The Monopoly

Why should academics and policymakers prioritize a state’s acquistion of  “… the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”? Obviously, this monopoly is fundamental to masking the violence of the state in daily domestic affairs, but what about in areas where that violence cannot be masked under the guise of a neutral, rational-legal state that speaks for the “nation” in the first place? Is a Eurocentric model of the state still an appropriate priority for all territories, particularly in regions which have a long history of embattled states as well as fractured societies, and which are experiencing multi-pronged challenges to state authority?

Historically, of course, “pre-modern” states did not always feel the need or desire to acquire a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. For example, one of the greatest imperial states in history, the Mughal Empire which eventually covered much of modern South Asia (including Afghanistan), never sought or obtained a monopoly on violence and this “failure” did not hinder its progress. At the height of its power in the 17th century, the Mughal empire was more opulent than all of Europe combined. The cultural and particularly the architectural achievements of this imperial state are still considered among the finest in the world. Technologically, in 1526 it was the first to introduce the combined use of handguns and cannons with its military in the sub-continent. While its military superiority would eventually decline, it was never more than a decade behind its rivals in terms of military technology. In any case, in the early and middle period of the empire, the Mughal army could defeat any single opponent on the open battlefield, including European upstarts (see Child’s War 1686-1690). Economically, the empire produced goods for the world market. The arrival of European merchants only further extended direct trade links to northern and western Europe, although prior to industrialization there was little to nothing that the Europeans could offer in exchange for goods produced in South Asia except silver bullion.

The Mughal state had some of the trappings of a modern state, including a large bureaucracy and an extensive police and intelligence apparatus. However, it did not seek to disarm the peasantry or dispossess local and regional rivals who acknowledged its superiority. In fact, as Peter Lorge argues in The Asian Military Revolution (Cambridge, 2008, pp. 130-131), Mughal emperors sat atop a vast “military labor market” of over 4 million infantrymen. The Mughal state’s confidence rested on the fact that it had the best concentration of infantry and equipment as well as a massive treasury and spy network. The goal of the emperor was not to disarm its local and regional rivals, but to manage violence. In other words, the objective was “… to maintain the internal balance of center and periphery, not to annihilate external threats to the throne,” (Lorge 2008, p. 138). This balance was maintained in part by keeping the state literally on the move  en masse from one hot spot to the next. The treasury could also be used to purchase a sufficient additional supply of soldier in order to deny those resources to regional rivals. In any case, military resistance to this peripatetic imperial state by regional rivals was often part of an elaborate bargaining procedure for improving one’s rank within the finely graded official status hierarchy. Of course, once it was weakened by fighting against the guerrilla tactics of the Maratha Confederacy in the mid-17th century, the empire began a steady decline, eventually succumbing to domination by their British vassals and the creation of a “modern state” which did vigorously pursue a strategy to disarm the countryside and to monopolize legitimate violence. Notably, however, the emperor remained remarkably legitimate to large numbers of Hindus and Muslims even up to the dying days of the empire as the Great Rebellion of 1857 demonstrated.

I ask the question about the need for a monopoly not because I want to bring Babur & Co. back from the dead (although… well… that would be fun… after all, nobody parties quite like a Timurid…) but because it is clear that there are several territories in contemporary international affairs where the claim to a monopoly on legitimate use of violence is clearly unlikely to be established in the near future. Labeling such states as “failed” or “failing” in lazy and counter productive.

In places like Afghanistan, for example, the state does not have the monopoly of the legitimate use of force and won’t for the foreseeable future; Afghans know they will have to pay homage indefinitely to a range of actors who have the ability to threaten the use of violence against them: warlords, insurgents, foreign troops, the police, etc. As Noah Coburn argues in Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town (Stanford 2011, pp. 182-207), the Afghan state cannot serve as a vertical container of societal conflicts because many of the major actors in society are rivals of the state. Coburn adds that even the notion of a discrete border between the state and society is an artificial construct maintained in large part by society to prop up the state. In other words, the Afghan state is so weak and porous that it is up to society to sustain the illusion of the state as rational and professional. Maintaining the illusion allows aid to flow and keeps the peace, such as it is. Nonetheless, the population is not motivated solely by fear of violence, Afghans value the idea of a sovereign state and the integrity of their state’s territory. The people of Afghanistan do not want their country partitioned or to have their state’s sovereignty further diminished or humiliated by regional or global actors. At the same time, people are realistic enough to know that the state will not vanquish the insurgents and warlords — even with massive international military and financial assistance.

