Tag: Taliban

Making Enemies in Afghanistan

Yaroslav Trofimov’s article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal explains how Ghulam Yahya, a former anti-Taliban, Tajik miltia leader from Herat, became an insurgent. The short answer: because the American master plan in Afghanistan required the retirement of warlords. The trouble is that in much of Afghanistan “warlord” is a synonym for “local government.” Attacking local authority structures is a good way to make enemies.  So it went in Herat. Having been fired from a government post, Ghulum Yahya turned his militia against Kabul and now fires rockets at foreign troops, kidnaps their contractors, and brags of welcoming foreign jihadists.  Herat turned redder on the color-coded maps of the “Taliban” insurgency.

That story reminded me of C.J. Chivers’s close-in accounts of firefights he witnessed last spring with an army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley. According to Chivers, the Taliban there revolted in part because the Afghan government shut down their timber business. That is an odd reason for us to fight them.

One of the perversions of the branch of technocratic idealism that we now call counterinsurgency doctrine is its hostility to local authority structures.  As articulated on TV by people like General Stanley McChrystal, counterinsurgency is a kind of one-size-fits-all endeavor. You chase off the insurgents, protect the people, and thus provide room for the central government and its foreign backers to provide services, which win the people to the government. The people then turn against the insurgency.  This makes sense, I suppose, for relatively strong central states facing insurgencies, like India, the Philippines or Colombia.  

But where the central state is dysfunctional and essentially foreign to the region being pacified, this model may not fit. Certainly it does not describe the tactic of buying off Sunni sheiks in Anbar province Iraq (a move pioneered by Saddam Hussein, not David Petraeus, by the way). It is even less applicable to the amalgam of fiefdoms labeled on our maps as Afghanistan. From what I can tell, power in much of Afghanistan is really held by headmen — warlords — who control enough men with guns to collect some protection taxes and run the local show. The western idea of government says the central state should replace these mini-states, but that only makes sense as a war strategy if their aims are contrary to ours, which is only the case if they are trying to overthrow the central government or hosting terrorists that go abroad to attack Americans. Few warlords meet those criteria. The way to “pacify” the other areas is to leave them alone. Doing otherwise stirs up needless trouble; it makes us more the revolutionary than the counter-revolutionary.

On a related note, I see John Nagl attacking George Will for not getting counterinsurgency doctrine. Insofar as Will seems to understand, unlike Nagl, that counterinsurgency doctrine is a set of best practices that allow more competent execution of foolish endeavors, this is unsurprising. More interesting is Nagl’s statement that we, the United States have not “properly resourced” the Afghan forces.  Nagl does not mention that the United States is already committed to building the Afghan security forces (which are, incidentally, not ours) to a size – roughly 450,000 – that will annually cost about 500% of Afghanistan’s budget (Rory’s Stewart’s calculation), which is another way of saying we will be paying for these forces for the foreseeable future.

It probably goes too far to say this war has become a self-licking ice-cream cone where we create both the enemy and the forces to fight them, but it’s a possibility worth considering.

Afghanistan = Bottomless Pit of Massive Social Engineering

Obsidian Wings echoes my frustrations about the debate surrounding the war in Afghanistan. Publius notes, “The goal of preventing Taliban control isn’t a sufficient reason to stay.”

That analysis is absolutely right. As I mention in my forthcoming white paper (co-authored with TGC), Escaping the Graveyard of Empires: A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan, the resurrection of the Taliban’s fundamentalist regime doesn’t threaten America’s sovereignty or physical security. The Taliban is a guerilla-jihadi Pashtun-dominated movement with no international agenda or shadowy global mission. Even if their parochial fighters took over a contiguous fraction of Afghan territory it is not compelling enough of a rationale to maintain an indefinite, large-scale military presence in the region, especially since our presence feeds the Pashtun insurgency we seek to defeat (as Publius also acknowledges) and our policies are pushing the conflict over the border into nuclear-armed Pakistan, further destabilizing its already shaky government.

Even if the Taliban were to reassert themselves amid a scaled down U.S. presence, it is not clear that the Taliban would again host al Qaeda. In The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright, staff writer for New Yorker magazine, found that before 9/11 the Taliban was divided over whether to shelter Osama bin Laden. The terrorist financier wanted to attack Saudi Arabia’s royal family, which, according to Wright, would have defied a pledge Taliban leader Mullah Omar made to Prince Turki al-Faisal, chief of Saudi intelligence (1977–2001), to keep bin Laden under control. The Taliban’s reluctance to host al Qaeda’s leader means it is not a foregone conclusion that the same group would provide shelter to the same organization whose protection led to their overthrow.

