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Counter-Terrorism: American Mysteries Revealed
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March 10, 2009: The United States finds itself facing the same pattern of terrorism against civilians in Afghanistan, as it had to deal with in Iraq. The Taliban, like the Sunni Arab terrorists in central Iraq, have sought to control the population (and prevent them from giving information on Taliban operations to the police or foreign troops) by threatening the locals, and their tribal leaders. As in Iraq, the threats don't always work. The Taliban then escalate to kidnapping and murdering local leaders. This eventually caused the Iraqi Sunni Arab civilians to organize themselves for defense, and formally unite with the government and foreign forces.

To make this work in Afghanistan, the foreign troops, or the government, has to organize, and in some cases arm, the civilians. There are some special problems, however. The tribal situations are different in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially in the more urban areas. Afghanistan is mostly rural, with lots of villages, many in isolated valleys. People are very vulnerable to a large (a hundred or so armed men) group of Taliban. To the average Afghan, these guys are foreigners. In general, Afghans don't like foreigners, especially armed foreigners making threats. As the poorest country in Asia, with the shortest lifespan (44 years), Afghans don't like to take chances. If they see no way of dealing with the Taliban (or some local warlord, or drug gang), they will hunker down and make the best of it.

The Afghan government is a bunch of foreigners as far as most Afghans are concerned. If government people come by and say, "we're the government and we're here to help you," the locals will be skeptical. U.S. Special Forces have long known that the only way to develop any kind of useful relationship with these rural Afghans is to be friendly and make yourself useful. Thus when Special Forces operate in an area, they impress the locals by speaking their language, and always bringing gifts. Medical care is very popular, since most Afghans never get a taste of modern medical care. Each Special Forces team has two medics, who know lots of medical procedures, and have plenty of medicines, that can cure a lot of ailments found among rural Afghans. The Special Forces has long since passed this wisdom on to regular combat units.

While an infantry company commander rarely speaks Dari or Puhsto (the two most common languages in Afghanistan), they know to bring medics, medicine and other gifts when making the rounds of the villages. Like the Special Forces, the infantry officers sit and drink tea with the village elders, establishing a relationship. Even if this only results in the elders saying that they are terrorized by the Taliban and cannot cooperate with the Americans (but thanks for patching up a bunch of us and leaving all the gifts), it helps establish a connection that can eventually prove useful. However, even this will often bring down the wrath of the Taliban, who consider American gifts (even medicines, food or gadgets) "sinful" and requiring that the Afghans who accepted them be punished.

What the American tactics strive to do is convince the villagers that, while the Americans are foreigners, they are the less dangerous and more useful foreigners, especially compared to the Taliban. While this sounds like a swell tactic, if often gets messed up by tribal politics. The Taliban often have some local guys who are members. They have a local agenda (more power, land or getting a wife from some powerful family), and make the most of the Taliban reinforcements (who may be recruited from clans or tribes in the province, or be men from Pakistan, or farther afield.) Villagers are sensitive to the fact that, while the Americans may be more generous, and dangerous in a fight, they will not be around as long as the local Taliban. So the Americans have to make a convincing case that the Taliban will be taken care of (killed or hauled away to some distant jail.) This is why the U.S. wants to hand out weapons to some villagers, so they have a chance of holding off the Taliban.

As cell phone service spreads, the U.S. can give out prepaid cell phones, just as they earlier gave out pre-paid satellite phones. The U.S. can get reinforcements to any part of Afghanistan quickly. This does wonders in getting villagers to provide information on who the Taliban are, and what they are up to.

Many NATO officers don't understand the U.S. tactics, because they've never seen this sort of thing before. But the U.S. has been operating this way for centuries. The U.S. Army Special Forces codified it all and became specialists in this sort of thing back in the 1950s. It works, even if you've never seen it before.

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