Serial Catastrophes in Afghanistan threaten Obama Policy

You probably won’t see it in most US news outlets, but on Monday morning in Kabul and Jalalabad, hundreds of university students demonstrated against US strikes this weekend that allegedly killed a number of civilians. I want to underline the irony that the students in Tehran University are protesting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while students in these two Afghan cities are calling for Yankees to go home. Nangarhar University in Jalalabad only has a student body of about 3200, so ‘hundreds’ of students protesting there would be a significant proportion of the student body.

The demonstrations could be a harbinger of things to come, but there was worse news. CIA field officers blown up, four US troops killed Sunday, and the rejection of most of the cabinet nominees by parliament, all signal rocky times ahead.

The past two weeks have seen the situation in Afghanistan deteriorate palpably, raising significant questions about the viability of the Obama-McChrystal plan for the country. The chain of catastrophes has been reported in piecemeal fashion, but taken together these events are far more ominous than they might appear on the surface.

First, the US military launched a raid in Kunar Province two days after Christmas on a village at night, in which President Hamid Karzai alleged that 10 civilians, some 8 of them schoolchildren, had been killed (some say dragged out of their beds and executed). The NYT reported the head of a Kabul delegation to the village saying,“They gathered eight school students from two compounds and put them in one room and shot them with small arms.” (The spokesman is a former governor of Kunar and now a close adviser to President Hamid Karzai– i.e. not exactly a pro-Taliban source). The charitable theory is that in a nighttime raid, US troops got disoriented and hit the wrong group of young men.

The outraged Afghan public saw this raid as an atrocity, and on Wednesday December 30, they mounted street protests against the US in Jalalabad, an eastern Pashtun city, and Kabul. In Jalalabad, hundreds of university students blocked the main roads, and then marched in the streets, chanting “Death to Obama” and “Death to America,” and burning Obama in effigy. (If they go on like that, the anti-imperialist Pashtun college students of Jalalabad may attract the support of Fox Cable News . . .)

Even while the protests were taking place in Jalalabad and Kabul, a NATO missile strike on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province was alleged to have killed as many as 7 more civilians, some of them children. Now the Afghan public was really angry.

Then on Thursday, all hell broke loose when a high-level Pashtun Jordanian asset who had been informing to the CIA on the location of important al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives detonated a vest bomb at FOB Chapman in Khost province, a CIA forward base. The attacker killed 7 field officers and one Jordanian intelligence operative detailed to the base. Those experienced field officers were on the front lines in the fight against al-Qaeda and their loss is a big blow to counter-terrorism. It is true that they had been drawn in to a campaign of assassination, but it is the president who gave them that task–unwisely, in my view.

The use of a double agent not only to misinform but actually to kill the most experienced counter-terrorism officers in the region showed the sophistication of tactical thinking in the Afghan insurgency.

The CIA’s dependence on a double agent who finally openly betrayed them raises troubling questions about US strategy and tactics in the region. Such informants essentially direct CIA drone missile strikes.

You could imagine Siraj Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network in Khost and over the border in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, inserting such a double agent into FOB Chapman and then using the CIA. For instance, what if a middling member of the Haqqani network launched a challenge to Siraj’s leadership and that of his ailing father, Jalaluddin (an old-time ally of Reagan who was warmly greeted in the White House in the 1980s)? Wouldn’t it be easy enough just to have the double agent tell the CIA that the challenger is a really bad guy in cahoots with al-Qaeda? Boom. Drone strike kills Taliban leaders in North Waziristan. In this way, Siraj could have used the US to eliminate rivals and become more and more powerful. And how many double agents have given up a few Arab jihadis who had fallen out with the Haqqanis, but then deliberately followed this up with bad intel on some innocent village, making the name of the US mud among the Pashtuns?

The drone strikes shouldn’t be run by the CIA, and probably shouldn’t be run at all. It could well be that savvy old-time Mujahidin trained in CIA tradecraft in the 1980s are having our young wet behind the ears field officers for lunch.

In short, is the bombing at FOB Chapman the tip of an iceberg of misinformation, on which the Titanic of Obama’s AfPak policy could well founder?

Aljazeera English has video of these dramatic events leading up to the New Year, including the anti-US demonstrations, which looked big and significant to me on satellite television.

A soldier of the Afghan army shot an American soldier, further raising suspicions between the two supposed partners. Then a Canadian unit and embedded journalist were blown up.

There were more errant US strikes over the weekend, producing the demonstrations in Kabul and Jalalabad on Monday morning.

