Last summer, as the nation’s war effort and attention turned from Iraq to Afghanistan, the new United States commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, insisted that the struggle was not about killing the enemy or capturing ground, but instead a “war of perception.” Given the general’s recent firing, increasing deaths on the battlefield and the release last week of thousands of classified documents by WikiLeaks painting a dismal picture of the war effort, it is clear that we are losing badly in the war of perception.
I spent two deployments in Afghanistan writing strategic intelligence reports and briefings similar to what WikiLeaks just made public. True, what was leaked is not pleasant reading. Yet there is no question in my mind that the majority of analysts and officers who have served there, despite their political differences, believe not only that we should continue the fight but that we very much need to win it.
Why, then, have so many Americans come to a different conclusion recently — including the 114 House members who voted against President Obama’s war-financing bill on Tuesday? I think they fail to understand the complexity and scale of the war effort, which leads to a flawed analysis.
For example, many have bemoaned the rash of sophisticated attacks in eastern Afghanistan. But allied attention has been focused on the easier fight of evicting the Taliban from the agrarian provinces of the south, not combating the more complex enemy in the east, where insurgent networks capitalize on political and cultural differences that will require an entirely different counterinsurgency strategy.
Many people also operate from a faulty assumption about the war’s purpose. No matter what we’ve told the Afghans, the true goal of the American-led effort should not be to create a stable, honest government in Kabul. While that would be a great benefit, what’s vital is that we keep in place the robust intelligence and quick-strike military structure we have developed in the country and across the Pakistan border.
Without these human intelligence collectors, communications experts and small-scale military operations, we would free the Taliban in Pakistan to focus on overthrowing the government in Islamabad. If they were to accomplish that feat, Al Qaeda would be given all the time it needs to reconstitute its network and undertake more attacks against the United States and its allies.
That said, there may be a benefit from the scrutiny the military is likely to face post-WikiLeaks. There are many problems with the way we are managing this war. Far too often during my deployments — the first in 2007, the second last year — I watched as operations were conducted out of logistical convenience rather than necessity. We often had troops avoid Taliban-controlled districts to limit civilian and military casualties. Because of the threat of homemade bombs, soldiers had to dress like Robocop while trying to interact with, and win the trust of, local leaders. And the rules of engagement are now so restrictive that I’m amazed that any insurgents were killed in the last year.
For years, the Western military’s main focus has been to disrupt the supply lines that provide the insurgents with improvised explosives. This emphasis protects our troops but does little for the Afghan population, specifically creating a secure environment that would allow for economic growth in key cities like Khost, Gardez and Kandahar. This is crucial: if we can’t revive the cities we will never make progress in the countryside, which is the ultimate battleground against the insurgents.
If we need a model, we should think about what Afghanistan was like in the 1970s. The country functioned relatively well with a weak central government, strong local leadership and a marginalized religious class. The resistance to the Soviet occupation, steeped in radical Islam, overturned that traditional power structure. By the time the Soviets left, the village mullah had a higher social standing than the tribal leader or local political representative. It was not hard to foresee the rise of the Taliban.
American and Afghan forces dislodged the Taliban government from Kabul in a matter of months, but they have done little to alter the power dynamic across the country. It is the religious figure, not the elected official or tribal elder, who is invariably asked to settle land disputes and other arguments. As I waded through reports from the field in Paktika Province last year, it became apparent that the people turned to Taliban-backed clerics and the Haqqani network, a ruthless terrorist movement allied with the Taliban, as the ultimate arbiters.
The key to turning around the war will be to change that dynamic. In fact, we must clamp down on the three things the Taliban do particularly well: manipulating the news media, intimidating the rural population and providing shadow governance.
The Taliban’s media machine runs circles around our public information operations in Afghanistan. Using newspapers, radio broadcasts, the Internet and word of mouth, it puts out messages far faster than we can, exaggerating the effectiveness of its attacks, creating the illusion of a unified insurgency and criticizing the (real and imagined) failings of the Kabul government. To undermine support for United States troops, the Taliban insistently remind the people that America has committed to a withdrawal beginning next summer, they jump on any announcement of our Western allies pulling out troops and they publicize polls that show declining domestic American support for the war.
To counter the spin, we need to add the Taliban’s top propagandists to the high-value-target list and direct military operations at the insurgents’ media nerve centers. A major reason that people in rural areas are so reluctant to help us is that Taliban propaganda and intimidation have created an atmosphere of fear.
A second initiative is to bring back the traditional rural power structure. We have to restore the power of the tribal leader, the khan. Afghans are fond of saying that the thing they do best is politics; we must let them do it. This means moving toward a far weaker concept of central government and encouraging local solutions to local problems. American aid should go directly to rural communities rather than to the Karzai government. And we must identify key tribal leaders and local politicians and give them around-the-clock protection with American troops. It’s astonishing how much credibility a village leader can gain simply by not being assassinated.
Last, we must destroy the credibility of the Taliban’s religious authority. The insurgents’ concept of Islam is objectionable to most Afghans, but there is little alternative, as most clerics who rejected the Taliban have been killed or have fled. While creating a network of more enlightened religious figures to compete with the hard-liners will take time, we could jump-start progress by creating a group of “mobile mullahs” — well-protected clerics who can travel through rural areas and settle land disputes and other issues. These men should come from the general areas in which they will be performing their duties and be approved by community leaders.
We may not win General McChrystal’s war of perception, but we cannot afford a military defeat in Afghanistan. A Taliban victory would not only threaten Pakistan’s government, it would provide a dangerous precedent for other looming disaster zones like Yemen. The boot must be kept on the throat of extremism. Yet we do not need to maintain 100,000 troops in Afghanistan or create a sparkling democracy. We simply need to maintain the intelligence structure and military capacity that already exists, and put the power to defeat the insurgents in the hands of the locals.
Mitchell LaFortune, a former Army sergeant who was an intelligence analyst with the 82nd Airborne Division from 2006 to 2010.