But the choice is not between a monopoly on violence or total anarchy. For embattled states the issue is whether the effort to prioritize acquiring a monopoly by defeating the insurgency and all other challengers to the state is realistic. Building up massive armies in weak states through foreign funding is unsustainable if the state is ever to regain full sovereignty. Moreover, the prolonged presence of foreign troops and unaccountable international non-governmental organizations often undermines the state’s authority and autonomy as much as warlords and insurgents. Perhaps the aim should be to develop sufficient violence capability and financial patronage to keep rival coercive threats in check. To paraphrase Coburn’s depiction of the Afghan state a few years ago: it is too weak to be despotic but strong enough to keep warlords from the temptation of increasing their despotism. Perhaps that should be considered both sufficient and realistic as a marker of success, no? If so, then the question becomes how many elite forces, how much hi-tech weaponry, and how much direct budgetary support would be necessary to maintain that balance while gradually strengthening the state’s ability to increase revenue extraction. This advice will be lost on the US and its partners who are moving toward the exit doors, but India, Russia, and Iran may see its wisdom after 2014…


Editing an Incident

The chasm between Pakistani and Western reactions to last week’s NATO attack on Pakistani forces seems to be growing if official actions/statements, media reports, conversations with friends on all sides, and ad hominem twitter flame wars are any indication.

It goes without saying that Pakistanis are still in mourning for the death of their soldiers in what is a major national tragedy for a country that has had many national tragedies in recent years. But there is more going on than the understandable hurt and anger that follows a tragic friendly fire incident. This incident appears to be intensifying the sense of humiliation felt by a large number of Pakistanis and the sense of deep mistrust felt by many Westerners after the Abbotabad raid.

There are probably a dozen other reasons why the tension is increasing at this point in time, but one that strikes me is the role of the media in fanning the flames of distrust, particularly as I see the kinds of articles being posted on social media sites by Pakistanis and Westerners.

It is obvious that the national press helps to frame and shape public opinion in any country, what is more interesting is how. (I want to be careful here: I am not making any argument about why this is being done — frankly, I don’t know why; I am not arguing that there is a conscious decision by newspaper editors in Pakistan to fuel greater distrust. I am only stating that selective or careless editing and reporting seems to limit the scope for dialog and create even more misleading impressions, although there is no doubt that the relations between Pakistan and its Western allies have been deeply strained for sometime and not without cause, i.e. some of the strains are not due to misunderstanding but to understanding one another all too well.)

Exhibits A&B: The Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper ran an article on Friday titled “Nato Plans to Quell Pakistan Based Insurgents: Guardian” which was based on the Guardian article, “Nato plans push in eastern Afghanistan to quell Pakistan Based Insurgents.”  Since it was obvious that the Dawn article lifted passages word for word from the Guardian article, I thought it would be interesting to compare what was changed from the original to the version aimed toward a predominately Pakistani audience.  Using the compare document versions / track changes function on MS Word, it is easy to see what the Pakistani edits look like (see below).  Text inserted by the Dawn is underlined, text deleted by the Dawn has a strike through. Here are some initial observations — the document with tracked changes follows afterward:

1. The first and most obvious change between the two version is the different pictures which accompany each article. The Guardian shows a crowd of Pakistanis burning an effigy of President Obama, while the Dawn went with a file photo of General John Allen.  Here the credit goes to the Dawn for not choosing an inflammatory image.

2. An entire paragraph explaining how Western officials had been encouraged by the results of drone strikes in North Waziristan was deleted.  The fact that these drone strikes occurred with the cooperation of the Pakistani military is obviously critical to providing a complex framing of the events.

3. The idea that Pakistan’s army might permit a “free fire zone” in the tribal areas has also been deleted, but perhaps because it is speculative and somewhat absurd to begin with.

4. The possible explanation that NATO might have accidentally thought the fire from the Pakistani side was coming from insurgents is deleted.  This is a serious omission by the Dawn.

5. Evidence that Pakistani officials had cooperated to defuse a similar incident only a few days after the deadly attack is deleted.  Later, the Dawn also deletes the part of the Guardian story which mentions that General Allen had met with General Kayani only the day before last week’s attack to try to coordinate cross-border efforts against the insurgents’ havens in Pakistan.

6. The statistical evidence cited by ISAF which might explain why there will a planned push in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan is deleted.

Obviously, this is only a comparison of two news items in what is by now a massive and growing number of articles on the incident. So there is no way to say anything even remotely definitive. However, this little exercise makes me wonder whether these kinds of omissions in the way the incident is explained are replicated in other Pakistani accounts.  And I also had to wonder what aspects of Pakistan’s side of the story are being omitted in Western narratives…

Nato plans push in eastern Afghanistan to quell Pakistan-based insurgents

 Isaf aims to reduce threat to Kabul by insurgent groups and has not ruled out cross-border raids into Pakistan commanders are planning a substantial offensive in easternAfghanistan aimed at insurgent groups based inPakistan, involving an escalation of aerial attacks on insurgent sanctuaries, and have not ruled out cross-border raids with ground troops, The Guardian newspaper reported on Friday.
The aim of
offensive over the next two years is to reduce the threat represented by Pakistan-based groups loyal to insurgent leaders like the Haqqani clan, Mullah Nazir &and Hafiz Gul Bahadur.

Nato hopes to reducethe level of attacks in the eastern provinces clustered around Kabul to the point where they could be contained by Afghan security forces after transition in 2014.The move is likely to add to already tense atmosphere following recent border post attack by Nato helicopters that resulted in death of 24 Pakistani soldiers.

