Accessibility links

Implementing 'Smart Power' in Afghanistan Poses Challenge for the US

  • David Axe

Analysts and policy makers call it "smart power" -- a seamless blend of investment, good deeds and military force that is intended to win friends while targeting enemies in war. In 2007, the U.S. Defense Department officially embraced this philosophy. But on the ground in Afghanistan, U.S. forces are finding it difficult to be humanitarians and builders as well as soldiers.

Soldiers from the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division march into Kowt-e-Ashrow in Wardak Province, southwest of Kabul.

Wardak has seen bloody fighting in recent months as the Taliban expands its presence and U.S. reinforcements trickle in. Heavily armed American patrols are a common sight in local villages.

This day, Afghan and American soldiers have come bearing gifts.

School supplies for children, election materials for adults and tiny Afghan flags for everyone.

The aid is part of a two-year-old strategy for boosting the popularity of U.S.-led forces among everyday Afghans. It is an approach that the Pentagon and Army Command Sergent Major Andrew Spano of the 10th Mountain Division hope will turn the Afghan people against the Taliban.

"We focus our young leaders on how to take the 'human terrain' away from the enemies of Afghanistan," Spano explains, "The human terrain being the people of this country."

U.S. Secertary of Defense Robert Gates first championed this friends-first strategy two years ago. He called it, "smart power" as in a smart mix of combat, aid, reconstruction and diplomacy.

But on the ground in Wardak, some soldiers say smart power is not working.

Infantrymen are some of the toughest critics. They have spent most of their time training for firefights, not aid work. Before deploying, Command Sergent Major Andrew Spano says they received a crash course in interacting with the Afghan people. "Anything that takes you away from our normal infantry tasks can be difficult," he says, "But when we trained; we did exercises -- the brigade spent a lot of money using American citizens of Afghan descent to be role players. That helped us be ready."

Still, many soldiers say they typically do not spend enough time in one community to build lasting ties with the Afghan people. Company commanders are expected to build personal relationships with local leaders. But these in-demand leaders come and go every six months.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Kimo Gallahue says coalition forces are spread too thin to make smart power work. "There was only one rifle company here to augment and assist Afghan security forces," he says, "Counter-insurgency in Afghanistan requires boots on the ground. That's where we're at."

And, Gallahue says, with violence escalating, many Army units do not have the time to conduct humanitarian and development work. "Security has to come first. And right behind that is development and governance," he states.

XS
SM
MD
LG