The Magazine

Anthropology Goes to War

There are some things the Army needs in Afghanistan, but more academics are not at the top of the list.

Nov 26, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 11 • By ANN MARLOWE
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At this point in the war on terror, even people who think David Galula is a trendy new chef are quick to point to the need for cultural understanding in successful counterinsurgency. Often, they are quicker still to beat up on our military for supposedly ignoring this. They are quite sure that if we just understood the Iraqis/Afghans/Shiites/Sunnis better, we would have made fewer mistakes. The military is ready to beat up on itself, too, although if you scan military journals, it seems to have spent much of the last few years retooling to fight small rather than large wars, and to emphasize counterinsurgency and nation-building rather than mere kinetics (aka killing).

We should learn the lessons of Vietnam and Algeria, we are earnestly told. Well, perhaps the most successful counterinsurgency operation ever mounted, David Galula's in Algeria, doesn't build the case for the overweening importance of cultural knowledge. The Algerians pacified thanks to Galula's insights were French-speaking (some of the leaders of the FLN barely spoke Arabic). The French took back territory from the rebels not because Galula convinced them that he understood their culture, but because he convinced them that their interests were better served by affiliation with France. (A dozen pages of Galula are worth more than anything written by anyone mentioned in this article. His 1963 Pacification in Algeria, reissued by RAND last year, is a witty, snappy, pre-PC read.)

While self-criticism can be healthy, we shouldn't lose sight of what actually works. I saw classic counterinsurgency doctrine working in Afghanistan during a two week embed in Khost and Laghman provinces this past July. In Khost, our soldiers were doing close to what Galula's company did in 1956: moving off the big bases, into the countryside, and providing people there with an immediate promise of security and, for the first time, a taste of the rewards of having a government. We are much further along with the strategy of pushing out into rural areas in Khost--a province that shares a 150-mile border with Pakistan's most lawless areas--than in Laghman, and not surprisingly, the numbers are much better there.

The Khost civil-military operations center is located in what was once a guesthouse belonging to Osama bin Laden, who spent time here in the '90s. Khost Province, once a "red" area--army lingo for a hotbed of insurgency and violence--now has 9 of its 12 districts listed as "green," or well controlled by Afghan forces. (Four of the 9 green districts, Bak, Tani, Tere Zayi, and Shamai, now have U.S. troops living in the district centers, and U.S. troops should be living in two more green districts, Gurbuz and Mando Zayi, by November 30. They will also move into Sabari, a "red" district, at the same time.) The province, with a population of one million, has suffered 70 IED explosions in 2007, killing 34 Afghans but no coalition troops. There hasn't been a suicide bombing since the spring; earlier in 2007, eight suicide bombers killed 32 Afghans.

In Laghman, with 400,000 people, one province removed from the Pakistani border, there have been 67 IED attacks and two suicide bombings, killing nine Afghan civilians and 19 Afghan security personnel, and one American soldier. The last suicide bomber was just a few weeks ago--he took an Afghan police officer with him.

Why does Laghman, a nonborder province, lead Afghanistan in IED attacks per capita? One reason is probably that our troops are not yet living in district centers. There is one very primitive combat outpost in Najil, but troops are only there for two-week rotations because it offers tent accommodation without kitchens or plumbing.

It's hard to overemphasize how good an idea it is to have our troops living close to the people. When our soldiers live on remote bases, they are visible to Afghans mainly when they do patrols, and then only as vague silhouettes through the bulletproof, sealed windows of -up‑armored Hummers. The only American who isn't behind glass is the gunner in his intimidating perch. There are dismounted patrols as well--but our troops probably spend more time in Humvees than they should.

Such at least is the position taken in the Army's new Field Manual 3-24, the Galula-inspired, Petraeus-supervised bible on counterinsurgency, which has this to say on the subject in Appendix A:

Raiding from remote, secure bases does not work. Movement on foot, sleeping in villages, and night patrolling all seem more dangerous than they are--and they are what ground forces are trained to do. .  .  . Driving around in an armored convoy actually degrades situational awareness. It makes Soldiers and Marines targets and is ultimately more dangerous than moving on foot and remaining close to the populace.