The move is likely to add to the already tense atmosphere following the recent border post attack by Nato helicopters that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. On Thursday, Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani,ordered his troops to return fire if they came under attack again by its ally.
While drawing down forces in Helmand
and Kandahar, the US will step up its presence in eastern provinces bordering Pakistan, bringing the long-festering issue of insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistanthe Pakistanitribal areas to a head. MessageThe message being given to Pakistan military the Pakistani military is that if it cannot or will not eliminate insurgent the havens, US forces will attempt the job themselves, reportthemselves.

Western officials had been encouraged by the fact that a blitz of drone strikes against commanders loyal to insurgent leaders Jalaluddin and his son Sirajuddin in Miran Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, and against forces loyal to Mullah Nazir in South Waziristan, had produced few civilian casualties and no reaction from the Pakistanis. Consequently, an increase in cross-border raids by special forces – and even the withdrawal of the Pakistani army to create a free-fire zone – have not been excluded.

“The Pakistanis may not have the strength to defeat the Taliban and the Haqqanis on their own, even if they wanted to,” a western diplomat
It is unclear to what extent
killing of 24 Pakistan soldiers in Nato air strikes last Saturday will have on the Nato strategy. An investigation is underway into the incident. incident, which appears to have started with an exchange of fire between Pakistani and mixed Afghan-Nato forces, with the latter calling in air support. Nato sent in aircraft believing the fire from the Pakistani side was from insurgents.
As a consequence, Pakistan
closed supply routes used by the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)(Isaf)and barred the US from using a Pakistani air base to launch drones.However, Nato officers said that Pakistani forces had been co-operative in a similar incident on Tuesday, helping prevent it from escalating.

Isaf statistics published earlier this week showed a 7% drop in insurgent attacks across Afghanistan in the first 10 months of this year compared to the same period last year. The decrease in the Helmand area was 29%. But in the eastern provinces the figures show a 21% rise in attacks, now the most violent area, accounting for 39% of all attacks.

Isaf commander, General John Allen, said the need to confront the sanctuaries in Pakistan was “one“oneof the reasons we are shifting our operations to the east”.east”.
In an interview in Kabul, Allen, a US marine, did not give specifics of
strategy and said nothing about cross-border operations.The day before the fatal border clash, he had met Kayani, to discuss cross-border co-operation ahead of the eastern surge, clearly hoping the move against the sanctuaries would be a joint effort.

According to The Guardian,
Allen said he did not know what the long-term consequences of last Saturday’sSaturday’sclash would be, describing it as a “tragedy”,“tragedy”,but made clear that the push to the east would continue.

“Ultimately the outcome we hope to achieve in the east is a reduction of the insurgent networks to the point where the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces(ANSF)] can handle them, reducing them in 2012, if necessary going after them in 2013,”2013,”Allen said.

“I won’twont go into the specifics of the operations but as we consolidate our holdings in the south and as the population centerscentres there in the Helmand River valley and in (Kandahar,)[Kandahar], we will conduct substantial operations in the east … the idea being to expand the security zone around Kabul.

In particular we are going to pay a lot of attention to the south of Kabul,Wardak, Logar, Ghazni, Zabul.

Because in the end if you have a population in the south that feels secure and it’sit’ssecured by the ANSF, and you have a population in the east in and around the centre ofthe gravity of Kabul, and those two are connected by a road so you have freedom of movement, you have a pretty good outcome.”outcome.”



Last night PBS’ POV program aired the Danish documentary film “Armadillo” (filmed 2009; released 2010) about a Danish-British Forward Operating Base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Although much of the documentary portrays standard tropes and follows a time honored narrative arc from a long line of war films, Janus Metz‘s work sparked debate in Europe because it appeared to depict Danish soldiers “liquidating” wounded Taliban fighters and piling up the bodies to take trophy photos. Thus, as the director notes, the film challenges the notion of soldiers as heroes while also showing the ways in which the experience of combat perverts the psychological state of the soldiers.

More subtly and perhaps more subversively, the film allows Afghan civilians, who are caught in the conflict between ISAF and the Taliban, to speak for themselves. Children beg for food, but they also heckle the soldiers for killing their livestock and wounding their family members and they bluntly tell the soldiers to just go home. Village elders seek compensation for destruction to their property and livelihood by ISAF forces while also trying to keep the somewhat oblivious soldiers off of their crops. There is even a wonderfully absurd encounter at a madrassa where the Danish troops try to secure support and information from the teacher at the madrassa by telling him that with his cooperation they will be able to build schools for children in the village — as if a madrassa were not a school.  The arguments of the soldiers about creating security if only the villagers would collaborate with the ISAF troops are calmly defeated through knowing smiles and gestures explaining what the Taliban will do to collaborators… The hopeless and confused nature of the conflict where violence begets more violence becomes startlingly apparent in these brief interactions.

If you did not get a chance to see this film, the full length version is available at PBS POV.


