Saturday, July 11, 2009

Dropping some COIN on Afghanistan

The Christian Science Monitor has a couple of excellent articles (Part One and Part Two) on the hopeful developments and lingering challenges in the implementation of counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in the tribal regions of Afghanistan. Recommended reading, in that they lay out what appear to be the ingredients of a well-crafted COIN approach to the protection of civilian populations against the Taliban and al Qaeda forces in their midst. As usual, there is substantial mistrust and the weight of centuries of less-than-inspiring history standing in the way of the locals welcoming the Coalition forces who assume the risk of moving into close proximity with those populations (versus huddling in heavily fortified bases and emerging only to wreck things and kill folks)...but not so close that they violate traditions of privacy. Very tricky business, that.

Still, our people seem to be hitting all of the important marks: they are consulting with the local Tribal elders, staying visible, asking how they can help, and showing a willingness and capability to deliver on their promises. The results are, as expected, uneven, but this is not something which happens overnight. This passage in particular made an impression on me as a fine example of how COIN operations really begin to gain traction:
The troops admit there are no easy solutions. In the meantime, some soldiers are finding their own ways to win hearts and minds.

Pfc. Joshua Lipori has decided to learn Pashto, the prevalent language here. While standing on guard duty one day at a combat outpost in Sayadabad, he practices his fledgling Pashto with some passing locals.

"Tsenga Ye?" or "How are you?" he asks. "Jore Ye?" – "Are you doing OK?"

The Afghans stare in wide-eyed astonishment at the foreign soldier speaking their tongue. They whisper to each other in Pashto.

"See," one says to the other, "there are some good Americans."

This is a modest but meaningful example of how COIN operations are really more about building relationships then they are about killing insurgents (though the latter can help with the former...which in turn can yield actionable intelligence for more effectively performing the former, etc., etc.).

Of course, the Predator drone attacks continue. They have a very special importance in the "Clear" part of "Clear-Hold-Build." These should continue, but with extra-special caution, owing to the even greater sensitivity of tribal Afghan (predominantly Pashtun) people to 'collateral damage' than that which exists in Iraq. Beginnings are such delicate times, and we have scarcely begun to crinkle the paper on the surface of this onion we must peel. But for every tribal sura we can win over, for every village which sees its people breathe easier in the absence of enemies we are seen to be pursuing and neutralizing resolutely and successfully, we move incrementally closer to the tipping point which was passed in Iraq.

And there are signs that this combination of approaches is having the desired effects on our enemies in theater:

"I haven't ever seen this kind of language from senior Al Qaeda commanders before," said Daniel Lev, who works for MEMRI. "In general, Al Qaeda speaks in a very triumphant tone," but in the new book Al-Libi speaks of the group's dire straits and serious problems, Lev added.

"Such an admission of distress on the part of a senior Al Qaeda commander makes this a very unique book in terms of the author."

The signs of fragmentation and distress which come across in the aforementioned new book by senior al Qaeda leadership attests to the degradation of that organization by the relentless attrition which we have been visiting on its organizational structure. The more demoralized and --alas!-- desperate and brutal the Taliban/al Qaeda nexus becomes, the less they will be able to rely on the silence and passivity of those locals with whose lives they have become so interwoven. Even the title of this new al Qaeda book, "Guide to the Laws Regarding Muslim Spies," points to the paranoia spreading through the minds of our enemies. This is an advantage which can be greatly expanded through the implementation of intelligent PSYOPS. The need to vet recruits, spy on the membership (and on the spies!), and periodically (and not always accurately) purge suspected double-agents greatly slows the tempo and effectiveness with which al Qaeda and the Taliban can mount and maintain their attacks. It also signals weakness to those who are standing on the sidelines, trying to decide which is the stronger horse. Like Napoleon said, "never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." True enough. But when the opportunity arises to magnify the scope of that mistake, it would be foolish to squander it. I can just imagine the havoc we could wreak with a few carefully-placed bits of disinformation...

The more we can trap al Qaeda and the Taliban in the vise between ordnance and ostracism, the greater our chances of repeating the spectacular reversals we won in Iraq. But it would be perilously unrealistic to think that we've done more than saddle up the camel on this one ("watch out, they spit").

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