Expect more civilian casualties as President Obama’s latest escalation sends more troops into Kandahar. Most civilians killed by insurgents die from IEDs and suicide attacks, while airstrikes in support of troops in combat account for most civilians killed by NATO and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. When this summer’s Operation Khanjar pushed into Helmand province, anti-Kabul-government forces responded by laying more IEDs, which led to a severe spike in civilian deaths.
Based on the Helmand experience, we know sending more troops into insurgent-controlled areas will mean IED attacks. We know new IED attacks will mean many more civilian deaths, not to mention the number of civilians that will be directly killed by U.S. forces. We’re doing it anyway. The people who will be killed have a right to life that exists independently of our goals in the region. We’re essentially making a decision for them that it’s better for them to be dead than under the thumb of the Taliban. If they want to make that decision, fine, let them. But that’s not our decision.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is showing his Bush Administration credentials by tossing around any and all justifications for continued U.S. military action in Afghanistan to see what sticks. Lately, he’s been pushing the goofy idea that we have to maintain or expand our military presence in Afghanistan so that extremists can never brag to their friends.
There have been plenty of reasons given for keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan: denying Al Qaeda and their allies a sanctuary, saving the locals from some rather ruthless theocrats, preventing another 9/11. To that Defense Secretary added a different rationale Monday night. He wants to keep Osama’s legions from scoring a propaganda win.
…Defining al-Qaeda as both an ideology and an organization, Gates said their ability to successfully “challenge not only the United States, but NATO — 42 nations and so on” on such a symbolically important battlefield would represent “a hugely empowering message” for an organization whose narrative has suffered much in the eight years since 9/11.
At least Michael Scheuer’s snarling, morally bankrupt piece (oddly promoted as the front-page story on Foreign Policy Magazine‘s website) correctly diagnoses the problem in Afghanistan: the anti-government elements have put the U.S. and allied forces in a position where “winning” (defined as “defeating” the Taliban) would require actions so brutal and expensive that they are beyond the pale for our political leadership. But rather than salute the allied forces for their principles, Scheuer assails them, telling them to “Get Nasty or Go Home.” Continue reading →
The prospects for success of a quick, violent blow are dim. The hardened core of the Taliban is the Quetta Shura Taliban. It’s called the Quetta Shura Taliban because it’s based in Quetta, capital of Balochistan in Pakistan. That’s where we suspect Mullah Omar and possibly Osama bin Laden hide from U.S. forces. It’s also a major city of 750,000+ people, almost all of them non-combatants. Thus, our ability to strike the “violent blow” that could end the al-Qaida/Taliban threat (assuming we’re not willing to drop 600,000+ troops into Afghanistan tomorrow to suddenly begin a textbook counterinsurgency) would depend on our willingness to repeat the carnage of Fallujah 2004 in a city roughly twice its size. This move would ignite Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it would put their nuclear arsenal on the game board in the scramble.
The Pentagon expects to receive General McChrystal’s troop request by the end of the week (remember, you heard it here first). If we accept Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell’s remarks during today’s press briefing, Defense Secretary Gates will pocket the document until the Obama Administration completes its strategic review. But, Morrell is clearly working to prevent the document from becoming a “moment of truth” for the secretary and the president, and I would be very surprised if a strategy assessment took place without a cost/benefit analysis. After all, a discussion on strategy not constrained by resource considerations would produce strategies as useful as a retirement plan that included “win the lottery” as a necessary step.
Looking for evaluative tools for the upcoming troop request, I flipped through my copy of The 33 Strategies of Warby Robert Greene and came across this passage:
…Rommel once made a distinction between a gamble and a risk. Both cases involve an action with only a chance of success, a chance that is heightened by acting with boldness. The difference is that with a risk, if you lose, you can recover: your reputation will suffer no long-term damage, your resources will not be depleted, and you can return to your original position with acceptable losses. With a gamble, on the other hand, defeat can lead to a slew of problems that are likely to spiral out of control. …[I]f you encounter difficulties in a gamble, it becomes harder to pull out–you realize that the stakes are too high; you cannot afford to lose. So you try harder to rescue the situation, often making it worse and sinking deeper in to the hole that you cannot get out of. People are drawn into gambles by their emotions…Taking risks is essential; gambling is foolhardy.
