In early 2009, there were just 100 American troops in all of Logar province, 100 miles south of Kabul in eastern Afghanistan’s bread basket. The province represented a critical weakness in NATO’s defenses. From Logar, extremists were able to mount deadly attacks on the capital city — attacks that were symptomatic of a faltering Western strategy in Afghanistan.
Nine months later, more than 1,000 American and Czech reinforcements under the command of U.S. Army Col. Thomas Gukeisen had poured into the province. The fresh troops brought with them a new strategy imported from the headiest days of the fighting in western Iraq. Instead of trying to control the whole province, Gukeisen’s troops would secure one community at a time, slowly expanding their zone of control. Inside the safe zone, the NATO troops would chase security gains with development cash, hoping to cement improved relations with Logar residents.
In Iraq, the Marines had called this their “ink-spot” approach. In Logar, reality-TV fan Gukeisen branded it his “Extreme Makeover” plan. NATO leaders hoped Gukeisen’s efforts in Logar would show the way forward for the rest of the country. Gen. David Petraeus even dropped by for a high-profile visit.
When I embedded in Logar in late 2009, Gukeisen told me NATO would need four years to complete Operation Extreme Makeover. Now, halfway to the deadline, I’m on my way back to the province to check up on the alliance’s efforts. I’ll accompany U.S. troops on patrol, interview NATO and Afghan leaders and try to gauge whether the ink-spot plan is working. In addition to reporting for Danger Room and other blogs, I’ll be shooting video for Voice of America and C-SPAN and even writing comics for a Dutch Website. By the time I return to the U.S. in April, I hope to have gained a better sense of NATO’s prospects in Logar — and by extension, the whole, decade-old Afghanistan war.
It’s a critical question. With costs and casualties mounting, and voters losing patience, time is running out to find a workable strategy in Afghanistan. If the security “ink spots” that apparently worked in Iraq prove impossible in Logar and the rest of Afghanistan, NATO will need a new approach, fast.