As the sun is setting over the mountains to the west, a small band of Taliban fighters push into a rugged valley in Afghanistan’s Konar province. The terrain is rugged and austere but also eerily beautiful—a blend of West Virginia mountains and Arizona desert.
For centuries it has also been a killing ground for armies. The roads are few, narrow and steep, falling off hundreds of feet to the river below, making every bend in the road a potential ambush. Large boulders and caves dot the landscape; a passing convoy could be surrounded and not know till it is too late. Konar province is also near the Pakistan border, allowing smugglers and insurgents to slip into Afghanistan practically at will. It is, in short, a nearly ideal setting for launching and sustaining an armed insurgency. The Soviets were bloodied and eventually broken trying to hunt down the mujahaddeen in places like Konar province. The people of Konar wear this legacy like a badge of honor.
The Taliban fighters decide to rest at a small village before a rendezvous with other insurgents. As they sit to drink green chai tea with the village elders, a tradition of hospitality among Afghanistan’s Pashtun people, they are told something surprising: Don’t attack the Americans here. If you make trouble for us, we’ll turn you in.
When the United States was poised to insert ground forces into Afghanistan in October 2001, few people thought that such Afghan villages could ever become pro-American. Instead, experts predicted that America would be humiliated and driven out of Afghanistan, just as the Soviets were 12 years before.
Why is this small, isolated village defending U.S. soldiers? Unravel that mystery and you will understand a critical component of how America should wage war in the 21st century.
One reason Americans have been relatively well-received in Afghanistan is that they do not have a tough act to follow. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it indiscriminately annihilated entire villages in pursuit of a handful of mujahaddeen. The rural population was the chief target of this campaign, in which torture, mass arrests, kidnappings and indiscriminate bombing campaigns were common. Perhaps a million Afghans were killed in the decade-long conflict, and millions more fled the country.
The situation in Afghanistan today could not be more different. Despite ferocious media coverage of occasional abuses, the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan has been a model of restraint. There are no mass arrests or unexplained civilian disappearances, and American military operations are scalpel-like in their precision. As a result, public sentiment in most of the country has not turned against U.S. soldiers.
An important asset
But something even more important is at work in the American war effort. Unlike in Vietnam, American war planners in Afghanistan have emphasized classic counterinsurgency tactics, building relationships with local communities to ferret out enemies and making the most of an important military asset: properly trained U.S. Army Civil Affairs (C.A.) units.
Many of the villagers here in Konar province have been treated at a medical clinic run with the help of a Civil Affairs unit, and C.A. veterinarians have helped nurse sick animals back to health. Most of the older villagers are illiterate, but their children attend a school rebuilt with the assistance of C.A. soldiers using American funds and donated school supplies. For the first time in years, girls in the village are being taught as well. C.A. soldiers are careful to funnel such reconstruction projects through the village elders, offering a valuable source of income for its impoverished but proud residents while cementing trust with local elites.
While combat units are going about their primary job of fighting the enemy, C.A. units are helping them build relationships with civilian communities, facilitating the collection of valuable on-the-ground human intelligence, and helping civilians construct the basic elements of civil infrastructure and civil society. C.A. troops also facilitate interaction between indigenous civilian and military units in ways that build mutual trust and empathy.
Civil Affairs units are important in America’s global war on terrorism because it is in such weak or failed states as Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq that the war on terrorism will be fought. The weakness of these states offers terrorist groups a safe harbor in which to recruit adherents, raise funds and launch operations that increase their international visibility. In such places the United States faces the daunting challenge of fighting enemies who may lack popular legitimacy but blend easily into civilian populations. Security forces in these states are often poorly organized, trained and equipped, and are prone to corruption and mismanagement.
The 17th century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes provides a valuable insight into the 21st century global war on terror. Hobbes theorized that the state of nature—a kind of war of all against all—would persist until people surrendered their rights to a sovereign power who would safeguard something even more important than their rights—their safety. The sovereign’s ability to provide security for his subjects is essential for retaining the consent of the governed. If the sovereign cannot provide that security, he must cede his legitimacy to some competitor who can.
