The head of international forces told troops in Afghanistan today that they should focus less on killing Taliban and more on protecting civilians, a continuing shift in strategy as the war becomes increasingly deadly.
Today a roadside bomb and gun attack killed the 44th U.S. soldier in August, one fewer than killed in July, including troops who died outside of Afghanistan due to sickness. July and August have been the two deadliest months of the war, a spike caused largely by a surge of 21,000 troops arriving in volatile southern Afghanistan in the last few months.
That surge is meant to provide security in population centers that have had little to no western troop presence since the beginning of the war and is the cornerstone of the new strategy from recently arrived U.S. embassy and international forces staff.
That strategy calls for more troops and more money in cities, large villages and agriculture centers where the majority of the Afghan population lives so that they can protect the population from the Taliban. . And it calls for less fighting -- especially in remote, sparsely populated areas -- and more cooperation with local villagers.
"The Afghan people are the Objective. Protecting them is the mission. Focus 95 percent of your time building relationships with them and, together with the Afghan government, meeting their needs," says a counterinsurgency document released today by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of international forces in Afghanistan.
"Get rid of the conventional mind-set. Focus on the people, not the militants. By earning their trust and helping an accountable [Afghan government] gain the support of the people, you take from the enemy what he can not afford to lose -- the control of the population."
McChrystal will request thousands of additional troops for Afghanistan, according to people familiar with his thinking, although it is not clear how many. That will be tied to a request of additional billions of dollars -- as much as $4.7 billion, according to military advisors -- to try and boost civilian spending on agriculture, local governance, and anti-corruption efforts.
Those requests for money and troops will come separately from a strategic review document that will be distributed as early as next Monday, according to McChrystal's aides. The review was requested by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates when he fired Gen. David McKiernan and replaced him with McChrystal in May.
The review is evidence of increasing worry among U.S. military and civilian officials that the war, almost eight years in, has been slipping from their control. They hoped that the surge and a successful election would provide some stability to a fractious country. Instead, August has been defined by high fatalities and a vote dogged by low turnout and accusations of widespread fraud.
The review is an attempt to change how the U.S. thinks of the war, from the corporal stationed on a forward operating base all the way to the command in Kabul.