Tag: counterinsurgency

Hostile Intent: Civilian Casualties and the Politics of Killing

Tackling Tough CallsThe expectation that civilians should be protected from the worst excesses of war is traditionally viewed as a moral or legal restraint, moderating the kind of violence that can be inflicted on the battlefield. But the shift towards counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq and its emphasis on population-centric warfare called for a radical rethink in how civilian casualties are framed. Rather than simply viewing them as the tragic but inevitable side-effect of military operations, civilian casualties were now seen as a ‘strategic setback’ that could jeopardise the overall success of campaign. In his 2011 tactical directive, Gen. John R. Allen stated that he was ‘absolutely committed to eliminating the tragic waste of human life amongst the law-abiding citizens of Afghanistan’, reminding soldiers that ‘every civilian casualty is a detriment to our interests’. Gen. Stanley McChrystal was equally adamant about the need to reduce civilian harm, insisting that coalition forces try to ‘avoid the trap of winning tactical victories – but suffering strategic defeats – by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage’.

Concerned about alienating the local population, the military introduced a number of measures to reduce the number of civilians killed, limiting its reliance on deadly airstrikes and controversial night raids whilst encouraging troops to exercise greater ‘tactical patience’ when dealing with locals. Data collected by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan suggests that these changes did have a positive impact on civilian harm, with deaths caused by pro-government forces falling from 828 in 2008 to 341 in 2013. As Neta Crawford argues in her recent book, ‘when the United States perceived the harm to civilians as posing a political-military problem, it attempted and succeeded in decreasing collateral damage deaths’ (see also). But a new report from the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) raises some important questions about the protection of civilians during this period, criticising the vague, unclear and imprecise language used to justify certain deaths (see also). In particular, it warns that conceptual flaws in the standing rules of engagement (SROE), combined with poor application in the field, resulted in ‘erroneous determinations of hostile intent’. To put it simply, civilians were killed and injured because soldiers mistook perfectly innocent behaviour as a threat to their safety.

Continue reading


What is to be Done in Nigeria?

This is a follow-up to my earlier post, “Why Foreign Intervention in Nigeria is a Bad Idea.” That post focused on larger issues that make Nigeria a particularly problematic context for foreign involvement of any kind; this post focuses on what policies — mostly domestic — might work.

In the past week, things have not gotten better with regard to Nigeria and the effort to #Bringbackourgirls. On the US front, the administration began a blessed crawl away from direct US military involvement in Nigeria the day of my earlier post. In last Thursday’s hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a succession of military and State Department officials provided a needed reality-check:

  • It will be very difficult to find the girls. Specialists now guess that the girls have been split into smaller groups. For more on the logistical difficulties of an extraction, see here and here.
  • The Nigerian military is not a suitable partner. Pentagon and State officials noted that, even if the political will were present, the Nigerian military may not have the capacity to find the girls. The U.S. is significantly hampered in its efforts to help by the Leahy Law, which bars U.S. assistance of any form to foreign military forces that systematically violate human rights (in force in various forms since 1998). Said one Pentagon official, finding Nigerian military units that had not engaged in gross human rights abuses has been “persistent and very troubling limitation” on US assistance to the Nigerian Government.

This is why the Obama administration deployed 80 US military personnel to Chad, which borders Nigeria’s far northeast, rather than to Nigeria itself. By basing US surveillance and assistance efforts in Chad, we may help in the tasks of both closing the porous borders that have bedeviled the fight against Boko Haram and also disrupting the flow of small arms into Nigeria. These are good things, but they leave open the question of what to do inside Nigeria.


Continue reading


Why Foreign Intervention in Nigeria is a Bad Idea

This is the first of two posts about Boko Haram & possible US involvement in Nigerian counterterrorism operations. For the second, see “What is to be done in Nigeria?”. Note: two sentences added shortly after publication to clarify that my concerns encompass the full range of foreign intervention, from direct intervention to operational support to limited strikes to an expanded role in shaping Nigerian policy.

Yesterday, American drones began flights over northern Nigeria in hopes of locating the 276 girls abducted a month ago from a school in Borno State. American and British counter-terror experts are on the ground; Nigeria will attend a French-convened regional security summit. Continued foreign involvement seems likely, especially as the US has confirmed that Boko Haram is a top US foreign policy priority. This kind of concrete international action is an emotionally satisfying response to a particular narrative, one that stresses Nigerian government inaction as the heart of the Boko Haram problem. In this context, the example of the speedy and successful French intervention against Islamists in Mali in 2013 looms particularly large: could foreign intervention work similar magic in northern Nigeria? Might a more limited intervention provide the same kind of low-risk, high-reward opportunity?

There are powerful forces pushing both foreign and Nigerian decision-makers toward action, perhaps limited, perhaps more substantial. As with other advocacy campaigns, the #Bringbackourgirls movement has stressed the solvability of this problem: if “serious” investments were made or if the Nigerian government were “serious” about taking action, Boko Haram would be easily countered. This narrative elides the very serious – and very flawed — counterinsurgency campaign that has been waged in northeastern Nigeria since 2009. But it also likely overstates the likelihood of success even for the most well-implemented, well-coordinated military campaign. And, since more limited intervention is almost certainly what is being considered, the likelihood of concrete gains or definitive successes against Boko Haram is even smaller.

Here are three inconvenient facts that make Nigeria rocky terrain for interventionism.

The Nigerian military is part of the problem.

