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Afghanistan Through British Eyes

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By David Ignatius
Thursday, September 24, 2009

LONDON -- When it comes to Afghanistan, the British have a special perspective: Every mistake the United States has made recently, they made 150 years ago. So it's worth listening to British experts in the debate over Afghan strategy.

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Afghanistan drove the British bonkers for much of the 19th century. They couldn't control the place, but they couldn't walk away from it, either. They found that there wasn't a military solution, but there wasn't a non-military solution. It was a question of managing chaos. Sound familiar?

The best answer the British came up with was working with tribal leaders in the border regions -- paying them subsidies, wooing them away from the baddies who genuinely threatened British interests, but otherwise letting them run their own affairs. That was a cynical approach and it left Afghanistan a poor, backward country. But it worked adequately, especially compared with the alternative, which was unending bloodshed in a faraway country that refused to be colonized.

A modern version of this "work with the tribes" approach is still the best answer. And it seems to be an important part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's strategy that was leaked this week. It's dressed up in the language of counterinsurgency -- he speaks of "population-centric" operations, and he uses the word "community" 44 times, by my count. But his assessment is basically a discussion of how to stabilize the country without just shooting people.

A key passage is McChrystal's discussion of "reintegration," which is counterinsurgency-speak for co-opting Taliban fighters: He advocates "offering them a way out" with "reasonable incentives to stop fighting and return to normalcy, possibly including the provision of employment and protection." Simple translation: If you play ball with the Afghan government, you get money, jobs and maybe guns.

A former CIA officer who worked with Afghan tribes during the 1980s offers this interpretation of McChrystal's approach: "Move out to the hinterlands and live with the locals. Fund them, arm them and exploit the warlord structure. If you don't want them to sell opium, then pay them more than they make selling drugs. Turn Afghan warlords on the foreign fighters, and leverage them against each other."

Now back to the British: I didn't hear much dissent in London from McChrystal's starting point: The U.S.-led coalition can't walk away from Afghanistan, and if it's going to stay it must work with the people rather than alienate them. The bare-bones counterterrorism strategy advocated by McChrystal's critics -- in which the United States would just focus on killing al-Qaeda and other bad guys -- strikes British officials as risky.

"You can't just do CT," argues one of Britain's top Afghanistan experts. "If you pull your forces out, the place would collapse. Kandahar would be in Taliban hands in a week, and Lashkar Gah [the capital of Helmand province] would follow in another week." The British like McChrystal's focus on reintegration at the local and tribal levels, followed by reconciliation at the national level. And they share his enthusiasm for empowering provincial and district governors, and for creating local assemblies (known as "shuras" or "jirgas") that can draw in former insurgents and take responsibility for governance.

I heard two private British criticisms of McChrystal's strategy, and they go to the heart of whether it can work.

The first dissent is over whether a surge of U.S. troops is needed to regain the initiative against the Taliban. "The idea that you will bring them to the table with military force is wrong," says one top expert. "Unless we're going to colonize the country, this won't work. Building a fort and putting men in uniforms incites the tribes rather than calming them down." I think he's right. More troops don't necessarily mean more security.

Rather than trying to protect the population everywhere (which is impossible), McChrystal wisely might be focusing on cities and towns. The Post's Greg Jaffe reported this week that the U.S. commander is moving in that direction by closing remote outposts in Nurestan in the far northeast.

The second caution from British experts is that the Afghan tribal structure is broken. The authority of the tribal elders as "a river to their people," as one old Afghan hand puts it, has been shattered by decades of war. Power has flowed to drug dealers, gunrunners and Taliban fighters.

To shift the balance, Gen. McChrystal's best resource may be money. If there's one thing the British learned in this part of the world, it's the utility of cold, hard cash.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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