Moreover, America’s claim that the Taliban is its enemy seems less than coherent. After all, although some U.S. officials issued toothless and perfunctory condemnations of the Taliban when it controlled most of Afghanistan from September 1996 through October 2001, during that time the United States never once made a substantive policy shift toward or against the Taliban despite knowing that it imposed a misogynistic, oppressive, and militant Islamic regime onto Afghans. For Washington to now pursue an uncompromising hostility toward the Taliban’s eye-for-an-eye brand of justice can be interpreted as an opportunistic attempt to cloak U.S. strategic ambitions in moralistic values.

On a side note, another conservative joins George Will for getting out of Afghanistan.

George Will Says It’s Time to Leave Afghanistan

Conservative columnist George Will wants out of the war in Afghanistan.  And his recommendation is getting some notice.  Reports Mike Allen in Politico:

George F. Will, the elite conservative commentator, is calling for U.S. ground troops to leave Afghanistan in his latest column.

“[F]orces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters,” Will writes.

President Obama ordered a total of 21,000 more U.S. troops into Afghanistan in February and March, and casualties have mounted as the forces began confronting the Taliban more aggressively. August saw the highest monthly death toll for the U.S. since the invasion in 2001, the second record month in a row.

Will’s prescription – in which he recalls Bismarck’s decision to halt German forces short of Paris in 1870 - seems certain to split Republicans. He is a favorite of fiscal conservatives. The more hawkish right can be expected to attack his conclusion as foolhardy, short-sighted and naïve, potentially making the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The columnist’s startling recommendation surfaced on the same day that Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, sent an assessment up his chain of command recommending what he called “a revised implementation strategy.” In a statement, McChrystal also called for “commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort.”

With a liberal Democrat having become president and made Afghanistan his war, and George Will leading the charge, might conservative Republicans rediscover their inner anti-war feelings?

Majority of Americans Say Afghan War Not Worth Fighting

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC Poll, the majority of Americans say the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting.

Usually, I don’t take kindly to polling data; they are ephemeral snapshots of public opinion that fluctuate with the prevailing political winds. But I will say (as I’ve said before) that Central Asia holds little intrinsic strategic value to the United States. In that respect, I can understand why Americans are growing skeptical of continuing what’s become an “aimless absurdity.”

America’s flagging support for the war comes as millions of Afghans head to the polls to elect their next president. Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, is the front-runner, but if he is unable to secure more than 50% of the vote there will be a run-off scheduled for early October. Given the pervasive levels of corruption within his own government, if Karzai ends up winning, America and the international community might be perceived as propping up an illegitimate government; however, if Karzai loses, it might further alienate the country’s largest minority group, the Pashtuns, among whom Karzai, and the Taliban, pull most of their support.

This morning, New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall writes from Kabul, “initial reports from witnesses suggested that the turnout was uneven, with higher participation in the relatively peaceful north than in the troubled south.”

Before the elections, Taliban militants, mainly concentrated in the southern and eastern provinces but now spreading to the north, threatened to cut off fingers marked with purple ink used to indicate when someone casts a vote. Ms. Gall writes: “In the southern city of Kandahar, witnesses said, insurgents hanged two people because their fingers were marked with indelible ink used to denote that they had voted.” Wow! Maybe the elections will be a watershed moment in Afghanistan’s history: the democracy experiment comes as a death sentence.

On a lighter note, there are already allegations of voter fraud. An inspection of the rolls revealed the name of an unlikely voter, “Britney Jamilia Spears,” one of a number of phantom voters.

Many people would agree that the atmosphere surrounding Afghanistan’s presidential elections is analogous to the country as a whole: dysfunctional. Candidates are forging alliances with warlords; tribal elders are being offered jobs, territory, and forgiveness of past sins to secure their allegiance; and Britney Spears is a registered Afghan voter. It’s about time that America narrow its objectives and start bringing the military mission to a close.

Afghanistan Now Is Truly Barack Obama’s War

Afghanistan is voting for president. Unfortunately, the outcome, even if a fair result, is unlikely to matter much. The war will continue.

In 2008 President Barack Obama was seen as the anti-war candidate.  In fact, his reputation reflected his prescient opposition to the Iraq war, but he said little to suggest that he was out of sync with Washington’s interventionist consensus.

We see his status quo foreign policies with his support for continued NATO expansion as well as maintaining American garrisons around the globe, including in South Korea and Japan.  But his escalation in Afghanistan most obviously demonstrates that he is a man of the interventionist left.

He is now making it clear that Afghanistan is his war.  Reports Reuters:

President Barack Obama will seek to shore up U.S. public support for the war in Afghanistan on Monday just days before an Afghan presidential election widely seen as a major test of his revamped strategy.

