Melissa Skorka

is a Rotary scholar at the University of Oxford

I am sitting in a fortress in Afghanistan where the attacks against the twin towers were planned. As the sun sets over the eastern mountains, I ponder my experience over the last year, where I was embedded with the U.S. military as a social scientist along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Because I was not viewed with the same wariness as many of our soldiers, I was given incredible access to Afghan society. I had innumerable cups of tea while interviewing local Afghan government officials, ordinary people, and even Taliban commanders and fighters about the threats civilians face every day, as well as the possibility for insurgents' broad reintegration into the central government. These interactions inside Taliban strongholds helped me better understand the viewpoints of regular Afghans in ways that took me by surprise.

For example, I learned that the Afghans' response to the U.S. troop drawdown has created a pivotal change. Soon after U.S. aid had helped Afghans expel the Soviets in 1989, Texas Congressman Charles Wilson famously observed how we had done everything right until we "screwed up the endgame." Every Afghan alive then remembers that endgame, and the bloody internal strife has hung like a pall over the nation ever since.

Many warlords and village leaders are now physically at the table discussing practical conflict-resolution among themselves. They have much to gain, as they seek to secure their own power bases before U.S. forces withdraw and high-value Taliban hiding in Pakistan return. Consequently, local warlords have enormous incentives to seek peace now and are ripe to put down their arms and give up the fight - but only with the right approach.

Undoubtedly, in many parts of Afghanistan, the United States can distill significant guidance from our experience in Iraq, particularly for flipping scores of fence-sitting insurgents and preparing uneasy communities to accept them. Indeed, the importance of wide, seamless reintegration is paramount if we seek national stabilization.

Unfortunately, relying on one-size-fits-all lessons gleaned from Iraq is the wrong course. Iraq and Afghanistan possess vastly different political forms. In eastern Afghanistan, coalitions of villages form alliances for joint action, often to provide needed physical and territorial defense. Conversely, in Iraq, individual tribal organizations wield controlling influence. Any successful reintegration model must be formulated to account for these underlying differences.

A few key measures could also help ensure this needed change. First, our strategy should mirror what our enemy is already doing by implementing a decentralized blueprint geared toward a village-based culture where village leaders act as the real deciders of the region's fate. Understanding the village system and how its leaders can tip the balance of power against the Taliban is critical to success.

Second, Washington should focus on transferring our operations from conventional forces to special operations, which are more familiar with the Afghan village system. While badly underutilized, Special Forces stability operations remain one of the only proven options that allow Afghans to drive security and governance themselves, and they remain our best means of preparing Afghans for when our troops are gone.

It is clear that the Taliban continues to use the village system to its advantage. Moving toward a high level of pretransition readiness will thus require the Afghan National Army and police to concentrate not only on matching the fierceness of their enemies in combat, but also working toward identifying, securing, and reintegrating blocs of villages subjugated by the Taliban. This prerequisite is even more crucial in turning the tide than what happens on the battlefield. By tailoring our approach toward winning over strategic sets of villages one at a time, we can help them get to that point.

In this respect, reintegration in Afghanistan could not look any more different from Iraq. It will be measured not in how many insurgents enroll in conventional defector programs nor in the decline in attacks or casualties, but rather in the villages' individual and collective willingness to take a stand and tell insurgent fighters to lay down their arms and cut their ties to the insurgents in Pakistan.

Getting to that point will first take a change in our own mind-set. How we carry out the transition and whether we leave behind a stable country will determine which side a great many populations come down on once we leave. Winning over Afghans will require not simply making friends on a temporary basis, but protecting those friends against all enemies, domestic and foreign, to ensure long-term democratic growth and stability.

E-mail Melissa L. Skorka at melissalskorka@gmail.com.