Commander says civic progress will knock out Taliban
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARONA, Afghanistan — Lt. Col Chris Toner commands a U.S. battalion responsible for helping defeat insurgents in Paktika province, one of the poorest regions in an impoverished, war-battered county.
The province shares a porous border with Pakistan, where the Taliban have set up bases.
But Toner’s not worried about succeeding, despite what history says. In his study of wars of insurgency, he said, “In the overall majority, the insurgency wins.”
But Afghanistan will be among the minority, predicted Toner, who commands some 800 soldiers in the 2nd Battalion of the 87th Infantry Regiment, and as commander of Task Force Catamount, another 230 troops.
The reason, he said, is because U.S. forces, along with the new Afghan armed forces and government, will provide the Afghan people with projects and public works they need and “separate the enemy from the people.”
“The enemy — maybe he’s not on the ropes but he’s getting close to the ropes,” said Toner, 41. “Counter-insurgency takes a long time.”
Toner said that while some provinces, such as Helmand, have deteriorated in security — “There’s poppy fields down there that look like Kansas wheat fields” — Paktika has improved.
“Paktika used to be the wild, wild west,” he said. A couple of years ago, he said, U.S. soldiers got into regular firefights in the village of Orgun, near the 2-87’s forward operating base. “Now I walk down the main street without body armor,” he said.
Better security came with more Afghan National Army forces and new roads that brought commerce and improvements in people’s lives, he said.
“It’s like in the U.S. — you build a road and first the gas station goes in, then the McDonald’s, then the Target. … The economy has improved 50 to 80 percent,” he said.
Toner, on his first combat tour, is nothing if not enthusiastic. He says the 35-year-old governor of Paktika province, who’s been in office six months, is “unique, very successful” and a charismatic speaker who engages the population. He calls the governor and Afghan army generals “the equivalent of our founding fathers.”
In statements that mirror those of many U.S. officers expecting years of continued fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq, he says that clashes with the Taliban have increased because coalition and NATO forces have gone where no lawful authority has been before, and because the Taliban, which took a few years to regroup, is upset by Afghanistan’s progress.
“Why are they blowing up schools? They don’t want people to be educated,” he said.
“They know we are at a point the people are responding to the government.”