In addition to garden-variety problems of capacity, training, and provisioning, the Nigerian military has serious human rights problems. Since its deployment to the three states of northeastern Nigeria (Yobe, Borno, and Adamawa) in 2009, reports have consistently documented the military’s involvement in disappearances, masses of extrajudicial killings, and general terrorizing of the civilian population. On top of these clear and widespread human rights abuses, there are sanctioned counterinsurgency tactics, such as the military’s cordon-and-sweep operations in Maiduguri in late 2010, that likely sew local resentment and boost Boko Haram recruiting.

Continue reading


NYE Links

NYE ducksHappy New Year to all.  While you’re sticking the bubbly in the fridge and mapping out 2013 resolutions, consider nominating your favorite blogs for the 2013 OAIS awards sponsored by the Duck.  Tomorrow is the deadline for nominations.  See Dan’s last update on current nominees for more information.

The heavy bias toward counterinsurgency links in today’s post is entirely unintentional.  Blame the feelings of impending doom sweeping through the DC streets.  For things you might actually want to read on NYE, skip to the end.


Kicking the Can Down the Ring Road

How is it that time and time again we are persuaded to hang on for another year in Afghanistan with the mantra that counterinsurgency (a.k.a. COIN) will really work this time. While I certainly acknowledge the limited range of alternative options and oppose any peace agreement with the Taliban, I think that putting our faith in COIN time and time again is problematic… To understand why, perhaps a (not so brief) recap of how the discourse of COIN has mutated in Afghanistan would be helpful…

From late 2003 to mid 2004, Robert Andrews, a CIA and DoD official and Donald Rumsfeld’s head of special operations, began urging the US to undertake a “countrywide counterinsurgency” campaign in Afghanistan (WaPo, 8 August 2004). However, COIN in Andrew’s outlook mainly entailed an effort to broaden the manhunt for terrorists by attempting to target drug lords who were thought to be propping up the warlords, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda. (In actuality, of course, it was the US which has paid, armed, and legitimated Afghanistan’s warlords since 9/11. In turn, those warlords helped to maintain the central government’s weakness thereby fueling the dramatic growth of narco-trafficking — but these inconvenient contradictions in US policy were ignored by experts who never seriously contemplated the idea that the US itself could be the heart of the problem they were trying to manage.) Andrews, like his boss Donald Rumsfeld, thought that the idea of counterinsurgency could be used as an antidote to “overmilitarization” of the conflict. They still seemed to envision counterinsurgency as reliant on light, fast moving elite units linked to “local allies.”

Other military experts did articulate a more conventional understanding of COIN doctrine, for example US CENTCOM Director, Brigadier General Douglas Lute, argued that COIN required a separation between the insurgent and his base of support.  However, Lute said that it takes 20 years to develop a seasoned civil affairs officer or to train a linguist (Tampa Tribune 26 August 2004). In other words, he was skeptical of the ability to transform the US military to engage in a counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan. Such frank and pessimistic comments would become a rarity or heavily diluted in order to be used as a plea for patience with an ever expansive COIN strategy in the years to come.

In November 2004, the US Army re-issued its counterinsurgency manual for the first time since the American defeat in Vietnam. Although the release of the manual was intended to address challenges being faced in Iraq, it would obviously become relevant in Afghanistan once the Taliban’s Maoist-style insurgency would move into a more confrontational phase (Giustozzi 2008).  Notably, this manual advised against a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign stating that the longer a counterinsurgency strategy is used the more resentment it breeds. Despite its flaws, the hastily published manual replaced the woefully outdated and Orientalist “Small Wars Manual” then being used in Iraq:

“One purpose for the manual, Colonel Horvath said, was to update archaic language and concepts. The ‘Small Wars Manual,’ which many Marines carried to Iraq, includes sections on the ‘management of animals’ like mules, and assertions like a warning that mixed-race societies are ‘always difficult to govern, if not ungovernable, owing to the absence of a fixed character,'” (NY Times, 13 November 2004).

Nevertheless, the existence of the Small Wars Manual calls into question some revisionist claims in the mainstream press that the US military had no framework for thinking about an insurgency prior to 2004.

By 2005, the US began to talk openly of handing off the Afghanistan campaign to NATO and cutting the 20,000 US troops by at least 20% the next spring in order to focus on the Iraq War. NATO initially balked at the idea of being drawn into a counterinsurgency campaign commanded by the Americans (NY Times 14 September 2005).  Defense Secretary Rumsfeld insisted that the US could manage the counterinsurgency with the current level of troops until NATO was ready. In October, NATO caved to US pressure and agreed to increase its troops from 9,000 to 15,000, move away from its existing peacekeeping mission, and take on the counterinsurgency mission minus the counter-narcotics mission (NY Times, 7 October 2005).  The US still hoped that it could hand off the entire COIN mission to NATO’s 15,000 troops in the near future. (In other words, this was basically a mini-surge). Lt. General Barno predicted in April 2005 that the insurgency would collapse in about a year.

As it turned out, 2005 was the most lethal year for American soldiers in Afghanistan since the war began. But American commanders claimed to have killed 600 insurgents and had plans to “step-up” attacks in insurgent areas and to train Afghan troops to fight through the winter. The US also hoped that spending $68 million on “development” projects would help win over hearts and minds in southern Afghanistan the next spring. The relative absence of Taliban attacks during the 2004 Presidential elections and the 2005 Parliamentary elections, which we now know was mainly due to intense US pressure on Pakistan to seal its borders (Rashid 2008, 259), bolstered the idea that counterinsurgency efforts were working.  US advisors boasted that the 20,000 strong ANA was ready to safeguard the country and that they had already performed admirably under fire. Defense Intelligence advisors told reporters that the ANA was stocked with former mujahideen who had fought the Soviets in the 1980s.  Hence, the Afghan troops were considered “competent and capable,” (Daily News [New York] 18 September 2005).

