Five Questions for the Afghan Surge; Or, Getting Past the Hype

Gen. David Petraeus, a straight shooter, admitted on Meet the Press Sunday that the Afghanistan War will take years and incur high casualties.. His implicit defense of President Obama from Dick Cheney on the issues of torture and closing Guantanamo will make bigger headlines, but sooner or later the American public will notice the admission. The country is now evenly divided between those who think the US can and should restore a modicum of stability before getting out, and those who want a quick withdrawal. The Marjah Campaign, the centerpiece of the new counter-insurgency strategy, is over a week old, and some assessment of this new, visible push by the US military in violent Helmand Province is in order.

There was never any doubt that the US and NATO would win militarily, fairly easily occupying Marjah and nearby Nad Ali. Marjah at 85,000 or so is a city smaller than Ann Arbor, Michigan. The campaign is only significant in a larger social and political context. The questions are:

1. Can the stategy of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, of taking, clearing, holding and building be extended deep into the Pashtun regions? Marjah is only a stepping stone to the key southern city of Qandahar, which has a population of a million, more the size of Detroit.

This outcome has yet to be seen. But for rural Pashtuns to come to love foreign occupiers is an unlikely proposition. Even the WSJ admits that in Marjah, the Marines are not exactly feeling the love from the civilians they have supposedly just liberated. Since the Taliban are typically not as corrupt as the warlords, in fact, to any extent that the US and NATO re-install corrupt warlord types in power, they may alienate the locals. And keeping civilian casualties low so as to win hearts and minds is key here. That task will become more difficult as the US inserts itself more deeply into Pashtun territory, since insurgent villages will have to be defeated. The Soviet occupation produced 5 million externally displaced and 2 million internally displaced, along with hundreds of thousands dead. A campaign in Qandahar could easily displace half a million people, and they might mind. Meanwhile, on Monday, the governor of Dai Kundi asserted that a US airstrike killed 27 persons, mostly civilians. There is also the question, raised by Tom Englehardt, of whether the US is capable of good governance in Afghanistan when it is not in Washington, DC.

2. Can the demonstration of vitality and of a sense of progress mollify NATO publics long enough to fight a prolonged war and do intensive training of troops and police over several years?

No. Over the weekend, the center-left government of the Netherlands fell over whether to keep Dutch troops in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan war is universally unpopular in continental Europe, and governments have troops there mostly in the teeth of popular opposition, because NATO invoked article 5 of its charter, ‘an attack on one is an attack on all’ with regard to the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks. It may take months after the next elections this spring for the Dutch to form a new government, in part because of the surging popularity of the far-right populist anti-Muslim ‘Freedom Party’ of Islamophobe Geert Wilders– a smelly party the others will probably not want in their coalition. Holland’s 2000 troops are likely to be withdrawn by late summer. Canada’s military is also departing Afghanistan. Are these one-off situations, or are they the beginning of a NATO withdrawal over-all, which will leave Obama in the lurch? Australia is already refusing to take up the Dutch slack, and its government is under public pressure to get out, itself. While it is entirely possible that scandal-plagued rightwing billionaire Silvio Berlusconi will survive the next elections in Italy, it is also possible that he will not, and his successor may well want out of the unpopular Afghanistan quagmire. Moreover, the Pashtun insurgents may smell blood in the water with the Dutch withdrawal from Uruzgan (the home province of Mullah Omar), and target the smaller NATO contingents (the deaths of 6 Italian troops last fall raised public ire against the war).

There are about 45,000 NATO and other allied troops in Afghanistan, and 74,000 American. Obama wanted to increase the European contingent by 10,000, but NATO generally declined that offer, and now the NATO contingent may begin to shrink just when more trainers in particular are desperatedly needed. The Afghanistan National Army is supposedly nearly 100,000 strong, but many critics say the true number is half that, and that even that half is mostly illiterate, poorly trained, and often suffers from uncertain loyalties, drug use, or other debilitating considerations.

3. Can an Afghan army be stood up in short order that has the capacity to patrol independently and keep order after the US and NATO troops withdraw?

