In the Arena

Afghanistan: A New Balance

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The long-awaited battle for Kandahar Province has begun and Time’s Jason Motlagh is there, at the heart of the fight in the same Zhari district where I embedded last April. There is a larger story here, about a change in emphasis by General David Petraeus, from counterinsurgency toward counterterrorism, that Fred Kaplan laid out here last week, ably as ever. For those for whom this is gobbledygook, let me provide a quick field guide to tactics:

Counterterrorism is all about going after the bad guys, often using special ops teams to kill or capture Taliban cells (a process that has gone very well in recent months, because of improvements in U.S. intelligence capability).

Counterinsurgency means protecting and providing services for the good guys, the civilian population caught in the middle of the mess. This hasn’t gone so well because (a) it takes a lot of time and (b) it requires an effective local partner. Hamid Karzai’s government is not effective.

Petraeus is the King of Counterinsurgency, having co-written the manual. But he is also a pragmatist. And after five months on the ground in Afghanistan, he apparently has decided to ramp up the special ops, perhaps hoping to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table–a result much desired by the aforementioned Karzai. This has involved the increased use of airpower, and larger scale military sweeps. (It would be interesting to know how these operations are being conducted–the McChrystal Rules of Engagement were very strict, making the use of airpower near-impossible, in order to protect the civilian population.) It will also be interesting to see if, absent a real negotiation with the Taliban, these operations will have any long-term effect on the balance of power in the Pashtun lands. I’m hoping to get back to Afghanistan soon and see for myself.