THE inhabitants of combat zones in southern Afghanistan may face biometric tests in a new initiative to prevent the Taliban from infiltrating villages.
After studying counter-insurgency methods employed from the Boer war to the conflict in Iraq, British commanders are drawing up plans for “gated communities” from which the enemy can be excluded by identity checks. The checks may involve fingerprints, retina scans or even DNA tests.
Brigadier James Cowan, the new commander of British forces in Afghanistan, revealed last week how far the campaign in Helmand is being rethought.
“In counter-insurgency you are not here to beat the enemy. You are here to win the people — because the enemy will always be able to regenerate,” he said in the first newspaper interview he has given in his new role. “What you have to be able to do is give people the security they crave.”
The shift in emphasis from killing Taliban fighters to counter-insurgency has often been misleadingly presented as simply trying to win “hearts and minds” — perhaps with crude bribes such as building wells or health clinics, or through short-term job creation.
At the heart of the strategy favoured by General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and Nato forces, is a plan to put security for local people above all else. This scheme, which is shaping British intentions, involves not only “soft” incentives but also harder security measures that may prove controversial.
Already used by the Americans to pacify the Iraqi city of Falluja, biometric testing can be combined with physical security measures to control access to an area that has been cleared of insurgents.
When information on the entire population inside such an area is held, outsiders can be identified quickly. In the Iraqi port of Basra, American soldiers on patrol have been issued with iPods that store a database of local people.
Cowan revealed that some fingerprinting had already begun in Helmand. “What we are trying to show people is that this is for their own interests. They’re not to be afraid of this,” he said.
His “long-term aspiration”, he added, was that everyone would be tested. “It gives the Afghan people the confidence to know that we understand when we are dealing with innocent people or guilty people.”
Attempting to establish gated communities would also involve putting up barriers to control access to secured areas. Past counter-insurgency campaigns have included ringing “secure hamlets” in Vietnam with barbed wire and mass forced migration into secure areas during the Malayan campaign.
Such draconian measures could be counter-productive in Afghanistan. One idea is to control access to towns and villages in Helmand by using the canal crossings. “The canals give you a man-made means of breaking up ground and using it to our advantage,” Cowan said.
For the brigadier it is all about challenging the Taliban’s rule of fear: “What you have to do is create communities where people wish to be separate from the enemy because they have the confidence to be separate from them.”
Cowan’s staff have embarked on a huge exercise known as “human terrain mapping”. It involves not only delineating tribal boundaries, but also family networks, land ownership and all the possible grievances that can be exploited by the Taliban.