Unlikely. The answer to the question about Afghan military preparedness– after nearly a decade of training and an investment of $1 billion that Afghan troops are not ready for prime time. In the Marjah campaign, they showed no initiative, no ability to fight independently. They are poorly served by their junior field officers, and they are 90% illiterate. (The NYT reporter expected to see them with maps out planning approaches!) The ethnic make-up of the particular Afghanistan National Army units sent into Marjah is also not clear. Almost no ANA troops hail from Helmand Province, and Tajiks (native speakers of Dari Persian, often from towns and cities) are vastly over-represented in the army. There is often bad blood between Tajiks and Pashtuns, the group that predominates in Marjah. The same skill set of the ANA most prized by the US Marines during the assault– the ability to sniff out which households are Taliban– may be a liability in the holding and building phase, since it stems from a decade and a half of Tajik Northern Alliance battles against the Taliban.

4. Can the Afghan public, which includes many groups (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks) deeply harmed by Taliban rule, accept reconciliation, as well?

Unlikely. Former Northern Alliance leader popular among Tajiks, Abdullah Abdullah, warned Karzai against reconciling with the Taliban this weekend. Abdullah dropped out of last fall’s presidential contest in protest against alleged ballot fraud in Karzai’s favor. There is general hostility toward reconciliation with the Taliban among the parties representing northern, non-Pashtun ethnic groups.

5. Can so much pressure be put on the Taliban that at least their middle and lower ranks will accept reconciliation with the Karzai government?

So far, there is no sign that the Taliban leadership still at large is interested in negotiations. A Taliban spokesman replied to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s call for reconciliation with Kabul over the weekend with a resounding ‘No!’. Qari Muhammad Yusuf Ahmadi told the Afghan Islamic Press in Pashto that the Taliban would cease fighting when there were not further foreign troops in his country. He said, according to the translation in The News:

“The entire world knows that foreign forces have invaded Afghanistan and occupied this country. They have also started the fighting. Taliban will neither lay down weapons nor will hold talks with Karzai administration even in the presence of a single foreign soldier in Afghanistan. . .”

“The ongoing war in Afghanistan is between Afghans and foreigners. The responsibility of the war lies on the foreigners and their slaves. They continue fighting in the populated areas and have sent 15000 troops to small area like Marja; and are killing civilians and trying to impose infidels on Afghans.”

“Karzai himself has no power. The foreigners control everything and the nation is fighting against them.”

Commenting on the deaths of 12 civilians in Marjah, Qari Muhammad said: “Karzai should have said who martyred the people. In fact neither Taliban kill the people and nor destroy their houses. These are foreigners who are bombing the houses and killing civilians everywhere as they have brought miseries to the people of Marja.”

On the other hand, those members of the Taliban shadow government now in Pakistani custody may be less categorical. A third Taliban commander, Maulvi Kabir (the shadow governor of Nangarhar Province) has been captured by the Pakistani military, allegedly based on information provided by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Baradar, the military chief of staff for the Old Taliban of Mullah Omar, was picked up recently in Karachi in a joint operation of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence and US intelligence, which picked up signals from Baradar. Serious inroads are being made by these arrests into the Taliban ‘shadow government’ of officials who plan out roadside bombings and other attacks in specific provinces of Afghanistan while hiding out in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Riza Yusuf Gilani, and the military chief of state, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, appear to believe that capturing these high Afghan Taliban leaders will give Islamabad leverage in a negotiated settlement of the contest between the Karzai government and the Pashtun religious far right, which is in insurgency.

Obama’s Afghanistan escalation among the sullen Pashtuns is a desperate policy, as dangerous as attempting to build a series of sand castles on the beach at low tide.

Ironically, his bigger success has come in Pakistan, where he appears to have convinced the Pakistani elite to intervene decisively against their own, Pakistani Taliban, and also now to begin arresting the Old Taliban shadow government that is hiding out on Pakistani soil. If he can go further and convince Islamabad that its support of the Afghan Taliban was all a long a key strategic error that has blown back on Pakistan proper, he will thereby come closer to victory than he could by any military measures inside Afghanistan itself.

End/ (Not Continued)

9 Responses

  1. An excellent updating of your case for a quick pull-out.

  2. JC, I have a few unconventional ideas I was hoping you could comment on.

    1) After taking over Marjah, why not distribute $100 to every family?
    Call it a stimulus measure. Or reparations for war damage or whatever.
    But couldn't this buy good will at a cheap price. 85K people, so I'm guessing there are 20,000 households = $2M.
    Compared to the costs of military hardware, weaponry, soldiers, etc it's peanuts.
    Not saying it's a panacea, but wouldn't it be a simple good start.

