Best Defense

How to adjust in Afghanistan

A veteran infantryman with much time in the Middle East, and other wars, writes in with the following suggestions. Life is getting rough. He begins with how to target Karzai’s relatives:  Putting and adequate number of troops into Afghanistan is only a start. Listed below are some proposed adjustments … STRATEGIC ADJUSTMENTS A Day of ...


A veteran infantryman with much time in the Middle East, and other wars, writes in with the following suggestions.

Life is getting rough. He begins with how to target Karzai’s relatives: 

Putting and adequate number of troops into Afghanistan is only a start. Listed below are some proposed adjustments …


A Day of the Long Knives. We have a tremendous amount of leverage left in Afghanistan; there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Karzai family will be to back running a chain of kabob joints in suburban Maryland without the support of the US government. What disappoints the Afghan people is that we have not used this leverage to insist on better governance. We can, and must, do better by them if we hope for a successful outcome against the Taliban and their criminal enablers.

We, not the Karzai government, should pick out the fifty most corrupt members of the Afghan government and insist on their replacement. The people who replace them should have a U.S. or NATO nation advisor assigned to spend the first three months with the new appointee cleaning up the mess. At least ten of the fifty should be members of the extended Karzai family in order to show that no-one is beyond the reach of the government clean up. The message behind this should be clear to the rest of the government; “you could be next!”

Where would we get the fifty advisors given the slow ability of the civilian arms of the U.S. government to provide the “civilian surge” long called for in Afghanistan? There are several options. We could use American civil affairs officers; there are plenty of them in Iraq and Afghanistan manning increasingly bloated staffs. Another source of manpower could come from cleaning out the attaché offices at the Embassy and sending them out to field until the civilian surge catches up in recruiting qualified civilians. A third source might be Iraq where there are Provincial Reconstruction Teams that are wrapping up their missions. The State Department could transfer them on a voluntary basis if it puts its mind to it. The bottom line is to send the message that we are prepared make heads roll in the Kabul government, and to do this on a three month rotating basis until we see results.

Until the kleptocrats in Kabul and the provinces have the fear of Allah put in them, there will be no reason for the Afghan people to assume that a reformed Taliban is not a viable alternative. That brings us to the provinces.

Reform in the Provinces. As a start, the top levels of the governments of the five worst governed provinces in Iraq should be replaced. Again, this should be our call, not Karzai’s. For at least a month, the replacement officials on the provincial governance team should be paired with their advisors from the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) at an offsite location and receive solid governance training. It is hard to train people under fire. The loss of what passes for current governance in the target provinces for a month or so can be more than offset by the enhancements of bringing a trained and functional governance team on line after offsite training. This approach should be repeated province by province as new PRTs become available. Again, the American and NATO training cadre should have absolute power to replace those trainees who fail to grasp the concept. This calls for the extreme in tough love.

(Read on)

Alternative Political Parties. One of the fantasies that have sprung out of the war in Afghanistan is that factions can be turned at the drop of a hat. It is true that changing sides is a time honored tradition in Afghanistan, but the thought that they will flip without a good reason is not valid. Afghan tribal leaders and warlords switch sides when they think they see a winner. We are not winning at this point.

If we want to get members of the insurgency to change sides, we need to turn the tide and show signs of progress; there will be no cheap victories in this war. However, there is hope in providing an alternative to armed resistance for those who truly seek national reform. The creation of a legitimate reformist political coalition that armed insurgents could join, with some pledge of not returning to armed struggle, is not out of the question. This approach worked in El Salvador, but the creation of such a mechanism in Afghanistan will need strong American and NATO top cover. There will be no incentive to come out of the cold if the insurgency is continuing to gain strength or if the insurgent defectors fear assassination after seeking legitimacy.


No Province Left Behind; an Economy of Force Campaign. The one area where this author takes strong exception to the McChrystal approach is in any attempt to cede ground to the various Afghan insurgent groups loosely known as the Taliban. The Taliban should be made to bleed for every gain as an economy of force measure. Here, we can take a page from the Iraqi play book. In Iraq, we created militias to resist foreign jihadists through a combination of tribal pressure and funding. Afghanistan is not Iraq; it is much more complicated, but if we begin to understand the culture and politics of each locality, we achieve similar results. The fact that Afghanistan is more complicated that Iraq is often seen as a challenge. It is also an opportunity. There are more factions in Afghanistan, and that means more opportunities to create fissures in the opposition.

Most Taliban “offensives” have been uncontested affairs where they walk into undefended villages and say to the locals, “there will be a battle here; you can stay or go as you please.” With no place else to go, the villagers often choose to stay. They then fall into the hostile camp and become collateral damage in International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) attempts to retake the ground. The increasingly sophisticated Taliban information operations network then takes advantage of the casualties.

We need to turn these villages into anti-insurgent strong points. This has worked in some areas in Afghanistan, but we need to integrate it into our overall strategic-operational approach. We should approach the villagers and ask what they most need. It could be a well, an irrigation project, an access road or something else. The bottom line is that the project(s) should be a local call, not something that we assume that they need. The deal in providing the project should be that the village population will form a popular force unit to protect itself and the project(s). We can arm them and pay for the militiamen’s time, but they need to do the defending themselves. If we use mobile air assault forces to back up these popular forces, we can deny the Taliban the quick, relatively bloodless victories that they have achieved so often in the past. Non-lethal terrain denial has worked in Iraq, and it can work in Afghanistan as well.

Micro Sensors and Weapons on Stun; Putting Technology to Work. General McChrystal has stressed the need to reduce collateral casualties among Afghan civilians as part of his strategy for securing the population. However, that guidance, poses the danger of unduly putting our own forces at risk. This is already becoming an issue in the media and in American and allied public opinion.

We can make better and more innovative use of technology in Afghanistan than we have done to date. Technology cannot solve all of our problems, but it could address the specific problems that we are discussing here.

Non-Lethal Technology. A more advanced version of the Directed Energy Active Denial System that exists today could incapacitate civilians and combatants taking shelter in the same building eliminating the need to use lethal means to retake areas when they have been lost to the Taliban. This would decrease the danger to our troops posed by current the current directives against putting civilians in undue danger while giving them a tool to accomplish that mission without putting themselves in undue danger.

Small Eyes on Target. We now have the technology to put many more eyes on the ground through the use of micro-cameras on very small sensors and robots that can cover areas where NATO and Afghan soldiers do not have enough “boots on the ground” to be strong everywhere that we would like to be. These sensors are very difficult to detect and have a very long field loitering time. Some micro sensors can actually recharge themselves with sunlight giving them virtually unlimited loiter time. We could do a much better job of securing Afghanistan’s borders and filling in the white space between the strategic villages advocated earlier in this article through the use of such sensors. This is an idea very similar to the “McNamara Line” concept designed to isolate South Vietnam from North Vietnamese infiltration along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. We did not have the technology to realize McNamara’s vision then, but we do today. Sensors are not a substitute for manpower, but they can be a force multiplier.

The problem is that both of the technologies advocated in this piece are under-resourced. We need a Manhattan Project-like approach to quickly give our soldiers and Marines the tools that they need and deserve to accomplish the missions that they are being given.

U.S. Military/flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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