Engagement of a Different Sort

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by Joshua Foust on 3/31/2010 · 1 comment

David Axe reports:

For all their variety, most shuras have one thing in common: a deep sense of mutual respect between the Afghans and the foreigners, usually soldiers. The Afghans respect the soldiers’ power and their access to resources. The soldiers respect the Afghans’ traditional leadership role and their deep understanding of their communities.

He and I must have attended different shuras. Most of the ones I ever saw consisted mostly of the whitebeards bickering among themselves or lambasting the Americans for not lavishing them with sufficient gifts. For their part, the Americans usually tended to exude all the cultural sensitivity of Joe Biden, accusing liars of lying and unambiguously demonstrating their annoyance and frustration with how it was going. Then they’d all break for tea and congratulate each other for being so productive.

Of course, the story David is telling is an all too familiar one:

The Afghan government, for its part, never ventures into the Chowkay unless as part of a NATO patrol. A low-ranking district agricultural official was the only Afghan government representative at the March shura.

An earlier NATO foray into the Chowkay had resulted in the death of an American soldier. “Every time we go into that valley, we lose a guy,” said one brigade soldier. He was exaggerating, but only barely. Much of the Chowkay lies beyond the “red line” that demarcates relatively safe territory from that in which patrols must make arrangements for extra support.

“Welcome to Indian country,” a soldier said as the patrol reached the valley

Right. Starting off this story was an Army Captain asking the elders, flat out in front of the shura, to give up opium and rat out the insurgents living among them. He should feel lucky the request only solicited laughter, especially if his visits to the area are only monthly. That bit about displaying mutual respect? Not so much.

But think about it this way, as well: Things have been really bad in Chawki for, like, six years. Axe recounts an incident where the movement of identified men with guns—he labels them “teams of enemy fighters” despite admitting no one knew who they were or what they wanted—solicited Kiowa helicopters lobbing white phosphorous into the hills. While WP rounds are an effective smoke-producing weapon, meant to mask either movement or fire (and presumably this is what the rounds were for), WP is also highly incendiary—and thus effective as an anti-personnel weapon too. The U.S. has not been shy about using it as such, either, and even though firing WP weapons into populated areas is supposed to be illegal it happens regularly. Hypocritically, the U.S. also complains vociferously when the Taliban uses WP munitions in a manner they consider excessive.

So we have a tension-filled meeting, in an area the troops almost never visit, with a low-ranking officer berating elders to abandon their one source of income and betray their family members who have taken up arms against the Coalition… and I guess it’s a surprise that the area is so hostile? The report doesn’t substantiate what the soldiers feel about their missions there, but the implication is pretty clear: the standard operating procedure outside of Helmand is fundamentally broken. Sporadic patrols lasting little more than an hour or so not only don’t do much, they dramatically increase the chance of violence, since the invading soldiers are not regular visitors enough for their methods of coercion—primarily the implicit threat of violence, which, again, hypocritically, they react against violently when locals do it—to be considered benign.

Now imagine if, instead of only visiting once a month for a couple of hours, this same unit was allowed—ordered, even—to spend the night. While it’s lunacy to elevate pashtunwali to a definable, enforceable thing to manipulate, Pashtuns do take the concept of hospitality very seriously. If the elders are responsible for the soldiers’ protection, and they still come under attack, that changes the culturally-acceptable ways in which they can react substantially. In that scenario, a violent response stops being the result of careless and arrogant infidels, and starts becoming punishment for either making promises the elders cannot keep (“you will not be touched”) or for the elders lying to the soldiers to try to kill them.

Of course, there is a probably a greater chance that, should this good Army Captain ask the elders if he can spend the night in their village, the elders will say no. And if that’s true… he should leave. And never come back. The elders know where the Army unit sleeps—every one does. If they want help, or if they get sick of being cut off from the siphon of development money, they can reach out. But if the community is violently rejecting the presence of troops and development, then they should withdraw from the area and let the locals take charge of their own affairs—so long as everyone clearly understands the consequences if insurgents then use that area for further assaults.

This is not an easy or simple idea to put into practice—in one manner of speaking, it is selling out a community for the possible intransigence of a regularly small number of people. There is also a risk that a persistent-yet-unwelcome U.S. presence can unite otherwise disparate insurgent groups (supposedly the WSJ discusses an example of this, but I refuse to jump through hoops to read it). But in a universe of limited resources you must prioritize. For all the talk of cross-border traffic, of controlling terrain, and everything else, we still have a pitiful idea of what’s really going in these places.

There is a lot of non-insurgent cross-border traffic, including resource extraction like timber and opium, both of which the government of Afghanistan decry as illegal. We know that most of the insurgent fighters are members of the communities we are ostensibly trying to protect. Yet the only thing we can come up with is monthly trips to ask the old men herding cats in these villages to pretty please sell out their cousins and only means of generating income in return for a retaining wall. It should be no surprise things in this part of the country continue to get worse, cheery PRT blogs excluded.

Image: Faqer Koot, in Chawki Valley of Kunar Province, Afghanistan, courtesy Abdul Ali Ghani.

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This post was written by...

– 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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{ 1 comment }

KZBlog April 1, 2010 at 12:05 am

If I understand you correctly, you are proposing something like the US soldiers entering into areas, meeting with elders and offering their services to the village. And accepting the decisions of the elders. It’s an interesting idea, the US army as wandering sheriff, the white hat who can come in and roust the bad guys, but only at the invitation of the locals. It could work if the US can point to some serious successes and if they respect elders who reject them. I think it would not only make the safety of the US soldiers the problem of the locals, but it would mean the US is only where it is invited and that they are in some way partners with the locals, providing something that the locals cannot i.e. big guns and tactical knowledge, but also trusting that the locals are taking care of other areas, such as feeding people and so on. Would be relatively simple, but not at all east, I suspect.

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