In 2007-2008, 250 paratroopers secured a Pashtun province of one million by working closely with the tribes.
By DAVID ADAMS AND ANN MARLOWE
From the beginning of 2007 to March 2008, the 82nd Airborne Division’s strategy in Khost proved that 250 paratroopers could secure a province of a million people in the Pashtun belt. The key to success in Khost—which shares a 184 kilometer-long border with Pakistan’s lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas—was working within the Afghan system. By partnering with closely supervised Afghan National Security Forces and a competent governor and subgovernors, U.S. forces were able to win the support of Khost’s 13 tribes.
Today, 2,400 U.S. soldiers are stationed in Khost. But the province is more dangerous.
Mohammed Aiaz, a 32-year-old Khosti advising the Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team, puts it plainly: “The answer is not more troops, which will put Afghans in more danger.” If troops don’t understand Afghan culture and fail to work within the tribal system, they will only fuel the insurgency. When we get the tribes on our side, that will change. When a tribe says no, it means no. IEDs will be reported and no insurgent fighters will be allowed to operate in or across their area.
Khost once had security forces with tribal links. Between 1988 and 1991, the Soviet client government in Kabul was able to secure much of eastern and southern Afghanistan by paying the tribal militias. Khost was secured by the 25th Division of the Afghan National Army (ANA), which incorporated militias with more than 400 fighters from five of Khost’s 13 major tribes. The mujahedeenwere not able to take Khost until internal rifts among Pashtuns in then-President Mohammed Najibullah’s government resulted in a loss of support for the militias in Khost and, eventually, the defection of the 25th Division in April 1991.
The mistake the Najibullah government made was not integrating advisers to train the tribal militias and transform them into a permanent part of the government security forces. During the Taliban period between 1996-2001 the 25th Division dispersed amongst the tribes. Many fled to Pakistan.
When the U.S. invaded in 2001, the 25th Division, reformed under the command of Gen. Kilbaz Sherzai, immediately secured Khost. But the division was disbanded by the new Afghan government for fear of warlordism.
Today, some elements of the 25th still work for the Americans as contract security forces. However, the ANA now stationed in Khost is mainly composed of northern, non-Pashtun Dari speakers, and it is regarded as a foreign body. Without local influence and tribal support, the ANA tends to stay on its bases.
Part of this is our fault. We built the ANA in our own Army’s image. Its soldiers live on nice bases and see themselves as the protectors of Afghanistan from conventional attacks by Pakistan. But to be effective, the ANA must be structured more like a National Guard, responsible for creating civil authority and training the police.
We saw how this could work in the Tani district of Khost starting in 2007. By assisting an ANA company—with a platoon of American paratroopers, a civil affairs team from the U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, the local Afghan National Police, and a determined Afghan subgovernor named Badi Zaman Sabari—we secured the district despite its long border with Pakistan.
Raids by the paratroopers under the leadership of Lt. Col. Scott Custer were extremely rare because the team had such good relations with the tribes that they would generally turn over any suspect. These good tribal relations were strengthened further by meeting the communities’ demands for a new paved road, five schools, and a spring water system that supplies 12,000 villagers.
Yet security has deteriorated in Khost, despite increases of U.S. troops in mid-2008. American strategy began to focus more on chasing the insurgents in the mountains instead of securing the towns and villages where most Khostis live.
The insurgents didn’t stick around to get shot when they saw the American helicopters coming. But the villagers noticed when the roads weren’t built on time and the commanders never visited.
Meanwhile, the increasing number of raids on Afghan homes alienated many of Khost’s tribal elders. The Afghan National Police in Tani and many other districts of Khost were afraid to patrol in their uniforms and official vehicles lest they be killed by insurgents. The ANA in Tani rarely left the district center, which came to resemble a small fortress. Having lost support of the tribes, Badi Zaman Sabari was assassinated on Feb. 14, 2009, by insurgents led by the longtime mujahedeen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani. They are the main belligerents focused on undermining ISAF’s efforts in southeast Afghanistan.
A major reason for our slow progress in Afghanistan is that, because of turnovers in leadership and changes in strategy, we continue to fight one-year wars and forget about the long term. When we become fixated on clearing insurgents, we lose focus on the tribes, which are critical to our success. The proper recipe is not clear, hold and build. As we learned in Khost, it is befriend, secure, build governance—and then hold. Without a consistent strategy of enlisting tribal cooperation, more troops will simply find more trouble in the Pashtun belt.
—Cmdr. Adams commanded the Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team from March 2007 to March 2008. He is now the prospective commander of the nuclear submarine the USS Santa Fe. Ms. Marlowe did four embeds with American forces in Khost during 2007-2008.