As the Americans transferred authority to Canadian troops in Kandahar at the end of 2005, the Canadians stated they would use the same rules of engagement as the Americans. Canadian Col. S.J. Bowles stated that “We understand this is an active insurgency,” (NY Times, 31 December 2005). The US had encouraged such statements because it was concerned that a failure to vigorously pursue COIN tactics and strategy would endanger the “slow but steady political, economic, and security gains” they claimed to have achieved in southern Afghanistan. It was clear that the Americans thought holding on to territory in southern Afghanistan was critical to the counterinsurgency struggle. The US military continued to believe that the Taliban was some kind of ethnic insurgency rather than a ruthless, adaptive, and opportunistic set of loosely affiliated militant organizations that would recruit disaffected and frustrated young men wherever it was possible and convenient.  Hence the US continued to focus on clearing and holding southern Afghanistan when it should have realized that the Taliban were probably busy infiltrating the north in the same way they had gradually infiltrated the south.

By 2006, US military officials claimed that COIN doctrine had finally been incorporated into US military training centers. Army experts and commanders stated that prior applications of COIN (e.g. cordon and sweep) were incorrect and counterproductive due to inadequate training. General Petraeus stated that as the next crop of officers entered the field, COIN would be properly applied to “make a difference” in 2007 (WaPo, 21 January 2006). In reality, light infantry forces had been receiving at least some training in counterinsurgency since 1987 at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana (Dallas Morning News, 20 March 2006) — but the General’s narrative was rarely challenged.

In May 2006, the Marines began drafting a new counterinsurgency manual apparently for the first time in 25 years.  This manual argued “The (counterinsurgency) effort requires a firm political will and extreme patience,” (China Daily, 23 May 2006). Military experts were quoted as saying that the operation could last another 3 to 12 years, some even said it could go on for any number of years. The mission to “push out timelines” was now in full swing (WaPo, 24 September 2006). A key element in gaining support for an indefinite timeline was to show sufficient progress to continue the campaign yet another year.

Thus, one of the most frequently cited statistics to show that counterinsurgency was working and hearts & minds were being won over related to the number of schools being built and the enrollment of girls in those schools. In fact, the school was usually the only sign of the central government’s penetration of remote rural areas. The fact that this strategy would make schools into a lightning rod for the insurgents, thereby endangering Afghan children, was either not thought through or simply ignored. School building should have followed other (gradual) development objectives rather than leading the attempt to penetrate rural areas (to the extent that a strategy based on the state’s penetration of rural areas has any wisdom in the Afghan historical and cultural context). Of course, with each school burning and attack on teachers and school children by the Taliban, the enemy was portrayed as even more ruthless and the counterinsurgency strategy was redoubled.

Another metric of demonstrating progress was counting bodies of dead insurgents — a practice which was contrary to the essence of standard counterinsurgency doctrine. If anything the reliance on such a metric at a time when COIN was supposedly becoming the core doctrine of western forces in Afghanistan indicated tensions within the US military as well as ISAF (Globe & Mail 3 November 2006). Perhaps there is/was a disagreement between soft, hard, and very hard COINistas in the military. Of course, even in a conventional conflict, body count data would only be meaningful if the Taliban had a limited stock of recruits or an inability to replenish its ranks continuously. As such an assumption was questionable, the repetition of official body count statistics by journalists was a relatively mindless activity.

A third metric to secure patience were statistics about the growing size of the ANA and ANP to which power would eventually be handed. The startling desertion rates and high levels of illiteracy among the recruits were rarely mentioned in the early years. It was also not generally acknowledged that the ANA had mainly been trained in a light infantry model to support US and ISAF operations. It was always unclear just how many ANA and ANP troops would ultimately be needed. There was no discussion of how an ever expanding Afghan military could be supported by the domestic economy of one of the poorest countries on Earth. The political ramifications of building a massive military and police force for Afghanistan’s democracy were also not articulated to the public. By 2007, the ANA had reached 37,000 soldiers and there were plans to double the size of the military. The fetish for “doubling” existing troop strength should have been a clue that military planners had no idea of what constituted a sufficient or sustainable military… ultimately, it did not matter how many troops were necessary, stating a goal of doubling troops by next year would help make the case for more patience and more funding for the strategy for at least another year.  So now in 2011 we have an ANA with 150,000 troops, with the goal of 260,000 by 2014, the ANP is now at 115,000 police officers with goal of 160,000 by 2014.

Finally, a revisionist chronology of the Anbar Awakening and the Surge in Iraq helped to build confidence that COIN can work in Afghanistan.

To skeptics who argued that the situation in Afghanistan increasingly seemed like a quagmire, COINistas would point out that classical counterinsurgency actually dictated a far higher level of troop strength and an 80/20 allocation of resources between nonmilitary and military efforts (New Yorker, 18 December 2006). Although the basis for such claims is questionable and reliant on deference to military authority, they create immense space for bureaucratic budgetary lobbying to “do it right, this time.” So today in 2011 we have 132,203 ISAF troops in Afghanistan, including 90,000 US soldiers.  There are also 18,919 private security contractors in Afghanistan. Will this be enough troop strength, particularly when combined with 260,000 ANA and 160,000 ANP to carry out counter-insurgency the “right way” against an estimated 36,000 Taliban? Check back in 2014…


Negotiating with the Taliban

He’s not alone, of course, but scholar Gilles Dorronsoro is quite pessimistic about the Afghan surge and ongoing counterinsurgency campaign:

The current counterinsurgency campaign shows little signs of accomplishing its mission. The surge is not enough to reverse the Taliban’s gains, or the quick decline of the Karzai government. Pakistan’s lack of support makes the Taliban sanctuary there a major strategic problem.

More troops and the latest strategy have failed to make progress. The war is not conclusive in the south — where stabilization could take years—and the Taliban is gaining momentum in the north.

Instead of being able to begin a withdrawal next summer, the United States could be forced to add more troops just to hold ground and compensate for our allies’ progressive withdrawal. Never mind turning back the Taliban’s gains.

He concludes that negotiation with the Taliban toward political solution is the only option. What are the prospects for negotiation — and for a successful outcome?

David Petraeus says this week that Afghan government and insurgent figures are already moving in that direction:

“There are very high-level Taliban leaders who have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan government and, indeed, have done that.

…certainly, we support them [initiatives by Karzai government] as we did in Iraq, as the U.K. did in Northern Ireland; this is how you end these kinds of insurgencies.”

The Taliban deny that any talks have occurred.

I suppose that could be read as good news since the Taliban may not want the Afghan people to think they would make common cause with its enemies. American hawks sometimes employ the same logic

Some westerners note that the alleged talks are merely “embryonic” and even Petraeus admits “This is very, very early stages, I don’t think you would yet call it negotiations, it is early discussions.”

Even if serious talks emerge, I’d hold off ordering the champagne to celebrate. First, the US and Afghan governments have established preconditions for talks that likely pose a huge hurdle to meaningful progress — insurgents must lay down their arms and accept the constitution. The Taliban likewise have stated their own preconditions — foreign troops must withdraw first.

Jeremy White says negotiations are ultimately doomed because the political solution the US has in mind fails to recognize the nature of the insurgency and may increase violence in the short-term as locals left out of payoff schemes launch attacks in order to get their fair share of any loot. He references his own on-the-ground research experiences to bolster these claims.

In any event, stay tuned. If everyone agrees (a big if) that the only solution can be political, then we have to hope for some sort of political solution. Right?


Brutality and Counter-insurgency

Recently, while discussing the war in Afghanistan with a conflict studies program in the mid-west, I had a rather odd debate with a leftist professor who was devil’s advocating what he claimed was a “neo-conservative” position (based on some of his recent interaction with naval officers and RAND researchers).

His main argument revived the “stabbed in the back” hypothesis from the Vietnam era. The argument essentially posits that counter-insurgency is a cumulative body of knowledge first pioneered by the Britons. According to this position, Americans have been remarkably successful at applying and refining this knowledge to defeat insurgencies from Vietnam to Colombia. The main problem (again according this narrative) is that squeamish liberals have too often helped to undercut support for the US military just as it was on the verge of “winning” or defeating the insurgency.

Specifically in regard to Afghanistan, he argued that the US is not making repeated mistakes when it botches night raids, shoots civilians at checkpoints, or strafes a bus load of civilians on the highway. He reasoned that the real purpose of US counter insurgency was to terrorize the Afghan population.

Honestly, I was not quite sure what to make of the argument since I am not a military strategist or an expert on the history of counter-insurgency, particularly as that strategy was applied in Southeast Asia or Latin America. So I simply asked what the purpose of terrorizing the population would be. Initially, he evaded the question by describing the effects of a brutal occuption (e.g. widespread panic and fear in civilians). I continued to repeat the same question several times. Finally, he stated that the use terror was obviously to pacify the civilian population.

(It should be noted that the argument therefore defines the purpose of counter-insurgency as restoring order rather than facilitating a political solution to a violent conflict. In many cases, this would seem to change the yardstick for defining a successful operation.)

While I have no doubt that brutality can occasionally pacify a civilian population, I expressed my sincere doubts that this was the actual policy of the US/ISAF in Afghanistan. If terrorizing civilians is the intentional underlying goal of the counter-insurgency strategy, then the US/ISAF would probably be guilty of perpetrating war crimes. As a professional set of military institutions, ISAF is highly unlikely to endorse such a Machiavellian strategy.

Moreover, I argued that even if this were the actual policy of the US/ISAF in Afghanistan, it is not working. There have been repeated protests, some of which have been violent, against US/ISAF. In other words, the killing of innocent civilians in agitating, not pacifying the population.

Although I found the argument absurd, racially tinged (i.e this is a version of the “they only understand brute force” argument) and reliant on deference to military authority, I began to wonder how a rational person might come to believe such an argument. I assume that proponents are simply unaware that the Afghan population has not been “pacified” because they have limited access to news reports. In other words, the perception of non-events in response to the killing of civilians is thought to support the hypothesis that terrorizing civilians leads to pacification.

In case there are individuals who believe that terrorizing the Afghan people is pacifying the population, here is a basic summary of public protest demonstrations in just the last two years which may have been missed by those who are not following the news carefully. This list is not comprehensive, but I think this adequately makes the point. I should note that most of these accounts are covered in the UK press, but only infrequently in the US press, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me…:

13 April 2010 – Approximately two hundred protest after NATO convoy opened fire on a bus load of civilians killing four and injuring eighteen. Protesters chanted “Death to America.”

12 April 2010 – Hundreds protest in Kandahar blocking the highway to Herat after four civilians were killed by foreign forces.

29 January 2010 – Brief protests in Kabul after a local Imam was shot by a military convoy which had (apparently) mistaken the imam for a suicide bomber. Brig. General Tremblay of NATO apologized for the incident.

