Tag: Taliban

Security Pact Ensures America’s Presence in Afghanistan

President Obama’s arrival in Afghanistan and signing of the strategic partnership agreement with President Karzai supposedly represents yet another corner turned in our nearly eleven year (and counting) war. The commander-in-chief’s arrival in secrecy, under darkness, and without live coverage of the signing is reminiscent of Bush the Younger’s many trips to war-torn Iraq and displays just how bad security is in Afghanistan. Indeed, despite the administration’s talk about drawing-down, the strategic partnership agreement signed today in Kabul extends Washington’s military and financial support to the endemically corrupt Karzai regime well beyond 2014.

The Taliban’s most powerful narrative is that foreigners are occupying Afghanistan and supporting its corrupt centralized government. That is more than mere propaganda. It is reality. Transparency International was correct—save for North Korea and Somalia, Afghanistan is the most corrupt country in the world. The Karzai cartel and its band of thugs and warlords are the embodiment of social injustice. The nation-building mission in Afghanistan is a failure not of democracy promotion, but the result of bringing injustice and crony capitalism to a desperate and war-ravaged people.

As America climbs out of the worst financial crisis in a generation, the American people pour tens of billions a year into a poverty-stricken narco-stateaccording to the late-Richard Holbrooke—while the Karzais and their cronies build mansions in Dubai. The American people’s hard-earned tax dollars are funding Afghanistan’s “1%.” As I said last week about the agreement, it is nation building by another name. The American people have come to realize that the nation-building mission in Afghanistan is a needless waste of blood and treasure and unnecessary for our vital security interests. U.S. officials should recognize this and expedite our withdrawal, rather than continue to tread water in a desperate attempt to stave off disaster.

A senior administration official today warned of repeating the mistake of allowing the Taliban to reemerge in Afghanistan. In the process, however, the United States is repeating a mistake that experts contend helped to contribute to the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001unwavering economic support and political cover to the Muslim world’s most corrupt and illegitimate regimes. Some will argue that America has a moral obligation to prevent the reemergence of reprehensible groups like the Taliban. But America never made a substantive policy shift toward or against the Taliban’s misogynistic, oppressive and militant Islamic regime when it controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s. Thus, the present moral outrage against the group can be interpreted as opportunistic. Sadly, Washington’s current embrace of the kleptocratic Karzai regime not only contradicts the basic moral principles that America purports to impose on the rest of the world, but also does little to advance our security, drives foreigners to commit terrorist acts, and is detrimental to our long-term goal of advancing our country’s most cherished values.

It’s Groundhog Day in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan tragically feels like the movie Groundhog Day: reliving and retelling the same stories repeatedly, but with the situation worse than it was the previous time. The United States is perpetually stuck in a repetitive series of setbacks and scandals that damage the mission. It cannot escape the shadow that ruinous events cast over the prospect of defeating the Taliban.

Today, the Los Angeles Times published photos of U.S. soldiers posing with the mangled corpses of alleged insurgents. This latest grisly and embarrassing episode, much like the incidental burning of Qurans, the murder of 17 Afghan civilians by a U.S. Army Sgt., and the U.S. kill team that collected the fingers and teeth of Afghan corpses as trophies, is yet another scandal that damages what America stands for. Certainly, war breeds hatred for one’s enemies. But perhaps even more troubling is that over a decade of fighting has—as military expert Carl Prine and others have observed—led to a serious breakdown in military discipline, leadership, and chain of command.

These photos also come after a series of coordinated assaults rocked Kabul and three provincial capitals this past weekend. The Taliban’s annual spring offensive has commenced. These attacks do not bode well for America’s plan to transition to Afghan forces, or for the 2001 Bonn Agreement proclamations of bringing about “national reconciliation” and “lasting peace.” Of the many interpretations that one can glean about the significance of these recent the attacks in the heart of the capital city, three stand out.

First, they show that despite coalition night raids and drones strikes that have managed to eliminate the Taliban’s numerous shadow governors, mid-level commanders, and weapons facilitators the insurgents still have the upper hand in terms of local knowledge and connections with the Afghan people—including high-level officials. As a classified NATO report from January stated, the Taliban’s “strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact,” and, “Many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban.”

Second, these attacks send the unequivocal message to the Afghan people that their government is vulnerable and thus unable to protect them. While some commentators have pointed to the performance of the Afghan security forces, the attacks, if anything, underscore the fragility of a Kabul-centric government reliant on an endless stream of foreign-aid dollars. After all, in addition to these attacks, there was the coordinated assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters last September, and the growing number of top Afghan leaders who have been assassinated one-by-one. These include Jan Mohhammed Khan, the former governor of Uruzgan province; Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother; General Daud Daud, the governor of Takhar province; Khan Mohammed Mujahed, the police chief of Kandahar; and others I neglected to mention.