The worst way to end…a war…is slowly and painfully…Before entering any action, you must calculate in precise terms your exit strategy…If the answers…seem to vague and full of speculation, if success seems all too alluring and failure somewhat dangerous, you are more than likely taking a gamble. Your emotions are leading you into a situation that could end up a quagmire.
Before that happens, catch yourself. And if you do find you have made this mistake, you have only two rational solutions: either end the conflict as quickly as you can, with a strong, violent blow aimed to win, accepting the costs and knowing they are better than a slow and painful death, or cut your losses and quit without delay. Never let pride or concern for your reputation pull you farther into the morass; both will suffer far greater blows by your persistence. Short-term defeat is better than long-term disaster.
Greene writes these words interpreting the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. They apply equally well to the situation in which the United States finds itself in the same country. Continue reading →
<em>Note:</em> <em>Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for <a href=”http://www.bravenewfoundation.org/”>Brave New Foundation</a> / <a href=”http://seminal.firedoglake.com/”>The Seminal</a>. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching <a href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hjE2wMWMJwI”>Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security</a>, or by visiting <a href=”http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog”>http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog</a>.</em>
<blockquote>”People loved [the Taliban]–a lot of people did, anyway, at least at first. you’d ask someone about the Talibs and the first thing they’d say is they tamed the warlords. You couldn’t drive across town, they’d say. The warlords would be fighting it out in the middle of the city, slugging it out for turf, like gangsters do, for the right to tax and steal.”
“Talking to Wali that day, and Mohammedi and other Talibs, it seemed obvious enough that what lay at the foundation of the Taliban’s rule was fear, but not fear of the Taliban themselves, at least not in the beginning. No: it was fear of the past. Fear that the past would return, that it would come back in all its disaggregated fury. That the past would become the future. The beards, the burqas, the whips, the stones; anything, anything you want. Anything but the past.”
–Dexter Filkins, <em>The Forever War</em>, p. 27, 33-34.</blockquote>
U.S. policy in Afghanistan seems hell-bent on recreating the conditions that led to the rise of the Taliban. Not only are we backing a government comprised of the same warlords and drug kingpins responsible for some of the worst depredations in the post-Soviet era, but we’ve taken to hiring and arming war criminals and their militias as security teams. (By the way: Can someone explain to me why we’re hiring guards for soldiers? Why are the soldiers not guarding the soldiers?)
<a href=”http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/sep/16/nato-forces-afghan-militias”>The Guardian (UK)</a>:
<blockquote><a href=”http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/nato”>Nato</a> forces in <a href=”http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/afghanistan”>Afghanistan</a> are increasingly reliant on illegal militias, often run by warlords responsible for human rights abuses and drug trafficking, according to an independent report published tomorrow.
“Many of these private security providers serve as ready-made militias that compete with state authority and are frequently run by former military commanders responsible for human rights abuses or involved in the illegal narcotics and black market economies.”
“Financing armed, alternative power structures fulfils security needs in the short term at the cost of consolidating government authority in the long term,” the CIC report says. It gives examples of private paramilitary groups hired by US, Australian, Canadian and German forces, and refers to an incident in June in which 41 militia fighters hired by US special forces in Kandahar killed the provincial police chief and five other police officers in a gun battle to free a militia member who had been arrested earlier the same day.
Jake Sherman, one of the report’s authors…argued that once Nato leaves, the militias are likely to return to drug trafficking and other black market activities, better trained and better armed. “Once they are set up and armed, they are never disarmed,” Sherman said. “They become new threats to the state.”</blockquote>
As if to underscore that the point is not an academic one, the local Afghans hired as security contractors and the ANA started shooting at each other.<a href=”http://www.military.com/news/article/gis-afghan-guards-clash-with-afghan-troops.html”> BBC via Military.com</a>:
<blockquote>KANDAHAR — A clash has taken place between Afghan National Army [ANA] troops and Afghan guards of U.S. troops.
