What “Protecting the People” Actually Means.

by Joshua Foust on 9/8/2009 · 14 comments

I have a new essay up at World Politics Review, examining what it means to get serious about “protecting the people” of Afghanistan. It’s risky, difficult work, but not impossible.

Instead, Gen. McChrystal should replace the huge FOBs with smaller community outposts spread through villages and town centers. One lesson that should be imported from Iraq, but that is rarely mentioned, is the community outpost. In cities like Fallujah, soldiers spread out into small outposts, often police stations, using them as a base from which to establish population security. That model worked, but for some reason it’s never mentioned when pundits discuss taking successes from Iraq and applying them to broad areas of Afghanistan.

Secondly, the idea of force protection must be reconsidered. The reliance on big bases separated from the actual population of Afghanistan forces soldiers to “commute to work” by driving long distances along easily bombed roads. The fear of IEDs has confined too many soldiers to hulking, multi-ton MRAPs that can barely navigate the dirt roads and that separate soldiers from Afghans with armor plating and thick ballistic glass. Abandoning the big bases in favor of small community outposts would largely eliminate this threat, while bringing soldiers closer to the hearts and minds they are meant to be winning over.

Comments, as always, are welcomed.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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omar September 8, 2009 at 4:32 pm

cross posting from SWJ: I see too much emphasis on nation building, governance and whatnot and not enough on finding and killing the leadership of the enemy. The Afghan people can get by with very minimal governance (and will probably resent too much governance) but they are caught in the middle between two armies and are not sure which one is going to win. There is no concievable way of delivering “good governance” without changing the calculation of “who is winning”. Show them that the US/ANA is winning (not “has won”, just “winning”) and most of the governance issues will disappear because local bosses will rule themselves as before and will side with the winning side. Actual governance will spread out slowly from the cities and it can take decades and that would still be OK. The real reason no one turns in the taliban is because no one is sure the US is likely to stay and win and nobody wants their head cut off for collaborating with the infidels after the infidels leave. On a related note, a successful regime does not have to deliver too much education and healthcare if it can deliver retribution for major crimes against the regime. Again, its not necessary to solve every attack. But the impression has to be established (over time) that attacks lead to determined and very PERSISTENT efforts to find out who came, where they came from, who harbored them, etc. Again, you dont need to be perfect, but you need to have a reputation for determined and tenacious enforcement, NOT wild and over the top punitive retribution…

Travis September 8, 2009 at 6:26 pm


” The real reason no one turns in the taliban is because no one is sure the US is likely to stay and win and nobody wants their head cut off for collaborating with the infidels after the infidels leave. ”

This is also true on a small and more immediate scale. Afghans aren’t going to collaborate with the United States when the US forces are leaving at night and not protecting them from the Taliban.

Bernard Finel September 8, 2009 at 9:47 pm

>>That model worked, but for some reason it’s never mentioned when pundits discuss taking successes from Iraq and applying them to broad areas of Afghanistan.<<

Odd argument. Many many people have discussed it. It is mentioned often on SWJ, and Petraeus even specifically addressed the issue at this big speech at CNAS earlier this summer.

The problem as he explained it is that the population is more scattered. There are fewer empty houses to use in small villages than in urban settings. The result has been more emphasis on "overwatch" positions rather than living among the people. Nevertheless, they still intend to try it.

Furthermore, though Petraeus did not specifically mention it, scattered outputs in rural areas are less able to reinforce one another — and as the fighting at Wanat showed, the insurgents can still pull together roughly battalion sized forces to hit small outposts, which makes spreading out too much problematic.

Joshua Foust September 8, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Really, Bernard? Many people discuss taking community outposts from Iraq to Afghanistan? Where? It’s mentioned once that I could find on SWJ, in an article that discusses the misuse and fuzzy definition of the COP concept in both theaters.

CPT Hsia in that SWJ article doesn’t define the concept as tightly or as specifically as I do—neither does Petraeus. In fact, Spencer Ackerman quotes him as specifically rejecting the idea of living amongst people (“we’re going to provide a consistent security presence by being near the village”), which is what I am advocating here. You’re right that being nearby hasn’t helped much—that’s why I specifically reject the idea in that piece.

