Critic: Afghan Offensive A 'Public Affairs Exercise'

A scathing article in the latest Foreign Policy magazine calls the military offensive into Afghanistan's Marjah region "essentially a giant public affairs exercise, designed to shore up dwindling domestic support for the war by creating an illusion of progress." Host Guy Raz speaks to one of the co-authors of the story, Thomas Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

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GUY RAZ, host:

This past week, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, told the Soldiers Radio and Television Network that his new strategy to secure the civilian population is working.

General STANLEY McCHRYSTAL (Commander, International Security Assistance Force): If we think of war in a more conventional sense, we think of taking terrain or killing the enemy. This is not that. This is a war for the people.

RAZ: And one of the early tests of McChrystal's new approach has been in the southern town of Marjah, where U.S. and British forces recently drove out the Taliban.

But an article in the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine argues that that operation was misguided. The article was co-written by Thomas Johnson. He's a research professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Professor THOMAS JOHNSON (Research, Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School): I'm very concerned that we're tying up 15,000 security providers in a small patch of land in Helmand. Most observers suggest that at the height of Taliban presence there, there might have been maybe a thousand, maybe 1,200. Most of those skedaddled for the hills before we ever entered the hamlets, and probably now, you might have 300 to 400.

So, having 15,000 military personnel to hold down 300 or 400 Taliban seems to me to be out of synch.

RAZ: If the Marjah operation is, as you wrote in your article, a public affairs exercise, what alternatives should NATO pursue to combat the Taliban?

Prof. JOHNSON: Well, I think that we have to have a true policy that's focused on population centricity. I've been calling for the development of district reconstruction teams based on our provincial reconstruction teams.

RAZ: How would that work? Explain...

Prof. JOHNSON: Well, they should be deployed into all of the 200 provinces of Afghanistan in the east and the south of the country. And I think, relative to the security providers, I think that we could do these with maybe less than a company, maybe a hundred, 120 people, that's augmented by Afghan National Army and maybe even Afghan National Police, and that's complimented with development specialists.

The strategy is to go in and win the trust and confidence of the people; and you know, what we basically have been doing over eight years in Afghanistan is whack-a-mole. You know, we whack one area, and they come up a different hole. But if we could simultaneously surge in, and I'm talking maybe 20,000, 25,000 security providers relative to these 200 district reconstruction teams in all of the districts in the east and the south, it could help to make the insurgency irrelevant.

RAZ: When you say security providers, you're talking about U.S. forces, NATO forces, Afghan forces, right?

Prof. JOHNSON: Absolutely.

RAZ: So, but isn't that precisely what the strategy is right now?

Prof. JOHNSON: Well, I think theoretically, I think you could say that. We'll see what happens. I mean, the clear phase is about done. They're going to start apparently to hold and then to build. I mean, one of the problems in Afghanistan is we've done an awful lot of clearing, but we clear, return to forward operating base, clear, return to forward operating base.

The different thing here with Marjah is that the Marines and other ISAF members are going to be living with the people apparently. But I still think the force is disproportionate to what we're getting out of it. I think that the force could be used in other areas.

RAZ: You have criticized the U.S. military and NATO's approach to the Taliban, saying that they're fighting a secular insurgency, and that's all wrong.

Prof. JOHNSON: Right. I think that this is an insurgency wrapped in the narrative of the jihad. This is not a secular insurgency. The Taliban, at least the Taliban that mattered, the leadership of the Taliban, represent what Eric Hoffer would call true believers.

Most insurgencies end through negotiation and reconciliation. These people are not willing to negotiate, I think, truthfully. In many respects, we haven't understood the actual enemy, much like in Vietnam, that we're operating against.

RAZ: So Thomas Johnson, clear this up. I mean, if U.S. NATO forces do remain there for a long time, what do you propose they do to bring this country under some kind of order and to defeat the Taliban?

Prof. JOHNSON: I think that we really have to rebuild Afghanistan from the bottom up. One of our problems in Afghanistan again is too much has come from Kabul, a regime that has basically no legitimacy in the hinterlands of Afghanistan.

I think that we need to try to recreate the type of equilibrium that existed in the Afghan hinterland years ago and rebuild the traditional systems. Much of this was dislocated during the Soviets' Afghan war, where we encouraged the mullahs to play a political role and to be able to create jihadists to fight against the Soviets. And I think the real problem in Afghanistan is that the traditional social structure has been completely taken out of whack.

RAZ: But hasn't that argument that you raise been recognized as part of the new approach, I mean, specially by General McChrystal? I mean, isn't he trying to approach it precisely in the way that you're talking about?

Prof. JOHNSON: Well, if he did, I think that he would move many more of the troops off of the forward operating bases. I mean, a counterinsurgency or fighting this type of counterinsurgency wrapped in the narrative of jihad can't be done by taking a taxi to work. We have to be where the Taliban are operating 24/7, 365; and in the past, we just haven't done that.

So I mean, there are aspects of what General McChrystal is doing right now that I think are very good, but I think that it has to be done countrywide, and I think it has to be done in a much more intense way, but not necessarily focusing on a small patch of land in Helmand Province with the number of security providers that have been deployed.

RAZ: Why do you think it's worth it, then, to even remain in Afghanistan?

Prof. JOHNSON: Well, I it might not be worth it if we don't have a clearly articulated desired end state. If our strategy is to, you know, destroy al-Qaida, al-Qaida is not in Afghanistan. I mean, Admiral Mullen has suggested there's probably less than 100 al-Qaida in the entire country. I mean, they're in Pakistan.

So I think ultimately, Afghanistan is worth fighting if we have a rational desired end state, and I'm not quite sure what that desired end state is, but if it's to focus on the destruction, dismantling of al-Qaida, you know, Afghanistan surely isn't the place we should be.

RAZ: That's Thomas Johnson. He's a research professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. You can find that article he co-authored on Afghanistan in the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Thomas Johnson, thank you.

Mr. JOHNSON: It's been my pleasure.

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