We’ve lost the battle for hearts and minds
The murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a lone US soldier in Afghanistan this week is a tragic incident, which destroys the fundamental principles upon which this population-centric war is being fought.
This war is as much about winning the hearts and minds of the population as killing the enemy. If the Coalition forces and the Afghan Government cannot be seen to protect the population, then the only alternative is the Taliban.
Counterinsurgency is the military’s version of what our civil criminal and social justice systems do in areas riddled by crime, drugs and a cycle of inter-generational poverty. Whether it’s Afghanistan or the Bronx, the population is the prize and it is no-longer acceptable just to shoot the bad guys.
Fighting the Taliban has become a multi-layered offensive that combines the maintenance of security, the restoration of law and order, women’s rights, rebuilding social, health and educational facilities, establishing systems of governance and straight out capturing and killing the enemy.
The problem is, counterinsurgency demands conflict that doesn’t fit within our short electoral timeframes in the West. It requires breaking down a cultural and religious incompatibility that would take generations to achieve, even without a war. As the Israeli military historian and theorist Martin Van Creveld contends, other than moral boundaries time is one of the key enemies in counterinsurgency.
As with our own Government in Australia, the difficult decisions are those that will not benefit voters for years to come. Investments in many aspects of sewage, water, electricity, education, environment, health, unemployment and security, may not benefit the electorate for years to come. We are trying to convince an already suspicious population whose focus in the villages of Afghanistan is on survival, to trust us now. This is a hard political sell.
For all his cerebral qualities, US President Barack Obama failed to recognise these issues when, no sooner had he announced the Afghanistan surge in late 2009, he was already planning the withdrawal.
While we have been in Afghanistan for ten years, we have only really been in there properly since 2009. Between the end of 2001 and 2007, Afghanistan was the forgotten war and in that period the Taliban mastered their own surge, entrenching themselves further in the Afghanistan villages and building strong training grounds in Pakistan.
The population neither felt protected nor could they trust many of their corrupt Afghan Government officials or thuggish Afghan National Police Commanders, who often played police in the day and Taliban at night.
Even now, too few troops are engaging with the population and too many non-government organisations are confined to Kabul and have still not learnt to live within the population. Using the population as your security, building on the tribal law of Pashtunwali, is one of the best forms of community-based security for any civilian working in Afghanistan.
The question that needs to be addressed is: did we need to rebuild a nation emerging from the 9th Century to achieve our objective of defeating Islamic fundamentalist-inspired terrorism attacking the Australia or our allies?
At the end of 2001, international forces had defeated and destroyed the major Taliban assets. Most of the senior al-Qaeda network had been captured and killed or had slipped through the net and escaped into Pakistan.
The coercive power of war could have been used at that time to achieve a political solution. Instead Western Governments fell for the romantic idea that nation-building abroad could provide insurance against terrorism at home.
In Afghanistan, we believe we can overcome this cultural incompatibility using money as a weapon. Instead we inflame the diverse social and mostly isolated population bases through a series of Western manufactured, inorganic, one-size-fits-all instruments that were - and in the most continue to be - anathema to the local cultural and social architecture that exists outside Kabul.
Most local Taliban could easily be picking up an AK-47 to shoot Coalition forces one day and a shovel to clean a karez (irrigation channel) the next. Neither action is intended to be part of a global jihad or to overthrow the government in Kabul.
They certainly cannot be acquiesced by the promise of democracy, building a new road or painting a school, when the basis for life in Afghanistan is a rigid belief in Islam and where all politics is local.
Part of the mistake in the current top-down level of strategic thinking. We continue to approach negotiations from a Western democratic mindset. We forget that Western democracy has been developed over a long tumultuous period of history, including numerous revolutions and civil wars.
Afghan tribes and villagers experienced democracy for the first time in 2004. It could well be that because the introduction of democracy, constitution and rules of law to Afghanistan was through foreign intervention rather than an organic revolution, it will take even longer to cement any trust in the Afghanistan Government.
And as we have seen in the places like Libya and Syria, this can be a bloody affair. It is best if we keep out.
Last week one of my former local staff in Kandahar Fahard, a young man with a new baby, said to me that once the US withdraws after 2014, “Afghanistan will be the same like in 1990s”. He went onto say “when the US leaves, the snakes will keep coming and will take everything from us.
“The snakes are not Afghans but those who live across the border. The neighbouring countries will take over and once again the terrorists will start coming to our country. This time the terrorist groups will be smart, and they won’t be obvious they will continue their operations against the West.”
So much for rebuilding a nation to defeat terrorism.
Jason Thomas worked alongside US forces in Afghanistan in 2009-2010 and in 2011. He has also worked in South Sudan and the Civil War area in Sri Lanka
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