Until recently the government of Iraq and its partners have not been able to provide this security, so Iraqi citizens turned to groups that could. These include such tribal and religious groups as the Mahdi Militia and Ansar al Sunnah. As America continues its nation-building expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would do well to heed Hobbes’ warning. Defeating insurgents on the field of battle is critical—but no less important is providing security for ordinary citizens.
By addressing quality-of-life issues and clearing space for civil society to take root, military forces can help create safe, ordered communities where it is increasingly difficult for insurgents and terrorists to operate with impunity. The tipping point is when indigenous people deny aid to insurgents and trust indigenous and U.S. forces to protect them from retribution. This appears to be the case in Baquba and in Anbar province, where Al Qaeda has been ostracized and former insurgents now work with the coalition forces to neutralize that terrorist network.
Lessons from Vietnam
Vietnam taught many military strategists that engaging insurgents in direct combat operations might mean that U.S. forces could win every battle and still lose the war. In South Vietnam, Vietcong guerillas operated with success wherever they were able to get local villages to provide them with food, shelter and financial support. They were able do this because the government of South Vietnam could not provide those villages with security and U.S. forces were, until late in the conflict, conducting search-and-destroy missions in the highlands that neglected population security along the inhabited coastline.
Architects of the Iraq war seem to have neglected the lessons of Vietnam and philosopher Hobbes. Operation Iraqi Freedom, launched in March 2003, showcased the American military’s ability to conduct a complex operation over hundreds of miles of enemy territory and swiftly defeat an entrenched foe. The U.S. victory was stunning. By May 2003, President George W. Bush made his now-infamous announcement that major combat operations were over.
The invasion of Iraq, which resulted in a removal of Saddam’s regime in a mere 20 days, was followed by efforts that displayed a fundamental weakness of that machine—it was a good tool for destroying an enemy army quickly but not very good for picking up the pieces.
Now, four years later, political support for the U.S. invasion is flagging in the face of a sustained Iraqi insurgency and bitter sectarian fighting with little sign of an eventual resolution of hostilities. While the fighting in Iraq—and Washington—continues, the real story is not the origins of the war or its post-invasion missteps, but how American officers on the ground are finally getting it right.
Led by General David Petraeus, coalition forces have fundamentally changed their approach to the war. Instead of a strategy in which combat forces focus on hunting the enemy, Petraeus’ strategy focuses on securing the Iraqi people. Significantly, this turnaround was not led by planning at the Pentagon but has happened piecemeal, led mainly by more junior officers on the ground. Unfortunately, these tactical successes did not translate into larger victories because, before Petraeus arrived, there was no comprehensive strategic framework to implement them.
Take Tal Afar, one of the early successes in America’s nascent counterinsurgency efforts. Located close to the Syrian border in northwestern Iraq, Tal Afar was a hotbed of insurgent activity until the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, led by Colonel H.R. McMaster, arrived in early 2005. McMaster, who holds a doctorate in history, is an iconoclastic officer who had written a book critical of the Vietnam War. In it he argued that officers there had not spoken up early enough in criticizing the Pentagon’s heavy-handed search-and-destroy mentality.
McMaster, who arrived in Tal Afar with about a thousand U.S. troops and supporting Iraqi forces, tried a different approach. Rather than storming the city and forcing his will on it, McMaster built up a cordon around the city and began negotiating with tribal elders and city officials about their needs and the future role of American forces in the city.
Once he had reached a working accommodation with the elders, he developed a plan to root out insurgents from the city and restore security. By developing a relationship with the people of Tal Afar, McMaster not only reduced the need for force but also minimized U.S. and civilian casualties. “There are two ways to do counterinsurgency,” McMaster’s operations officer told The New Yorker. “You can come in and cordon off a city and level it, à la Fallujah. Or you can come in, get to know the city, the culture, establish relationships with the people, and then you can go in and eliminate individuals instead of whole city blocks.”
