Tag: Taliban

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]

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Transitioning Toward Anarchy

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

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

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

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

[Cross-posted from Humayun]

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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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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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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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After the Surge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Cross-posted from Afghan Notebook]

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Battling a Straw Man and Still Losing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth, they argue:

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

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

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]

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Mullah Baradar and Stringer Bell

My first thought when I heard of the capture of Mullah Baradar, “Mullah Omar’s #2 man,” was of Stringer Bell, “Avon Barksdale’s #2 man” from “The Wire.”

“The Wire” was the ultimate show for Political Scientists. Beneath the gritty surface of a stale cops-n-robbers thematic is a brilliant show about dynamic organizations – mainly “po-lice” and criminal gangs, but also the city’s decaying educational system, the media, city hall, etc. The individual characters no matter how innovative and charming cannot transcend the organizations in which they work or “the game” in which these organizations interact.

Among the drug lords and their lieutenants, Russel “Stringer” Bell (Idris Elba) was clearly the most innovative and strategic thinker that had come around the streets of Baltimore for some time. He had a plan to make himself and his criminal organization legit. He took courses in economics at the local community college and he organized a cartel with regular meetings at a local hotel. He tried to improve the quality of his product and professionalize a group of individuals who were not particularly known for civility (although he did object to McGinty taking minutes at the meeting of criminal conspirators). All the while there was never a moment’s doubt that Stringer was a ruthless criminal who would quietly arrange to have his rivals killed.

Of course, the tale of Stringer Bell is a tragedy. Although he made some major strides towards becoming a legitimate businessman, he was tricked by corrupt politicians and betrayed by his boss. Ultimately, he was killed by Omar Little, a cunning and self-employed ronin and the Nation of Islam’s Brother Mouzone (literally Brother Judicious in Arabic). An American audience, unused to having leading characters killed off, was stunned. But to not have killed off Stringer would have defeated the purpose of the show.

Like Stringer Bell, Mullah Baradar was a master strategist who managed the daily operations of his organization. As a general commander for the Taliban’s five operational military zones, Baradar’s job was to manage the bickering of the commanders and sub-commanders within in each zone by rotating personnel; to prevent commanders from poaching fighters from other units; and to insist that the composition of fighting units bridge tribal lines.

Baradar is credited with creating a “code of conduct” manual to professionalize his fighters. The manual emphasized the importance of protecting civilians and winning their support in the struggle to retake Afghanistan. The goal was to lay the groundwork for the return of the government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, i.e. to go legit.

As in “The Wire,” the Taliban became more aware of their enemy’s surveillance tactics under Baradar’s watch. The Taliban dropped the use of their satellite phones on the battlefield and returned to more reliable methods of communication — messengers.

According to Newsweek (3 August 2009), Baradar also managed hundreds of millions of dollars in finances of the Taliban organization. Apparently, Baradar required video evidence of raids from his subordinates before providing reimbursements for their expenses.

Not unlike Stringer Bell, Baradar may have been willing to have enemies terminated. Baradar has been accused of having his rival commanders, most notably Mullah Dadullah Akhund and Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, meet their untimely demises at the hands of American and Pakistani troops. Of course, the rumors have not yet been confirmed.

Finally, Mullah Baradar was a close personal friend, comrade-in-arms, and confidante of Mullah Omar. At times, those who watch the Taliban closely even wondered whether Baradar had not supplanted his boss. Baradar apparently ran the meetings of the Taliban’s Quetta Shura while Omar remained in occlusion.

The main question is why the Pakistani government chose to turn an asset like Baradar over to the Americans at this point in time. After all, the Pakistani ISI is accused of intervening on Baradar’s behalf when he was first caught by the Northern Alliance in 2001. It may be that the Pakistani government decided that Baradar could not be used to broker a peace deal in Afghanistan (that would allow Pakistan to retain its influence there). Thus Baradar may have lost his value to his host. Or it may be that the whereabouts of Baradar were quietly leaked by someone in the Taliban organization…

Either way, Baradar is out of the picture, but “the game” will resume.

