Tag: Afghanistan (page 2 of 5)

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.

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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.

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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

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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…

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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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A Good Storyline Won’t Win a War – Did the Taliban out-communicate our Generals?

(Written with Alister Miskimmon) Following the death of Osama bin Laden, political pressure is mounting for an early scaling down of British military troops presence in Afghanistan ahead of David Cameron’s deadline of 2014 for the end of Britain’s combat mission. With this in mind the British defence establishment is trying to understand their role in Afghanistan since 2001. Much of this soul-searching has focused on trying to explain why British forces have not been able to pacify sections of the Afghan population. Their explanation is that they have not been able to project the right storyline to Afghanis. They feel that they are being out-communicated by the Taliban, losing out to a more effective strategic narrative. This is presented as one reason Britain and NATO have failed to win hearts and minds. 

An example of such thinking was witnessed in Westminster this week in a session of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee.  General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, identified a critical moment as Britain’s efforts at “poppy eradication at the time of the deployment”. “In the minds of some local Helmandis, and within the narrative of the Taliban,” he said, this created the “idea that these [British] forces are coming here to eradicate your poppy and take your living away.” Ultimately, “that worked against us in terms of strategic narrative.” The incredulity of our most senior military officers that they could not convince Afghanis in Helmand of their good intentions suggests that they think of communication as an easy solution; as if finding the right strategic narrative would solve their operational problems.


Such a stance exposes the lack of clear goals in the first place. Failure to convince Afghanis stems more from a lack of clear British strategy than the ability of Taliban forces to present a more convincing counter narrative.


In our fast moving media ecology, projecting a coherent message is a challenge. However, there are some instances when governments are able to deliver a clear narrative. For example, the killing of Osama bin Laden was so clear it did not need to be explained – least of all to the United States’ citizens seen celebrating on the streets of American cities after the President announced the mission. President Obama did not even engage in the ensuing debate about the legal status of such an action. He let his actions speak for themselves.


Once war has begun, strategic narratives are about keeping domestic audiences on side, not about convincing those who you are invading. When hostilities begin it is too late to convince them. Trying to tell a reassuring or uplifting story to Afghanis that is contradicted by what they see and hear on the ground only opens up space for Britain to be accused of hypocrisy – a narrative with a long precedent in Central Asia and the Middle East.

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Blegging: Did no one complain about the Soviet Use of landmines in Afghanistan from 1979-1989?

I am trying to find examples of humanitarian organizations that spoke out against the use of landmines by the Soviet Union during its invasion of Afghanistan from 1979-1989.

Landmines were big as one of the weapons issues put up for debate in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the UN General Assembly. The first specific legislation against them was Additional Protocol II to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons. (A regulatory treaty as opposed to a banning treaty.)

Even if the original APII was pretty weak (it was amended in 1996 which greatly strengthened it) there is no question that the Soviet Union, who ratified the CCW in 1982, was violating the crap out of it. In particular the “butterfly landmines” it used were particularly horrendous.

However, until the series of reports by the UN Human Rights Committee from 1985-1990, I cannot find any evidence that humanitarian organization spoke out about the landmine issue until the 1990s. I have a couple of guesses as to why this would be the case (one being the fact that the ICRC was kicked out of Afghanistan in 1980, allowed to resume limited operations in 1987 but then kicked out again until the end of the war. This would obviously make it hard to monitor the situation.)

Yet, while speaking out about the sue of these weapons, the Human Rights Committee report does not invoke the 1980 CCW?  Did no one else speak up about the treaty (or landlines, or incendiary weapons, etc)?

Edit: There seems to be a certain amount of news coverage of the weapons issue in Afghanistan, but the NGO response still seems underwhelming. MSF held a press conference in 1982, but it isn’t until around 1988 that we start to see NGOs (like the ICRC) really highlighting the problem in the press.) Additionally, it seems that in 1986 a UN official actually tried to cut out some of the criticism in the Human Rights Committee report – allegations of the use of chemical weapons, for example – that made the Soviets look really bad.

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Fool Me Once, Fool Me Twice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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India: Choosing between America and Iran

India appears to be continuing to shift its West Asia policy away from a once budding partnership with Iran, which aimed among other things to stabilize Afghanistan. It is rumored that in late March, the Indian National Security Adviser, Shiv Shanker Menon, delicately delivered a message to the Islamic Republic that India’s PM would not be making a state visit later this year (Telegraph [Kolkata] 3/10/11).

If the news reports are correct, the diplomatic maneuver comes only a few months after India abandoned the practice of paying for its crude oil imports from Iran through the Tehran based Asian Clearing Union, a central bank clearing mechanism, apparently under direct pressure from President Obama. India was so hasty in acceding to US demands that it failed to set an alternate mechanism in place or even to consult private petroleum importers. India asked Iran to find a set of banks that were not under US sanctions in order to reroute financial payments. For its part, Iran did not retaliate and continued to supply crude oil on credit to India until a new payment arrangement was agreed through branches of both countries’ state owned banks in Germany. Iran is the largest single supplier of crude oil to India (importing ~$12 billion / per year), and India still has plans to invest heavily in Iranian oil and gas fields.

India has also abstained from voting on Iran’s human rights situation in the UN Human Rights Council and it voted in 2010 in support of the IAEA censure of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. The latter vote elicited a “nasty” letter from the Iranian government even though India had tried to indicate that it did not support punitive sanctions and favored dialog (PTI, 5/17/2010). The censure vote reinforced a decision in 2005 by India to support taking the issue of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program to the UN Security Council. Although India might ideally prefer to retain its friendship with Iran, India appears to be signalling a shift toward further alignment within the American orbit at the expense of its ties to Iran.

A portion of the tension between India and Iran may also relate to technical details in the proposed IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India Pipeline) project. India wanted Iran should to guarantee delivery of gas across Pakistani territory and Iran has been unresponsive (Doordarshan, 5/15/2010). However, these disputes are likely to be a consequences of India’s position at the IAEA rather a completely separate point of contention.

In addition to the fact that India’s partnership with the US has already begun to provide dividends, India’s foreign policy establishment must also weigh the value of its growing security ties with Israel as well as robust economic relations with the Persian Gulf countries relative to the value of potential future energy imports from Iran. Indian non-oil trade with the GCC countries (~$24 billion) dwarfs its non-oil trade with Iran (~$5 billion). The GCC countries also supply approximately 2/3 of India’s oil imports and are a major source of remittance income (Indian Express 8/9/2007).  Finally, as a permanent member of the IAEA Board of Governors, India has a strong interest to defend its own reputation as a responsible nuclear power in order to legitimate its own questionable entry into the nuclear armed club.

If the shift in Indian foreign policy continues, it will be tantamount to a retreat from its considerable efforts to stabilize Afghanistan (India is the 5th largest donor to Afghanistan). It is already evident that the Delaram-Zaranj road built by Indian paramilitary forces at considerable risk and cost in Western Afghanistan to reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan has been taken over by Taliban militants. Lowering India’s profile in Afghanistan marginally harms America’s objective of stabilizing Afghanistan, particularly as India remains one of the most favored donor countries among Afghans.

American policy toward Iran, which is almost exclusively a reflection of the interests of allies in West Asia, may come at the expense of stability in South Asia. Although Iran has no interest in destabilizing its eastern neighbor, American attempts to isolate Iran diplomatically mean that an opportunity to use the stabilizing influence of a Muslim majority state which has historically had tremendous influence among Dari speaking Afghans and a strong anti-Taliban disposition are being squandered.

The US and Iran were able to work together in 2001 to help overthrow the Taliban. And despite some reports of munitions from Iran being shipped to insurgents (none of which have been successfully traced back to the Iranian government), Iran has mostly acted as a stabilizing force in Afghanistan — even allegedly supplying direct cash support to the Karzai regime. In fact, as Ambassador James Dobbins has recounted, it was the Iranians who reminded the Americans at the Bonn conference that the new Afghan constitution really ought to mention the word “democracy” at least once. And for all of the moralizing American rhetoric about women’s rights, it is also worth recalling that in the early years of the Taliban, when the US sought to cozy up to the brutal movement to secure pipeline contracts, only the Iranians championed the rights of Afghan women which were being trampled. This is not to argue that the Iranian regime’s record on democratic governance, human rights, and civil rights is without very serious problems, but it is to show that Iran is not America’s “other.”

A more balanced US foreign policy toward Iran (which would also give India greater political and diplomatic room for maneuver), despite decades of animosity and the potential for further horizontal nuclear proliferation, is most likely in the best interest of the US and most of the regional players in South and Central Asia. Iran could also contribute by climbing down from its current position on nuclear enrichment.

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Whither NATO?

Steve Metz concludes a sharp piece on NATO thusly:

It is time for this debate over NATO’s viability to take place. While NATO may serve as an institutional reminder of the shared democratic values of the Atlantic community (and NATO’s not-so-Atlantic new members) and help with interoperability between its members’ military forces, the Alliance, in its current form, has proven it cannot lead and execute complex, sustained operations in today’s world. Three strikes in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and now Libya may not be enough to put NATO out of business, but it certainly should be enough to place the question of its value on the table.

He rightly points out many of the problems when NATO is involved in an operation–conflicting goals, restrictions on the troops (my fave topic of caveats), and so on.  However, while I have raised many questions about the limits of NATO in my blog and in work underway, the question is really not NATO or not but NATO versus what else?  That is, we need to consider what we expect NATO to do, whether it meets, exceeds or falls short of our reasonable expectations, and what would replace it.
 
So, working backwards, if we did not have NATO and we had countries seeking to do some kind of military operation together, would we still have challenges to unity of command and of purpose?  Absolutely, even in coalitions of the willing where there is no alliance obligation to show up, there are caveats and conflicts over the way ahead.  In Iraq, many of the contributing countries had restrictions on what their troops could and could not do.  These problems of multinational warfare exist all the time, regardless of the institutions governing the effort because countries NEVER just hand over hunks of their military and then do not influence how they are used.*  During WWII, Australia’s Prime Minister rejected the requests of FDR and Churchill when the Aussies were being redeployed back from Africa, insisting that these troops be sent to defend Australia and not to Southeast Asia.  Countries always exert some kind of control, via caveats, phone calls, deliberately limited capabilities (sending only six helos to Afghanistan, for instance), standard operating procedures and the like.  And countries will not have complete consensus on goals, strategies, operations, tactics, etc.  Even the US and UK fall out all the time (see the notable case of Gen. Wesley Clark kindly demanding that the Brits confront the Russians at the end of the Kosovo campaign).

