President Obama released his new Afghanistan strategy today, promising an extra 4,000 troops (in addition to the 17,000 reinforcements he’s already sent) and a renewed effort to enlist the support of U.S. allies. But most importantly, the Obama strategy calls for expanding our war effort to include greater focus on Pakistan. “We must recognize the fundamental connection between the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Obama said.
That’s a good start. But coalition forces in Afghanistan also need to take a hard look at their tactics, writes Josh Foust, who is on his way home from a 10-week stint as a contractor in the country. Our forces are too worried about “force protection,” staying safely hunkered in armored vehicles and fortified Forward Operating Bases, all in a self-defeating, short-term bid to reduce casualties, Foust contends:
By separating itself so completely from the population it claims to be trying to win — even at Bagram, where there is almost no combat, ever, it is almost impossible for a soldier or civilian to walk outside the gates to purchase something in the nearby bazaar — there remain precious few opportunities [for the coalition] to do the gritty work of actually trying to “win hearts and minds.”
The end result is stark: in a war that is desperately short of the troops needed to provide security to increasingly less remote communities, 93% of the soldiers stationed at the coalition’s primary base never walk outside the gates. … As an institution, the U.S. Army seems unwilling to make the difficult choices necessary to create the conditions for peace: a population that is adequately protected from the crime, drug, and war lords, and therefore no longer contributing to the desperate regional instability.
What’s more, Obama’s plan doesn’t appear to change the previous policy of relying heavily on air strikes to kill extremists, without endangering U.S. troops. Errant bombings have killed hundreds of innocent Afghan civilians in recent years, further eroding the population’s support for foreign forces. “Everyone is very aware of the negative effect that civilian casualties can have, and very interested in minimizing them wherever we can,” Caitlin Hayden, one of Obama’s Afghanistan advisors, told me.
But being aware is not the same thing as canceling the air strikes, breaking up the mega-bases and getting coalition troops out into local communities, working with everyday Afghans to create the street-level confidence and security necessary to turn a population against its extreme elements.