[Cross-posted from my Notebook]

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The Short Career of Hakimullah Mehsud

In the latest round of the ongoing blood feud between the US military/intelligence agencies and the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP), it appears that the TTP’s leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed by a Predator drone attack in mid-January. The assassination was apparently in “revenge” for the murder of seven CIA operatives at a forward operating base in Afghanistan by Hakimullah’s associate and Jordanian double agent, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi. Of course, Al-Balawi had claimed that his suicide bombing was in retaliation for the assassination of the former leader of the TTP, Baitullah Mehsud, by a CIA drone in August 2009. The US and Pakistan targeted Baitullah Mehsud because he was allegedly behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 and a series of suicide bombings and armed attacks in Pakistan. Baitullah had claimed that his attacks were only in retaliation for US drone attacks facilitated by the American puppet regime in Pakistan… Thus the origins of this blood feud recede into a murky history of drone attacks and suicide bombing counter-attacks.

To understand the feud, one needs to appreciate that the relatively precise and virtually unstoppable suicide bomber is considered the military equivalent of the predator drone in the eyes of the Taliban. Hence, there is a cycle of carnage unleashed with each drone attack.

So who was this latest target, Hakimullah Mehsud? Should his death be considered a significant victory in the war?

Haikmullah (also known as Zulfiqar; real name: Jamshed) Mehsud was reportedly first captured and interrogated by Western forces (either NATO or CIA) in the Shawal district of North Waziristan in a raid on March 9th, 2007 according to Pakistani and Chinese media agencies. The illegal incursion by two military helicopters into Pakistani territory led to the ritualized faint murmurs of protest and indignation from the Pakistani government. NATO would later deny any involvement in the kidnapping without denying that the incident may have happened. At the time, Hakimullah was merely known as a cousin and confidante of Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the TTP. Through an apparent “catch and release” policy for junior terrorists, Hakimullah was let go.

Although he was most likely illiterate, the young and handsome (in a swashbuckling, Captain Jack Sparrow-ish sort of way) Mehsud became a spokesman for the TTP organization. He appeared on a local news station (Khyber News) in October 2008 to refute rumors of the death of his cousin. He then transferred from the Taliban’s communications desk to become a commander in the field. By November 2008, he rose to become the head of the Taliban in the Orakzai, Khyber, and Kurram Agencies of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). However, even as he rose in the ranks of the Taliban, he continued to hold press conferences and grant interviews to local journalists — a sharp contrast with his introverted cousin, Baitullah. The brash commander particularly enjoyed showing off the Humvee he had captured from NATO forces by raiding their supply lines.

Despite his oddly charming personality, it was clear that Hakimullah was also ruthless. He claimed to have had several men beheaded for spying on the Taliban. He instituted a strict interpretation of sharia’ and enforced a ban on the movement of women outside of their homes in the Orakzai Agency.

The first attempt by the US to kill Hakimullah with a Predator drone was in April 2009. In revenge for this failed attempt, Mehsud unleashed a wave of suicide attacks and threatened that there would be at least two suicide bombings per week in retaliation.

Hakimullah was appointed to head the TTP network by a shura (council) after the assassination of his cousin by a drone in August 2009. Notably, Hakimullah held a press conference flanked by his new lieutenants to announce his promotion and he vowed to avenge the drone attack … a vow that his associate, al-Balawi, helped him to fulfill on the last day of 2009. Hakimullah would live for only one more month as American drones narrowed in on him.

At the end of the day the short three year career of the brash and ruthless Mehsud is relatively inconsequential in the broader war. The contrast between Hakimullah and his predecessor only illustrates the wide range of personality types which can assume a leadership position within the Taliban. The skill set Hakimullah used to lead the Taliban organization in the field were not particularly unique or demanding — he was little more than an illiterate, brutal, and narcissistic gangster.

