The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan has hinted at new tactics the United States plans to employ in an effort to streamline operations. The crux of the change will be the deployment of platoon-sized elements into Afghan villages. This shift has the potential to significantly benefit U.S. forces and the indigenous population — but it brings new dangers for U.S. troops with it.
Lt. Gen. David Barno, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, on Feb. 18 mentioned a planned shift in U.S. military tactics. The key component will be basing U.S. troops in Afghan villages, which eventually could yield significant tactical and intelligence benefits for the United States. Placing units within indigenous populations is by no means a new tactic; al Qaeda has used it successfully for years. However, the fact that the United States will begin to exploit this method is indicative of a shift in planning that could generate definite benefits but will expose U.S. troops to more danger. The first potential benefit is the most obvious: Integrating U.S. forces into the Afghan populace would improve U.S. intelligence and streamline the Army's reaction time. Second, a dispersed troop presence will allow the United States to erode the popular impression that it is an enemy by fostering — or purchasing — goodwill. Given the pervasive anti-U.S. sentiment in the country and a long history of wariness toward foreigners, this will be a tall order. There are two possible reasons behind the shift. Military planners might have concluded that the U.S. campaign has stalled and that this is a way to get it moving again. The United States also might have acquired intelligence — such as indications of tribal cooperation or anti-Taliban sentiment — that led commanders to believe that dispersing troops among the indigenous population is a good idea. One of the key problems U.S. forces face in Afghanistan is the timeliness and effectiveness of tactical intelligence. Due to bureaucratic requirements, intelligence gathered in the field often cannot be collected, analyzed and disseminated fast enough to turn into an operation. Many times, once intelligence has been analyzed, the opportunity for action has dissolved. Second, due to the self-interest and bias of many second-party human intelligence sources — usually indigenous Afghan collaborators — and the relative intrusiveness of U.S. intelligence assets, any information acquired is of questionable merit. However, by deploying U.S. soldiers — in groups of up to 40 at a time — to Afghan villages, the United States will improve the accuracy of its tactical intelligence, but more importantly, will streamline its reaction time. This improvement will not necessarily be perceptible: The U.S. Army already has contacts and connections in the various tribes and villages, or no one would have agreed to host U.S. soldiers. The more important and obvious developments this tactic will achieve will be seen gradually among the Afghan — and perhaps the Pakistani — people. By embedding U.S. soldiers among various villages and tribes, the United States would gain an unprecedented opportunity to impart a positive image to those wary of a U.S. presence. Ideally, goodwill will grow and spread throughout the rural Afghan population and into the Pakistani borderlands. If this proves true, it will benefit the ongoing war against al Qaeda and Taliban remnants holed up in southeastern Afghanistan. This is all much easier said than done: Anti-American sentiment runs deep in the Afghan hinterlands. Despite U.S. optimism, there is a potential for failure. Few U.S. soldiers are trained in the delicate nature of such involvement, and the time and resources needed might not be available to the United States. Potential failure also carries inherent risk. U.S. forces have suffered minimal casualties in Afghanistan due to their relative isolation from the Afghan people. By dispersing troops beyond the safety of heavily guarded installations, the United States is opening them up to a much broader threat. Agreements with tribal and village leaders will reduce the potential threat, but not eliminate it. Pro-U.S. villagers likely will dampen the presence and activities of Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents. However, the loyalty of these leaders and their followers has been historically suspect and will have to be constantly reaffirmed. Additionally, U.S. forces widely dispersed in small groups among relatively dense local populations will leave them vulnerable to insurgent tactics. Spreading troops across the landscape makes reinforcement much more difficult. It also creates a situation in which vulnerable convoys must move along highly visible roadways between the outposts, creating targets of opportunity similar to those that have been exploited by Iraqi insurgents for months. Furthermore, the presence of civilians precludes the use of helicopter gunships and artillery to suppress insurgents. Taken together, these factors have the potential to leave small groups of isolated U.S. troops more vulnerable to assaults from Afghan militants. Despite the opportunity that placing U.S. soldiers among the indigenous Afghan population presents, the United States will have to overcome a number of problems before it can take advantage of the situation. The biggest issues the United States will face are time constraints, lack of trained troops, increased vulnerability and — perhaps most significantly — the shifting loyalties of local tribal leaders. However, if these obstacles can be overcome either through good will, military might or old-fashioned cash, the United States will have an unprecedented opportunity to further its cause in Afghanistan.