by Brian McLaughlin
In January 2002, as a ground operations officer for resupply airdrops to special operations forces in Afghanistan, I described the toppling of the Taliban as an "unqualified success." Now, as a media production advisor in General Petraeus' Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team, nine years after I thought we had won this war, I can again contribute to winning in Afghanistan.
From reports and my occasional excursions in the field, I have the strong belief that the counterinsurgency campaign is working, the Taliban and related groups are losing ground, and the population is swinging their support to the government. The prospects of economic development, normalcy, and peace are more appealing to people than just surviving under the Taliban's iron rule.
Many disagree with me, especially with the Taliban's spring offensive well under way. The acting chief of police in Kandahar characterized recent attacks in his city this way, "The past 17 days were the worst in 30 years of my police service." The war continues and the insurgency still has sharp, snapping teeth, with overall attacks up 300% since 2007. Recognizing that, let's examine some of the progress in the country, much of which I plan to capture in an upcoming documentary.
Kabul is vibrant with construction and business activity, indicating hopefulness. I have met many young Afghans who have started businesses and several Afghan-Americans and other expatriates who have come to participate in the growing economy. Even the film industry is sprouting. I have visited ten film companies in Kabul alone -- their skills ranging from rudimentary to world class -- though few are profitable.
I have repeatedly witnessed that Afghans are rebuilding their country and lives, with or without outside assistance. Many of my grand ideas for media initiatives are already being put in place by Afghans. I considered a film training conference. When visiting a nationwide Afghan television station, Channel 7, I was told, "You should have been here yesterday -- we had a conference for filmmakers." Many of the themes I intend to communicate in videos -- national pride, damage by the insurgency, shifting gender roles -- are being addressed more effectively by Afghan films and television.
Filming of agricultural projects in the comparatively hostile province of Paktika gave me much optimism. Canals and flood barriers had been built by the residents -- over half a mile of canals in one community. In another village, in exchange for 100 meters of canal funded by the U.S., the village was required to provide 30 meters -- instead they built 400! Where these projects have been implemented, we have seen clear shifts from locals favoring the insurgents to actively helping Afghan and coalition forces. Equally importantly, the villagers learn to make things better on their own. It is inspiring to see such success. Admittedly, the results in Paktika are not yet being replicated in other provinces.
A March 2011 poll shows that 3/4 of Afghans feel it would be bad for the country if the Taliban returned to power, up from 2/3 just six months earlier. Almost two-thirds of Afghans view the Taliban as the biggest danger in the country. Meanwhile, Afghan governmental institutions have improved dramatically, despite their significant flaws, and are spreading throughout the country at a rapid rate.
With no Army brigades currently rated as independently operationally effective, there is much improvement needed. At the same time, the number, capabilities, and dedication of the Afghan National Security Forces have improved at a pace considered nearly impossible just a short time ago. While the numbers are impressive (36,000 new recruits in six months), my direct observations are equally telling. I had the pleasure of filming a "shura" (an organized consultation group) of junior officers and senior non-commissioned officers of the Afghan 205th Corps in Kandahar. The passion and pride of these lower-level leaders and their devotion to their profession rivaled that of any nation's military. They spoke repeatedly about wanting to be viewed as the defenders of their country, rather than the coalition forces, and being permitted to assume that role.
Yes, insurgent attacks are at a historical high. Yet, in the first three months of this year, 3,000 insurgents were killed or captured. Another 700 have reintegrated into society and 2,000 were in the process of doing so (only a handful of whom return to the insurgency). In the last ten months, 900 insurgent leaders were killed or captured. In total, that amounts to about a quarter of the insurgency eliminated in recent months. And, this was all before bin Laden was killed, decapitating the movement and depriving it of a large source of funds.
Although still below the horizon, the sun is rising over Afghanistan. After 30 years of war or oppression (about two-thirds of the life expectancy in the country -- 44 years), Afghans are remembering how to look to the future. Or, as a USDA agricultural representative put it, they have reinvigorated their initiative.
Since December 2010, Brian McLaughlin has been the Media Production Advisor of the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team at Headquarters, International Security Assistance Force -- Afghanistan. He is a film producer and president of Emerald Elephant Entertainment with over ten years of film experience and over 25 years of international experience. He is a member of the Producers Guild of America and will be a visiting professor in the film department of the University of Notre Dame starting in August 2011. His films have won several awards, including two Accolade Awards of Excellence. He spent 20 years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve as an Infantry officer, most of that time as an augmentee to Special Operations Command Europe, with call-ups for Bosnia and Operation Enduring Freedom. Other assignments include Airborne Pathfinder Commander and General's Aide-de-Camp. He has a bachelor degree in Business Administration from Notre Dame and an MBA from Boston University. Brian was recognized by Notre Dame as an Exemplary Asian Pacific Alumnus and has been a three-time president of the Independent Film Association of Southern Arizona. He has a son, Collin.
3rd para., Kandahar acting chief of police quote: BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/world-south-asia-13330595, 9 May 2011
3rd para., insurgent attacks: U.S. Department of Defense, "Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan and the United States Plan for Sustaining the Afghanistan National Security Forces," April 2011, various on-line citations, including www.smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2011/05/report-outlines-progress-in-af/, p. 44
4th para., examples of Kabul film and television companies:
Moby Group, GroupOne, Maverick International, AwaNama, Aina Media & Culture Center, Apple Media Production, Basa, Nawai Sahar Films, Star Group, Tik Tak Consulting Services, Development Pictures
4th para., media profitability: Altai Consulting, "Afghan Media in 2010," 13 October 2010
5th para., filmmaker conference: 16 January 2011
5th para., music videos showing pride in country:
Shafiq Mureed, "Beautiful Afghanistan," http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIf2Od5hS6E
Farhad Darya, "Atan," http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYGlLhzOp54
5th para., films showing damage by the Taliban:
"Zolykha's Secret," dir. Horace Ahmad Shansab, 2007
"Earth and Ashes," dir. Atiq Rahimi, 2004
5th para., films and television promoting shifting gender roles:
"I Am Passing," dir. Shabnam Zaryab, 2010
"Afghan Star" (film), dir. Havana Marking, 2009
"Afghan Girls Can Kick," dir. Bahareh Hosseini, 2008
"25 Percent," dir. Diana Saqeb, 2007
"Afghan Star" (TV show), Tolo TV, 2005 to present
"Osama," dir. Siddiq Barmak, 2003
6th para., canal project:
USDA rep Caroline Clarin, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtWPfjBcaHM, February 2011
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4B6RPGlUaSs, February 2011
7th para., March 2011 poll: U.S. DoD, "Report on Progress"
7th para., Taliban is greatest danger: ABC News, the BBC, ARD German TV, and The Washington Post; "Afghanistan: Where Things Stand," 6 December 2010, http://www.langerresearch.com/uploads/1116a1Afghanistan.pdf, page 11.
7th para., Afghan government spread: U.S. DoD, "Report on Progress"
8th para., ANA operational effectiveness: U.S. DoD, "Report on Progress," p. 31
8th para., ANSF recruits: U.S. DoD, "Report on Progress"
8th para., 205th Corps shura: 1-2 March 2011
9th para., insurgency historical high: U.S. DoD, "Report on Progress," p. 44
9th para., insurgents killed or captured: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/09/world/asia/09petraeus.html
9th para., insurgents reintegrated: U.S. DoD, "Report on Progress"
9th para., leaders were killed or captured: http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/afghanistan/2011-03-08-taliban08_ST_N.htm