Archive for the ‘Afghanistan War’ category

Escaping the Afghan Quagmire

January 28, 2009

In his campaign, Obama pointed out that instead of finishing the job in Afghanistan, the actual origin of 9/11, we had squandered resources, lives, and reputation on an unnecessary war in Iraq. He proposed to remedy this mistake by moving as fast as possible to get out of Iraq while inserting another 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. He seems determined, and his generals seem determined to follow this approach. Some argue that it is essentially the transfer of the successful surge and tribal militia tactics in Iraq to Afghanistan.

Unfortunately over the last year or more, information has been coming in that we are failing to a greater extent in Afghanistan than had been imagined. The trends are negative, and they are not trends that 30,000 or so additional troops are likely to reverse. A good analysis of the situation from an Australian perspective may be found here. On January 22, the NY Times came out with a description of what is happening in the south that is reminiscent of the Russians found themselves in before they left. Our side (U.S., NATO, government forces, etc.) control the major cities and some district capitals most of the time. But the vast majority of the villages are essentially under Taliban control or open to the Taliban whenever they wish to come in. The situation is much the same in the eastern part of the country. In the west and north the situation is better, but even here there have been significant Taliban inroads. Meanwhile, over the border, Pakistan’s army has been making a major effort to reduce the sway of the Taliban in the tribal agencies and the Northwest frontier provinces. Success remains limited. The Taliban have, for example, been able to move beyond the border areas and now control essentially all of the Swat District of NWFP, imposing their fanatical way of life on a formerly moderate people.

On Sunday, the NYTimes “Week in Review” gave the opinion of a number of experts on what was referred to as a developing “quagmire”, with or without the extra troops. The Kabul government is not performing, its agents are widely despised, and its police forces are generally ineffective. We are reminded that with 100,000 troops the Russians were able to do little more than control the cities and maintain logistics routes and provide secure living facilities for their forces. The more effective our forces become, the more they end up killing civilians. For both our forces and the Russians, airpower is regarded as essential for tactical success, and yet after many such successes, we find we have made yet another community turn against us because of the lives and property we have destroyed. In most areas our successes against the insurgents are not followed up with consistent protection of the people. Many Afghans do not like the Taliban, but if they have to exist alongside them, they have to act as though they do. There are too many villages for our forces to do much more.

One solution might be to simply pack up and leave as the British and the Russians did before. However, this would have moral and strategic downsides. In Kabul and other parts of the country we have encouraged people to adopt new values and new hopes and new behaviors that they would have to abandon should we leave. The bravery of school girls in the face of deadly threats suggests how important a new way of life is to these people. People of this kind are still a minority, but yet a vital minority whose protectors the West and the westernized middle classes have become. We should also not lightly abandon the tribal peoples of the west and the north of the country who fought in our cause after 9/11.

Another approach is to rethink our strategy. The first step would be to develop improved relations with Iran and Pakistan. Iran helped us initially. It has many logistics routes we could use. It has historical and ethnic ties to the Hazara and more broadly to the Tajiks (who literature and history is essentially inseparable from that of Iran). Herat was formerly a major Iranian city. Iran continues to provide assistance to Kabul, with which it has close and friendly relations. In the east and south, Pakistan has theoretical control over the longest Afghan border. Historically, it has not controlled many border areas, but it now realizes that it can no longer allow these areas to remain outside its control.

I emphasize improving relations with these states even though they are neither ideal, well-governed, nor reliable. But if they are weak and corrupt, the are still far from being as corrupt and feckless as the Afghan government. Afghanistan has nothing like the well-educated bureaucracies of the civil and military services that Pakistan inherited from the British. If we could develop effective means of dealing with these states, we would have a much more plausible basis for eventual success in Afghanistan.

Within Afghanistan, we should build from our strengths. We should bolster our rear by making more sure than we have that Kabul, Herat, Mazar i Sharif and other relatively peaceful cities remain outside the war zone. Qandahar should perhaps be included in the list even though it is very much in the war zone. (Qandahar is particularly important to the Pashtun section of the population, and thereby to President Karzai. It also has a remarkable group of anti-Taliban, pro-women’s education advocates.) We should strengthen those leaders in the north and west who reject the Taliban. By various inducements, we may be able to modify their addictions to drugs and corruption and gradually make certain parts of the country into models for the rest. The Hazarajat, the land of the Hazara shi’a minority, is prepared to defend itself against the hated Taliban. These are the areas in which we should emphasize development projects, the training of police and judges, etc.

