A LOT OF PEOPLE are calling it the "forgotten war," but nearly 10,000 U.S. troops are still stationed in Afghanistan hunting after al Qaeda foot soldiers and their Taliban supporters--trudging through the craggy hills and dusty bazaars of what used to be considered the front line of America's war on terrorism.
But the military commanders who are waging the campaign in Central Asia have clearly not forgotten their war. Ever since Task Force 180--as the Afghanistan operation is called--"leaked" a coming offensive to crush the final pockets of terrorist holdouts in the country and along the porous border with Pakistan, eyes have begun to shift eastward.
It wasn't much of a surprise for those few who have been following the war closely. The spring is typically the start time for rebel activities, since their meager winter fighting gear and primitive logistics make fighting coalition forces next to impossible while their mountain lairs are capped with snow. Coalition operations never stopped their operations, even during the harsh Afghan winter.
WHAT IS NEW, however, is that the United States has quietly shifted tactics in Afghanistan. Coupled with the usual offensive military strategy is a softer approach. The military has formed an "area ownership" program that will station platoon-sized units in remote Afghan villages. The new tactic, coupled with the ever-growing Provincial Reconstruction Teams and the newly formed Regional Development Zones, is intended to garner the coalition significant intelligence, encourage the development of democracy across the region, and help nip a Taliban resurgence in the bud.
Up until now, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs, PRTs have concentrated more on infrastructure than security. "A PRT is really a catalyst. It forms focal point in a particular area, with the goal of building not only relationships but also serving as an accelerator in the rebuilding of the nation and extending the reach of the Afghan central government," Lt. Gen. David Barno, commander of ground forces in Afghanistan, said during a February 17 briefing broadcast by satellite from Afghanistan.
While the 12 PRTs in Afghanistan help forge ties with local leaders, Barno explained, the area ownership concept and Regional Development Zones "will present terrorist organizations with an impossible situation, one where they cannot demonstrate any viable alternative of value to the Afghan people."
AN AMBITIOUS PLAN, certainly, but will it work? The reconstruction and development initiatives embodied in the PRTs are a no-brainer. Even minor infrastructure improvements help build goodwill among the locals. Digging a well in a drought-stricken village serves the local Afghanis a lot more effectively than the black-turbaned Taliban ever could.
But a more security-focused initiative is grounded in precedent. For months, special operations forces have been prowling the Afghan hills and living amongst the locals; melding into the new framework of Afghanistan so the locals don't see them as alien.
During Vietnam, the Marine Corps had a similar strategy that garnered good results on the local level: The Combined Action Program stationed squad-sized teams--about 12 men plus a medic--in rural Vietnamese villages from Chu Lai in the south to the DMZ in the north. The CAP teams went a long way to foster goodwill among the locals and helped stem the tide of recruits to the Vietcong. While they were seen as a success at the tactical level, the CAP teams' accomplishments couldn't make up for strategic planning failures at the top.
The Marines have announced they will launch a similar program when they take over occupation duty in Iraq next month, though great care must be taken to make sure poor leadership at the top does not, once again, offset the tactical advantages of the program.
Likewise, stationing troops in the wilds of Afghanistan, far from their protective bases in Bagram and Khandahar, will be risky. But the troops who are there now--a combination of Army airborne, Marines, and special operations forces--are learning their area of operations, its geography and customs, so that the Afghans will see us as allies in their struggle, not infidel occupiers. This approach, if applied smartly and subtlety could pull the al Qaeda and Taliban movement out of Central Asia by the roots and deal a potentially fatal blow to the world terror network.
Christian Lowe is a staff writer for Army Times Publishing Company and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. He spent six weeks on assignment in Iraq last summer.