Archives for category: Afghanistan

This week I will pick up Woodward’s new book about the strategic deliberations of the Obama administration regarding Afghanistan. I’m very interested in reading the terms sheet written by Obama that dictated American strategy, goals, and objectives. The tension between doing counterinsurgency operations but explictly rejecting a full-scale nation building strategy will be what to look for.

However, I realized last night that Robert Kaplan is indeed right and that geography does matter. Particularly when performing counterinsurgency operations in a landlocked country. This makes logistical capabilities dependent on a neighboring country, and pissing them off would probably be a bad idea.

This is precisely the situation we have in Afghanistan. And for all of the emphasis we have on changing Pakistani behavior to eliminate Taliban safe havens and support, counterterrorism air strikes across the border in Pakistan in pursuit of those same adversaries has severely jeopardized our relationship with them. Suddenly, the Pakistanis want to show how dependent we are on them to logistically supply manpower-intensive counterinsurgency operations. It is really any coincidence that tankers stuck at the border by the Pakistani state were hit by the Taliban?

Ruthlessly pursuing counterterrorism in one country to support counterinsurgency in a neighboring one means we should be willing to tolerate political blowback when our CT ops kill the wrong people. The more dependent we are on the former to supply operations in the latter, the greater the strategic contradiction in pursuing both politics.

NYT says that NATO has launched Operation Dragon Strike across Khandahar, Zhari, and Panjwayi districts. Dragon Strike comes after weeks of ‘shaping operations’, comprising development/civil affairs missions combined with direct action raids on insurgent leadership and personnel. Dragon Strike appears to be a ‘decisive operation’ intended to displace insurgents across Western Kandahar. It comes only after all reinforcements are available to maneuver synchronically to disrupt the insurgency and extend political-social stability. If the mid-level Taliban and criminal elements are already ‘weakened’ and ‘demoralized’ by raids and detentions, then West Kandahar should be ripe for an operational maneuver that applies counterinsurgency principles to create social and political some space for emergence of local governing institutions.

This begs the obvious question about those institutions, their tendency for corruption and illegitimacy, and the strategic contradictions involved in supporting state institutions through counterinsurgency operations. As mentioned earlier, our relationship with the Afghans (to some degree) constitutes the ‘culture of corruption’ that appears to be embedded in their politics. Counterinsurgency is great operationally but won’t resolve the major strategic contradictions undermining the ‘space’ for the development of local institutions. As long as other power relationships continue, like those fostered by other agencies and NGOs through corruption and dependency, that political space remains limited.

Aspects of the Afghan war now resemble the Iraq war in summer 2007, when Operation Phantom Strike was launched to stability in the major population belts around Baghdad and across central Iraq (see Kim Kagan’s excellent book on this). Dragon Strike seems to be evidence that the campaign structure of full-spectrum operations has retained some consistency, with shaping and decisive operations that should be followed by sustaining operations. The length of time for deployment of all units into shaping operations determines the timetable to synchronize decisive clearing operations, and it has been much longer in southern Afghanistan in 2010 (11 months) compared to Iraq in 2007 (8 months).

However, in shifting to full-spectrum operations, the operational pattern of today’s counterinsurgency appears to have changed from its classical version: Instead of ‘clear, hold, and build’, modern COIN is ‘shape, clear decisively, and sustain’. The last step (if the counterinsurgents get there), seems to be when the political strategy will always be tested – and that’s when the model begins to fail. Absent a political settlement and no gradual improvement by institutions fostered by diplomatic and developmental support, then the new Operational Art can fail to be enough to achieve the strategic goal – the creation of local institutions that enforce legitimate order.

Little theory has been devoted to understanding how that happens, and as well as the limits of military action (counterinsurgency) on making possible institutional public space and socioeconomic development. This is where political operational and strategic art is lacking, and in its absence, the associated costs may be perceived to be higher than any military success. From a sociological perspective, the question becomes ‘how do we synthesize and share an understanding of social reality with local stakeholders that accounts for their own perceptions and ‘rational’ mindset’? Unless the strategic environment is framed in such a way to ensure that we all see strategic problems the same way, any attempt to transform the social and political environment from instability to stability through military operational solutions will not be sufficient. Operational successes are then not fulfilled by strategic ones, which currently explains the political impasse in Iraq. For all the Afghan Surge’s potential successes, it will likely suffer the same strategic pitfalls.

It’s time to move beyond operational art and begin thinking about state building and the constitution of bureaucratic identities as the new strategic art.

“What’s your motive here?” Bahuddin, 16, who like many Afghans uses only one name, asked Haight as his men on the street and in the turrets of their armored vehicles watched for any signs that cars passing through Baraki Barak carried suicide bombers.

