Friday, September 19, 2008

COIN for the Realm: Novel Approaches to Counter-Insurgency Operations in Afghanistan (Part One)

Photographs: I asked none of these Afghans to pose for snapshots.  I simply found them stationary and waiting for me to photograph them when they saw I had a camera.

In his latest book on the Bush administration, Bob Woodward attributes much of the reduction in violence in Iraq to a new military and intelligence strategy that has proven as revolutionary as it is effective. Somehow, and Woodward gives no details on exactly how, the United States has developed a widely successful approach to locating and eliminating insurgents in Iraq. Information on the actual techniques currently is classified information. I’m not sure if the military plans to incorporate similar operations in Afghanistan. I can offer, however, a few novel techniques that policy and strategy experts in D.C. might not have considered. These suggestions are in no way classified, but I believe them to be imminently applicable to the conflict in Afghanistan, so I encourage and welcome their incorporation into any other operations the United States military might be planning for securing peace in Afghanistan.

The Polaroid Lure

The strength of this technique is rooted in a simple cultural fact: Every Afghan loves to get his or her photograph taken. I think we have all encountered, both within the United States and elsewhere, people shy toward the camera. Especially in developing countries, many people are loathe to be part of any type of photodocumentation that might be perceived as evidence of their supposed backward, funny ways to curious foreigners. In Vietnam, I saw crippled, kyphotic elderly women stand and run when I raised my camera near them. In Cambodia, I witnessed a man fishing in a river with his bare hands who managed to duck under water and hold his breath for a period of time that would have impressed Houdini, thereby negating my opportunity for a snapshot. But in six months, I have not met a single Afghan unwilling to pose for a photograph.

At the Afghan National Military Hospital recently, I was walking the grounds photographing the new fountain and landscaping (all done at the expense of the ICU renovation) when I noticed that many people I was passing had stopped and posed, expecting me to photograph them. A few seemed quite irritated that I didn’t include them in shots of the nearby water and trees. You don’t need to ask explicitly for permission to photograph an Afghan. All you need to do is hold up your camera, and all activity in front of you will stop until you signal that you’ve taken all the photographs you need.

Military success in Afghanistan depends on the successful implementation of COIN: counter-insurgency strategy. The Polaroid Lure technique is a manifestation of COIN strategy in a most simple and elegant form. Let me reiterate the last sentence from the previous paragraph: All you need to do is hold up your camera, and all activity in front of you will stop until you signal that you’ve taken all the photographs you need. The Taliban are Afghans, mostly, and we’ve all seen pictures of them riding around Afghanistan in their white Toyota pickup trucks looking for women to whip, books to burn, and children to admonish for such unGodly activities such as kite flying and marble shooting. I theorize here that the joy you see in the faces of these Taliban is NOT simply a display of religious zeal and a devotion to a misguided revolution, but the reflexive exuberance of any Afghan to the placement of a functioning camera in front of him.

Most Afghans are even more than excited, in fact overwhelmed, if you are able to offer them a copy of their photographs. Such a gift creates an immediate and deep bond of friendship and gratitude. Personal photographs are treasured mementos here, and not simply because most Afghans cannot afford cameras. The gift of a photograph is considered a token of hospitality and appreciation, both extremely important values in Afghan culture; and especially in the culture of Pashtuns, who form the predominate ethnic group in Afghanistan and the majority of the Taliban.

The United States should issue every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine coming to Afghanistan a Polaroid One Step camera and several cases of film, with orders to provide an instant photograph for every Afghan met. Battle reports detail that, in combat, US forces typically encounter Taliban fighters at a distance of 700—1000 meters, close enough that the insurgents would be able to detect cameras in the hands of US military personnel. Let me reiterate the last sentence from the penultimate paragraph: All you need to do is hold up your camera, and all activity in front of you will stop until you signal that you’ve taken all the photographs you need. My theory holds that not only would the Taliban halt any military assault and graciously pose for a photograph, but after the benighted rascals received a personal snapshot of themselves, they would lose any urge to fight and consider us infidels quite good folk after all. The hearts and minds of the 99.99% of the Afghans who want nothing more than an end to conflict here also would be ours.

The cost of such an operation would be minimal, especially when contrasted with the cost of US military efforts in Afghanistan since 1991, a figure the Congressional Research Service estimates to be $172 billion as of July 2008. Even if the US military ordered at the list price of $75 from enough Polaroid One Step cameras for all NATO and US military personnel in Afghanistan, with an additional order of enough film for one snapshot each of the estimated 35 million Afghans (at approximately $1.50 per sheet of film), the total cost of operation Polaroid Lure would be under $57.5 million. The total cost would be even less with a bulk order from Polaroid if the federal government bucks tradition and decides that a contract price for goods bought in large quantities from manufacturers should be less than what the typical suburban consumer would pay when buying the item singly. Additionally, the bulk Polaroid purchase would finally provide solid evidence that military spending creates the vaunted economic spinoff that Congressional hawks like to tout as rationale for every tax dollar spent on expensive military procurement packages.

(Next blog post: COIN (Part Two, including Operations Summer Freeze and Afghan Star, and a strategy to find Osama bin Laden.)

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