Winning Afghan hearts and splitting hairs

KABUL – Amid political bickering in Washington and Brussels, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which assumed command of international military operations for Afghanistan last October, is struggling to assert a new image – one that Afghans can get their minds around.

“We are determined to build the NATO brand here in Afghanistan,” said the North Atlantic Alliance’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, Nicholas Lunt. The di
between a US-led 26- nation NATO alliance and a US-led coalition, the latter of which remains active and fighting in theater, however, are lost on many Afghans.

For one, NATO says it does not “do counter-terrorism”, which it contends is a US specialty. The new “brand” of peacekeeping in Afghanistan, says Lunt, is not a matter of, as the US ground forces often say, “hunting down the bad guys”.

“There are different approaches needed,” said Lunt. “We have the Spanish, Italian and German efforts that are essentially non-combative, and the Turkish base in Wardak involves almost no counterinsurgency. We’ll win by working more and more with Afghans, providing prosperity and literacy.” If that sounds as though the alliance has gone soft, that is just the message NATO wants to project.

The alliance’s approach to Afghanistan takes lessons from the past five years in country. Many NATO officers now view a vigorous hunt in hostile terrain for small cells of al-Qaeda to be – more often than not – counterproductive. Afghans tend to provide unreliable and conflicting intelligence, which often leads to collateral damage, spelled “innocent deaths”. In short, not an effective way to win hearts or minds.

The “old” approach led by the US military and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sometimes did more to anger Afghans than to stabilize the nation, say some Western diplomats in Kabul. Though “Abu Ghraib” is a dirty word from another war, Afghanistan has been home to a number of secret detention centers, all with their own dirty little secrets, including international rendition.

It is largely in opposition to these US- and Afghan-controlled detention centers, and reports that torture was commonplace therein, that many leading NATO member states decided to make it clear that they would no longer be party to the “old” approach.

Taking the lead on the other side of the Atlantic, Canada’s defense minister has demanded accountability for any prisoners, Afghan or foreign, seized by Canadian forces and handed over for any length of time to the Afghan police or army. An often unspoken concern of NATO countries such as Canada is that the CIA might be in the next room in an Afghan detention center calling the shots.

Distancing themselves further, some European members refuse outright to enter the thick of the fight against the Taliban and foreign fighters, who stream in daily from Pakistan. Their refusal to mount combat operations has prompted rebukes from befuddled lawmakers on both sides of the isle in the US Congress.

“They [other NATO members] must also free their forces from restrictive ‘national caveats’ that limit their involvement in operations,” Congressman Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, insisted last week. “Afghanistan is not only a central front in the war on terrorism, but the outcome there could well determine the future of the NATO alliance.”

NATO officials in Kabul, however, appear unflustered by the growing political chasm. Lunt insisted: “We are different. Our efforts are not the same as those of some other efforts here. We will also judge the mission differently.”

But are the differences between NATO and the US-led coalition really that great? According to the man who recently served as a spokesman for the US secretary of the army, Colonel Thomas Collins, “Not really.” Collins should know. He is now a fferences spokesman for the NATO-commanded International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

“We’re really the same,” he said. “Fundamentally, we have the same doctrine that guides us.” One serious difference, though, is that “ISAF does not do counter-terrorism missions”.

Provided with a concrete scenario, however, that NATO forces are trying to take back a Taliban stronghold and are coming face to

face with a few dozen al-Qaeda affiliates, the colonel clarified. (After all, NATO isn’t going to turn and run. In Afghanistan, where cowardice is abhorred, that would do nothing but draw public chuckles and inspire the enemy.) “Well, the way we put it is really a nuance,” continued Collins. “NATO does counterinsurgency, not counter-terrorism. I’ll be quite frank, it is dancing around words to a degree, but at the North Atlantic Council level, our mandate does not include counter-terrorism.”

That may be because most NATO members – apart from the United States – rarely even refer to the “war on terror” anymore. It is a phrase too closely associated with the administration of US President George W Bush, which is not popular in the Islamic world.

The most genuine or real difference, however, is that there are specific US-led coalition “counter-terrorism forces” in Afghanistan, working outside of NATO, who, as Collins said, “have a very specific thing that they are going after”.

This can also sound like splitting hairs, though. After all, NATO admits to having its own “special forces” on the ground in Afghanistan, albeit lurking in the shadows. If Delta Force gets into trouble in the Hindu Kush, you can be sure that the Special Air Service will be on call to bail it out.

Blurring the lines further, NATO’s former supreme allied commander, retired General James L Jones, testified in front of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 8 that NATO ISAF’s assumption of control over the entire Afghan stability mission is “testament to its growing capacity to engage in defense against common security challenges, including terrorism”.

So is NATO’s obsession with projecting “a new brand” apart from that of the US-led coalition really a key to the success of the Afghan mission? In the hinterlands, such as the city of Assadabad, hard up against the rocky Hindu Kush, verbal distinctions are lost on a wizened Mullah Nakibullah, who fought the Russians but has now – unlike most of his neighbors – embraced the US commanders in Kunar province.

He regularly confers with the local US leader and NATO reconstruction-team chief, Commander “Doc” Scholl, over tea and crumpets. For that he says he has earned the ire of many fellow residents in Assadabad, even government officials, who are under pressure from locals to distance themselves from the American “infidels”.

Many Afghan farmers have been alienated by the aggressive tactics of US forces in the past five years, said Mullah Nakibullah. They do not want to be associated with the US brand, and if you ask them about the difference between the “coalition” and the “alliance”, they scratch their heads or stroke their beards.

One thing that US Army officers and NATO spokespeople agree on, however, is that Afghanistan will likely be won or lost in the next several years not by counter-terrorism in the remote mountains, but by good deeds and honest words in the valleys. Development and stability, they hope, will put the “bad guys” out of business.

Lunt, a student of military history, says this will not require the reinvention of the wheel. Winning hearts and minds in the hinterland implies a lot of boot leather and hard work.

“It is a certain rehashing of the ideas of T E Lawrence [of Arabia] and making them relevant for today,” he said, referring to the famed British officer who helped persuade Arab leaders to coordinate a revolt against the Ottomans to aid British interests.

That translates into knowing the culture, speaking the language and finding common ground, all of which could well prove challenges enough for both NATO and the US-led coalition.

Philip Smucker is a commentator and journalist based in South Asia and the Middle East. He is the author of Al Qaeda’s Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror’s Trail (2004).

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