When the camera pans back from the current assassination, it is clear the overall US strategy of leadership decapitation has failed to make a noticeable dent in the operational capacity of the organizations and networks that call themselves the Taliban. If anything, the Taliban appear to be growing bolder on both sides of the Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan. For each commander who is killed, a new leader will rise and take his place after a short period of disorganization. The Pakistani government and media hypes each new leader (while selectively ignoring other militant “assets”), transforming a small fish into a whale; the leader comes to the attention of American forces which begin plotting an assassination with the assistance of Pakistani officials and local informants. After a few failed attempts and some collateral damage, which embitters the local population and helps to recruit more militants, the US usually succeeds in bringing down their man. The Americans trump their kill as a success in the war. Unfortunately, very little is actually accomplished as the cycle resets with each successful assassination, the structural positions are re-loaded, and the game begins again.

A leadership decapitation strategy only makes sense when one is confronted with a highly centralized organization led by a small number of capable leaders and a mass of fighters with low morale — this is clearly not the situation of the organizations and networks targeting Americans and their client regimes in South Asia. The US military and intelligence community continues to confuse a policy of revenge killings for a viable military strategy to defeat a broad based and conscious rebellion.

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Pakistan To Enforce “Sharia” in Swat

Great. The “peace deal” in Swat is officially off, and not only will Pakistan whole-heartedly address militants in the region, it will also enforce Sharia law itself, ostensibly to rob the Taliban of public support in the region.

What are the assumptions at work here?

Assumption A) That Taliban have begun to thrive in the northeast provinces primarily because the civilian population wants sharia law (and not because the Taliban have guns and the state failed to step in and protect communities in the region). Of course, there is something to this – many people prefer order, even brutal order, to lawlessness, which is what facilitated the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, and the emergence of al-Shabab in Somalia. However the government may be overestimating support for sharia per se, in a region historically practicing a much looser blend of Islam and pre-Islamic custom. Is it strict religious law people want, or is it efficient governance and an end to corruption?

Assumption B) That the international community is more worried about the capture of the Pakistani state by the Taliban than in the human rights consequences (and implications for the radicalization of the nuclear-armed Pakistani state) of a state-initiated religious crackdown in the northwest. This may well be true at first, all things considered, but I bet it won’t last long, particularly once YouTube videos of the first high-profile floggings emerge. Pakistan remains between a rock and a hard place.

Much depends, perhaps, on what interpretation of “sharia law” Pakistan has in mind. In the West, we often associate sharia with controversial punishments for hadd offenses, but in many area where sharia is nominally in place, these punishments are rarely implemented. And moderate Muslims in many parts of the world have seized upon Qur’anic doctrine to promote a more equitable vision of society still grounded in religious law. Perhaps Islamabad has an opportunity here to forge a middle path between state and human security as it seizes the moral high ground back from the Taliban.

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The Allah-father

Interesting post this morning over at The Argument on the similarities between the Taliban and organized crime. This idea echoes earlier (and interesting) work by Charles Tilly on the origins of the state. While I think Peters’ analysis is interesting and thought provoking, I don’t think it means we should ignore the religious aspect of the movement. Understanding the criminal aspects of their enterprise is useful for gaining perspective on their material capabilities and the methods through which they maintain and grow those capabilities. It also allows us to think thoroughly as to how we might cut off and put a strain on those capabilities. But in thinking about their likely actions, we would be limited if we just stuck to criminal/economic rationale and ignored the religious/political goals. I am not suggesting that Peters thinks or suggests we should go completely in this direction, just a general observation on my part.

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Compellence

Pakistani Taliban Leader Threatens Attack on Washington

Compellence in its purest form: a threat to inflict pain if an adversary does not alter their current behavior. Is the threat credible? It’s unclear at this time, although US officials are publicly dismissing it. Other threats of late seem more credible–although the FedEx strategy is an example of deterrence, not compellence.

And no, I am not morally equating FedEx and Mehsud–just pointing out examples of strategy.

I haven’t actually seen a study which looks at the success rate of terrorist or non-state deterrent/compellent threats against states (then again, I haven’t looked through the literature for a while). Would be interesting to see…

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