Thursday, January 24, 2008

Hearts and Minds

In the past couple of weeks I have traveled a few times and have had a chance to see a little more of the country. One particular flight was by helicopter through some of the mountainous regions of the country. Here, the mountains can only be described as majestic with their snow-peaked caps and valleys below. At times we flew quite low over the ground and twisted through the valleys below allowing the mountains to appear to us at each new turn. Although the sight was breathtaking, it was sad to think that a country with so much natural beauty is plagued by decades of war limiting the enjoyment of the land.

As we approached the Airfield, I was amazed to see the tiny towns and communities that lay just beyond the outer perimeter. No more than a few dozen homes per community, they are all made of mud-walled huts giving them a very distinctive look from above. An outer mud wall also surrounds each town to protect it from the outside world. I couldn’t help but think of the symbolism – each town is much like Afghanistan – cut off from the outside world and still living in the middle ages.

It is interesting to think that only a few hundred meters from the outer perimeter there are local Afghans who go about their daily lives and yet, inside the wire – only a moment’s journey away – are many coalition soldiers who are most likely unaware of their presence. For the most part, many deployed personnel will never leave the confines of the Airfield. Unless their job requires them to travel outside the wire, they are not generally permitted to venture out for security reasons. Although, this makes sense, it is still interesting to think that the majority of coalition forces who are deployed to Afghanistan will not have the opportunity to interact with the very people that they are trying to help – despite the fact that they are little more than a stone’s throw away.

Winning an insurgency war requires militaries to interact with the local population. Insurgents do not wear uniforms, they do not fight using conventional methods and our traditional methods of gathering intelligence and information are not as useful as in conventional warfare. Instead, we must interact with the local population. We must win their hearts and minds. We must convince them that our presence is not only necessary for their safety and security but that we are there to improve their daily lives. Without their help our goals will be much harder to achieve.

There are several ways to do this. It is not only done by soldiers who provide security but it also requires monetary assistance, development and governance. It is boots on the ground working each day with local officials to provide resources that are so desperately needed. It is what our government refers to as the 3D approach – defence, diplomacy and development. And it all must be provided in a coordinated fashion - development cannot succeed without security.

There is no shortage of commentators or officials who claim to be experts at how to properly coordinate our efforts and where our focus should be. And, in fact, our politicians continue to debate this very issue almost daily. Although we each have our own opinions on this matter, whether they are informed or not, this is not the place where I would like to share mine. I simply choose to end with the thought that if our goal is to bring Afghanistan out of the middle ages and into a time where towns no longer need to be defended by walls we must work with the Afghans to determine what is best for their country, not decide for them.

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