In Afghanistan, Smaller Is Better

by Joshua Foust on 7/28/2010 · 14 comments

I have a new piece up at World Politics Review, talking about a program I think might actually work.

What LDIs show is that in Afghanistan, smaller is better. LDI teams themselves do not “solve” problems or impose massive projects on Afghan communities. Instead, they provide local populations the space and responsibility to participate in solving their own problems. That makes talking easier and more effective than fighting. Quite literally, it replaces conflict with politics. And more politics is what Afghan communities need.

The conflict in Afghanistan won’t be ended by “resolving” disagreements or grievances, which are the stuff of life: There will always be disagreements within and between Afghan communities, and Afghans will always have grievances. Instead, the conflict in Afghanistan will end when Afghans step away from violence as a way of dealing with these problems.

Comments, as always, are welcome.


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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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{ 14 comments }

M Shannon July 28, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Might work at what? The problem with the Afghan campaign is that it’s costing hundreds of billions for no return. So what if Village X has some minor political problem with Village Y that gets solved. Why do we care? How does this help defeat AQ which apparently is the mission? More armed nation building isn’t the answer.

Leaving, cutting off the billions that are funding both corruption and the Taliban and putting the responsibility for securing the country in the hands of “our” Afghans is the only workable solution.

Michael Hancock July 28, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Don’t agree. I think the opportunity that Josh is seeing is that AQ takes advantage of a weak and unstable Afghanistan, and if we “nation build” in the sense of creating a stable [whisper] federal [/whisper] Afghan government with power sitting in different hands around the country, decentralized out of Kabul and make it possible for the people in rural areas to affect change and improvements without resorting to violence or the bankrolls of Saudi/Pakistani/extremist forces, the Taliban will become more and more marginalized, and AQ will be less of a threat, inshallah.

Maybe? Right? Anyway, that’s what I see in the “Less is More” argument, and I agree.

M Shannon July 28, 2010 at 2:51 pm

The threat posed by AQ has nothing to do with the availability of Afghan gravel pits for bad small arms training so who is in charge of the place is irrelevant.

The longer we allow this war to go on the more damage it does to the west. Any plan that involves some new tactic that will “win” the villages does us harm unless it accompanied by a simultaneous reduction in resources.

Sprinkling A Teams (How many are required? Will they do the political mission envisaged or will they prefer DA? ) across southern Afghanistan will not cause a reduction in cost. It may serve a tactical purpose but it is in direct opposition to our strategic interest which is to cut the costs of this war quickly.

David July 28, 2010 at 6:01 pm

It seems like just another of those lame ideas that normally get shot down on this blog. I thought the whole embedded small garrisons in outlying districts had been tried and abandoned? And do we really have enough special forces to put them in villages throughout Afghanistan? Why won’t they just get killed when they wander around chatting to supposedly friendly locals? I agree that more politics is necessary, but introducing more soldiers always seems an odd way to do politics. And in general, anything in Afghanistan that becomes known by an acronym never seems to works. The one exception is the stupidest acronym of them all – MAAWS worked for the Italians at least.

Naheed July 28, 2010 at 11:31 pm

I’m trying to see how this would look on the ground. It’s about buy-in, right? A small community, insular, that has a problem that it can’t resolve will turn in on itself and self-destruct. Any resolution has to have buy-in from both sides. It’s either imposed from on top (by a malik or a khan or, in the case of a religious dispute, by the fella who knows the most verses of Quran *heh*). Or it’s hashed out by both sides if they have a guarantee that it won’t end in pistols at dawn which is what a LDI initiative is supposed to do.

The question of small-scale hyper-local defense initiatives is still how to keep them honest? What’s the mechanism? What’s the buy-in? How do you make it more worth their while to keep the peace than to choose sides and make a profit/get a share of power/make a name for themselves/marry the “best” women, etc. in the absence of Special Forces supervision? Without the clout of a forceful personality, how can anyone ensure that things don’t spiral out of control?

Also, @MShannon, that’s a question that’s never really been answered has it? What does any of this have to do with AQ? OBL isn’t the only threat in the village and maybe not even the most likely threat. The tactics of this war are not in line with the goal.

Capt. Monkey July 28, 2010 at 11:31 pm

What is the difference between the LDI and the CDI (community defense initiative) program that started about a year ago with the ODAs? Is it just a cosmetic name change (yet another one of us crazy officers after an OER bullet) or was there a substance change as well?

Nat July 30, 2010 at 1:18 pm

LDI and CDI are effectively the same program. According to Lefevre, LDIs in different parts of the country are run in different ways, though strive to meet the same overarching aims of building up local (and self-sustaining) security, employment, development and denial of insurgent support, with mixed results.

anan July 30, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Nat, LDI are administered through the Afghan MoI. In practice the model might be an ISAF ODA special forces team of perhaps a dozen members + an ANASF [ANA Special Forces] team of 17-19 members + a representative of MoI to “formally” administer the program..

Chief of the Afghan National Army General Staff Karimi [himself a 1973 graduate of the United States Army Special Forces Qualification Course] has explicitly stated that a core mission of the ANASF will be running the LDI.

http://ntm-a.com/blog/categories/army/1123-first-ana-special-forces-graduation?lang=

CDI use to be run by US special forces rather than Afghan MoI in the past.

Nat, I think the results have generally been positive ceteris paribus or all else being equal. At the very least they generate considerable intelligence about different Taliban factions and create local respect for the GIRoA, ANSF and ISAF. The problem is that local villages would prefer that their ODA + ANASF stay with their village or sub-region indefinitely rather than share them with other villages or sub-regions. This makes the program resource intensive.

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Abdullah July 30, 2010 at 3:10 pm

“And more politics is what Afghan communities need.” Yes, it seems the last poll taken of Afghans, this came in number one on their top ten list of the things they most desperately needed.
Such a plan would never be allowed to succeed. The occupiers are their to cause chaos and confusion, not unity, and certainly not unity to the extent that would allow formation of a unified body capable in any form of standing up to the eventual rape and pillage of their resources.

anan July 30, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Abdullah, are you a Pakistani? If so, the GIRoA and ANA are not your enemy or a threat to Pakistan. They want good relations with Pakistan.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth. Afghanistan needs massive international grants for decades to come. Please don’t try to block this.

blah August 1, 2010 at 1:25 am

Foust seems wrapped up in his own semantics. He promotes an approach that seeks to “provide local populations the space and responsibility to participate in solving their own problems,” but in the same breath says, “the conflict in Afghanistan won’t be ended by ‘resolving’ disagreements or grievances.”

Do, pray tell, are the “problems” local populations will have the space and responsibility to solve that do not involve resolving “disagreements”?

I have an idea: how about accepting that neither Foust nor anyone else have all the answers? It’s not hand-wringing as much as it’s humility. Have we forgotten that Afghans are human beings for Christ’s sake? I certainly want to help them, but they are not props in some social experiment through which we can play out our latest “solutions.”

Realist Writer August 1, 2010 at 5:21 pm

In Foust’s defense, he is supportive of having the Afghans resolve disagreements by THEMSELVES, and dislikes the concept of having OUTSIDERS resolve or deal with those disagreements.

DE Teodoru August 1, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Now it’s too late for that, Mr. Foust. Talking smaller is talking leaving. And that’s what it was like with Vietnam after Tet 1968 and is now with Afghanistan (secretly also with our Iraq “what ever” exit policy). We could have urbanized a safe sector of Afghanistan with new model cities built and run by NATO, leaving the rest for Karzi&warlords vs. Taliban to fight it out. These would have been modernization factories for young Afghans where they learn and work, just like in bare bones fashion were the Viet Cong “Fortified Combat Villages.” But America wanted the whole enchilada as a base from which to master Central Asia, exhibiting self-destructive American hubris. After all, as always, when Americans talk “smaller” they’re talking leaving– case in point Iraq.

But had we focused our attention to “can do well” instead of “can do everything” as a badge to a new breed of policy, we could have, as in Vietnam, created a new generation that is contagious and like the “Westernized” South Viets, they would defeat the Jihadis in the South economically as Saigon defeated Hanoi after 1975 over time. But, alas, no one is leaking massively NSC and Meeting of Principles documents so we can’t document the strategic case the way Wikileaks made indisputable the tactical itty bitties.

Now all we can do is get out and let that massive “dialectic materialism” org– Shanghai Cooperative Accord– replace us in suppressing the Taliban while urbanized modernists grow in numbers and counter-revolutionize the Afghans, defeating the Jihad Revolution of the Taliban.

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