“We want to help with security and make sure the Taliban don’t intimidate people at night,” replied the colonel, who did three tours in Iraq and is on his second in Afghanistan. “We want to help the local government provide jobs and stability.”

Most residents refused to discuss the Taliban, an indication of the insurgents’ intimidating presence, and several ridiculed the notion of a working local government.

Instead, they emphasized their economic plight, complained that U.S. convoys force traffic off the roads and voiced fears that the increased American presence will mean more civilian casualties.

“Please do not do any bombing in this area,” pleaded Noor Agha, an unemployed engineer. “You need people to support you from the bottom of their hearts. If you put your heart out, they will put their hearts out.”

One man in Pul-e-Alam cited incidents that were more rumor than fact, a common problem that’s especially frustrating for Haight.

“Look at how we are standing here and talking. You are asking questions. Why don’t you do more of that instead of snatch-and-grab operations?” said Samur Gul, a bearded taxi driver, to the approval of onlookers. “Innocent people are being killed.”

Gul couldn’t say when the last such operation took place.

Syed Hashim, a construction company owner, said he thought that there was still time for the United States to remedy its mistakes of the last seven years.

“When you open a dialogue, things can become smoother. We need face-to-face communications,” Hashim said. “This can be a new era.”

U.S. patrol finds anger and distrust in Afghanistan.” McClatchy Newspapers. February 22 2009.

“The airplane door reclined open. A couple of airport crew brought a few projectors on wheels so the passengers see their steps and the luggage could be unloaded. In the light I saw a few buses and a dozen jeeps. A few heavily armed foreigners were holding a name and the person next to him was holding an American flag. I wandered why the flag was needed, I guess to show passengers they arrived to an American administered territory or perhaps a bit of their taste for patriotism. Some westerners were snatched by the bodyguards and loaded into the jeeps without processing their passports; the rest proceeded to buses for the terminal. As we are to leave a body guard jumped into the bus obstructing the closing door and shouting ‘Mike, Mike, whchya doin’ hir? Come with me’. A bald lad pushed his way out of the crowd and left the bus. At the terminal we all queued up, some western travellers were escorted out by their colleague. Occasionally some people were leaving the queue as their mates found them; they were stamped entrance at the stall in front of the queue. It usually takes around half an hour to be processed but it is too long for Afghanistan to wait. The bald guy, mike, arrived with his friends and walked straight to the head of the queue. ‘hey Mr. Copernicus, why don’t you navigate your way back to the end of the line where you belong.’ I shouted. He didn’t move, I thought he didn’t hear me. ‘excuse me, excuse me’ he didn’t look back, the guy standing next to him in the front of the queue looked back and I asked him to tap on his shoulder. ‘don’t touch me’ he yelled. he pointed Mike to look at me. ‘we are queuing here’ I said. He didn’t respond and turned back his face. ‘You wouldn’t do this in your own country, would you?’ he said but he moved forward and left passport control area. After he left I got in to a conversation with a cop. he asked me why I was upset about it. I tried to explain it is unfair if everybody waits and a few people get special treatment. He said 300 Afs would get me out of the queue. ‘it is for the officer in the booth’ he exclaimed. ‘I’d rather keep my 300 in my pocket and myself in the queue’ I said. ‘You are stingy’ he said. I reserved the explanation that it is a matter of principle not money.

It Feels Like Kabul

“One day, as Zubair was walking home, he noticed that the carpet factory near his house in the southern province of Ghazni was silent. That’s strange, he thought, because he could usually hear the din of spinning looms as he approached. As he rounded the corner, he saw a crowd of people, villagers and factory workers, gathered around his destroyed house. An American bomb had flattened it into a pancake of cement blocks and pulverized bricks. He ran toward the scene. It was only when he shoved his way through the crowd and up to the wreckage that he actually saw it — his mother’s severed head lying amid mangled furniture.

He didn’t scream. Instead, the sight induced a sort of catatonia; he picked up the head, cradled it in his arms, and started walking aimlessly. He carried on like this for days, until tribal elders pried the head from his hands and convinced him to deal with his loss more constructively. He decided he would get revenge by becoming a suicide bomber and inflicting a loss on some American family as painful as the one he had just suffered.”

Elizabeth Rubin. Captain Kearney’s Quagmire: Battle Company Is Out There. New York Times Magazine. Sunday, February 24 2008. More specifically, in the Korengal valley of Kunar Province, on the border with Pakistan in the Hindu Kush.  This is probably the most hostile terrain in the world.  It is also as close Americans have come to al-Qaeda-Taliban strongholds across the border in Pakistan.  This is their home base, and they have been there for decades, embedded in social life.  Battle Company is charged with dislodging them.Captain Kearney is plagued by the most fundamental challenges of counterinsurgency. He cannot tell civilian from foe, despite a preponderance of the best military technology available.  His men refer to their foes as ghosts.  They are frustrated  by the fact they fight an enemy they cannot see.  Captain Kearney struggles WRT when and how to use airpower to combat his enemy, one that hides in houses inhabited by  defenseless women and children.  He is conscious of the fact that in counterinsurgency, the primary objective is to secure civilian populations and separate them from insurgents.  But in the Korengal, Battle Company cannot get its bearings. It can hear its enemy over the radio but cannot see them.  It cannot identify insurgents to kill and civilians to protect.  This is a problem for Battle Company.  

In the logic of war, the best antidote for the menacing ghostliness of the ambushing enemy is killing and knowing you’ve killed them. The soldiers in the Korengal almost never had that kind of satisfaction.     

Instead, the use of force only bred frustration. Women and children get caught in the crossfire and the cycle of enmity between soldiers and civilians begins anew. In this context, the communication and interaction that ordinarily would build a shared identity between counterinsurgents and civilians solidifies their separateness. In Boydian terms, insurgent forces are successful at isolating COIN forces from their environment, leading to disruption, dislocation, and the inevitable folding in upon oneself. Battle Company’s experience provides a concrete example of what I’ve only otherwise understood theoretically. The strategic goal of insurgency is not just to demoralize your opponent, but to drive him absolutely fucking insane, both literally and clinically.Korengal will be one of the last places in Afghanistan to be pacified.  This is COIN at the farthest possible reaches of the Army’s supply and support networks in the heart of jihadism.  IMO, Kearney’s mission is an impossible one.  Being overstretched by 15-month deployments makes al-Qaeda’s intended demoralization all the more likely.  We will never win until we prioritize the well-being of our soldiers before the mission. Their health and well-being is the most crucial element in mission success. Operations in Korengal should be conducted by battalions of well-rested troops instead of companies too exhausted to tell friend from foe.        

Sarah Chayes.  The Punishment of Virtue. Penguin, New York: 2006.  This is a fantastic journalistic account of the first five years of the Afghan nation building effort . Chayes winds up in Afghanistan during the collapse of the Taliban, first as a reporter for NPR but then starts a local business manufacturing soap.  This is the background to her time mainly in the Pashtun stronghold of Kandahar, where she completely embeds herself in Afghan society, establishing contacts and making both friends and enemies of once-warring militia commanders.  She illustrates for the reader the tribal dynamics of Afghan society, which ensure a modicum of certainty with regards to her safety despite the fact she is female.      Between chapter-length asides on the history of Afghanistan and its would-be conquerors, Chayes describes the political rivalry between two Kandahari militia-leaders: Muhammad Akrem Khakrezwal and Gul Agha Shirzai.  She is explicitly partisan in both her actions and her description of both men, as she sees Khakrezwal as willing to put aside the years of Afghan civil strife in favor of order under national law, or qanun, and paints Shirzai as embodying the old era, a warlord out for himself and the interests consistent with his own (read, Pakistan).  The book is especially sharp in discussing the role of the American presence in Kandahar.  Her initial problems with the U.S. military begin early on.  As U.S. forces insert themselves into the region in late 2001 and the Taliban presence in the city of Kandahar disintigrated, she argues that the Americans were manipulated by Agha Shirzai to allow his militia to take the city instead of Akrem Khakrezwal, who had been appointed Kandahar chief of police by the Karzai administration.  This is only one example of how U.S. forces failed to work toward the national government’s centralization of power and unwittingly aided warlords like Shirzai who stood to lose the most if power were centralized in Kabul.  Another involves how Shirzai’s men guarded the outermost security perimeter of the American base on the outskirts, effectively controlling access to U.S. forces.  Because the mission itself (nation building) was yet to be understood by anyone in chain of command (civilian or military), the Americans never positioned themselves socially to be of any use in developing a new Afghanistan.  Effectively, Chayes demonstrates how their interactions with the population were negotiated and mediated by Shirzai, who ensured they saw only what he wanted them to see.  This is as stinging an indictment of Western attempts at nation building as Chandrasekran provides regarding Iraq. Not only does Chayes describe missteps, she also provides insight as to the problems inherent in nation building. This, in fact, is the core of the book’s contribution, found in deceptively simple-titled chapters such as Military Matters, Security, and Murder. It also demonstrates the necessity of ‘knowing’ the social context of conflict settings as to give meaning to the use and utility of power by social entities, whether local or foreign. Also check out her last article in the Atlantic Monthly, where she writes on starting that local soap business in spite of the American development community in-country.


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