Afghan Counterinsurgency: When Everything Is Personal

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Romeo Gacad / AFP / Getty Images

U.S. troops wait outside a woman's home in Kandalay, Afghanistan, while Afghan National Army troops check the inside during a joint patrol on Aug. 8, 2011

A crack. A thump. And then a small dust cloud rises through the slanting morning sunlight where a U.S. sergeant has knocked over a locked wooden gate and archway while trying to get into a pomegranate orchard to do a weapons-cache sweep. For the Americans, it's routine duty; for the Afghans, it's routine encroachment on personal property. During another patrol, a farmer yells at troops as they walk through his newly planted okra patch, crushing the light green plants into the muck. On yet another patrol, an explosives-disposal team blows up a cache of Soviet-era antipersonnel mines in an orchard — and seven pomegranate trees as well.

These are small incidents and losses — especially from the perspective of service members who have spent a year fighting for their lives in one of Afghanistan's most vicious war zones — but agriculture is the lifeblood of the Arghandab River Valley and frequent occurrences like these begin to add up, angering the population. And though people are now happy with the security situation, resentment over crushed crops and property could eventually boil over. This is the surge today, a counterinsurgency war of big wins and thousands of small losses — both incidental and structural — that could eventually decide the fate of the war.

Part of the problem is that so much of counterinsurgency relies on personal relationships among troops and Afghans. And many wonder how the U.S. can ever hope to build the necessary relationships with Afghans when U.S. troops stay only a year at a time and U.S. Marines leave after just six months of assignment. "We haven't fought a 10-year war, we've fought 10 one-year wars," says Jesse Wolfe, a State Department adviser in the Arghandab region with development experience and a former infantry captain in the Marine Corps who served two tours in Afghanistan, quoting an aphorism common within the military and think tanks. This is one of many reasons U.S. troops can never build true relationships and trust with Afghans — and why mistakes have been repeated.

"Every level of effective continuity out here in terms of leadership is important. And every time you take out one of those pieces, you lose that," says Wolfe. "You have this collective history of understanding what has occurred here and this makes people effective. It's harder for people to exploit cracks in the system when you have people who have been in place and know each other and know the story of the Arghandab. Building the contacts, building the understanding of the history is enormously important. I don't think you can overestimate the importance of that. If it's not the most important, it's one of the most important. If you don't understand who you're working with, and the history of what's happened, you're at a significant disadvantage," says Wolfe.

In Afghanistan, all politics is not only local — it is personal. In a footnote that illuminates how Afghans understand politics and how rooted in personality it is, Lieutenant Mike Viti, head of 3rd Platoon in the village of Tabin tells the story of a village shura (council of elders) of which elders refused to speak to him. They wanted to speak to Staff Sergeant Desmond Will. Through an interpreter, the elders reasoned that since Will is black he must be a member of the same tribe as President Barack Obama who, because of his name, they believed to be a member of the powerful Barakzai, a Pashtun tribe from southern Afghanistan. Even worse, Viti was obviously a member of the "Clintonzai" tribe, and since President Bill Clinton was out of power, it was not worthwhile talking to him, they said.

This is as true in the Arghandab region — the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the war last year — as it is across the rest of the country. During a recent village-clearance operation led by platoon commander Lieutenant Ryan Bouchard, this lack of relationships was showcased. "We did a patrol a couple days ago and I talked to a bunch of people right here," Bouchard says while in the village of Sar Shuin, pointing out a nearby house. "And there's a kid who looks like he's growing like a weed and we're joking with him about how tall he's getting. Well it turns out [a weapons] cache was found in his house. So, you know, its just one of those things where you can try to get a read on the atmospherics, and it comes back and bites you."

In reality though, any U.S. presence is a precarious catch-22. If a village is left alone, it could become an intelligence "black hole" and possibly a sanctuary for insurgents and their supporters who have been pushed out of nearby U.S.-occupied areas. But if a village is occupied by a combat outpost, two things can happen: insurgents are pushed out; and the presence of U.S. troops causes resentment among the population.

Militarily, the fight for Arghandab was won last year. But the fight for hearts and minds, so easily lost by crushing a farmer's crops or blowing up his trees, is ongoing. Part of the key to holding those gains is building true relationships with Afghan security forces and with Afghan locals. But this may prove impossible — and the U.S.'s undoing in Afghanistan. "We won the tactical fight of 2010. It's indisputable. 'Will that hold?' is the question that everyone wants to know," says Lieut. Colonel David Flynn, the former head of the U.S. forces on the west side of the Arghandab River Valley. "I can't sit here and tell you the answer to that question. Because I know the Taliban are back right now," he says. "I know generally where they're operating, but I couldn't tell you who they are because they don't wear Taliban T-shirts, they don't carry rifles. It's a chess match out there right now."