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The Paradox of Boots on the Ground

On a balmy summer’s day in the village of Hiratian in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, locals found the body of eight-year-old Dilawar hanging from a tree of a small fruit farm. Taliban fighters had accused the boy of spying for the American forces and had kidnapped him, strung him up and left his body to sway in the wind for hours for all to see.

The murder was horrifying, yet few villagers would come to the defense of anyone charged with spying for the hated foreign forces. But slowly, the details of the story emerged. The Taliban in the area were involved in a weeks-long campaign to collect donations—money, food or weapons—from the local population. They had demanded either a large sum of money or a weapon from Mullah Qudoos, the ill-fated boy’s father. Qudoos, poor and jobless, had neither. So the insurgents took his son as revenge and killed him as an example.

When villagers learned the truth they erupted in fury. They openly vowed to fight the Taliban. Some called the Taliban “our oppressors.” Others swore never to help the insurgents again.

As General David Petraeus, a key architect of counterinsurgency doctrine, takes the reigns of Obama’s struggling Afghan campaign (his confirmation hearings begin today) the most pertinent lessons he learns might be from places like Hiratian. For now the most effective ounterinsurgency force in Hiratian is not the Western military alliance—it’s the Taliban. Hiratian lies amongst the rural stretches of Sangin district, in an area that is outside the government’s authority and has been under nearly continuous Taliban control for years. The political bankruptcy of direct Taliban rule in these areas has succeeded in doing what the Americans have not: turn the population against the insurgents.

While residents of Hiratian have not yet expressed their sentiment through action—by pushing out the insurgents, for instance—villagers in other areas have. The Taliban exerted complete rule over large parts of Gizab district, in Dai Kundi province of central Afghanistan for years, until many villagers started refusing to cooperate with them earlier this year. Locals in parts of Deh Rawud district, in the southern province of Uruzgan, and Arghestan, in Kandahar, have made similar moves in recent years.

All these areas have something in common. Five years ago, these regions had few troops and had instead been under firmly entrenched Taliban control. The insurgents became practiced in impunity, and the population suffered for it. Even after the large influx of troops to the south over the past few years, the dynamic persisted: the Taliban were so powerful that it obviated the need to win over the population.

On the other hand, in those areas where the insurgency’s growth roughly coincided with or followed the arrival of the foreign forces—in the provinces near Kabul, for example—the Taliban have been more sophisticated. They have had to compete with the foreigners for the population’s allegiance, and in the process had to administer their rule with a softer touch. In such places, troop presence actually makes the insurgents more popular in local eyes. Minus the U.S., the Taliban are robbed of their legitimacy.

It is a trend that belies conventional wisdom. A central element of the strategy that Petraeus will oversee is the reliance on a large U.S. military footprint. But after more than eight years, the United States has failed to rally rural Pashtun villagers to its side or break the back of the insurgents. For this reason many of these Pashtuns call for a negotiated ceasefire to end the war and maintain that only they can solve the Taliban problem, and on their own terms. It won’t be easy, and it may take years or even generations. But as the Taliban in Hiratian showed, they can be their own worst enemy.

Anand Gopal is an Afghanistan-based journalist who has covered the war for The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor. His dispatches from the region can be found at He is currently working on a book about the Afghan war.