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The real Afghan strategy
Will Obama give it a chance?

By David Ignatius
Sunday, November 1, 2009

BARAKI BARAK, AFGHANISTAN

Hikmatullah, a tall Pashtun farmer dressed in turban and white cloak, looks slightly bewildered as a U.S. Army officer offers him tea and bread and questions him about what he wants from life. A crowd has gathered around them on the steps of the local bakery, young boys and old tribesmen gawking to see what the fuss is about.

Hikmatullah says that he's a happy man with five children and that what he wants most is security. From the quizzical look on the farmer's face, perhaps he's wondering: Can these pleasant, tea-drinking American soldiers really be the same people who are assaulting Taliban fighters in this region of eastern Afghanistan?

The answer is yes. Even as U.S. forces show a gentler side with their new stress on people-friendly counterinsurgency, they continue to conduct devastating attacks on the enemy. It's this mix of hard and soft that's the essence of the U.S. battle plan here, but this reality is not well understood back in America.

The Washington debate about the Afghanistan war -- pitting advocates of a broad counterinsurgency strategy against those who favor a narrower counterterrorism approach -- has sometimes been misleading, at least in terms of what actually goes on here. The fact is that U.S. forces are doing both missions every day and night -- and indeed are becoming increasingly effective at each one.

But there's a danger: A strategy that combines stroking your friends and pounding your enemies runs the risk of sending mixed messages. The public, here and around the world, may conclude that for all their new talk about drinking tea, the Americans are ruthless killers. Meanwhile, the enemy may conclude that whatever its firepower, the United States is impatient and will eventually go away. The wires may get crossed, in other words, with people getting the opposite message from the one intended.

A visit to Afghanistan reveals both sides of this complicated and ambitious strategy.

Let's start with the soft approach -- a "population-centric" strategy that's on display here in Baraki Barak. The district is a pilot project for a new effort to improve local governance so that the Afghan government will be seen not as a distant and corrupt force in Kabul but as an efficient local presence that can deliver justice and economic opportunity better than the Taliban. (The problem, alas, is that the Kabul government is distant and corrupt.)

The government's face here is Mohammed Yassin Lodin, the district sub-governor. At his new headquarters, opened just two days before my visit here with the U.S. military, he proclaims his eagerness to solve problems. Assisting him will be the first wave of the "civilian surge" promised by President Obama -- representatives of the State and Agriculture departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development, reporting to a regional coordinator for "stabilization operations." The plan is for nearly 400 U.S. civilians to be working on aid projects across Afghanistan by year-end -- all, no doubt, drinking the requisite three cups of tea.

Now, let's examine the hard side, which is the terrain of Special Operations forces. They have two distinct faces. One is the "black" SOF that attacks high-value Taliban targets. These are stealthy and superkinetic operations, using the latest technology to hunt enemy fighters and then capture or kill them. The mission, basically, is to make it very dangerous to be a Taliban operative -- and thereby shift the balance of intimidation in this war. The SOF warriors are also targeting the networks that produce the roadside bombs killing coalition troops.

There's a softer side of SOF, too, in the so-called "A-teams" (short for "Operational Detachment Alpha"), which are fighting what they call "unconventional war." They are sent into towns and villages to work with the Afghan army and police -- and, under a new program, to assist tribal leaders whose power and authority have been sapped by the Taliban. These are creative operations, employing some of America's best soldiers. They reflect a growing understanding of what counterinsurgency experts call the "human terrain map."

"It's like all the instruments in an orchestra," says a U.S. military commander of the different parts of the battle plan. "You have to know how to play them together."

As Obama has deliberated Afghanistan strategy, the debate has tended to polarize between "CI" and "CT" advocates. But this is a false argument. What the United States actually has in Afghanistan is a mixture. Obama must now decide whether to provide the resources -- and take the risks -- to test whether this combined strategy can succeed.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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