Things are not well in the Hindu Kush. Almost every day brings new civilian victims of the fight against the Taliban. This is not the way for the West to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans. NATO has recognized this: in the future, attacks in which civilians could be harmed will be terminated. Bombs with a smaller payload should help reduce “collateral damage” during air strikes. This strategy has already generated initial success for the Americans–in Iraq.
In the same country that everyone is already predicting as a second Vietnam for the United States, US forces are increasingly viewed by the Iraqi population not as a threat, but as an ally in the fight against the daily terror operations conducted by extremists. This image makeover can be traced back to a strategic realignment at the Pentagon. Since the new commander David Petraeus arrived in the country, US forces have operated according to patterns which could come straight out of a manual for the German Bundeswehr: small, mobile units securing strategic locations and protecting the local population; reconstruction of the local economy and infrastructure; and establishment and cultivation of close ties to local tribal leaders and politicians. Posters at the US bases along the Euphrates and Tigris ask, “What have you done today to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis?”
American troops stationed in Iraq will not be the only ones hearing this question in the future. They have been training from a new Army and Navy Infantry Manual since December 2006, once which teaches how to fight insurgents while simultaneously building a nation. Excessive force during house searches and mistreatment of detainees are taboo. The protection of civilians is top priority.
The new tactic is practiced on training grounds in Germany with civilians from Morocco, Syria, Palestine and Iraq. The Pentagon wants its soldiers to become familiar with the enemy’s culture of origin. Over the past few years, GIs have learned the importance of ethnic and religious factors. Knowledge of “cultural terrain” has gradually become as meaningful for operations as the geography of the field location.
The American army is thus catching up on a process of transformation that the Bundeswehr has already undergone. The emphasis is no longer on symmetrical battles against tank battalions, but on a type of nation-building police mission, as in the Balkans. American forces are taking over tasks which until now were typical of German military missions: drilling wells and building schools, regulating traffic, organizing elections. In Washington’s new doctrine on combating insurgency, civilian and classical military operations are on the same level. The experiences of the last few years have shown that even the most technologically advanced and modern army cannot win a war with military might alone. “Shock and awe” is no longer what US forces want to disperse. The doctrine of the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is history. From the first combat operations, the civilian population will not only be protected, but actually supported, in order to win their backing on regime change.
The latest and perhaps most effective weapons in the army’s arsenal are not high tech armaments, but cultural sensitivity, tolerance and respect for difference. In particular, a new generation of American officers is currently learning when and where not to shoot. An army that uses excessive force at the wrong place and in the wrong time only creates more enemies. The Americans already realized this in Iraq. Now they want to “Iraqize” Afghanistan. Good news for Kabul.
Thomas Speckmann is consultant to the Office of the Governor of the Federal State of North-Rhine Westphalia and Assistant Lecturer at the seminar on political science and sociology of the University of Bonn. The above article represents his own views and opinions.
Translated into English by Niklas Keller . The original article was published by the Die Welt newspaper on August 4, 2007
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