S. troops in mid-2008. American strategy began to focus more on chasing the insurgents in the mountains instead of securing the towns and villages where most Khostis live.
Analysis & Commentary
Make friends with the right people, empower their men, and ride unicorns over rainbows. Presto! Counterinsurgency made simple. Note that at least one strategic argument all along is that Afghanistan isn’t like Iraq and the tribal awakening may not in fact apply, so it will be harder in Afghanistan than it was in the Anbar Province. Now Adams and Marlowe turn that argument on its head. Not only is the tribal awakening possible, but it should be easier in Afghanistan than in Iraq, and more troops are certainly not necessary.
Grim at Blackfive has a roundup of views that complement Marlowe’s plan, but on a more sophisticated level. But as with Marlowe’s view, Grim’s discussion relies on tribal engagement. Regular readers know that I reject the narrative (of now mythical and magical proportions) that the campaign for Anbar was all about the tribes. It was much more complicated than that.
In Haditha it required sand berms to prevent the influx of foreign fighters into the city, combined with a local police chief strong man named Colonel Faruq to bring the town to heel. In al Qaim it required heavy kinetic operations by the U.S. Marines, combined with a local police chief strong man named Abu Ahmed to keep out foreign fighters and bring local insurgents under control. In Fallujah in 2007 it required heavy kinetic operations by the U.S. Marines followed on by gated communities, biometrics, and block captains (or Muktars) and strong men police all over the city.
Whereas Captain Travis Patriquin’s outline for counterinsurgency in Anbar seems to have carried the day when it comes to narrative, even in Ramadi (where the tribal awakening supposedly got its start), Colonel MacFarland’s observations are telling concerning the tribes upon his arrival to Anbar.
… the sheiks were sitting on the fence.
They were not sympathetic to al-Qaeda, but they tolerated its members, MacFarland says.
The sheiks’ outlook had been shaped by watching an earlier clash between Iraqi nationalists — primarily former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party — and hard-core al-Qaeda operatives who were a mix of foreign fighters and Iraqis. Al-Qaeda beat the nationalists. That rattled the sheiks.
“Al-Qaeda just mopped up the floor with those guys,” he says.
While Captain Patriquin wanted to talk to Sheik Risha, U.S. forces were engaged in heavy combat to shut down his smuggling lines, even at the expense of killing his tribal and family members. The U.S. Marine Corps operations in Iraq are best described by diplomacy with a gun (and this is consistent with the literally countless interviews of Marines that I have conducted). When it was all finished, more than one thousand Marines had perished in Anbar, and tens of thousands of both indigenous insurgents and foreign fighters had died. There were no unicorns or rainbows in Anbar, popular myths to the contrary.
In spite of the sophistication of the Anbari tribes compared to the Afghan tribes, even they couldn’t hold off al Qaeda without heavy kinetics by the Marines. The Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan were also said to have a strong sense of unity and organization, that is, until Baitullah Mehsud had some 600 tribal elders assassinated. The Pashtun tribal structure is said to have been decimated by the Pakistan Taliban.
Upon the initial liberation of Garmsir by the U.S. Marines in 2008, the tribal elders pleaded with the Marines to join with them to fight the Taliban. The 24th MEU did, at least until their deployment ended. The British weren’t able to hold Garmsir, and no U.S. Marines followed up the 24th MEU into the Garmsir (in a tip of the hat to the “economy of force” campaign). Thus did Operation Khanjar have to be launched in 2009 to do some of the same things that the Marines did in 2008. Even now with U.S. Marines present in the Helmand Province, fear of retribution for cooperating with the Marines against the Taliban is pervasive.
There are certain elements of Marlowe’s analysis that are salient. You cannot find more criticism of the ANA and ANP than I have lodged, and I objected to the use of ANA soldiers from Tajik areas to control Pashtun tribes before Marlowe did. But for those naive analysts who believe that reorganization of the ANA is the answer to our problems in Afghanistan, you only need to know that the U.S. Marines are still trying to talk the ANA troops aligned with them to go on night time patrols.
There may also be some virtue to the notion of better engagement of the tribes. Steven Pressfield has a continuing stream of conversation and analysis at his blog on this very topic (to be fair, I should also mention that Joshua Foust has another view on this, and both positions are well worth studying). But after the tribes are engaged and the ANA has been reorganized, the tribes cannot stop the Taliban and allied foreign fighters alone, and the ANA is far from ready to take on defense of their country from internal threats.
What Davis and Marlowe are missing is the general evolution of the campaign and the warp and woof of the Afghan countryside now as compared to the utopia they describe. The Taliban have grown stronger, and it will take heavy kinetics, patrolling, policing and engagement of the population by other-than-ANA forces to dislodge them.
There aren’t any easy solutions, but the general reluctance to send additional troops being demonstrated by this administration cannot possibly be a doctrinal or strategic basis for denying the necessary resources to complete the campaign. U.S. troops are the currency upon which the campaign will succeed or fail.