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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.

Perhaps promoting him to Brigadier-General and giving him a command in Afghanistan should be considered top priority by incoming US President Barak Obama

The US, Australia and Canada, have their Special Forces units operating in Afghanistan. The Commander of Australia’s Special Operations Command, Major General Tim McOwan has claimed during a recent media meet and greet and slide show in Canberra that the elite SASR (Special Air Service Regiment) and 4RAR (Commando) were beating the Taliban at its own game.

"In many instances your Special Forces soldiers are able to clandestinely capture these leaders without ever firing a shot. On one occasion the commandos infiltrated undetected into the heart of a Taliban safe haven to capture the Taliban leader Ahmad Shah in his bed," he said.

General McOwan has not revealed in great detail what tactics the SASR and Commandos are using but it does not take a genius to work out that the key to any operations is to remain unpredictable - the enemy not knowing where and when you will strike. Moreover, not leaving a signature, that is the enemy does not know how you will strike: will you enter (insert) the battle with helicopters, armoured vehicles or just walk in?

The Black Hawk down episode in Somalia in 1993 saw a band of militia with cheap but effective weapons, Kalashnikov assault rifles, RPG rocket launchers, bring down two very expensive American Black Hawk helicopters and inflict casualties on US Army Specials Forces (Green Berets, Delta Force and Rangers). The political result was President Clinton withdrew from the mission. The Somali militias had learnt when and where the US military would strike because it had become routine in its operations and left a “signature”.

In 2001 when the US invaded Afghanistan and successfully removed the Taliban from power, Green Berets joined forces with Northern Alliance rebels, namely ethnic Uzbek forces led by the wily General Abdul Rashid Dostum. One of the traditional ways they travelled into the battlefield was by horse because of the hostile terrain.

Irregular and radical tactics

As a suggestion, and if it has not been already been adopted, why not have a brigade or regiment (over 1,500 soldiers) of US Army Green Berets or Petraeus Patriots dressed as local Afghanis, full beards, using traditional weapons such Kalashnikovs and RPGs supplemented but not dominated by the high-tech gadgets that the US likes to use in warfare, hunt down the Taliban. Throw in some tracker dogs as well. We could have a contingent of Canadian Special Forces, JTF 2, along for the ride. They could be nicknamed Hilliers’ Harrassers, in honour of the hugely popular Canadian Defence Chief, General Ricky “The Big Cod” Hillier.

In 2,000 years noone, including the British or the Russians has been able to subdue Afghanistan. History is against the US. However, history can also find the answers.

Afghanistan is a nation made up of various ethnic groups, Pushtuns namely in the south, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, the descendents of the Mongols, and two strands of Islam, Sunni and Shiite. Trying to keep Afghanistan, like multi-ethnic Iraq, as a central state is downright crazy. Some kind of federation should be considered, devolving power as a safety mechanism.

Pushtuns have their kinsmen living in neighbouring northern Pakistan. It comes as no great surprise that the Taliban, which draws its support from the Pushtuns, has safe heavens across the border in Pakistan. To revisit the Vietnam War, the communist North Vietnam used neighbouring Cambodia as part of its Ho Chi Minh trail as a supply line to the Viet Cong (Communist insurgent forces) in the South.

The US now has to also cut off the “Osama bin Laden Pass” connecting Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A federal Afghanistan with the national army complemented by regional forces - and private armies run by warlords are a fact of life in Afghanistan today as they were centuries ago - would act as a counter to the Taliban.

In June 2008, Canadian journalist Scott Taylor and I were told by Dostum in Kabul, the Afghan capital that he could round up an army of 5,000 fighters and clean out the Taliban. Similarly, leader Pocha Khan Zadran said he could do the same in the East alongside the border with Pakistan.

Critics, pundits, defence experts, armchair generals, and the media constantly bombards us with the notion that we need to be able to think outside the box, and have a willingness to try something unorthodox. But it seems many of these groups are set in their ways.

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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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