Surgeconomics in Afghanistan and Iraq

Paying militants to switch sides has had some success in Iraq. Now the US hopes the same tactic will succeed in Afghanistan

One of the more immediate results of the London conference on Afghanistan was the idea of paying the Taliban to switch sides. This was described more diplomatically by David Miliband as a "reintegration programme" that leans heavily on learning from successes in Iraq.

For an on-the-ground examination of the Iraqi "surge" successes, filmmaker Jon Steele spent 90 days with Baker Company, a US infantry unit that was deployed in the Iraqi town of Salman Pak. Steele recently showed his film at the Frontline Club in London, where he proudly announced that he had uncovered the "secret of the surge." This is the phenomenon of surgenomics (my term); ramping up military forces with an explicit mission to co-opt the locals financially.

The film highlights the huge difference that tactical shifts made on the ground. Instead of conducting aggressive patrolling from large out-of-town bases, Baker Company moved into a small outpost among the people. Considering their previous experiences of operating in Iraq, the unit expected 50% casualties, but went home with none killed or injured.

The film shows how the heart of the counter-insurgency strategy relied on paying off your enemies, a tactic that is now being deployed in Afghanistan. After initial fears were dispelled by wads of freshly-printed $100 bills handed out to local sheikhs, one of Baker Company's senior officers suddenly realized the effectiveness of "paying people not to shoot us" and that "money is more powerful than any weapon system we have." The Pentagon was apparently furious when it realized that Steele had captured the cash transactions on film and attempted to have him un-embedded -- a decision that was rescinded after protests from Baker Company itself.

Steele managed to win the trust of Baker Company by making the deal that he'd be willing to die with them, if they were willing to talk to him. The length of time spent with these particular troops allows Steele to analyze the difficulty for a combat outfit in adjusting to the more nuanced tactics of winning hearts and minds. In earlier tours the unit suffered from the biggest killer of the conflict, the improvised explosive device (IED), leading them to view their environment with high levels of suspicion, regarding everything and everybody as the potential source of an explosion.

The nervous tension of spending so much time in the Iraqi red zone is contrasted to the boredom of the actual lack of action. At one point one of the Baker boys grows tired at the officers' meeting with the sheikhs and says he just "wishes someone would shoot at us." Unlike the officers, the rank-and-file soldiers struggle to get to grips with why they are spending US taxpayers' money to "get Iraqis to clean up their own town." Counterinsurgency operations are essentially armed diplomacy, but US soldiers are trained killers and their psychological struggles at having to adopt such Janus-faced positions are taking their toll.

Last year was the worst on record for military suicides. Steele said army statistics showed that since 9/11, more US soldiers had killed themselves than been killed by the enemy. At a recent US suicide prevention conference, Eric Shinseki, the secretary for veterans' affairs, said 20% of the country's 30,000 suicides each year are acts by veterans of the current operation and previous wars -- amounting to 6,000 deaths.

There is a tragic irony that much of this cost could have been avoided. It seems shockingly clear how the successful "sons of Iraq" programme mirrors the postwar reality in Falluja, where the dissolution of the state was replaced by local leaders who selected a governing council who took responsibility for keeping security and running the main services in the city. Armed "concerned citizens" took responsibility for local affairs -- a scenario that was, at the time, rejected by the Americans, who attempted to impose order with devastating results that eventually led to 70% of the city being destroyed in order to "win" it.

Can surgenomics be transferred into the Afghan arena? In Obama's West Point speech he was very clear that the US can no longer finance open-ended wars, but can it finance an open-ended commitment to paying off the Taliban? This is the essential difficulty with surgenomics -- a question of how sustainable it can ever be. After all, it was a reduction in payments from the US to the mujahideen after the collapse of the Soviet Union that triggered a series of events that have contributed to the situation today.

In Iraq the success of paying off enemies has been put in peril by the transition of that payment from the US to a more reluctant Iraqi government. Surgenomics may therefore provide a window of calm and security, but to be sustainable some form of legitimate governance would have to emerge, otherwise the Americans could be paying people not to fight them for some time.