Hearts and Minds Won't Get Us Out of Afghanistan

A soldier in the Afghan National Army in a graduation ceremony in Herat, Afghanistan. Jalil Rezayee / EPA-Landov

The end of the ground war in Afghanistan, already America's longest, remains years in the future. Even as he assures America that "we are on track to achieve our goals," President Obama has set 2014 for a complete handover of combat duties to local forces. Three factors have made the conflict so intractable—and two of them are beyond America's control. First is the sanctuary the Taliban enjoy just across the Pakistani border. Second is Afghanistan's wretched leadership.

The third factor, though, is the emphasis America's senior officers have placed on winning hearts and minds as an end in itself, rather than as a means to identifying and killing insurgents. This policy has sapped the warrior ethos and fostered risk aversion. Tasked with nation-building chores better suited to the Peace Corps, most conventional U.S. forces have seldom engaged the Taliban. Instead, Special Operations Forces—about 7 percent of the total U.S. strength—have accounted for most of the Taliban's losses.

Obama's surge of 30,000 troops has broken the Taliban's momentum. The biggest progress has been in Helmand province, where the Nawa district has been called the strategy's "proof of concept." Nawa, however, proved what Americans can do; it didn't prove what Afghans will do. In July 2009 I accompanied the first Marine patrols into Nawa. I stood by and listened as Sgt. Bill Cahir met with the elders of a dirt-poor village and promised them funds and protection. In return, he asked them to give the Taliban a message: "You're no longer welcome." The elders refused. A few weeks later Cahir was killed in a Taliban ambush nearby.

In the year and a half since, U.S. Marines have combined with Afghan soldiers to patrol the area relentlessly. They've recruited new members for the local police; arranged the dismissal of the old, unreliable police chief; and invested millions to improve villagers' lives. But none of the villagers has ever identified the Taliban in their midst who killed Sergeant Cahir.

In a recent survey of Nawa residents, 60 percent said that the Marine presence doesn't protect them, and that the Taliban should be given a place in the national government. Despite the Marine accomplishments, most Pashtun villagers are seeking refuge in a shell of neutrality. They don't want to live under Taliban rule, but they're sure the Americans will eventually leave and the insurgents will return. U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus has referred to the villagers as "professional chameleons." They will not commit until they know which group of Afghans—not Americans—is going to win.

That means the focus has to be on building Afghan forces that can defeat the Taliban—and I've seen it done. Early last year, at the start of the push into the district of Marja, just west of Nawa, there weren't enough U.S. troops to control the whole area. A team of 10 seasoned U.S. Special Forces advisers was supporting an entire Afghan battalion in the offensive. It wasn't working: the Special Forces team lacked the manpower to provide advice, accompany patrols, clear IEDs, and perform all their other essential tasks, especially because Afghan troops tend to be reluctant to engage the Taliban, who fight with the cunning and ferocity of the Apaches in the 1880s.

So the Marines assigned a rifle platoon and engineers to work with the team. That gave Capt. Mark Golsteyn a task force of 40 U.S. advisers to fight beside his 400 Afghan soldiers. The battalion's confidence and performance skyrocketed. "Afghan forces will never take a lead role in fighting as long as the coalition is there to bear the brunt," Golsteyn told me during the fight for Marja. "Afghans, though, need advisers with them in battle."

Unless America wants to extend its stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, it would be prudent to create a professional adviser corps and more task forces like Golsteyn's in the coming year. The State Department can tackle the Sisyphean task of nation building—while the U.S. military returns to the business of being warriors.

West is author of The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan, to be published by Random House in February.