The reinforcement issue is a different matter entirely, and speaks to our unwillingness to take risks (something I have also been a consistent critic of). However, Want represents much more than the ability of the insurgency to gather battalion-sized groups of people—it was much more substantially a failure of both the primary and supporting units involved to follow their own procedures, including warnings from the local population, that precipitated the attack and its aftermath.

Further, I don’t think Want proves what you want it to—posting outposts in random, “strategic” hillsides is a bad idea. Having them in the village, where they become a constructive partner in the community, is a good one.

So… I’m not sure what you’re trying to prove here.

Bernard Finel September 9, 2009 at 11:54 am

I thought I was pretty clear actually. I was saying that the challenge of actually living among the people in Afghanistan was well known and widely discussed in COIN circles.

I guess I was also hinting that your essay was missing the point, which is not that people are not aware of the need — in a pop-centric model — to live among the people, but rather that the challenge is actually doing so in a way that makes operational sense in Afghanistan.

Spencer, btw, misunderstood Petaeus’ argument. Petraeus was not saying that living “near” was a choice, but that is was the only way to do it in Afghanistan. He could be wrong. I don’t have the country-specific expertise to assess that. But either way, he seems to think “near” is about as good as you can get given circumstances, and that as a consequence you need to make adjustments to make that work.

Joshua Foust September 9, 2009 at 3:02 pm

But you weren’t, and you still aren’t. I asked for sources for your assertions, and you responded with additional assertions, with extra posturing.

Sources, please.

hotaruSTAR16 September 9, 2009 at 1:59 am

Do you think force protection would make the locals like U.S. troops more? It’s possible, but either way, it’s risky. Have a read on Asia Chronicle News’ web site – they’ve been writing commentaries and analyses on the Afghan War and whether or not more troops should be sent over there. Their web address is: asiachroniclenews.com

Jeff Huber September 9, 2009 at 5:44 am

Forgive the smug self-congratulation, but you heard it here first, folks. I’ve been hinting since February that “King David” Petraeus, the “genius” of the surge in Iraq who is now in charge of all our woebegone Middle East wars as head of Central Command, was a leading candidate to be the GOP’s great white hope in 2012.

Lo and behold: a Sept. 4 article at Politico.com, the online journal that Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com once described as a right-wing “cesspool,” reports that GOP icon Bob Dole says he’d like to see Petraeus “run as a latter-day Ike.”

Dave’s like Ike? Yikes! That Dole would compare Petraeus to Dwight David Eisenhower suggests that the aging former senator has gone the cognitive way of fellow Republican Ronald Reagan. A signature symptom of the American Right’s mental fragility is its inability to recognize (or its blithe willingness to accept) patently false analogies. As the theater-strategic commander of the European Theater of Operations during World War II, Dwight Eisenhower actually commanded an actual coalition that actually won an actual war. Petraeus hasn’t met any of those criteria.

Petraeus’ three tours in Iraq were noteworthy for their short-term theatrical successes and their dismal strategic failures.

He came to prominence when his hagiographer Thomas E. Ricks singled him out as the only two-star general who had done things right after the fall of Baghdad as commander of the Mosul area. What Petraeus actually did in Mosul was hand out a lot of bribes. When he left, Mosul slid to scheiss in a sleigh, and it continues to be a major trouble spot. During his next tour, in charge of training Iraq’s security forces, Petraeus lost track of 190,000 AK-47 rifles and pistols that trickled their way into the hands of Shi’ite militants. As honcho of the surge, Petraeus handed guns out to Sunni militants and bribed them not to use the weapons on anybody but al-Qaeda in Iraq, the all but nonexistent group that at its zenith contained fewer than 1,000 full-time fighters and whose only real connection with the al-Qaeda that gave us 9/11 amounted to stealing its name. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is the equivalent of a Cleveland garage band calling itself The Beatles in Ohio (“We’ve pledged allegiance to Paul and Ringo,” says lead vocalist).

As Ricks artlessly admits, Petraeus duped the American people and Congress into thinking he was paving a way out of Iraq when he was in fact laying a yellow brick road to the “long war,” an amorphous conflict with no imaginable end state or any purpose other than to justify America’s seam-bursting defense budget.

