The Magazine

A Counterinsurgency Grows in Khost

An unheralded U.S. success in Afghanistan.

May 19, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 34 • By ANN MARLOWE
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While news reports like to speak of a "resurgent Taliban" in Afghanistan, in the 14 provinces that make up Regional Command East in Afghanistan they are a defeated military force. Not only do the Taliban refuse to engage American forces directly, they have not won an engagement with the Afghan National Army in a year. Even the unimpressive Afghan National Police have lately been winning battles with the insurgents.

RC-East is one of five regional commands in the NATO-led military and development mission in Afghanistan, and the only one under U.S. command. Colonel Marty Schweitzer of the 82nd Airborne Division has just finished a 15-month deployment commanding coalition forces in six provinces in eastern Afghanistan. Here on the eastern border and in the north of the country, the insurgency is largely a matter of IEDs and VBIEDs (Vehicle Born Improvised Explosion Devices), with the occasional suicide bomber. The counterinsurgency is what's resurgent. The rugged terrain Schweitzer was responsible for shares a long border with Pakistan and is inhabited by 4.9 million Afghans, mostly poor and illiterate Pashtuns. But U.S. forces have made great progress in these six provinces. While only 22 of the 86 districts supported the government in early 2007 when Schweitzer took command and 58 at the end of 2007, 72 support it today. In the six eastern provinces, there were 3,400 Afghan National Security Forces in the beginning of 2007; there are now 12,450. And all of this has been at the cost of only 11 civilian casualties in Schweitzer's six provinces.

The crown jewel in the American counterinsurgency is Khost province. Here Lieutenant Colonel Scottie D. Custer pioneered an innovative strategy that Schweitzer quickly copied in other provinces. Custer was Khost's maneuver commander. Each province under American protection has a maneuver commander and a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) commander. Maneuver commanders are in charge of making war, while PRT commanders do development work--though the maneuver commanders have special funds for their own development projects.

Khost province is about the size of the Bay Area and has a similar population, around one million. The province was created when the Communist Afghan government tried to rationalize its territory. In 1979 Paktika was carved out of what had been parts of Ghazni and Paktia; six years later the easternmost section of Paktika became Khost. The new province's borders followed the tribal boundaries, and there's no sense that it's an artificial entity.

Khost was in most ways unpromising terrain for developing a successful counterinsurgency. The province had never seen the benefits of what few government services Afghanistan offered before the civil war, and as many as 200,000 Khostis have voted with their feet, emigrating to Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and other emirates. They send $6 to $12 million a year back to their families. This is the major source of income for the province, along with agriculture and the logging of the once-plentiful mountain forests. (Opium isn't grown here.)

Khost has a backwoods, archaic flavor. There is no municipal power supply in the province. This isn't unusual in Afghanistan, but while people in more prosperous areas have diesel generators, few Khostis do. Televisions are rare, and American soldiers have distributed thousands of hand-cranked radios in the province. Education was limited to the rote memorization of prayers in rural villages until the last year or so. A five-year plan that aims for 60 percent literacy in the province is very ambitious.

It's hard to overestimate the isolation of the rural people here. Some Khostis living in remote upland villages are only now encountering Americans for the first time. I saw kids who had never learned to play catch, and heard of families of midgets, some of whom are police officers. So it is doubly impressive that Khost has made great civil and economic strides in the last couple of years.

"I am convinced that the cause of instability in Afghanistan is poor governance," says Colonel Schweitzer. "Everything else is a symptom. A year ago, Khost was the most unstable of my six provinces. Today it is the most stable. Why? The governor, Arsala Jamal, and the 10 of the 12 subgovernors who get it." But it also wouldn't have been possible without Scottie Custer.