By Michael Shank

United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ recent commentary that “things are slowly, cautiously headed in the right direction” in Afghanistan convinced very few. General Dan McNeill, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, seconded the notion by saying “I would judge that we presently have the upper hand in what we’re doing.” There would be much to celebrate if that were true.

Instead, Kabul is displeased with what appears to be a strategy of shoot and spray – the former aimed at suspected Taliban, the latter at farmers’ opium fields. So fed up in fact, are Afghanistan’s higher and lower parliamentary houses, that they have called on timelines for foreign troop withdrawal culminating in the eventual eviction of international forces. Realizing that local support for foreign intervention was waning fast, Gates coupled his “right direction” comment with a spurious claim that Iran was arming Afghans (despite a lack of evidence) – an attempt, it seems, to justify a longer U.S.-NATO stay in the country. No one seems to be buying into this idea.

If the U.S., or NATO for that matter, wants Afghanistan to head in the “right direction”, it must rethink its shoot and spray policy – an approach which is leaving, respectively, hundreds of innocent civilians dead and desperate farmers in its wake.

NATO, to its credit, seems to understand the need to rethink strategy. General McNeill recently admitted the “lack of unified effort among the international community in terms of the reconstruction effort” and recommended that aid donors coordinate with the Afghan government and give Afghans more control over projects. While General McNeill understands in theory what needs correcting, in practice he appears ill-equipped. The fix, in McNeill terms, is feasible only with improved equipment, i.e. maneuver forces, battalions, and attack helicopters. All receipts point to further attacks; a reconstruction plan is simply not on his immediate agenda.

So if not shoot and spray, then what?

Short of killing people and destroying crops, the Afghan and Dutch governments are pursuing more promising routes that are worth considering. The Afghan government aims to negotiate with the Taliban, asking NATO to do the same. The Dutch, alternatively, in the words of Commander Colonel Hans van Griensven, are “not here to fight the Taliban,” but rather “here to make the Taliban irrelevant”.

While dialogue with the Taliban is undoubtedly a non-starter for the U.S. or NATO, the strategy employed by the Dutch offers the best chance for success by foreign troops. If the U.S. and NATO adopted the Dutch approach – i.e. building and repairing schools, mosques, police garrisons, courtrooms and hospitals, offering job training, assistance in self-governance – then perhaps foreign troops might wield the “upper hand” in Afghanistan. Yet Dutch influence is limited with only 2,000 troops in the country. Imagine if the remaining 32,000 NATO troops and the U.S.’s 16,000 troops adhered to the Dutch attitude of respect and restraint: a different Afghanistan would emerge.

Why? This change would undermine the Taliban’s political and economic appeal. Currently the Taliban offers the disaffected and impoverished an appealing package: a voice, albeit unofficial, in the national political arena and an enviable salary often six times that of government pay. The Dutch recognize this and thus attempt to provide an alternate, equally competitive package.

The remaining U.S. and NATO troops inadvertently stimulate a fresh batch of recruits for the Taliban with their indiscriminate shelling and opium eradication. Villagers in Afghanistan’s western town of Shindand – the latest victim of a U.S. bombardment that destroyed 100 homes and killed 57 people, half of which were women and children – are now ripe for the Taliban picking. Farmers whose crops lie in ruins, and who were provided no viable agricultural alternative by the very U.S. forces responsible for the spraying, also remain vulnerable to Taliban recruitment. Ironically, it is as if the U.S. and NATO forces were working on behalf of the Taliban. The offensive orchestrated by Gates and McNeill is only boosting Taliban morale.

Consequently, the right direction in Afghanistan is not more shooting and spraying. The U.S. has employed tactics like this for several years now and the Taliban has only benefited, fueled by the anger and bitterness of victims’ families and bankrupt farmers. The proper direction in Afghanistan is to make the Taliban irrelevant, as the Dutch are doing. That means improving the lives of Afghans and their ability to self-govern. Until that happens, however, expect higher numbers of fresh Taliban recruits.

The author is a PhD student at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

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