Monday, March 17, 2008

Afghanistan Strategy Shifts Again

As the war in Afghanistan grinds on, the US Army continues to try to figure out how best to win it.
It's been seven and a half years since the Americans went in and the Taliban was thrown out.
Since then, America has changed its strategy several times to deal with the ongoing insurgency.
Officers say in the early years, the army simply tried to win by fighting - essentially, win by killing enough Taliban and other insurgents that the problem would go away. They report that strategy was unsuccessful.
The strategy for 2007 centered on economic development. Essentially, build enough roads, schools and water points and the villagers most at risk will love the Americans and the central government enough to turn against "strangers" (insurgents) when they appear in the far-flung villages and throw them out or inform on them. That takes time to work, since roads can take 2, 3 or even 4 years to build in this mountainous country.
For 2008 the buzz-phrase is "political development".
Almost all villagers, the thinking goes, reject the Taliban and their authoritarian, regressive, oppressive and extremist rule. By something like a 94% to 6% margin, according to polls.
In practice, "political development" means that the magic ingredient will now be the government itself.
The thinking goes, inject the elected (or appointed) officials who represent President Hamid Karzai in Kabul into far-flung districts, and show the rural villagers the government "cares" about their plight and is interested in their participation in government (and in their economic development).
This will cause the villagers to side with the government and, again, kick out strangers and insurgents who come wandering through villages brandishing arms and demanding food and supplies.
Time will tell if this calculation is in fact correct.
This year the corollary buzzword to political development is "corruption," which is universally recognized as being very bad and getting, if anything, worse. American officers in eastern Afghanistan say corruption is their number one headache, ahead of the war-fight itself, because "political development" is dramatically weakened when villagers are forced to pay for building permits, vehicle passage, and anything to do with the government. Villagers resent the unlawful demands for payment, and their desire to back the Kabul government is undermined.
One reason corruption has become imbued in the fabric of society is not because Karzai is corrupt (though his cronies are considered almost uniformly to be). It is that he is too fearful to rein it in, and fears a backlash from powerful armed men with something to lose, which could lead to his early assassination.
Another reason corruption is rife is because the police agencies were allowed for 6 years, until fall of 2007, to be paid less than half a living wage for a family of five - about $60 or $80 per month instead of the $160 or so it actually takes to live. For many of the Afghan police forces, corruption was necessary to survive and is now ingrained.
So it is with hope, optimism and a feeling of deja vu that we head into the 2008 fighting season.
Of course, this strategy ignores the massive sanctuaries in the Pakistani tribal areas that serve as recruiting and training grounds for an enemy that will literally be out of a job if he lays down his arms. Those areas are untouchable.
All in all, this year should be an interesting one.

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