12 January 2010 – Six to ten protesters (varied accounts) were killed and approximately 25 wounded when Afghan forces opened fire on a large demonstration of several thousand people. Protesters were angry about the killing of three civilians by foreign forces during a night time operation in Helmand Province. There were also wild rumors (perhaps instigated by Taliban representatives) that American forces had abused a woman and desecrated a copy of the Quran during a night raid.

9 January 2010 – Approximately five thousand individuals protested the 7 January incident (see below) in Nangarhar along the Kabul – Jalalabad highway. Protesters chanted “Death to Obama” and burned him in effigy.

7 January 2010 – An IED exploded while American troops were handing out candy to children in Nangarhar province. Five Afghans were killed (including two school children) and nine US servicemen were wounded in the explosion. The deaths sparked angry protests, as crowds accused the Americans of deliberately setting off the explosion.

31 December 2009 – Protests in Kabul and Jalalabad over the killing of civilians in Kunar province on 24 December. Protesters chanted “Obama, take your troops out!” General McChrystal meets with President Karzai in response to growing protests. ISAF denies the claims that those killed were civilians, the UN supports the Afghan account that

30 December 2009 – Students and faculty in Nangarhar province protest the killing of civilians in Kunar province.

28 December 2009 – MPs representing Kunar province staged a walkout in protest of the killing of four to ten civilians (allegedly mostly young students) by coalition forces four days earlier.

9 December 2009 – Another mass demonstration in Laghman to protest the killing of protesters by Afghan soldiers the day before.

8 December 2009 – Afghan soldiers opened fire on protesters in Laghman province. The protesters had denounced President Karzai and foreign troops. Protests had been sparked by news of the killing of between six to thirteen civilians (including women and children) by coalition forces. One or two protester(s) were killed – accounts varied.

25 October 2009 – Small student protest in Kabul against the killing of four civilians in Kandahar and the alleged burning of a Quran. The students called for an end to foreign occupation. Demonstrators were beaten by the police and one student was wounded as protests turned violent.

12 July 2009 – Anti-US demonstrations took place in Kunar province after coalition troops killed and injured several members of a family during a firefight with insurgents.

10 May 2009 – Students in Kabul protested near Kabul University against the apparent killing of over 100 civilians in Farah province by foreign forces a couple days earlier.

8 May 2009 – Hundreds protest in Farah province after coalition air strikes kill over 100 civilians. Protests turned violent and four protesters were wounded. Protesters shouted “Death to America” and “Death to the Government.”

10 April 2009 – The Khost, Laghman, Logar, and Zabol provincial councils close in protest for one month after five civilians (including three women and one newborn) are killed by coalition forces. Two days later, a number of Afghan senators also staged a walk out in protest of the same incident.

22 March 2009 – Hundreds protest the killing of the Mayor’s staff and security guards by coalition forces in the Imam Saheb district of Kunduz province.

17 March 2009 – More than one hundred protesters paraded three of the five bodies of civilians purportedly killed by US forces near Kandahar.

14 March 2009 – Hundreds stage a demonstration in Loghar province after five civilians are killed in air strikes. Protesters attempted to break into the district headquarters. Two protesters were wounded by police attempting to disperse the crowd.

8 March 2009 – Protesters in Khost block a US military convoy and throw rocks at it after an overnight raid kills four Afghans.

27 February 2009 – Thousands protest in Ghazni at the alleged desecration of a mosque by a US soldier who reportedly opened fire in a mosque. There were also rumors that copies of the Koran were desecrated. Afghan security forces fired bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd.

24 February 2009 – Villagers chant “Death to Canada” and parade the bodies of two children apparently killed by Canadian shelling in Kandahar.

21 February 2009 – Two thousand demonstrators (some armed) staged a “massive protest” (which closed the highway for six hours) in Loghar province against foreign forces after one villager is killed and five others arrested in a night raid. Protesters threw rocks at the local police.

26 January 2009 – Thousands protest the killing of 16 civilians.

9 January 2009 – Protest in Laghman province after 17 to 23 civilians are killed in an airstrike.

27 December 2008 – Protesters block Kandahar to Herat highway after 8 militants and 4 civilians are killed in a raid by coalition troops.

17 October 2008 – Protestors bring the bodies of 25 to 30 civilians (including a 6 month old baby) killed in a NATO airstrike in Lashkar Gah to the provincial governor’s compound.

5 September 2008 – National day of mourning called for the civilians killed in Herat on 25 August.

1 September 2008 – Small protest in Kabul at the killing of four men by coalition and Afghan forces. The bodies of the killed were brought to the protest.

25 August 2008 – Massive protests occur. Local protestors set fire to vehicles and chant “Death to America” in response the killing of 90 civilians (including 60 children) in a village near Herat by US forces.

20 July 2008 – Protests in Badakhshan province against the slaughter of civilians over the previous two weeks.

24 June 2008 – Hundreds took to the streets in Jalalabad to protest the alleged killing of a father and son by coalition troops.

15 June 2008 – Hundreds protested NATO airstrikes in Paktia province which killed 20 civilians. Afghan security forces opened fire on the protestors, 2 were killed and 13 wounded.

22 May 2008 – Approximately one to two thousand Afghan protesters attacked a NATO base run by Lithuanians in Ghor province after reports surfaced that an American soldier in Iraq had used the Koran for target practice. Protesters were chanting anti-American slogans. Two civilians and one Lithuanian soldier were killed during the protest. The Afghan Parliament also walked out in protest of the actions by the American soldier in Iraq.

11 May 2008 – Protests were staged against the killing of three civilians by coalition forces in Nangarhar Province. Police opened fire on the protesters, killing one and wounding three. ISAF rejected the allegation that civilians were killed but local police confirmed that three members of the same family were killed.

To conclude, if a goal of counter-insurgency is to use Machiavellian tactics to subdue a civilian population, then by Machiavelli’s own standards the current counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan is failing as violence is being applied repeatedly and only enraging the civilian population.

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]


The Logic of Violence in Counterinsurgency

I have alluded to the work of Jason Lyall on the use of indiscriminate violence in counterinsurgency in the past. Briefly, Lyall’s paper (recently published in JCR) examines how the Russian army used targeted and non-targeted shelling in Chechnya through a pseudo-natural experiment. The paper is fascinating, however, I always had two major issues with it; first, Lyall claims randomization and thus indiscriminate violence through the “harass and interdiction” pattern of shelling used by Russians. With even my limited exposure to US Army protocol, it is difficult to claim that this pattern is truly random. More importantly, though, is Lyall’s always struck me as an extremely useful empirical analysis in search of a theory.

A recent working paper entitled, “The Political Economy of Counterinsurgency Violence,” seeks to fill this void by offering a simple formalization of counterinsurgency strategy. In fact, the author ask an extremely important question in the opening paragraph:

Why are counterinsurgents often so brutal toward civilians if classical counterinsurgency theory is correct in suggesting that successful counterinsurgents must win—not destroy—the hearts and minds of the population?

To understand this dynamic the author models counterinsurgency as a game with three players. First, a coalition bwtween a rebel group and their popular support within a community, and second the counterinsurgent. To achieve its goals, the counterinsurgent seeks to divide this coalition through a mixture of violence and concession, which tempts some side in the coalition to defect on its partner for short-term gains and forgo long-term goals. Formally, the game is played as a public goods game, where each player has some level of “profit” it extracts from the insurgency, which is offset by the cost of participation. Thus the counterinsurgent seeks to short-circuit the profit chain through the threat or execution of violence.

What falls out of this model is an very interesting observation about how insurgency are a function of the active micro-economies where they take place. As the author states:

The rebels’ profit from insurgency increases due to windfall and black market revenue, external aid, natural resources, taxation, remittances, looted property and labor, and the availability and attractiveness of the rebels’ sanctuaries. An increase in the rebels’ accountability to the population and a decrease rebel profit results from restrictive geography, vulnerability to the population’s disloyalty caused by the nature of the rebel group’s organization, and the presence and strength of quasi-judicial institutions with which to sanction rebels’ abusive behavior…Factors negatively and positively affecting the actors’ relative profit during insurgency ought to correlate with the government’s use of indiscriminate violence.

The model is clever, and the author’s keen attention to the work of key counterinsurgency scholars comes through in his incorporation of critical elements of insurgency in the model. What is interesting, however, is how the model does not do a good job of predicting the kind of indiscriminate violence observed by Lyall in his research. The author here uses case studies from Guatemala and Turkey to support his theory, but given the high profile of Lyall’s work it would have been much more satisfactory to get a model that explained those observations. Of course, it is not the job of a modeler to fit data, and it may simply be the case that Lyall’s natural experiment is flawed, and this model requires better data for testing; either way, the article is very engaging and I highly recommend it.

Photo: New Internationalist


The legitimacy of America’s wars

Last night, over a good meal, two Department colleagues and I talked with several out-of-town guests for quite some time about the prolonged war in Afghanistan. Eventually, I happened to make a point that a fellow blogger said seemed novel and interesting — certainly worthy of a blog post.

Let’s see if anyone agrees.

As many experts note, the war in Afghanistan is prolonged in large part because too much of the local population sees the U.S.-NATO intervention as illegitimate. Regardless of good intentions, Americans are seen as unwanted foreign invaders. Moreover, even U.S. Generals concede that the Karzai regime lacks legitimacy within much of Afghanistan.

In contrast, of course, the war in Afghanistan is widely seen as legitimate by the international community of states. There’s plenty of evidence: the September 2001 UN Security Council Resolution, NATO support, etc.

Is the reverse true in regard to the Iraq war? Is the Afghan war a mirror-image legitimacy problem? Is there anything novel about such a claim?

Internationally, the world clearly refused to grant legitimacy to the American invasion in 2003 — and continued to be skeptical of the war for many years.

Did Iraqis view the war and occupation as legitimate? Obviously, Iraqis who have used violence against U.S. troops see the invasion and/or occupation as illegitimate. However, Iraq’s Kurds have long appreciated America’s assistance in holding off Saddam Hussein’s government and providing them a measure of autonomous rule. Iraq’s Shia may not have supported war, but they have been big winners in terms of political clout within Iraq. Many Shia politicians have actively cooperated with the USA and most would likely applaud the toppling of Saddam. The minority Sunni — bigger losers in Iraq’s internal power struggle — have certainly not been pro-American, but many have been pacified since the Anbar Awakening and are perhaps willing to take their chances with domestic politics. Additionally, the Status of Forces Agreement arguably legitimizes the current US position within Iraq.

By making this argument last night, I was trying to point out that America’s task of securing and stabilizing Afghanistan will likely be even more difficult than was the comparable task in Iraq. I know, I know. That may seem obvious given the length of the Afghan war — nearly 8 years now! However, many critics of U.S. policy have argued that the problem in Afghanistan was a simple lack of attention and resources. Once U.S. attention turns from Iraq, the U.S. can get down to business.

I say no.

The lack of international legitimacy meant that the U.S. had to pay almost all of the costs in Iraq (compared, say, to the 1991 Persian Gulf War). Those costs have been very painful, but once America devoted substantial resources it achieved a measure of success in Iraq — and agreed to a way out with an Iraqi government that has a measure of legitimacy.

On the other hand, the lack of legitimacy within Afghanistan means that America’s COIN strategy faces an enormous uphill battle. Almost regardless of international assistance, the US and NATO will not be able to defeat insurgent forces in Afghanistan unless the domestic government is viewed as legitimate (and likely autonomous) and the western forces are NOT viewed as foreign invaders.

Rather than problematically increasing the size of the US military presence in Afghanistan, it might be better to do the difficult social and political work to “appreciate the dynamics in local communities” and understand “how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population.”


How to win friends and influence people

It seems the CIA has a new wrinkle to its counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan–bribing warlords for support with little blue pills. Viagra has become the latest weapon in the war on terror. (I’m struggling mightily to avoid the obvious low-brow humor here, but I’ll probably succumb somewhere below the fold… Seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up.)

From today’s Washington Post:

The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, saw an opportunity, and reached into his bag for a small gift.

Four blue pills. Viagra.

“Take one of these. You’ll love it,” the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.

The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes — followed by a request for more pills….

In their efforts to win over notoriously fickle warlords and chieftains, the officials say, the agency’s operatives have used a variety of personal services. These include pocketknives and tools, medicine or surgeries for ailing family members, toys and school equipment, tooth extractions, travel visas, and, occasionally, pharmaceutical enhancements for aging patriarchs with slumping libidos, the officials said.

“Whatever it takes to make friends and influence people — whether it’s building a school or handing out Viagra,” said one longtime agency operative and veteran of several Afghanistan tours.

Just one more way the CIA has discovered to put the rise back in American Hegemony.

Not everyone in Afghanistan’s hinterlands had heard of the drug, leading to some awkward encounters when Americans delicately attempted to explain its effects, taking care not to offend their hosts’ religious sensitivities.

Such was the case with the 60-year-old chieftain who received the four pills from a U.S. operative. According to the retired operative who was there, the man was a clan leader in southern Afghanistan who had been wary of Americans — neither supportive nor actively opposed. The man had extensive knowledge of the region and his village controlled key passages through the area. U.S. forces needed his cooperation and worked hard to win it, the retired operative said.

After a long conversation through an interpreter, the retired operator began to probe for ways to win the man’s loyalty. A discussion of the man’s family and many wives provided inspiration. Once it was established that the man was in good health, the pills were offered and accepted.

Four days later, when the Americans returned, the gift had worked its magic, the operative recalled.

“He came up to us beaming,” the official said. “He said, ‘You are a great man.’ “

“And after that we could do whatever we wanted in his area.”

When you think of it, its a rather innovative plan. Traditional bribes of this sort are weapons or money, but that stuff spends easily, is a quick give-away that your source has a new supplier, and can easily find its way into the wrong hands. Viagra, on the other hand, doesn’t kill anyone while building strong loyalty from its user. Appealing to masculinity is one of the oldest tricks in the book–“aging village patriarchs were easily sold on the utility of a pill that could “put them back in an authoritative position,” the official said.”

For an interesting Feminist take on this, see Spencer and Megan here. Just read it, I can’t do it justice with a short summary.

Seriously, though, this material writes itself. Readers are encouraged to chime in in the comments.
I considered titling this post….

American Hegemony rises again!
Erecting a new spirit of cooperation in Afghanistan
Stiffening resistance to the Taliban
Boning up our counterinsurgency doctrine
The full Monty in Afghanistan
How to raise an army
Clear, Hold and Erect
Bob Dole replaces Kilcullen as top strategist
US finally gets a rise out of Afghan tribal leaders
If your counter-insurgency operation lasts for more than four hours, contact a case-officer immediately!
Bush Administration finds new way to F*@!-up Afghanistan


Post-surge offensive

Wednesday, in Slate, Phillip Carter looked at what he called the first post-surge offensive by the U.S. military. Roughly 10% of American forces in Iraq are conducting operations in the the Diyala province. However, as Carter cautions, this is “an attempt to clear an area without there being a sizable number of troops available to occupy it afterward.”

Carter documents that this is a sizable offensive force — bigger even than what the US employed in November 2004 during the second assault on Fallujah. Unfortunately, the size of the force will not guarantee mission success:

One truism about the surge has been that where we deploy sufficient numbers of U.S. troops, we prevail. There is no doubt that this quantity of U.S. troops will clear this small area of insurgents and al-Qaida fighters. The only question for the near term is whether our troops will kill, capture, or merely push those fighters out of the breadbasket. This has been the pattern for U.S. military operations since 2003, and yet the insurgency continues. The more important question is whether the U.S. military—and its partners in the Iraqi army and police—can secure the area for the long term, and do so with fewer and fewer U.S. troops as the surge ends.

Though the local civilians — and presumably the insurgents — could monitor recent helicopter activity in the area to predict the offensive, the US military apparently did not tell the Iraqi military about it and is apparently not making much use of Iraqi forces in the fight.

Didn’t the surge emphasize cooperation between US and Iraqi forces?

The most recent news reports, in fact, show that this attack is modeled after the war’s start — shock and awe. From The Washington Post, January 10:

U.S. warplanes unleashed one of the most intense airstrikes of the Iraq war Thursday, dropping 40,000 pounds of explosives in a thunderous 10-minute onslaught on suspected al-Qaida in Iraq safe havens in Sunni farmlands south of Baghdad.

The mighty barrage _ recalling the Pentagon’s “shock and awe” raids during the 2003 invasion _ appeared to mark a significant escalation in a countrywide offensive launched this week…

Maj. Alayne Conway, a spokeswoman for troops in central Iraq, said the amount of ordnance dropped in 10 minutes nearly exceeded what had been used in that region in any month since last June.

Conway said the air attack “was one of the largest airstrikes since the onset of the war” in March 2003.

Given these events, Carter rightfully calls this a post-surge operation. The troops are not on the ground, living among the people, providing order. They are not working with local populations. Here’s what General Petraeus said just a couple of days ago:

“Relationships are what this is all about. I think, in truth, relationships are what everything is all about, whether our own home life or international relations,” he said. “And all we are trying to do is, sort of, one handshake at a time or one smile at a time, one Beanie Baby at a time, to add a little joy and strength to this relationship.”

So why is the US bombing parts of Diyala back to the stone age?


Link roundup

If the US is going to win hearts and minds in Iraq, then it needs to avoid killing innocent civilians. So why are air bombings up fourfold in Iraq this year? Max Bergmann of Democracy Arsenal explores this question.

Eric Martin of American Footprints has a strong post on the (un)likelihood of Iran passing nuclear weapons along to terrorists. Moreover, if terrorists were serious about acquiring a bomb, wouldn’t they try harder to get them from former Soviet sources?

Despite new revelations about Syria’s “cleanup job,” Jeffrey Lewis over at Arms Control Wonk remains skeptical that Syria had a worrisome nuclear facility.

And finally, a baseball link. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post explains why brains counted more than bucks in 2007.


Sarah Sewall and COIN

This past week, I’ve read Sarah Sewall’s name three times in different magazines and blogs.

Perhaps you are asking, who is Sarah Sewall?

Well, Sewall is director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. I first heard her name more than 20 years ago when I worked briefly at Center for the Defense Information in DC — a left of center think tank that studies the military. Sewall also interned at Institute of Policy Studies. She must have worked at IPS when Michael Klare ran the Program on Militarism and Disarmament.

So, what’s up with Sarah Sewall these days? Why would she suddenly appear on the blog radar?

First, on October 4, Dan Drezner blogged about the foreign policy wonks who are advising various presidential candidates. Click on his link to a William Arkin piece in The Washington Post and you’ll find Sewall listed as an Obama advisor. She and better-known colleague Samantha Power are helping the campaign in various ways. Sewall seems to approve of Obama’s plan for “military disengagement” from Iraq.

OK, that seems pretty normal for someone working on human right at the JFK School.

Then, in a book ad in The Atlantic Monthly, I noticed something a bit different. Sewall wrote the introduction to the University of Chicago Press 2007 edition of The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. This is au courant — General David Petraeus coauthored the foreward. This link seems to be a free sample.

Writing an introduction for the manual is perhaps not surprising, given that Sewall was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance from 1993-1996.

However, the third mention is definitely much more unusual.

Sewall was excoriated by Tom Hayden in The Nation last month for her defense of “the new counterinsurgency.”

the Petraeus plan draws intellectual legitimacy from Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, whose director, Sarah Sewall, proudly embraces an “unprecedented collaboration [as] a human rights center partnered with the armed forces.” Sewall, a former Pentagon official, co-sponsored a “doctrine revision workshop” at Fort Leavenworth that prepared the Army and Marines’ new counterinsurgency warfighting Field Manual.

Hayden, the famous foe of the Vietnam war and former spouse of Jane Fonda, continues:

Yet Sewall of Harvard’s Carr Center suggests that intellectuals have a moral duty to collaborate with the military in devising counterinsurgency doctrines. “Humanitarians often avoid wading into the conduct of war for fear of becoming complicit in its purpose,” she writes in an introduction to the Field Manual. In a direct response to critics who argue that the manual’s passages endorsing human rights standards are just window dressing, she adds, “The Field Manual requires engagement precisely from those who fear that its words lack meaning.”

One would think that past experiences with death squads indirectly supported by the United States, as in El Salvador in the 1980s, or the recent exposure of abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan’s Bagram facility and Guantánamo, would justify such worries about complicity. But Sewall defends Harvard’s collaboration through a pro-military revisionist argument. She says, “Military annals today tally that effort [the war in El Salvador] as a success, but others cannot get past the shame of America’s indirect role in fostering death squads.” Can she mean that the Pentagon’s self-serving narrative of the Central American wars is correct, and that critics of a conflict in which 75,000 Salvadorans died–the equivalent of more than 4 million Americans–most of them at the hands of US-trained and -equipped security forces, including death squads, simply need to “get past” being squeamish about the methods? Instead of churning out self-deluding platitudes about civilizing the military, Harvard would do well to worry more about how collaboration with the Pentagon impairs the critical independent role of intellectuals.

In his last paragraph, Hayden accuses Sewall of being someone who urges us to “get past the shame of death squads.”


In response, Sewall had some comments for the Harvard campus paper:

“The Carr Center’s mission is to make human rights principles central to the formulation of public policy,” Sewall said. “Civilian protection in war is premised on core human rights and has become a cornerstone of international humanitarian law. Helping to ensure that international humanitarian law is fully embraced in military doctrine will contribute to human rights protection.”

…“How can you hope to change the conduct of war without engaging those who practice it?” Sewall said. “We should all hope to live in a world without war, but there are many steps we can take to minimize war’s horror along the way.”

Actually, Sewall’s response seems pretty reasonable to me, given civilian casualties — though I do worry about COIN strategy.


© 2021 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