Afghanistan war: Good counterinsurgency, like good politics, is local

In Afghanistan, US soldiers on second or third tours are returning to the same areas, where they already know key tribal leaders and the terrain. The new strategy aims to cultivate relationships within the tribal culture.

Tom A. Peter
Friends: Capt. Michael Harrison has his picture taken with a village elder. After Harrison’s first tour in Afghanistan, he kept up with contacts he’d made with locals. The contacts served him well when he was redeployed nearby.

After US Army Capt. Michael Harrison completed his first tour in Afghanistan almost two years ago, he kept in touch with many of the locals he'd befriended, calling to chat via his old interpreter.

When his unit redeployed to the Kunar River Valley, about a two-hour drive from Harrison's former area of operations in the Pesh River Valley, those friendships provided an unexpected benefit.

"Afghans are almost like big Italian families, they have family everywhere," explains Harrison of Rural Retreat, Va. "A lot of the people I knew from the Pesh actually had family in this area, so some of the elders from the Pesh came down here and … essentially vouched for me and introduced me to the Afghans here."

Most everyone in Harrison's Attack Company, 1-32 Infantry Battalion, credits their commander's and other soldiers' connections from the previous tour with helping to quickly win over the locals.

Good counterinsurgency strategy, like good politics, is local.

The experience makes these soldiers poster boys for a new US strategy of redeploying units to areas where they've already served. As international forces focus more on protecting the population rather than just hunting the Taliban, commanders hope the strategy will create more continuity with local communities, helping forces cultivate the personal relationships so important in Afghanistan's tribal culture and build a broader institutional memory.

Building relationships and finding common ground

US Special Operations Com­mand in Afghanistan adopted this strategy a few years ago, rotating units back and forth between their home base and the same area for six months at a time. Since special operations veteran Gen. Stanley McChrystal took command in Afghanistan last May, the policy has been rolled out among regular Army units.

While it might not be possible to send every unit back to an area where it has already deployed, Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert in Afghanistan and counterinsurgency at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says that the goal is to "build a process that enhances and allows for as much continuity of relationships and knowledge as possible."

According to Ms. Felbab-Brown, many soldiers complained that it was difficult to make progress when they had to leave after a year, often just as they were starting to benefit from the relationships they'd built. The new policy allows units to keep those connections, but without having to endure longer deployments.

Although Attack Company redeployed to Kunar Province several months before McChrystal took the helm in Afghanistan, their deployment has accomplished many of the goals sought under the new policy.

Some of the soldiers had worked with their counterparts in the Afghan Army during previous rotations. Sfc. Jose N. Urrutia-Castanon of San Diego, Texas, says he may not always remember specific Afghan soldiers, but both sides remember particular units, and finding out they fought together in the past provides common ground that he says improves relationships.

"It works to our advantage, and it also works great toward influencing the local population. They see us working together as one unit, and that will influence the population to take us in and accept us as friends," he explains.

Translating locals' trust into military intelligence

It is hoped that, by gaining locals' trust, soldiers will also be able to gather better intelligence and more effectively stop the Taliban from infiltrating communities.

Most of the relationship-building happens between American officers, who have interpreters, and their Afghan counterparts, while rank-and-file soldiers pull guard duty outside the meeting. Still, these lower-ranked enlisted soldiers often remember the area where they served, adding to the institutional memory.

Sgt. Harry Griffith of Pittsburgh says he doesn't remember any locals but does recall many of the villages and is surprised to see how much they've developed since he left. In several towns, he says, he's noticed new shops and restaurants, and the completion of a US-funded road.

"It's really cool to see because that's what we're here for [to develop the country], that was a huge motivator to help the people out," he says.

While most soldiers agree the new policy will increase their effectiveness, 1st Sgt. Frank Handoe, a resident of Fort Drum, N.Y., warns that in their two years between deployments a lot can change.

"It may be twice as good or twice as bad by the time you come back," Handoe says. "But you're always going to have what you know from when you left, and that's what you're going to think it's going to be like when you come back – and that could be either really good or really bad."

It can also generate a sense of commitment. "I would love to come back here," says Sgt. Gregory Henderson of Mobile, Ala. "I know the people, I know the towns, I know the population.... I feel like if we came here again, we would accomplish even more."

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