Thursday, June 11, 2009

Balance Tilting Against the Taliban?

This afternoon, I was listening to NPR and heard a report on the "new" tactics being employed by US Special Forces operators in the tribal regions of Afghanistan. The report described public works projects, outreach to tribal elders, protection of civilians, and training of indigenous security forces. If none of this sounds particularly new to any of you out there, then do keep in mind that this was NPR. Any clear acknowledgment that this is precisely the sort of COIN strategy which had been implemented so very successfully under the Bush Administration in Iraq would have robbed the Obama Administration of its credit for a Bold New Approach in the 'Stans. Context is everything.

Still, I have long thought that some variant of the COIN doctrine which has been so effectively applied in Iraq could be adapted to take root in Afghanistan and Pakistan, provided the local conditions were taken into account and the strategy adjusted accordingly, and if the Jihadis would over-play their brutality hands as egregiously as they had in Iraq. Encouragingly (if tragically!), there have recently been growing signs that the latter may be occurring in Taliban-controlled areas of the 'Stans:

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Villagers are rising up against the Taliban in a remote corner of northern Pakistan, a grass-roots rebellion that underscores the shift in the public mood against the militants and a growing confidence to confront them. More than a thousand villagers from the district of Dir have been fighting Taliban militants since Friday, when a Taliban suicide bomber detonated his payload during prayer time at a mosque, killing at least 30 villagers.

The Pakistani government is taking advantage of this tentative groundswell against the militants and gangsters and terrorists loosely assembled under the rubric of "Taliban," but they have their work cut out for them. Resentment against the atrocities perpetrated by Islamist militants is indeed growing...but that does not mean that the fiercely independent, downright xenophobic peoples of the tribal regions have any more love to spare for the interference of distant bigwigs in Islamabad or Kabul...let alone the US. It will indeed be a long row to hoe for the Pakistani government and military to convince the Tribes that their interests will be respected, their lives and livelihoods protected, and their insurrections supported against reprisals. There is a lot of unlearning to be done there.

Meanwhile, on the Afghan side of the border, Army Rangers and other operators are, as previously mentioned, hoeing that row as we speak. The extent to which the Tribal elders feel respected, their Lashkars backed up, and the influx of replacements for the miscreants they succeed in dispatching is successfully stemmed is going to make all the difference. Extremely valuable operational memory from Iraq is available to be deployed in service of this end, and the leadership of General Petraeus and his chosen officers should not be underestimated.

All in all, these are some tentatively promising signs on the COIN front in a far more complex operational environment than it has faced to date.

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