Barely a month after assuming direct command of the war in Afghanistan, Gen. David Patraeus has begun implementing a plan that could help undercut Taliban influence in rural areas and coincidentally help pull the Obama AdministrationÕs chestnuts from the fire, at least temporarily.
The plan is to create armed citizen groups in villages, similar to those he established during the “surge” in Iraq among Sunni tribesmen.
According to news reports, up to 10,000 Afghans would be involved in the project until Afghan soldiers and police undergoing training replaced them.
The Afghan Ministry of Interior would ostensibly run the groups but it is expected that NATO and the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) would supply most of the training, oversight and funding given the Afghan government’s lack of resources.
It’s a bold move by Patreaus, one in which luck will be as key an element as execution. Afghanistan is simply not Iraq, and whether he will receive the support he needs from Washington in the months ahead for this initiative and others is an iffy question.
“What kind of general do you like under your command,” the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was once asked by a subordinate. A great tactician? A brilliant logistician? Neither, he replied. He wanted a lucky one.
That story is historical rumor but the sentiment it expresses certainly translates to situation U.S. Army Gen. David Patraeus finds himself in. America and Afghanistan need a lucky commander.
Like his predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Patreaus is operating with less troops than requested and believed needed to defeat the Taliban and break their influence on the country’s people.
McChrystal last year, warning that under-resourcing could lead to defeat in the country, asked the Obama Administration for at least 50,000 additional troops, warning in the process that speed was essential since the window of opportunity to turn a deteriorating situation in the country around was 12 to 18 months.
Obama dithered. Three months passed before he decided to send 30,000 troops. Military officers say that given troop configuration and operating requirements, less than half of Army troops involved in the surge would be trigger-pullers, the men who patrol the villages to bring security and actively engage the enemy. The rest would be support troops, albeit including helicopter gunship crews.
Shortage of men was a frequent concern expressed to this reporter by soldiers and Marines on far-flung outposts during a five-month embedment in Afghanistan late last year and early this year.
“Our patrols aren’t done in trucks,” 1st Lt. Cliff Hall, a Marine platoon commander in Helmand Province’s Nawa District, said. “You have to be there with the people.
“We do at least 100 patrols a week. Every village sees and interacts with our Marines at least every other day. We’ve got to separate the Taliban from the people and the people from the Taliban. We don’t need the people to survive but we need them to win. They (the Taliban) need them for both,” Hall said.
The area of responsibility for the platoon’s 40 or so men, spread between five outposts, was 91-square miles.
Establishing the armed groups would help fill the security void in many areas, but getting Afghans to join such groups may be problematic. Obama, in announcing the deployment of new troops, proclaimed U.S. forces would begin withdrawing from the country next July.
What appeared a date-definite has since taken on a more ambiguous interpretation but the damage has been done. Key to villager cooperation in Afghanistan, fundamental to breaking the Taliban, is confidence security forces will remain in the area and not leave them to the mercy of returning, vengeful terrorists.
“They always ask, ‘Are you staying?’” a soldier said after a district meeting of village and tribal elders. “The Taliban always tells them we won’t.”
Patraeus, like McChrystal, is also under pressure from the White House and Congress to produce tangible and measurable metrics of success in a conflict where “success” takes place in baby-step increments. And also like his predecessor, actions taken or untaken, occur amid fraying support for the war at home.
In Congress, legislators of both parties recently decried the lack of “clarity” in administration goals in Afghanistan and lack of definitive benchmarks to gauge achievement. An increasingly impatient Congress and public want to see light at the end of a tunnel that has already cost more than 1,000 U.S. lives.
The goal after the September 11 attacks to defeat the Taliban, which allowed al-Qaeda bases in the country, and helping prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a training ground for terrorists, has become nation building.
“The lack of clarity does not end with the president’s timetable,” but also encompasses the gains that need to be made to consider the country secure, Republican Sen. Richard Lugar said this month.
“At some moments it appears as if we are trying to remake the economic, political and security culture of Afghanistan. We should know by now that such grand ambitions are beyond our resources and powers,” Lugar said.
Any end-game clarity this administration may offer—other than cut-and-run—will have little currency unless Patraeus can make military progress in Afghanistan as he did in Iraq. That means funding. That means adequate troop levels. That means unambiguous support and confidence from the White House.
Gen. McChrystal failed to give the Obama Administration the clear-cut, easily discernable battle-pennant victories it wants and needs to support nation-building efforts. His dismissal for impolitic remarks about the President and administration officials in front of a Rolling Stone reporter allowed the President to bypass any possible questions about under-resourcing that would have arisen if he had fired McChrystal for failing to deliver. Patraeus, author of America’s counter-insurgency strategies, now faces the same pressure McChrystal did.
“This President is even more dependent upon Petraeus turning this around than Bush was [in Iraq],” Bruce Reidel, a former adviser to the President, recently said in an interview with Spiegel Online. “By the time he [Bush] turned to Petraeus, Bush was in his second term and had no hopes for re-election.”
“Obama is in his first term and very much hopes he can be re-elected. But to do that, he now needs to be successful in Afghanistan,” Reidel said.
Reidel added “Petraeus is a winner, and he’ll find a way to win.”
The armed villager concept, if successfully implemented, would help. First, it helps fill the security void for isolated communities where there are not enough coalition forces in the immediate vicinity. Second, it offers impoverished villagers a way to earn money, other than planting improvised explosive devices for the Taliban. Third, it gives communities real, active involvement and stake in security and stability.
There are potential dangers in arming groups of Afghan civilians, of course, and President Hamid Karzai opposed the plan. He acquiesced after one-on-one talks with Patraeus but how long he does so and to what extent his government will help to make it a success is anyone’s guess.
Afghanistan, even before the 1980 Soviet invasion, never had a strong central government. Infrastructure then, and now, is minimal. Illiteracy is rife. Villages and districts are isolated due to terrain. According to available statistics, it’s estimated as many as 60% of males in the countryside cannot read or write. The percentage is as high as 90% for the women.