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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Winning Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan

If you read the counter insurgency manual by General Petreaus, it's amazing just how much of counter insurgency is very similar to grassroots politics. In fact, Petraeus' overall strategy: clear, hold, and build is rooted in grass roots politics much more than it is in military strategy.

The clear portion of the strategy involves going in door to door and finding the terrorists. This portion of counter terrorism involves clearing the terrorists neighborhood by neighborhood. Because most of the people are NOT terrorists, the key to this strategy comes from building rapport with the folks stuck in the middle of the fighting. After all, they are the ones that know who the terrorists are. This involves convincing the population to throw in with you and not the terrorists. The key to turning things around in Iraq was to flip the Sheikhs who then created the sons of Iraq. Suddenly, thousands of Iraqis that were siding with Al Qaeda were now siding with us. This took many months of military and diplomatic outreach. It involved hours upon hours of outreach and negotiation. The whole process was grassroots politics at its finest.

The second portion is the hold portion. This involves leaving forces back in each neighborhood that was cleared to make sure that the terrorists don't come back. In this portion, you convince the population that you are here to stay. You convince them once and for all that your side will be the one that wins. You convince them that not only have you removed but that they aren't coming back. This involves building pseudo military/pseudo police stations. It means patrolling the streets, interacting with the populace, and reaching out more to the community leaders. It is grassroots politics at its finest.

The final piece is the build piece. This means you rebuild the neighborhood and create an economic boom. The greatest example of this in Iraq was in Ramadi. This was turned from one of the most dangerous cities in the world to a booming economy. Furthermore, Ramadi had created during this transformation a vibrant local government. It goes without saying that all of this is grassroots politics at its finest.

We now face a moment of truth in Afghanistan. All insurgencies/counterinsurgencies are a battle for the hearts and minds of the populace. Or you could call it the ultimate battle of grassroots politics. The insurgency wants to create some much mayhem and chaos that the populace either jumps in with them to avoid being killed or simply loses hope and becomes apathetic. The counterinsurgency, on the other hand, wants to show that no matter what the insurgency does they want be beaten. Another way to look at it is a battle of wills.

So, right now we are in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghans. For too many years in Iraq, we took this battle for granted. We likely assumed that because we gave so much blood sweat and tears to the cause that the public would be with us. It wasn't until we aggressively took the war to the insurgents that we captured the hearts and minds of the populace. Once we did, we won the war with it.

The only way to capture the hearts and minds of the populace is to show them unequivocally that we will be there for the indefinite. We will be there until the insurgents are no longer there. The Afghans know that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have no plans to leave. Can we blame many of the peasants for joining in with them. Both had been there for more than a decade before we arrived. Neither is giving any hints of leaving. We just got there and we're from a place far away that most have never visited.

To capture their hearts and minds we must first convince them that we are not leaving. That's why folks like Carl Levin and George Will are so dangerous. If we create the image that we aren't 100% committed to winning, the populace is not going to go in with us. Al Qaeda and Taliban are 100% committed to winning. They aren't leaving. They will have to be removed. The average Afghani is not going to jump in with us if they think we won't be around in five years. If that's the case, they face a very brutal death. They're much more likely to jump in with them. On their side, they aren't as likely to face the brutality.

In order to win this war, we must first show full commitment to winning. Unless we show that, we aren't going to win the Afghan's hearts and minds.

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