Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

All security is local — esp. in Afghanistan

The MFKAM (media formerly known as mainstream) is aflutter over Petraeus moving toward local self-defense councils. And rightly so. This is big stuff. I see two things going on here. First is David Kilcullen‘s observation that the best security is provided locally by locals. If they can do that, all your worries about gathering good ...

Wikimedia
Wikimedia

The MFKAM (media formerly known as mainstream) is aflutter over Petraeus moving toward local self-defense councils. And rightly so. This is big stuff.

I see two things going on here.

First is David Kilcullen's observation that the best security is provided locally by locals. If they can do that, all your worries about gathering good intelligence and such go out the window. They know where the bad actors are. They know how things work. They know the trails and hidey holes. If you feel able to arm the villagers, they often will be able to take care of business themselves. As Tip O'Neill famously said, all politics is local. And so is security.

The MFKAM (media formerly known as mainstream) is aflutter over Petraeus moving toward local self-defense councils. And rightly so. This is big stuff.

I see two things going on here.

First is David Kilcullen‘s observation that the best security is provided locally by locals. If they can do that, all your worries about gathering good intelligence and such go out the window. They know where the bad actors are. They know how things work. They know the trails and hidey holes. If you feel able to arm the villagers, they often will be able to take care of business themselves. As Tip O’Neill famously said, all politics is local. And so is security.

Second is that one of the lessons of Iraq (and a bunch of other places) is that you can’t impose security from above. It has to grow locally. The job of the counterinsurgent commander is to try to nurture and then knit together those local areas — from neighborhoods and towns to districts, then into provinces, and finally, after a long time, nationally. From this also will emerge a new national politics, or so the theory goes. The upside is that if this works, it will provide sustainable security. The downside is that it takes years to develop.

An ancillary lesson is that you don’t hold national elections first. You hold local elections as each area becomes secure. Then district, provincial and regional elections as they are peaceful. Eventually the abusive, corrupt old regime gets voted out and a new generation of political leaders take over. Karzai is a clever guy so he probably knows what Petraeus is doing, but he probably also thinks that the Americans, beginning with President Obama, don’t have the patience to see it through.

I remember Kilcullen explaining a version of all this to me a few years ago in Baghdad, in an Iraqi context, so I was impressed to see NPR get him to discuss the current initiative in Afghanistan. "It’s pretty rare to find a counterinsurgency campaign where you didn’t end up with some kind of local village self-defense force," he told the radio. "The reason for that is very simple. It’s much easier to convince somebody who’s under threat to pick up a weapon and protect their own community than it is to convince them to go and serve in the national army in some district somewhere else or put their weapon down and expect the government to protect them. It’s kind of an intermediate step."

I’ve always liked Kilcullen’s clarity of expression.

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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