A new approach
McMaster proved himself to be adept as a warrior. He was also a skilled diplomat, negotiator and city manager. These skills are what our new approach in Iraq under General Petraeus demands, and such skills will be in high demand in other conflicts of the future. The conduct of war nearly always involves an element of civil administration in occupied territories, and this administration can have a marked positive or negative effect on the conduct and resolution of hostilities in the years and decades ahead.
German forces in the Ukraine during World War II, for instance, liberated a civilian population that had been brutalized by Stalin’s Communist regime. German commanders could have used Ukrainian resentment to bolster their own war effort. Instead, they inflicted yet more atrocities on the population, creating bitterly determined guerillas who coordinated with the counterattacking Soviet forces to ultimately help drive the German army away.
While not immune from harsh excesses, the U.S. military has followed a different path in its civil operations. Long before the United States was sending infantry battalions to fight totalitarian regimes in Europe, U.S. troops were involved in the administration of civilian affairs and civil reconstruction efforts. General Winfield Scott’s administration in Tampico, Mexico, during the 1846–48 Mexican-American War is a clear example. Scott issued General Order 20, later referred to as “General Scott’s martial law order,” which was “designed to establish law and order, while engineering cooperation of the Mexican residents.”
As U.S. military students learn in a History of Civil Affairs course:
Scott’s troops distributed food to the poor, collected civilian arms, regulated businesses, restored water supplies, enforced sanitary measures, respected the local religion and hired local people to perform some of the area damage control functions. Scott also managed to avoid the abuses and arbitrary rule that could generate an insurgency.
The most successful exercise of Scott’s approach prior to the 20th century was in the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War, when the United States took possession of the islands in the face of a fierce but not particularly well-organized nationalist resistance. Initially—and following a strategy all too familiar to those observing U.S. operations thus far in Iraq—the U.S. military tried to exercise control over the population by patrolling from heavily fortified garrisons and appointing locals to politically sensitive posts. With U.S. troops restricted to garrisons, the Filipino rebels could maneuver and strike at them virtually at will before disappearing into the surrounding jungle.
U.S. forces were able to gain the upper hand only when they added civil administration efforts and military control over population centers—presaging by more than 100 years the “new” U.S. doctrine of “clear, hold and build” in Iraq. In the Philippines, as Max Boot writes in The Savage Wars of Peace, “soldiers built schools, ran sanitation campaigns, vaccinated people, collected customs duties, set up courts run by natives, supervised municipal elections, and generally administered governmental functions efficiently and honestly. . . . Despite the use of increasingly harsh methods against guerillas and their suspected sympathizers, most U.S. soldiers remained on good terms with most civilians.”
WWII and its lessons
America’s 20th-century military watershed, World War II, also demonstrates the importance of civil military operations to military victory. While this global operation involved classic large-unit massed battles in the European and Pacific theaters, America’s victory in World War II was sealed by the largest post-conflict reconstruction effort in history. Indeed, this effort began well before the end of hostilities. Without enormous and sustained military-led reconstruction efforts in Western Europe and Japan, the United States could easily have lost the peace. Instead, Japan and West Germany rapidly became key diplomatic allies.
Even Vietnam, which represented a bitter defeat for the U.S. Army, vindicated a similar approach to war. At first the U.S. military’s conventional military solution concentrated on building the South’s capability to resist a large-scale invasion by the North. As a result, the United States effectively conceded security for the South’s population centers to the Vietcong.
Later, as regular Army forces were being drawn down, civil military efforts achieved some victories in denying the Vietcong access to the South’s population, training indigenous Civilian Irregular Defense Groups to provide security at the village level and helping build local economic infrastructure. Still later in the war, Combined Action Platoons provided an example of how small groups of U.S. soldiers could train South Vietnamese militias to protect villages from Vietcong extortion and control.
