The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
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Dirty Little Secrets
American Warlords in Afghanistan
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by James Dunnigan
March 27, 2004
The U.S. Army Special Forces have gone back to their roots in Afghanistan. Using techniques developed and used with great success as far back as World War II, Special Forces A Teams are operating in remote Afghan valleys, and forming their own small armies by hiring local Afghans to help catch any Taliban or al Qaeda who might come through. U.S. troops have hired armed Afghans in the past, but from local warlords. This did not work too well. The warlord who supplied the troops had their own agendas. This included not getting any of their lads killed, and being open to bribery from the opposition. All of this is considered traditional in the Afghan scheme of things. A warlord becomes a warlord by having enough money to pay troops, some way to raise more money to keep paying them, and enough battlefield sense to keep down friendly casualties. Any warlord who misses too many payrolls, or gets too many of his guys killed, finds that no one wants to follow him anymore. A warlord without gunmen is no longer a warlord.
The Special Forces understand all this, and now they are, well, behaving like warlords. Special Forces troops have been establishing contacts throughout the southeastern Afghan border area over the last two years. So when a dozen Special Forces troops show up with guns and money, they are not treated as enemies. The Special Forces already have a well earned reputation throughout Afghanistan as being formidable fighters. Often the Special Forces can speak the Afghan languages, which impresses Afghans a lot (because it is so rare for outsiders to do this). And most importantly, the Special Forces have the power to call down from above "the bombs that never miss" (JDAM dropped from B-52s overhead).
When the Special Forces troops arrive, they sit down with the village elders and heads of the local families and arrange to hire the proper number of armed men from each clan, so no one is offended. And all the families now have another source of income. Along with the Special Forces comes access to American army civil affairs troops and more money for public works (repairing roads and bridges, digging wells, building schools). Locals are hired to help build the Special Forces compound, and work in it. The Special Forces often also bring along a detachment of soldiers or marines to help with security.
The word quickly gets around that the Special Forces are operating in a particular valley. This attracts the local Taliban supporters. Attacks will be attempted on the compound the Special Forces are living in. The Special Forces expect this. Like any competent warlord, they deploy their troops to watch for intruders. The hired gunmen get more training, being taught how to "fight like a Special Forces warrior." This builds relationships with the younger locals, who are also being courted by the Taliban recruiters.
But more importantly, the Special Forces spend a lot of time sitting around drinking tea. Chatting with their gunmen and other locals creates a familiarity that eventually leads to what they are really here for; information. The Afghans know they are being played, but they admire how the Special Forces do it by Afghan rules. Professionals are always admired, and in Afghanistan, professionals with guns, money and patience are particularly admired.
The Afghans know the Americans are there to find the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, and kill them. The Afghans understand that the Americans are the enemies of the Taliban and al Qaeda. You kill your enemies if you can, and Afghans have long played by that rule. Afghans also understand that it's important to be on the winning side if there's going to be a dispute. The Special Forces went to valleys where the locals were not particularly pro-Taliban. The Special Forces quietly made a deal with the locals, "let us defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda together, and then we will leave." By working for the Special Forces warlords, the Afghans agreed to the deal. Of course, if the Special Forces run into a lot of problems, and appear in danger of defeat, all that could change. But that's how you survive in the remote valleys of Afghanistan.