Then there were two other pieces of information coming out in the past few days that suggest all is not well.

First, a report on the Afghanistan Army threw cold water all over the idea that it could be enlarged and trained to provide security in the country any time soon. High desertion rates, illiteracy, working half days, refusal to stand and fight against the enemy, and other factors just made that prospect remote. But such training, and the substitution of the Afghan National Army for NATO and US forces is the centerpiece of the Obama-McChrystal plan.

Finally, the Afghan parliament rejected 17 of the 24 nominees to the cabinet offered by President Karzai. The speaker of the House, Yunus Qanuni, supported Karzai’s rival, Abdullah Abdullah, in August’s presidential elections– which many Afghans believe Karzai stole. This rejection was the Abdullah faction’s chance to humiliate Karzai in revenge.

Aljazeera English has video on the rejection of 70 percent of the cabinet, including the old time warlord of Herat, Ismail Khan, and a key women’s affairs minister.

But the step means that we go into the winter with 17 ministries headless. Having an increasingly competent Afghan government to partner with was another key element of the Obama plan. There is not one.

So, the US is killing schoolchildren far too often, enraging the Afghan public. It has provoked a student protest movement against it in Jalalabad and Kabul. Its informants are double agents. Its supposed partner, the Afghan army, mostly doesn’t actually exist and couldn’t be depended on to show up to anything important; and that is when they aren’t taking potshots at US troops; and there is no Afghan government as we go into 2010.

President Obama may have a lot on his plate, but Afghanistan could make or break his presidency. If he doesn’t view what has happened there while he was in Hawaii with alarm and begin thinking of alternative strategies, he could be in big trouble.

End/ (Not Continueden)

19 Responses

  1. Perhaps I haven't read your policy suggestions in previous blog posts, but given your call, in this post, for Obama to rethink his policy, I am wondering what you would suggest.

  2. "Coalition" deaths are actually a good thing in counter insurgency warfare. Shoot at the well armed and trained soldiers instead of shoppers in a market place or girls on their way to school !
    Protection of the civilian population becomes the #1 priority.
    Of course thats all theory until the foreigners come and kill your family

  3. "The charitable theory is that in a nighttime raid, US troops got disoriented and hit the wrong group of young men."

    Really, Prof? So what is the "charitable" theory for the demonstrators killed by the Basij in Iran? Or can one only be "charitable" when the perpetrators are American?

  4. What a superb collation of otherwise discrete current events, professor Cole, by which means your interpretation, Serial Catastrophes in Afghanistan” is entirely justified. Of particular interest (to this writer) is that the devastating 25-page Pentagon report about the Afghan National Army prepared for the General Staff at the Pentagon was leaked to the public media — implying that there must be a rift in the U.S. Officer Corps at this high level, having such conviction that some one, or some group within the Pentagon was willing to breach security, take this risk. fwiw, I find this development in and of itself, to be astounding.

  5. "“They gathered eight school students from two compounds and put them in one room and shot them with small arms." …
    "The charitable theory is that in a nighttime raid, US troops got disoriented and hit the wrong group of young men."

    Correct me if I'm wrong Professor, but even given your "charitable theory" how would the extra-judicial execution of POW's or "enemy combatants" (men or boys) be legal under the Geneva Conventions or our own Rules of Engagement?

    Are our soldiers supposed to be gathering "adult" students, capturing them, disarming them, and THEN executing them on their own authority?

  6. Bomber at CIA base was a double agent

    The suicide bomber who killed eight people inside a CIA base in Afghanistan was a Jordan-born terrorist double agent who was invited to the base because he claimed to have information targeting Osama bin Laden's second-in-command.

    The bombing killed seven CIA employees — four officers and three contracted security guards — and a Jordanian intelligence officer.

  7. Jordan emerges as key CIA counterterrorism ally

    Hours after last week's deadly attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan, a revision was made in official accounts of the number of intelligence operatives killed in the suicide bombing. Instead of eight deaths, as initially reported, the CIA acknowledged only seven.

    The eighth victim resurfaced over the weekend when his flag-draped coffin arrived in his native country, Jordan. The man, a captain in the Jordanian intelligence service, was given full military honors at a ceremony that referred only to his "humanitarian work" in war-torn Afghanistan.

    In fact, the man's death offered a rare window into a partnership that U.S. officials describe as crucial to their counterterrorism strategy. Although its participation is rarely acknowledged publicly, Jordan is playing an increasingly vital role in the fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, sometimes in countries far beyond the Middle East, according to current and former government officials from both countries.

