Federico Manfredi strolled down to the local bus depot and started talking to people. The bus depot was in Kandahar, south Afghanistan, and it was the quickest way for Federico to get a grip on how people felt about the mess their country is in.
Manfredi, wearing civilian clothes and no threat to anyone, was able to ask local people about their concerns. What he heard underlined what he already knows as an insurgencies and counterinsurgencies specialist. The war is not working. Lack of security is a major issue, even though foreign troops are thick on the ground in southern Afghanistan. People were agitated and fearful, their sympathies have turned against the NATO forces, and yet they were anguished about the rising of the Taliban.
Manfredi became acutely aware of "the sense of helplessness [rural Afghans] experience when they hear the roar of combat aircraft approaching their villages. The coalition's tactics become even more problematic when one considers the discomforting contrast between Afghanistan's humble mud brick communities and the West's supersonic fighter jets armed with earth-shaking bombs and missiles. Coalition ground troops may request air support to win battles, but in doing so they are losing the war."
The view that Afghanistan is a military failure may come us a surprise to those who are going gangbusters about increasing troop numbers. They include John Hutton, the UK Defence Secretary who has pledged an extra 3,000 British troops for 2009, while lambasting European NATO allies for their failure to send more forces. "We don't have enough troops, and we need more," Secretary Hutton said.
The new Obama administration calls the deteriorating situation "urgent." CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus has confirmed that 32,000 US troops will head to Afghanistan by the summer (adding to the 36,000 already there).
Federico Manfredi feels that the increasing troop levels and stepping up military operations because the bipartisan view is that Afghanistan is a "good war" is just plain wrong.
In a report for the World Policy Institute, which can be read here, Manfredi says that the current US strategy in Afghanistan is failing, and that the US and their NATO allies are being led into an increasing bloody war that is straining relationships in NATO, having little success on the ground, and creating hostility with ordinary Afghans.
"Conventional military attacks on the Taliban and al Qaeda only radicalize besieged rural communities and fuel the insurgency. Instead of relying primarily on military force the United States should seek to isolate al Qaeda politically," Federico Manfredi told the Huffington Post from Kandahar. "Right now the Taliban and Al-Qaeda share a common enemy in the United States. But if the Obama administration can make it clear that the United States has no interest in a permanent occupation of Afghanistan, and that it would willingly withdraw its troops from the region if only the Taliban agreed to deny a safe haven to Al-Qaeda, then the nationalist factions within the movement might decide to switch their allegiance."
This means that the US and NATO would have to rethink their military strategies and rather than might, they would have to negotiate with terrorists. Will Obama be able to do that? Manfredi does not see a problem.
"If it was acceptable for the Bush administration to negotiate directly with the Sunni sheiks of Iraq, why not negotiate with the Taliban?" he said, "After all, the much-celebrated [Iraqi] Awakening Councils are comprised by and large by former insurgents. In August 2008, I interviewed sheik Ali Hatam, the most prominent leader within the councils, and he candidly admitted that only a few years ago he supported the insurgency wholeheartedly. One of his militiamen I interviewed in Al-Adhamiye, a former Al-Qaida stronghold in central Baghdad, told me that he was once a member of a terrorist cell. Asked why he had decided to switch sides he replied: "My sheik told me Al-Qaida was not good for us, that we had to get rid of it, and I obeyed my sheik." The United States negotiated directly with the Sunni sheiks of Iraq, even though they certainly fit the terrorist label. Now the United States should do the same in Afghanistan, and negotiate directly with the Taliban."