    2) I'd combine that with some good salaries for the local gov't admin. At least for key personnel, up their salaries fourfold… and demand accountability.

    3) Offer some sort of genuine autonomy and governance for the Southern Pashtun region. It seems this is the de facto situation anyway. Why not formalize it and remove them from Kabul and national resources? Or is offering up such a mini-Taliban quasi-state untenable, and too much like the frontier territories Pakistan doesn't control and is having troubles with.
    I'm thinking of trying to get peace for most of Afghanistan, and let the Pashtuns/Taliban govern there own region?

    Your thoughts would be appreciated.
    Also, I'd be interested to hear any out-of-the-box ideas you might be considering worthy.

    Thank you for your continued insights.

  3. Juan:

    I appreciate the level of detail in your post, and I appreciate the strong critique of Washington DC based assumptions.

    At the end of the day, the Afghan surge, just like the Iraq surge, was a bad idea. We are committed to a seemingly endless presence in a place we are not appreciated. We fight with weapons and bombs that produce the kind of anti-Americanism we are seeking to extinguish. It is amazing that our political process delivers a strategy that produces the very thing we say we are fighting against.

    But, this war will be decided by economics more than anything else. One Trillion dollars has already been invested in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What do we get for that investment? But more importantly, what will we get from the next trillion dollars we invest? And more importantly, should we fix American roads and schools before we try to fix Afghanistan?

    Increasingly, the dissident voices will focus on economics.

  4. I have pretty much given up on the Sunday talking heads so thanks for bringing this to the surface.
    If all our stated objectives are unattainable it must be time to leave.

    It would make a very nice budget cut.!!

  5. "the Afghanistan War will take years"

    OK, maybe I can deal with that, maybe years is fine. But what will it take years to do? How do I recognise that those years are over, and we're done? Is it perhaps when Afganistan invades the USA and forces the removal from power of a vicious dictator, thus ending his threat to his peaceful neighbours, and removing a nursing ground of international terrorism?

  6. US Militarism in a Box. That's all it is. There is no overarching rationale to change Afghanistan into something concieved in Washington, by people who really don't care about the outcome, and financed by the Government's "limitless???" ability to borrow.

    Why would it take several years for such a large , well equipped, heavily armed, force to defeat of several hundred lightly armed Taliban? Our Special Forces alone probably outnumber the Taliban by five to one, and they are not encombered by any sort of "Rules of War" (that's what makes them "Special").

    The Petraeus Doctrine is above all to save the US Military's face. As Prof Cole just pointed out in his preceding piece, Iraq is very unstable politically. All the ethnic tensions that were present before the "Surge" are still there. And now the central government has several hundred thousand trained soldiers under its control, with no mission other than to surpress whatever the central government wants surpressed. Yet Gen Petraeus accredits some permanent benefites to his Surge. (Which I think had the prime purpose of emasculating al Sadr.)

    Leaving Afghanistan now is a major defeat for the military-industrial complex. Back to the barracks in shame. To avoid this the strategy is to foster this notion that it will take years of war to defeat this enemy. Don't look at day to day progress, or even year to year.
    Just pay attention to Pentagon, and White House pronouncements. And above all don't pay any attention to Informed Comment or Tomdispatch.

  7. Just some thoughts to improve your metaphor in the final paragraphs … building a sand castle at high tide isn't so dangerous , if you intend your construction to last, you must have meant low tide.

    The problem is that we don't know whethere the Taliban can build around traditional Afghan nationalism and anti-occupation-ism, or whether some other factors, includintg unforeseen political/economic developments, might change the Afghan political environment. So the metaphor should properly be "like building a sand castle at the beach, without knowing if the tide will be rising or falling."

    We (Americans) might get lucky and prevail somehow in less than ten years, but we certainly can't be sure of that.

  8. Thank you for your insightful comment on the situation in Afghanistan. Just one small remark: the Dutch government was not center-right but center-left. The Social Democrat party (PvdA) and Christian Democrat's (CDA and CU) were not able to find a compromise.

  9. You point #3 is my biggest fear. Its great that the US and other troops have been able to nearly remove the Taliban, but who is actually capable of keeping them out. This video from Newsy provides perspectives on this concern from local Afghan merchants and current troops: link to bit.ly

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