No Comment — April 26, 2010, 10:18 am

New Afghan Strategies Put to the Test

General Stanley McChrystal is putting his mark on the American and NATO effort in Afghanistan. His major new strategic effort includes a focal attempt to “roll up” the Taliban leadership in the nation’s south, especially in the area around Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city. But how is this effort going? Time’s clear-eyed Joe Klein reports:

In a recent survey of Kandahar residents, taken by the U.S. Army, a majority said they trusted the Taliban to be more honest and provide better governance than President Hamid Karzai’s regime. (Karzai’s half brother Ahmed Wali remains a controversial and corrupt local strongman.) And yet, the level of optimism emanating from General Stanley McChrystal’s headquarters in Kabul stands in near delusional contrast to the situation in Kandahar as it is being experienced by troops and civilian workers on the ground.

Klein’s detailed reporting backs this up. He couldn’t be more generous or positive in his portrait of U.S. efforts and the vision behind the redesign of the tactical effort. But he carefully documents the jarring disconnect with the reality on the ground.

Alissa Rubin, in a New York Times report on a public attack on U.S. forces, offers an account through the eyes of the locals:

Twelve trucks, most of them carrying fuel to a NATO base in eastern Afghanistan, were burned by an angry crowd early Sunday less than 30 miles from Kabul, according to local officials and NATO reports. The attack was thought to be in retribution for two raids by a joint Afghan-American force over the weekend, Afghan officials said. It was the first significant attack on a convoy in Logar Province, south of Kabul, in the past 18 months, said the provincial governor’s spokesman, Din Mohammed Darwish. The attack and a similar one on Saturday on a single truck were notable because Logar is the southern gateway to Kabul, the Afghan capital, and has been used by the Taliban to get arms, fighters and support into the capital.

What has the people riled up? It seems to be General McChrystal’s operation targeting Taliban leaders, Rubin reports:

“People are fed up with these night raids and willful operations,” said Mohammed Sharif, a teacher in Pul-i-Alam, the provincial capital, which is near the villages raided by the joint forces. “They are raiding houses during the night, killing innocent people,” he said. “Sometimes they kill opposition people as well, but usually they are harming ordinary and innocent people.” Five Afghan insurgents, as well as two American soldiers, were killed Friday night in the first raid of the weekend, according to a NATO report. The second raid, on Saturday night, killed three people, including one who might have been a civilian, according to the provincial police chief, Gen. Mustafa Mohseini. One of those killed was the headmaster of the high school at Poorak, a neighboring village; he was also a cleric.

The people seem prepared to accept that Taliban leaders are a legitimate target for the NATO forces. But they seem convinced that, as so often in the past, many of the blows are misdirected. Is that because of bad intelligence? Or have the Taliban leaders burrowed in so deep and so effectively that their neighbors really have no idea who they are? It’s almost certainly a mixture of these things, but bad intelligence has been a plague of U.S. operations from the beginning, as military intelligence officers are spun wildly by tribal leaders out to eliminate their adversaries—and not necessarily the Taliban.

The new tactics aren’t very popular with U.S. troops either, and that’s another aspect of the problem. Klein’s earlier report contained this passage:

General McChrystal has issued a series of tactical directives and rules of engagement banning most forms of air support. There are also new rules governing when and how troops on the ground can use their weapons. “Look at these,” Ellis told me, tossing a fat sheaf of directives onto his desk. “Some of these are written by freaking lawyers, and I’m supposed to read them aloud to my troops. It’s laughable. We can’t fire warning shots. We can’t even fire pen flares to stop an oncoming vehicle. If a guy shoots at you, then puts down his weapon and runs away, you can’t fire back at him because you might harm a civilian.” The troops hate the new rules. Indeed, a soldier from another of the 1/12’s companies sent an angry e-mail to McChrystal, saying the new rules were endangering the troops. The General immediately flew down to Zhari and walked a patrol with that soldier’s platoon. “It was a good experience,” McChrystal told me later. “I explained to them why we needed the rules. And I’ve been making it my practice to go out on patrol with other units ever since.”

In a memo late last year summarizing his tactical thinking, McChrystal argued that NATO forces on the ground needed to “accept the same level of risk as Afghan civilians.” The passage mystified many of his officers. But what it meant concretely was reflected in the new rules of engagement. An Afghan civilian ventures out into the streets of a city or into a rural area without using weapons against every perceived threat. But years of free-fire rules for U.S. forces in Afghanistan have led to a large number of assaults on innocent gatherings. “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” General McChrystal said, for instance, referring to shootings at checkpoints. On April 12, a speeding bus that drew too close to a NATO convoy was strafed, with four passengers killed. NATO subsequently admitted the incident was an error in judgment and that those killed were innocent civilians. But these incidents reflect that McChrystal’s new rules, which greatly restrict the use of lethal force against civilians, are having a hard time gaining acceptance.

These reports point to what I suspect will be the decisive factors for the current U.S. operation in Afghanistan. First, is the effort to seize key Taliban leaders directed by solid intelligence, or is it another misfire that disproportionately strikes innocent civilians? Second, will McChrystal’s new rules of engagement be accepted by soldiers in the field? It’s still far too early to view the effort as a failure, but this surely isn’t what a success looks like.

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