SURGE IN AFGHANISTAN: Been there before…

By Arthur Kelly,  source: International Herald Tribune

As President Obama moves to ramp up the United States presence in Afghanistan, he might benefit from the lessons learned by one of the CIA’s legends of covert operations, Bill Lair. Lair ran the CIA’s covert action in the 1960s in Laos, which at its height included 30,000 Hmong tribesmen battling Communist insurgents.

I met Bill Lair when he came to the CIA’s training center in Virginia in 2000 to speak at the graduation ceremony for my class of trainees. His agency career had started in the 1950s in Thailand, where he trained an elite force called the Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit.

By the early 60’s, poppy cultivation was widespread and the poorly educated Hmong tribesmen of northern Laos were barely out of the Stone Age. Yet Lair and his unit quickly taught the Hmong to resist the Communist tide using guerrilla tactics suited to their terrain and temperament.

By 1966, his CIA bosses looked to tap into this momentum and started throwing more men and money at Lair – personnel and funds he felt only bloated the operation. He knew his initial successes with the Hmong came because his Thai troops were the perfect people to train the Hmong: They looked like the Hmong, spoke their language and understood their culture. Lair didn’t want or need more white guys from headquarters who couldn’t speak Laotian and lorded it over the locals. When he resisted, his superiors overruled him.

As the 1960s progressed, the fighting in Laos intensified. Unfortunately, as United States involvement escalated, the Hmong came to rely more and more on American air power to support their missions. Over time, this dependence on foreign aid eroded the will of the Hmong to fight their own battles. Along the way, tiny Laos became the most heavily bombed country in the world, and the overuse of American airpower led to untold civilian deaths and tremendous resentment of the United States.

Eventually it became clear that no amount of bombing would be sufficient to stem the Communist tide. America cut and ran from Laos, and the Communists swallowed up the little kingdom, just as they did neighboring Vietnam.

Flash forward 40 years. U.S. forces scramble to train Afghan Army and police units to take on the Taliban forces crossing the border from Pakistan. Many of these raw Afghan recruits come from poorly educated Pashtun tribes. Corruption is endemic. Drug trafficking is flourishing. Complaints that indiscriminate use of American airpower is killing civilians are routine.

As they say, déjà vu all over again. The counterinsurgency lessons that Bill Lair tried to impart to us young spies are as relevant today as then: Keep your footprint small. Don’t use trainers who don’t know the language or culture. Don’t let the locals become dependent on American airpower. Train them in tactics suited to their terrain and temperament. Don’t ever let the locals think the mighty United States will fight all their battles or solve all their problems for them; focus on getting them ready to fix their own problems. Keep the folks in Washington out of the way of the people doing the work in the field.

This is why Obama’s plans to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan should be seen as a mixed blessing. In fact, it may be equally significant that the Pentagon has announced it is sending 900 new special operations people to Afghanistan over the spring and summer, including Green Berets, Navy Seals and Marine special operations forces. Ideally, these troops will be well trained in Afghan languages and culture, and prepared to fight in the dry, mountainous terrain the Taliban occupy.

The goal, one hopes, is that these forces will work alongside and train the fledgling Afghan Army commando battalions. Since early 2007, some 3,600 Afghan Army troops have been put through an Army Ranger-type training at a former Taliban base six miles south of Kabul. With American help, they have proved adept at such tasks as capturing Taliban leaders, rescuing hostages and destroying drug-smuggling rings.

This is not a war we can win ourselves; the Afghans are going to have to win it for us by fighting to retake their own country from both Taliban thugs and corrupt government officials. While additional American troops may be an unavoidable necessity to provide security in the short and medium term, we should never forget that doing too much for a weak ally can be just as bad as doing too little.

Arthur Keller is a former CIA case officer in Pakistan.

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