In the east and south, we should initially try to reach a stalemate with tactics similar to those we have followed up to now. But our side should strive to rely less on air power, since the potential for error is not going to go away. We should also reduce the number of offensive operations. The goal should be to give whoever we contact a sense that they can rely on us to protect them if they assist us. We might try in a few areas to resurrect CAP units like the Marines used in Vietnam. This meant that a platoon would establish itself in a village (“hamlet” in Vietnam terminology) and stay there as they trained the local self-defense forces and helped local development. The approach worked quite well. (For more on this see the book “Can We Win in Vietnam?”) In areas where this model started to work in Afghanistan, more villages might gradually be included. Note, however, that real progress beyond this stalemate would depend on the effectiveness of an increasing effort by the Pakistanis in border areas — supported indirectly by American military and nonmilitary assistance. This includes education.

Note that we are talking here of a long term strategy. The Australian analysis referenced above was developed on the basis of a fifteen year stay. This will be possible only if we show some progress.


Afghanistan: More or Less?

January 19, 2009

There has been a great deal of discussion lately of the stated intention of the new administration to significantly increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. When we invaded Afghanistan, I wrote that we should use several hundred thousand troops as part of a major attempt to transform the country. I was thinking of what we did for the people of the Axis powers after World War II. It was also before the Iraq effort had siphoned off our troops and our will as a nation to make such efforts. The reader may also be interested in a 2004 blog discussing the thoughts of the Afghan expert Barnett Rubin on this topic (See Rubin) Rubin had already concluded by that time that the situation was getting more and more difficult and was unsure where to go from here.

It is well to remember that the Russians went through approximately the same effort that we are making, and with about twice the number of troops we have. It was also a high-tech effort. It is also useful to remember that their chief human rights achievement, like ours, was to raise the status of women. They also had their Afghan government and their projects. But in the end, they decided to give it up. Their regime collapsed and the Taliban eventually conquered most of the country.

Some conclude that adding more troop would be repeating the errors of the Russians and the British before them. They argue that we have little need to control Afghanistan, that the Taliban are no threat to us, and that they will not automatically harbor al-Qaeda.

But their arguments are too facile. The Taliban represent the worst of Islam. We have developed oases in the country in which a more humane life style is widely accepted. Were we to leave, we would be abandoning millions of the country’s most promising citizens to severe repression. We cannot easily avoid this responsibility.

This leaves the observer in a quandary. We appear to be losing ground. The more we fight, the more civilians we kill, the more enemies we have. I have many different suggestions, as do others, but how to make the most fundamental decision, more troops or less, escapes me.

Iranian Access Routes into Afghanistan

January 5, 2009

In a recent item in the NYT (December 31), there was extensive discussion of the need for alternative supply routes into Afghanistan for both military and development assistance. The Khyber pass may simply become too exposed to use successfully.

Although a quick look at the map would suggest that transit through Iran is the obvious alternative, Iran was notably absent from the discussion. Compared to the use of Central Asia, which was emphasized in the article, it would be much more cost effective to land supplies at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf and use its rail and road connections to Mashhad in northeast Iran. From Mashhad, there are well developed roads and may soon be railroads to Herat in Afghanistan.

We may not like the Iranian regime, but we did not let such considerations bar us from using Iran as a conduit for supplies for Stalin’s USSR in World War II.

Iran helped us in the beginning of our Afghan adventure, has maintained good relations with Kabul, and its Shiite adherents are mortal enemies of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Let us build on our common interests so that we might forge a more effective and less costly Middle Eastern Strategy. This should be high on the agenda when President Obama “sits down” with the Iranians.

Balancing Military and Nonmilitary Actions in Afghanistan

January 5, 2009

We certainly need a rethinking of foreign and military policy that places more emphasis on the nonmilitary tools of policy (“A Handpicked Obama Team for a Sweeping Foreign Policy Shift” [NYT, Dec 1]. But the changes need to be carefully calibrated in terms of the facts on the ground in each situation rather than thoughtlessly replacing one ideologically driven policy by another.

For this reason I was discouraged to read the quotation from Secretary Gates that our recent emphasis on force alone “[was] almost like weorgot everything we learned in Vietnam”. For what we learned in Vietnam was certainly not that we should have provided more nonmilitary assistance or exercized more “soft power”. What we learned in Vietnam was that we could never win a conflict in which the opponent was continuously resupplied in men and materiel from territory into which Washington had decided not to enter. (In the end we lost Vietnam because of a conventional military offensive by the North that was led by tanks.) This lesson is particularly important as we consider how we might balance military and nonmilitary options in Afghanistan under a new administration.

We cannot hope to win in Afghanistan as long as we or our allies do not control the tribal areas in Pakistan. I would suggest that as we develop future policy only after we carefully reflect on “The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost” (the official story written by the Russian General Staff). The Soviets tried everything and yet they lost.

