Small Wars Journal

If I Had 5 Minutes with General Petraeus - An Australian Perspective on Afghanistan

by Jason Thomas

jason-thomas.jpg 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.

For more Australian perspective, see this article and this interview on National Radio with Eleanor Hall.


Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 06/26/2010 - 7:21pm

The Sarawak People's Guerillas operated after Konfontasi until a negotiaited settlement until 1991. They kept ti a wide ranging arae whic they knew intimately. They were for an independent Sarawak which is still a Federal Territory and not a state of Malaysia.

From an academic talk by a Pakistani academic familiar to the region, who worships the ISI :-( , he noted the Taliban were created by radicalized Islamic members of the Pakistani ISI, who wanted to create an Islamic buffer zone in Afghanistan.

Who knows whether the Taliban would survive if thery lost ISI support. The pakistani military do not appear too happy with them. They are losing some support in Warizstan but it could be years to see if thre is any lasting efefcts. When people talk about their history in terms of millenia, twenty or even fifty years is a short time.

LPierson (not verified)

Sat, 06/26/2010 - 4:11am

For Duglarri:

From your words one can almost infer that being Taliban and being Pashtun are essential the same. Thankfully, most do not take that association to be credible.

The invasion of 2001, by necessity, was directed at the Taliban, like it or not. Why? Precisely for the data point you use, they hosted AQ et al. This is not bait and switch, this is about ungoverned spaces, like it or not.

There is no evidence to remotely suggest the Taliban, in the future, would renounce or bar connections to the likes of AQ or other international belligerents. We cannot allow that to happen again.

The author does indeed put forth, solidly, that the people who inhabit "Afghanistan" must be the holders of governance. I don't believe you would find anyone here disagreeing with a solution where Afghan people are governing that space. His suggestions parallel what MAJ Jim Gant has offered up as COA'S to consider.

I didn't see your point, unless of course you are just carping on about being in a long war in Afghanistan. The long war the evviiiilllll GW Bush predicted it to be, and the same long conflict which OBL predicted the west would not stomach.

For Fndor: I forgot; why is ISAF in Afghanistan? And I don't think the answer would be "Certainly not to be emboiled in feuds and locals fingering one another..."

For GIZhou: The "Konfrontasi" guerilla forces had an area in which to travel to avoid western forces: Indonesian Kalimantan. Those movements were permitted and supported by Sukarno. Much like Frontier Pakistan don't you think? (Konfrontasi was brought to an end partly, by Indonesian Military Officers engaging backdoor diplomacy to internationally undermine Sukarno, and ultimately was one of the factors leading to his ouster...Do we have inkling that any Taliban or other would engage in similar diplomacy?)

1st I would never call you a "little Australian". It was an honor working with you here in Ghazni and will be one of the many good experiences I will remeber as being part of the Texas ADT-03.
Gentlemen from what I have seen here in Ghazni Province as well as the 9 northern Provinces of Afghanistan Mr. Thomas is correct in all he sujest. For the record only about 10% of the Pastuns support the Taliban.

Jason we miss you please take care and have a great life.

bridgeguy (not verified)

Sat, 06/26/2010 - 12:55am

The recommendations look both reasonable and logical to me. And these suggestions are not new.

Its been a long time since I read it but there was a training pamphlet the US military published years ago (1950's-60's) about the German counter-partisan experience on the Eastern Front. A key idea was not to surrender the countryside. Seems the guerillas would paralyse the rear areas when the support troops tended to concentrate in the big towns at key crossroads. Then the German commanders starting forcing the troops out into the small villages (platoons) and hamlets (squads). The guerillas wanted soft, easy targets. Even a single squad meant they had to concentrate a least a platoon to take the place and then, if they succeeded, they couldn't hold it when the reaction force came in. Either way it still cost them casualties they could not afford. As a result the partisans could no longer control the countryside as before and had to withdraw further away to the woods and mountains. More of them died over the winter when they could not shelter in the villages then would have happened otherwise.

As mentioned above similar methods used in Malaysia. Also, in Vietnam. Initially Westmoreland planned on US forces fighting the main force VietCong and regular North Vietnamese troops and the South Vietnamese for population protection and anti-guerilla work. However the South Vietnamese troops were ineffective at that time. I'm hazy on this now, & will have to pull out my old reference books etc. As I recall, the Marines proposed putting sguads and platoons right down into the hamlets and villages until the locals were sufficiently trained to take over, but was denied as thought it would take too many troops (but we eventually topped that number anyway). By giving local security short shrift, it took longer for everything to move to the stage where to South Vetnamese could take over (ie Vietnamization under Nixon, which was successful).