Obama will address a military veterans group in Phoenix at a time when U.S. combat deaths are rising amid a troop buildup against a resurgent Taliban, and polls show a softening of public backing for the eight-year-old war.

Hoping to reassure Americans, Obama is expected to sketch out why he believes the Afghanistan policy he unveiled earlier this year is working and why the United States must remain committed to stabilizing the war-ravaged country.

The political risks for him are enormous.  Anything bad that happens in Iraq can be blamed on George W. Bush.  But any failure in America’s nation-building mission in Afghanistan – and failure is the most likely outcome in any nation-building in Afghanistan – will be seen as his responsibility.

And American and other coalition military personnel, as well as the Afghan people, will pay the price.

Pakistani Taliban Commander Dead

While American officials have yet to confirm his death, Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which operates as Pakistan’s version of the Taliban, may have been killed Wednesday in an American missile attack in South Waziristan. Pakistan viewed Mehsud as its top internal threat. He was blamed for a wave of attacks that killed nearly 2,000 people in the past two years. He was also suspected of killing former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and of having connections to al Qaeda.

Three things:

Number one, Mehsud’s death may or may not be a big blow to the TTP. Other deputies can easily take his place. In fact, shortly after Mehsud’s purported death, the Taliban Shura (an advisory council meeting) convened to elect a new TTP chief. (Among those being considered are Hakimullah Mehsud, Azmatullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman Mehsud. The successor might be announced after Friday evening prayers). Any of these new leaders could quickly pick up where Baitullah left off, which means that picking off high-value targets in any insurgency does not guarantee that jihadists will melt away. We could only hope that a leadership void creates a power struggle among rival factions of the group, but that seems unlikely.

Number two, the drone operation shows improved coordination between the United States and Pakistan, which is welcome news. But the strike exemplifies the binary nature of the discussion surrounding the use of aerial drones: On the one hand, U.S. officials point to the successful killing of high-level al-Qaeda militants, such as Abu Laith al-Libi in January 2008, and chemical weapons expert Abu Khabab al Masri in July 2008. On the other hand, drone strikes have triggered collective armed action throughout the tribal agencies and have added more fuel to violent religious radicalism in this unstable, nuclear-armed country. One U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to McClatchy Newspaper correspondent Jonathan Landay, called drone operations “a recruiting windfall for the Pakistani Taliban.”

Number three, Pakistan might continue the same policy as before, differentiating between the “good Taliban” (those who attack U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan) and “bad Taliban” (those who attack the Pakistani military and the government). At the strategic level, Pakistan and the United States are still not on the same page.

Rory Stewart on the Deep Confusion Underpinning Our Afghanistan Strategy

Rory Stewart has a terrific piece in the London Review of Books arguing that Beltway foreign-policy thinkers are “minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals” when it comes to Afghanistan:

Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don’t have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed the New Yorker, ‘If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.’

These connections are global: in Obama’s words, ‘our security and prosperity depend on the security and prosperity of others.’ Or, as a British foreign minister recently rephrased it, ‘our security depends on their development.’ Indeed, at times it seems that all these activities – building a state, defeating the Taliban, defeating al-Qaida and eliminating poverty – are the same activity. The new US army and marine corps counter-insurgency doctrine sounds like a World Bank policy document, replete with commitments to the rule of law, economic development, governance, state-building and human rights. In Obama’s words, ‘security and humanitarian concerns are all part of one project.’

This policy rests on misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state…

Stewart’s prognosis is at once dispiriting and fortifying.  On the one hand, “it is unlikely that we will be able to defeat the Taliban.”  More sharply, “30 years of investment might allow its army, police, civil service and economy to approach the levels of Pakistan.  But Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.”  On the other, “the Taliban are very unlikely to take over Afghanistan as a whole.”  Why not?

It would require far fewer international troops and planes than we have today to make it very difficult for the Taliban to gather a conventional army as they did in 1996 and drive tanks and artillery up the main road to Kabul.

Even if – as seems most unlikely – the Taliban were to take the capital, it is not clear how much of a threat this would pose to US or European national security. Would they repeat their error of providing a safe haven to al-Qaida? And how safe would this safe haven be? They could give al-Qaida land for a camp but how would they defend it against predators or US special forces? And does al-Qaida still require large terrorist training camps to organise attacks? Could they not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales?

So what on earth are we doing?  “No politician wants to be perceived to have underestimated, or failed to address, a terrorist threat; or to write off the ‘blood and treasure’ that we have sunk into Afghanistan; or to admit defeat. Americans are particularly unwilling to believe that problems are insoluble; Obama’s motto is not ‘no we can’t;’ soldiers are not trained to admit defeat or to say a mission is impossible.”