In the land of the stoner cops

By NIR ROSEN  |  March 1, 2010

Colonel Shirzad, the ANP commander for Helmand, showed up. Like every other chief of police in Helmand, he had bought his post from officials at the Ministry of Interior. Police were known to release prisoners for bribes ranging from $500 to $15,000. I hitched a ride back to Lashkar Gah with Shirzad, sitting in one of the four Ford Rangers in his convoy. It took us 30 minutes. The trip from Lashkar Gah to Aynak had taken Ironhorse three days. Shirzad's men did not stop to check for IEDs, which could shred their Rangers. I scanned the road desperately.

The next morning, I learned, Ironhorse went out on patrol with the ANCOP and found five IEDs placed on the road I had just taken. One had been hidden by their invisible adversary just after they had passed; they found it on the return trip. That day a 20-vehicle Marine convoy from a base in the desert tried to go to Aynak to resupply Ironhorse. The convoy was attacked by the Taliban so fiercely that it turned back.

A struggle for control
Colonel Bill Hix is an experienced Special Forces officer with extensive COIN experience who until July led the Afghan Regional Security Integration Command in Kandahar — he was in charge of training and mentoring the Afghan police and army. I met him there just before he shipped home. His wall featured portraits of 41 Americans from his command who had been killed, all but two by IEDs. He would have needed a much bigger wall for the Afghans. From January 2007 to April of 2009, he had lost 2096 Afghan police and 949 Afghan army soldiers.

Hix believed that the Taliban's disappearance in the face of an American operation was a sign not of weakness, but of strategy. They would slide their Kalashnikovs under their beds and bide their time, watching their enemy. It had happened with a major operation in another part of Helmand the year before; as soon as the Americans left, the Taliban were back. Hix had spent 21 months in Afghanistan, and he enjoyed his job. In his view it was the Afghan army's job to push the Taliban away from the population, while the police should be protecting the people where they lived. Hix did not believe more American troops were needed, just an "adequate" police force and army — about double the present number, which had taken eight years to build up.

Control is essential to a successful counterinsurgency campaign. According to Stathis Kalyvas, the Yale political scientist and civil war expert whose book The Logic of Violence in Civil War is very influential among counterinsurgency theorists, "The higher the level of control exercised by the actor, the higher the rate of collaboration with this actor — and, inversely, the lower the rate of defection." But by that logic, the Americans will never have enough troops in Afghanistan to achieve control. A generally accepted ratio for a successful counterinsurgency is roughly one cop or soldier per 50 civilians. That would mean 600,000 troops are needed to secure Afghanistan — fewer if part of the country is assumed to be secure already. The Afghan army and police between them have about 189,000 members, and there are an additional 42,000 international (mostly NATO) troops in the country. Obama has raised the US total in Afghanistan from 47,000 to 68,000. McChrystal's much-debated request is for an additional 40,000, but even that would bring the US troop total in Afghanistan to about 68 percent of the number in Iraq, a smaller country, at the peak of the surge.

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