19th century lesson


Verified SOF
Jan 15, 2008

At the risk of going over old ground...

19th century lesson in managing chaos

WHEN it comes to Afghanistan, the British have a special perspective: every mistake the US has made recently, they made 150 years ago. So it's worth listening to British experts in the debate over Afghan strategy.

Afghanistan drove the British crazy for much of the 19th century. They couldn't control the place, but they couldn't walk away from it, either. They found that there wasn't a military solution, but there wasn't a non-military solution. It was a question of managing chaos. Sound familiar?

The best answer the British came up with was working with tribal leaders - bribing them, wooing them away from the baddies who genuinely threatened British interests, but otherwise letting them run their own affairs. That was a cynical approach, and it left Afghanistan a poor, backward country. But it worked adequately, especially compared with the alternative, which was unending bloodshed in a faraway country that refused to be colonised.

A modern version of this "work with the tribes" approach is still the best answer. And it seems to be an important part of General Stanley McChrystal's strategy that was leaked this week. It's dressed up in the language of counter-insurgency - he speaks of "population-centric" operations. But his assessment is basically a discussion of how to stabilise the country without just shooting people.

A key passage is McChrystal's discussion of "reintegration", which is COIN-speak for co-opting Taliban fighters. He advocates "offering them a way out" with "reasonable incentives to stop fighting and return to normalcy, possibly including the provision of employment and protection". Simple translation: If you play ball with the Afghan government, you get money, jobs and maybe guns.

I didn't hear much dissent in London from McChrystal's starting point: the US-led coalition can't walk away from Afghanistan, and if it's going to stay, then it must work with the people. The bare-bones counter-terrorism strategy advocated by McChrystal's critics - in which the US would just focus on killing the bad guys - strikes British officials as risky.

The British like McChrystal's focus on reintegration at the local and tribal levels, followed by reconciliation at the national level. And they share his enthusiasm for empowering provincial governors, and for creating local assemblies that can take responsibility for governance.

I heard two private British criticisms of McChrystal's strategy, and they go to the heart of whether it can work.

The first is over whether a surge of US troops is needed to regain the initiative against the Taliban. "The idea that you will bring them to the table with military force is wrong," one top expert says. "Unless we're going to colonise the country, this won't work. Building a fort and putting men in uniforms incites the tribes rather than calming them down."

Rather than trying to protect the population everywhere (which is impossible), McChrystal wisely may be focusing on cities and towns.

The second caution from British experts is that the Afghan tribal structure is broken. The authority of the tribal elders as "a river to their people", as one old Afghan hand puts it, has been shattered by decades of war. Power has flowed to drug dealers, gunrunners and Taliban fighters.

To shift the balance, McChrystal's best resource may be money. If there's one thing the British learned in this part of the world, it's the utility of cold, hard cash.