“In such a state of society, all property is held directly by main force. Every man is a soldier. Either he is the retainer of some khan — the man-at-arms of some feudal baron as it were — or he is a unit in the armed force of his village — the burgher of mediaeval history.” – Winston Churchill on Afghanistan, 1898 

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Jason Alexander, a former Marine infantryman who currently serves in the USAID’s Office for Afghanistan-Pakistan Affairs. He presented several intruiging ideas as to how the United States could improve its strategy for winning the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people.

He began by stating that our strategy in Afghanistan up till now was not working. From 2001 to now, we had increased the immunization rate, the number of children in school, and had built hospitals. Even though USAID and other organizations had made strides in the overall quality of life, the violence continued to worsen. Our problem was that we thought we could fix the country with good deeds.

While we spent boatloads of money carrying out these good deeds, throwing money at a problem does not necessarily solve anything. In fact, the money we give to locals may spur corruption and may disrupt the Afghans’ traditional way of doing things. Mr. Alexander gave the example of the water system in Afghanistan. Before 2001, each tribe or village would send a few brave men to manually clean the water pipes. This job was extremely dangerous because the tunnels used to transport water routinely caved in. Because of the high risk, the Afghans considered cleaning these pipes an honorable professional. When the U.S. entered in 2001, we gave the Afghans machines to clean the water lines- machines that we had to maintain ourselves. Now, the Afghans no longer have men trained to clean the water pipes, so we are stuck doing the task for them.

This example demonstrates the need to know the people. The quickest, simplest approach to a local problem isn’t always the quickest, simplest approach to the larger problem, winning over the people. Mr. Alexander gave another example about a Marine captain in Iraq who did know the people. This captain took it upon himself to dine with local Iraqis every night. Thus, he learned firsthand the Iraqis problems, needs, and, most importantly, how the U.S. could constructively help. By constructively helping the Iraqis, he reduced the level of violence in his area of operations.

Lastly, many shrewd tribal elders will play both sides and reap money from both the insurgents and the Coalition Forces. These locals do not subscribe to President Bush’s quote, “You’re either with us or against us.” They do not care about defeating the Taliban or defeating America, nor do they care about supporting the (democratic) government in far-away Kabul. They are looking out for their own interests. And they will play us for suckers, unless we learn their ways.

No one wants to pick a loser; we have to convince the Afghan people that the Taliban will lose. Doing so won’t be easy in a place dubbed the “Graveyard of Empires.”




Posted by jjames in Foreign Policy


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  • Mike M.

    I’m reminded that Sir Walter Scott once likened Afghanistan to the Scottish Highlands. Subduing those gave the British headaches…until they started playing clan against clan, then hammered the survivors every time they rebelled against the central government.

  • Jay

    Winning. May be a looooooong time before we can judge that. Difficult times ahead, especially if Pres Karzai continues his public campaign torpedoing our efforts.

  • Derrick

    Well…I think part of the problem is that the culture in that area may have a very negative view of the western world. From my own experiences in conversing with colleagues from Pakistan (from where the Taliban originated), I find that a lot of their views are generally in opposition to western European and US foreign policy.

    That, coupled with the huge economic divide (they exist in poverty while we have a higher living standard), and the racial divide (they are all coloured while the west is mostly western European), and the religious divide (Christianity spread westward while Islam spread east, relative to Israel’s geographic location) well, let’s just say the opportunities for distrust and disagreement go up considerably.

    So I think it will be a long time before we win over the hearts of the Afghan people. But we will win them over. Just like the Middle East.

  • Matt Yankee

    I just can’t get over how many people are willing to accept the same old Afghanistan…while at the same time fighting with one arm tied behind our back. COIN is the best option if it can work but the alternative should not be giving up and going home. It should be take the arm that was tied behind our back and grab a B-52 which is basicly what defeated the Japanese. They understood we would kill every single one of them or they would surrender…their option and they eventually surrendered unconditionally…and the Japanese were just as crazy as the taliban or AQ…they even used kamikazees. Why do we approach the different enemies with totally different tactics…I think we are hesitating because we feel they are so poor and weak it just wouldn’t be fair. Somewhat similar to an idiot opposed to shooting a deer with a scoped rifle because “it just doesn’t seem fair”. Makes the weapon useless when you don’t have the stones to use it. God blessed us with the tools to be the best military force on Earth…if we refuse to shoot we will just get hungry and then be forced to shoot anyways. If COIN doesn’t work we will be right back in the same boat we were at the start but with one less option.

  • Derrick

    I thought in World War 2, Japan and the US were officially at war.

    I thought the US was not at war with Afghanistan, but was in Afghanistan assisting their internal security forces in apprehending Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents?

  • Chuck Hill

    With Japan we only had to defeat one government, not hundreds of thousands of little governments.

  • Matt Yankee

    I just read where Karzai is overtly saying he wants us out instead of helping the effort. Just like Japan forfeited it’s rights on Dec. 7, 1941, Afghanistan forfeited it’s rights on 9/11/01. Also similiar to a felon giving up their rights when they decide to take another person’s rights by force.