Two years and change into the surge, Iraq’s government and security forces are corrupt and incompetent, and political reconciliation is turning fetid on an unlit back burner. None of the stated objectives of the surge have been met, and few informed observers think we’ll actually adhere to the present status of forces agreement that demands we have all troops out or Iraq by the end of 2011.

Yet the world seems convinced that Petraeus is a military genius. Bush administration veteran Dan Senor says, “If he is as successful in Afghanistan as he was in Iraq, nothing else matters, and he will instantly be considered a top-tier candidate for president.”

If Petraeus does in Afghanistan what he did in Iraq we’ll never leave Afghanistan. It’s unlikely, though, given his track record, that he’ll be held accountable. You may have noticed that Petraeus is keeping a low profile these days. It’s a safe bet he hasn’t developed a case of camera shyness.

Things aren’t all peace, love, and understanding in Iraq or the Bananastans* these days, and as head of U.S. Central Command, Petraeus is theoretically responsible for whatever goes wrong in either of those conflicts now. He isn’t the defense establishment’s spokesmodel for either conflict, however. We hear plenty from Defense Secretary Bob Gates (the picture in Afghanistan is “mixed,” he says) and from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen (he advocates “a growing, sustained, and trusted partnership with Pakistan”) and Bananastan commander Stanley McChrystal (“We’re truly protecting the Afghan people from all threats,” he says as he surveys Afghan people wounded and killed by his latest air strike) and from Ray Odierno, our top banana in Iraq (he wants to delay troop withdrawals from his theater of war.)

From Petraeus, we hear noncommittal, rear end-covering non sequiturs. “I don’t think anyone can guarantee that it will work out even if we apply a lot more resources,” he says of another Bananastan surge. “But it won’t work out if we don’t.” When the second surge doesn’t work out, don’t blame the Teflon General. He warned us!

Eisenhower, in contrast, was prepared to shoulder full responsibility in the event the invasion of Normandy failed.

The World War II general Petraeus most resembles is the self-aggrandizing and public-relations-savvy Douglas MacArthur, who took credit for winning the war in the Pacific that should have gone to Adm. Chester Nimitz. MacArthur was also Franklin Roosevelt’s most dangerous political opponent. Some contend that Roosevelt kept MacArthur in the Pacific for the express purpose of keeping him from running for president.

We can’t know for certain what President Obama was thinking when he retained Petraeus, along with Gates, Mullen, Odierno, and the rest of Petraeus’ long war mafia, but Obama didn’t become the first black president, one who whipped both the Clinton and GOP political machines, because he lacks political acumen. His decision calculus almost certainly included the realization that he could keep them under better control if they remained subordinate to him in the military chain of command.

Unfortunately, that decision also leaves him obliged to go along with their wishes. They want to establish a permanent military presence in Iraq, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who dances on whatever lap offers him the most on any given day, will renegotiate the status of forces agreement when they make him the right offer. If Obama doesn’t go along with the deal, it will be his fault we “lost” in Iraq. Candidate Obama deflected criticism of his senatorial vote against the Iraq surge by saying it had taken focus from the fight in Afghanistan, where he promised he would “finish the job” there. He’ll be finished if he turns around now and doesn’t give the generals the resources they need to accomplish the mission he gave them.

It would be nice to think our woebegone wars will die of natural causes when we can no longer afford them, but when it comes to the federal budget, war is like Jell-O: there’s always room for it. We’ll just add Iraq and the Bananastans to the tab. China will cover us.

Our Congress will never stand up to the war mafia; too many political careers and regional U.S. economies depend on defense spending. And our presidents will be the likes of Petraeus who are made guys, or the likes of Obama who quickly discover they were outmaneuvered before they made their first move.

*Afghanistan and Pakistan, our banana-republic-style quagmires in Central Asia.

Brian September 9, 2009 at 11:31 pm

You mention the model worked in Fallujah, but are you ignoring the fact that Fallujah had been depopulated by that time? Unless I’m mistaken most of the independent reports from Fallujah leading up to, and even during the surge point out the destruction of Fallujah as an urban center.

Its much easier to use small outposts in areas where the civilians have been forced out and are returning. You have dominance of the terrain, so its easier to control how things come back together-rather than attempting to insert teams into a populated urban, or rural environment.

