Getting close to the Afghans

During a recent trip to Afghanistan, I met with senior American and Afghan leaders to discuss the challenges of the present war. I found top coalition commanders are, for the first time, in agreement that the outcome will be decided primarily by local leaders, not by equipment or money or enlightened methods. The new head of the NATO training mission, Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, has made Afghan leadership quality his No. 1 priority. This mindset change is crucial.

It does not, however, ensure success, for determining what to do in counterinsurgency warfare is easier than doing it. Gen. Stanley McChrystal and others told me that one of the biggest obstacles is risk aversion within the U.S. military and government. The Pentagon and Congress are eager to send vehicles with better improvised explosive devise (IED) resistance and stronger blast walls in the interest of minimizing casualties, but are slow to send American officers with the right expertise and talents.

Troops who can ride armored vehicles and take refuge in heavily fortified camps, Gen. McChrystal noted, are less inclined than other troops to interact with the local population. The insurgents have no armored vehicles or blast walls, nor do they have sophisticated intelligence collection equipment, and therefore have no choice but to depend on the population’s help.

This problem reminded me of the early years of the Vietnam War, when the Viet Cong had a stronger incentive than the government to treat the population kindly because government officials could retreat to the safety of the district capitals. Of course, the Vietnamese Communists proved far less kind once they won the war and no longer had to compete for the people’s allegiance – and the Taliban would undoubtedly return to the cruelties of the pre-Sept. 11, 2001 era were they to regain power. But Afghan villagers are more concerned with the here and now, so we have no choice but to combat the insurgents in their current guise.

Vietnam comparisons also came to mind when I returned to my students, most of whom have served in Afghanistan or Iraq or both. When we studied the Combined Action Platoon Program in Vietnam, the students were shocked by the risk tolerance upon which its success rested. Commanders will not take such risks nowadays, they observed, because of “force-protection” requirements and fear of reproach for sustaining significant casualties.

The Combined Action Program placed U.S. Marines in groups of eight or 10 across dispersed rural villages, many of them far from any friendly forces. Working together with Vietnamese militiamen and living among the population, they gained the population’s confidence through their permanent presence and good behavior, and consequently obtained intelligence that enabled them to find and destroy the enemy. They denied the insurgents access to broad swathes of the countryside.

Today’s force-protection measures ensure that we cannot cover nearly so much territory. Americans are required to operate in larger numbers, in closer proximity to each other, with multiple armored vehicles. We do not even attempt to control a large fraction of the villages because they are inaccessible by armored vehicle or are too far from reinforcements. With too few Americans and Afghans living and working continuously amid the population, the enemy maintains a presence in numerous villages.

Our distance from the population, and the enemy’s proximity, encourage the people to alert the insurgents when our troops approach. They encourage the people to keep quiet about IEDs, which are now powerful enough to kill passengers in our best armored vehicles. Force protection measures thus result in less protection for our troops.

The risk aversion among American commanders has many sources. Fear of casualties and doubts about our purpose in Afghanistan cause segments of American society to pillory units that sustain large casualties, and to ignore units that cling to large bases and accomplish little. Talk of troop withdrawal dates discourages leaders from taking short-term risks for long-term gain.

Part of the blame lies within the military, which has often promoted risk-avoiders ahead of risk-takers, and has undervalued other attributes of vital importance in counterinsurgency such as creativity, sociability and empathy. The extent to which American units collaborate with Afghan security forces and obtain assistance from the population depends primarily on these attributes, and it varies widely.

This variation reflects shortcomings in personnel policies. Our best battalion commanders spend the same time in country as the worst ones, and are about as likely to sit on the sidelines for years thereafter. Many of the top-notch company and battalion commanders who turned the Iraq War around in 2006 and 2007 have not commanded combat troops since, relegated instead to jobs of secondary importance. It is as if we sent home our most successful commanders at the end of 1942 and planned to send them back to war in 1946.

The United States is indeed at war. Those Americans not currently in Afghanistan need to understand that their behavior affects our operations there, and can make the difference between life and death.

Mark Moyar, professor of national security affairs at the Marine Corps University and author of A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq.