Tag: counter-insurgency

Killings in Kandahar: Implications

The news out of Kandahar is pretty awful: the top leadership of the province was killed in an apparent attempt to kill General Austin Miller, the commander of US and NATO forces in the country.  There is not many details, but the WashPost account is suggestive of some key dynamics and challenges.

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Killing the Occupation Analogy

I have spent much time here at the Spew discussing various analogies and kinds of analogies, including how IR can be like tacos and how to make a good IR pop culture analogy.  I love using analogies, and have often used them in my teaching, even as I know that they have their limits (thanks, Robert Jervis).

But if I had to nominate one analogy to kill, to kill with fire, to destroy utterly, it would be the use of the occupations of Germany and Japan to discuss 21st century state-building/nation-building/post-war reconstruction.  I was inspired/depressed by this chain of tweets: Continue reading

Sorry General, War is a Choice

General David Petraeus advises Americans and their allies to be coldly realistic about what force can achieve. Oddly, he also advises them to prepare for a future where small wars are pretty much inevitable, where America must intervene early to prevent worse things happening later on, and where ‘stabilisation’ is a core part of war itself. Because, ultimately we sometimes have no choice.

Looking back on the ‘lessons’ that have been ‘written in blood’ in America’s wars since 9/11, Petraeus thinks he can see the greatest lesson, but repeats a common fallacy:

Our enemies will typically attack us asymmetrically, avoiding the conventional strengths that we bring to                     bear. Clearly, the continuation of so-called “small wars” cannot be discounted. And we should never forget                   that we don’t always get to choose the wars we fight.

To the contrary, countries like the United States almost always do get to choose. Not only the wars they fight, but how they fight them. That’s the thing about being an offshore superpower with a nuclear arsenal, friendly neighbours, overwhelming naval and air power shields and a strong army and marine corps to boot. If ever a state existed that usually, emphatically, does not have to accept war being imposed by others, it is this one. ‘Vital’ interests should mean just that – interests that are necessary for life.
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“Get the Big Idea Right”

This morning, the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville hosted CIA Director David H. Petraeus.  The event was not publicized and required a ticket for admission. As chair of the Political Science Department, I was invited to hear the talk — and had a seat very near the front and center of the stage, less than 25 feet from the speakers. Unfortunately, very few students outside of the (approximately 40) McConnell Scholars were invited to the event.

The lecture hall was instead filled with older guests, including many veterans and some active duty servicemen (and women, though I didn’t see many), local elites important to the University and Center, faculty, administrators, etc. I sat between a veteran and a banker with a famous local name. Senator McConnell was on the stage with the scholars, as was his spouse, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, University President James Ramsey, and Center Director Gary Gregg.

Petraeus spoke on the subject of leadership, a central concern for the McConnell Center and its students. Unfortunately, the former four star General gave a half hour talk that began with a very long introduction thanking his various hosts (and a couple of jokes) and ended with many platitudes that were not especially provocative. 

In between that long intro and weak conclusion, the body of the speech addressed 4 main points (Petraeus called them tasks of leadership) and employed primarily examples from the 2007 Iraq surge “success” to illustrate them:

  1. Get the big idea right (in this case, counterinsurgency strategy)
  2. Communicate effectively throughout the organization
  3. Implement the ideas
  4. Capture the lessons: refine and repeat

Petraeus did not take questions at the end.

That last fact was especially disappointing to me since it seemed like Petraeus ignored the elephant in the room. After all, the Iraq war started in March 2003 and the insurgency was a fairly significant problem not long after the successful U.S. capture of Baghdad. Why did it take so many years to “get the big idea right”? More importantly, how was Petraeus able to convince political leaders of the need for his favored strategy in a context that so obviously started by getting the big ideas WRONG?

In some ways, I think the problems I had with this particular speech and event parallel many of the most common criticisms levied against the CIA.

Why was the event secret? Guests were asked not to publicize the event because of security, but the CIA is frequently accused of excessive secrecy in the name of security. The McConnell Center has often hosted serving Secretaries of State, Ambassadors, Senators,and other political dignataries. Most were advertised in advance and the events were milked for PR purposes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s address was so highly anticipated that people on campus could watch a live-stream of the event. Does a former first lady, President’s spouse, prominent presidential candidate, and serving Secretary of State face lower security threats?

I suspect that the visit of the CIA Director was not advertised because someone feared that left-leaning members of the campus community might organize a distracting protest outside the facility. Even if this is CIA policy, I challenge the rationale behind the policy.

The failure to invite a larger sample of the general student population, the decision to invite dozens of local elites, and the lack of questioning suggests another problem with the CIA. It has a reputation for not being especially accountable to various constituencies.

I’m sure organizers felt as if the event went off well, like an uncontested slam dunk. 

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]

#Insurgency: Warring Over Somalia….On Twitter

Al-Shabaab, the Islamic insurgency wreaking havoc in Somali, appears to have joined Twitter. The @HSMPress (Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen press office) feed has a trickle of followers and posts today that offer some fighting words on the AU’s peacekeeping efforts and the Kenyan military intervention, and laud al-Shabaab’s cause and martyrs.

@HSMPress with the rising economic burden of operation Linda Nchi, the much-hyped #Kenyan invasion has faltered quite prematurely.

Reports are that Kenyan troops, who are retaliating for al-Shabaab’s cross-border incursions, have gained ground. But critics question the legitimacy of the intervention, are concerned about regional spillover, and warn that the foreign incursions of the both the AU and Kenya play into al-Shabaab’s propaganda. Kenya announced today that it will be integrating troops into the 9,000 strong AU forces in Mogadishu.

Not to be outdone, the Twitter propaganda machine has a Kenyan side.  A Kenyan military spokesman has a Twitter account under @MajorEChirChir and regularly tweets about impending and successful attacks on al-Shabaab under #OperationLindaNchi.

@MajorEChirChir #OperationLindaNchi KDF bombed 2 Al shabaab camps south of Afmadow town, killing several Al Shabaab & destroyed technical vehicles.

(There is also a Facebook page for the Operation, in case you feel inclined to “like” it).

Reports are that Kenyan troops, who are retaliating for al-Shabaab’s cross-border incursions, have gained ground. But critics question the legitimacy of the intervention, are concerned are regional spill-over, and warn that the foreign incursions of both the AU and Kenya play into al-Shabaab’s propaganda. Kenya announced today that it will integrating troops into the 9,000 strong AU forces in Mogadishu.

@MajorEChirChir and @HSMPress are not following each other…yet. As others have noted, to follow is not to endorse.

Abdullah Khadr, Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism: Or what I was really trying to say

I was quoted in Canada’s Globe and Mail today about a trial involving a Canadian citizen, Abdullah Khadr, who the US has requested for extradition on terrorism charges. (This is the older brother of Omar Khadr who is still in Guantanamo prison.) It’s an interesting case for a variety of reasons so I thought I would expand upon my thoughts here – and the fact that I’m slightly concerned that the summary of my comments in the article were slightly crunched in a strange way.

The facts of the case seem to be that Khadr, operating in Afghanistan/Pakistan was sought by the United States in 2004. They placed a $500,000 bounty on his head and was captured by Pakistan and detained in a prison for 14 months. Khadr argues that during his time in Pakistani custody that he was routinely abused and tortured. He was interrogated for several days by US agents in Pakistan, before being released. Khadr was then repatriated to Canada in December 2005 and arrested a few days later by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on the basis of an indictment by a court in Boston Massachusetts on terrorism charges. 


Unsurprisingly, Khadr and his lawyers claim that he will not have a fair trial as the evidence garnered against him was obtained after he was tortured and his right of due process was seriously violated through his treatment. The case has been working its way through the Canadian justice system and earlier this year it was determined that he should be extradited to the US because of the way he was treated. Khadr then walked free. Yesterday, the Canadian government filed a ‘leave to appeal’ stating that “This case raises issues of national importance that require consideration by this court,” and that principles of fundamental justice “should not be used to impose the technicalities of our criminal law on a foreign partner.”

A couple of points that I made in my discussion with the reporter that didn’t quite make the story, but I think are important.

First, I think it that what the Courts are being asked to ultimately decide on is whether Canada’s obligation to fight international terrorism (found in various UN Security Council resolutions, etc) trumps its obligations to ensure the human rights of individuals, including the right to a fair trial and due process (found in Human Rights agreements). Fundamentlally, the right to a fair trial is a non-derogable  right. A state can’t suspend it, even in the wake of threats or emergencies, so I think the Court’s choice here is pretty clear. (Hence my comment about human rights taking precedence.)

Second, the part that may have gotten a bit mangled in editorial translation, is that this is an interesting case because Canadian courts have, by and large, been very sympathetic to the needs and concerns of the government/security service. For example, they have sided with the security service when it comes to not disclosing evidence that is of a sensitive/secretive nature in terrorism trials. However, in this case the Courts have effectively drawn a line in the sand and said that while they are sympathetic to the need to fight terrorism, that the treatment of Khadr is a step too far.

Third, a point I was really trying to get across but did not make it into the article, is that the Canadian government is in the position that it is in because of the terrible Bush administration policies on detention and enhanced interrogation. If the Bush administration had ensured that Khadr had fair treatment, this wouldn’t have been a problem – his due process would have been followed and he could have been extradited and prosecuted. And, perhaps if Canada had worked harder to ensure that his rights were being protected (though the historical record here is somewhat vague), they’d have an easier time mounting their case for extradition. 

Let’s face the facts – Khadr ain’t Mr. Rogers. He holds terrible views, probably did some terrible things and is not a great guy to be walking around on our streets. I would very much like to see him go on trial for the allegations that have been presented against him – but I know that ultimately he shouldn’t be sent because of the fact that his case was so incredibly poorly handled. It would be a complete and utter violation of everything the Western criminal justice system is supposed to be. 

Basically, without trying to sound like a poor man’s Human Rights Watch, the key lesson is that when stated do not following human rights, suspected terrorists can walk free. Not following human rights has made fighting terrorism in this case a lot harder. This is something that must constantly be borne in mind when the temptation to engage in “enhanced interrogation” exists. You often hear arguments about following human rights because ‘it’s the right thing to do’ or it reflects our values, etc. but this is a hard case which demonstrates the real national security interests at stake in ensuring the rights of terrorist suspects are accounted for.  

Terror, Counter-Terror, and Insurgency in Harry Potter, or Why Harry Won

In the waning days of classes, one of my colleagues asked a student if she’d been among those celebrating outside of the White House the night that President Obama announced the killing of Osama Bin-Laden. “Of course,” she responded, “I mean, they got Voldemort!”

For many readers who aged along with its titular hero, the Harry Potter series inextricably intertwines with the war on terrorism. This connection stems from more than a mere accident of timing. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) provides readers their first glimpse of the Death Easters as they carry out a terror attack against the wizarding’s greatest sporting event, the Quidditch World Cup. The Goblet of Fire also expands upon themes first introduced in The Prisoner of Azkaban (1999): state policies of arbitrary detention, torture, wrongful imprisonment, star-chamber style justice, and the use of all four by officials to advance their careers.

Such tropes surely already resonated in the United Kingdom—the “Good Friday” accords were, after all, signed in 1998—but they took on new dimensions with the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Bush Administration’s policy responses. Indeed, for those inclined to see Harry Potter as, at least in part, a parable for terrorism, counter-terrorism, and the flawed responses of the state, the Goblet of Fire’s sequels—Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix (2003) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2006)—do not disappoint.


In Order of the Pheonix we find the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, refusing to accept that Voldemort has returned. This denial extends to Dolores Umbridge’s efforts to discredit and vilify Harry Potter. These failures of leadership allow Voldemort and his Death Eaters to wage a low-level campaign of terror, murder, and intimidation. Although fans disagree about whether or not the Death Eaters retain their cellular organization from the previous conflict, the only evidence to the contrary concerns Voldemort’s inner circle. It is clear, however, that power and authority among the Death Eaters is highly centralized in Voldemort’s hands.

As is so often the case in politically unstable environments, Fudge worries most not about the possible threat posed by Voldemort, but that Dumbledore seeks to replace him as head of the Ministry. Given Dumbledore’s own political views, particularly with respect to the treatment of sentient magical creatures, Fudge’s attitude made a certain amount of pervese sense. Rowling’s account of the politics of the wizarding world suggest that the Death Eaters’ ideology—essentially one of wizard racial supremacy over muggles and muggle-born wizards and witches—is, in some ways, less revolutionary than that of Dumbledore’s embrace of radical inter-species equality. And, of course, Dumbledore does lead a clandestine paramilitary organization: the Order of the Phoenix.


The Order operates as a secret counter-terror squad determined to stop the Death Eaters even without help from the Ministry. Its structure is, in fact, rather similar to that of the Death Eaters. Through both Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, the two groups fight a shadow war that extends into the ranks of the ministry itself. The Order’s main advantage in this struggle involves superior intelligence: that provided by Severus Snape and by Dumbledore’s investigations. Indeed, the film version of the Half-Blood Prince’s (2009) main contributions to advancing the series’ arc center on Harry’s and Dumbledore’s efforts to gain intelligence necessary to defeat Voldemort—the nature, existence, and number of his horcruxes.