*  The exceptions would be the really small countries that just embed within the US formation like Macedonia. 

These challenges arise with NATO, with the UN, with regional organizations, and with ad hoc operations.  So, one might suggest that the only way to war is by oneself, so Metz may find himself in agreement with Napoleon–better fight a coalition than be in one.  

Ok, the second question is: has NATO failed in its previous efforts?  That depends, of course, on how you define success, but here is the list:

  • Bosnia: NATO intervention stopped a nasty civil war and then enforced a peace that did not have a single significant violation, handing over to the European Union force a pretty settled if not optimal situation.  This compares pretty well to the UN effort which seemed to prolong the war, creating hostages (both the peacekeepers and the residents of the “safe areas”), and helping to enrich the criminals (see Peter Andreas’s book, Blue Helmets and Black Markets).  Yes, there were restrictions affecting how things played out after 1995, especially American casualty aversion, but not a bad outcome.  Ask the Bosnians (especially the Muslims) about the UN and NATO.
  • Kosovo: Ok, holding constant for a second whether it was a good idea or not to support the KLA, NATO bombed Serbia into submission.  Literally.  Despite a variety of self-induced handicaps (again, as much American as NATO–no use of helos, no real ground threat until late in the game), NATO got Milosevic to give up a hunk of territory that was seen as essential to Serb identity.  This ultimately helped to get Milosevic knocked out of power.  Is this a failure? Depends on what you are expecting.  Given that Metz himself has tweeted about impatience, a three month campaign that cost $$ but no interveners’ lives is not a bad outcome. 
  • Afghanistan: I have written/spoken extensively and published not so extensively on the various restrictions that have limited NATO’s effectiveness in Afghanistan.  Of the NATO members and partners, only the Americans, the Danes, the Canadians, the Brits, the Poles, and a few others have been quite flexible in how they are used, and they have paid a price for it.  France joined this club in 2007 once Chirac was replaced by Sarkozy.  But they never had enough folks on the ground to do real COIN.  Is this NATO’s fault?  Or is it Rumsfeld’s?  I like to blame Rummy for everything since it is so fun, but the reality is that the efforts in Afghanistan have faced a variety of significant challenges with NATO restrictions being only one of them (don’t tell the publishers to whom I am flogging my next book).  Poppies, Pakistan and Karzai, along with the American distraction with Iraq have been far more consequential.  Caveats do pose challenges, that NATO countries disagree about how to proceed and are essentially fighting their own wars independent of each other–these are real issues.  But if NATO fails in Afghanistan, the limits of NATO are only part of that story with the US fixation on Iraq, Pakistan and Karzai playing a much greater role.
  • Libya: too soon to really judge.  Yes, there is an uneven distribution of effort.  Yes, US capabilities seem to be needed to carry through with the effort.  But the problems are not so much about NATO as an institution (although as an institution, NATO does public diplomacy/info ops/propaganda very poorly) as much as differences among the countries that are involved and not so much involved.  The basic idea of trying to change a regime from the air with no ground commitment is a problematic one.  If it took NATO three months to get Serbia to give up Kosovo, shouldn’t it take more time to get Qadaffi to give up power?

Thus, the big question is this: what is NATO’s added value?  We are always going to have wrangling among countries (no unity of purpose), caveats (limited unity of effort), and so on, regardless of the institutions involved.  So, what does NATO add?  Besides the technical stuff of interoperability (ammo, communications, etc), there is the software of interoperability–that the military officers at the various levels have histories and relationships with many of the folks they have to work with in the field.  They have learned the limits of their partners (stated and unstated caveats, talents, limited capabilities, etc), and they have some trust with some of the partners.  This means that they can work with each other at sea, in the air and occasionally on the ground.  It does not mean that the are super-efficient, but they are more effective than countries that have not developed these relationships fighting together for the first time.  Just consider how poorly the Americans and British fought in North Africa in 1942.

NATO’s involvement does more than bring in the soft side of trust and relationships.  It makes it far easier for some countries to contribute.  Having a multinational patina makes it easier for the Canadians, Danes, and Norwegians to participate, and most of the time, these kinds of folks do add some military value.  Italy needed the cover of multilateralism to allow their country to be used as a base for Libyan operations.  The US needs multilateral cover or else it looks to be a blundering imperial power.  How long ago was 2003 anyway?

NATO is an inherently inefficient organization.  The need to gain consensus critically constrains how the organization operates–where caveats and their ilk are simply part of how the countries and organization operate.  Any other substitute would have the same problems.

Finally, the real problems in Libya and Afghanistan are that countries simply do not share a completely convergent view of how to proceed.  This is in part due to domestic politics and in part because these are hard missions with very few clear and obvious ways to proceed.  Of course countries will disagree.  The alliance helps to finesse these differences, but these differences will exist nonetheless.

