October 18, 2012
AP National Security Writer
AB BAND, Afghanistan — Fed up with the Taliban closing their schools and committing other acts of oppression, men in a village about 100 miles south of Kabul took up arms late last spring and chased out the insurgents with no help from the Afghan government or U.S. military.
Small-scale revolts in recent months like the one in Kunsaf, mostly along a stretch of desert south of the Afghan capital, indicate bits of a grass-roots, do-it-yourself anti-insurgency that the U.S. hopes Afghan authorities can transform into a wider movement. Perhaps it can undercut the Taliban in areas they still dominate after 11 years of war with the United States and NATO allies.
The effort in Ghazni Province looks like a long shot. The villagers don’t readily embrace any outside authority, be it the Taliban, the U.S. or the Afghan government.
American officials nonetheless are quietly nurturing the trend, hoping it might become a game changer, or at least a new roadblock for the Taliban. At the same time, they are adamant that if anyone can convince the villagers to side with the Afghan government, it’s the Afghans — not the Americans.
“If we went out there and talked to them we would taint these groups and it would backfire,” said Army Brig. Gen. John Charlton, the senior American adviser to the Afghan military in provinces along the southern approaches to Kabul.
Charlton, who witnessed similar stirrings in Iraq while serving as a commander there in 2007, said that in some cases the Taliban are fighting back fiercely, killing leaders of the armed uprisings. In Kunsaf, for example, the Taliban killed several village fighters in skirmishes as recently as last month, but the Taliban suffered heavy losses and have thus far failed to retake the village.
The American general visited two military bases in the area last week — one in Ghazni’s Ab Band district that was vacated by a U.S. Army brigade as part of September’s U.S. troop drawdown, and the other in nearby Gelan district, where Afghan paramilitary police forces are moving in to fill the gap left by the Americans. Charlton found far fewer paramilitary police there than he says are needed; he is nudging the Afghans to get hundreds more into the area to put more pressure on the Taliban in support of the village uprisings.
Charlton said the U.S. and its coalition partners are taking a behind-the-scenes role — encouraging the Afghans to court the villagers while finding a role for U.S. Special Forces soldiers to forge the villagers into a fighting force as members of the Kabul-sanctioned Afghan Local Police.
Some have compared the apparently spontaneous uprisings to the Iraq war’s Anbar Awakening of 2007, in which Sunni Arab tribes in the western province of Anbar turned on al-Qaida in their midst, joined forces with the Americans and dealt a blow that many credit with turning the tide of that conflict. The U.S. armed and paid the tribal fighters and sought to integrate them into Iraqi government forces.
By coincidence, the first localized movement to draw outside attention in Afghanistan was in Ghazni’s Andar district, about 100 miles south of Kabul. Thus some U.S. analysts are calling this the Andar Awakening, drawing an Iraq war parallel that even the most optimistic American commanders say is a stretch.
“That just builds some false expectations,” said Army Lt. Col. Kevin Lambert, a 1st Infantry Division battalion commander whose area of operations includes Ghazni. He nonetheless is encouraged that after initially balking, the Afghan government is now trying to leverage the Andar unrest. It has installed a new district governor who Lambert said is sympathetic to the uprisings and made changes in the local security forces. It also has authorized a U.S. Special Forces team to work with the villagers.
“It’s going to take time, it’s not going to be an Anbar (Iraq) sweep,” Lambert said. “It is going to be village by village, district by district, and we may not see the results of this for some years.”
Senior officers at the U.S. military headquarters sound even more cautious.
“So far what we are not seeing is a coalescing of it into a greater movement,” said Australian Maj. Gen. Stephen Day, the plans chief for the international coalition’s joint command. He said “nothing as substantial” as the Andar uprising is happening elsewhere in the country.
U.S. officials say there are signs of anti-Taliban resistance, or at least sentiment, in a dozen or more villages in Andar, and at various locations in the nearby districts of Qarabagh, Moqur and Ab Band. There have been small-scale uprisings also in provinces closer to Kabul, including Laghman and Logar.
The question Day says he’s asking is, “Is there a golden thread here that we can pull on that will unite them all?”
It is with that possibility in mind — and an awareness that U.S. influence here is likely to shrink as its forces continue to withdraw — that the Americans are encouraging the Afghan military to complete a plan dubbed Operation Solidarity to make what it can of this unexpected new opening in Ghazni province. Charlton, the American adviser to the commander of the main Afghan army group in this region, said this should be a major focus for the Afghans over the winter, when harsh weather tends to lessen the pace of combat operations.
The three-stage plan, designed with U.S. assistance and launched by the Afghan 203rd Corps in September, begins with an assessment of individual village uprisings and their potential for success. Those deemed worthy of pursuing are then approached by the Afghan military, in some cases to provide weaponry. Charlton described the third stage as a networking effort “to stitch these groups together into something larger.”
Charlton, who was a central player in fostering the Anbar Awakening in Iraq as a brigade commander in the provincial capital of Ramadi in 2007, is notably optimistic about the nascent Afghan uprisings.
“Over the course of the winter, if this thing works out right, these groups will be supported, they will come together a little bit more and by the springtime the insurgency will not have the popular support bases that they are used to having,” he said.
Charlton said he’s not discouraged by the merely incremental progress thus far.
“To me, the Taliban are doing the same thing that al-Qaida was” in Iraq, he said. “They used these really oppressive, violent tactics that eventually alienate these populations. And I see that same dynamic here,” even though that may not be enough to ignite a broader uprising.
“It may not change Afghanistan, but if it can help deny some support bases in Ghazni, we’ll take that. That is something we haven’t had.”