Even after indisputable proof of Voldemort’s return at the end of Order of the Phoenix costs Fudge his job, the Ministry remains, at best, an uncertain ally of the Order. The Ministry proves unwilling to take concerted action against a number of likely Death Eaters—not out of a concern for due process, but rather an unwillingness to overly antagonize powerful members of the community. Instead, it engages in ineffectual “security theater,” including incarcerating innocent wizards and witches as suspected Death Eaters. The film version of the Half-Blood Prince drives the resulting fear and uncertainty home by adding a scene in which two of Voldemort’s most powerful lieutenants—Belatrix Lestrange and Fenrir Greyback—attack the Burrow, lure its defenders away, and then burn its upper floors to the ground.

The Ministry’s preference for counter-terror show over substance allows the Death Eaters to subvert it from within. The nature of the conflict changes radically in The Deathly Hallows, Part I (2010), and not simply because of Dumbledore’s (willing) defenestration at Snape’s hands. Voldemort, through his agents, seizes control of the British wizarding government. His followers turn the Ministry’s coercive and propagandistic capacity—augmented by their own equivalent of brownshirts, the Snatchers—toward suppressing opposition to their new order. Taken together, the two parts of the Deathly Hallows films chart a government crackdown on dissent, a growing insurgency waging asymmetric warfare against the state, and Voldemort’s personal Stalingrad, i.e., the Battle of Hogwarts.

As much as I enjoyed The Deathly Hallows, Part II, there’s not much in the way of international politics in the film; it deals almost exclusively with the final stages of the second Voldemort war. From this perspective, Part II involves three major events of concerns to scholars of international security:

  • The raid on Gringott’s to seize a crucial enemy resource (a horcrux) that nearly ends in disaster for the resistance;
  • The clandestine incursion to seize another horcrux that unexpectedly prompts an open revolt in Hogwarts; and
  • Voldemort’s attempt to crush the rebellion once and for all in a single battle.

Harry’s, Hermione’s, and Ron’s attack on Gringotts reflects the tactics they perfect over the courses of the series; these tactics fit squarely within the tradition of guerilla and asymmetric warfare. They rely on stealth and deception; they operate as a small mobile strike team. The three show no remorse about using the imperious curse—one of the three “Unforgiveable Curses”—to forward their goals. When detected, they exploit a weakness in their enemy’s defenses: they liberate an imprisoned dragon and use it as a means of escape. In their efforts they are aided by a network of supporters, including Aberforth Dumbledore, who conceals them in Hogsmeade, and, unbeknownst to them, Snape, who, in Part I, goes so far as to provide them with an important weapon—the Sword of Gryffindor and, in Part II, passes on crucial intelligence even as he lies dying.

Behind their success lies the superior intelligence and planning of the Order, and of Dumbledore in particular. Although Dumbledore’s role in the Order appears superficially comparable to Voldemort’s in the Death Eaters, Dumbledore takes extensive steps to ensure that his followers retain operational capability after his demise. He prudently conceals his plans by parceling out information among his agents, and by often encrypting that information to render it unusable by their enemies. He encourages Harry to share key intelligence with Ron and Hermione. Indeed, his efforts to guide the three since their arrival at Hogwarts wield them into a proficient covert operations teams. In the Order of the Phoenix, he does nothing to prevent Harry from training an army of students; “Dumbledore’s Army” provides one of the major fighting forces in the Battle of Hogwarts. In sum, Dumbledore builds an organization capable of surviving decapitation, and one that proves willing to fight on even in the face of Harry’s (apparent) death.

These advantages in intelligence and motivation are not, in of themselves, enough to overcome the Death Eater’s superior firepower, experience, and numbers. But the Death Eaters themselves suffer from a number of weaknesses. The Death Eaters’ problems, in fact, partially overlap with those we often associate with failed counterinsurgency campaigns.

First, Voldemort places far too much strategic emphasis on, and faith in, technological fixes—most notably his horcruxes and the Elder Wand. The former fail, the latter betrays him. Harry, on the other hand, seeks strength in the loyalty of his allies and the force of his cause.

Second, the Death Eaters reliance on fear as a tool of rule gives their regime, like those of Middle Eastern despots, an underlying fragility. Although they quash most dissent, they remain vulnerable so long as resistance continues. Thus, Harry, Ron, and Hermione remain potent symbols of opposition. Events at Hogwarts highlight the fragility of the Death Eaters’ regime, particularly in pockets of ideological opposition. There, Harry’s open defiance of Snape encourages the remnants of Dumbledore’s staff to rebel; previously unaligned students affiliated with Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw immediately follow suit.