Third, as one astute observer has noted, the mainstream media has reported on the attacks in Kabul, Pol-e-Alam (Logar), Gardez (Paktia), and Jalalabad (Nangarhar), but overlooked the attempted attack in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. This would have undercut the conventional narrative that the anti-Afghan government insurgency remains where the Obama administration’s “surge” was most focused: in the south. But rather than remaining in one pocket of the country, the complex blend of factions that include the Hezb-i-Islami militia, the Haqqani network, and other loosely affiliated groups that have spread to the north as well. Paradoxically, much of the international community’s development aid and military resources have gone to some of Afghanistan’s most insecure provinces. As Oxfam International’s former head of policy in Afghanistan Matt Waldman writes, if Helmand province were a state, it would be “the world’s fifth largest recipient of funds” from USAID.

As usual, political leaders and military commanders have downplayed these latest attacks as yet another “one-off” incident. Americans know better. To them, these attacks—and the photos—will serve as yet another stunning reminder of how poorly things are going, and why we need to leave.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Massacre in Panjwai

In yesterday’s Politico, my coauthor Robert Naiman and I examine the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in the wake of the sad and inexplicable massacre of 16 Afghan civilians—nine of them children, most of them allegedly toddlers—by a U.S. soldier in Panjwai, Kandahar. While we address some of the possible policy implications, it is equally instructive to read what is happening on the ground. On Monday, the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson aggregated reports from local witnesses. I would encourage everyone to read Davidson’s piece in full; below are some of the more interesting excerpts:

First, in the early hours of Sunday, there was noise. “I told my son not to speak because the Americans are here,” an Afghan woman told the BBC. “They went next door and the first thing they did was shoot the dog. And then there was a muffled bang inside the room—but who could go and see?”

A mother using the word “Americans” to scare her child into silence is alone cause for reflection. And “who could go and see”? Despite the dark and noise and confusion—was there more than one soldier? A helicopter?—some Afghans in the village saw something. Here is what another woman told the BBC:

There was one man, and he dragged a woman by her hair and banged her head repeatedly against the wall. She didn’t say a word.

And Mohammad Zahir, age twenty-six, to the AP:

He was walking around taking up positions in the house—in two or three places like he was searching… . He was on his knees when he shot my father… . [My father] was not holding anything—not even a cup of tea.

Abdul Hadi, age forty, to the Times.

My father went out to find out what was happening, and he was killed… . I was covered by the women in my family in my room, so that is why I survived.

Gul Bashra, identified as a “mother,” on Al Jazeera (and the woman who told the BBC about the noises):

They killed a child who was two years old. Was that child Taliban?

Anar Gula, an elderly neighbor, to the Times:

All the family members were killed, the dead put in a room, and blankets were put over the corpses and they were burned… . We put out the fire.

War is heart wrenching, as Afghans surely know. Their country has been in near ceaseless conflict for the last thirty years, and according to the latest U.N. report on armed conflict in Afghanistan, 2011 was the fifth straight year in which civilian casualties rose. Although insurgents were mainly responsible for those deaths, in 2009 the Obama administration adopted a new mission: protecting ordinary Afghans and winning over their allegiance, a case put forward most vigorously by General David Petraeus (ret.), General Stanley McChrystal (ret.), and other military and civilian experts in what now seems like eons ago.

Today, the metric for success is to help Afghans establish some semblance of internal security, a shifting goalpost that was always an uphill battle. During and after the surge, it was clear that the administration’s new strategy did not have enough troops, enough time or enough competent local partners—as called for by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in its counterinsurgency (COIN) field manual—to compete credibly with the Taliban. As a result, officials in Washington and Kabul fed foreign observers stage-managed showpieces like the offensive in Marjah.

Applied according to doctrine, COIN in Afghanistan would have required several hundreds of thousands of troops, ten to twelve years of implementation and local government leaders who were not motivated primarily by personal advancement. It’s difficult to imagine a successful application of COIN in that landlocked country even if the coalition had these essential building blocks. After all, in addition to the oft-mentioned issue of cross-border militant sanctuaries, the cultural chasm between foreigners and rural locals has always persisted—and the Taliban have readily exploited this rift.

