Saturday, April 24, 2010

Evil Hearts and Sick Minds

Our emphasis on winning hearts and minds that has led to success in Iraq and is being used successfully so far in Afghanistan assumes that we are liberating people, and so the people are willing to side with us if it is safe to do so. Saddam prepared much of the population in Iraq to be grateful we got rid of Saddam's regime.

In Iraq, it took a while for the bulk of the Sunni Arabs to fall into that template. Only after al Qaeda became their new overlords did the Sunni Arabs get that "I want to be liberated" feeling. During the war before the Awakening, I worried that we'd have to grind down the resistance of Anbar province because we just didn't have a shot at winning their hearts and minds.

I worry about the same thing about parts of Afghanistan where the Pashtuns dominate:

What I worry about is what I worried about in Iraq for many years--if an enemy is committed to resisting as the Sunni Arabs were, especially in Anbar, how do you run a counter-insurgency to win hearts and minds of people whose hearts and minds support the insurgency?

I do worry that we can't win the hearts and minds of Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan. I worry that we assume that the people are ready to support us if only we provide security against the Taliban. What if that isn't the case?

If it is the case that the Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan are determined to resist us, then we can't win their hearts and minds. That means that restrictive rules of engagement don't win us friends but let enemies live to fight another day.

I'm not saying that we should go to a scorched Earth policy or go counter-terrorism rather than counter-insurgency. We shouldn't. It didn't work for the Soviets and we simply won't be that ruthless. I do think that there are many in the south whose hearts and minds can be won. But I thought one part of our Afghan surge strategy was to hammer the enemy resistance to convince the practical Pashtuns that there's no money and no future in fighting a US-backed government and backing the Taliban and drug lords. If we're not hammering the enemy, how do we sway the people who rather like them to abandon them?

If we really need to kill the enemy drug gangs and warlords to discourage resistance rather than just protect the people who don't want our protection and who aren't in the market for giving us their hearts and minds, how do we win?

Army human terrain analysts seem to have the same concern:

The southern Afghan province of Kandahar trusts the Taliban more than the government. And that’s according to a survey commissioned by the U.S. Army.

Kandahar is expected to be the focal point of operations for U.S. and NATO troops this summer, but a poll recently conducted by the Army’s controversial social science program, the Human Terrain System (HTS), is warning that rampant local corruption, and a lack of security, could undermine coalition efforts to win the support of the local population.

Among other things, the survey’s authors warned that a lack of confidence in the Afghan government “sets conditions for a disenfranchised population to respond either by not supporting the government due to its inability to deliver improvements in the quality of life or, worse yet, by supporting the Taliban.”
Given that we are being even more careful with firepower in Afghanistan than we were in Iraq, are we killing enough of the people who need to be killed? There are enemies out there. They don't want electricity and they don't want jobs. They want us out of Afghanistan and in the short run they want our troops dead.

Not that the enemy is particularly popular with most of the people. So my worst case worry of subduing a hostile population doesn't exist even in Kandahar. But the enemy has more support than we're used to in other places. And the Afghan government is generally not considered a good alternative. This goes back to my worry that we shouldn't try to prop up a strong central government in Kabul that is viewed as an invader almost as much as al Qaeda and the Taliban/drug gangs:

The end result in Afghanistan, if all goes well, will be a nominal national government that controls the capital region and reigns but does not rule local tribes and which actually helps the locals a bit rather than sucking resources from the locals, who in turn do not make trouble for the central government or allow their areas to be used by jihadis to plan attacks on the West. We press for reasonable economic opportunities, with bribes all around (I mean, foreign aid), to keep a fragile peace.

The report shows that lot of locals understand why people resist the central government. Certainly, there are people there in the enemy's base area whose hearts and minds can be won. So I'm not urging us to go scorched earth on the enemy and the people around them. Even though that is the traditional strategy to crush resistance to conquest, we dont' work that way and the Soviets showed that even they couldn't make it work in Afghanistan.

 I'm just saying that our military had best be watching how our very restrictive rules of engagement are working. We can't win the hearts and minds of even a minority if they don't feel safe enough with us around. And getting that feeling of safety still requires us to kill or drive away the enemy.

Are we capable of killing the enemy with our current approach and rules? I will watch the Kandahar offensive very closely to see if answers become apparent.

The actual report is here.