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…


Russia’s Return to Afghanistan

The participation of four Russian counter-narcotics agents in a US/ISAF raid on four heroin labs in Afghanistan has left many pundits wondering whether the war in Afghanistan as well as US/NATO/ISAF–Russian relations are entering a new phase.  However, before one can speculate, there are a few misconceptions in news reports that I think should be clarified and corrected in order to place the story into its proper context.

First, several news papers have adopted the narrative that the Soviet military was “defeated” in Afghanistan. The NY Times report (10/29/2010) states,

“The operation, in which four opium refining laboratories and over 2,000 pounds of high-quality heroin were destroyed, was the first to include Russian agents. It also indicated a tentative willingness among Russian officials to become more deeply involved in Afghanistan two decades after American-backed Afghan fighters defeated the Soviet military there.” 

The notion that the mujahideen defeated the Soviet military in Afghanistan is a rather odd interpretation of history. (It seems part of the same myth which claims a decisive role for Stinger missiles while ignoring the neutralization of that technology through the transfer of SCUD missiles to the Kabul regime). The Afghan insurgents never overran a single Soviet military base from 1979 to 1989. And while parts of Afghanistan were not stabilized, it is important to keep in mind that Soviet strategy sought to destabilize and depopulate areas which were firmly under insurgent control. The Soviets did suffer heavy casualties during a nearly decade long occupation, but the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was part of a larger strategy by Mikhail Gorbachev to gain trust and breathing room from the West in order to restructure the Soviet economy.  In any case, the insurgents were not able to overthrow the Soviet backed Najibullah regime in Afghanistan until 1992, three years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.  In large part the reason that the insurgents were unable to overwhelm the Kabul regime was evident in the Battle of Jalabad shortly after the Soviets withdrew in 1989 — the insurgents were simply unable to transition form a guerrilla force to a coordinated military force.  If the insurgents (backed by US and Pakistani intelligence) could not even overthrow the Kabul regime, it can hardly be argued that they defeated the USSR.  It is important to realize that the Soviets were not defeated so as to avoid a simplistic narrative arc which portrays the Russian interest in Afghanistan as either vengeful or foolish.

Second, it is worth noting (as several news articles correctly point out) that Russia has been cooperating with US/ISAF for some time by permitting logistics operations across Russian territory. Russian cooperation is obviously shaped by its own interests. Russia’s immediate interests in Afghanistan is quite clearly the need to stem the flow of heroin, which they have not been able to curtail through the demand side of the equation.  In essence, the (alleged) violation of Afghan sovereignty is a means of reasserting Russian sovereignty.  (I am saying that the violation of Afghan sovereignty is “alleged” because I do not accept the explanation by the Karzai regime’s media advisor, Rafi Ferdows, that even Afghans on the raid were unaware that Russians were accompanying them since all “yellow-skinned Angreez” look alike.)  Of course, this individual raid is unlikely to have much impact on the drug (and related HIV/AIDS problem) in Russia even in the short term. From a broader perspective, Russia is also concerned about the stability of Central Asia as a region, and Russia is not merely a passive player in regional security.  Russia has been in discussions with Tajikistan about using the Ayni airbase for the CSTO and beefing up security on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.

Third, while the international media tends to emphasize those elements in a story which seem to produce sparks, conflict, and tension between states, there is little reason to accept the notion that Afghans as a people or their government are inherently opposed to Russian involvement in counter-narcotics. Despite denouncing the (supposedly) unauthorized Russian involvement, the Government of Afghanistan also stated that a bilateral agreement might be a possible route to future cooperation in counter-narcotics.  Afghanistan has cooperated with its regional neighbors to close drug labs in the past. The most recent case prior to the Russian raid was a nine month cooperative mission with Tajikistan’s Drug Control Agency which resulted in the closure of 12 drug labs in Afghanistan and the arrest of 50 drug dealers in the first nine months of this year.  In fact, there was apparently some discussion at last year’s SCO meeting of a quadrilateral counter-narcotics initiative involving the “quartet”: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Russia. Moreover, President Karzai had indicated only a couple weeks ago that Afghanistan seeks the best possible relations and trade transactions with China, India, and Russia.  Similarly, Azizollah Karzai, the Afghan ambassador to Russia (and Hamid Karzai’s uncle), mentioned a few weeks ago that the two countries share a commitment to fighting terrorism and narcotics.

Placed into context, it is likely that Russian counter-narcotics activity in Afghanistan will probably increase in the future.  However, this activity is not likely to be tense or conflictual (particularly because of something like Soviet era animosity); there are ample mutual interests and diplomatic mechanisms to ensure cooperation between the two countries. Finally, in terms of Russia’s relations with the US/NATO/ISAF, the involvement of Russians in the recent anti-narcotics operation does not seem to be a major deviation away from an already established pattern of cooperation on selective issues of vital interest to all the parties involved.


Peace Jirga

The Karzai regime’s three day “National Consultative Peace Jirga” is now concluded. As expected, the 1,400 member Jirga (and 200 guests) decided to proceed with a plan to offer amnesty to the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami — i.e. yes, the same groups which were firing rockets at the Jirga tent. The Taliban have made it quite clear that they have no desire to negotiate an end to hostilities until foreign forces leave. So it is unlikely that the Jirga’s decisions will create a path to peace. The main thing that the Jirga demonstrated was the willingness of the Karzai regime to compromise and negotiate with its enemies (President Karzai even referred to the Taliban as “Taleb Jaan” or “Dear Taliban”).

The Jirga, which was chaired by Burhanuddin Rabbani was divided into 28 committees. Members were apparently selected from 13 (mainly ethno-linguistic) categories to provide the appearance of a national gathering. Women made up a large number (reported at 75%) of the secretaries of the 28 committees and the head of one committee, but critics noted that very few women were given an opportunity to address the Jirga.

A few interesting points that I noticed from the Afghan press coverage of the Jirga:

1. Nurzia Charkhi, the secretary of the 3rd Jirga Committee, called for the international community to stop supporting foreign governments (i.e. Pakistan) that fund the armed opponents of the government of Afghanistan. (National Afghanistan TV in Dari from Kabul on 4 June 2010).

2. Haji Amanollah Otmanzai, the head of the 1st Jirga Committee, called for the (UN) blacklist of Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami to be annulled (no surprise there) and for the international community to press foreign governments (i.e. Pakistan) to stop funding the Taliban (again, not a surprise). The committee also passed a resolution stating that women’s presence in society should be ensured. (National Afghanistan TV in Dari from Kabul on 4 June 2010).

3. The former rival Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah boycotted the Jirga as he believed the delegates were not representative of the nation but rather the Karzai government. He also said that the agenda of the Jirga was decided behind closed doors. The MP from Farah, Malalai Joya (know to Americans for her appearance in the PBS Wideangle film “A Woman Among Warlords“), also boycotted it and called the Peace Jirga a “foreign project” and an insult to the meaning of the word peace. (Shamshad TV in Pashto from Kabul on 1 June 2010). Other notable figures not in attendance: General Abdul Rashid Dostum (head of Jumbesh-i-Milli) and Mohammed Mohaqeq (the leader of Hezb-i-Wahdat). Mohaqeq stated that despite his absence, he was not boycotting the Jirga. Dostum and Mohaqeq were supporters of Karzai in the last election.

4. The Taliban released a press statement arguing that the Peace Jirga was a British idea, since the project was discussed and approved at the London Summit in January 2010. The US and European hand were also noted in the “red line” issues — respect for the constitution and human rights — which the Taliban would have to acknowledge if they choose to negotiate. (Noor TV in Dari from Kabul on 2 June 2010). [This line of argument will probably strike many Americans as odd since the US military would far prefer to decimate the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan rather than start peace talks. However, the Taliban’s argument might make sense to some in Afghanistan — note Joya’s comment in the point above.] Notably, the Voice of Jihad website compared the Karzai Peace Jirga to Jirgas called by Babrak Karmal and Mohammad Najibullah under the Soviet occupation (Voice of Jihad in Pashto, 2 June 2010).

For those interested in more details, Abdulhadi Hairan has promised an English translation of the final statement of the Jirga. Wazhma Frogh also provided an excellent account of the Jirga on Twitter. Both Hairan and Frogh will provide deeper insights than I am able to do.


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]


After the Surge

Washington and its “partner” in Kabul are simultaneously pursuing different strategies to try to bring the war in Afghanistan to a conclusion. While the US has opted to pursue a “whack-a-mole” military strategy across Southern Afghanistan that drives the Taliban from one district only to have them pop up in the next one, the Karzai regime is moving forward with its reconciliation strategy. In essence, the Americans have foregrounded a military strategy while the Karzai regime (with some support from the UN) is promoting a political strategy.

The US has sidelined the “grand reconciliation” approach because they think it is simply not viable — particularly since the leadership of the parties with which a reconciliation deal would need to be made are considered war criminals and terrorists.  The US prefers instead to pay lip service to a rather anemic economic “reintegration” package for ordinary fighters, which has not worked well and is unlikely to sway the majority of Taliban fighters.  Contrary to US propaganda, the majority of Taliban appear to be ideologically rather than economically motivated.  The current US military surge does not have much of a political strategy beside attempting to clear an area of the Taliban and transfer authority to a pre-fabricated local government.  Although the US claims to be building up governance capacity in the state bureaucracy and security forces there is very little reason to believe that the US is doing much more than expediting an exit strategy.  Political science is simply not sufficiently advanced as a discipline to teach the Americans how to build a strong state in Afghanistan by 2011.

The US-led military surge in Afghanistan is based, at least in part, on a mistaken understanding of the surge in Iraq.  In the run up to the 2008 US presidential elections, it was candidate Obama who properly understood that the “Anbar Awakening” began several months before the announcement of a troop surge by President Bush.  (The role of Muqtada al-Sadr in reigning in his “Mahdi Army” was also critical.) It was candidate McCain who falsely asserted that the surge created a safe space for the Anbar Awakening (see New York Times, 24 July 2008).  When McCain was called out for his mistaken chronology, he argued that he meant it was the overall counterinsurgency strategy that created space for the Anbar Awakening by providing protection for tribal leaders.  Of course, the surge was unable to prevent “Al Qaeda in Iraq” from  assassinating Sheikh  Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, who led the Anbar Salvation Council.  The sheikh died only ten days after he met with President Bush, General Petraeus, Secretary Gates and Ambassador Crocker.  While the troop surge in Iraq may have provided a measure of additional security, it did not create the conditions for a political solution.

Nevertheless, it is McCain’s mistaken history which has been adopted (de facto) by President Obama, even though candidate Obama had argued in 2008 that he still would not have supported the surge in Iraq even if had the foresight to see how it would play out. Since outlining a new strategy in December 2009, President Obama seems to believe that a military surge will create space for a political solution to emerge.  If a political solution does not emerge, the US will still attempt to hand over “responsibility” to the Karzai regime as soon as possible.  If the Karzai regime falters, which it undoubtedly will once foreign forces retreat, the US will blame the regime for not having sufficiently tackled corruption.  (The idea that corruption could be substantially improved in one of the most impoverished and war ravaged societies in the world — where one’s personal security and livelihood is still contingent to a large degree on social networks — is utterly absurd.)

Meanwhile, the Karzai regime has announced plans for a National Peace Jirga [Assembly] in April and he has hinted at a grand reconciliation bargain.  Of course, Karzai has been desperately offering vague reconciliation packages to the Taliban since December 2001.  So in a sense, none of this is new — although there has been a renewed vigor to these efforts since the January 2010 donor conference in London.  What is new is the willingness of a significant (albeit increasingly weak) militant group to enter into negotiations (reports of negotiations with other resistance leaders is disputed by the core Taliban organization).

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami offered the following peace plan to the Karzai regime last week (Summary based on the report by Tolo TV, 31 March 2010):

  • Withdraw US/ISAF from Afghanistan beginning in July 2010 and complete by January 2011;
  • Transfer security to the ANA and ANP.  Foreign forces may not take part in any military and search operations; or have any prison in Afghanistan;
  • Form an interim government after six months; the current government and parliament should be dissolved after six months;
  • Hold presidential, parliamentary and provincial council elections simultaneously in the spring of 2012;
  • Form a seven-member national security council with the authority to make final decisions on important national issues;
  • An electoral council should have authority to consider the constitution, which is proposed by the three judicial, legislative and executive powers and make the final decision about it;
  • Persons tainted by charges of embezzlement, drug trafficking, seizure of national properties and war criminals should be handed over to a Shari’ah court;
  • All hostilities should be halted and all political detainees should be released;
  • The rights of women should be guaranteed;
  • Talks should begin with all other parties fighting against the government.

The proposal did not make much headway with the Karzai regime, particularly since it calls for the complete dissolution of his regime and the removal of the foreign forces that are propping up that regime.

There are a few points about Hekmatyar’s proposal which should be noted.  First, Hizb-e-Islami has slightly shifted from the standard Taliban party line which states that there will be no negotiations until foreign forces quit Afghanistan.  Instead of a complete withdrawal, Hekmatyar is willing to accept a six month time table.  Second, as pointed out in Hasht-e-Sobh newspaper (30 March 2010), Hekmatyar supports holding elections.  This is a major difference between Hizb-e-Islami and the core Taliban organization which rejects elections.

Despite the failure of Hekmatyar’s proposal, Karzai has a strong interest to continue to seek a political solution since he can clearly see that the US will likely depart in the near future, leaving  his regime very vulnerable.  Karzai would also like to limit any intermediary role in future peace negotiations by the Government of Pakistan and the only way to do this is to take the initiative.

There seems to be support among Afghans for some sort of political compromise solution with the resistance forces, but the devil is in the details. For example, a member of the Wolasi Jirga (Lower House), Mohammad Daud Soltanzai, stated on the state owned National Afghanistan TV (30 March 2010): “We want reconciliation which should not be against the constitution, democracy and the basic structure.”

Some Afghan newspapers are more critical of reconciliation efforts.  For example, Daily Afghanistan (29 March 2010) quoted one Kabul resident as saying, “They say the government is negotiating with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar these days. We have known for a long time that Hekmatyar sides with the party that ensures his interests. Although our people want peace in their country, the person who has tortured our people should not be allowed to come back so easily and be imposed on our people.”

The official US position on Karzai’s negotiations is that this strategy is premature (as stated by Secretary Gates), but that the US supports efforts as long as the reconciled groups accept the constitution, renounce violence and Al Qaeda. The US would prefer to have the Karzai regime bargain from a position of strength once it breaks the momentum of the insurgency.  Ultimately, however, US policy is based on the narrow pursuit of America’s national interest which is increasingly defined as exiting the war in Afghanistan as soon as possible regardless of the viability of the client regime.

