April 1, 2010:
Over the last two years, American troops have adopted a different way of waging war in Afghanistan. This is mainly because, in the last two years, a new American commander, lieutenant general Stanley McChrystal, took over. The new commander has a background in the U.S. Army Special Forces and special operations. McChrystal was not a career Special Forces officer, but spent ten years in Special Forces and Ranger units, often commanding. He got to know how special operations work, and that background resulted in new tactics for the Afghan operations.
As a result, American troops in Afghanistan are adopting techniques developed from many generations of U.S. Army Special Forces experience. From the beginning, in World War II, the Special Forces (then a component of the wartime OSS, or Office of Strategic Services), adopted a cultural approach to dealing with situations like Afghanistan. To accomplish this, Special Forces operatives had to become members of an elite force, who learned the languages and cultures of the region they specialized in, as well as being the most proficient infantry in the army.
In Afghanistan, this means the operations around Helmand province, and the nearby city of Kandahar will be more about local politics, than fighting the Taliban. Fact is, fighting the Taliban has never been difficult. Despite their fearsome reputation, Afghans with guns are not particularly dangerous to trained soldiers. Most of the Russian troops sent in during the 1980s were poorly trained, and inexperienced, conscripts. But the professional Russian troops (airborne and special operations), tore up the Afghan warriors. The Russians were not chased out of Afghanistan, they just got tired of killing Afghans. Plus, Russia was sliding towards insolvency. The Soviet Union disintegrated two years after Russians left Afghanistan. The current situation in Afghanistan is very different. The new American tactics take advantage of the fact that most Afghans would like some peace for a change, and are willing to help, if you just sit down and discuss it with them.
All this is part of a trend. Since September 11, 2001, the Special Forces have been increasingly influencing the way the army deals with irregular warfare. Thus the increase of American forces in Afghanistan is accompanied by new techniques for connecting, and working with, Afghans. This is important, because there is no cultural glue holding Afghanistan together. The country is a patchwork of tribes, each of them looking inwards, rather than outward. Thus the foreign troops find it more effective when they work with the locals on personal and tribal concerns. This is what gets the attention, and cooperation, of rural Afghans. The tribes see the national government as a necessary evil, and provincial government as a source of oppression (unless their tribe controls it.)
The local and personal approach requires, as the Special Forces puts it, "drinking lots of tea." In other words, troops enter a village as if on a social visit. Bring gifts and have a long chat. Not just with the local notables (tribal elders or wealthy families), but with ordinary people. The teenage kid who spends most of his time out in the hills looking after his sheep, knows a lot about who is moving through the area, especially groups of armed Taliban.
A little money goes a long way in Afghanistan, which has an unemployment rate of over 40 percent. Afghanistan has always been a place where you just scraped by, and died young from violence or disease. Afghanistan was always isolated, but that has changed. Young Afghans know of another world out there, and the cell phone is tangible evidence of that better place they can aspire to. Several hundred thousand Afghans a month are getting cell phones, and loving it. The spread of videos has made Afghans aware of wonders their parents could not even imagine. The Special Forces made the most of this, and have demonstrated these methods to other army troops.
Thus when foreign troops come by, with medicine and magical procedures that cure afflictions that have cursed Afghans for centuries. Magic pills and injections, plus all the gadgets from this fantasy world, are welcome. Especially since the cell phone, which is increasingly available in the most remote areas, lets millions of Afghans hold in their hands, assurance that this magic outside world really exists. The Old Ways haven't got a chance.
Many foreign governments have a hard time wrapping their heads around the alien culture of Afghanistan. This is a medieval place, where realities that disappeared in the West centuries ago, still thrive. But Afghans, especially the young ones, are eager to connect with friendly, and generous, foreigners. At that point, human nature takes over, and the troops find that all manner of useful information and cooperation is available. The Special Forces used this technique to organize armed resistance to common enemies. Since the Taliban tend to bring in alien ideas (religious and social customs from other tribes), and use terror and intimidation to get their way, it's not too difficult for American troops to gain cooperation against a common foe.
The big problem in Afghanistan is corruption, which is largely the result of people trusting family and tribe more than government. Breaking that cycle is difficult. But, once again, most Afghans are ready for a change. And enough of them have friends or kin living in the West to know that there are better ways to do things.