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Afghan diary V: Guerrilla warfare

In his fifth diary entry from the province of Wardak in Afghanistan, the BBC's Ian Pannell discusses counter-insurgency with a well-placed American officer.

Kimo Gallahue
Lt Col Gallahue says a multi-pronged strategy is needed in Afghanistan

Lt Col Kimo Gallahue is every inch the modern US soldier. He speaks the language of COIN - or counter-insurgency.

He talks of good governance, giving people choices, giving the Taleban choices, building schools, mosques and new roads, and how to bring economic prosperity to a region that has never known it.

He has "Dari for Beginners" on his desk. He can reel off the names of even the smallest villages nearby, and speaks in glowing terms about the provincial governor.

"I don't measure success by the number of enemy killed. We need to measure success in how well the government takes care of its people, how the economy is built. The heart of our job is taking both the physical terrain and the human terrain away from the enemy."

'Creating choices'

You could almost forget that he does actually head a battalion of soldiers that bristles with weaponry, serving in the deadliest fighting machine ever to exist, and that his primary task here is to defeat the Taleban.

When asked about the advantages the insurgents use, like launching surprise attacks and planting roadside bombs, he smiles and says: "That is guerrilla warfare, isn't it?".

They can fight us and die or they can lay down their arms
Lt Col Kimo Gallahue

Col Gallahue served two tours of duty in Iraq and is now the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan. Like many soldiers here, he has spent most of the last seven years at war, refining and practising COIN on the frontline.

The battalion is serving in Wardak province, an area bordering Kabul. It is where the Taleban made significant gains last year. And it is where the US surge has begun. It is Col Gallahue's task to make President Barack Obama's "Afghan Strategy" work.

The US counter-insurgency mantra is "clear, hold, build". "Clear" the area of insurgents, "hold" the ground they take, and then "build" governance and infrastructure. It is a concurrent strategy and the soldiers are asked to rapidly move from fighting one minute, to holding meetings with tribal elders the next.

Map

But it is a time and labour-intensive process and Col Gallahue acknowledges that there is a danger that his troops will be spread too thin. For now, he says they are making progress.

"We're creating conditions where the people can choose and I think they're going to choose their government every time; the Taleban is nothing that anyone wants."

The strategy of creating "choices" also applies to the insurgents. "They can fight us and die or they can lay down their arms and they can go away."

But there is a third way and it is gaining ground - "political reconciliation". It means talks or meetings with the Taleban. One of Col Gallahue's officers recently did just that.

There was some doubt about the man's affiliations but he was introduced as a Taleban commander, and the officer met him together with a local governor to discuss the fighting in the area.

"You will probably have to meet with them but that is an Afghan government decision. I think it's turning the right way. We are looking at how to execute that."

Progress needed

The colonel is a keen reader of history. He knows exactly what fate lay in store for the British in the 19th Century and the Russians in the 20th, but he says this time it is different. "We're not the Soviets and they are not the mujahideen," he says.

Perhaps not, but they share a number of the same advantages as the anti-Soviet fighters which they often exploit to good effect.

Taleban fighters (file image)
Top officials say the surge against the Taleban must bring progress soon

Above all, they do not have a timetable in which to make a difference, and they can attack in a manner and at a time of their own choosing, and then blend easily into the local population. They seem well supplied and in some cases well trained, with active assistance from across the borders.

Nor are they under the same scrutiny as coalition troops. The issue of civilian casualties is a case in point. US officials say that more innocent people die at the hands of the Taleban than as a result of coalition operations. Even so, the colonel exudes confidence that he will prevail.

"We are prepared for combat, this is the US army and we do this very well but if I didn't have to fire a shot and still made progress then that would be great," he says.

"Well, the enemy has a little vote in that. And if he presents himself then he's got a couple of choices, run away or fight and die."

Mr Obama has said he does not think that America is "winning" the war in Afghanistan. The surge is about changing that, and the burden of turning the tide against the insurgents falls to men like Kimo Gallahue.

Privately, military and political officials concede that there is only a small window of opportunity in which to show progress. Most talk about the autumn as an informal deadline.

Few will say what happens if they fail to meet that date. But it is clear that neither side can now afford to lose.



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