LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan
U.S. forces are testing a modified strategy dubbed “ink spots” in which coalition forces pick certain districts to flood with reconstruction projects and permanently defend from Taliban insurgents.
In Logar province, 50 miles south of Kabul, a newly arrived contingent of U.S. and Czech troops is putting the ink-spot idea into practice.
“I don’t have enough troops to cover every square inch,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Gukeisen, commander of roughly 1,000 soldiers from 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, deployed to Logar early this year alongside a Czech army reconstruction team.
The concept, in part, reflects anticipation that the Obama administration is leaning toward deployments of fewer than the 40,000 extra troops reportedly sought by top commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
The modified strategy represents a shift in degree from a more ambitious “population-centric” effort that would require large numbers of occupying troops to simultaneously protect most of a country’s civilians from attack and infiltration, thus isolating and “starving” the insurgents, military officials say.
The ink-spot approach, by contrast, initially concentrates on just a handful of population centers and slowly expands outward.
Col. Gukeisen said he had to prioritize the three districts under his purview. His troops conducted intelligence surveys of Baraki Barak, Charkh and Kherwar districts and concluded that Baraki Barak was the most ready for a sustained coalition presence. From his “beachhead” in Baraki Barak this summer, Col. Gukeisen launched a campaign he calls “Extreme Makeover, Afghanistan Edition.”
Col. Gukeisen invested nearly $1 million in Army reconstruction funds to refurbish schools and mosques along with other projects in the Baraki Barak district.
At an outpost in the heart of the district, 3rd Squadron’s Able Company, led by Capt. Paul Shepard, gave out free veterinary care and agricultural assistance.
Col. Gukeisen’s aim was to create what he called “dislocated envy” in neighboring districts — envy he could use as leverage in drawing Afghans into the coalition fold.
A foot patrol last month to the fringes of Baraki Barak demonstrated this envy. Elders in the village of Yahaya asked for assistance improving their mosque, just as Capt. Shepard’s troops have helped dozens of mosques in other villages.
But Yahaya was known to harbor insurgents. “I don’t think we should help them until they figure out their Taliban problem,” Capt. Shepard said. He left his phone number with the elders. Turn in the local insurgents, the captain said, and the Army would provide funds to refurbish the mosque.
Col. Gukeisen said the strategy has been effective. Attacks on coalition troops are down by more than half in Baraki Barak since the summer, he said, and thousands of refugees have returned to the district as security improves.
Col. Gukheisen’s tactics align with research coming out of the military’s academic establishment.
In a recent article in Small Wars Journal, Maj. Mehar Omar Khan, a Pakistani officer attending the U.S. Army’s staff college, advocated “creating and building examples” in a handful of Afghan districts. Above all, “don’t try to arrest the sea,” Maj. Khan advised. Instead, “create islands.”
This has worked before. The U.S. Marine Corps embraced the ink-spot strategy in western Iraq in the middle years of the Iraq war. Gradually improving security resulting from that approach provided the basis for Gen. David H. Petraeus’ later population-centric “surge” strategy.
Afghanistan, however, presents a different challenge. Unlike Iraq, its population is mostly rural and dispersed among small villages. Also, Afghanistan is more populous, and there are far fewer coalition and native troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq.
Afghanistan’s lack of modern infrastructure combined with its rugged terrain can frustrate coalition efforts, regardless of the approach. For example, mountainous southern portions of Logar are accessible for troops only by helicopter.
In Iraq, the coalition enlisted tribal and neighborhood militias — the Awakening Councils, or Sons of Iraq — that could fill in for thinly spread foreign troops as the ink spots grew ever wider.
Efforts to stand up similar militias in Afghanistan have been hampered by corruption among Afghan security forces and their strong ties to local warlords.
The absence of reliable native security forces as a backfill limits how far coalition troops can expand their presence.
A recent security assessment commissioned by Gen. McChrystal recommended accelerating the expansion of the current, 92,000-strong Afghan National Army.
The assessment recommended adding about 150,000 Afghan troops by 2011, thus “optimizing the development of that which is most important to [Afghanistan’s] counter-insurgency: protecting the population.”
Gen. McChrystal is also said to have presented multiple options to President Obama, ranging from no additional troops to as many as 80,000, with 40,000 most often cited. The president is expected to make a decision shortly.
Baraki Barak, an agricultural district that has long traded with Kabul and also hosted vacationers from the capital, was arguably primed to cooperate with coalition forces.
“I’m not saying this will work everywhere,” Col. Gukeisen warned.
Still, Logar province has become a popular model for coalition commanders as they consider how to make do with fewer troops.
Col. Gukeisen and Capt. Shepard have played host to a steady stream of senior officers and civilian officials.
In September, Col. Gukeisen briefed Gen. McChrystal. Influential analyst and historian Max Boot dropped in on Capt. Shepard’s troops in late October. Gen. Petraeus, now the U.S. regional commander for the Middle East and Central Asia, is also thought to be planning a visit to Logar.
• David Axe can be reached at .