In Afghanistan, hit 'em where they aren't
MacArthur's tactic worked in WWII. It could work again.
Washington — Faced with the daunting prospect of fighting the Japanese among the jungles, swamps, and volcanic rocks of the islands of the south Pacific, Gen. Douglas MacArthur's tactic of "island-hopping" isolated his enemies and rendered them strategically irrelevant. His unorthodox principle: Hit 'em where they aren't.
As US policymakers reassess how best to use American and NATO troops, money, and political capital in light of a 30 percent increase in violence in Afghanistan and a worsening situation in Pakistan, they would do well to keep this principle in mind.
Recent US attacks inside Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) follow the prevailing, conventional logic: To win in Afghanistan, kill, coerce, and capture in Pakistan.
A successful strategy must attack the insurgency's true center of gravity: the protection, well-being, and state of mind of each Afghan. Secure these and you win; fail and you lose.
How to go about accomplishing this?
First, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) should work to protect a 30-mile wide corridor along Afghanistan's Ring Road, which passes through four of Afghanistan's five major cities and where two-thirds of all Afghans live.
Instead of relying on overwhelming conventional forces, ISAF should build up solid logistic bases in the cities and towns along the road, particularly in the violent southern region between Kandahar and Kabul inhabited by a third of the population. From these bases, special operations forces and civil action teams can partner with Afghan National Security Forces to improve the security situation in the countryside while maintaining a light military footprint.
Second, ISAF must use a similar mix of Special Operations Forces and qualified advisers to improve the well-being of Afghans by strengthening institutions, curbing corruption, and enabling legitimate local leaders to govern. ISAF needs to integrate these issues in the context of Afghanistan's drug-based economy, which destroys institutions from within, spreads violence and fear, and lavishes weapons and political power upon the insurgents.
Good governance is inextricably linked with a solid counternarcotics strategy. Only a coordinated program of opium eradication and interdiction with simultaneous crop substitution and diversification can begin to create conditions favorable to free, fair, and transparent market activity.
Third, public diplomacy must accomplish on an intellectual level what protection and good governance achieve at the elemental level. Soldiers and advisers do not need to engage in a "war of ideas." Rather, they must expose the insurgents' ideology of fear, violence, and repression – an ideology that offers Afghans no hope for the future.
Public diplomacy is the responsibility of every soldier and adviser working at the local level. They should use education and support to enable Afghans to bolster their own unique conceptions of open markets, transparent politics, and international engagement.
Though MacArthur's island-hopping strategy faced considerable opposition from conventionally minded politicians and generals, he succeeded despite a paucity of resources. And he suffered fewer casualties in his entire campaign than Dwight Eisenhower did in the Battle of the Bulge.
Once again, America's leaders need to recalibrate their strategy to defeat a group of implacable foes. They can continue to further the cycle of violence in Afghanistan and undermine stability in Pakistan through a stubborn adherence to the kill, coerce, and capture strategy, or they can pursue a strategy designed to improve the well-being of the ordinary Afghan.
If political leaders in Washington and Europe help the new civilian leadership in Pakistan undertake similar endeavors, we will isolate the enemy. Hit 'em where they aren't, and the insurgency will wither away.