US troops confident of Afghan war counterinsurgency strategy
The counterinsurgency strategy of the Afghan war surge shows signs of success, say US troops, who point to fewer attacks better local relations.
When the US Army's 1-66 Armored Battalion arrived in Kandahar's Arghandab district in late July, it was one of the most volatile regions of the country. There were 50 to 60 attacks per week here. In one tiny collection of villages the unit hit 72 roadside bombs in just three months.Skip to next paragraph
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Soldiers in the battalion's Alpha Company – commanded by Capt. David Ahern – quickly learned it was little use to ask villagers direct questions about insurgents. As happens elsewhere in Afghanistan, even if soldiers had just been spectacularly ambushed with roadside bombs and gunfire within view of a village, locals claimed to know nothing.
So Ahern and his men adopted a roundabout approach. Rather than hiking to a village and asking questions about the Taliban, they asked about the local well, for example. If there was a problem, even if it was one that could be fixed immediately, the Americans stretched out the fix over multiple visits. Whenever they visited the village they had a noncontroversial reason for being there, and eventually villagers voluntarily started sharing information.
IN PICTURES: Winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan
Insurgents had mixed in with the population, but Alpha Company – which arrived in the Arghandab as part of the 30,000-troop surge sent by NATO to regain control of areas falling under insurgent control – was still capable of winning back the locals.
"When we first got here, the people really didn't want a whole lot to do with us," recalls Staff Sgt. Henry Davidhizar, who does intelligence work for Alpha Company. "They were scared and intimidated by the Taliban."
But the area has seen a dramatic turnaround. Now, a year later, there are just a handful of attacks each week, and not a single roadside bomb for four months in the area where 13 American soldiers lost limbs as the surge got started last summer.
The extra manpower allowed NATO and Afghan soldiers to push into volatile areas and establish additional bases and a consistent presence. But more than a reinforcement of brute strength, the surge relied heavily on using extra soldiers to better implement the military's three-step counterinsurgency or COIN (pronounced "COH-in") strategy: clear, hold, and build. In other words, separate insurgents from the general population, keep control of an area once militants are removed, and develop infrastructure and government to cement the change.
Part of the plan was to tap the experience of the unit's veterans, who'd developed an understanding of the COIN, like Ahern. When he was an ROTC cadet at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., there'd been no particular training in counterinsurgency. His first combat leadership role was heading a platoon in Samara, Iraq, in 2007, just as command of coalition forces was taken by Gen. David Petraeus, who literally wrote the Army's book on COIN.