By David Ignatius
Sunday, October 4, 2009
SWAT VALLEY, Pakistan -- A visit to this battlefield of Pakistan's war against the Taliban left one indelible image -- of a teenage boy's beaming smile of relief -- that conveys what a successful counterinsurgency campaign is all about.
Let me explain: When Pakistani troops regained control of Swat in a violent campaign this summer, they found scores of traumatized teenagers who had been forced to work as boy soldiers. About a month ago, the army opened a rehabilitation clinic for them. It is called "Sabaoon," which is the Pashtun word for the first ray of light of the morning.
When I visited the facility last week with the Pakistani commander in Swat, Maj. Gen. Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmad, he cautioned me that many of the boys were still shaken by their experience. But one youth of perhaps 15, dressed in a light blue tunic, a wisp of beard on his chin, stepped forward and took my hand. In his bright eyes, you could see the miracle of survival. He had been training to become a suicide bomber when he was rescued, the commander said.
This is how you defeat an insurgency. These boys will return home -- to their parents, cousins and tribal elders -- as living witnesses that the Taliban's hold on this valley has been broken and that the army is serious about protecting the people.
The Swat campaign shows how the Pakistanis finally got it right after years of mishandling the Taliban's rise here. "We told our majors and captains, 'People should fall in love with you,' " explains the Pakistani commander. That's a reach. But it's clear from traveling a few miles into the valley with him, with no protective armor or other precautions, that the army has considerable public support.
Six months ago, Ahmad says, these roads were a no-go zone. Now they are teeming with merchants and shoppers. Some women are out in public without the burqas that the Taliban demanded. The only Kalashnikovs that I saw were on billboards advertising a laundry soap that bears the name.
What did the Pakistani army do differently? It stopped trying to buy peace with the Taliban through deals that inevitably collapsed. In May, as the Muslim insurgency was spreading out of Swat toward the capital of Islamabad, the army finally decided to crack down, for real.
Ahmad cites three factors in the campaign's success. First, the army sent enough troops to do the job -- two divisions, totaling about 25,000 men, rather than the 3,000-man brigade that had failed to contain the insurgency before. Second, to allow the use of heavy firepower, soldiers moved civilians out, creating more than 2 million temporary refugees, who have now mostly returned. And third, the army had popular support from Pakistanis fed up with the Taliban.
There are some lessons here for U.S. troops across the border in Afghanistan. But frankly, one of the most important truths is that the United States, as an outside force, simply cannot do some of the things that worked best for Pakistani commanders. No matter how fervently Gen. Stanley McChrystal speaks of a "population-centric" strategy, it's hard to implement if it's not your country.
McChrystal's strategy echoes some of the Pakistani precepts -- more troops, more focus on the population, more security. But even with an additional 40,000 troops, the United States won't have the same popular support the Pakistanis enjoyed in Swat. America is fighting what many Afghans will always regard as a war of occupation. People aren't going to "fall in love" with U.S. troops.
Thinking about the human dimension, you can see what's wrong with the alternative counterterrorism strategy favored by McChrystal's critics. Basically, they're talking about a high-tech campaign that zaps al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from the sky with Predator drones. It's an approach that turns assassination into our national strategy. In a world that's just beginning to soften its anger toward America, that strikes me as a very bad idea.
The right Afghanistan policy begins with a frank admission that this isn't America's problem, it's Afghanistan's. The United States needs to patiently support the emerging Afghan government, keeping our troop levels firm and reliable, until the Afghans acquire the tools and political consensus to secure their country.
If you're looking for a model, think of the way the United States stood by the Pakistanis as they groped their way toward victory here in Swat. That teenage boy with the sparkling smile would be dead now if the army hadn't intervened, but the troops had to do it in their own time.