Can a softer approach deter insurgency?
Soldiers focus on economic development to keep Afghans from joining enemy
NARAY, Afghanistan — The people are the prize in any counterinsurgency.
There are an estimated 190,000 of them in Task Force Saber’s area of operations, a remote mountainous area that stretches over eastern Nuristan and northern Kunar provinces.
The region, on the border with neighboring Pakistan, has been one of the most unruly and contested areas in Afghanistan since U.S. and allied forces ousted the Taliban from power nearly seven years ago.
For nearly a year, the troops of Task Force Saber, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, have been locked in a high-stakes struggle with insurgents over who will control this part of eastern Afghanistan.
There are few roads in the area, none of them paved. There is little electricity, no fresh water, and few schools. Ninety percent of the people are subsistence farmers. Most of them can’t read or write.
All of which makes them prime targets for insurgents who offer easy cash to young men willing to take up arms against U.S. and Afghan troops.
“When your choice is to go and become a martyr or be a subsistence farmer all of your life, that makes it kind of compelling to go and fight the infidel,” said Maj. Nathan Springer, a staff officer for Task Force Saber.
Until last summer, U.S. and Afghan forces in this part of Afghanistan were few and scattered. The region seesawed between benign neglect and outright lawlessness. Its steep forested mountains and isolated valleys provided a formidable sanctuary for the Taliban, al-Qaida and other militant groups.
But that dynamic began to change when soldiers with 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment arrived here last June. Instead of going after insurgents with guns blazing, however, Task Force Saber has taken a softer approach, working instead to improve security by strengthening local governance and economic development in a region that’s seen very little of any in the past 30 years.
With an endless supply of potential enemy fighters facing U.S. troops, it’s the only strategy that makes any sense, say Springer and other U.S. officers. The approach is classic counterinsurgency, which seeks to offer the local populace a better life and drive a wedge between them and the enemy.
“Where people have jobs, where the economy is self-sustaining and where people have hope for themselves and their future, there is no tolerance for an insurgency,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Kolenda, Task Force Saber commander.
Since deploying to the area last May, Task Force Saber has spent more than $8 million on local projects ranging from two small hydropower plants to new roads and bridges, pipelines, schools, even a cultural center. A U.S. provincial reconstruction team has funded an additional $16 million worth of development schemes, and plans for several million more dollars are in the works.
The biggest and most ambitious project is the $40 million widening and paving of 70 kilometers of road from Asmar, in Kunar province to the south, to Kamdesh, capital of Nuristan province. Most of the road is accessible only by four-wheel drive, and to drive from Kamdesh to Asadabad, capital of Kunar province, takes eight hours.
By the time the road is complete, travel time between Asadabad and Kamdesh will be cut in half, opening up Nuristan to further economic development. In the meantime, the three-year road project will bring thousands of jobs.
“All of this is meant to bring help to a very impoverished area,” said Kolenda. “It will give young men in the area a compelling alternative to the insurgents. One of the things we’ve found is that the enemy cannot compete with hope.”
While improvements on the Asmar-to-Kamdesh road have not begun, U.S. and Afghan troops took a significant step by securing the Gowardesh Valley, a key piece of terrain along the route. Gowardesh had been under insurgent control since last August, when Afghan border police abandoned a checkpoint there until the operation, dubbed “Mountain Highway II,” kicked off a little over two weeks ago.
Since the start of the operation, U.S. forces in the Gowardesh have not been attacked. That’s largely because of the efforts of a 100-man group of tribal leaders from Kamdesh, who have urged locals to cooperate, according to Kolenda and other U.S. officers.
The relative ease of the operation, so far, stands in stark contrast to last summer, when U.S. forces with Task Force Saber battled insurgents ranging from 30 to more than 100 enemy fighters at a time.
Six Task Force Saber soldiers have died in battle over the past year, and more than 30 others have been wounded. Meanwhile, the task force has killed or captured more than 230 enemy fighters. But those figures are faulty measures of the task force’s success in Nuristan, Kolenda said. “You can’t fight your way out of an insurgency,” he said. “The supply of fighters here is inexhaustible.”
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