Interesting to make comparisions as to why implementation of basically the same concepts worked well in some instances and not in others. The key I guess is to avoid the mistakes (early Vietnam and other) and copy the successes (late Vietnam, Malaysia, Iraq, etc).

Nat - My post was not directed at you. E-mail sent. Thanks much for your contributions to our community of interest and practice. - Dave D.

FeralCat (not verified)

Fri, 06/25/2010 - 9:46pm

What General Petraeus should do is simply ask himself why we went into Afghanistan in the first place and just how much of that still applies almost 9 years later.


Apologies for the oversight.

For consideration of AFG tribal militias, the paper "My Cousin's Enemy is My Friend: a study of the Pashtun "Tribes" in Afghanistan", Afghanistan Research Reachback Centre White Paper, TRADOC G2 Human Terrain System, US Army, Sept 2009 is informative.

Thanks to Christian for sharing that paper for me.



Favor to ask on this post and for all who are contemplating posting comments to this or any other SWJ or SWC thread - when making bold statements such as "not been proven", "has been proven", "conventional wisdom says" - I think you should get my drift by now - either cite or provide first-account experience to support. This is not a "drive-by" commentary site. Provide substance or please move on. Thanks in advance.

Dave D.

"No Tolerance Areas"? Has not this been proven as a surefire way to make the ISAF become engulfed by local feuding, by local oppos fingering each other and making ISAF do the dirty work?

Jason, thanks for putting your thoughts out there.

Your comments are sound and reflect the core of a 'clear, hold, build' campaign, though I think your ideas on local militia (a la Sunni Awakening) need to be a little more nuanced.

Will would agree with me in emphasising that the AFG situation is far more complex, and it is still too early to tell whether a similar program would have the intended outcome.

Nonetheless, I agree that local security is a large part of the solution.

Kind regards,

PulpFiction (not verified)

Fri, 06/25/2010 - 1:49am

Time. Resources. Governance. History.

Let's use the strongest social system in place in the areas where the Taliban are. That, I believe is the tribes.

Time? Do we have enough time and is it even possible to build an Afghan national force of any kind that can fight the taliban?

Resources? Do we have the resources to do the things necessary to succeed? For example, do we have enough troops? Are we going to get more?

Governance? Is it even possible to have any semblence of "good governance" in the next 25 years?

Histroy? Although a lot of the catch phrases I hear about Afghanistan are historically incorrect - one thing is certain. There will always be conflict within the borders of "Afghanistan" and we should simply try and influence the outcome of what happens the best we can.

The above article seems to me to be spot on.


Hmmm an Australian perspective- how about you describe it as One Australian's Perspective.

I have not been to Afghanistan but there are certain limitations obvious in Mr Thomas's piece and I agree with Mr Dulgarri's rejoinder.

Mr Thomas is advocating ideas that were discredited decades ago in the area. The 'We destroyed the Village to save it' approach won't work in the tribal areas of Afghanistan wheer villages are centuries old and not attap huts owned by squatters in the middle of th jungle. I gather he hasn't of heard of 'aerial policing'?

Hmmm Special Forces units embedded in villages as was done during the Malayan Confrontation. Afghanistan isn't Sarawak or Sabah and I have interviewed one of the inigenous guerrilla groups they faced there. They avoided contact with Western forces.

Special Operation Development Units - a regular army engineer unit with an attached company level or above force protection team should suffice. The Taliban are seasoned fighters but are not the Soviet Union.

Just a few thoughts.

Duglarri (not verified)

Thu, 06/24/2010 - 3:23pm

Given the number of times the Taliban is mentioned as the implacable enemy, it seems worth mentioning that the invasion of 2001 was not directed at the Taliban, and the whole of this war against the Taliban is a simple bait-and-switch: go in after Al-Queda, stay for the Taliban.

The Taliban never attacked the US; they just (may have) hosted a group who did. Just like the Germans did. Getting them to stop doesn't require their permanent exclusion from the political affairs of their own country.

Given that the Taliban are basically all the Pashtun, and that the Pashtun are half the population, can this bait-and-switch war be won? Point 5 here suggests engaging the population to take arms against themselves.

Some day these people are going to run their own country. And when they do, they'll put their own people in charge. And their own people, their only organized group, by overwhelming majoritarian support, is the Taliban.

Bait and switch has us fighting a war that should have been over eight years ago. My advice to Petraeus: turn the country back over to the people who live there and go home.