U.S. Army Applies Lessons of Iraq to Afghanistan

How the U.S. army is using tactics learnt in Iraq to fight the Taliban.

August 25, 2009, 10:12 AM

August 25, 2009 — -- For Mohammed Nader Ashraf, the most important thing is to make sure they don't find him. That would be dangerous, because he is crouched behind a wall on the edge of a cornfield, talking to strangers.

Ashraf, who has a dark wrinkled face and is wearing a light-colored turban, spits on his right index finger and scrubs it with a small stone. The finger is still colored bluish-black with ink, the method used in Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election to prevent multiple voting.

But in Ashraf's native village, near Khalaj in Afghanistan's Helmand province, the mark is also a curse. Helmand is Taliban country, the province where the insurgents are strongest in Afghanistan. They view participating in the presidential election as an act of treason. The Taliban have denounced voting as un-Islamic and threatened to cut off the inked fingers of anyone who votes.

But Ashraf is smiling. Despite the threats, he rode for four hours to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah early on the morning of the election, taking secret routes along irrigation canals and dusty paths. Then the 42-year-old placed a cross next to the name of President Hamid Karzai, not out of a desire for democracy, but out of a lust for revenge. In the spring, a Taliban court ruled against him in a land dispute, and he lost two of his fields. "If President Karzai stays in office, even more American soldiers will come to Helmand, and I'll get my property back," says Ashraf, licking his finger.

The second presidential election since the ouster of the Taliban from Kabul was not without incident, but it was also not a failure. An estimated 17 million Afghans were officially eligible to vote, although most village elders and clan leaders had decided in advance who their followers were to support or whether they should vote in the first place.

Dirty deals were made, votes were bought and voting permits were distributed on good faith. There were 135 incidents last Thursday alone, including more than a dozen Taliban attacks on polling places and one police station. About 50 people were killed, most of them attackers. The relatively high voter turnout, given the circumstances, was partly attributable to the fact that provincial councils were also being elected. These councils are often more relevant to the daily lives of Afghans than the relatively weak president in faraway Kabul.

Nevertheless, incumbent Karzai is likely to have won the vote, and Ashraf's hopes of having his farmland returned to him could in fact come true.

The American soldiers he is pinning his hopes on are already there. Four thousand troops arrived in Helmand last month in an attempt to drive out the Taliban, who are stronger in the region today than at any time since the American invasion eight years ago. Operation "Khanjar" ("dagger") is the test case for US President Barack Obama's new strategy for achieving a turnaround in Afghanistan.

'We're the World's Most Feared Military Unit'

The US Marines include men like Captain Robert Tart, a wiry, 33-year-old New Yorker whose angular face, under his sand-colored helmet, makes him look at least 10 years older. Wearing a flak vest and outfitted with an assault rifle, night-vision goggles and a radio, he is standing in a forward operating base, a US camp with protective walls, on the border with Helmand province.

It is a region of seemingly endless desert, where the air is filled with yellow sand and jagged mountains form the horizon. The air temperature is 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).

Tart is ready to go. His company is waiting for him, 24 men standing in front of their Humvees. They received a tip that drugs are being hidden at a remote farm south of Delaram.

From the moment Tart leaves the camp, the enemy is observing him. Tart knows it, and he feels it. The Taliban lay roadside bombs and fire anti-tank grenades at the soldiers from the surrounding farms. Anyone here could be a potential attacker: the goatherd on a hill, or the motorcyclist standing on the side of the road.

Before coming to Afghanistan, Tart served three tours of duty in Iraq's Anbar province, at a time when the situation there seemed hopeless. His unit took part in the siege of Fallujah when it was a terrorist stronghold. Eventually, a former general under Saddam Hussein was installed to keep order on behalf of the Americans, and the situation stabilized. "We're the shock troops, we're the world's most feared military unit," says Tart, who apparently believes that this will make his unit just as effective in Helmand.

