In an excellent article published in Foreign Affairs magazine, Bing West uses two documentary films about the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan to make some important observations. I have heard similar observations from other soldiers who have been there.
One film, “Restrepo,” portrays US troops in Kunar province in northeastern Afghanistan; and the other, “Armadillo,” follows Danish troops in Helmand province in southwestern Afghanistan. Yet both films make similar points about the difficult relationship between the counter-insurgent force and the population it is attempting to protect.
Good intentions are not good enough, and as West observes, “money does not buy commitment.” Excerpts from his article are below.
Good intentions are not good enough
PEOPLE FROM THE MOON
The primary mission of counterinsurgency is to form a protective, mutually beneficial bond with the local population. In Vietnam, this was achieved through combined platoons of U.S. troops and village militias; in Afghanistan today, U.S. Special Forces are doing much the same with village militias, albeit on a much smaller scale. The preponderance of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, however, have been trained as fighters, not advisers.
The films show the U.S. and Danish soldiers to be hopelessly, almost comically separated from the day-to-day activities of the insular Islamic communities they seek to win over. The strained talk — dialogue would be an overly generous description — between the soldiers and local villagers borders on parody. The soldiers mean well, constantly proffering money in the hope of receiving some modicum of cooperation that never materializes. In Armadillo, teenagers openly mock the facial features and intelligence of a well-intentioned Danish soldier. Many Afghans see foreign troops “as people who’ve just landed from the moon,” Metz, Armadillo’s director, told a reporter.
Kearney, the company commander in Restrepo, offers to give fuel for the entire winter to a village if it will turn in just one machine gun to U.S. forces. An Afghan interpreter translates the proposal from English into Dari, another man translates that into Pashto, and then a tribesman translates that into the local dialect. The tribal leader sniggers; a trade with foreign infidels is inconceivable. I will “make you guys richer,” Kearney pleads. “I’ll flood this whole place with money.”
Among other restrictions, NATO’s rules of engagement forbid patrols from entering civilian compounds, except in extreme peril or when Afghan soldiers have entered first. In Restrepo, U.S. soldiers are left standing outside houses, expressing suspicion as residents proclaim their innocence of colluding with the Taliban. Insurgents walk among the farmers without fear of betrayal. In Armadillo, suspected insurgents drive around the district on motorcycles, indistinguishable from civilians. As a Danish soldier says, “You can’t tell who’s who.”
Both the U.S. and the Danish soldiers began their deployments hopeful that their good intentions would win over the Afghans they came in contact with. The troops in Armadillo are particularly sympathetic: “Give [food] to the children as a sign of goodwill,” one urges. But in short order, the Danish soldiers are surrounded by demanding youngsters whenever they set out on patrol — an apt metaphor for how Western largess has created a culture of entitlement in Afghanistan. Inundated with entreaties for money day after day, the Danish troops grow suspicious of the loyalties and intentions of the Afghans around them. By the end, the soldiers have become cynical or flatly dispassionate.
Indeed, the locals do not cooperate, partly out of fear. In Vietnam, the local population was committed on both sides, with 200,000 members of the pro-U.S. South Vietnamese Popular Force guarding their villages against an estimated 80,000 Vietcong. The 11 million ethnic Pashtuns of northeastern and southern Afghanistan largely dislike the Taliban but rarely fight them; fewer than 100 self-defense militias have formed among thousands of villages. In Restrepo, a local explains why his family refuses to even answer the Westerners’ questions: “If we let you know about Taliban, we will get killed.” A mullah in Armadillo echoes the same belief: “If I talk, they’ll cut my throat.”
This mutual suspicion and alienation between the troops and the local tribes complicates hopes that U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, which requires soldiers and marines to be nation builders as well as warriors, can be effectively implemented. This strategy is vastly more ambitious than during the Vietnam War, when the United States’ focus was on destroying the Vietcong guerrillas and beating back the North Vietnamese regular army.
Money does not buy commitment
DOLLARS AND BULLETS
The U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in order to destroy al Qaeda and drive out the Taliban government that had sheltered the group. This first phase worked: within a few months, both al Qaeda and the Taliban had fled into Pakistan. Rather than pursue them, the U.S. and NATO militaries undertook a second phase, choosing to remain in Afghanistan for the long haul in order to build a democratic nation there. The theory went that the West would offer protection and tangible goods, such as jobs, to the Afghan people and the people would reject the Taliban once and for all. Dollars would replace bullets, and development projects would replace shooting the enemy: enter the new military doctrine of economic determinism.
But as Restrepo and Armadillo show, money does not buy commitment. The handouts have bred opportunism rather than patriotism or a desire for self-improvement. In Iraq, insurgent gangs dominated by al Qaeda brutalized local Sunni tribes and imposed harsh Islamist rules. In response, the Sunni tribes rebelled in 2006 and 2007 and joined forces with U.S. troops. In contrast, the Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan have clung to their culture and, believing the Taliban will eventually return to power, have avoided close association with the U.S.-led coalition. In the meantime, the entire Afghan hierarchy — from President Hamid Karzai and his coterie down to village elders — has sought to squeeze as much wealth as possible from the foreigners while they are there.
As shown in Restrepo and Armadillo , the soldiers were winning no hearts and minds. Their earnest efforts and offers of development assistance failed to persuade the Afghan people to assist them. After a decade of lavish aid, the Afghan government has also not established a bond of trust with the Pashtun tribes, nor has it deployed an army sufficiently motivated or well led to defeat the much smaller guerrilla force. In some ways, Restrepo and Armadillo are the Groundhog Day of the Afghan war, in which life repeats anew every morning: platoons venture out on patrol, attempt to talk to impassive villagers, are occasionally fired on, shoot back, and then return to base, day after day.
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