    Afghanistan’s future is very much in our hands since we are writing the checks or rather giving them the suitcases full of cash as Karzai also recently admitted. He also admitted he receives a few million in hard currency from Iran routinely and they certainly are not on our side. Make no mistake we will determine the future of Afghanistan in the same way we have done with Japan. We did write both of their constitions and we will not leave no matter what the defeated govt. thinks unless we decide to quit and go home. Our future is very much in our own hands. We are not required by any law to just turn the other cheek when we get hit. In fact I would argue it is our responsiblity to future generations to make the world tolerable or die trying just as we did in WWII. We can’t tolerate having our Pacific Fleet wiped out and we cannot tolerate our financial hub be wiped out either. Just as a murderer will do it again if you let him walk free we shouldn’t be letting any country that attacks us learn they can get away with the passage of time. The attacks were historical and the consequences should be utterly final for any aggressor to the United States.

    I believe there was some debate during WWII about requiring a complete unconditional surrender. I’m sure if we wanted an earlier end to the war we could’ve negotiated some less than unconditional surrender for the sake of thousands of soldiers on both sides but we didn’t…why do you think that was? Where has that kind of thinking gone?

  • Matt Yankee

    I’m pretty sure the number is not 100′s of thousands. The leaders are in the hundreds and they do influence thousands but so did the Japanese leadersip. UBL, Zawahairy, Haqqanis, Mullah Omar and the list goes on but not into the 100′s of thousands.

    They are defeatable but we must decide to go and get them in their safe havens. We went after Tojo and his loss was felt. Leaders do matter. Safe havens do matter. Winning does matter.

  • Jay

    Matt — the WWII analogy is inaccurate. Japan had pretty much pissed off all of their neighbors — and pretty easy to bomb a single country, when the Japanese had no where else to turn, as our Navy had pretty much bottled them up. Not that the Japanese were planning to go anywhere else to begin with. I recall that we didn’t go after the Emperor (but could have).

    This is a lot different, and more complicated. The stakes are (I know I will prob get some push back on this) — less than the threat in WWII. If they were anywhere near the same — would not Pres Bush have called for a total united effort? Not just use our current military force, but start up the draft, convert commercial industry to war footing, etc.?

  • Matt Yankee

    “Pretty easy to bomb a sigle country” I think it was the opposite and that’s why the Doolittle Raid was special and we had to invade islands like Iwo in order to get within long range bomber range…with very high even historical costs.

    9/11 was a costly attack…on par with Pearl. We cannot afford to let such an attack occur. AQ would nuke us if they could and this will happen if we choose to ignore them and for that matter aspiring nuclear terrorist states like Iran and Syria. We will not be able to coexist with these kinds of enemies.

  • Derrick

    Perhaps it is easier now to bomb a single country due to overseas basing of the US air force as well as the US having the only real blue water navy around…with the only real usable aircraft carriers around that regularly patrol the world’s oceans?

    It’s highly improbable Iran or Syria or even North Korea would attempt to fire a nuclear missile at the US. They would essentially be wiping themselves off the map, and there’s no guarantee the limited salvo they could muster could get through US ballistic missile defenses…

    AQ is tough because they are not a nation and are not officially supported by anyone…so one has to find where there resources are hiding and work with local authorities to take them out. If the US arbitrarily starts unilateral military action against many different states suspected of having AQ militants then the US could end up being at war with too many countries.

    AQ is already greatly reduced due to the US taking out their training facilities in Afghanistan. If the CIA continues to successfully discover and shut down their money transfer operations they will eventually die off.

  • Matt Yankee

    Derrick, AQ was supported by the Govt in Kabul prior to our defeating the Taliban govt. Pakistani ISI is widely viewed as enabling key leaders and providing safe haven for them. There are many sympathizers within the state of Pakistan and the fact that we have only neutralized a few AQ and Taliban leaders which the ISI allowed is proof they really don’t care about our war and responding to terrorists who are waging a war on us. The Mumbai attack is another example of AQ and ISI working with each other towards a common interest and India has said this clearly.

    I do not suggest picking fights with govts that are not AQ sympathizers but i do think the most severe consequences are required for a state that actively enables AQ.

    I agree we have done a lot of damage to AQ but recently they have begun to lower the bar and have pulled off a number of successful attacks including downing a UPS 747 in Dubai which wasn’t covered at all by our media. In addition the Chistmas attempt, Hood shootings, army recruiting attack and recent follow up attempts to the UPS success. The alarming thing is we were too late or just lucky in finding out about every single one of them. I do hope our intelligence people are on top of it but they have been behind the curve in recent attacks, this is unacceptable.

    We didn’t say in WWII, “well there are too many countries so we just can’t fight them all”. We have a very capable military and we do have allies just like in WWII. India has capacity and we can do anything we want to do when we understand we must.

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