When President Hamid Karzai chose to stand up this week to Afghanistan's most powerful warlord, Defense Minister Marshal Mohammed Fahim, he did so with the confidence that the US-led coalition here would keep the general's sizable militia in check.
As NATO forces stepped up patrols in Kabul, the peaceful announcement of Mr. Karzai's bold decision to bypass the defense chief as a vice presidential candidate was welcomed by one man in particular: top American officer Lt. Gen. David Barno.
"Rejection of violence and the recognition that peaceful changes are executed through the ballot boxes are both marks of an emerging democracy," General Barno told the Monitor on Wednesday. "Military action of any type is absolutely inappropriate in this evolving and maturing democratic political structure," he stressed.
Combining a soldier's focus with a diplomat's finesse, Barno has, over the last nine months, molded a new, holistic approach to Afghanistan aimed at strengthening the central government against challenges from warlords and insurgents alike. In essence, he's turned a faltering, combat-centric US military strategy on its head - and taken on a role beyond the usual scope of a US military commander.
Political progress, not sweeping infantry offensives, is the measuring stick of success in Afghanistan today, he says.
"Our main effort, as we'll call it in military terms, is for the election... to be successful in the fall," Barno said in an earlier interview in his spartan Kabul office. "We are fighting a classic counter-insurgency campaign here - it does not have a kinetic solution to it."
A methodical and unpretentious West Point graduate, Barno acts more as mediator than commander - more proconsul than three-star general. He resides in the American embassy compound in Kabul, an hour's drive from the sprawling and heavily fortified US military base at Bagram.
He begins each day with a tête-à-tête with US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, and meets a constant stream of Afghan leaders, UN officials, and foreign dignitaries.
As political tensions mounted this week, Barno and Mr. Khalilzad met daily with key leaders to reinforce "the importance of peaceful means of change," he told the Monitor, as the US military monitored the situation "for any changes or increase in tension."
"The political process underway, leading to both Presidential and Parliamentary elections is the right outlet for all expressions of differences," he says.
He also held a string of meetings with everyone from the chief of staff of the Afghan defense ministry to the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul and the senior UN representative.
Ensuring a smooth presidential election on Oct. 9 is the primary aim of a new military operation Barno launched this month. Thousands of US soldiers, Afghan National Army (ANA) troops, and police are stepping up patrols and targeted raids in the south and east to stem deadly attacks by insurgents seeking to disrupt voter registration and the election. The US military has also been flying Afghan and UN election officials to far-flung reaches of the country and protecting them with US troops in an effort to widen grassroots participation and set up voter registration and polling sites.
The coordinated effort has paid off. Nearly 80 percent of Afghanistan's estimated 10 million eligible voters have registered for the election, UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva announced last week in Afghanistan.
Another challenge involves preventing the tens of thousands of armed militia led by regional warlords from interfering with the elections. Indeed, 65 percent of Afghan people blame warlords and local commanders for the lack of security in Afghanistan, according to a survey of 2,300 Afghan voters released this week by the International Republican Institute and funded by the US Agency for International Development.
Some observers say the shift in the US approach in Afghanistan was long overdue, while others criticize US forces for overstepping traditional boundaries between fighting and giving aid.
Wednesday, the Nobel prize-winning humanitarian agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said it was withdrawing completely from Afghanistan, citing security concerns and frustration with the US military. The group rejects military involvement in relief efforts, arguing that it endangers the independent status of humanitarian workers.
"The deliberate linking of humanitarian aid with military objectives destroys the meaning of humanitarianism. It will result, in the end, in the neediest Afghans not getting badly needed aid - and those providing aid being targeted," said Nelke Manders, Head of Mission Afghanistan for MSF, in a press release on the organization's website.
When Barno arrived last October, security and reconstruction formed what he calls the "yin and yang" of his new strategy.
"Our role is not the narrow counter terrorist role that we may have started in when initial operations began in Afghanistan, but now much more broadly framed, I think, to help assist with the ongoing political, economic, and in some ways even social, development of the country," says Barno.
He systematically sold his new approach to the US embassy, then the United Nations and international community, and finally the Karzai government.
Nation building would replace war fighting as the top US marching order. Large, long-range infantry sweeps would give way to more dispersed missions by smaller units with "ownership" of the districts surrounding their bases.
The military's new Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) would act as a catalyst, branching out to bring development projects to tribal villages and meanwhile empowering the central and local governments that allocate the resources. Offensive military operations, such as a major push by a battalion of US Marines into the Taliban heartland of Oruzgan Province in June, are designed not as an end in themselves but to pave the way for the insertion of PRTs.
Ultimately, Barno sees the solution for Afghanistan not in US forces hunting down the Taliban and other insurgent or radical groups. Instead, he says, the government must reconcile with the rank-and-file Taliban while bringing only a handful of about 150 hard-core opponents to justice.
Following a punishing daily routine, Barno takes a daily jaunt on the elliptical trainer, a rotating, low-impact treadmill. With little time for books, he ends the evening reading military reports. "His hobby" says former spokesman Lt. Col. Tucker Mansager, "is keeping his soldiers alive."