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Out-'talibaning' the Taliban: can the US ‘win’ in Afghanistan?

By Sasha Uzunov - posted Tuesday, 30 December 2008

The late David “Hack” Hackworth, the most decorated American soldier from the Korean and Vietnam Wars and a respected military critic, once said that to beat the guerrilla or insurgent you have to “out-g the g” or out-guerrilla the guerrilla! That is you have to use his tactics against him.

The United States - and by extension the “Free World” including Australia - now finds itself poised for a make or break year 2009 in the Afghanistan War. The Taliban has become resurgent in more than 50 per cent of the country. Some are claiming more than 70 per cent.

But can the US really win the war in Afghanistan? It depends how you define winning. It has been easy for commentators to compare the Vietnam War and Afghanistan - with the focus on beating an elusive enemy that comes and goes: the Viet Cong in Vietnam and the Taliban in Afghanistan.


With any counter-insurgency war, the key to winning is a two-pronged attack - political and military. That is removing the support for the insurgent or guerrilla from the people. The most obvious way from a political angle is to provide the local people with clean running water, sanitation, health, jobs and education and combat corruption within the government.

The sad truth is that much of the western aid in Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan, is not getting through. Canadian journalist Scott Taylor and I had the opportunity to see for ourselves, outside the wire in June 2008, that local schools did not have books or computers. Literacy is at the heart of weaning the locals from the need for the Taliban.

One brave woman, Sarah Chayse, a former American journalist, lives outside the comfortable NATO base or western style compounds in Kandahar. She has gained street credibility by running a simple soap factory that employs local men and woman. She is Afghanistan’s version of John Paul Vann, the famous American advisor from the Vietnam War. The Commander of Canadian Forces, Brigadier-General Denis Thompson even paid her visit while we were her guests earlier this year.

Moreover, at some point the Taliban will probably have to be brought to the negotiating table. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has left the door open for such a possibility.

Critics always point out that the US is not good at winning counter-insurgency war with Vietnam cited ad nauseam as the example; that US military doctrine is geared towards set piece battles with enormous fire power. The irony of all this is that US has the answers staring it right in the face. The Whitehouse and the Pentagon need only go back into the history pages, back into the time of the founding of the US in the late 18th century.

Rogers Rangers or Petraeus' Patriots

Rogers Rangers were a group of irregular colonial American soldiers recruited by the British in the late 1700s to fight the competing French Empire and Indians in North America. They were famous for using what has now become known as guerrilla tactics, ambushing, hit and run and so on. Later, some of these tactics were used by the Americans fighting for Independence against the British. Those ex-Rogers Rangers that remained loyal to the British Empire during the American War of Independence moved to Canada.


Both the United States and Canadian Armies claim the legacy of Rogers Rangers. The present day 1st Battalion, 119th Field Artillery (United States) and the Canadian The Queen's York Rangers (1st American Regiment) trace their roots back to Rogers Rangers.
Both countries are now fighting side by side in Afghanistan. The Canadians have taken many casualties, with a hundred soldiers killed already.

Perhaps the US military might want to re-create a 21st century version of Rogers’s Rangers and call it Petraeus’ Patriots, after the famous US Army General David Petraeus from the Iraq War known for thinking outside the box.

Another man who could help the US is an articulate and fighting Colonel, HR McMaster, who in 2005 was successful in counter-insurgency operations in Northern Iraq. I had the good fortune to meet Colonel McMaster in Tal Afar, Northern Iraq in 2005.

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About the Author

Sasha Uzunov graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, in 1991. He enlisted in the Australian Regular Army as a soldier in 1995 and was allocated to infantry. He served two peacekeeping tours in East Timor (1999 and 2001). In 2002 he returned to civilian life as a photo journalist and film maker and has worked in The Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. His documentary film Timor Tour of Duty made its international debut in New York in October 2009. He blogs at Team Uzunov.

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