Archive for October, 2008

The Language of Insurgency in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War with tags , , on October 26, 2008 by whatafteriraq

What the United States should be doing in Afghanistan is the result of two calculations. The first is the political situation and how we feel it needs changing. As noted in earlier postings, there is disagreement about that question: is the United States primarily interested in destroying Al Qaeda, or is it mostly interested in helping bring about a free and democratic Afghanistan? These objectives form the basis of the “two wars in Afghanistan” discussed in the most recent entries. The gist is that they are very different and to some extent independent, even contradictory goals.

The second question, and the one to which this entry is addressed, is how we should go about accomplishing whatever it is we wish to do. Seven years of half-hearted effort have not yielded decisively positive results that would allow the winning of either war, so the answer is apparently either not obvious or beyond our resources or will.

That having been said, both political campaigns have promised to increase the American effort in Afghanistan. But how? The current fighting, largely in Pashtun regions in Afghanistan (but with relevant activity across the border in Pakistan), is somehow aimed at “pacifying” these “insurgent” areas. A “60 Minutes” segment on October 19, which followed an American unit on patrol in the forbidding landscape of eastern Afghanistan, emphasized this mission. The American purpose, one soldier told the CBS reporter, was to combat the insurgents in the area and hopefully bring the local residents into accepting the government in Kabul, which they appear to oppose. The military threat, in other words, is an insurgency, and the method to deal with it is through counterinsurgency (COIN). The problem is that there are not enough troops available to create the sense of security in the villages of the region and thus to turn them against the insurgents. With General David Petreaus, a copy of his FM 3-24 on COIN stuck in his back pocket, in command of Central Command (CENTCOM), this image and view of the war will undoubtedly be reinforced.

But is the language and logic of insurgency appropriate for the problem here? The majority of the country that needs to be “pacified” reflects the tribal areas of the Pashtuns on either side of the Durand Line (the boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan that almost all Afghans–notably the Pashtuns–reject). These inhabitants of the region have through history shown a fierce determination–almost always successful–to defend their tribal areas, which the United States and its allies are now contesting. The Pashtuns who are doing this defending certainly do not consider themselves insurgents, but instead defenders of their tribal villages and family members. Killing them does not subvert their desire to continue their resistance, it simply redoubles it. The idea that American forces can “liberate” villages by killing the family members who have been defending those villages from the Americans is ludicrous, to say the least. There is no battle for the hearts and minds of men for the American cointerinsurgents to win here; that is simply not the nature of the situation. We are fighting an insurgency; they are repelling an invasion. Since it is their war in their land, their model is probably more appropriate to understanding and manipulating the situation than ours. For COIN to be the appropriate model, there must be an insurgency to counter.

If this analysis is at all accurate, the plans to ramp up the action in Afghanistan represent an exercise in futility. Part of the basis for thinking about this in insurgency terms is that many of the Pashtuns, and particularly those who are Taliban, do indeed oppose the government in Kabul. There is, in Afghan history, nothing unusual about a rural movement in opposition to a central government in Kabul, especially when that government is heavily populated by non-Pashtuns (which the Pashtuns argue is the case now). Hamid Karai is a Pashtun, but many of his fellow tribesmen believe he has simply sold out by surrounding himself by Tajik and other advisors rather than fellow Pashtuns. Can the United States do something about this with armed forces? Do we really want to?

The language of insurgency is equally inapplicable if the objective is to root out Al Qaeda. There is disagreement about whether Al Qaeda has not outlived its welcome among the Pashtuns under whose hospitality they have continued to exist, but the Pashtun code of hospitality means they will not throw them under the bus by standfing idly by while the U.S. army swoops down and decimates them, nor is American COIN-inspired civic action going to convert Pashtun villagers so they will “rat out” Al Qaeda. Even with a $50 million bounty for bin Laden and his closest associates, they haven’t done that over the past seven years . Why should we think they will start now?

Either president Obama or McCain are going to inherit Afghanistan as a policy albatross and have to figure out something to do about it. General Petraeus will be waiting to advise them (it’s his duty as CENTCOM commander), and he is likely to offer advice based on the insurgency-COIN model. Let’s hope the new Commander-in-Chief says, “Not so fast, General.”

The Pashtuns and the Two Wars in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, War on Terror with tags , , , , on October 23, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Regardless of whether one is talking about the American effort as primarily aimed at snuffing out Al Qaeda or as an effort to enhance Afghanistan’s security by decimating the resurgent Taliban and developing the country, there is one common effort: operationally, this is a war against the Pashtuns.

