While participating in a Commander's briefing in March this year at the Tactical Operations Centres (TOC) on a US military Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Afghanistan, the XO prepared the military staff before they gave their presentations by saying "be brief, be bold and be gone." So given five minutes with General Petraeus it would certainly be bold of a little Australian to give this highly intelligent, supreme commander of Coalition forces in the Middle East any advice at all. In 1991 Petraeus was accidently shot in the chest at Fort Campbell while observing a training exercise. The M16 bullet pierced his lung and artery. A week after the operation Petraeus proved to the doctor he was fit to be dismissed by doing 50 push-ups in his hospital room. He is one tough soldier as well.
We know that General Petraeus is not averse to taking advice from Australians, so here are some ideas from one who has been on the ground in Afghanistan for the last eight months. The advice is from raw and at times life-threatening situations at a level that many of the coalition soldiers don't get to experience. As the Regional Manager for a USAID implementing partner responsible for overseeing a key plank of counterinsurgency strategy I witnessed many facets of military operations, the impact on Afghan people, the attitude of the Taliban, the intricate web of tribal relationships and deep ethnic divisions, poverty and of course the omnipresence of Islam.
My brief advice would be to suggest five changes that may help turn the tide in Afghanistan -- but they require a paradigm shift in how our political leaders decide troops should engage and how aid organisations and civilian policy makers place moral judgements on development.
1. Change Coalition Forces rules of engagement - it's not about troop numbers it's what the troops do -- Yes, counterinsurgency is about winning the population not blazing your way through the enemy. But Pashtun's and Hazaran's are tough, resilient and stoic people and the coalition looses all respect when it does not engage the enemy when under continued attack. We experienced this regularly in Ghazni. It was not until two weeks of constant rocket attacks that the Polish, who own the battlespace in Ghanzi, finally responded -- even then it was with a helicopter that spent all of 10minutes in the air. In Australia we have a better response to sharks spotted at a beach. Afghans do not think this approach is protecting the population.
2. Have Special Forces infiltrate and cement themselves in "known Taliban" controlled villagers during Winter - There is an operations gap over Winter when senior Talban go off to Quetta and other parts of the Middle East. The Coalition needs to fill that vacuum -- I tried to do this with the projects to get them going in Taliban controlled areas so the population was locked in before the bad-guys came back. It works.
3. Assemble special operation development units - They would be special force military engineers, builders and irrigation experts who are embedded in the local community, live in the key tribal areas and work outwards from the main villages where important development projects were taking place. The Special Operations Development units would also directly take care of the labourers and population who are benefiting from the development projects. Locals who take up employment on projects paid for by foreign aid agencies are targeted by the Taliban. One organisation operating out of Gardez has had 85 people killed in the last four months alone.
4. New York Style Zero tolerance areas - There are villages that even the donkeys know are Taliban hide-outs. I drove through many villages with my local staff who would say "this village is controlled by the Taliban." I met with the Taliban in at least two villagers one of which housed visitors from the Middle East. The US/ISAF forces should adopt a New York style zero tolerance for Taliban - where a village is known to hold Taliban the Coalition forces could even move into that village and get the message to the residents they are there to protect them and to eliminate the Taliban from the village. The Taliban take this approach. They have zero tolerance for village residents being sympathetic to coalition or working on aid projects.
Without the ability to provide security from the insurgents, no amount of improvement in the standard of living was going to convince local tribes to support the [Afghan government]. Once the security situation improved to the level that the insurgents could not mass on isolated villages, the conditions were set to effectively begin reconstruction projects.
5. Replicate the local militia Community Guard Program across Afghanistan - Irregular forces embedded in local communities, including the 100,000 Sunni gunmen paid by the Iraqi government to form "Awakening Councils", played a crucial role in America's success in the counterinsurgency war in Iraq. Will Clegg in his 2009 article in Security Challenges also makes this point. Fortunately I got to see them first hand. Most importantly, they supported American efforts to achieve population control by circumscribing collaboration with insurgents and securing local populations. Pashtun speaking community guards working in Pashtun areas and would provide deeper level of intelligence than normal channels.
Finally, with a minute to go in the conversation, I would stress the need to change one of the overriding factors that permeates throughout the military and aid organisations; that is an obsession with imposing Western values on development. The analogy is this: whenever we contemplate life on another planet we think it should resemble humans. Too often aid agencies make Western based judgements about what is good for Afghans and impose processes and systems that are not recognised the local tribal way of doing things.
This approach is inhibiting the Coalition's counterinsurgency - it's almost as if we are running a politically correct war. So my final piece of advice to General Petraeus is, don't let well meaning, bleeding heart civilian advisors impose images of our own society. It just doesn't work.
As the XO said, now be gone.
Jason Thomas is a former Regional Manager for a USAID Implementing Partner in Afghanistan. He has also worked extensively in the Civil War area in Sri Lanka as well as being a senior political advisor in the British House of Commons and the former Leader of ACT NZ the Hon Richard Prebble. He lives in Melbourne Australia.
Jason just returned from an eight month mission to Afghanistan implementing a key plank of the counterinsurgency strategy. As well as nearly being caught by the Taliban, threaten to be killed by the former Governor of Ghazni, Usmani and working in partnership with the US military.