Tag: Afghanistan (page 1 of 5)

Making Sense of Afghanistan

This is a guest post by Erik Goepner, a Phd student at George Mason University.  He commanded units in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

American and international expertise, money, and blood have flowed into Afghanistan for 14 years, yet stability appears more elusive today than it did in 2002. High rates of civil conflict continue with record numbers of civilian deaths, corruption that plagues the government, and transnational terror groups such as the Islamic State appearing to grab power.

The first stop in America’s war on terror has not gone as planned.

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Stumbling Through Foreign Policy – Not History

Last week Joe Scarborough from Politico raised the question of why US foreign policy in the Middle East is in “disarray.” Citing all of the turmoil from the past 14 years, he posits that both Obama and Bush’s decisions for the region are driven by “blind ideology [rather] than sound reason.”   Scarborough wonders what historians will say about these policies in the future, but what he fails to realize is that observers of foreign policy and strategic studies need not wait for the future to explain the decisions of the past two sitting presidents.   The strategic considerations that shaped not merely US foreign policy, but also US grand strategy, reach back farther than Bush’s first term in office.

Understanding why George W. Bush (Bush 43) engaged US forces in Iraq is a complex history that many academics would say requires at least a foray into operational code analysis of his decision making (Renshon, 2008).   This position is certainly true, but it too would be insufficient to explain the current strategic setting faced by the US because it would ignore the Gulf War of 1991. What is more, understanding this war requires reaching back to the early 1980s and the US Cold War AirLand Battle strategy.   Thus for us to really answer Scarborough’s question about current US foreign policy, we must look back over 30 years to the beginnings of the Reagan administration.

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Tuesday Linkage

Editor’s note: this post previously appeared on my personal blog. I’ve been doing links posts on Tuesdays over there for a while now, so I guess I might as well start cross-listing them.

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Post-Kristof Monday Links

Good morning Ducks, here are your links from South Asia… (I am not even going to pretend I know what’s going on in the Ukraine, Syria, Somalia, or Venezuela.  I’ll stick to what I sort of know…).

  • Redhead Duck and offspring. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

    Vasundhara Sirnate at The Hindu writes passionately in defence of the offensive. While Indian liberals will (rightfully) continue to be upset at Penguin India’s capitulation to the so called “offended” feelings of a small and obscure group of Hindu fanatics, the liberals fail to realize that the increasing pressure to censor and protect the sentiments of various religious communities is actually just an extension of the dominant state ideology, what Manjari Chatterjee Miller labelled as “Post-Imperial Ideology” in her recent book Wronged by Empire.  Miller argues that Indian prickliness (in international relations) toward perceived slights in status and Indians’ desire to consistently frame relations in terms of victimizers and victims is a major legacy of the trauma of colonialism.   So perhaps it should not surprise us that in the domestic arena, the work of a brilliant (foreign) scholar of Hinduism can be painted as little more than an attempt to humiliate and offend pious Hindus.  India will need to change more than its censorship policies (which are actually pointless in a digital age), it will need to change its hegemonic ideology — which is of course highly unlikely.  In the meantime, the lesson for foreign scholars and foreign diplomats is clear: speaking boldly in India will result in little more than squabbles in which the foreigner is accused of deliberately seeking to humiliate the Indian state or people.

  • Arwin Rahi at the Diplomat argues that Afghanistan must recognize the Durand Line as its permanent border with Pakistan.  Rahi is at least correct that Afghanistan needs to come to terms with this boundary — because for better or worse South Asia has inherited Westphalian definitions of statehood, but if anyone thinks that Afghan recognition of the border will end Pakistani efforts at influencing the character of the regime in Afghanistan, they are forgetting the broader strategic orientation of the Pakistani military.
  • Javid Husain at the Nation (Pakistan) calls for national reconciliation in Afghanistan to avoid a civil war. Unsurprisingly, he claims that the Afghan Constitution should be modified to meet the “reasonable” demands of the Taliban. Umm… right.  Moving on…  He also says that Karzai has displayed a “belated eagerness” to reach a deal with the Taliban, which indicates that the author was mentally on hiatus for the last decade.   Despite the howlers, the article may indicate that there is at least a faction in Pakistan that would settle for using the Taliban as a kind of veto player (as opposed to seeking outright hegemony) in post-Karzai Afghanistan.

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Hard to Say I’m Sorry

The reports about the bilateral agreement between the US and Afghanistan that would allow American troops (and other western countries essentially) have suggested that President Hamid Karzai would support the agreement if President Obama apologized or admitted mistakes in the conduct of the war.

This, of course, has produced a reaction or two, given that President Karzai might have a lot of gall to be asking of this given that more than three thousand outsiders (Americans, Danes, Canadians, etc) gave their lives to help the Afghan government.  On the other hand, Obama just apologized for Obamacare’s rollout which has yet to produce any real collateral damage, unlike the American and ISAF efforts in Afghanistan.

So, should Obama admit the US made mistakes in Afghanistan?  Well, did the US make mistakes in Afghanistan?  Here are some that might come up?

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Monday Morning Linkage

sitting ducksGood mornin’ duck fans! Let’s start the week by revisiting last week’s firestorm in …


  • Hamid Karzai has become a bewildering enigma for many Americans as he launched yet another verbal tirade against the US last week.  This time he recklessly accused the US of colluding with the Taliban.  The NY Times speculates that Karzai is keen to shape his legacy given the ultimate fate of Mohammed Najibullah and many other Afghan leaders who came before him.  This is certainly plausible, but hardly the whole story.  Unfortunately, the article also condescendingly implies that the Afghan head of state simply “does not understand” that his government is totally dependent on international funding.  Karzai understands; everyone in Afghanistan knows who is paying the bills.
  • President Karzai’s accusation that the Americans are currently colluding with the Taliban is extremely implausible and completely unsubstantiated.  However, me thinks some Americans doth protest too much.  Beneath all of the American outrage and bluster, it is important to remember that the US engaged and supported the Taliban regime after they took Kabul in 1996.  Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush sought to work with the Taliban.  Bush even invited the Taliban to his Texas ranch in 1997.  The US was perfectly aware of the Taliban’s treatment of women and their general abuse of human rights from early 1996.  Moreover, in recent years the US has negotiated with representatives of “the” Taliban (as if the Taliban were still just one organization) without involving Karzai – although there is no evidence that the US is currently negotiating with Taliban members as Karzai claims.

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Winding Down in Afghanistan?

US “combat operations” in Afghanistan are officially scheduled to wind down in 2014.  And media attention is now turning toward speculating (i.e. relaying contending institutional preferences between the White House and the Pentagon) on the level of US troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014.  Current estimates, in case you still care, are that US troop levels will be roughly around 10,000 assisted by a couple thousand NATO troops — assuming, of course, that President Karzai agrees to prolong the suspension of his country’s full sovereignty.  For next year, however, it is likely that at least 60,000 US troops will remain through the fighting season.

The notion that “combat operations” will be wrapped up by 2014 while US forces shift toward an advisory “support role” reflects a typically deceptive use of an innocuous sounding phrase like “support role” that the public has come to accept uncritically from our military leaders and policymakers.  Regardless of what US troops actually do in their “support” capacity, it is clear that the narrative arc — despite the salacious demise of one of the story’s chief architects and protagonists — is still oriented toward reassuring Americans that the decade long war is nearly over and that Afghanistan has been miraculously stabilized.  This noble lie may be necessary for extricating the bulk of US/NATO/ISAF forces from this war, but it is also dangerous given the way that myths about the successful use of force create their own reality over time. Continue reading

The Trafficker-Terrorist Myth

Another Sunday, another military puff-piece from the NY Times. Yesterday’s issue promoted the idea that America is threatened by a drug trafficker-terrorist network emanating from Central America. The source of this idea is–no surprise–the U.S. military, our fearmongers in chief. But the Times unquestioningly reported their statements as front page news, as part of a longer article about the new Central American wars such propaganda is justifying.

According to Col. Ross A. Brown, commander of the military’s Central America operations, his mission is “disrupting and deterring the potential nexus between transnational organized criminals and terrorists who would do harm to our country.” Or as his boss Vice Adm. Joseph D. Kernan affirms, combating the drug cartels is “necessary to preventing terrorists from co-opting criminal groups for attacks in this hemisphere.”

What is one to make of this claim? What evidence or logic supports the “potential” of this trafficker-terrorist “nexus?” There is none. But Kernan supports his assertion by noting one “insidious” parallel between terrorists and traffickers: “They do not respect borders.”

What a profound insight! Surely that explains everything! And the Times dutifully bolsters the claim with allusions to oh-so-scary bête noirs du jour—Honduras’s “vast ungoverned areas” where homicide rates are some of the “highest” in the world. [Notes to Times editor: What do you mean by “ungoverned”—something like the locales all over America where countless citizens consume illegal drugs daily? Might this insatiable American demand for drugs have just a little to do with Honduras’s homicide rates?]

But it seems too much to ask the reporters of our most important newspaper to think about this claim, rather than assume, following the military’s suggestion, that all things evil must go together. Yet now that the trafficker-terrorist “axis of evil” is being used to mutually reinforce two senseless wars, the logic of this connection cries out for examination.

Sure, the few “terrorists” who are genuinely trying to harm the U.S.—as opposed to countless wannabes who spout off about doing so in blogs or emails—might dream of drug-trafficker profits. But why would drug-lords agree to share the wealth? Last I checked, they are not charities.

And why would kingpins want to work with terrorists? For one thing, the vast majority of the bozos we inflate into terrorist “threats” are laughably incompetent. They’d never make it in the sophisticated drug empires that we’ve stupidly created through our War on Drugs.

In any case, working with terrorists would threaten the traffickers’ profits. There are few better ways to cure an addict than the possibility of his supplier blowing himself up on delivery.

Worse yet, forging such a link might lead to even more U.S. resources being thrown against the druglords. It might even convince more Americans to decriminalize drugs—the greatest blow that could be struck against drug traffickers. No, if nothing else, kingpins are savvy businessmen. Why would they want to destroy their own best market or make their operations more difficult than they already are?

What of Kernan’s claim that terrorists might “coopt” criminal groups? As any military man should know, cooptation is a weapon of the powerful—yet terrorist group are far weaker than drug cartels by all measures except bluster. Any terrorist’s attempt at cooptation would likely be met by the traffickers’ own deadly force.

No the trafficker-terrorist “potential nexus” should be seen for what it is–yet another transparently illogical excuse for projecting American military force in places where it will do no good.

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But don’t look to the Times to point these things out. Indeed, the article is another example of “stenographic journalism,” slavishly reporting the propaganda of the powerful as “news.” The article’s focus is how the U.S. is using the “lessons” from a decade of counterinsurgency to fight the War on Drugs.

Normally, the word “lessons” would suggest that we have in fact learned something. So what exactly have we learned? According to the Times, the main lesson of COIN was to move troops from “giant bases to outposts scattered across remote, hostile areas so they could face off against insurgents.”

But what have been the results? A decade after our invasion of Aghanistan, much of the country remains a no-go zone for American troops. Only our drones dare patrol it–bravely raining death upon “suspected insurgents,” aka, all too often, civilians. The Afghan troops we have so skillfully and expensively trained are riddled with recruits who regularly turn their weapons on Allied troops. President Obama, fearfully shuttling into Bagram Air Force base (yes, a “giant base”) by dead of night, has inked an agreement for another decade of futility in the graveyard of empires. And, surprise, Afghanistan remains a major source of drugs for the world. Or, as the article so coyly puts it, the U.S. has “lowered expectations of what Washington can do to halt heroin trafficking there.”

So much for the supposed lesson that “forward bases” can work to fight drugs in Honduras. Inadvertently, however, the Times highlights the real lessons our leaders have learned. The “new offensive” in Central America is “emerging just as the United States military winds down its conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

What a coincidence! A new battlefield opens as others dwindle. But wait, the War on Drugs, first declared in 1971 by Richard Nixon, is hardly new. Still, it serves its purpose–just as the War on Terror doubtless will for decades to come. Anytime America wearies of one theater for military extravagance, it can always shift to another eternal “threat.”

Indeed, as the Times trumpets, Honduras “showcases the nation’s new way of war: small-footprint missions with limited numbers of troops . . . and narrowly defined goals.” And the most important lesson of all: these “small-footprint” operations, may be fought “with little public notice.” After all, why should the taxpayer need to know about the millions the State Department lavishes on our incorruptible Honduran allies for machine guns and “air support” without which, one Honduran honcho admits, “we can’t do anything?”

Fortunately, however, the U.S. military has evidently chosen to post its best and brightest to lead the fight on this pressing new front. That would be Col. Brown. He commanded the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment’s Third Squadron in southern Baghdad in 2005-06. As the Times reports, without irony, in 2005-06 Iraq was “so violent that President George W. Bush ordered an increase in troop levels to retake the initiative.” It is unclear whether Brown’s Central America deployment is a promotion or a demotion.

Whatever their fighting credentials, however, Brown and Kernan at least know how to deploy “psy-ops”–against the American people. Hence, the trafficker-terrorist “potential nexus.”


The Civil-Military Relations of Footwear

I have never really paid attention to shoes, my own or those of the opposite sex.  But the past year has taught me that one form of footwear seems to be most important: boots.  Boots on the ground vs no boots on the ground.  Politicians making promises about no boots on the ground were all the rage last year at this time–that the US, Canada, and the rest of NATO would meet the language of non-occupation in the UN resolution governing the Libyan intervention by not putting any boots on the ground.

What is lovely about this is that we now have essentially termed all ground-pounders (soldiers, marines) as a form of footwear.  The irony is that these boots are made for, well, not walking in peace-keeping missions and actually draw a line in the sand (sorry, cannot help myself) between the less risky forms of intervention–naval embargoes, no fly zones, air strikes–and ground combat.

Of course, the idea of no boots on the ground would then set a clear distinction, right?  Oh, but the Brits and the French (and perhaps the uncharacteristically quieter Americans) taught us a lesson in Libya: Special Operations Forces do not wear boots.  Or at least, our image of them as bare-footed ninjas (thanks @cdacdai for that) or perhaps their use of secret sauce makes them an acceptable exception.  Boots we cannot see or hear do not count against the “no boots on the ground” promise.  Of course, that is one of the key reasons to use SOF–to cut corners in existing promises, regulations and even legislation.  In Afghanistan, more than a few countries had SOF doing what their caveated conventional forces could not do.

Why the focus on the bare-footed folks tonight?  Because the US has asked the Aussies and Canadians to stick around in Afghanistan past 2014 in a military capacity, something that the Canadians have foresworn.  But the US request is chock full of guile–asking these two allies to deploy SOF.  In the Canadian case, as my twitter-conversation partner Phil Lagassé is tweeting now, there are different norms for parliamentary involvement in deployments.  With large conventional forces, there is a contested norm about submitting to parliament such decisions.  With small SOF, there is not–they can come and go as they please.  With the parliamentarians on the defence committee lacking security clearnances, the SOF and their management by the Minister of National Defence are even more invisible than the latest cloak of invisibility.

It will be interesting to see what Stephen Harper decides.  Given the minimal risks (especially if these boots are only for training Afghans), that his current majority continues, and that Canadian customs and parliamentary limitations means that he can control news about the SOF pretty damned tightly, my guess is that Harper goes ahead with the US request.

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…

Kajaki and Power Politics

Like the ancient Greco-Buddhist colossi of Bamiyan, the High-Modernist era Kajaki dam is a product of foreign influences and has been a mute witness as well as an occasional victim of domestic political disarray and failed attempts to integrate and incorporate Afghanistan into contending spheres of influence. Each alternate modern (i.e., capitalist, communist, islamist, praetorian) or anti-traditional/utopian fundamentalist (i.e., Deobandi) ideology has attempted to inscribe the future of Afghanistan on this palimpsest.

The dam was built from 1946 to 1953 as part of what became known as the Helmand Valley Authority (HVA) project in Afghanistan.  It was funded initially by King Zahir Shah and later, as funds ran low, from loans by the United States (Washington Post 8/7/2011). The vast project was obviously modeled on the  Great Depression era Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) project. The belief in the High Modernist era of development planning was that massive infrastructural investment was the key to setting off a virtuous circle of self-reinforcing economic growth. Although that model of development is highly discredited today for environmental and political as well as practical reasons, the dam, irrigation canals, and highways associated with the project did eventually help to transform the landscape into a fertile valley. By the mid-seventies, the dam had two Westinghouse 16.5 MW turbines to generate electricity for the entire valley. This project was for its time, one of the most expensive US foreign assistance projects in history.

With the Saur Revolution, insurrection, Soviet invasion, and civil war the dam naturally fell into a brief period of disrepair. The occupying Soviet forces prioritized linking Kabul directly to the Soviet power grid. However, they also built gas turbines and diesel generators in several other Afghan cities and towns. Czechoslovakia was given the task of restoring the dam and they provided much of the equipment to “modernize” the Kajaki dam and increase its irrigation capacity. By 1982, the dam’s power lines were restored and power flowed once again to Alexander’s city, Kandahar, in the neighboring province. Not surprisingly, the dam soon attracted several Mujahedeen attacks on Soviet and PDPA soldiers guarding the site. With the Soviet withdrawal and the warlord period, the dam and associated infrastructure again fell into disrepair.

By the late nineties as order returned across much of Afghanistan, the Taliban expressed hopes that their increasingly warm friendship with the US (which seemed all too willing to overlook Taliban abuses toward women and minorities at the time) would mean that Americans would return to Helmand to once again fix the dam’s power generating units and particularly the silted irrigation canals (Philadelphia Inquirer 1/19/1997). The irrigation canals associated with the HVA were now vital to the production of the world’s largest supply of opium and Afghanistan’s main export, even though the Taliban had officially announced plans to stamp out the crop.

When US assistance for the dam did not materialize a few years later, the Taliban turned to Pakistan and China for assistance.  The Pakistanis, who increasingly saw Afghanistan as a colony or at least a “gateway to Central Asia” after the Soviet withdrawal and collapse, were committed to restoring electricity and promoting a modicum of stability and development in order to consolidate the gains of their Taliban client regime. Under the Lahore Agreement, Pakistan planned to build a high voltage transmission line to connect the Afghan city of Jalalabad directly to Pakistan’s own electricity grid. In Helmand, the Pakistanis proposed to build new sluice gates to increase the power generation and irrigation capacity of the dam.  These plans obviously came to a screeching halt in September 2001.

During the initial US invasion of Afghanistan, the dam’s power station was deliberately targeted by American forces (Guardian 12/20/2001).  Once the US occupied Afghanistan, the teams switched sides and the dam became the target of the Taliban while the US played defense.  In 2003, a force of sixty Taliban were captured after firing three rockets at the dam — all of which missed the target (Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/3/2003).

In 2006, the US gave $1.4 billion to two private contractors to increase the amount of power generated by the Kajaki dam by adding a third turbine and also repairing a large power plant in Kabul.  Adding the third turbine to the dam entailed a famous 2008 mission, Operation Kryptonite, in which 3,000 British troops protected 100 vehicle convoy as it hauled a gigantic turbine across a 180 km of insurgent dominated areas. Apparently between 15 to 200 insurgents were killed (depending on which account one believes) during this Hollywood style “Wild West” stagecoach mission.

The mission “succeeded” in reaching the forward operating base but repairs and installation of the new turbine was painstakingly slow – the third turbine has never been unpacked. Repairs to the dam were supposed to be finished by 2008. By mid 2009 auditors were complaining that the two plants (Kajaki and Kabul) combined were only generating 12MW instead of the originally contracted 140MW (USA Today 11/11/2009). Plans for adding the third turbine were deferred indefinitely after a Chinese subcontractor abandoned the site. US taxpayers have since paid a $1 million per month to guard the dam while the program was suspended to look for another subcontractor and to make the road to the dam “secure.”

In the interim, US and ISAF forces performed annual surges to tame the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.  An inattentive and uncritical American and European public was repeatedly told by blatant propaganda that this time the province had finally been secured, only to witness a repeated need for a surge of troops and bribes the next year. Despite these surges, ISAF soldiers soldiers openly admit that their influence does not extend beyond 500 meters of their security bases (see Daily Mail 10/8/2011).

The electricity grid once again became a priority issue for American generals during a surge in the neighboring province of Kandahar in 2010, when the generals realized that restoring electric power was critical to winning over the civilian population and defeating the Taliban. They took $106 million dollars in discretionary funding to pay for new generators and all the diesel fuel necessary to power the grid for four years (Globe and Mail, 7/11/11). No provisions were made for the Afghan government to restock the fuel after four years and the government lacked the staff to monitor or repair the system.

Finally, having failed to stabilize the province, much less fix the electricity supply, ISAF forces have simply declared victory and they have begun to hand over responsibility to ill trained Afghan Security Forces in preparation for a withdrawal in 2014.

In November 2011, it was reported that water levels in the reservoir had dropped by 20 meters over several months endangering the ability of the dam to generate any electricity if another 5 meters were lost (Shamsad TV, 11/23/2011).  The electricity generation which had reached 20MW was now back down to 12MW. The drop in water also threatened the agricultural capacity of the valley which was already threatened by drought.

This week (12/13/2011) with a 50% cut to the USAID budget, the US is considering permanently deferring the installation of the third turbine and instead calling it a day after simply refurbishing the existing two turbines, power lines, and substations.  What was once seen as essential to winning hearts and minds is now on the chopping block of a cost-benefit analysis.

Thus, the dam remains a symbol of false promises and failed efforts to reorient decisively Afghanistan’s future. But even if the dam were made operational, it would still remain problematic. Somewhere in the many struggles to “modernize” this modern dam, it became an end rather than a means to development. The broader failings of an unsustainable infrastructure-led development model were never unpacked and thought through. The dam represents a desperate hope that there is a short cut to development, prosperity, and peace.

[Cross-posted from Humanyun]

Transitioning Toward Anarchy

The second phase of the transition of security responsibility from ISAF/NATO to Afghan Security Forces has begun (the first phase began in July 2011).  This means that roughly 50% of the population will now be under the protection of Afghan troops.

Some of the areas being handed over are still quite active insurgent zones including many parts of Helmand, Ghazni, and Nangrahar provinces.  For example, Ajristan, one of the districts in Ghazni, is reportedly completely under Taliban control. In fact, the Taliban have a strong presence in 13 out of the 19 districts in the province and there is little or no presence of government employees in the Taliban dominated districts. The few secure districts are also not easily accessible because the road networks pass through surrounding districts that are dominated by the Taliban, according to the independent newspaper, Hasht-e Sobh (1 December 2011).
The situation might not be so bad if the Afghan Security Forces were well trained, professional, and a capable fighting force, but they are not really any of those things.  This is not for lack of funding. By 2014 billions of dollars will have been spent by foreign governments, mainly the US, to rapidly train and equip the soldiers, but Afghan experts fear the Afghan forces are still completely inadequate for the task. Unfortunately, Afghan forces have been bedeviled by high desertion rates, illiteracy, insurgent infiltration, and hurried training.

Of course, we should expect the announcement of several major new operations led by ISAF forces to clear out insurgent areas next spring and deal a death blow to the Taliban, but similar operations — despite lots of hype — have had limited long term effectiveness in the past — regardless of NATO propaganda

It is likely that the timing of the second phase, just before the 2nd Bonn Conference, was meant to show the international community that progress is being made. However, since the relationship between ISAF & NATO and Pakistan has publicly deteriorated in the last few days — with Pakistan now boycotting the conference, the transition process is in significant danger. A crumbling security situation, unprepared Afghan forces, and a hostile Pakistan on the border implies that there is almost no chance for the creation of a stable state in Afghanistan before foreign forces are scheduled to leave… if there was any hope to begin with.

[Cross-posted from Humayun]

Words are Wind?

 In the fifth book of the Game of Thrones series, it seems like every character at some point says: “Words are Wind.”  This means that a promise or threat is being made, but there may not be any credibility.  Without getting sunk into an overly academic debate about the credibility of commitments, signaling and resolve, I just wanted to highlight a promise or two that might be “wind-worthy.”

Specifically, NATO, the US, the Danes, the Canadians, and everyone else keeps telling the Afghans that they will not be abandoned even as everyone is already heading out the door with official transition to take place in 2014.  Why should the Afghans believe the international community?  Are there any other promises that folks are making that have heaps of doubt built in?

So, here is the contest: can you name a promise or threat in international relations (we will omit statements of confidence by owners and general managers in various NFL head coaches aside for now) that has as little credibility as the assurances made to the Afghans?

Comprehending Gingrich

Newt Gingrich

Born Newton Leroy McPherson, the man now simply known as “Newt Gingrich” has been surging in the latest opinion polls asking Republican voters to identify their preferred presidential candidate. He also recently won the endorsement of the Manchester Union Leader, which 538’s Nate Silver finds to be important in the early New Hampshire primary:

This analysis finds that The Union Leader’s endorsement has been highly statistically significant in helping to explain the voting results. Consistent with the simpler averaging method that we used before, it pegs the endorsement as having roughly an 11-percentage-point impact.

Academic readers of this blog may well know that Gingrich, as one scholar described him, is “a card-carrying member of the overeducated elite….Gingrich holds the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Modern European History from Tulane University in New Orleans.” He had a tenure-track job at West Georgia College in the 1970s, though he was denied tenure and took up politics full-time.

Today, someone put Gingrich’s dissertation on the internet. Feel free to bookmark and read later the former House Speaker’s lengthy take on “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo, 1945-1960.” Since I don’t have time in the near-term to read this tome myself, I’m dependent upon the prior work of Laura Seay, a young scholar now at Morehouse College, who actually reviewed this work in 2009:

I finally sucked it up and headed to the basement microfilm room in the library to read Gingrich’s dissertation. (When I say “read” here, I mean, of course, that I skimmed through until I found something interesting.)

Seay reports quite a bit of detail about Gingrich’s dissertation on her blog post. I won’t spoil too much of her review (read it yourself), but the take home point is relatively important:

The whole thing is kind of a glorified white man’s burden take on colonial policy that was almost certainly out of vogue in the early 1970’s.

I mention this point because I’m reminded of something ridiculous candidate Gingrich said about Barack Obama in September 2010 to National Review Online:

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

Now that we know about Gingrich’s early work as an historian, I ask the following questions:

What if Gingrich is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Belgian, pro-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? What if that is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior?

For related discussion, see this on Libya, this on Iran, and this on the latest in Afghanistan and Pakistan, etc.


President Hamid Karzai has called another jirga (assembly) to attempt to gain support for the creation of a long-term defensive pact with the United States. The traditional Loya Jirga is a mechanism for legitimizing the creation of a new dynasty or constitutional order in Afghanistan, but it is not supposed to be used in place of the parliament that was created with the new constitution nearly a decade ago. Most scholars would agree that the President of Afghanistan has the right to call a consultative Loya Jirga, but summoning a traditional Loya Jirga after a constitution is operational is much more problematic.

Unfortunately, the Afghan Parliament has been deadlocked for months because of a constitutional crisis stemming from last year’s flawed elections and attempts to unseat MPs who may have been elected under questionable circumstances. Politics within Parliament have also been marred by increasing ethno-linguistic factionalism. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Parliament is empowered to discuss the matters under consideration by the current jirga. It is for this reason that some MPs are boycotting the meeting and arguing in public that the meeting is illegal and unconstitutional. (The Taliban have also threatened — via SMS text messages — retaliation against MPs who participate in the Loya Jirga.) The Upper House of Parliament has issued a statement that the decisions of the Loya Jirga are only consultative and must still be submitted to parliament for approval.

In his opening address today, President Karzai called the meeting a consultative assembly, but closed the speech by saying that “You can represent the people of Afghanistan in such issues better than we can. We will take your recommendations and act as you have ordered.”  Thus, it is not at all clear that Karzai intends to submit the recommendations of the Jirga to Parliament.

The proceedings of this assembly are also complicated because the agreement with the US has not yet been hammered out.  (An agreement with India has already been announced. Negotiations are underway with the EU, UK, France, and Australia.)  Thus, the Jirga is meeting to discuss a hypothetical agreement or (more generously) the idea that Afghanistan should have a pact with the United States. Karzai has already framed the only conditional objections to the agreement as 1) ending night raids on civilian houses; and 2) eliminating any “parallel” structures of authority run by foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Regardless of what this Jirga recommends, the institutions of democracy in Afghanistan will be further eroded — if that is still possible.

[Cross-posted from Humayun]

Pondering Failure in Afghanistan

 Colonel Gian Gentle, a confirmed counterinsurgency [COIN] skeptic, raises questions for Col. Paul Yingling about the role of generals as COIN seems to be falling short in Afghanistan.  Yingling made much noise in 2007 by attacking American generals for poor leadership in 2007, as the US was losing in Iraq at the time.  Gentle is essentially pushing Yingling either to call Petraeus a bad general now (since Afghanistan is not such a happy place) or retract his earlier criticisms.

While this is an argument between two Colonels, I am stepping in because I received a similar question last week at a presentation in Los Angeles (at USC) on the current book project: did our work on caveats and other means by which countries influence how their troops are used in alliance operations explain mission failure on Afghanistan?

The answer to my question is also partly an answer to Gentle’s question.  That is, (a) not so clear the mission has failed; (b) failure is over-determined.  First, there are lots of indicators that seem to suggest that the Taliban momentum of 2008-09 has been broken, even as violence continues.  NATO and the US may not be clearly winning (whatever that means, see below) but we are not so clearly losing as we were a few years ago.

Second, COIN and good generalship can only do so much.  Likewise, caveats and other overly blunt means to control troops in a multilateral damage can have an impact, but other stuff matters as well.  What matters?  I have long talked about the three Ps of Afghanistan: poppies, Pakistan, President Karzai.  Each one makes COIN very, very hard.  Poppies give the insurgents access to cash and facilitates corruption of police, courts, army, etc, which need to be the backbone of the COIN effort.  Pakistan serves as a sanctuary (although not from drones), making “defeat” of the Taliban very hard since they can rest, recover and re-arm there.  Plus Pakistan may just be doing more than providing space for these guys.  Karzai presents the third challenge to the NATO/US effort, as the military side of COIN is aimed at providing a safer environment so that the government can provide services and gain the confidence of the people.  Karzai has been focused on maintaining his grip on power, at the expense of building institutions and putting competent people into power. Generals McChrystal, Petraeus, and Allen had/have finite ability to get Afghanistan to do what is necessary to make progress.

The key difference between these generals running the Afghanistan war and the ones who ran the Iraq war before 2007 is that the current folks have proven adaptable to the circumstances.  While the newer folks may have tried to apply an Iraq template to Afghanistan and that may not be the best fit, they at least have a better grasp of the multi-dimensionality of the conflict.  The American generals in the first four years of the Iraq war had very little clue about how to prepare for the conflict, where to focus the efforts, and how to move from conventional war to counter-insurgency.  Franks was one of the worst generals in recent memory, Abizaid recognized the realities (I think) but could not get those under him to adjust, and Casey was mostly focused on preserving the Army rather than adapting to the realities on the ground.

Military experts can draw greater distinctions between the past and present crews (Yingling, I am sure, could roast Gentile’s assertions pretty quickly).  But the conditions in Iraq with the AQ types overplaying their hands, the Sunnis realizing that the US was their best protection against Shiites and Sunni extremists, and somewhat more compliant local leadership enabled COIN.  In Afghanistan, these conditions have not really existed.  So, there is more going on here than generals.  Clearly so, as Gentile is really attacking counter-insurgency doctrine more than individual generals.   War is politics by other means, and COIN especially so.  Winning a COIN battle means getting the politics right, and that is largely although not entirely out of the hands of the military.  All the COIN stuff can do is enable the politicians, not work miracles despite the hype surrounding Petraeus.

Gentile’s attack is actually a different war, one for the soul of the military.  What will be the future of the American army?  A smaller one for sure, hopefully avoiding these kinds of conflicts.  The reality is that politicians will continue to use force in ways that are inconvenient to conventional thinkers in the military.  There will be few conventional wars to fight as long as the opponents realize that the US can beat them at that game.  That is not going change even as these Colonels fight over the lessons to draw from the wars of the Aughts.

Indeed, this whole discussion reminds me of the most basic lesson of Vietnam–people will learn the lessons they want to learn, as these conflicts are complicated.  There is never one single set of lessons to learn, and so the fight afterwards is over which lessons do people want to learn.

Mortenson declines Education Grawemeyer

In addition to filling an open faculty line in international relations (IR), I was hired in 1991 by the University of Louisville with the idea that I would eventually direct the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. The World Order award was then one of four Grawemeyer Awards and at the time I was hired, I knew virtually nothing about any of them. The prize was worth $150,000, making it the largest award in Political Science. Nonetheless, it was not especially well-known even within the discipline, nor much publicized outside of it, though the earliest prizes were awarded to prominent IR scholars and Political Scientists like Samuel Huntington, Robert Jervis, Robert Keohane and Richard Neustadt.

The annual awards in Education and Religion were also relatively unknown. The award in Music Composition, however, apparently became a major global award and typically receives media coverage in the New York Times and other global outlets. The award amount eventually increased to $200,000 (though it decreased after the 2008 stock market dip) and a fifth award in Psychology was added in 2001. Sporadically, awards other than Music Composition have received a modicum of publicity.

The World Order Award winner received a great deal of publicity in 1994 when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Louisville to speak and collect his payment. Though this selection occurred just before I assumed leadership of the World Order Award, I recall that most of the coverage concerned his missing pants truly. While I have never believed that the lack of media interest in the World Order winners reflected anything in particular about the field or the winning ideas, it can be frustrating laboring in relative obscurity. Many people reading this post have perhaps reviewed for the award in the past — and I know that many had never really heard about the prize until I asked them to read for it.

In any case, there are clearly far worse fates than being unknown to the wider world. Earlier this year, on April 14 — after months of delay and behind-the-scenes negotiation — the Education winner for 2011 was announced: Greg Mortenson, author of the bestselling book, Three Cups of Tea.

Was this the academic equivalent of the Grammy award for Milli Vanilli?

A few days later, “60 Minutes” ran the famous story questioning his honesty, humanitarianism, and research integrity. A couple of days after that story broke, best-selling author Jon Krakauer published a digital book slamming Mortenson for lying and losing “his moral bearings.”

Needless to say, this created a publicity nightmare for the University of Louisville and for my colleagues in the School of Education, who administer the prize. Time magazine ran a piece detailing the trouble and the story of the university’s apparent gaffe made more news than most of the awards ever have.

This weekend, roughly one week before Mortenson was scheduled to visit Louisville, speak, and collect his prize, the University announced that Mortenson had decided not to accept the award.

“We, like millions of others, have been inspired by Greg’s work and we share his commitment to education and to his belief that we can provide a more peaceful future for all our children through knowledge and friendship,” [Provost Shirley] Willihnganz said.

While UofL will not give the 2011 Grawemeyer Award in Education, Willihnganz said the university will provide $50,000 in privately funded scholarships (unrelated to the Grawemeyer endowment) to students who decide to major in education and agree to teach in Louisville’s poorest schools.

I have watched this affair unfold with both a sense of distance and uncomfortable proximity. Most of what I know about the Mortenson case has been learned by reading the newspapers and press releases. Each of the awards is quite distinct and I rarely see the faculty involved in the other awards — Psychology is a bit of an exception since it is part of Arts & Sciences. However, Education, Music, and Religion are located in completely different colleges within the University organizational chart.**

For months, people in Louisville and fellow scholars have asked me about Mortenson because they assume my involvement in World Order grants me access to the inside scoop. That is not the case.

Over the years, as you might expect, the World Order award has received nominations supporting fairly prominent political figures. Most of them, like Gorbachev, have baggage associated with their work even if they are best known for remarkable ideas or (more likely) for engineering dramatic political changes. Reviewers and the screening committee are supposed to focus on the nominated material, but these external issues inevitably loom in the background — and press against the foreground. I have no doubt that some ideas were considered more seriously at some steps in the multi-stage selection process precisely because they emanated from famous figures.

The Grawemeyer review process involves nearly a full year of hard work to select a single work — and awarding the prize to a well-known figure can bring immediate attention to the entire effort. I do not believe that the Education committee selected Mortenson because of his name recognition. However, I do think that the selection serves as a cautionary tale for anyone involved in the review process. It could be read, in fact, as another point in favor of blind review.

Before closing, I should note that I resigned my position directing the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World order in the spring, effective June 30, 2011. Our department chair had announced his intention to depart for another university, the faculty elected (and the Dean selected) me to succeed him, and I had a one semester sabbatical coming in fall 2011 that I did not want to interrupt. It seemed like a good time for a transition. As it happens, the chair of our Political Science department serves on the Final Selection Committee for the World Order award, meaning that I will again have some important Grawemeyer duties in fall of 2012.

** Correction/note: The Religion award is administered by a University faculty committee in conjuction with the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The long-time coordinator of the award, Susan R. Garrett, holds a faculty position at the Seminary.

Yes, Steve, Kyrgyzstan is Important

Is it crazy to think that “the situation in Kyrgyzstan has a critical bearing on US national security?” Steve Walt thinks so:

The first sentence of the announcement informed me that “the situation in Kyrgyzstan has a critical bearing on American national security.” As my teen-aged daughter would say: “OMG!” Did you know that your safety and security depends on the political situation in…. Kyrgyztan?” Yes, I know that the air base at Manas is a critical transit point for logistics flowing into Afghanistan, but otherwise Kyrgyzstan is an impoverished country of about 5 million people without significant strategic resources, and I daresay few Americans could find it on a map (or have any reason to want to). It is only important if you think Afghanistan’s fate is important, and readers here know that I think we’ve greatly exaggerated the real stakes there. (And if we’re heading for the exits there, as President Obama has said, then Kyrgyzstan’s strategic value is a stock you ought to short.)

I’m not trying to make fun of the Hudson Institute here, but the idea that we have “critical” interests in Kyrgystan just illustrates the poverty of American strategic thinking these days. Even now, in the wake of the various setbacks and mis-steps of the past decade, the central pathology of American strategic discourse is the notion that the entire friggin’ world is a “vital” U.S. interest, and that we are therefore both required and entitled to interfere anywhere and anytime we want to. And Beltway briefings like this one just reinforce this mind-set, by constantly hammering home the idea that we are terribly vulnerable to events in a far-flung countries a world away. I’m not saying that events in Kyrgyzstan might not affect the safety and prosperity of American a tiny little bit, but the essence of strategy is setting priorities and distinguishing trivial stakes from the truly important. And somehow I just don’t think Kyrgyzstan’s fate merits words like “vital” or “critical.”

I don’t have a problem with Walt arguing that we shouldn’t be in Afghanistan. Or, for that matter, that massive strategic retrenchment is in America’s interests. Those are rather crucial issues issue over which reasonable people disagree. But the United States is, in fact, currently fighting a war in Afghanistan. As long as we are, the “essence of strategy” is precisely to identify assets that are vital to that effort — such as one of the very few major logistical routes into the theater of war — and then treat them as important.

Beyond that it is simply irrelevant if country of interest is impoverished, if the average American can’t find it on the map, or it doesn’t contain strategic resources other than its geographical position. Imperial Britain didn’t prioritize the disposition of South Africa because of its diamonds, Egypt because of its cotton, or Gibraltar because of its sunny Mediterranean coast. They mattered because of their location.

Image source: The Map as History

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…

The Door is Over There

I took part in a panel on Peacebuilding yesterday at the Center for International Governance Innovation [CIGI], which was part of the larger Canadian Political Science Association annual meeting.  My panel was on Afghanistan, and it was most striking how most of the folks were already using the word “failure” to describe the mission.  I was uncomfortable with that, not because I am a wild-eyed optimist about the international effort to help Afghanistan become a semi-stable semi-self sustaining state, but because I am reluctant to call it a day quite yet. 

I have been arguing for a while that we have not really been doing “this” for nine or ten years, but that only in the past year or two have there been both enough troops and a relatively coherent strategy to do counter-insurgency.  Before that, the Canadians in Kandahar and the British and Danes in Helmand and the Dutch/Aussies in Uruzgan and the Americans all over the place were mostly “mowing the grass” or serving as fire brigades–clearing insurgents out of a spot but not enough of them to hold the territory.   The mantra of clear, hold, build was always problematic even before one factors in the Karzai government doing the building because there were not enough troops to do the holding.  Anyhow, with the Obama surge, there are now enough troops to be effective. 

So, the real test was not the violence last year but the violence this year.  Last year was more violent with the influx of troops, which produced more patrols, more contact, and thus more opportunities for violence.  This year, the expectation would be for less violence as the ISAF/Afghan National Army [ANA]would have more control over more territory (see Kalyvas for control and COIN).

Of course, the really big problem is that COIN and the surge are aimed at creating space for the politicians to do stuff to persuade the citizens that the government is deserving of their support–by providing services and improving their lives.  Or, at the very least, not being rapacious and exploitative.  We may be doomed to fail because our partners, Karzai and his pals, are so very flawed. 

Anyhow, the second prison break at the Saraposa prison (in 2008, hundreds escaped when car/truck bombs were used to break in; this spring, hundreds escaped via a tunnel) suggests that progress even where much of the effort has been focused is quite limited. 

And then I see this: a survey of military aged Afghan males (strangely enough, I got it via an email from the PR folks in the Canadian Department of National Defence).
  Of course, the women, the old, and the young may have important and different opinions, but I guess the idea was to figure out the views of those most likely to pick up guns and shoot at us or at the Taliban (or both).  The results:

  • 68% think the death of Bin Laden is good news.  Half believe it will make help in the fight against the Taliban.  Ok, so far, so good.
  • 80% in the North and 60% in the South think that the transition from NATO to the ANA is good.
  • Now the bad news piles up: 37% of the folks in the north and 56% of those in the South have grown more negative about the foreign forces (that would be NATO and its partners).
  • Worst still: “Among Southern Afghan men, 86% feel that working with foreign forces is wrong.” In the North, that figure is 45%, not a resoundingly positive sentiment.
  • 76% of the Northern men and 87% of Southern men “Feel that NATO operations are bad for the Afghan people.”  49% in the North and 63% of Southerns “do not believe that foreign forces protect the population.”
  • Then there are very big divides about democracy and girls’ education between the northern folks and the southern.  Not so surprising.

Ok, surveys in conflict zones are problematic, that the Afghans might be telling us what they think we want to hear, but do they really think we want to hear that the international forces are not protecting them?  That we don’t want them to want to work with us?  Um, no.  So, these attitudes, if they have any basis in reality, should be pretty troubling.  I have always scoffed at the ” they don’t want us there, they are all xenophobes who hate foreigners, etc.”  But the reality is that these attitudes exist even though the Taliban kill three times as many Afghans as the international forces do.  They don’t want us there.  They want transition now–so that the foreigners could leave.  But the ANA and especially the Afghan National Police are not up to the job yet.

The temptation is to say: we got Bin Laden, we can declare victory and go home.  That will eventually be the answer, not now but in 2014 or so.  And, given what Karzai has said and done over the past couple of years, it is easy to say we should leave.  Staying does involve wasting money and losing more lives and having more soldiers injured for what?  Why stick around?  All I can think about is: what happens then?  I was asked that question quite directly during a break in the conference in Waterloo, Ontario (and, yes, I noted the irony). 

Well, I can imagine a few scenarios:

  • Civil war.  The Taliban take back hunks of the south, but the former Northern Alliance, which tends to dominate the Afghan military, are in a better position to fight the Taliban to hold onto the north.  It is likely that the US would arm the northerners to keep the Taliban from taking over the entire country.  This is very bloodly and much worse for the Afghans than the current status quo.
  • A coup.  We have only created one legitimate national institution–the army.  Armies often seize power when  they see the government has corrupt and incompetent, as they fail to meet a significant threat.  So, we could have a coup, but there may not be enough coherence in the military to fully take over, so we have a fractured military, fighting with each other.  Not a great situation for the Afghans.  
  • The Taliban take over via a campaign of violence and intimidation.  Bad for the Afghans.  

What else could happen?  I don’t know.  I am just old enough to remember Cambodia, so I do fear that a bogus peace deal to facilitate a western exit might produce a horrific outcome.  So, I have been ambivalent for quite some time about this war.  Our opponents are truly awful.  Our friends vary from being terrific to being just as awful.  The neighbors are doing their best to undermine the effort, but they may be amateurs compared to the President and his family.  But I worry about the alternative.  So, I have hung my hat on the hope that there will be a turnaround, as there was in Iraq.  But this surge is not the same–there is no Awakening yet to build upon.  Which means I am advocating what Americans have done best in these wars–kick the can down the road just a bit farther and hoping that things get better.

But hope is not a plan, as my favorite football analyst reminds me.

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