Most Americans have not heard of the Pashtuns (also known as Pushtoons, Pathans, and several other linguistic variations), and official statements of American policy, objectives, and plans to achieve them hardly (if ever) acknowledge the role of this ethnic and tribal group. Who are they, and why do we need to know?

The Pashtuns are the largest tribal group in Afghanistan. Before the Soviet invasion in 1979, they represented a majority of the population, but estimates are that upwards of 85 percent of the 6.2 million Afghans who fled the country were Pashtuns, and many found their way across the border into Pakistan, where the Pashtuns are the largest minority group and have found themselves at fairly constant odds with the Punjabi majority that has ruled the country virtually since independence in 1947 (an exception was rule by Ayub Khan, who was a Pashtun).

Currently, the Pashtun live in and dominate the eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan and most of the tribal regions of Pakistan adjacent to the Afghan border (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of FATA, as noted in the last entry). These, of course, are the areas most under contention in the ongoing war being waged by the United States, its NATO allies, and the Afghan government on the Afghanistan side, and is the area where the United States has most encouraged the Pakistan government to assert an authority it has never actually possessed in the region. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that the Pashtun (and Afghans more generally) do not recognize as legitimate the boundary between the two countries, the so-called Durand Line named after the British official who drew it in 1897.

In these regions, the Pashtuns form the core of the resistance to the achievement of US policies goals (as best one can figure out what those are). The vast majority of support for and participation in the Taliban movement comes from the Pashtun (which was originally formed by Pashtun Talibs–religious students–studying at madrassas–religious schools–in Pakistan). The Pashtuns of Pakistan, moreover, have provided the safe haven for Al Qaeda, for reasons discussed below. Also, any planned American incursions into Paksitan would have to be initiated from Pashtun-controlled territory in Afghanistan into Pashtun-controlled areas of Pakistan. Thus, the Pashtun are the major focus of the US military action in Afghanistan, whether ackowledged or not.

It is important to understand this distinction, because it has operational implications that affect the prospects of the American military effort in the area and the long-term prospects of success. Part of these deal with the problem of dealing with the Pushtans as a group, and part of it has to do with the geopolitics of the region. It is unclear that current American efforts reflect either aspect.

The Pashtun are a very fiercely independent, traditional Sunni tribal group. Historically, they have also been decentralized, meaning that their actions are focused on small, autonomous organization, not any carefully organized and centralized movements. Operationally, the problem they create is captured in the Pakistan Handbook of 1998 (http://www.crossroadto/Quotes/Islam/Pashtun.html), which states, “They are fearless guerrillas who know the hills and valleys intimately, are crack shots and wear clothes (known as khakis, which means ‘dusty’) that blend with their surroundings….No one has ever managed to subdue or unite them.”

The Pashtun code of behavior is relevent and is based on something known as the Pashtunwali (“Pashtun Way”). It has three basic values: honor, courage, and hospitality. Each helps explain why the United States faces a quandary confronting them.

The concept of courage gives the Pashtun their warrior spirit and makes them particularly difficult–possibly impossible–to subdue. The concept of honor includes, among other things the concept of badal (revenge), which impels a Pashtun to seek to violently redress acts of violence against his family or clan. US bombings of Pashtun villages and the deaths they inflict qualify as acts of violence requiring revenge. Finally, the concept of hospitality means that Pashtuns have an obligation to protect their guests from outsiders. The leadership of Al Qaeda, many of whom were part of the mujahadin that helped throw the Soviets out of Afghanistan, qualify as guests to be protected, which may help explain why Pashtun villagers in the FATA have not been cooperative in helping catch bin Laden and his band.

The present president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, is a former Pashtun warlord, but his presence has not translated into Pashtun support for his government, for several reasons. One is that Karzai has become part of the Kabul-based Afghan intellectual class, a group that is opposed by the relatively primitive, rural Pashtun majority. Part of the reason also is that the current government is heavily populated by ethnic Tajiks, whom the Pashtuns oppose. Finally, the Pashtuns join most Afghans in opposition to a strong central government, which Karzai and his American allies see as an important part of modernizing the country.

The Afghan problem is thus largely a Pashtun problem, and sensible American policy must take that reality into account. To make matters even a bit more complicated, there is also the matter of Pashtun nationalism and the repressed desire to create a place called Pashtunistan. More on that in the next entry.

