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Frankie Martin Headshot

Obama Must Learn to Play Cricket

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This week tribal militants in Pakistan launched two brazen attacks on NATO military supplies in the eastern city of Peshawar, torching over 140 military vehicles. The vehicles were destined for Afghanistan, where insurgent attacks have grown bolder and more frequent of late.

This comes amidst a report from the Paris-based think tank the International Council on Security and Development claiming that the Taliban has a permanent presence in 72% of Afghanistan. By any indicator, the war is not going well for the Western powers.

For me, an Ibn Khaldun Research Fellow at American University, the recent attacks weren't surprising. For the last few years, I've been working with Dr. Akbar Ahmed, the Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and the former Pakistani administrator of Waziristan, to urge the US to change tactics in the way it deals with Afghanistan and the general Muslim world.

Hearing the latest from Pakistan and Afghanistan, I thought of a presentation Dr. Ahmed gave in 2005 to the State Department's top counterterrorism officials. Invited to give a briefing on the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, he instead warned of a developing crisis in Pakistan's restive tribal areas which would impact the war in Afghanistan and therefore Iraq.

There were better methods, he told his audience, than going in guns blazing with drone strikes. Americans needed to be on the ground, making contacts with local people and working within cultural boundaries.

"You're going about it all wrong," he said, "you're playing baseball, and they're playing cricket. It's a different game. It has different rules, different objectives, a different strategy."

For weary officials obsessed with averting catastrophe in Iraq, Pakistan was just too much. "We don't even want to think about Pakistan," said one top official. Everyone in the room looked blank.

But then from the back row, a man spoke. "I play cricket," he said in an Australian accent, "I understand!"

The man was Colonel David Kilcullen, an anthropology PhD on loan to the US from the Australians. As it turns out, Kilcullen was the Americans' main counterinsurgency expert, soon to depart for Iraq to advise General David Petraeus.

While in Iraq Kilcullen oversaw the "surge" of troops that has been credited with the dramatic decrease in violence. But what is not generally known is how this was actually achieved. The extra troops alone were not the deciding factor. Instead, a new approach which emphasized culturally sensitive policies and a newfound humbleness and respect on the part of the US helped improve America's fortunes.

After returning from Iraq, Kilcullen related to us a story which perfectly exemplifies this approach. While visiting an Iraqi mosque, Kilcullen instructed the military personnel accompanying him to remove their weapons and check them at the door.

"I see you've removed your weapons," said his host, "How do you know I won't capture you and take you hostage?" "Because if you did," Kilcullen responded, "you would have no honor." The surprised Iraqi laughed and put his arms around the Colonel in welcome.

It was this method which enabled the Americans to sit down with Iraq's tribal groups, drink some tea, and listen. They began to understand tribal culture and tribal codes of honor and hospitality. And they realized that organizations like Al-Qaeda were antithetical to traditional culture. The Americans became more adept at playing by the rules of the culture they were now immersed in, and the violence decreased.

President-Elect Barack Obama, with gusto, has announced a "surge" of 20,000 American troops for Afghanistan in an effort to "destroy" the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. If more troops proved decisive in Iraq, the reasoning goes, they will also put the US on the path to victory in Afghanistan. But this is a simplistic and even dangerous assumption.

Obama and his advisors must realize that it was not just the additional troops but the change in strategy that led to the decrease in Iraq's violence.

In rapidly deteriorating Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US must remember Kilcullen's simple directive from his upcoming counterinsurgency manual: "Respect People."

In the tribal areas, the US is dealing with an entire ethnic group, the Pashtun, who believe they are under attack from non-Pashtun dominated governments in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as the Western powers. Because they are Muslim they also feel Islam is under attack and seek to defend it.

The US needs to treat the Pashtun with respect and convince them that the effort to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan is not a war against them or their religion. We need to make it clear to the Pashtun and America's non-Pashtun allies in both Pakistan and Afghanistan--who frequently know little about Pashtun tribal culture--that the Pashtun, like the Sunni tribes of Iraq, deserve a full seat at the table.

In Pakistan's tribal areas--where the so much of the instability plaguing Afghanistan originates--the US should help reinstate the Pakistani civil service, which was sidelined by former President Pervez Musharraf in favor of the military. The US can also pump money into schools and development and away from unnecessary military expenditures which have cost the US over $10 billion since 9/11.

A new strategy does not mean "appeasing" those who would attack America but "administering" more effectively. If the US can do this, support for the Taliban--a foreign force in traditional culture--will evaporate.

But if we end up declaring war on the Pashtun in pursuit of murkily defined "terrorists" we will lose, plain and simple. Obama must not let Afghanistan become his Iraq.

To avert this fate Obama must put away the baseball bat the US has used in the years since 9/11 to disastrous effect. It is time to play a different game.