Combat and Community
You drive up to the forward operating base in Wardak Province in an armored Humvee, with the machine-gunner sticking up through the roof and his butt swinging on a little perch just by your head. Outside there’s a scraggly downtown, with ragamuffin Afghan children, almost no old people (the median life expectancy is 45) and dust everywhere. The dust of Afghanistan piles up in front of the storefronts and covers the ruins of the buildings destroyed during the Soviet period, or during the civil war or during some lost conflict from centuries past.
The Humvee takes the serpentine path through the checkpoint and you pass a double line of soldiers heading out on foot patrol. There’s a soldier that looks from a distance like a child in gear, but it turns out to be a tiny American woman smiling under her armor, pack and rifle, and you think that of all the great powers who’ve humped their way over these mountains, not another one sent out warriors as unlikely or effective as these.
After the checkpoint, there’s a parking lot with great lines of heavy vehicles. For years, the coalition forces fought this war on the cheap, but that’s changing. The U.S. has just increased troop levels tenfold in Wardak. The parking lots are bursting with hulking machinery, the avalanche of metal America brings to a war it takes seriously.
There’s a line of porta-potties and you’re brought into a plywood room. There are about 25 Army Rangers inside, linebacker types with crew cuts, except for a special-ops guy, Major Moses, who is dark-skinned with a thick beard. These men have been through Iraq, and they now have the habits of counterinsurgency warfare deep in their bones in a way they didn’t just a few years ago.
As they talk, it becomes clear that aside from killing bad guys, they’re also trying to figure out how to reweave Afghan society.
Before the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghan towns had three parallel authority structures: the tribal elders, the religious clerics and the government representatives. The Soviets decimated the tribes and the indigenous government. That left only the mullahs, and their sudden unchecked prominence helped explain the rise of the Taliban.
The terror and the fall of the Taliban reduced clerical authority, too. By 2002, when the coalition forces arrived, village society was fractured, social capital decimated. The resulting disorder has been a perfect nesting ground for the insurgents. The insurgents are not popular in Afghanistan, the way they sometimes were in Iraq. But they have money, and young men in the villages talk about “taking a Taliban day” — that is, accepting a few hundred bucks to plant an I.E.D.
Between 2002 and 2005, the coalition and the Afghans were slow to recognize the perils of social fragmentation. The general view was that warlordism and civil war were the biggest threats. Therefore, power should be centralized with the national government. The country should be restored through a strong national government spreading outward.
That approach has had some success. The Afghan National Army is the country’s most trusted institution. But it’s also had many shortcomings. The national police force is ineffective. The central government has rarely been able to reweave the social fabric at the village level. Nobody’s been able to establish rule of law or end rampant corruption.
So the Afghans and the coalition are adapting. There’s been a shift to supplement central authorities with village authority structures. Under the National Solidarity Project, villages elect Community Development Councils. Western aid agencies give the councils up to $60,000 to do local projects, but it’s not the projects that matter most. It’s the creation of formal community structures. These projects are up and running in 23,000 villages.
Mohammad Halim Fidai, the governor of Wardak Province, and the guys in the plywood room are creating the Afghan Public Protection Program. Under it, villages would no longer depend solely on the national police sent from Kabul. Local committees would hire their own constabulary to guard schools, bridges and neighborhoods. Alongside just 26 national policemen in the area, there will be 250 local men from the A.P.P.P.
The program is controversial. Many feel it will lead to a return to local militias and warlordism. But if Afghanistan is to stabilize, there have to be local authority structures. The culture of conversation and consensus has to be formalized in institutions. These local structures have to be connected upward to the central state. And that’s beginning to happen amidst the armored Humvees and the daily threat of death.When you put more boots on the ground, you not only augment your army’s firing power, you give it the capacity to experiment. A few years ago, the good guys had only vague ideas about how to win this war. Now they’re much smarter.