Torture as American Policy

June 22, 2007

Seymour Hersh has long been the conscience of America’s foreign and military policy. It has not earned him much credit with our military. Nor is his reporting always above reproach. But he has played a necessary, perhaps ever more necessary role.

In the June 25 New Yorker, Hersh zeroes in on the efforts of General Taguba to look into and report fairly on the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and, by extension, at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Taguba had been asked by the Pentagon to investigate what went on in Abu Ghraib, and who knew what when.

Taguba’s conclusions were that events at Abu Ghraib were well known all along. In fact, they had brought an expert from Guantanamo to introduce some of the measures used at Abu Ghraib. There were copious photos available for people at many levels to see and they had been ignored or dismissed. His conclusion was that what went on at Abu Ghraib was part of a pattern and not an isolated aberration by underlings.

However, on repeated occasions, before committees of Congress and elsewhere, Taguba was contradicted, put down, and dismissed. The brass above him simply lied about what they knew and what had come up to their level months before it all became public. In spite of the fact Taguba had done exactly the job he was asked to do, he was sidelined for the next two years and asked to resign early. They do shoot the messenger.

But it is more than that. Top persons in the government, presumably including the President and the Vice-President, although Taguba’s research did not actually go to these levels, appear to have concluded early on that “do whatever you have to do” was to be the guiding principal behind interrogations. What we saw in the pictures was, at least in part, the result of an deliberate policy of getting the military police and jail keepers to “soften up” prisoners so that information could be more readily extracted from them. There was, incidentally, little or no attempt to investigate whether the individual prisoners softened up were at all likely to have the information that was to be extracted from them.

Our campaign against al-Qaeda and the Islamists has been seriously compromised by our treatment of prisoners in the eyes of much of the world. This is not to say, that extreme situations do not require extreme solutions. It is to say that we must take much more seriously than we have the establishment and adherence to acceptable limits on the way in which we treat those who comes into our control.

Counterinsurgency and Airplanes

June 22, 2007

We hear once again of a “mistake” in Afghanistan. In the midst of a battle against the Taliban in an Afghan village, planes were called in. They destroyed the target. Unfortunately, there were children in the target. This has happened again and again in Afghanistan. It happens frequently in Iraq. The American or NATO troops are few in relation to the size of the country and the dimensions of the insurgencies. Air power is one way in which our side is clearly superior. When our forces are pinned down, there is an irresistible impulse to follow conventional battlefield doctrine and bring in the planes for close ground support. Battles are won.

Yet the local people have long memories, and even those who were not against us before, may now take up arms to avenge their new enemies who come by air.

My advice would be to simply exclude the use of air power to support troops in populated areas. I realize that in the short run, this would be counterproductive. It would be like tying the hands of the troops behind their backs. Yet in the long run, in winning the support of the people without which there is no victory in these contests, it might pay off. At least it should be looked into.

I realize that there would still be unwanted civilian casualties. But I believe they would be greatly reduced. The soldiers on the ground would be much more able to react to signs that the targets were not what they thought they were.

It is argued that al-Qaeda and Taliban deliberately mix civilians in with their militias, sometimes using compulsion. We cannot avoid this. But we can strive harder to avoid falling into the moral traps they set.

Defending Honor, Distrusting Charity

April 10, 2007

Two news items in the last few days have a deep psychological connection. The first tells of a Dutch force in Afghanistan in one of its most dangerous provinces that is trying to win the struggle with the Taliban by concentrating almost entirely on reconstruction projects. They are armed men, but their strategy is to use arms only when attacked, and to pull back out of a fight if possible. This way the people will see that they are positively affecting their lives and not negatively. Once they begin to trust the Dutch, they will get rid of the Taliban themselves. But today we read of a Dutch patrol nearly getting wiped out in an ambush. They are told that everyone in the village is with the Taliban.

The next item is a description of a huge Shi’a rally in Najaf demanding that the Americans get out of Iraq. Never mind that the Americans toppled their oppressor and set up a democratic system that will allow the Shi’a to rule Iraq. They want them out and now.


Two reasons come to mind. First, the people of Afghanistan and Iraq feel dishonored by having their country occupied by foreign troops. (To them, it seems like an occupation.) The fact that they have to live with the situation is unbearable, no matter what its advantages. Second, most people, and especially people in the developing world, simply do not believe in the goodness and well-meaning of others. Whatever they say or do, the Afghans are not going to be taken in. These Dutch have something to gain that we will eventually learn to our sorrow. We just haven’t figured what it is yet. The Iraqis are even more sure that the Americans are up to no good. “They say they are here to project us. But who are they kidding? They are here to rob our oil or take away our religion or turn the country over to the Sunnis (Shi’a belief) or over to the Shi’a (Sunni belief).”

These are the realities. Outsiders can sometimes overcome them, but don’t bank on it.