Editor’s Note: U.S. Army Cpt. Brandon Anderson is a Company Commander in 5/2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, deployed to southern Afghanistan. A 2003 graduate of West Point, he is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. The opinions expressed in this guest blog are the author’s, and do not reflect the official view of the U.S. Department of Defense.
In February of 2008, I found myself riding in the back of an ANA ambulance with a wounded Afghan teenager. Shrapnel from a suicide bomber outside of Kandahar City had lodged itself in his neck. He was bleeding while trying to scream. I was holding him and trying to keep him calm, while the driver kept looking backwards toward me, as if to ask, “Is he going to die”? I could not answer that, because I did not know myself. What I did know was that a young man had been maimed, and I could not understand why.
Presently, the American people and Army, along with their allies in Europe, Asia and the Mideast are grappling with a hybrid of insurgency and terrorism. The al-Qaeda terrorists who have struck America, Britain, Spain, and other nations have embedded themselves within the Taliban insurgent network that spans Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is not a war that can be decided in the outcome of a single battle, or through the body counts and hilltops that are so germane to a conventional fight. Rather, the present conflict is focused on the people - their security, unity and support. Western armies are incredibly good at fighting and winning the pitched battles that their fathers and grandfathers fought and won in the Gulf War and World War II. Presently, al-Qaeda and those who protect them have neither the capability nor resources to compete with the West in tank-on-tank conventional wars. As a result, their approach has evolved.
The guerilla fighter seeks victory by ambushing and exhausting his opponent, not by open combat. However, the element that allows the guerilla to hide effectively and conduct his attacks is ultimately decided by the people, by their level of support and the nature of that support. Support for insurgencies can be active or passive. Active support for insurgencies comes from a public that morally and ideologically supports the insurgent’s cause. Passive support comes from fear - fear of reprisal, punishment, torture or death.
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan believed in what the mujahedeen were doing and supported them actively. Presently, in Shinkay District of Zabul, Afghanistan, people fear retribution for informing on Taliban activities. It is not hard to understand why. A year before the arrival of my Task Force, the Taliban came to a village in my area to intimidate and punish those who worked with the government. Teachers and base workers were rounded up in the town and publicly beaten. The men were beaten until they cried. One man would not cry. The Taliban viewed this as a threat, so they marched him to the school where he taught and cut off his ear. Throughout southern Afghanistan, the Taliban and those who support them continue to target the civilian population with beatings, intimidation, and suicide bombers to undermine the government and cement their passive support. It is this passive support base that allows them to hide. It is this layer of protection that must be stripped away for a successful counterinsurgency strategy to take root.
So what does winning look like? It begins with providing meaningful security and reasons to support the government. Counterinsurgents work simultaneously on the fronts of security and political reconciliation, with the goal of winning active support for the government. This is done by providing persistent security and extending government influence. Afghan and Coalition forces establish security through combined patrolling to isolate the insurgents from the population, both physically and morally. Through this crucial interaction between the people and government, information is passed on insurgent actions and a network is built. Frequently, this is as simple as a community tip line with signs in the bazaar, or getting to know the people in the villages to the point that they trust you. Government influence is extended through improved schools, wells and roads. As the Afghan people unite with their military and police to create an effective network, it denies the insurgency the freedom of movement necessary to ambush, bomb and intimidate the Afghan people.
Things are changing in Shinkay. The Taliban have overplayed their hand by murdering a village leader and member of the Shura. His body was found with a note that accused him of informing on insurgent forces. The local people have retaliated, and the Afghan Army, Police, and Coalition forces have seen a spike in local reporting. This information has led to the capture of two members of the Taliban cell responsible for the murder, with more on the run. This is the tipping point, when the insurgents cannot move unseen. This is where passive support turns into defiance. This is what winning looks like on the ground in Afghanistan.