Afghanistan: This is what a revolution looks like

Vanessa M. Gezari, for the Pulitzer Center


When 4,000 Marines marched across the dry ground of Helmand Province last week, walking into villages and unrolling sleeping bags to live among the Afghans, you could almost hear the foundation stones shifting beneath the weight of a changing U.S. military. The operation in Helmand – called Khanjar, or "dagger" – epitomized the approach laid out in the Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, co-written in 2006 by Gen. David Petraeus, then an Army lieutenant general, and Marine Gen. James Amos. Yet until last week, the military had never executed this strategy in such textbook fashion in Afghanistan. The Marines in Helmand are not just leaving fortified bases for long, exposed foot patrols through enemy territory. They aren't just spending a few nights camped out in the desert within a secure perimeter. They appear to be moving into the Taliban heartland and taking up residence there, minus the signed leases and cable bills. As the Marines' commander, Brig. Gen. Larry D. Nicholson said in a much-quoted statement: "What makes Operation Kanjar different from those that have occurred before is the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert, and the fact that where we go, we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build, and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces."

There are many remarkable things about this, but one is that living in Afghan villages greatly increases troops' physical risk, contradicting decades of history during which force protection has been among the U.S. military's chief goals. One of the "radical" things about the counterinsurgency field manual, as Sarah Sewell, former head of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a recent Defense Policy Board appointee, notes in her introduction, is that it "tells American troops something they may not want to hear: in order to win, they must assume more risk."

Indeed, the manual notes that the conduct of counterinsurgency is "in many ways…counterintuitive to the traditional U.S. view of war." Among the paradoxes of this recently revived strategic approach: "Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be."

This has certainly been the case in Afghanistan, and yet "risk" means different things depending where you stand in the chain of command. For a young infantryman, risk is about the daily possibility of driving over an IED, then watching your friend burn or bleed while you wait for the Medevac to arrive. For commanders, it's also about the larger operational – and importantly, political – risk that force-protection mechanisms like Hesco walls and close air support entail. On Monday, four days after the launch of Operation Khanjar, the new American commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force, General Stanley McChrystal, issued a tactical directive that restricts firing from the air at residential compounds except under "very limited and prescribed conditions." While commanders will be allowed to protect their forces, McChrystal wrote, they "must weigh the gain of using [close air support] against the cost of civilian casualties, which in the long run make mission success more difficult and turn the Afghan people against us." McChrystal did not downplay the importance of the directive, saying that it calls for "a cultural shift" on the part of the troops. And he made it clear that his own acculturation had already taken hold. Preventing civilian casualties is "a legal and a moral issue," he wrote, but it also has tremendous operational consequences. "The Taliban cannot militarily defeat us," he wrote, "but we can defeat ourselves."

McChrystal's words sound obvious. For anyone who knows Afghanistan, the Marines' approach in Helmand sounds obvious, too. Yet this is an incredible moment. A field commander in Afghanistan is publicly acknowledging that there is something not just immoral, but incompetent, about fighting a war from a safe distance, while civilians on the ground, caught between two hostile sides, pay the last full measure of devotion for continuing to live on the property they inherited from their parents. For the first time, we are acknowledging that the risk of living relatively unprotected in hostile territory must be shared by Afghans and foreign forces if we're ever going to convince Afghans that we take their security seriously. For years, Americans, Afghans and soldiers of many other nationalities have been fighting and dying to capture ground they cannot hold. Those deaths should not be in vain, and if this new approach sticks, they may not be. The coming weeks and months will test our willingness to maintain this strategy as casualties mount. The fight for stability is far from over, but eight years into the war, it is at least – finally – beginning.