David Kilcullen

If we lose hearts and minds, we will lose the war

David Kilcullen, the man who helped think up the strategy that saved Iraq, saysthat high-tech weaponry is not the answer in Afghanistan. Only a genuine partnership with the people can help us win

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Sir Olaf Caroe — a legendary figure of the Raj, ethnographer of the Pashtuns and last administrator of the North-West Frontier of British India — wrote in 1958 that ‘unlike other wars, Afghan wars become serious only when they are over; in British times at least they were apt to produce an after-crop of tribal unrest [and] constant intrigue among the border tribes.’ Western leaders would have been wise to consider his words after the ‘stunning defeat’ of the Taleban, whose ramshackle theocratic tyranny crumbled in less than ten weeks’ fighting after 9/11.

On 7 December 2001, as the last Taleban stronghold fell at Kandahar, only 110 CIA and a few hundred Special Forces officers were inside Afghanistan. Donald Rumsfeld mused that this lightning success by an elite ground force, operating under a high-tech umbrella of precision airpower, space-based surveillance and satellite communications, heralded a ‘transformation’ that would remake the rules of war. General Tommy Franks exulted that ‘information dominance’ — omniscience through pervasive real-time intelligence — had given him ‘the kind of Olympian perspective that Homer had given his gods’. Afghanistan, graveyard of the Soviet empire and bugbear to the British, Mughals, Persians and Macedonians, had proven almost too easy to conquer, thanks to the sheer brilliance of Western political leaders, the raw talent of our fighting men and the wizardry of our weapons.

Well, not quite. It turns out that old Olaf was closer to the mark.

After a two-year lull the Taleban returned with a vengeance, escalating their insurgency and threatening the security of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Tribal unrest, extremist brutality and terrorist violence have soared, coalition resolve is faltering and local governments seem unable, or unwilling, to deal with the threat. There have been signs, in recent days, that the Pentagon understands the urgent need for a new approach to Afghanistan. Lieutenant General Stanley A. McChrystal, the new American commander in Afghanistan, had his first meeting with President Obama on Tuesday this week and his appointment at least signifies a desire to move away from conventional warfare to the sort of counter-insurgency thinking that was so successful in Iraq. But Pentagon officials have also indicated drone strikes are to be a significant part of any new approach, and drones are not the answer.

The key to winning this most crucial war is not an increase in attacks or a greater focus on ‘bounty-hunting’ — the bringing in of so called ‘high-value’ targets. Though killing terrorists is no bad thing in itself, the only real solution involves engaging indigenous forces — the Afghan people — to help us help them liberate their country.

Since 2006, I have talked with many locals in Afghanistan: tribal elders, government officials, police and soldiers, Taleban defectors, religious leaders, educated intellectuals and ordinary people in the valleys and villages. None has ever called 2001 an ‘invasion’. They remember, as we sometimes forget, that the key to victory in 2001 was not Western technology, but the Afghan people.

Afghans hated the Taleban — even today, only 4 per cent want them back — and the tiny coalition force joined an existing alliance of anti-Taleban Pashtuns and northern ethnic groups that had 50,000 fighters in the field by the fall of Kandahar. This, not high-tech weaponry, was the source of success. Victory was achieved by a genuine partnership with Afghans who rejected the Taleban and joined in the struggle for freedom.

Afghan support remains our most important asset. If you’re at all sceptical about this, just consider the recent polls: 63 per cent of Afghans surveyed wanted coalition troops to stay, while 82 per cent wanted the current government to continue ruling Afghanistan. Around 49 per cent rated the government’s performance as good or excellent, while 52 per cent thought President Karzai was doing a good or excellent job. For comparison, Barack Obama’s approval rating in the United States was 63 per cent last week.

So, the ‘graveyard of empires’ argument does not apply: the Russians, the British and others never had the Afghan support we enjoy. Partly, of course, this is because Afghans know we seek no empire — on the contrary, the coalition of 38 nations in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has always intended to disengage as soon as possible. Indeed, our most egregious errors have arisen from attempts to hand off responsibilities too early, rather than hanging on to them too long.

For the last two years we’ve been scandalously neglectful of our indigenous allies, so Afghan enthusiasm for our war has been dropping off. Back in 2006, support for the coalition was around 85 per cent. Rebuilding our partnership with the Afghan people must be our main objective in the campaign. Just think — this year there’ll be 5,000 extra European troops and 21,000 Americans. Yet many Afghans are dissatisfied with aid ineffectiveness, corruption, misrule, government failure to protect them and the accidental killing of civilians in coalition airstrikes — last week’s error in Farah province may have been the worst yet, villagers claim 147 people were killed. More troops are crucial but Afghan hearts and minds are the real assets here. And in the battle for hearts and minds corruption and aid ineffectiveness are still the biggest issues. At the present moment 67 per cent of Afghans polled believe they have had no personal benefit from aid since 2001, while 85 per cent believe corruption is a major problem, up from 72 per cent a year ago.

The August 2009 presidential elections will be a report card from the Afghan people, on their government’s performance and on the international effort. What should be our focus in the lead-up to the elections? How can we judge whether the effort is working, what should we do next, and how is this likely to end?

The first task is to give people a well-founded feeling of security. This will require a permanent coalition presence in population centres, genuine partnerships with local communities and operations to drive off the Taleban’s main forces. It will take thorough police work to flush out clandestine cells that intimidate people, assassinate officials and are the Taleban’s eyes and ears. This is a residential, garrison approach: protecting people where they sleep, like cops on the beat. It is a mistake to think that this would alienate Afghans: the polls show that they do not want coalition troops out — they just don’t think we are doing a particularly good job of protecting them. This has to change before anything else becomes possible.

With only 56,000 ISAF troops deployed, rising to 85,000 over the year, there will not be enough troops to protect every village. Where a permanent presence is unachievable, we will need to deploy Special Forces, in a partnering role with Afghan police and military, supported by local neighbourhood watch groups and covered by airpower and quick reaction forces.

Another major task will be to expand and improve the police. Police are critical in counterinsurgency, but we have treated the Afghan police as a less well-trained, lightly equipped version of the army, sending them out to confront the Taleban, a contest they often lose. Instead, we need to reorient the police to their proper role: protecting the population from all comers, and enforcing justice and the rule of law. Police brutality and corruption will be key problems. The solution will be to ensure that coalition and Afghan army units always accompany police. This ‘triple partnership 217; model improves the performance of all three elements: coalition forces understand the environment better, Afghan troops gain continuous access to coalition support and a daily professional example, and the soldiers’ presence restrains abuses by police and officials. Rule of law at the village level, including dispute resolution, mediation and appeals against injustice, will be important.

This popular security approach treats the military as a delivery system to allow civilian agencies to provide governance, curb corruption, channel international aid, enact social justice, develop the economy and uphold the rule of law. Military operations are a means to this end: chasing Taleban flying columns around the countryside is entirely secondary.

We will know by August if this is working. An increase in the death rate will mean little. With 26,000 new troops in country, violence is bound to spike — whether we are winning or losing — simply because more troops are fighting and reporting. The measure of success is not whether the military can kill the Taleban but whether it can protect the population from them. The question to ask is not ‘how many Taleban have we killed?’ or ‘can the military enter this area?’ but ‘do civilian officials and members of the community feel safe in this area?’

Afghan civilian casualties, however, will be an especially telling measure. Our central goal is to make Afghans feel secure enough to engage in peaceful politics and so marginalise the Taleban and other illegal armed groups. Killing non-combatant civilians fundamentally undermines this goal, and so violence against civilians — whether committed deliberately by the Taleban, or carelessly by the coalition — will be a key metric. Civilian deaths have risen steadily over several years, accelerating sharply in 2005-2008. Failure to reduce civilian deaths in 2009 may indicate looming campaign failure, whereas reductions in violence against civilians (from all sources: coalition, Afghan government, Taleban and criminal) will indicate improving security.

The election itself is the next most important benchmark. It will show whether political progress is being made. A fair and transparent election without major violence will be a success whichever candidate is elected. Electoral fraud, intimidation, interference with voter registration or violence on polling day will be the sad signs of a lack of government control: in other words, poor prospects for success.

Another important factor is the number of woleswali (the lowest-level administrative district, of which there are 398 in Afghanistan) under government control. District-level governance, social justice and security define the insurgency’s key terrain. Control at the district, as distinct from the national level, is vital. As of mid-2008 only about one quarter of Afghanistan was under government control, half was disputed, and the remaining quarter was Taleban-controlled. Should everything go well this year, we will succeed — at best — in stopping the rot, stabilising the country and setting the conditions for progress from next year onwards. Either way, we can expect at least another year or two of serious combat before we can begin handing over more fully to newly expanded Afghan police and military units; these will become available around 2011 as current schemes to increase their numbers come to fruition. This handover process could take another three to five years, and we may then be in a position, after (say) 2015, to drop back to a mentoring, partnering and overwatch role — a role we may need to maintain for several more years to come.

At best — very best — the international community must expect to have a significant presence in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. Success is eminently possible, but only if we remember how we really won in 2001: through partnership with Afghans. That means we must act, first and foremost, to preserve popular support and rebuild the alliance with Afghans that toppled the Taleban in the first place. Otherwise we should all start reading Olaf Caroe again. He served on the frontier through two Afghan wars, numerous tribal uprisings and the chaotic carnage of Partition, and knew whereof he spoke. In Afghanistan, you fight with and for the people’s support. Or you lose.

David Kilcullen, author of The Accidental Guerrilla, was Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to the Secretary of State, Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to General David Petraeus in Iraq, and Chief Counterterrorism Strategist of the US State Department. He is a former Australian infantry officer who has worked in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal areas since 2006.