Helmand is Afghanistan's Anbar, the heart of the insurgency. It is the world's largest opium-growing region, responsible for 42 percent of total production. Helmand, Afghanistan's largest province, is almost one-and-a-half times the size of Switzerland. It is also the Taliban's main money-maker in Afghanistan, providing the extremists with up to $300 million ($210 million) in annual revenue from the drug trade.

Although President Obama in faraway Washington merely inherited this war with the Taliban, he has now tied the outcome of the conflict to his own political fate. Afghanistan, he says, is a "war of necessity," not a "war of choice" like the Iraq war, entered into for the wrong reasons.

In a speech to war veterans in Arizona last week, Obama said: "If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaida would plot to kill more Americans." Difficult times are ahead for his fellow Americans, he said, adding: "This will not be quick. This will not be easy."

Obama wants to win the war at all costs, and he is prepared to spend even more money on the conflict in this difficult country, despite the massive US budget deficit and the healthcare reform debate. Almost 800 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001 and the war effort costs American taxpayers $4 billion a month.

Defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida will take "a few years," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates, adding that it is still "completely unclear" when American forces will be able to withdraw. He also noted that rebuilding the country's economy and government will take even longer -- at least "10 years."

In May, Gates dismissed David McKiernan, the commander of US forces and of international troops in Afghanistan. McKiernan's removal demonstrated how serious Washington is about its radical change of course. The last time a commanding four-star general was replaced was in 1951, when then-President Harry Truman removed a general for having opposed his plans during the Korean War.

The new man in Kabul is General Stanley McChrystal, a lanky, 55-year-old ascetic who prides himself on eating only one meal a day to avoid drowsiness and who gets by with only a few hours of sleep every night. Until now, McChrystal tended to be involved with the darker side of the military business. He commanded covert US special forces operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for five years. His men were the ones who hunted down former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before capturing him in a hole in the ground. McChrystal also gave the order to kill Iraqi al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

According to insiders with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, the general has been given one year to achieve initial successes in Afghanistan, and two years to produce a turnaround. Political support cannot be maintained for longer than that. That's why McChrystal now plans to revise the logic of the war, changing the US forces' objective from fighting the enemy to providing security for Afghans.

Deep Partners

"Why did this happen?" the general asks in his morning meeting in Kabul after learning that civilians were injured or killed the night before. His soldiers have orders to withdraw rather than risk killing innocent people in a gun battle. McChrystal wants them to rethink the approach, and in fact to adopt a new way of thinking.

That will be difficult, says McChrystal, because the Taliban "are gaining ground." His favorite concept these days is "deep partnering." He wants his soldiers to stop isolating themselves behind barbed wire and walls, and the international troops to get out of the cities and go into the villages. And he wants his GIs, from generals to privates, to train, fight, eat and live next to Afghan security forces. "Where we go we will stay," he says.

This roughly reflects the language of the US military's new field manual, "Tactics in Counterinsurgency," written for company, battalion and brigade commanders. The volume sums up the bitter lessons from the Iraq war.

Since McChrystal has taken over, the number of enemy fighters killed in battle is no longer released. "We will not win based on the number of Taliban we kill, but instead on our ability to separate insurgence from the center of gravity -- the people," McChrystal wrote in one of his first commands. Naturally the general continues to send special units to hunt down and eliminate senior Taliban leaders.

After driving 12 kilometers (7 miles), Captain Tart and his unit have reached a mud farmhouse in the desert. There are several outbuildings, the sand-colored roofs are shaped like domes, and red hollyhocks are blooming in the garden. Two men are sitting in front of the house, and everything seems peaceful.

The informant who led Tart to the farm, a Pashtun with a gaunt face and thin beard, quickly disappears. The farm is supposed to be a hiding place for opium, and the Marines find packets of drugs in holes in the cellar and hidden between double walls. The two men in front of the house, a young man and an older man, claim that they just happen to be here to do work in the garden.

