When last month’s Operation Moshtarak descended upon the provincial town of Marjah, there was much justifiable skepticism amongst the policy community. In the history of the long engagement in Afghanistan, operations designed to clear an area were common, while holding and building upon that progress was less frequently seen. The New York Times neatly summarized the typical pattern:
For much of the past eight years, American and NATO forces have mounted other large military operations to clear towns and cities of Taliban insurgents. And then, almost invariably, they have cleared out, never leaving behind enough soldiers or police officers to hold the place on their own. And so, almost always, the Taliban returned — and, after a time, so did the American and NATO troops, to clear the place all over again. “Mowing the grass,” the soldiers and Marines derisively call it.
Moving Away from Mowing the Grass
Enter the UK’s Major General Gordon Messenger, who spoke yesterday at the New America Foundation about how to prevent a cyclical pattern of “mowing the grass” of insurgency in Afghanistan…
How exactly does one prevent merely mowing the grass? It sounds simple enough: make sure an Afghan security force is in place to fill any potential security void upon the end of an operation. Operations should be jointly planned and executed, all the way down to the lowest level, by both ISAF and the Afghan national forces. Substantive partnering with Afghans will set the groundwork for a strong eventual US and NATO transition out of the country that is not conditions based, said Messenger. Properly trained Afghan forces (ANP and ANA) gradually taking on an increasingly large percentage of operations planning and execution will allow for ISAF forces to confidently withdrawal and leave a solid security foundation.
Prioritizing the wants and needs of the civilian population is also an instrumental factor in moving beyond mowing the grass. Securing the allegiance and trust of the population should drive policy, not simply routing the Taliban. As Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said:
The battlefield is not necessarily a field anymore. It is in the minds of the people…in this type of war, when the objective is not the enemy’s defeat but the people’s success.
Messenger emphasized that both of these two vital operational foci are being implemented by General McChrystal in Afghanistan, but that the timeline for success was at least a year long. Gaining the trust of the population takes time, as does properly recruiting and training a domestic security force.
Civil-Military Integration Vital
The hearts and minds campaign is firmly rooted in McChrystal’s “government in a box” concept. Messenger insisted that, on the heels of a strong foundation of security and local governance, civilian reconstruction and development teams should enter the fray. He even went so far as to say that civilian governance advisors are the “most important element” in an operation – not the military guys. Our own Afghanistan Ag Man is one of the guys implementing what ABC News calls
the counterinsurgency tactic of bringing a surge of governmental officials, Afghan police, and development projects with them, in a bid to win the Afghan people’s support — support deemed critical in a war where the enemy lives among the population.
The United States, through our troop surge that is just beginning to be seen on the ground in Afghanistan, and ISAF in general are committing huge resources to this counterinsurgency strategy. It will take some time to see whether or not this scaling up of resources and energy will pay off, but NOH hopes that the investment, already committed, will allow for a responsible withdrawal around the promised deadline of summer 2011.
Where to from here?
There are a couple of clear trends to keep an eye on that will strengthen as the US approaches the July 2011 troop withdrawal benchmark.
One is the influx of a civilian corps responsible for reconstruction and development. The State Department, for instance, is gradually building a Civilian Response Corps that is designed to provide a coordinated, deliberate, and well-trained group of experts that can help a post-conflict country get back on its feet. Such civilian experts will begin to have a larger presence in Afghanistan as the military prepares to leave.
A second sign is the increasing signaling of support for the Afghan forces. ISAF media releases refer to “Afghan-international security force” patrols, and although the Afghan security forces have so far been receiving less-than-stellar reviews, ISAF has no choice but to continue to recruit, train, and shift responsibility to the domestic forces that will ultimately be in charge of their country’s safety and security.
It behooves us to note that the withdrawal date will be exactly that – the commencement of what will most likely be a slow, gradual, careful process of US troop extraction from Afghanistan.