The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Fool Me Once, Fool Me Twice

April 26, 2011

I would like to be as snarky as Brian, but paying attention to Afghanistan is pretty darned depressing.  In the aftermath of the second (yes, second) prison break at the Saraposa prison, what hope is there for the counter-insurgency effort?  I posted initially on my blog about what the breakdown at the prison says about the effort: the feeble Afghan government, the limited ability of the international community to make progress, and the Taliban’s ability to organize a big event.

But I was reminded of the bigger picture by a Canadian reporter, Graeme Smith, who reminds us that the real failure of counterinsurgency [COIN] here is not at the prison but outside of it.  Sure, some guards might have been bribed, but the key failure is that none of the folks in the neighborhood tipped off the government or the internationals.  Such a significant operation would have probably been noticed by some of the locals in an area that had seen much investment and had been very much under the control of the government and ISAF.

One of the recurring themes at my blog is that progress is best measured by information that we outside observers cannot really see–patterns in actionable intelligence tips from the people.  Are people betting with their lives?  Do they see the government and NATO as the best option in town?  Or are they intimidated enough by the Taliban not to give the counter-insurgents the info they need?  While there may be classified collections of data to suggest that the US/Canada/NATO/Afghan government is getting more and more good information to target the Taliban and detect roadside bombs and suicide bombers, clearly this prison break is one of those kinds of things that we would want to get info about beforehand.  And we did not.

I always say we have not been doing COIN for eight or nine years, so we have to have reduced expectations.  BUT this is a hunk of land with which the government and the international community have had much interactions and even control for the past several years.  Yet none of the locals warned the relevant folks.  If COIN does not work in the heart of Kandahar City, where there has been an enduring NATO and government presence, it says much about the larger effort.

Now, more than ever, it seems like a decent interval (between when we leave and when things fall apart) is all we can hope for.  This one event (well, the second time) achieved its goal–of sucking all of the optimism about ISAF’s latest efforts out of the country.  The Taliban may be bad at governing and may be bad at marketing itself, but they do a mighty fine job of making the government and its allies look bad.

As always, Afghanistan is the land of bad alternatives.  Which one is the least bad now?

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Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.