The difference in strategy is leading to ever harsher rhetoric from Kabul, since the US military strategy clearly undermines Karzai’s political strategy.  As an editorial in Hewad (a state owned newspaper, published in Dari out of Kabul) noted on 31 March 2010:

“Afghanistan does not need military operations, it needs peace efforts. Under instructions from president Hamed Karzai, preparations are under way for National Peace Jirga which is scheduled to take place one month later in Kabul. Accelerating military operations ahead of this Jirga definitely undermines peace efforts and hurts the trust and hopes of the people about this Jirga. If everyone supports the reconciliation process and accelerates peace efforts, then we are sure that there will be no need for military operations anywhere in the country and war will be ended through negotiations.”

It is not at all surprising in this context that President Karzai has begun publicly denouncing American envoys.  On the other hand, the idea that Karzai might pardon some of the most notorious leaders of the resistance, including Mullah Mohammad Omar, alarms the US.  Instead of lecturing and denouncing one another, the “partners” need to re-engage in a dialog about how to end the war.

[Cross-posted from Afghan Notebook]


Battling a Straw Man and Still Losing

[I don’t mean to rail on the Washington Post’s coverage of the war in Afghanistan two posts in a row, but the coverage is honestly a bit dismal this week. In my last post, I showed why Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s article “At Afghan outpost, Marines gone rogue or leading the fight against counterinsurgency?” completely misunderstood the strategic importance of the town of Delaram from which the report was written.]

An Op-ed article in yesterday’s WaPo by Michael O’Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan, “Five Myths About the War in Afghanistan” poorly argues the case for “toughing it out” in Afghanistan. Since my time is limited, let me just tackle the first myth they seek to refute (i.e. “Afghans Always Hate and Defeat their Invaders”). Even though I substantively agree with what they are arguing in this section, the way they argue is objectionable for the following reasons.

First, in seeking to dispute a crass Orientalist straw-man argument that Afghans “always hate and defeat their invaders,” the authors note,

“The Afghans drove the British Empire out of their country in the 19th century and did the same to the Soviet Union in the 20th century. They do fight fiercely; many American troops who have been deployed both in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years have asserted that the Afghans are stronger natural fighters.”

Natural fighters? I am not quite sure what is meant by this phrase or why the authors would even concede to this notion.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not “natural fighters.” These groups have studied and carefully adopted tactics from the US and other countries. As Patrick Porter argues, Al Qaeda’s doctrine of “Long War” is partly inspired by Clausewitz (Porter 2009, 62). Copies of Clausewitz’s writings have been found in Al Qaeda safe houses in Afghanistan. In addition, Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan are known to use manuals from the US and UK special forces as well as a collected anthology of asymmetric strategies from China and South America.

The Taliban has benefited from its interactions with Al Qaeda, in addition to the strategies and tactics imparted to the mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War. In any case, since the Taliban have shifted tactics and strategies (e.g. to include suicide bombing which was once alien to the Afghan conflict), it is incorrect to state that they are “natural fighters.”

Second, O’Hanlon and Sherjan cite highly dubious survey data to support their case:

“Afghans are far more accepting of an international presence in their country than are Iraqis, for example, who typically gave the U.S. presence approval ratings of 15 to 30 percent in the early years of the war in that country. Average U.S. favorability ratings in recent surveys in Afghanistan are around 50 percent, and according to polls from ABC, the BBC and the International Republican Institute, about two-thirds of Afghans recognize that they still need foreign help.”

When this survey was first published, I (and many others who are monitoring this war) posted some reasons why we should be highly skeptical of this particular study, which claimed that 70% of Afghan respondents believe that “things” in Afghanistan are heading in the right direction (up from 40% the year before!).

The point that O’Hanlon and Sherjan want to make could be done without the use of such questionable survey evidence. In fact, as a general rule I think that surveys conducted in war zones should be considered as inadmissable evidence in an argument.

Third, they attempt to paint an image of a small Taliban force (25,000) relative to the mujahideen (250,000) who ousted the Soviets. My problem here is that any estimate of the size of the Taliban should indicate a range of the estimated size. Estimates that I have seen range from 30,000 to 40,000 for this year. So the authors seem to be low balling the estimate to suit their argument. Nevertheless, it is true that the current Taliban forces are much smaller than the estimated number of mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War. However, it should be noted that the mujahideen never overran a Soviet base, something which the current Taliban can at least boast (although US/ISAF completely disputes the Taliban’s characterization of events).

Fourth, they argue:

“Finally, though U.S.-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, today’s international presence there does not amount to an invasion. Foreign forces are present at the invitation of the host government, which two-thirds of Afghans consider legitimate, if somewhat corrupt.”

The idea that ISAF troops are present at the invitation of the host government is about as ridiculous as the same claim by the Soviets during their occupation of the country. The current head of state, Hamid Karzai, has been a crony of the CIA since the late eighties. Even he does not dispute the label of “puppet” to describe his regime. It would be more honest for O’Hanlon and Sherjan to acknowledge that this is an occupation but one that is not detested to the same degree as the Soviet occupation.