I’m worried that the failure to acknowledge some of the problematic things we did, barricading entire villages with razorwire, or sandberms-as I reported on in Siniyah: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=32100 or later and in urban areas with the giant blast walls around Adhamiya and various other neighborhoods.

To some extent, while the “surge” did work, it worked because of a whole series of factors that are not current in Afghanistan, focusing on urban centers after they’d been depopulated or cleansed, working with beaten down community elders desperate to reassert the traditional hierarchy in the face of violent youth and “al qa’eda,” etc.

My point, is that i agree with you regarding protecting the populace, but i think we need to figure out other ways that the populace sees clear gain from their “buy-in” to the success of development and security projects.

An example of what I’m talking about is http://www.pixelcorps.com/ who do high end digital production and commercial work with staff based in Zimbabwe. To have a commercial post house you need electricity and a variety of other infrastructure supports. Pixelcorps.com provides them for the entire village so that, rather htan stealing the computers and selling them on the black market, the entire village has a stake in the success of the project. We need to start thinking about solutions that can be solve this kind of problem, but that means thinking longterm, thinking locally, and being culturally respectful of our “hosts.”

Joshua Foust September 11, 2009 at 6:39 am

Well, but that kind of proves my point: there are a lot of half-abandoned villages in Afghanistan in strategic terrain (Garmsir in Helmand is a choice example) where that model COULD be put into place.

But you’re right there are a bunch of exogenous factors I didn’t account for in that 800-word op-ed. That doesn’t mean we still can’t learn lessons, if done appropriately.

Brian September 11, 2009 at 5:32 pm

Of course, of course.

I just think its a point worth more consideration, an you’ve got a good space for that!

Something else occurred to me, this “Sons of Iraq” plan took place in Iraq in a country with 3 dominant ethnic groups, only one of whom was largely pulling back from collaboration with the state nearly as a cohesive entity.

The “ethnic” makeup of Afghanistan is far more complex (duh) and I worry that this is not being considered by the likes of Carl Levin and others-today Levin questioned the lack of a “successful” Sons of Iraq plan for Afghanistan. Let’s not forget, furthermore, that the Sons of Iraq made the US military complicit in the training and deployment of child soldiers in Iraq, not that many people noticed.

Regarding “half-abandoned villages” i the case of Iraq, Fallujah and Ramadi were metropolitan centers, with clear certainty that citizens would return. I’m still educating myself about the specific vagaries of Afghan cultural norms, etc. Do you think its likely locals will return to these villages if they are seen as outposts or centers of American/ISAF power?

John September 10, 2009 at 6:53 am

“but Obama didn’t become the first black president, one who whipped both the Clinton and GOP political machines, because he lacks political acumen.”


“or the likes of Obama who quickly discover they were outmaneuvered before they made their first move. ”

Same guy? It helps if you think these things through first.

SFC Dick September 10, 2009 at 5:38 pm

Thank God, finally some one who sees Gen Petraeus with some clarity: a clarity that doesn’t seem to be shared by the spoon fed US public.

Our generals are found lacking but no one seems to notice.

Herschel Smith September 11, 2009 at 3:57 pm

I am not commenting on the larger issues w.r.t. all of the comments above, but no, no, Brian, the COPs or joint Iraq Police Precincts / Marine COPs were part of Operation Alljah in 2007. The city was populated then and remains so today. You might be thinking of operation al Fajr in 2004.

It’s what the Marines are doing in Helmand, but without the necessary troops and without the gated communities / biometrics / muktars. The concept of staggered COPs remains a cornerstone of Marine operations, and will so into the future. It worked in Anbar, and with enough troops it can work in ‘Stan.


As for the balance of Josh’s post, too much to do to comment on it. I will comment on Mr. Finel’s ideas concerning AfPak as a counterterrorism campaign rather than other (e.g., COIN, nationa building, etc.) Sunday.

I disagree with the population centric idea that we can relegate the countryside to the insurgents and continue to stay alive and maintain logistics in ‘Stan. Myths and fairy tales. On this Josh and I wholeheartedly agree. Withdraw except for some SF and SOF, and they won’t even have logistics for more than a month. The Taliban will kill the ANP off within one month, and the ANA within two months. Everyone who would have driven a fuel supply truck for us will have been beheaded, and the globalists will again have unmitigated sanctuary.

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