Friday, April 03, 2009

In The War Zone, A Toolbox Is Best

For technicians clearing landmines left over from previous wars, there
is a thing called a 'toolbox' approach to getting rid of the old
buried weapons.
At one time deminers used a pointy probe and a metal detector.
Then they tried dogs. Then flails, which rotate chains and bash the
ground and cause landmines to explode on contact. There are all sorts
of things to lift landmines (of which there are probably 35 or so
million left in the world).
But nothing works better than the toolbox.
The toolbox is simple - it just means using all of the methods
above and more. Use whatever you can get hold of, and don't be picky
about what technique it is, because combinations of techniques work
better than a single-serving approach.
As with landmines, so too with Iraq. The military started by just
killing insurgents. Lots of them. Then it progressed to also
offering reconstruction projects at the village level. Later added in
a lot of unmanned aerial drones. Ended up by paying the Sunni and
Shias insurgents to fight with the soldiers and not against them.
Also added in political reform and a few other measures. And finally,
paid for new security centers in villages manned by local militias,
and more police stations.
It has worked a treat so far in Iraq (where only a handful of
areas remain to be pacified). But not because one thing worked; in
the end it worked because everything in concert worked together.
So now to Afghanistan. Unfortunately for the Americans, until now
Afghanistan has been the opposite of a toolbox.
The country was fragmented; the Americans had one sector, the
Europeans and Canadians another. There was little coordination.
Their approaches differed. The British lacked money to pay for
village-level projects. The Europeans lacked the political willpower
to hunt down insurgents. The political reforms was slow in coming
(and though they are coming, thus far less than a dozen reform-minded
governors have been appointed).
The Afghan police were neglected, undermanned and underpaid until
2006, and even now are pretty bad. And until 2008 or even 2009, even
in US-controlled areas, many districts in insurgent-infested provinces
received scanty military attention because there has not been enough
But now it looks at last like that could all change. Maybe.
General David Petraeus took over as the Central Command commander
last fall, and immediately let it be known that he wanted the Afghan
tribes to be armed, and militias formed to fight al Qaeda. This
mimics the Sunni militias that were armed in Iraq.
And the US forces now come under a unified command, which is
supposed to clear up the US/European disconnect, though so far that
seems to have had limited effect.
And thousand more soldiers are heading to Afghanistan.
So the beginnings of a toolbox mentality under Petraeus are now
faintly visible.
The problem with the old approach is it's too simple. Soldiers
build some wells in a valley and hope the locals will push out al
Qaeda and the Taliban in grateful return, which was the past US
strategy. Often the villagers would agree, but then it wouldn't
happen. How does an Afghan farmer face down a dozen armed insurgents
who visits his house? He doesn't.
Now instead there would be a militia, more US troops nearby, and
the next valley over would likely have more US troops too, so it
wouldn't be an insurgent stronghold infecting the neighboring valleys.
Many analysts say the likely increase of US forces from 30,000 to
60,000 would be window dressing. That the Soviets deployed 120,000
people and they lost. 30,000 extra people would make no difference,
goes the complaint.
These analysts are wrong. An extra 120 people, or even 30 people,
in a valley can make all the difference. 30,000 people is a lot of
valleys and villages. And the Soviet operations were inefficient and
often poorly led.
The main US bases such as Bagram and Salerno and Jalalabad have
thus far sucked up thousands of US forces. Luckily there is hardly
any room for more people on Bagram, which holds over 15,000 military
and civilians. The new troops will have to go into the field.
It's all part of a toolbox approach, without which American forces
in Afghanistan are going to continue to experience the long, generally
lonely and often unimaginative struggle that has previously been their
lot to suffer.