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]


Operation Moshtarak

Operation Moshtarak (“Together” in Dari), which is slated to move into a more active phase any day now, has been billed as the largest ground battle in Afghanistan since 2001 and the largest air assault since the Iraq War in 1991. The planned attack, which will be centered around the towns of Marjeh (Marjah) and Nad-E’ali (Nad-e-Ali) in Helmand Province, was announced in a press conference by the Pentagon last week. Villages have been leafleted and village leaders have been informed of the coming attack.

It is not uncommon to advertise a planned offensive in the Afghan war, but the usual objective has been to encourage the Taliban to vacate the area so that ISAF troops could move in to protect and build relations with civilians. For Operation Moshtarak, ISAF wants the civilians to leave but a perimeter has been established in the hopes of preventing Taliban fighters from sneaking out with the civilians. Not surprisingly, many civilians have packed up their meager worldly possessions and they are leaving their homes for the wretched displacement camps. It is still unclear whether the Taliban insurgents will stick around for a head on confrontation against staggering odds instead of just melting into the civilian population as they have done in the past.

If they stay, ISAF plans deploy roughly 15,000 troops with massive air support against (at best) 1,000 to 2,000 Taliban insurgents.

So what is the point of this operation? I would venture that the main point is theatrical. ISAF forces are desperate for the kind of publicity that will justify a wind down of the surge on the predetermined timetable. Generals have promised politicians results from the surge by December 2010. The goal is also to show that the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) is ready to take “ownership” of their country. Of course, as a massive joint operation, it will be difficult to tease out the impact of the ANA and ANP on the success or failure of this operation.

The question that seems to be going unasked is why Operation Moshtarak is necessary after last summer’s Operation Khanjar and Operation Panther’s Claw in nearly the same area of the province. One argument that I’ve seen given to gullible journalists is that the towns of Marjeh and Nad-E’ali are the last two areas which remain uncleared from the previous campaign. This argument is misleading since the Britons attacked Nad-E’Ali late last summer and Marjeh fell to coalition troops in May of 2009. In reality, the previous attempt to clear and hold succeeded in clearing but failed to hold the province.

I would argue that this campaign is just as poorly planned and unlikely to meet its strategic objectives as the operations of last summer — although there are more troops this time.

First, the extension of the fighting season into winter time is certain to increase the misery of internally displaced Afghan civilians. If the goal is to win over the civilian population, then bombing their homes to rubble and sending them to huddle in mud-soaked tents where the temperature drops below freezing at night is unlikely to do the job.

Second, the failure to secure Pakistani cooperation for a major offensive on the other side of the Durand Line means that the back gate will remain open for any high-level Taliban who want to winter in Pakistan’s FATA this year.

Third, it is unclear how ISAF troops will hold these towns after the surge winds down in 2011 (and they certainly won’t have the full cooperation of the poppy-cultivating civilians who were displaced). No one really believes that the ANA or ANP have sufficient numbers or experience to hold the province by themselves when the Taliban return. There has been talk of a “civilian surge” to help hold and build territory, but these foreign advisers are not a long-term substitute for a capable and competent Afghan state which has not been built and needs at least a decade to achieve.

Fourth, very few people in the US or Europe who do not have a loved one in the fight care about this operation or the war more broadly. Hence, the propaganda value of this battle is dubious.

Finally, the fighting is not intended to make room for a particular political solution. In contrast to the previous campaign in Helmand which was at least designed to stabilize the province in time for the presidential elections, there is no stated political objective of the operation from what I’ve read. Even if all of the estimated 2,000 Taliban are slaughtered in these towns there are an estimated 38,000 more Taliban in the rest of Afghanistan and across the border. If the political goal is eventual reconciliation and reintegration with the Taliban, it is unclear how this battle will encourage Taliban to lay down their arms since they know the foreign forces are leaving soon anyway.


“Success is Still Achievable”

General McChrystal’s strategic review concludes that the situation in Afghanistan is serious and getting worse, but “success is still achievable” as long as he gets more troops to wage a more aggressive counterinsurgency campaign.

According to the review, the US/ISAF objective in Afghanistan is to get to a point where the “insurgency no longer threatens the viability of the state.” To this end, it calls for a new strategy in which the focus is winning over the population.

But I find this assessment striking:

“Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood. ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population.”

And, the “insurgents control or contest a significant portion of the country, although it is difficult to assess precisely how much due to a lack of ISAF presence. . . . “

Take a moment to unpack this. To repeat: ISAF does not control much of the country (nor does it know how much it controls), it does not know how local politics are playing, it does not understand the relationship of the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power brokers, and criminal activity and how they affect the Afghan public. Think about what these gaps mean in the context of a request for more troops to wage a counterinsurgency strategy and to win over the population such that the insurgency does not threaten the “viability” of the state.

And, we’ve been at this for eight years.


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