On a highway north of Kabul last month, an American soldier aimed a machine gun at my car from the turret of his armored Humvee. In the split second for which our eyes locked, I had a revelation: To a man with a weapon, everything looks like a threat.
I had served as an infantry officer in Afghanistan in 2001-02 and in Iraq in 2003, but this was my first time on the other end of an American machine gun. It’s not something I’ll forget. It’s not the sort of thing ordinary Afghans forget, either, and it reminded me that heavy-handed military tactics can alienate the people we’re trying to help while playing into the hands of the people we’re trying to defeat.
Welcome to the paradoxical world of counterinsurgency warfare — the kind of war you win by not shooting.
The objective in fighting insurgents isn’t to kill every enemy fighter — you simply can’t — but to persuade the population to abandon the insurgents’ cause. The laws of these campaigns seem topsy-turvy by conventional military standards: Money is more decisive than bullets; protecting our own forces undermines the U.S. mission; heavy firepower is counterproductive; and winning battles guarantees nothing.
My unnerving encounter on the highway was particularly ironic since I was there at the invitation of the U.S. Army to help teach these very principles at the Afghanistan Counterinsurgency Academy. The grandly misnamed “academy” is a tiny collection of huts and tents on Kabul’s dusty southern outskirts. Since May, motley classes of several dozen Afghan army officers, Afghan policemen, NATO officers, American officers and civilians have been learning and living side by side there for a week at a time.
The academy does much more than teach the theory and tactics of fighting the Taliban insurgents who are trying to unseat President Hamid Karzai and claw their way back to power. It is also a rare forum for military officers, civilian aid workers, academics and diplomats — from Afghanistan and all 37 countries in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force — to unite in trying to bring good governance, prosperity and security to Afghanistan. The curriculum is based on the Army and Marine Corps’ new counterinsurgency doctrine, released in December. Classes revolve around four so-called paradoxes of counterinsurgency. Unless we learn all four well, we’ll continue to win battles in Afghanistan while losing the war.
The first tenet is that the best weapons don’t shoot. Counterinsurgents must excel at finding creative, nonmilitary solutions to military problems.
Said another way: Reconstruction funds can shape the battlefield as surely as bombs. But such methods are still not used widely enough in Afghanistan. After spending more than $14 billion in aid to the country since 2001, the United States’ latest disbursement, of more than $10 billion, will start this month. Some 80 percent of it is earmarked for security spending, leaving only about 20 percent for reconstruction projects and initiatives to foster good governance.
Afghanistan, however, isn’t Iraq. Tourists travel through much of the country in relative safety, glass office towers are sprouting up in Kabul, and Coca-Cola recently opened a bottling plant. I drove through the capital in a dirty green Toyota, wearing civilian clothes and stopping to shop in bazaars, eat in restaurants and visit businesses. In two weeks, I saw more of Kabul than most military officers do in a year.
This isolation also infects our diplomatic community. After a State Department official gave a presentation at the academy, he and I climbed a nearby hill to explore the ruins of an old palace. He was only nine days from the end of his 12-month tour, and our walk was the first time he’d ever been allowed to get out and explore the city.
Of course, mingling with the population means exposing ourselves to attacks, and commanders have an obligation to safeguard their troops. But they have an even greater responsibility to accomplish their mission. When we retreat behind body armor and concrete barriers, it becomes impossible to understand the society we claim to defend. If we emphasize “force protection” above all else, we will never develop the cultural understanding, relationships and intelligence we need to win.
The third paradox hammered home at the academy is that the more force you use, the less effective you may be. Civilian casualties in Afghanistan are notoriously difficult to tally, but 300-500 noncombatants have probably been killed already this year, mostly in U.S. and coalition air strikes. Killing civilians, even in error, is not only a serious moral transgression but also a lethal strategic misstep. Wayward U.S. strikes have seriously undermined the very legitimacy of the Karzai government and made all too many Afghans resent coalition forces. If Afghans lose patience with the coalition presence, those forces will be run out of the country, in the footsteps of the British and the Soviets before them.
I stress this point because one of my many gratifying moments at the academy came at the start of a class on targeting. I told the students to list the top three targets they would aim for if they were leading forces in Zabul province, a Taliban stronghold. When I asked a U.S. officer to share his list, he rattled off the names of three senior Taliban leaders to be captured or killed. Then I turned and asked an Afghan officer the same question. “First we must target the local councils to see how we can best help them,” he replied. “Then we must target the local mullahs to find out their needs and let them know we respect their authority.” Exactly. In counterinsurgency warfare, targeting is more about whom you bring in than whom you take out.
Another voice heard from a retired member of our military.