Especially after the 1967 Tet Offensive, the United States de-emphasized large-unit search-and-destroy missions and began its hearts-and-minds campaign, using the same strategy it had employed 60 years earlier in the Philippines. When the U.S. military secured various population centers, Vietnamese citizens were better able to resist the anti-government tactics of the Vietcong.
Similar to the Vietcong, our current enemies from Somalia to Baghdad understand the futility of confronting U.S. military might directly. Rather, they attack both friendly forces and civilian populations to create instability and fear in civil society and to undermine U.S. resolve. As a consequence, ultimate victory in these struggles has as much to do with fostering civil societies as it does with destroying enemy forces.
Despite its long experience with civil military operations, the U.S. military has sometimes neglected to build rapport with and secure the civil populace, perhaps assuming that it is the responsibility of other government agencies. This attitude was deeply ingrained in the culture of the military as it invaded Iraq. War-fighting prowess was valued to the exclusion of all other activities.
Why, after years of positive results with civil military operations, should the military ever be reluctant to engage civil society in a combat theater? One reason is that it is hard to be nice to people when some of them are trying to kill you. Another is that such approaches to war do not play to America’s undeniable advantages on the modern battlefield: cutting-edge technology and massed firepower. Also, civil military operations in urban environments are particularly challenging because of the anonymity and variability of urban terrain—which can play to the advantage of groups that are unconcerned with or even seek out mass civilian casualties.
The greatest hurdle to incorporating the civil military mission into the U.S. force structure from the bottom up is that it requires the human element. There is no technological substitute for face-to-face relationships. Such connections inevitably expose our troops to casualties in ways that Tomahawk missiles do not.
Our aversion is partly media driven. Television produces an instinctive recoil at the plight of casualties, both military and civilian, while glamorizing hi-tech shock-and-awe campaigns. Yet as the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual notes, the more you try to protect soldiers in fixed fortifications, the less they tend to interact with people and the less safe they may be.
If we are to fight the global war on terror effectively, America’s military must adapt more flexible approaches and institutionalize the tactics and doctrine of the civil military mission among all its troop units. Prior to the hard-won lessons in Iraq, most units viewed their missions as exclusively kinetic ones: find the enemy, fix him in place and annihilate him through massed firepower. Now those units are beginning to understand the need to transition in short order from war fighting to problem-solving. For example, during its tour in Iraq, Company B of the 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry, reportedly spent half of its efforts cultivating local sources of information, which led them to huge caches of weapons and explosives in Iraq.
Soft skills as priorities
One of the most important lessons from our experience in Iraq is that our military will not only have to be able to destroy our enemies but will also have to be able to help restore civil society after a conflict and to strengthen civil societies before conflicts erupt.
Our current enemies and those who would emulate them understand this priority. That is one reason why they are exerting enormous efforts to attack symbols of societal progress, like schools and police stations. This past June two Taliban gunmen in Logar province, Afghanistan, using military weapons, assaulted several little girls leaving their school, wounding six of them and murdering two of these children, shooting one at point-blank range in the stomach and heart.
The friends and the allies we will need to stand and fight with us against these killers must be given three things: security, a way of life worth fighting for and a chance to win. Our armed forces are adept at combat operations and are becoming as versatile at many other “soft” skills in order to ensure our security now and in the future.
Security and building civil society are mutually reinforcing principles. When people are safe, they can build their communities. When their needs are addressed, they are more likely to cooperate with security forces against those who would destroy civil progress. Warfighting and nation-building are both part of a long military tradition in the United States, and combining the two will be critical to our future security.
General George C. Marshall, who commanded our military forces in WWII, had it right when he said: “We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming power on the other.”
Tim Connors is the director of the Center for Policing Terrorism at the Manhattan Institute and an officer in the Army Reserve. Paul Howard received his Ph.D. in political philosophy from Fordham University in 2004. He writes regularly on public policy issues, including security and health care.