As Army Special Forces Maj. Fernando M. Lujan noted in a March 4 article, “One of the first things we learned was the power of a simple narrative, repeated endlessly by the Taliban: The coalition is here to occupy Afghanistan and destroy Islam.” Indeed, right after last Sunday’s massacre and the allegation that the soldier’s multiple deployments may have created mental-health issues, the Taliban issued this statement:

If the perpetrators of this massacre were in fact mentally ill, then this testifies to yet another moral transgression by the American military because they are arming lunatics in Afghanistan who turn their weapons against the defenseless Afghans without giving a second thought.

Although a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 54 percent of Americans believe we should withdraw before the Afghan army is “self-sufficient,” the administration remains committed to withdrawing in 2014. Between now and then, it hopes to set up a minimally functioning government in the middle of central Asia that is resistant to internal insurrection and to foreign invasion. It’s going to be a long two years.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Occupy Afghanistan

In an essay for Armed Forces Journal, Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis writes that after traveling across Afghanistan and speaking with more than 250 soldiers in the field,  “What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground.” Further down he continues, “I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level.”

It’s hard to disagree.

Davis’s essay comes weeks after the top-secret 2011 National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan finds that security gains in the Afghan war are unsustainable, and that pervasive corruption, government incompetence, and militant safe havens in Pakistan have undercut progress.

I’m reminded of a comment made recently by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee:

There have been gains in security … but the Taliban is still a force to be reckoned with. They still occupy considerable land in the country.

“Occupy” is the operative word in that sentence. That gains in Afghanistan are “fragile and reversible” is the oft-repeated mantra of defiant optimists who invoke our inability to achieve key objectives—improve local governance, eradicate corruption, convince Pakistan to shut down safe havens, etc.—as reason to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. Mind you, the opposite is also true: if such objectives are somehow reached, then we can never leave, since leaving would risk jeopardizing the gains we’ve won.

The intractable cross-border insurgency, of course, will outlive the presence of international troops. After all, a local district mullah who moonlights as a Taliban operative has nowhere else to go. Indeed, as the last 10 years have shown, insurgents can outlast coalition troops by merely re-emerging after we’ve left—that’s an endurable occupation.

In separate dissents appended to the report mentioned above—a report that reaches similar conclusions about the war made in the 2010 N.I.E.—the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, and the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, agreed in the judgment that the Taliban have shown no readiness to abandon their political goals. And, according to Col. Brian Mennes, who commands 3,300 troopers of the 4th Brigade: “The Taliban are going to have a role in post-war Afghanistan…They are Afghans. They are there—it’s just physics!’”

Coalition night raids and drones strikes have managed to eliminate the Taliban’s numerous shadow governors, mid-level commanders, and weapons facilitators; however, a classified NATO report was quoted as saying, the Taliban’s “strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact.” And, “Many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban.”

From war fighters and trigger pullers to desk-bound spooks and armchair analysts, the conclusion reached is that after a decade of war we still haven’t won. The reason? All politics is local.

Remember that a key component of the Obama administration’s strategy for Afghanistan was winning over local people and luring them away from the Taliban. But the always perceptive Captain Cat, who has worked on Afghan peace building, offers insight into what went wrong:

As we talk and sip tea, the younger man’s brother arrives, wrapped in a patu. He keeps his hair long, jihadi style, and it pokes out of his pakool. He was a more senior commander than his younger brother, and only reconciled a few months ago.

I ask the commander what he does with his days. “The government doesn’t trust anyone who is reconciled, so no one will hire us. My other brother does small jobs, he owns a cart in town and he sometimes does delivery work. He gets calls from Miram Shah from the Taliban and they tell him “look at your life now, pushing carts. What kind of a man are you?”

“I really regret reintegrating with the government, I wish I hadn’t – but if I go back now, the Taliban will kill me”.

We shake hands and I leave them. Miserable, bored and ashamed, they will while away their days wondering how to feed their families, when the Taliban will come for them and why they put their trust in the government. It’s hard not to wonder the same thing.

Tragically, the vast majority of Afghans were initially happy with the foreign troop presence. They took a “wait-and-see” approach. But that spirit has largely deteriorated. Conversely, the Taliban are reviled but the general view among many Afghans toward the movement is either ambivalence or that the Afghan government is worse. Perhaps more importantly, as the Afghan government’s head of Rural Rehabilitation and Development insisted to me at his office in Kabul awhile back: “Taliban is part of our culture.”

The coalition’s deus ex machina is reconciliation with the Taliban. While such an outcome to the war is hardly a victory worth celebrating, it’s difficult to imagine a lasting solution that does not involve the war’s other occupying force, the Taliban.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Administration Bait and Switch in Afghanistan?

U.S. combat troops are leaving Afghanistan in 2014. That was the consistent message which I received on my NATO-organized visit two months ago to a country now defined by war. The American and European governments have promised to provide long-term financial assistance and combat training, but they plan on shifting the actual fighting to Kabul’s hands.

