Doug Stanton -- Obama should take tribe-by-tribe approach to Afghan war

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By Doug Stanton
Sunday, December 6, 2009

In mid-October and early November 2001, about three dozen Army Special Forces soldiers landed in northern Afghanistan and, with the help of a handful of CIA officers, quickly routed a Taliban army whose estimated size ranged from 25,000 to 50,000 fighters. Allied with Afghan fighters, this incredibly small number of first-in soldiers achieved in about eight weeks what the Pentagon had thought would take two years. For the first time in U.S. history, Army Special Forces were deployed as the lead element in a war.

And then, just as quickly, the Americans went home, pulled away to fight in Iraq in 2003. The Taliban soldiers filled the emerging power vacuum, and you pretty much know the rest of the story: Gen. Stanley McChrystal's dire August report on deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan, and President Obama's speech Tuesday announcing an influx of 30,000 additional American troops -- needed, the president said, because "the Taliban has gained momentum."

Obama's stated purposes -- to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al-Qaeda, and to train an Afghan army and police force capable of providing for the nation's security -- are sensible and even noble. Accomplishing them will go a ways toward creating a more stable country. But his new strategy is not enough, and it may prove a mistaken effort to replicate an Iraq-like approach in a situation that is vastly different.

In Afghanistan, we are not facing a broad insurgency with popular grass-roots support. Estimates of Taliban strength run anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 fighters, and only a small portion of the Afghan population supports the Taliban, perhaps 5 percent to 10 percent (polls are sketchy). Yet it is unclear whether Obama's plan is anything more than Iraq-lite, a counterinsurgency approach focused on building up local forces.

All the "graveyard of empires" metaphors aside, it's no secret that Afghans excel at repelling occupiers, and dropping 30,000 new troops into the country is a sure way of being perceived as an occupying force. Instead, Obama could steal a page from the original approach to the Afghan war -- the Special Forces approach, which I chronicled in a book called "Horse Soldiers" and which recognizes, as one Special Forces major explained to me, that an insurgency is a social problem, like teen pregnancy or drug abuse. The solutions evolve (if they do at all) over generations, not in months or in a few years.

The debate over what to do in Afghanistan, then, is really a debate about locating the centers of gravity in that country -- those people, places and power brokers who must be influenced to make social change.

When I tuned in to Obama's speech, I was hoping for a plan that did not solely resemble a conventional counterinsurgency strategy, like McChrystal's, with its traditional aims to "clear, hold and build" ground and undertake the complicated task of nation-building. While this strategy has worked in degrees in Iraq, it was preceded by a more nuanced, complex strategy of working with and through local Iraqis, principally in Anbar province. There, men such as retired Army Special Forces Master Sgt. Andy Marchal, who had fought in Afghanistan in 2001 with the first team to enter the country, instigated social change and tamped down violence by creating jobs and working with tribesmen who had decided to stop fighting alongside al-Qaeda.

"As soon as I saw that the main problem in the village was unemployment -- at one point it was at 70 percent -- I knew I wouldn't even have to pick up my gun," he recently told me. "I simply had to create more jobs than al-Qaeda was creating and get those guys to work in this new economy. After that, the hard-core fighters left behind would start fighting each other, and sure enough, that's what happened."

Marchal did this with a small group of Special Forces soldiers, maybe numbering no more than two dozen.

This model works tribe by tribe and village by village. It considers violence, unemployment and unrest as part of the same cloth. Special Forces soldiers may arm and train militias to defend themselves, as well as help build water systems and provide jobs and medical care. It can be slower, nuanced work, and it relies on building rapport with citizens, which is why Special Forces soldiers receive language training and believe awareness of local customs and mores is critical. Think of soldiers engaged in such efforts as Peace Corps members -- only they can shoot back.

This model can be far less bloody and far less costly than deploying tens of thousands of conventional Army troops, and there are signs that a "tribal-centric" approach is gaining traction with some strategists. One signal is the buzz created by an informal paper called "Tribe by Tribe," by Special Forces Maj. Jim Gant. "When we gain the respect of one tribe," Gant writes, "there will be a domino effect throughout the region and beyond. One tribe will eventually become 25 or even 50 tribes."

Another encouraging sign is a dynamic new effort called the Community Defense Initiative. Afghan citizens and militias not sympathetic to the Taliban are receiving assistance from teams of Special Forces soldiers to defend their villages from Taliban attack. The initiative resembles what Special Forces soldiers did during the fighting in 2001, when they united various ethnic groups and fought together against the Taliban.


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