Petraeus Considers Expanding Afghan Village Forces

Gen. David Petraeus is settling in as President Obama's top man in Afghanistan. Petraeus and his commanders are pushing a plan to help Afghan villagers fight the Taliban on their own but President Karzai is said not to like the idea much. David Kilcullen talks to Mary Louise Kelly about adapting counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Kilcullen was a senior adviser to Petraeus during the Iraq surge in 2007.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

In Afghanistan, General David Petraeus is settling in as President Obama's top man. He formally took command of the war 10 days ago. And there are already reports of some tension between Petraeus and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Petraeus and his commanders are pushing a plan to help Afghan villagers fight the Taliban on their own. Karzai is said not to like the idea much.

For some insight into the general's thinking, we've turned to David Kilcullen. He used to advise Petraeus on counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq.

And David Kilcullen, what do you make of this debate over whether to expand the number of armed village forces? Is it an effective way to deal with the Taliban?

DAVID KILCULLEN: Well, you know, if you look at sort of the broad sweep of counterinsurgency history over the last, you know, thousand years or so, it's pretty rare to find a counter insurgency campaign where you didn't end up with some kind of local village self-defense force.

The reason for that is very simple. It's much easier to convince somebody who's under threat to pick up a weapon and protect their own community than it is to convince them to go and serve in the national army in some district somewhere else or put their weapon down and expect the government to protect them. It's kind of an intermediate step.

LOUISE KELLY: Well, and I gather that President Karzai is arguing look, Afghanistan has seen its share of local militias, of warlords, maybe this is not a good idea to go down that path again.

KILCULLEN: Yeah, I have limited sympathy for that argument. If you look at the performance of the Afghan police raping people's children when they pull over at vehicle checkpoints, shaking people down. If you look at the Afghan national army which is doing much, much better, but just doesn't have the numbers. And if you then compare that to what Afghans at the local level are saying, which is we don't trust the government, we don't like the Taliban, we want to be able to protect ourselves, then I think there's a strong argument for partnering with people at the local level. But I think you've got to have safeguards in place so that it doesn't lead to the creation of alternative power structures that suck the oxygen away from legitimate government.

LOUISE KELLY: Well, what leverage does General Petraeus have as he negotiates with President Karzai?

KILCULLEN: Well, he has enormous leverage. President Karzai must be aware that he's lost a lot of credibility with the international community and with the Afghan population. And he must be aware that the clock is ticking. And if we don't see a significant improvement in ground-level security, then it's going to be extremely difficult for him to survive.

LOUISE KELLY: Difficult how? Is that because if the U.S. were to stop supporting him his government would collapse?

KILCULLEN: Yes, I think very much so. I think he knows that and I think he's trying to make a deal with the Taliban because he thinks that he's not necessarily going to have U.S. support beyond the middle of next year.

And I think we need to work very hard in the next few months to reassure him, but say, look, in order for us to continue to support you, you've got to fix governance, you've got to make a serious effort at reform, and you've got to work really hard at corruption.

LOUISE KELLY: The middle of next year being the date when President Obama says the U.S. will start to pull troops out of Afghanistan?

KILCULLEN: That's right.

LOUISE KELLY: Let me ask you about that experience in Iraq with General Petraeus. One of the key factors that's often cited in the success there, thus far, is that General Petraeus was able to bring insurgents to the negotiating table. Do you think he'll be able to replicate that? Should he replicate that in Afghanistan?

KILCULLEN: If you look at the broad sweep of history, about 80 percent of counterinsurgency campaigns end in a successful government and the insurgents lose. But if you look at the successful examples, the government almost always negotiates a serious political solution. But you have to be negotiating from a position of strength, which is why local security forces and a credible partner at the local level, all those issues, become very important.

LOUISE KELLY: How much should General Petraeus be considering the politics back here in the U.S.? The idea of negotiating with the Taliban, most Americans see the Taliban as the enemy for better or worse.

KILCULLEN: Well, the Taliban are the enemy, but there's a lot of violence in Afghanistan that isn't directly associated with Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura. I'm pretty sure that we're not going to negotiate some kind of deal with those guys.

You know, people talk about moderate Taliban. There aren't really any moderate Taliban, but there are all of people that are fighting us that are just loosely aligned with the Taliban, and I think are very persuadable under certain circumstances.

LOUISE KELLY: Thank you very much.

KICCULLEN: Thanks.

LOUISE KELLY: That's David Kilcullen. He's the author of the book "Counterinsurgency" and a former adviser to General David Petraeus.

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