Foreign Affairs October 2008

All Counterinsurgency Is Local

Prosecuting the war in Afghanistan from provincial capitals has been disastrous; we need to turn our military strategy inside out.

To reverse its fortunes in Afghanistan, the U.S. needs to fundamentally reconfigure its operations, creating small development and security teams posted at new compounds in every district in the south and east of the country. This approach would not necessarily require adding troops, although that would help—200 district-based teams of 100 people each would require 20,000 personnel, one-third of the 60,000 foreign troops currently in the country.

Each new compound would become home to roughly 60 to 70 NATO security personnel, 30 to 40 support staff to manage logistics and supervise local development efforts, and an additional 30 to 40 Afghan National Army soldiers. The troops would provide a steady security presence, strengthen the position of tribal elders, and bolster the district police. Today, Afghan police often run away from the superior firepower of attacking Taliban forces. It’s hard to fault them—more than 900 police were killed in such attacks last year alone. But with better daily training and help only minutes away, local police would be far more likely to put up a good fight, and win. Indirectly, the daily presence of embedded police trainers would also prevent much of the police corruption that fuels resentment against the government. And regular contact at the district and village levels would greatly improve the collection and analysis of intelligence.

Perhaps most important, district-based teams would serve as the primary organization for Afghan rural development. Currently, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams,” based in each provincial capital, are responsible for the U.S. military’s local development efforts. These teams have had no strategic impact on the insurgency, because they are too thin on the ground—the ratio of impoverished Afghan Pashtuns to provincial reconstruction teams is roughly a million to one. Few teams are able to visit every district in their province even once a month; it’s no wonder that rural development has been marred by poor design and ineffective execution.

Local teams with on-site development personnel—“District Development Teams,” if you will—could change all that, and also serve to support nonmilitary development projects. State Department and USAID personnel, along with medics, veterinarians, engineers, agricultural experts, hydrologists, and so on, could live on the local compounds and work in their districts daily, building trust and confidence.

Deploying relatively small units in numerous forward positions would undoubtedly put more troops in harm’s way. But the Taliban have not demonstrated the ability to overrun international elements of this size, and the teams could be mutually reinforcing. (Air support would be critical.) Ultimately, we have to accept a certain amount of risk; you can’t beat a rural insurgency without a rural security presence.

As long as the compounds are discreetly sited, house Afghan soldiers to provide the most visible security presence, and fly the Afghan flag, they need not exacerbate fears of foreign occupation. Instead, they would reinforce the country’s most important, most neglected political units; strengthen the tribal elders; win local support; and reverse the slow slide into strategic failure.

Thomas H. Johnson directs the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, California. M. Chris Mason is a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, in Washington, D.C. He recently served in the U.S. Foreign Service on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
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