Indeed, Machiavelli claims that it is better to be feared than loved, and councils rulers to inflict their injuries at the outset so that they can appear beneficent later, this advice fails miserably for Voldemort. Narcissa Malfoy’s betrayal of Voldemort—a consequence of his cruel treatment of her family for Lucius’ failures—ensures that Harry survives to defeat him. Voldemort’s overtures to the students of Hogwarts after they believe Harry dead provoke resistance rather than capitulation. Or, to paraphrase Rowling, Voldemort does not understand the power of love, only of fear and hatred.

Third, Voldemort’s egocentrism and overdeveloped will-to-power lead him to build, in direct contrast to the Order, an organization that cannot function in his absence. After the end of the first war, his supporters scatter, renounce him, or go into hiding. In the second war, his iron-fisted rule, unwillingness to cultivate replacements, and generally poor people skills ensure that the Death Eaters cannot outlive him. Voldemort’s death shatters the Death Eaters because of their lack of organizational resilience—a direct consequence of their over-centralized leadership structure and reliance on Voldemort’s personal ability to inspire terror.

Voldemort compounds these problems by committing a major strategic blunder: he actively participates in a direct assault on a well-fortified enemy position, one in which his adversaries enjoy superior local knowledge. These are common mistakes made by fictional tyrants. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV allows himself to be lured to Arrakis where the Fremen, led by Paul Maud’Dib, defeat his supposedly invincible Sardukar; Emperor Palpatine, placing far too much faith in his so-called “Death Star,” engineers a final battle in which his forces fall before the rebels and their newfound indigenous care-bearish allies.

Palpatine’s death at the hands of his chief adjutant one might argue, stems from his inability to appreciate the power of love and compassion.

In the books, the tide of battle is turned by the intervention of magical beings, including Centaurs and the House Elves—both of which lack civil and political rights in wizarding society and face an even worse time from Voldemort’s regime. This omission from the film raises questions about the Death Eaters’ defeat. In the real world, insurgencies almost always lose when they attempt to transition to conventional warfare. Only those guerilla leaders that wait until they have state-like manpower and resources (for example, Mao Zedung, Fidel Casto, and Ho Chin Minh) succeed. This does not seem to be the case for Harry and his allies: the students, teachers, and members of the Order at Hogwarts are significantly overmatched by the Death Eaters and their auxiliaries. Whether in the books or the films, the Battle of Hogwarts is a near thing; we should not assume that Voldemort’s defeat was preordained.

Especially in the absence of third-party intervention on behalf of our heroes, Voldemort’s best course of action is straightforward: allows his forces to crush resistance, or at least settle in for a long siege, while he watches from safety. But his reliance on a fearsome reputation to hold his coalition together, combined with his narcissism, compel Voldemort to face Harry himself. Indeed, Harry only survives numerous confrontations with Death Eaters because of Voldemort’s unwillingness to delegate key tasks to his subordinates. And here, again, we see the superiority of Dumbledore’s and Harry’s approach to leadership, let alone their specific command decisions.

If audiences can merge Voldemort and Osama Bin Laden as embodiments of evil, this becomes more complicated once the Death Eaters achieve military superiority. Their terrorism ceases to be that of a weapon of the weak; it takes the form of state terrorism—directed against the state’s own citizens. The most obvious analogy here, both with respect to ideology and to style, is with Nazi occupation governments. But we might also draw parallels with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan or, in fact, with what an Al-Qaeda inspired regime in the Middle East might look like. For their part, once Harry and his friends find themselves reduced to the position of insurgents, (and branded as terrorists, no less), they prove willing to adopt some of their opponents’ tactics, including the use of Unforgiveable Curses.

To the extent that the comparison continues to instruct, it does so in two ways. On the one hand, the series of events that climax in The Deathly Hallows, Part II stand as a powerful indictment of the worst excesses of the war on terrorism. Rowling’s deliberate condemnation of the repression she worked against while at Amnesty International resonates with recent experiences of arbitrary detention, torture, and incarceration of political dissidents. On the other hand, we can only hope that the Death Eaters’ pathologies are those of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks. In the real world, however, few leaders prove as indispensible to a violent movements’ persistence as Voldemort. Given our tendency to personalize and personify our enemies, we would do well to remember that the Deathly Hallows, Part II, is, in the final analysis, just a movie.

This is a different stab at an international-affairs discussion of The Deathly Hallows. Be sure to read the other attempt.

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…

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.

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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