Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Equivalency of Death Threats

Joe Klein’s latest article in Time reveals a stunning misunderstanding of counter-insurgency. In a broad attack on NATO’s current strategy in Afghanistan, Klein points to Lt. Col. John Nagl who says the heart of the Pashtu insurgency is in Kandahar, not in neighboring Helmand where the US has concentrated forces since this past spring. Lt. Col. Nagl is probably right that the heart of the Pashtu insurgency is in Kandahar but his analogy to Fallujah is flawed. Unlike the Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq, the Pashtu insurgency has strong links to the opium trade and disrupting their ability to collect rents from opium is integral to turning the tide.

But Joe Klein makes an even more fundamental error. He writes:
It will resist any suggestion to leave Helmand and redeploy to Kandahar. "That
would be a death sentence for all the people in Helmand who have supported us,"
a military expert told me. It is a compelling argument but, ultimately, a flawed
one; death sentences are being delivered every night in Kandahar.
Klein is wrong. Counter-insurgency demands gaining the local population’s trust. For the local population to work with, let alone trust, NATO forces, it must believe that NATO will stick around – it cannot believe that NATO forces will be transitory, moving into an area, taking advantage of local support, and then leave, abandoning the local population to returning Taliban fighters and exposing it to reprisals. For most of NATO’s 8 year history in Afghanistan, it was undermanned to provide the sort of guarantee of long-term presence and involvement to warrant local support and trust. Only now is NATO beginning to reach areas of the country long controlled by the Taliban – to leave those areas, as Klein suggests, would be to destroy any goodwill earned and reinforce the local population’s belief that NATO is transitory and cooperation is a death sentence. In this way, death threats in Helmand and death threats in Kandahar are not equivalent. NATO should not abandon Helmand. Kandahar should come next, but not at the expense of Helmand and NATO’s ultimate goals.

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