  8. If the American forces were operating in American neighborhoods, or anywhere that they considered the inhabitants real humans, would they be killing schoolchildren every day?

    Their fathers in the Philippines sang that the monkeys in Zamboanga have no tails, which justified them in murdering several hundred thousand of them, many times in Babi Yar style mass executions. Then they went to Vietnam and accounted for 3 million or so there in the same way.

    Another million and change in Iraq.

    And all this hot indignation over three thousand in New York – I guess because those were real humans. But who noticed the three thousand that the Marines blew away in Chorillo in 1989, or indeed the thousands of Chileans whose deaths were arranged for on September 11, 1973?

    Don't all these "subhumans" deserve a rest? Don't their tormentors, these masters of the universe with their full-spectrum dominance, need to lose?

  9. Just have the same question:
    is there any further report regarding

    " The charitable theory is that in a nighttime raid, US troops got disoriented and hit the wrong group of young men"

  10. You question the veracity of our intelligence sources, noting that some may be double agents manipulating drone attacks serving different agendas and fanning flames of discontent towards the US. Yet, you take at face value the claim that 8 school children were executed by US troops. What evidence do you cite? None. Not to say that there is exculpatory evidence, but would not critical thinking cause one to at least question the contention about US troops murdering children with malice aforethought? So you've compiled a litany of adverse events. What are you suggesting as a strategy? What specific tactics?

  11. I saw pictures of the alleged "school children." All of them had facial hair and could at least be considered to be in their late teens at the youngest.

    I think that Juan Cole is taking a fully un-investigated allegation, probably a piece of Taliban propaganda, and running with it. That is shameful. As it stands it is simply a wild allegation and the author is giving legitimacy to it. Let's not forget the wild allegations about the Muhammed cartoons at the time and the violence it led to; all part of a well planned conspiracy by al-Qaeda operatives. The CIA and other authorities are well aware of their sophistication.

    I hope that Obama and McChrystal prove all you naysayers wrong in the long run. The British won the Malay war and Pentagon, finally, adopted British counter-insurgency techniques from that time.

  12. Great article by Cole, only thing he left out is the Afghan Army we are paying for & proping up, is HIGH on Hashish & Heroin.

  13. Fascinating article, but President Obama will not rethink his strategy, which is based on two concepts: 1. The economy is too dependent on military spending to stop the wars during the current recession. 2. Winning re-election in 2012 is paramount. He may de-escalate as a lame duck, but it would make him a huge target politically to do it as a first-termer. In other words, even if he would prefer a different war strategy (questionable) he is a prisoner of the military and of the right.

  14. Mr. Cole is not a politician or a policy advisor, so it's not fair to demand policy "suggestions" from him. That's the realm of public servants – elected or otherwise. That's why they have been chosen. Imagine if journalists provided advice and it failed. Who would take responsibility?

  15. I like this bit: "It is true that [the CIA agents] had been drawn in to a campaign of assassination, but it is the president who gave them that task–unwisely, in my view". How do you get 'drawn into' a campaign of assassination? I suppose you don't notice what's going on. One murder here, another there and before you know it, "Gee…!" What a crock. These people murdered 700 individuals last year. Murdered. Look at that word.

  16. Sounds like a pretty normal week in the war with the CIA bombing on top of it. Some Coalition soldiers killed, obscene and patently ridiculous allegations about American war crimes, local government drama. This, too, shall pass.

    Last time I checked, snap reports from the Afghan government on civilian casualties have always been inaccurate. The Afghan investigation cited did not do any investigating and simply repeated what they were told by Taliban-intimidated locals – if they even met any locals or traveled to the scene in the first place, which I doubt. Why would they make pro-Taliban allegations? They're corrupt and anti-American.

    What really happened? We killed some bad guys and the Taliban are trying to spin up some propaganda out of it, end of story.

  17. Far far away, and long long ago, Juan Cole and other citizens were thought to be policy advisors. Time was, advising the government on policy was thought to be a basic duty of citizenship.

    And it's not obvious, looking over the results, that citizen policy advisors are necessarily any dumber than the best and the brightest that we now endure.

  18. What really happened? We killed some bad guys and the Taliban are trying to spin up some propaganda out of it, end of story.

    Can't you read? This is Hamid Karzai making these allegations. You know, our ally. And civilian casualties in other attacks are frequently protested by spokesmen from the Afghan National Army. Look for a line like this buried in a small article on page 4 of a U.S. newspaper: "… but U.S. military officials dispute this."

    Once again, these are our allies making these allegations not the Taliban.

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