The South Asia Channel

What defeat in Afghanistan looks like

Having spent this past July at International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul, I have seen what defeat looks like. It takes the form of thousands of casualty-phobic troops ensconced behind the walls, sand bags, and blast barriers of a well-protected safety bubble. When ISAF troops venture out from their base into the ...

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KALAGUSH, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 25: An American flag is planted between sandbags at a lookout at U.S. military Forward Operating Base Kalagush February 25, 2009 in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. As the security situation continues to challenge coalition forces, President Obama is sending an additional 17,000 American troops to Afghanistan this spring and summer, adding to the 36,000 Americans currently in Afghanistan. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Having spent this past July at International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul, I have seen what defeat looks like. It takes the form of thousands of casualty-phobic troops ensconced behind the walls, sand bags, and blast barriers of a well-protected safety bubble.

When ISAF troops venture out from their base into the “red zone” (i.e. the comparatively safe streets of Kabul) they are prepared for combat. Barreling through the crowded streets of a city that has been called a comparative “safety zone” by those fighting in the south, they jam the phone signals of average Afghans with their ECMs (electronic counter measures) and jam the roads with their convoys. One would think that the coalition vehicles driving around Kabul in combat posture and menacingly waving 50 caliber machine guns at Afghans were storming a Taliban sangar (trench) in Helmand, not competing with rush hour traffic.

For the vast majority of troops at ISAF headquarters, Afghanistan remains an enigma, a threatening land lying beyond the concertina wire of the base. The only Afghan most ever meet is the Hazara carpet seller on base who serves authentic Afghan food once a month. And the only coalition soldiers most Afghans meet are encased in armor-plated vehicles or flak jackets.

The troops at ISAF HQ are hardly the exception. Only a small percentage of “fobbits” (those who live in forward operating bases or FOBs) actually interact with average Afghans due to hyper-protective S.O.P. (standard operating procedures) meant to lessen their risks from interaction with Afghans. It was precisely this siege mentality that led the United States to come dangerously close to losing the war in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. U.S. forces in Iraq were more concerned with force protection that protecting the center of gravity in Iraq, the Iraqi people.

It was only when Generals Petraeus and Odierno pushed their troops out of the bases and into the streets of Iraq that they began to make headway in the counterinsurgency. After the nightmares of Haditha and Abu Ghraib, Americans began protecting Iraqis and interacting with them in smaller and more exposed FOBs. This meant more meeting with Iraqi people, who began to feel that the Americans were protecting them. The Anbar Awakening began when a disgruntled sheikh walked across the street to his neighborhood FOB and offered the support of his tribe in fighting al Qaeda.

For the most part, the coalition has ceded the countryside of the south and parts of the east to the enemy, who took advantage of the vacuum left by enemy troops in 2003 when the U.S. was focused elsewhere. The White House’s fear of engaging in grassroots nation building allowed the Taliban to fill the void. Pro-government khans and mullahs were executed, villagers cowed into submission, and “vanguard” groups sent onto the next province to lay mines and kill “infidel collaborators.” With no visible coalition presence outside of the provincial capitals, the Taliban swarmed the countryside.

Much the same thing happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s under the Soviets, who controlled the major roads and cities and remained safe in their bases for fear of sustaining casualties.

The U.S. Marines’ recent efforts to clear and hold territory in Helmand Province represent a welcome break from this barracked mentality. It is only by establishing a reliable coalition presence in contested places like Helmand that the coalition can show the Afghans that they are there to stay and protect them. With more Fobbits out of their bases and working on protecting the Afghans instead of themselves, the U.S. and its allies can learn from the Soviets’ mistakes — and avoid sharing their fate.

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