It was a war we thought we’d won. But after eight years of escalating violence, the Afghanistan conflict has morphed into something perhaps unwinnable. U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda, a goal we’ve largely achieved. But in years of occupation, Washington has apparently conflated counter-terrorism with nation-building. Now the U.S., NATO and their allies are struggling to destroy a deeply-rooted insurgency in country with a corrupt, ineffective government, poor infrastructure and few prospects for everyday people, but to fight. David Axe visits U.S. forces to see for himself.
by DAVID AXE
From tiny Forward Operating Base Altimur 50 miles south of Kabul, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gukeisen and around a thousand soldiers from the 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, part of the 10th Mountain Division, oversee three districts with a combined population of several hundred thousand, mostly farmers.
The three districts represent progressive stages of American counter-insurgency practice. As U.S. troops have spread into Baraki Barak, Charkh and Kherwar districts, in that order since January, they have brought increasing security — and with it, reconstruction projects meant to win local residents’ loyalty. Just three Americans have died here this year. A CBS radio reporter was badly injured in a bomb blast.
Gukeisen, a towering, gruff-voiced man with nearly three years of combined Afghanistan experience, adheres to the David Petraeus school of counter-insurgency. His goal, he says, is to separate district residents from the dushman — the Afghans’ term for “enemy” — whether those dushman be local Mafia, street gangs, Haqqani insurgents, Talibs or Al-Qaeda operatives. And yes, there are a few Al Qaeda still hiding out in these parts.
Gukeisen, who took over the unit in July, started by mapping the “human terrain,” figuring out which villages were friendly and which, not so much. All the “green,” or friendly, villages form what he calls a “security bubble” in Baraki Barak. There, 3rd Squadron is spending around a million dollars from its reconstruction fund to build schools, mosques, toilets and other facilities, in addition to forming agricultural co-ops. Gukeisen calls it, his “extreme makeover.”
It’s a “carrot-and-stick” approach, he says. “People in the bubble get projects. People outside the bubble are told they do not meet the criteria.” You want projects? Point out your local bad guys. 3rd Squadron will capture the ones it can and kill the others. In recent months, Gukeisen’s soldiers and their Afghan National Army counterparts have grabbed scores of suspected Al Qaeda, Haqqani, street thugs and Mafia, and killed around 60 — including a dozen gunned down by an Apache helicopter while planting roadside bombs. Some of the bodies were in pieces.
“I’m not saying this will work everywhere,” Gukeisen says. But it appears to be working here. The security bubble is growing, projects are underway and “our operations don’t cause blow-back. The people trust us.” That trust means more intelligence. More intelligence means more arrests and better security. Better security means more reconstruction, which means greater trust, and so on and so on.
It’s all about growing a functional Afghanistan from the ground-up. But there’s a limit that everyone here, even the local Afghan army commander, acknowledges: At some point, grassroots development, propelled by the U.S. military, will collide with the corruption and gridlock politics of the Afghan national government in Kabul. For better or worse, the U.S.-led international counter-terrorism operation launched in 2001 has morphed into state-building, in a state that accepts reform at the local level, but resists it up top.
(Photo: David Axe)