What’s Wrong with U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

America's war in Afghanistan, soon to enter its eighth year, is arguably at its lowest point since troops drove the Taliban from power in 2001. Throughout the country, Taliban forces are making inroads. Allied casualties are at their highest since the war began. And Al Qaeda operates from a safe haven on the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, just out of America's reach.

Thomas Johnson, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and an expert on Afghanistan, believes the U.S.-led war now resembles the failed Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, which lasted almost 10 years and cost the mighty Soviet military about 15,000 lives. Johnson recently returned from Afghanistan, where he spent seven weeks talking to military officers, Afghan politicians and tribal leaders and, with the help of an Afghan go-between, Taliban commanders. Johnson shared his findings with NEWSWEEK's Dan Ephron. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is flawed about our approach in Afghanistan?
Thomas Johnson:
It's the same problem the Soviets had in their engagement from 1979 to 1989 … The United States, just as the Soviet Union, controls all the urban areas and especially provincial capitals and Kabul. But this is a rural counterinsurgency, just as the mujahedin's conflict against the Soviets was also a rural insurgency. And you don't win a rural insurgency from Kabul or Jalalabad or Kandahar. You win a rural insurgency by maintaining a presence and insulating the villages in the rural areas. And that's what we don't do—unlike what the mujahedin did in their battle with the Soviets and unlike what the Taliban are presently doing in Afghanistan today, where they operate on the village level on a 7/24 basis, either intimidating or winning the allegiance of the Afghan people. That's what it takes to win an insurgency and that's what it also takes to win a counterinsurgency.

So let's unpack that. You're saying we're mainly on the big bases, we're not scattered throughout the rural areas. Are there enough troops in Afghanistan to have a presence everywhere?
Yes. I believe the problem in Afghanistan isn't necessarily a quantitative manpower problem but rather a manpower distribution problem. We have between 60,000 and 70,000 international troops in Afghanistan presently and the vast majority of these spend their time in the FOBs [forward operating bases]. We have at least 10,000 soldiers, airmen, Marines and the like in Bagram for example, which is at least 150 miles away from the insurgency. And Bagram has a Pizza Hut, a Burger King and even a massage parlor. But it's not the way to win a counterinsurgency. You have to be out in the villages … When I was in Solerno last year, which is a FOB near the Pakistani-Afghan border near Khost, I estimated—and nobody really argued with me—that while there were thousands of people at this base, probably less than 5 percent ever left the wire. And you just can't prosecute a counterinsurgency with those kinds of numbers.

If you have smaller numbers of troops in compounds throughout the country, how do you protect them? How do you make sure their bases don't get overrun by the Taliban?
The Taliban up to this point have not, with one exception, shown that they have the capability of overrunning an international force of the size I'm suggesting at the district level. What I talk about is about 75 ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] personnel complemented by 50 Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police and that's complemented by an additional 25 to 45 civilian development specialists—everything from hydrologists to agro-economists and the like … In most of the districts where the Taliban are operating, they're not roaming around in groups of 500 or even groups of 50. We're talking about tens.

And what would be the main mission of the troops at this local level? Is it to provide security for the Afghans who aren't getting it from the central government?
South of the Helmand River, where the Pashtun homeland really is, there's been very little reconstruction. So first of all, these district teams will be able to pursue reconstruction and development programs but not at the whims of Kabul … You would be basically building and enhancing the types of things the people themselves are suggesting are needed. This would help to solidify the traditional Pashtun social structure that's had a very sophisticated conflict-mechanism strategy over the years, that's been basically destroyed since 1979 when the Soviets invaded. I argue that what we really want to do is to rebuild this social structure that's been very good at resolving and moderating conflicts and the like. The next thing is that, you know, there's a symbiotic relationship between security and reconstruction. You can't have one without the other, especially in this campaign. We being at the village level would also offer village elders security. We're insulating them against the insurgents, the Taliban. And I think it would eventually drive the Taliban out of these areas, much the way it's been done in some of the urban areas in Iraq through the inkblot strategy.

Now if you're empowering the clansthe tribesat that level, don't you risk undermining President Karzai's bid to strengthen the central government?
One should recognize that Kabul has always been rather symbolic. The national government has never mattered that much to the rural Pashtun hinterland. Afghanistan has never had a strong government such as the present constitution calls for except for a guy named Abdul Rahman, or the Iron Emir, in the late 19th century. And he was a very strong and decisive figure who actually built towers of skulls from his opponents. One of the complaints I heard time and time again is that Karzai doesn't have a lot of respect in many areas because he's a weak president … So the point is that national governments have never been strong in Afghan history and have never had that great of an influence in the hinterland area anyway. These areas have their own governance, tribal governance, they have their own laws, tribal laws and they never looked very favorably on things coming from Kabul. In fact, historically, when Kabul has tried to exert its influence in the Pashtun hinterland it's usually caused insurrection or insurgency.

Some of this sounds familiar from General Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. Are you talking about replicating the model in Afghanistan?
Afghanistan and Iraq are really very, very different. Iraq has traditionally had literacy rates of well above 90 percent of the population, Afghanistan you might have 15 percent of the population. Iraq is basically an urban society with some very major urban centers that have driven the traditional intellectual and social and economic life of the country. Afghanistan is 80 percent rural. The cities have never mattered that much. A rural insurgency is very, very different than an urban insurgency, which we're facing in Iraq, and you have to pursue different policies. Plus, in Iraq you've had a very dynamic pattern of sectarian violence between the Sunni and Shia. And while there are differences between the Afghan Sunni and Shia, it's never been one of the driving historical epics in the country.

Go back to the comparison to the Soviet occupation. The conventional narrative roughly is that the Soviets had a strong hold over the government until the U.S. started supplying the mujahedin with shoulder-fired rockets that brought down their helicopters and that led to the undoing of the Soviet occupation. You're saying their strategy from the start was, like ours, an urban strategy, and that's what led to their failure?
Absolutely. And if you look at and analyze the mujahedin presence during the Soviet occupation, they controlled 80 percent of the country, the rural areas. The Soviets controlled the urban areas. And like the present conflict, the conflict during the Soviet area was a rural insurgency. And while they would go into the villages temporarily, and in fact the Soviets followed policies that bordered on genocide which of course we're not doing, they still were never able to insulate the villagers from the mujahedin, just like we can't insulate the villagers from the Taliban.

Which is precisely what counterinsurgency doctrine calls for.
Right. Classic. Absolutely.

You were contracted to develop information operations against IEDs. What can you tell me about that?
Well, I'm convinced that much of the prosecution of our war in Afghanistan has been devoid of sophisticated understanding of the tribal mores and the cognitive structure of the Pashtuns. So I'm presently pursuing a study with government sponsorship, looking at different types of Taliban counternarratives that hopefully will drive people away from the use of IEDs.

Can you give us an example of the strategies?
I think we want to stay away from the details.

You also got a chance indirectly, through an Afghan you worked with, to interview some Taliban figures. What did they say?
The most telling aspect of our conversations through a third party with Taliban commanders is their understanding of time and space. These are very, very patient people. They recognize the odds are the Canadians will be leaving in 2011. Their recent operations against the French convoy and other international coalition members would suggest that a critical aspect of their strategy is trying to break up the international coalition. They recognize that some members like the United States might be around for the long haul but they were very clear they're willing to fight for the next 50 or 100 years and they recognize that most regimes in the West just don't have that staying power. The other thing that was quite clear from the Taliban commanders was their intimate knowledge of the needs, desires and customs and mores of the rural people they're dealing with. A counterinsurgency in many respects is an information war and their intimate knowledge at this level allows them to build information strategies that greatly outstrip ours and help to contribute to their strong position.

You believe that a surge in Afghanistan might actually be counterproductive. Why?
I think the influx of large numbers of troops isn't the solution. It's like I said earlier, I think we basically have a manpower distribution problem in Afghanistan. And in fact many of the rural Pashtuns that I spoke of continually talked about how new large bases that were established brought the Taliban into these areas. So there's one argument that can be made that more soldiers coming into the country will be [countered] by more Taliban insurgent fighters that can cause problems throughout the Pashtun society as well as Afghanistan in general. Remember, the Soviets had hundreds of thousands of troops in Afghanistan but they were basically distributed in the urban areas and they could not quell the mujahedin insurgency. If we're going to bring more troops into the country, hopefully we'll be able to have them located at the district level so that they can have more impact on the insurgents.

You spoke to village leaders and Afghan politicians. What were some of the issues they raised concerning the presence of American troops?
Well, it was almost [unanimous] in my conversations with Afghan politicians in the east of the country, especially in Kunar and Nangarhar: these gentlemen were complaining bitterly about what they call American night operations, where we will go into a village in the middle of the night and round up military-age people for interviews or actually take away mullahs that we suspect being involved in the insurgency. I had a very interesting conversation with Governor [Gul Agha] Surzai in Nangarhar who actually said to me, I think somewhat for effect, that he had threatened to resign in a conversation with President Karzai concerning these types of operations because they're counterproductive to all kinds of policies that they're trying to pursue at the provincial level to gain the trust and confidence of the villagers. When the Americans or the international forces come in and do snag-and-bag type operations such as this, it has a tendency to set back other types of initiatives that the provincial governments might be pursuing in these same village areas. So this is a very damning development that I heard constantly in my conversations with not only tribal leaders but politicians in the east of the country.

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