He said three soldiers of the ANA were killed, one injured and two of the U.S. troops’ special Afghan guards were killed and two others sustained injuries as a result.
Golab Shah said that the fighting took place between the ANA troops and the workers of LG company, which provides guards for the U.S. troops. He said he was unaware of the cause of the incident and that a team had been sent to the area to carry out an investigation.</blockquote>
So to sum up: concurrent with an increase in foreign forces, the coalition is backing a horror-movie-level corrupt government and rearming war criminals to provide security.
All this makes me wonder: are our policymakers even literate? Seriously, can they read? I only ask because they’ve had more than a month to read and digest the UK’s Department for International Development<a href=”http://d.yimg.com/kq/groups/23852819/1968355965/name/Drivers%20of%20Radicalisation%20in%20Afghanistan%20Sep%2009.pdf”> study of radicalization in Afghanistan</a>:
<blockquote>Religious motivation is only one of several reason for joining or supporting the Taliban or Hizb-i Islami. A religious message does resonate with the majority but this is mainly because it is couched in terms of <strong>two keenly felt pragmatic grievances: the corruption of government and the presence of foreign forces</strong>.</blockquote>
It would be lovely if we could decide to make policy based on the U.S. capabilities and the Afghanistan that actually exist rather than the fantasies that pass for sober policy pronouncements.
Despite being among the poorest people in the world, the inhabitants of the craggy northwest of what is now Pakistan have managed to throw a series of frights into distant Western capitals for more than a century. That’s certainly one for the record books.
And it hasn’t ended yet. Not by a long shot. Not with the headlines in the U.S. papers about the depredations of the Pakistani Taliban, not with the CIA’s drone aircraft striking gatherings in Waziristan and elsewhere near the Afghan border. This spring, for instance, one counter-terrorism analyst stridently (and wholly implausibly) warned that “in one to six months” we could “see the collapse of the Pakistani state,” at the hands of the bloodthirsty Taliban, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the situation in Pakistan a “mortal danger” to global security.
What most observers don’t realize is that the doomsday rhetoric about this region at the top of the world is hardly new. It’s at least 100 years old. During their campaigns in the northwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British officers, journalists and editorialists sounded much like American strategists, analysts, and pundits of the present moment. They construed the Pashtun tribesmen who inhabited Waziristan as the new Normans, a dire menace to London that threatened to overturn the British Empire.
NAWA, Afghanistan — One week after several battalions of Marines swept through the Helmand River valley, military commanders appear increasingly concerned about a lack of Afghan forces in the field.
“What I need is more Afghans,” said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand Province. He accompanied the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, during a visit with troops at Patrol Base Jaker here on Monday.
As I said over at the SWJ site, this would be stunning, frankly, if the Afghan forces don’t materialize. After all this talk of doing things differently after eight years, after all the talk of “putting an Afghan face” on it, after all the hoopla surrounding McChrystal’s appointment and the “new” COIN strategy, we send 4,000 troops into a Taliban-held area without a full complement of Afghan forces?
The quagmire of Afghanistan becomes clearer each day as reports filter out that the grand surge in Helmand is stymied and Afghan townspeople are not so pleased with their “liberation.”
Yet, while an uproar in the UK over their casualties this week – 15 dead in 10 days – grows, (see “renowned British military historian Correlli Barnett … in the pages of the very conservative Daily Mail” (h/t Steve Hynd of Newshoggers)) Gen McChrystal continues to up the expectation that he will be asking for more US troops and more billions when he completes his strategic review:
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Sunday that when he gives his assessment to the Obama administration next month of what is needed to defeat the Taliban , he won’t be deterred by administration statements that he cannot have more U.S. troops.
One of the central talking points justifying our ongoing war has always been talk about protecting or saving the women of Afghanistan. Both the right and the left have used this argument as a rationale for continuing – yet few ever listen to the wishes of actual Aghan women.