Learning to Fight a War

Traveling in Iraq and Afghanistan in late January, I kept encountering two themes that cut across the usual U.S. political debate about these conflicts: The hard-nosed operations of U.S. Special Forces are increasingly effective, and so are the soft-power tactics of provincial reconstruction teams.

The debate over troop numbers may be missing the point. What's making the real difference isn't how many Americans are on the ground but how they are being used. That's true at both ends of the spectrum -- hard power and soft. And, as commanders learn to use these tools of counterinsurgency effectively, they may also be able to operate with fewer people and a lighter footprint.

Let's start with the Special Forces: U.S. commanders say they are having increasing success targeting al-Qaeda operatives and sectarian militias in Iraq. "We're killing a lot of people" is how one top officer bluntly puts it. Senior commanders describe an enemy who is on the run and can't plan operations easily. But the recent suicide bombings in Baghdad were a reminder that this is still a very potent enemy, even when hobbled.

The Special Forces' success reflects better coordination of intelligence and combat operations. In Iraq, that includes new information from Sunni tribal fighters who were once allies of al-Qaeda but have flipped. In the Rusafa district of Baghdad, to take one example, I heard about a former insurgent named Adil Mashadani, who is now fighting alongside U.S. troops. Thanks partly to this cooperation, 11 of 13 al-Qaeda targets in the district have been captured or killed since November.

The Special Forces are also using some new techniques in tracking and targeting. Commanders won't talk about these new methods except in generalities, but one area of intelligence that's visible to everyone is the collection of biometric data. At a border post on the Iraq-Iran frontier, I saw an Iranian putting a finger to an electronic fingerprint device. At the Torkham Gate crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. officers told me they are monitoring Taliban insurgents using new systems known as BATs (for biometric automated toolset) and HIIDEs (for handheld interagency identity detection).

These intelligence tools are shifting the balance of fear -- making it more dangerous to join al-Qaeda, stay in its safe houses or meet with its operatives.

Special Forces are also bolstering the still shaky Iraqi military as it takes control of provinces in southern Iraq. When 12-man "A-teams" are embedded with local forces, there's often a striking improvement in performance, U.S. officers say. Indeed, there is more demand for these teams than the Special Operations Command is able to meet. The problem, commanders say, is that it takes a long time to train Special Forces warriors. But this is where a surge really would make a difference.

At the opposite end of the military balance are the civil affairs efforts of the provincial reconstruction teams. After a slow start, they are beginning to get some traction. Some examples: In the Rusafa district, I talked with shopkeepers who are reopening their businesses thanks to small loans of up to $5,000 distributed by the local PRT. In Wasit province south of Baghdad, PRT members are working on development projects in the poor marsh areas. In Jalalabad, Afghanistan, the PRT is planning irrigation and power generation projects with the local governor and provincial council.

The enthusiasm of the PRT leaders is infectious. Wade Weems, the PRT leader in Wasit, left a job with the Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly to return to Iraq, where he had served as a Marine. He missed the challenges and satisfactions of Iraq. Shawn Waddoups, a member of the PRT in Jalalabad, says no other job in the State Department would offer him the same freedom or emotional reward.

In describing these successful counterinsurgency efforts, I don't mean to say that everything is rosy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Far from it. Last weekend's suicide bombings shattered the calm of the Rusafa neighborhood that had seemed so secure when I walked the streets a week before. Security in Iraq and Afghanistan is fragile, and chaos is only a car bomb away.

As America looks to 2009 and beyond, it should consider that Iraq and Afghanistan aren't all-or-nothing propositions. The United States is developing unconventional tools for unconventional wars. With this mix of hard and soft power, perhaps there is a way to stabilize these broken societies without the high human and economic cost -- and political backlash -- of a long-term U.S. military occupation.

David Ignatius