Maybe not, it now seems.  The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, said America might just stick around and continue the war. Reported the New York Times:

The ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, speaking at a roundtable event with a small group of journalists, said that if the Afghan government wanted American troops to stay longer, the withdrawal could be slowed. “They would have to ask for it,” he said. “I could certainly see us saying, ‘Yeah, makes sense.’ ”

The ambassador’s standard is whether the Afghan government asked the United States to stay. It would make more sense to ask the American people what they think.

The argument that it’s time for Washington to go, but to go in a manner which attempts to preserve something positive has appeal, though there are plenty of reasons to doubt that it is feasible. President Hamid Karzai & Friends appeared to be neither more competent nor better loved than when I visited last year. I don’t expect much improvement next year. Nevertheless, the case for a phased withdrawal deserves to be treated seriously.

But leave the United States must. Had President George W. Bush announced in 2001 that he was embarking on a long-term mission to transform Afghanistan by turning it into a Western-style liberal democracy with a strong central government in Kabul, he would have been laughed out of Washington. The American people would have unceremoniously tossed him out of office in 2004.

Yet remake Afghanistan is what the U.S. government now is attempting to do. When I asked what justified this expensive attempt at nation-building, Afghans and Americans alike warned that al Qaeda could reemerge. I assume no one really believed that. At least, I hope no one really believed that.

After all, al Qaeda is in sharp decline. Intelligence officials say that al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is minimal. The likelihood of revival seems small.

Moreover, terrorists have demonstrated an ability to operate all over the world. Of course, Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan. There are plenty of other potential sanctuaries available in failed and semi-failed states. Indeed, the biggest Islamic terrorist threat these days appears to come from local groups which identify with, but are not controlled by, al-Qaeda. Afghanistan is irrelevant to the latter’s operation and impact, and of no interest to other terrorists.

There’s also strong humanitarian appeal in staying, but that can’t justify endless war in Central Asia. Washington would never have intervened to make Afghanistan a more humane place. American troops have been fighting there for ten years—as long as World Wars I and II combined.

If the president plans on keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the promised 2014, he should ‘fess up. Then the American people can make their views known. And, more important, they can take appropriate action in next year’s presidential election.

Attack on U.S. Embassy Highlights Need to Exit Afghanistan

Political leaders and military commanders will dismiss the Taliban’s recent coordinated assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul as a “one-off” incident. But the attack is a vivid reminder of how poorly things are going, and why America needs to leave.

By every measure, violence is higher than ever. The coalition and civilian casualty rate for this year is on pace to break the record for last year, which in turn eclipsed the record for 2009, which in turn eclipsed the record for 2008. Spiraling violence came after significant increases in troops and resources. Defiant optimists have claimed that with more troops comes more combat and naturally, more casualties. But to accept that things will get worse before they get better is also a slippery slope: never giving up, no matter the cost, discourages a dispassionate assessment of whether a continued investment is justified. In turn, the longer we stay and the more money we spend, the more we feel compelled to remain to validate our investment. Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom, as expressed by President Obama in March 2009, is that “If Afghanistan falls to the Taliban…that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” We are also told that if America and its allies fail to create a minimally functioning government in Afghanistan, then Pakistan will collapse and its nuclear weapons will fall to the Taliban.

These claims of falling dominoes are all wrong.

First, if Afghanistan were to fall to the Taliban, it is not clear that they would again host al Qaeda—the very organization whose protection led to the Taliban’s overthrow. Besides, targeted counterterrorism measures would be sufficient in the unlikely event that the Taliban were to provide shelter to al Qaeda. Moreover, to declare that Afghanistan can never again be a base for terrorists justifies indefinite war, which does less to serve the American public and more to benefit the private industries that profit from conflict and nation-building. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that after a decade of war, more than $450 billion spent, and over 1,600 American lives lost, the United States can still be attacked by terrorists. This creates a humiliating situation in which our Afghanistan policy weakens the U.S. militarily and economically and fails to advance its vital national interests.

Second, an endless war of whack-a-mole does far more to inspire terrorists “to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” In this respect, our political leaders seem to have learned little from 9/11. The unintended consequence of U.S. intervention and meddling is that it serves as a radicalizing impetus. Regardless of what percentage of the Afghan population wants us to rebuild their country, our presence, however noble our intentions, can serve as both a method to combat insurgents and as the insurgents’ most effective recruiting tool. Aside from that “mobilizing militants” dilemma, our elimination of Taliban figures (including shadow governors, mid-level commanders, and weapons facilitators) may very well weaken the Taliban’s chain of command, but it hasn’t resulted in a decrease of Taliban activity. Indeed, the use of IEDs has reached record highs. Worse, the insurgents’ second-largest funding source is the U.S. taxpayer, with stabilization and reconstruction money often being diverted to insurgents to pay them to ensure security. Of course, they then use U.S. taxpayer money to buy bombs and explosives to kill American troops and Afghan civilians.

