Longer tours, Afghan solution bring peace: U.S. troops

ZORMAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - U.S. troops in east Afghanistan might be eager for their 15-month tour to end but even as they wait they say would have achieved little had they stayed only six months like NATO troops elsewhere.

A U.S. soldier looks through a pair of binoculars on his rifle as he patrols the Jaji district of the southeastern Paktia province, near the Afghan-Pakistan border January 28, 2008. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is pressuring NATO allies to send more troops to Afghanistan, particularly to the dangerous south, and ward off what many see as a possible defeat by the Taliban, six years after they were toppled from power.

Germany and other European nations refuse to let their troops leave the relatively peaceful north of Afghanistan, while British, Canadian and Dutch troops battle it out in the south, suffering numerous casualties.

But in the east, U.S. troops tout their success in stemming violence in what were once Taliban strongholds.

While there are big differences in geography and Taliban strength in the south and the east, the differing approach and sheer resources of U.S. troops have made the contrast between violent south and increasingly quiet east ever more great.

The biggest difference is the amount of time troops spend on the ground. The U.S. 82nd airborne is coming to the end of 15 months in eastern Afghanistan. Most other NATO soldiers spend six months, some as little as four months, in the country.

“The American soldier and his leadership in the east in 15 months develop a relationship with the terrain, with the indigenous people and their leadership, and with the enemy,” General Dan McNeill, NATO commander in Afghanistan, told a news briefing in Washington last week.


U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, while wishing they could return to their families sooner, were more blunt.

“You can’t do anything in six months,” said one junior officer. “It takes you three months just to get to know your area of operations, by then you’re half way out the country.”

Given the difficulty of persuading NATO nations to send more troops to Afghanistan, it is hard to imagine European countries ordering their soldiers already in the country to stay longer.

As debate rages in Europe and in Canada over whether troops should be involved in combat, or reconstruction and training missions, U.S. operations in eastern Afghanistan could point to another way that might make that argument redundant.

In the past, the goal of U.S. troops was to kill the enemy, but there was no government authority or security forces to fill the gap and the Taliban simply reformed and came back.

“If you were here five years ago that was our decisive operation; put the enemy down. Great, wonderful, then what? Well we didn’t have a then what. We do now,” said Colonel Martin Schweitzer, a top U.S. commander in the east.

U.S. troops have enthusiastically embraced an Afghan-first counter-insurgency strategy focused on winning over the populace and bolstering local government and Afghan security forces.

British commanders in the south say they threw out their own outdated counter-insurgency manual and used the new American one instead, but the gulf in their resources is huge.

“U.S. Congress well endows the commanders in the U.S. sector with reconstruction money, bureaucratically unencumbered, more or less, so that they can apply those monies in a pure and comprehensive way in counterinsurgency operations,” McNeill said.


Zormat, a high plateau squeezed between two mountain ranges in the eastern province of Paktia, was so unsafe United Nations staff and non-government aid workers pulled out last year.

The United States has spent $63 million in Zormat alone, officers said, channeling it through local government officials and strengthening their standing with the people.

Afghan troops now lead all major operations in the region, with U.S. soldiers only in support, U.S. commanders say. Between August and October last year, there were 60 improvised explosive device attacks in Zormat. Since November, there have been none.

The same pattern is broadly evident across the east. But how much of that is due to the deep blanket of snow and ice that covers the mountainous terrain will become clear in the spring.

“It’s an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem,” said Schweitzer. “Not surprisingly the results last a hell of a lot longer than anything we do.”

British aid is less evident in the south as most of it goes through the Afghan government, a policy Britain defends as more sustainable, but one that may not produce quick results.

With fewer resources, the British are obliged to rely more on intrigue and negotiations with the Taliban, analysts say.

British forces captured the town of Musa Qala in December after a Taliban leader switched sides and later came close to “flipping” the militant commander in the region.

But across the more temperate south, there has only been a slight winter let-up in fighting.

Canadian troops have suffered some of the highest casualty rates taking the same ground twice last year after Afghan police crumpled in the face of better armed and more numerous Taliban guerrillas. The Canadian government is threatening to pull its troops out unless other NATO countries send reinforcements.

Editing by David Fogarty