“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.”