Finally, U.S. officials are playing with fire if they think these conditions help strengthen neighboring Pakistan. Certainly, Rawalpindi’s self-defeating support of Islamist proxies has not done its country any favors—but neither has the coalition’s presence next door. Continuing to stay the course in Afghanistan inspires the worst strategic tendencies among Pakistani military planners. It also encourages militants to attack NATO supply vehicles entering Afghanistan (nothing new), and has inadvertently contributed to the very instability that leaders in Washington ostensibly seek to forestall. As Karachi goes, so goes Pakistan, and current developments are doing more to push militants from Pakistan’s rural hinterland and into its major cities. Lastly, despite Washington’s nuclear obsessions, a large-scale foreign troop presence in Afghanistan does not resolve the ongoing rivalry between Pakistan and India. In fact, Pakistan has been accelerating its production of nuclear material for bombs and their ability to delivery them over the past several years.

In the end, the current scale and scope of the coalition’s mission in Afghanistan (over 100,000 troops and $120 billion per year from the U.S. alone) stems from overstated fears about what will follow if we fail. Luckily, America and its allies do not have to build a legitimate and stable Afghan government as an alternative to the Taliban. Al Qaeda is a manageable threat, and a conventional, definitive “victory” against them was never possible. Rather than drawing out our withdrawal and fighting an insurgency on behalf of an incompetent and illegitimate puppet regime in Kabul, American leaders should declare “mission accomplished.”

Afghanistan: Do We Stay or Do We Go Now?

In the last three years, the United States has tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan, increased the number of drone strikes in neighboring Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden—the highest of high-value targets. President Obama has more than enough victories under his belt to stick to his timeline and substantially draw down the number of troops from Afghanistan.

Still, the pace of America’s withdrawal and the size of its residual combat presence, even after his decision Wednesday, will depend on two things: negotiations with the Taliban and political pressure to stay the course. These two factors will feature prominently in the months ahead, as the administration reconfigures the strategy and objectives for winding down the 10-year campaign.

First, although many Afghans endorse engagement with the Taliban, in Washington, even broaching the subject of talks is divisive. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed that efforts were under way to negotiate with the Taliban; meanwhile, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he believes the Taliban will not engage in serious talks until they are under extreme military pressure. In a way, both are right: a power-sharing arrangement would provide the best hope for sustainable peace, but no treaty, agreement, or contract is self-reinforcing and thus requires some leverage. Either way, constructive, face-to-face talks with senior Taliban leaders will be an intensive process, and one that diplomats and military officials must be prepared to defend publicly. America is not there yet.

The second force that will temper America’s eagerness to withdraw is the power of domestic political pressure. Defense Secretary Gates, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL), and a sizeable contingent of Afghanistan hawks in the media decry anything less than a troop-intensive campaign. They endorse slow-paced, graduated troop cuts subject to conditions on the ground, a policy focused on entities other than those that threaten the United States. Dismantling al Qaeda, an outfit already in disarray, calls for counterterrorism, not state-building. This can be done relatively cheaply and with far fewer troops. Moreover, as seen in Yemen and Somalia, the United States can collect actionable intelligence without a large-scale conventional force on the ground.

Whether it is talking with the Taliban on the one hand, or staying the course on the other, the president has political goals, for which there is no clear strategy, and security progress, for which there is no definitive “victory.” Looking back, however, Obama has achieved some of the goals he set out. “Blueprint for Change,” his 2008 presidential campaign literature, states (pdf):

Obama will fight terrorism and protect America with a comprehensive strategy that finishes the fight in Afghanistan, cracks down on the al Qaeda safe-haven in Pakistan, develops new capabilities and international partnerships, engages the world to dry up support for extremism, and reaffirms American values.

To a certain degree, even these goals are ambitious. Instead, he should focus not on what is politically desirable, but what is within America’s ability to accomplish. In this respect, Obama would do well to revisit his December 2009 speech on the war in Afghanistan, when he said:

We’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.

He also said:

Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort—one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests…America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

As U.S. forces eventually take a back seat in Afghanistan, Obama should strongly resist any calls that he has not done enough. Arguably, he has gone above and beyond what would have been a more prudent strategy. Now, it is time to come home.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.