As the violence in Afghanistan continues to intensify, the top American general in the country, Gen. David McKiernan, is ratcheting up his efforts to counter the burgeoning insurgency. But for McKiernan, there are some things his new approach does not include: Notably, it doesn't include a renewed emphasis on air strikes. Nor does it place value on more raids of suspected terrorist hideouts.
Instead, McKiernan has sharpened his focus on the long-neglected practice of winning hearts and minds. But rather than simply paying the technique lip service--as has often been done in the past--McKiernan, in a concerted shift, is now placing more importance on effective communication with tribal leaders than on killing militants.
The top U.S. general in Afghanistan reached out to influential Afghan tribesmen in regions where U.S. troops will soon deploy, apologizing for past mistakes and saying he is now studying the Quran, the Muslim holy book.
Gen. David McKiernan met with villagers in Helmand and Kandahar -- two of Afghanistan's most violent provinces -- in an attempt to foster good will ahead of the U.S. troop surge that will send 21,000 more forces here this summer to stem an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency.
McKiernan said he wanted to show respect to tribal elders by traveling to Kandahar on Wednesday to explain some of the mistakes U.S. forces have made in the past -- such as arresting people based on information taken from one side in a tribal fight, or killing civilians during operations.
"I'm trying to connect to the local population in a bottom-up way and try to explain what the new U.S. strategy means and why they're going to see an increased force presence where they live," McKiernan said during the trip to Kandahar aboard the seven passenger jet he flies in.
This is a long-overdue move, but a seismic shift in the approach, nonetheless. The key to understanding any insurgency is to put yourself in the insurgents' shoes; to find out what motivates them. And that's what this is all about. While blowhards and chickenhawks on the Right will presumably accuse McKiernan of emulating President Obama's actions as "Apologizer-in-Chief," this is, in fact, a real step toward pacifying the insurgency in Afghanistan.
McKiernan told the Afghans that President Barack Obama's new strategy is to combat instability in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region as a whole. He said that in the future, Afghan forces will enter villagers' homes if necessary, a pledge that brought another round of applause. He then said he was studying the Muslim holy book.
"I'm reading a very good book now about this part of the world. It's written in English, but it's all about you -- it's the Quran," McKiernan said to applause. Moments later an Afghan man stood up and gave McKiernan a bright purple, red and green cloth in which to wrap the translated version of holy book.
I'm sure the heads of the no-negotiation crowd will explode on hearing such an anecdote, but this is how effective counterinsurgency is done. Of course, we're hearing rumblings of discontent already. And I'm sure it'll only be a matter of hours before Gingrich, Malkin, and Glenn Beck begin calling for the removal of McKiernan the "appeaser" and McKiernan the "Obama lackey." In fact, I have a clip of how they'll argue about what consequences an American commander reading the Quran could bring:
But I'm sure it won't be that bad. Sarcasm aside, however, those who've served on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan understand that U.S. troops will never end an insurgency through the use of firepower and rigidity. And those who would suggest otherwise are uninformed, inexperienced, and dangerous. If we're ever going to leave Afghanistan in a relative peace, this type of approach is what it's going to take.
Now, if Petraeus and McKiernan can push this mentality down to the platoon level, there might be hope for success in the region.
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