Building Bridges in the Back of Beyond

By David Ignatius
Thursday, May 1, 2008

NARAY, Afghanistan -- This remote, mountainous patch of Afghanistan is near where Rudyard Kipling set his famous story "The Man Who Would Be King." And as you listen to Lt. Col. Chris Kolenda rattle off the names of the region's tribes and subtribes, you realize that he and other Americans here might be Kipling characters themselves.

Kolenda's base truly is "the back of beyond," as 19th-century British travelers sometimes described this part of the world. It's located in a hauntingly beautiful region of northeastern Afghanistan, a few miles from the Pakistan border -- a land of steep mountains, narrow river valleys and primitive terraced farms. There are no paved roads, and in most villages there is no electricity and no running water. You reach the base by Black Hawk helicopter, soaring above the rushing rivers and isolated canyons of the Hindu Kush.

Kolenda talks like an amateur ethnologist as he explains the tribal makeup of Kamdesh, an area just north of here where U.S. forces have been trying to woo the elders and mullahs away from the insurgents. He identifies a main tribe, four subtribes and 12 clans, each with its own history of feuds and friendships. If the U.S. military doesn't understand the local culture, Kolenda explains, it will make mistakes in trying to forge alliances that can stabilize the area.

The surprising fact is that Kolenda, a Nebraska native, and his soldiers in Task Force Saber are having some success. When he arrived here last June, this area was mostly a no-go zone for U.S. forces. That meant some hard fighting last summer to drive the insurgents away from population centers and deeper into the mountains.

Once he had pushed back the insurgents, Kolenda's strategy was to re-empower the traditional tribal structure, which had lost sway during 30 years of war to a new elite with guns and money. Working through tribal shuras, or local councils, he offered the elders a deal: If they would provide security, he would bring them economic development in the form of roads, bridges, schools and health clinics. He financed these projects mostly with quick cash from the Commander's Emergency Response Program, or CERP, which has proved to be one of the most potent American weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kolenda gradually won the tribal leaders' trust, traveling to one insurgent haven 16 times to meet with the elders. This year, attacks on U.S. forces in most parts of the region have largely ceased.

Alison Blosser, a young State Department officer, is using a similar approach to help guide the Provincial Reconstruction Team for Kunar province, based south of here in Asadabad. An Ohio State graduate, she speaks fluent Pashto, which she learned before taking up her previous assignment at the U.S. consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan. Dressed in a head scarf and body armor, she might be a modern version of Gertrude Bell, the celebrated British adventurer and colonial administrator of the 1920s.

Blosser and her colleagues have employed what they call a "roads strategy" to bring stability to Kunar. The biggest project so far was building a paved two-lane road from Jalalabad in the lush flatlands up the Kunar River valley to Asadabad. The road is a magnet for economic development in what had been an insurgent stronghold, and the PRT is planning new roads into what Blosser calls the "capillary valleys" where the insurgents have fled.

The tribal elders see the prosperity the new roads have brought and want the same for their villages. "We say, 'Fine, but you have to guarantee security,' " Blosser says. That's the essence of the counterinsurgency strategy U.S. forces are using in Afghanistan. As the military clears new areas, the PRTs follow quickly behind with roads, bridges and schools.

Back in Kabul, Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the overall commander of American forces in Afghanistan, reflects on how the counterinsurgency battles have changed the U.S. Army. Back when he was a battalion commander in the 1980s, he says, "I thought the world was move, shoot and communicate." The new generation, he says, understands that these traditional warrior skills won't win today's counterinsurgency wars.

The modern term for what these American soldiers and diplomats are doing in Afghanistan is "nation building," but some of the strategies and skills are reminiscent of the old British Colonial Office. America has had little experience in this kind of faraway struggle but, as McNeill says, the Army is a "learning institution," and it's gradually learning how to fight this kind of war. Yet it should be remembered that even the wily British colonial administrators and brave regiments of the Raj couldn't subdue Afghanistan's warlords.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address

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