It is already dark, and yet the thermometer still indicates 30 degrees Celsius. Captain Tart has already collected 600 kilograms (1,320 pounds) of opium, with a market value of more than $100,000 in Afghanistan. The identity of the owner of the drugs remains unclear.

Tart has the older of the two men handcuffed and then takes him along to the police station in Delaram. The captain is pleased with his success. "The drugs bring in dirty money, which is used to kill our people," he says. "We took it off the street."

The police station in Delaram is between the bazaar and the cemetery, where green-and-white flags fly over the graves. The Marines have set up camp in a derelict building, and the police officers live in the adjacent house. This is where the US troops are testing McChrystal's new strategy of living with local security forces.

The American soldiers look a bit like pirates, with bandanas and tattoos, chewing tobacco between their teeth. The food is better with the Afghans, they say. They only received the tip-off about the opium because they have set up camp here instead of withdrawing several weeks ago, when suicide bombers attacked the police station several times.

The Afghan police have set up a building for visitors behind the Americans' quarters. The first of the villagers eventually came to the police -- and talked. Others followed, a sign that the new strategy appears to be paying off.

Looking for Combat

Corporal Jacey Marks, on the other hand, looks like someone who would have trouble rethinking the strategy. The powerfully built soldier has close-cropped red hair, high cheekbones and tattoos. Marks served in Haditha, the embattled Iraqi city that acquired a tragic notoriety when a small number of GIs mowed down 24 Iraqi civilians there in 2005. Marks gained combat experience in Haditha, and combat is what the 24-year-old soldier has learned so far. "That's what you look for," he says, reflecting the mentality of the Marines.

Now Marks is driving with a patrol in the border region near the western edge of Helmand. He drives his Humvee over bumpy fields to avoid the omnipresent roadside bombs, expecting enemy fire or an ambush at any moment. But nothing happens. Nothing has happened in weeks. The enemy is merely watching him from afar, and all the energy the corporal has directed against the enemy comes to nothing. Marks is learning that Afghanistan is not Haditha. The Taliban know that they can only lose in direct combat with the Marines, and they avoid them.

"The Taliban aren't challenging us, the Marines, but they are exhausting the American public, which will eventually come to believe that there are no successes and there is no purpose to our effort here," says a first sergeant at the Marines' camp in Delaram. He is sitting under a camouflage tent, fanning himself with a paper plate.

Only 4.5 percent of the Afghan population lives in Helmand, but many Afghans stand to lose a lot if peace were to suddenly break out there. Opium and the war are economically significant for Afghanistan. The drugs fuel the war, and the war protects the drugs. Those who profit from opium want to see the status quo maintained for a while longer.

General McChrystal's goal must now be to take support away from the insurgents and win the backing of as many clans and tribes as possible, so that the Taliban are eventually forced to negotiate -- under the West's terms. But is this even achievable anymore?

There is much talk about reconciliation in Kabul these days. United Nations Special Representative for Afghanistan Kai Eide wonders out loud whether talks with the enemy ought to be organized at the district or provincial level, or whether, as he believes, "we should take a broader approach."

Thomas Ruttig of the independent consulting group Afghanistan Analysts Network recommends an intensive process of talks between the government and all the groups that have disassociated themselves from it. He supports nationwide hearings to heal the wounds of 30 years of war.

Anything is still possible in Afghanistan, writes Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in his recent study "The Afghanistan Campaign: Can We Win?" Cordesman, a respected security analyst, spent an entire month working in McChrystal's team to assess how much additional strength an accelerated buildup of Afghan security forces would provide. He analyzed cooperation within the international community and speculated on a new Afghan government's chances of launching a peace process. His conclusion is that the jury is still out when it comes to victory or failure.

On election day, Mohammed Nader Ashraf, the farmer from Helmand province, waits until it is completely dark before returning to his village near Khalaj. He is not interested in judging the outcome of his election adventure on the question of whether democracy has been advanced, or even whether Afghanistan will finally find peace. There is only one thing that counts for Ashraf: When will he get his land back?

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan