October 22, 2007

COIN in Afghanistan: Theory and Practice

Abu Muqawama appreciates the space the New York Times has been giving to Roger Cohen on its online op-ed page, which means readers get to hear views on foreign affairs not penned by Nicholas Kristof or Tom Friedman. (Which is, we can all agree, a wonderful and necessary thing.) Today, Cohen takes a break from writing about his favorite subject -- France -- to report from Afghanistan.

Nations are built one village at a time. Or so Colonel Bramble has come to believe. He is a thoughtful man, commanding a NATO provincial reconstruction team, one of 25 across the country, at a base in Qalat, between Kandahar and Kabul. His team is supposed to deliver the development and good governance that will marginalize the Taliban.

That’s the theory. The practice looks like this. Seven armored U.S. Humvees form a “perimeter” on the edge of the village and newly trained members of the Afghan police — the “Afghan face” on this mission — are dispatched to bring out village elders.

Looking apprehensive, the Afghans appear swathed in robes and headgear whose bold colors mock dreary U.S. Army camouflage. Staff Sgt. Marco Villalta, of San Mateo, Calif., steps forward: “We would like to ask you some questions about your village.”

The following is elicited: There are 300 families using 25 wells. Their irrigation ditches get washed away in winter. A small bridge keeps collapsing. They send their children to a school in nearby Shajoy, but it’s often closed because of Taliban threats to teachers.

Sergeant Villalta takes notes. “We’ll share this information with the governor and make sure that something is done.”

“No! No!,” says Sardar Mohammed. “We don’t trust the governor. If he gets food, he gives it to 10 families. He puts money in his pocket. We trust you more than him. Bring aid directly to us.”

Bramble’s view is that the governor is as good as officials get around here. The U.S. officer, like his country and NATO, is caught in the hall of mirrors of contested nation-building. The exchange at the village has traversed cultures, civilizations and centuries. For Western soldiers trained to kill, and now in the business of hoisting an Islamic country from nothing as fighting continues, that’s challenging.