The real alternative to NATO is simply not doing any kind of intervention.  Doing it alone has its costs and doing it with others has costs as well.  Only by refraining entirely will the US or any other country avoid the challenges inherent in intervention.  But whether to intervene or not is another question entirely.

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Can Elmo Save Pakistan?

In the latest attempt to project its “soft power” in South Asia, the US government has approved a $20 million project to bring a local adaptation of Sesame Street to Pakistan. Time magazine notes:

“‘The idea is to prepare and inspire a child to go on the path of learning,’ said Faizaan Peerzada, a collaborator on the Pakistani version of the show. “This is a very serious business, the education of the children of Pakistan at a critical time.” Their main messages will be of acceptance and empowerment, to sway youngsters away from religious extremism and promote growth.”

The Guardian writes that “The show will have strong female characters and carry an implicit message of tolerance but will feature no pro-American propaganda or overt challenge to hard line religious sentiment,” (Guardian, 4/7/2011).  Airing on PTV, “Sim Sim Humara” will reach only 3 million children in their homes (approximately 16 million households or 68% of the population own a television in Pakistan), but there are plans to use a radio version of the show and even mobile TV vans to reach remote areas, with an ultimate audience of around 95 million people.

Deploying adorable muppets is likely to be a welcome change of pace from previous American attempts to shape the educational content of Pakistan (and particularly Afghan refugees living in Pakistan).  During the anti-Soviet resistance until 1994, the US spent $51 million creating children’s text books filled with “violent images and militant Islamic images.”  Children were taught to count with “images of tanks, missiles, and landmines,” in the hopes of raising a generation geared to join one of the seven anti-Soviet resistance parties (Washington Post 3/23/2002). The American textbooks were so militant that the Taliban used them to educate another generation of Afghan refugees and returnees (although they took the time to scratch out the faces of all the human characters). After 9/11, the Bush administration spent millions more creating a new version of the same textbooks but without images of weapons and warfare.  Nevertheless, the religious content of the books was retained. According to the Washington Post (3/23/2002) UNICEF attempted to buy up the old militarized version at a cost of $200,000.

Ironically, this is not the first time that the muppets have traveled to Pakistan.  Dubbed versions of Sesame Street in Urdu have been aired on Pakistan television since the seventies. There were also locally produced muppet based programs, such as Uncle Sargam (which apparently morphed into an adult comedy show according to my Pakistani friends). Whether any of these shows had or will have any beneficial political impact on Pakistani children is unknown.

[Oh yes, and today’s blog post was brought to you by the letter “P” as in Progressive Pretext for Poor Propaganda.]

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More blogfare on lawfare

In my Friday post I forgot to give a shout out to Ben Wittes and the Lawfare Blog who have been writing about this since last fall. In particular, they had an excellent series of posts on the concept (but way of a discussion of the Rule of Law in by Brigadier General Mark Martins (in Centcom and apparently in Afghanistan) on the concept here, here and especially here. (He offers his own interpretation of “lawfare as COIN”). It’s a very interesting discussion and highly relevant for those interested in these issues. (Although late to the party, I do mean to write my own response to this – although he lawfare blog has that too.)

However, I’m here because my mortal enemy Charli Carpenter has an excellent post in an ongoing discussion of lawfare. Rather than more speculating over the meaning of “lawfare”, she resorted to asymmetric tactics and just went and asked Charles Dunlap, originator of the term. (While I’m inclined to believe that this was a distinctly unfair advantage, unlike war, all is fair in love and blogging.)

Now, since it just so happens that I’m sitting next to Charlie Dunlap at this bombing workshop, so I’ve had time to ask him directly about where he sits in all this and what he meant by the term. He tells me he agrees that the term has generally been misused and over-conflated. But his own understanding of lawfare is a little broader than the one I’ve put forward at the Duck, though significantly narrower than Stephanie’s or Eric Posner’s. In short whereas I read Stephanie as arguing that “lawfare” should refer to all efforts to hold states’ accountable to the law, Dunlap refers to the ways in which law is used as a weapon in war by belligerents.
However I was wrong in thinking that he primarily refers to the near-perfidious use of the law by insurgents who, for example, are known to surround themselves with civilians simply because they know it makes ISAF troops less likely to target them. Dunlap also considers it “lawfare” when law-abiding states use their own adherence to the law to their own advantage – when ISAF, for example, advertises its civilian protection policies to win hearts and minds. So it’s a belligerent-focused concept, not necessarily one that focuses only on perversions of the law. This is quite distinct however, from the argument that “lawfare” is being waged by non-belligerents (NGO advocates and such) by definition when they call states to question for violating war law.

If you have any interest at all in this topic, I highly suggest that you read it.

In my defence, I just want to make clear that my points in my original post were:

  • Everyone uses the term differently and it’s being used to describe entirely different phenomenon.
  • I’m therefore not sure how useful the concept is. Maybe it just refers to the political battles over the law which have always existed, but intensified after the Cold War.

So I don’t/didn’t think lawfare should just refer to all efforts to hold states’ accountable. I definitely do not agree with Posner’s position. It’s not just academics criticizing states to score political points, but it’s also states using the law to score their political points. I basically saw it as a point scoring exercise by everyone.

But I would concede that this is, perhaps too large of a definition.

Dunlap’s comments on his use of the term – as a way to get states to take IHL seriously (which until the mid-1980s was taking a bit of a beating in the wake of Vietnam) – meshes pretty well with my research on attempts of US military lawyers to do just that.

So, given the above discussions and further thought, I guess I will forward my own modified, particular, super basic and no-doubt flawed interpretation of lawfare as “the use of law as a tool as relates to the conduct of military operations”. This would be the use of law to achieve an aim, whether it is to sharpen the sword, blunt it (or just getting your superiors to take you seriously.)

How’s that? (Seriously – I’ve really enjoyed the feedback on this.) Unfortunately, I don’t have Dunlap to ask – but, um, my Dad thought that sounded good. So there!

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We’re Sorry

We’re sorry

So, can we be friends?

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Anti-Iran Protests in Afghanistan

In 1991, with the Soviet Union on the verge of collapse, the rump regime of Mohammad Najibullah finally cut a deal with Iran. The Iranians were allowed to supply the Hazarajat in central Afghanistan with armaments and other goods through direct flights to Bamiyan in exchange for supplying petroleum to western Afghanistan, including to the Kabul regime’s military forces. The arrangement provided Tehran with unfettered access to an area which since 1981 was increasingly under its patronage. The Iranians hoped that they would be able to use this access to strengthen their proxies (i.e. Hezb-i Wahdat) in the conflict against Saudi backed Sunni groups (see Rubin 1995, p. 264). Throughout the tumultuous period that followed, Iran continued to expand its influence in western and central Afghanistan.

The deal highlighted the dependency of the Kabul regime on Tehran for petroleum and Iran’s stake in the character of the government in Afghanistan. Twenty years later, Iran is again flexing its muscles in Afghanistan through petroleum politics. Iran’s decision to block (at least) 700 Afghan owned fuel trucks from transiting to western Afghanistan has resulted in a major spike in fuel prices just as winter sets in.  Fuel prices in Herat are at an eight year high. Afghanistan has witnessed several protests directed against Iran in recent days.

Why is Iran doing this now?

Professor Juan Cole argues that Iran’s decision is a response to the US led sanctions regime imposed through the United Nations. Through Iran’s chairmanship of OPEC and its supply links to western Afghanistan, Iran can directly punish the Americans and reap a windfall profit. Iran will not allow OPEC to meet to revise production quotas which might ease the current price of petroleum. By halting fuel supplies to western Afghanistan through a virtual blockade, Afghanistan will have to rely primarily on a supply route through Pakistan which is vulnerable to Taliban attacks. Some supplies could also come through Uzbekistan, but Iranian officials have apparently also limited shipment through that route according to Afghan traders. Iran assumes that this will further impair the American occupation. And while ordinary Afghans will also suffer, Iran does not appear to be intentionally targeting the civilian population (although there are some speculative arguments that Iran is unhappy that the TAPI pipeline was not also routed through its territory). As Cole points out the Iranian strategy is brilliant: American consumers will compensate Iran for the sanctions regime and Iran will have the added bonus of making life difficult for the US in Afghanistan.

The only problem with the strategy is that if Iran persists in blocking fuel supplies, it will lose influence within Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry has warned that it will seek to cut trade ties with Iran if the fuel trucks are not allowed to enter Afghanistan. Afghans argue that by international law, since much of the fuel was apparently purchased in Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan, the Iranians do not have the right to stop the flow of these goods particularly as they do not constitute a direct threat to Iran’s security. However, Afghanistan remains reliant on the goodwill of its neighbors to keep supply routes open.  Afghanistan is again caught in the struggle between foreign powers and ordinary Afghans will bear the brunt of the suffering.

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]

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Afghan Views on the India-Pakistan Proxy Fight

The visit of the Indian External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna, to Afghanistan a few days ago overlapped the Afghan High Peace Council’s visit to Pakistan to establish a joint Afghanistan-Pakistan Peace Jirga. Although the overlap of the two events appears to be coincidental, it highlighted the complex trilateral dynamic that must be negotiated.

India has now fully backed the reconciliation process with the Taliban in Afghanistan, although India asserted reconciliation could only happen with those who “abjured” violence and broke links to terrorist organizations. In the past, India had reservations about the Taliban, who were viewed as a pawn of the Pakistani intelligence organization, the ISI. Most likely, the Indian government’s change of heart is related to its concern to limit the resurgence of Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.

The Afghan perspective on the India-Pakistan conflict taking place on their soil is complex. While Afghans are wary of Pakistan’s hegemonic aspirations, and grateful for Indian assistance in reconstruction, they are also disconsolate about their territory being used for another proxy war. Here is a small sample of opinions in the Afghan Press:

In the pro-government, Pashto language newspaper published out of Kabul, Weesa, M. Shafiq wrote an editorial on 9 January arguing [translation by BBC Monitoring]:

“… it is a fact that Afghanistan is the victim of negative rivalries between Pakistan and India besides other problems. Pakistan blames India for the unrest and violence in Balochistan and even Waziristan and claims that Indian intelligence agency carries out subversive activities in Pakistan from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s media, politicians and even senior government officials complain against the Afghan government. Actually, Pakistan wants Afghanistan to cut off its ties with India and they have openly announced that Afghanistan’s close relations with India are a matter of concern for Pakistan.

India also blamed Pakistan’s intelligence for the attacks on its embassy in Afghanistan. There are concerns that if the Taliban join the system, it will undermine their [probably Pakistan’s] interests. Afghanistan is the victim of rivalries between two countries. Unfortunately, the structure of system following the Bonn Conference should also be blamed for this. The then foreign minister, Dr Abdullah, who was a member of Northern Alliance, based relations with India on his hostility with Pakistan. Unfortunately, India still expects such relations from Afghanistan. Pakistan also expects the Afghan side to have friendly relations with it just as the mujahideen leaders had with them during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. 

This is the outcome of the failed diplomacy of our Foreign Ministry. Afghanistan is suffering from the war of intelligence and is the victim of negative rivalries between the regional countries. Our senior officials, in particular the Foreign Ministry and the president, should persuade the two countries that Afghanistan needs to maintain friendly relations with all countries of the region and world, and to reach reconciliation and end war inside the country. The Taleban, Hezb-e Eslami and the armed opponents of the government, who are the sons of this soil, cannot be eliminated on the instructions of one or another country. 

The door for peace and reconciliation cannot be closed. Every country has its own interests, will and independent position. Why should a country expect the Afghans to sacrifice their will for its interests in the name of friendship? One country should not undermine the national interests of another country. India and Pakistan can ask the Afghan government and system not to allow any country to use its soil against it. However, neither of them has the right to say: If you have friendly relations with that country, it will mean that you are our enemy; or if you reconcile with your opponents to end the internal fighting, it will harm us. 

India and Pakistan have historic disputes. Their main dispute is over water resources in Kashmir. Actually, the dispute of Kashmir is also because of water. It is not a geographical issue. Both countries should pay attention to the present situation. Peaceful life and a new phase in friendly relations are in their interest. However, if they still want to continue their rivalries and fighting, they can test their strength on their long joint border. Why do they cause problems in our country? Our senior officials should persuade the two countries not to continue their rivalries in our country.”

While Shafiq’s analysis of the Kashmir dispute is clearly flawed, simplistic, and narrow, one senses a deep desire for “neutrality” in order to create the space for reconciliation and reconstruction.  The author implies that Afghanistan has been caught up in the proxy fight because of the personal politics of the first foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. In essence, the editorial does not realize the larger regional dynamics at work which have displaced the rivalry from the Vale of Kashmir to the valleys of Afghanistan.

An editorial in Hasht-e-Sobh, an independent, secular, daily, published in Dari on 9 January [translation by BBC Monitoring] states:

“The Afghan government has repeatedly announced that it will not allow its country to turn into the ground for attack against any country, but does Pakistan seek and wait for permission! Pakistan controls the Taliban who do not stick to any principle. Unfortunately, the geographic location of Afghanistan is such that it has turned into the battleground between Pakistan and India.

… Pakistan, as the inheritor of the colonial power, hopes that Afghanistan will not take any step in its foreign relations without the permission of Pakistan. Otherwise, it will be the negation of the existence and identity of a country called Afghanistan and a stigma none of our countrymen will accept. The fact that it is said that Afghanistan wants “honourable or respectable peace” means that we do not want peace at any cost. The peace that denies our identity and existence is not peace but it means that we are under the yoke of slavery, thus a dignified death is better than that.

… India is one of those countries that have made the most contributions to us, unlike Pakistan which launches aggression against our country. Of course, it is clear that Afghanistan also takes into account the legitimate concerns of Pakistan.”

While the editorial is generally hostile toward Pakistan in particular, it is not necessarily advocating a pro-Indian position. In essence, from the Afghan perspective one sees again a desire for “neutrality” even though the immediate threat to sovereignty and autonomy is seen to emanate from Pakistan.

From the Pakistani perspective, a “neutral” and autonomous Afghanistan is de facto hostile to its interests, because Pakistan’s military would have to contemplate a two-front war if another round of hostilities occurs with India. Even though such a full scale war is unlikely given that both Pakistan and India are nuclear powers, the Kargil War demonstrates that both states are willing to continue a confrontational posture even in a nuclear era.

A few Afghan analysts seem to understand that a neutral foreign policy harms Pakistani interests.  One analysts who does see the dynamic clearly is university lecturer, Fardin Hashemi.  He stated on Tolo TV on January 8th that creating a balance between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan would be a setback for Pakistan. He expanded that the Taliban’s preconditions for peace talks (i.e. the withdrawal of foreign forces and discarding the Constitution) served to protect the interests of Pakistan. The idea that the Taliban’s is under the control of the Pakistani ISI is probably an over simplification of a rather complex relationship, but it is certainly true that a weak government in Kabul is better for Pakistan and generally more challenging for India.

Afghanistan has yet to articulate a clear regional policy, perhaps with good cause. An openly hostile policy toward Pakistan would be counter productive, particularly at a time when Afghanistan must rely upon Pakistan to destroy havens for the insurgents on Pakistani soil. However, it is also doubtful that a policy of “neutrality” will placate Pakistan. Given the gradual withdrawal of US/ISAF forces in the coming years, an externally imposed solution is also unlikely. India seems to lack the will and perhaps even the capability for a military alliance with Afghanistan. An expansion of the Indo-Iranian partnership in Afghanistan might help limit Pakistani influence but it would create its own round of headaches…

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]

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Kandahar and My Lai; Drone Strikes and Carpet Bombing

 The New York Times recently posted reports about the U.S. military’s trial of soldiers accused of randomly killing civilians in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, “for sport.”  Apart from the horrors of the alleged crimes, there is a terrible irony in the stories.  This goes beyond the fact that these kinds of incidents are hardly news.  They are completely predictable in any war, even among the best-trained and most disciplined armies—let alone those in which governmental and military leaders provide signals that make incidents like Abu Ghraib possible.  

The irony also goes beyond the coincidence that this story appeared in the New York Times the same day as another, titled “CIA Steps Up Drone Strikes on Taliban in Pakistan.”  That story re-emphasized the open secret that Pakistan has become the new Cambodia.  Like that other unfortunate nation, Pakistan is being targeted because another of America’s wars is not going well.  But rather than accepting the original war’s folly, our military and civilian leaders, in their consummate wisdom, have expanded it to nearby countries.  Supposedly, it is these nations’ failures to control their populations and borders that explains the war’s failures.

But the real irony is the prosecution of these soldiers, when the architects of the war–responsible for placing the soldiers in Kandahar to begin with–are taking actions that predictably lead to large civilian casualties as well.  It is, of course, true that from a legal standpoint, there are differences in the intent of the killers:  in the first case, intentional; in the second, unintentional.  It is also true that in the first case, the soldiers allegedly knew their victims to be innocent.  In the second, military officers believe themselves to be targeting Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters—though of course their information is often faulty.  And, of course, the soldiers should be prosecuted for their alleged crimes.
But the strategic effects of these incidents is little different.  Who would you hate more if your home was destroyed and your children killed by Predators?  The Taliban fighters who the missiles were intended to kill and who were conducting operations in your area—or the American military and CIA personnel sitting at their desks in Creech Air Force Base?  Perhaps both equally—but, more likely, those who pulled the trigger.  Nor is a grieving Afghan likely to care about the legal niceties that help the drone controllers sleep at night–or be assuaged by the payments the U.S. government sometimes disburses to relatives of its collateral carnage.
To my mind, the closest analogy to this situation comes from Vietnam:  The well-deserved prosecution and conviction of Lieutenant William Calley for the My Lai massacre–at about the same time that the U.S. government was carpet-bombing Vietnam and Cambodia to the tune of untold thousands of civilian deaths—all with the broad rationale that we would thereby win hearts and minds.

No doubt our new smart bombs and drones kill fewer innocents–though still far too many, given the futility of the “war on terror.”  But if I were an Afghan grieving over a drone’s dismemberment of my family, would I care about this sign of “progress?”

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Negotiating with the Taliban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Taliban deny that any talks have occurred.

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

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

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

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

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

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The Calculus of Counter-narcotics

$250 million = the amount spent just by the US in FY2010 to counter narcotics in Afghanistan
$100 million = the amount earned annually by the Taliban from narcotics trafficking

304,000 acres = the number of acres devoted to opium in 2009
304,000 acres = the number of acres devoted to opium in 2010

$64 per Kg = the price of opium in 2009
$169 per Kg = the price of opium in 2010

Total production of opium did decline, but mainly because of a disease damaging the poppy crop.  The spike in prices makes it likely that the number of acres devoted to the crop will increase in 2011.

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Metrics for Winning Hearts and Minds

I often find myself in disagreement with Amitai Etzioni, but he does makes some sense in his recent Politico op-ed on Petraeus’ “metrics” for progress in Afghanistan:

The newest way General Petraeus plans to measure success in the war in Afghanistan reminded me of what the government did when its campaign to persuade the public to stop smoking did not make much headway. It stopped counting how many people had had their last cigarette – and started counting how many anti-smoking pamphlets it mailed.

…Gen. Petraeus has outlined five metrics of military success, including: ‘the elimination of Taliban sanctuaries outside the city of Kandahar and continued targeting of senior and mid-level insurgent leaders by U.S. Special Operations forces, an increase in the disappointing number of Taliban fighters brought into a government reintegration scheme, the development of newly authorized local defense forces, and improvement in the capabilities of Afghanistan’s national security forces.’

These measurements correlate very poorly with what the U.S. is seeking and with what General Petraeus argued to date was what he sought to achieve. Petraeus is famous for his counterinsurgency strategy, according to which one cannot win the war militarily, but only by building a ‘legitimate and effective’ government composed of the citizens of the country, so that those who would rebel will be enticed to come in from the cold.

True. The “metrics” the US needs to be looking for are the extent to which civilian sentiment is moving toward the government rather than toward the Taliban. But then Etzioni tells us that’s not happening – through reference to the same kind of irrelevant indicators (like how many areas the Taliban hold) that tell us something about Taliban strength but nothing about the views of the Afghan citizenry on the legitimacy of the government or US presence in the country:

To measure progress on this front one, would have to know, for instance, that, if following the last election, the public does feel that the Karzai government is more representative and less fraudulent? Hardly. Does the public feel that the Karzai government and its local representatives, including the police and army, are less corrupt? No indication to this effect. Do they feel minimally secure in their homes and public spaces? Evidence shows to the contrary; the Taliban has been spreading in the northern, non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and holding on to most of the Southern ones. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office, Afghanistan is more dangerous now than at any time since 2001. Four years ago, insurgents were active in only four Afghan provinces. Now, they are active in 33 of 34.

Etzioni doesn’t cite the data he is quoting from, but recent polling data – precisely the type you would look at if you wanted to gauge Afghan sentiment re. their government and ISAF forces – suggests his interpretation is a wee bit too gloomy. The latest ABC poll from Afghanistan reports:

Sharp regional differences remain, with optimism much weaker in the main conflict zone in the country’s South. Nonetheless, overall 63 percent of Afghans interviewed in May said their country was going in the right direction, 66 percent expected improvements in their own lives a year off and 61 percent expected better lives for their children than for themselves. Each is a key measure of national cohesion. Two were lower than their levels last winter – positive ratings of the country’s direction, off by 7 points from late December; and expectations for a better life in the next year, down by a slight 5 points. Yet all remained far above their levels in early 2009, when development was stalled and the Taliban were seen as gaining strength.

If Etzioni is right that the correct metric for measuring success in Afghanistan is not insurgent body counts but rather the optimism of Afghan citizens – and I think he is – then by at least some indicators ISAF is not doing half-badly. Afghanis do see corruption as an issue, but the complete report shows this is not the key issue causing disaffection from the government:

Few in this survey, 8 percent, mentioned corruption as the single most important issue in bringing stability to the country, and 23 percent mentioned it as one of the top three issues (peaking at 31 percent in the South). That compares to 50 percent, as noted, calling security the single top issue, and 75 percent calling it one of the top three concerns. While corruption may be a serious obstacle to progress, security reigns as the top concern.

Moreover, the regions of the country where security is the worst are those regions where Afghans report the greatest willingness to work with Westerners.

However there’s a hitch in the poll that would support Etzioni’s claim that ISAF is losing ‘hearts and minds’: support for a democratically elected government is declining somewhat:

Preference for democracy as the best political system for the country fell from 32 percent in December to 23 percent in May; it now ranks third behind preference for an Islamic state, 45 percent, or a “strong leader,” 30 percent.

As the Langer report also points out, answers to the “strong leader” question (in both Iraq and Afghanistan) have historically spiked during periods of instability, so addressing the security situation in Afghanistan may reinvigorate Afghanis’ confidence in democracy as well.

A final note: how useful is public confidence in one’s government as an indicator of national stability? I don’t know, but for what it’s worth, Gallup reports only 17% of Americans trust their government to do the right thing most of the time, and 55% of Americans polled believe that quite a few government officials are “crooked.”

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

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The Latest in Mole Whacking

Yesterday, the New York Times had a story about huge proposed increases in military assistance to Yemen, framed around the “war on terror.” Since the Christmas day 2009 attempted airliner bombing that was linked to Yemen, the U.S. was allocated about $155 million in military aid for FY 2010 — up from about $5 million in FY 2006.

The Pentagon’s latest plan calls for $1.2 billion in the next six years, about $200 million annually. That’s nearly a 25% increase from 2010 and an enormous change in commitment over a short period of time.

Apparently, by comparison, Aghanistan is so 2009:

“Yemen is the most dangerous place,” said Representative Jane Harman, a senior California Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee who visited Yemen in March. “We’re much more likely to be attacked in the U.S. by someone inspired by, or trained by, people in Yemen than anything that comes out of Afghanistan.”

Since the Pentagon claims that there are only about 100 al Qaeda personnel in Afghanistan, this quote may well be literally true.

Of course, Harman says nothing about Pakistan, which has for some time been the real ground zero in the war on terrorism. The unpopular drone strikes demonstrate how that part of the AfPak war is being fought.

Those of us who have some doubts about the ability of military force to fight terrrorism (and achieve other foreign policy objectives) will be relieved to read this paragraph:

Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said in a policy talk last week that American-backed assaults by Yemeni forces on Al Qaeda may “deny it the time and space it needs to organize, plan and train for operations.” But in the long term, he added, countering extremism in Yemen “must involve the development of credible institutions that can deliver real economic and social progress.”

There is another big problem with the Pentagon’s plan — Yemen’s relative disinterest in the mission:

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton…said the priorities of President Saleh, an autocrat whose family has ruled [Yemen] for three decades, do not coincide with those of the United States.

“If we’re just pouring money and equipment into the Yemeni military in the hopes that it will be used against Al Qaeda,” Mr. Johnsen said, “that hope doesn’t match either with history or current reality.”

The whack-a-mole metaphor has been widely used by critics of U.S. foreign policy — to describe outcomes in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

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