To Woo Afghan Locals, U.S. Troops Settle In




 
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To Woo Afghan Locals, U.S. Troops Settle In
 
April 9th, 2007  
Team Infidel
 
 

Topic: To Woo Afghan Locals, U.S. Troops Settle In


To Woo Afghan Locals, U.S. Troops Settle In
Wall Street Journal
April 9, 2007
Pg. 1

Tactic Wins Friends, Isolates Insurgents, But Boosts Casualties
By Michael M. Phillips
WAYGAL, Afghanistan -- One sunny morning last month, a group of bearded men stood beside the gurgling Waygal River and stared as a helicopter loaded with heavily armed Americans dropped out of the sky and into their cornfield. The moment the rear ramp opened, the soldiers ran for cover behind stone terraces and leafless trees.
They had reason to be wary. These mountains are notorious for sheltering Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, and the soldiers were the first Americans to set foot in Waygal since the Afghan war began in 2001.
But instead of a hail of bullets, the soldiers got an invitation to dinner. When First Lt. Eric Malmstrom, a fresh-faced University of Pennsylvania graduate, approached the hirsute reception committee, village leader Ghulam Sakhi's most pressing question was, "Why didn't you come sooner?"
A year ago, U.S. commanders here would have been reluctant to insert a small force of infantrymen into a remote village. But, along the Pech River and tributaries such as the Waygal, one 750-man U.S. Army battalion is trying a risky, grueling way to isolate the insurgents and win the support of the villagers. Instead of operating out of safe rear bases and commuting to the war, for the past year the soldiers of the First Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment have lived on the battlefield, in a series of small, rudimentary encampments situated among the disputed villages themselves.
It's an intimate style of warfare and, for the Americans, a brutal one. They go weeks without showers or decent food. They live every day exposed to enemy fire, and it has cost them dearly. Over the past year, 1-32 has lost 19 men, almost half of the deaths in the entire 5,000-man brigade.
The Americans and their Afghan National Army allies live among the people on the valley floor, while the insurgents -- Taliban, al Qaeda and other fighters of various stripes -- are up in the steep, rocky ridges. When the insurgents attack, they fire down on American soldiers and Afghan civilians alike. "The semiotics of it are great," says Lt. Col. Chris Cavoli, commander of 1-32, a unit of the 10th Mountain Division. "You can't buy press like that. The way the fight is constructed is to deliver one message: We're here to protect you, and the bad guys are here to ruin your lives."
The battalion's progress comes amid warnings that elsewhere in Afghanistan, the Taliban are resurgent and public faith is sagging in the government of President Hamid Karzai. The United Nations secretary general reported last month that the insurgents are "emboldened by their strategic successes, rather than disheartened by tactical failures." A February study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said the situation in Afghanistan is "both more perilous and more complex" than at any other time since the U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime after Sept. 11, 2001.
Critics say the setbacks have come in part because the U.S., distracted by the war in Iraq, has too little manpower in Afghanistan to engage in community policing.
Striking Results
Here, however, the results are striking. A year ago, the Pech Valley, the main artery through the area, was a gantlet of roadside bombings and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Lately there have been just two or three roadside bombs a month, and the locals frequently report them to Afghan or U.S. troops before they explode.
A year ago, it took five hours to drive the 19 miles from Asadabad, the nearest big town, to Nangalam, site of the nearest sizable U.S. military base. The road was little more than a goat trail. Now a U.S.-funded, $7.5 million project is turning it into a two-lane, paved road connecting the Pech Valley to, in effect, the rest of the world.
Col. Cavoli, a 42-year-old Princeton graduate who spent much of his youth in Italy, argues that the key to defeating the insurgents is having a "persistent presence" among the people, not just "persistent raiding." Placing American and Afghan troops around villages creates a security bubble, he says, that allows the U.S. to pour money into economic-development projects.
"The basic idea is to kill the enemy to convince the people that you can and will protect them," says the colonel, a compact man with receding hair and an easy grin. "Then in the breathing space created, you've got to do something to connect the people to the government."
The road is central to Col. Cavoli's strategy: It demonstrates the goodwill of the American and Afghan governments by giving the residents a commercial link they desperately need. Already, a hotel is under construction in Nangalam and gas stations are appearing along the river. Once the hard surface is in place, it will be more difficult for insurgents to plant roadside bombs.
The construction provides jobs to hundreds of local men who might otherwise be tempted to join the insurgency. And the road lures the insurgents out of the mountains in a way that, Army officers argue, will inevitably alienate them further from the population. The road is popular with the locals; attacking it is not. The Americans now plan more roads, including a $7.5 million stretch to Waygal, the village where Lt. Malmstrom and his men landed recently.
In December, the Army and Marine Corps issued a new counterinsurgency doctrine that closely hews to Col. Cavoli's approach, arguing that killing the enemy is less important than building ties to the local populace -- and to do that, American troops may have to take on more risk themselves. "If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared and cede the initiative to the insurgents," the new manual says.
Col. Cavoli is "on the cutting edge of a new approach to counterinsurgency," says Col. John Nicholson, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team. Col. Nicholson's brigade, which includes 1-32, has tripled the number of outposts it inherited from the units it replaced last year. But 1-32 did so in the most hostile part of the brigade's turf. "There is no better case study of modern counterinsurgency than the recent performance" of Col. Cavoli's men, Col. Nicholson says.
Over the past couple of months, the Army has tried to put the tactic to work in Iraq, as part of its desperate effort to quell insurgency and sectarian violence in Baghdad. U.S. commanders there are setting up neighborhood security stations, manned by Americans and Iraqis, but it is still too early to see the results. Applying the technique in Iraq is complicated because much of the mayhem is between one Iraqi faction and another. U.S. troops are caught in the middle, supporting an Iraqi government that many Sunni Muslims suspect is the tool of their Shiite Muslim rivals.
Even replicating the battalion's progress elsewhere in Afghanistan would be difficult. Col. Cavoli's 750 men have spent a year fighting for public acceptance along just a few dozen miles of river valleys. The military's counterinsurgency doctrine specifies that, at a minimum, one soldier is required for every 50 residents. Although the insurgency is concentrated in the east and south, applying the formula to the entire country would require more than 600,000 troops, a force a dozen times the size of the international coalition now in Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, the Pentagon has taken notice of 1-32's gains, and Col. Cavoli's next posting will be to teach counterinsurgency techniques to officers from other NATO nations, which make up about half of the coalition in Afghanistan.
For 1-32, the tactic developed almost by accident. The battalion arrived in Afghanistan in early 2006, and it soon became apparent to Col. Cavoli that the Pech Valley would have to be the focus of his efforts.
The Marines they replaced had fought out of two large bases, in Asadabad, where the Pech empties into another river, and upstream near Nangalam. When the Marines attacked, the insurgents would fade away, only to return to the valley as soon as the Americans went back to their bases, according to Col. Cavoli.
Last April, he ordered one of his company commanders to fight his way west and set up temporary outposts on the Pech between Asadabad and Nangalam. At Patrol Base California, one of several along the river, soldiers lived in the open -- rain, snow or sun -- and slept next to their Humvees, using large, dirt-filled barriers to shield them from insurgent attacks. They did without showers and ate packaged meals.
It was supposed to be a short-term fix. Days stretched into weeks and weeks into months, however, as Col. Cavoli realized that his best hope of separating the insurgents from the locals was to keep his men in place. These days they have cots and have built themselves cramped, sandbag bunkers with plywood roofs. But when it rains, their hooches run deep with mud or water, and the small weight-lifting pit turns into a café-au-lait pool.
 


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