Between Exhaustion and Engagement: The Radical Choices of the Long American War in Afghanistan

The recent news of a rogue group of American military personnel murdering Afghans for sport is a sign of America’s war fatigue. The more the war drags on without attainable goals the worse the “quality control” of American troops. American troops are exhausted and over-stretched, and we must ask, what is there to be done?

The clear answer is deep engagement with the people of Afghanistan, engagement that wins the war through winning the people from the insurgents, and even winning over many of the insurgents. Here is how:

Vastly Expand CERP Funds

CERP stands for Commanders’ Emergency Response Program. These funds are being used by forward thinking commanders to reconstruct mosques and other basic construction needs. General Petreaus should significantly increase the quantity of these funds and the flexibility of their usage, particularly supporting commanders and chaplains in particular regions that have engaged the community, tribal and religious leaders as to their basic needs. This will have a significant impact on creating an American/Afghan alliance in the field.

The real game changer is far from the center, far from the problems of the Kabul leadership, but right up close to the choices being made by young people in the villages as to whether or not to join the insurgency.

Train American Personnel in Engagement With Afghani Traditional Society

Commanders and their chaplains require some intensive training and basic skills of engagement with the help of Afghani experts and conflict resolution experts. They will utilize Afghani culture and traditions in order to create a bridge of understanding and cooperation between the Americans and the local communities. The American presence will then become highly flexible and responsive to local needs.

Utilize the Provincial Reconstruction Teams

There are a variety of programs involving humanitarian support, including PRT, but also the Peace and Reintegration Program, among others. The key to the success of all of these programs is that they cannot be imposed, they must be run only in consultation with local community leaders who can formulate these interventions based on what makes sense for them.


The reports are that many Taliban are ready for reintegration, but that it is we who are dragging our feet. This is unconscionable. Reintegration of Taliban foot soldiers into society is the surest way to weaken the insurgency and save lives, both Afghani and American.

Reintegration certainly needs to take place in terms of jobs, but it also needs to be cultural. Recent reports from the field indicate, for example, that American Muslim and interfaith groups have had a strong impact because the misinformation on treatment of Muslims in America has been so extensive. American Muslims and interfaith teams can be an important bridge. Demonstrative respect for tribal elders and religious leaders will go a long way for encouraging an authentic Afghani alternative to the Taliban, and a clear indicator to young Taliban that rejoining society is not a betrayal of Islam.

Protection of Religious Leaders Asserting Independence From the Taliban

A vital component of winning the countryside back from the Taliban is a concerted effort to support and protect those religious leaders who speak out in favor of peace, nonviolence, tolerance of religious diversity, and empowerment of women. There are some who do, many who want to, but right now they are throwing their lives away by doing so because there is no one to protect them. Protection should be a major strategic priority.

Tangible Social Justice

All these efforts must be rooted in the profound importance of justice in Islamic civilization. With justice on your side you cannot lose the population. This takes a successful competition with the Taliban to demonstrate that it is you who are on the side of justice not them.

What is really lacking until now is our will, an American will to see success as something that does not involve ‘smashing things’. Our soldiers may be exhausted, over-worked, but it is we the American people that need to help direct the war effort toward winning over people rather than running them over with a two ton truck. I know there are many in government who want to win this war the right way, but it is up to the American people to lobby for bringing home their troops, not in shame but with dignity, honor and gratitude.

By Marc Gopin

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© Marc Gopin