Two Wars in Afghanistan?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Russia, War on Terror with tags , , , , on October 13, 2008 by whatafteriraq

When political and military historians look back at the protracted U.S. military effort in Afghanistan since 2001, they are unlikely to be impressed with it, either conceptually or operationally. The problem they are most likely to identify is that the enterprise has become rudderless: it is not clear what the United States is doing in Afghanistan, why it is doing it, or how (or whether) whatever we are trying to do can succeed. General David McKiernan, the U.S. commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF, the official name of the enterprise), has only exacerbated the muddle with his recent comments on the subject, intended to reassure the American public but accomplishing quite the opposite.

The basic problem is that the United Sates is attempting to do two things in Afghanistan: eradicate Al Qaeda (or eliminate its leadership) and stabilize Afghanistan as a country. Smashing Al Qaeda was, of course, the original purpose, and the goal that Americans supported, and continue to support, and that is clearly an American interest sufficiently important to justify continuing American military action of one sort or another. Stabilizing Afghanistan is a derivative objective that arose because it appeared the only way to get at Al Qaeda was to sweep aside the Taliban regime that protected them. That tactical decision, however, morphed into an objective to support and sustain the Karzai government we helped put in power to succeed the Taliban. It is not at all clear that this objective is attainable or is in the best American interests. Why do we care who rules Afghanistan?

The official answer, to the extent it is expressed explicitly, is that a stable Afghanistan will be a bulwark against the return of the Taliban and the possible return of Al Qaeda to a new sanctuary state. The question is whether attempting to preclude this possibility is worth the effort that is being expended in its name.

No one argues with an effort aimed at eliminating Al Qaeda . There are two questions about that effort that tend to get lost in the ongoing discussion of Afghanistan, a debate that is really directed at the second, and more questionable goal, of securing the Afghan state. The first question is what kind of effort is likely to achieve the goal: should it be an effort grounded in more or less conventional warfare–or counter insurgency–doctrine? And should a military effort in Afghanistan be its focal point? The answer to neither question is overwhelmingly obvious. A case can be made, for instance, that covert action by small, lethal paramilitary units against Al Qaeda operating in both Afghanistan and Pakistan would be more likely to succeed in the long run than what is being done now, and that the current effort is largely irrelevant to this purpose. To the extent that the current effort galvanizes Afghan resistance to intrusive outsiders (in this case us), it may actually be counterproductive.

It has become an implicit part of the Afghanistan debate that countering the insurgency is intimately related to the Al Qaeda mission. There is very littile direct discussion of the Al Qaeda problem, as McKiernan’s recent defenses suggest. When McKiernan says, as he did in yesterday’s New York Times, “We are not losing in Afghanistan. We have insufficient security forces here to adequately provide for the security of the people of Afghanistan,” he is not talking about eradicating Al Qaeda. Rather, he is talking about the second war: the effort to gain control of Afghanistan. And that is a dubious goal and prospect. 

What is the problem with a war to “liberate” Afghanistan? First, it is not clear what liberation means or that what we define as liberation matches what the Afghans want. Afghan history, as noted in the last posting, suggests that what they primarily want is to be free of outside interference and presence. When McKiernan says “I do believe that the people of Afghanistan will win in this country,” he may be right, but their definition of victory may be diametrically different than ours. What this suggests is that “victory” in the sense of attaining the political objective of a stable, pro-western Afghanisan under Karzai or a surrogate may simply be unattainable. Second, it is not clear why we care who rules Afgganistan. After we helped the Afghans (including the Taliban and the predecessors of Al Qaeda) kick the Soviets out in the 1980s, we dropped Afghanistan like a rock. Why? Because we had no interests there other than denying control to Russia. Has that changed? If the United States can eliminate Al Qaeda without “liberating” Afghanistan, would it matter what kind of government there was in Kabul afterward? History says no!

There is currently great controversy and grwoing pessimism about the prospects in Afghanistan, the response to which is to call for a bigger effort. The problem is that the pessimism is directed at the second war rather than the first–eliminating Al Qaeda. That has not gone well, but there may be other approaches that are more likely to succeed–turning the military effort covert, engaging in greater political efforts with Pakistan, for instance. Calls to ratchet up the action in Afghanistan do not address this problem, which is the first and real reason for war in Afghanistan. Instead, they speak to the second war, which is going badly because that is basically all it can do. Once again, it represents the American penchant not to learn from or to forget the lessons of previous engagements. Destroying Al Qaeda is not concpdetually like Vietnam, but the second war in Afghanistan may be. The second war broke the Soviet Union, and now it is testing us. You are right, General McKiernan, “the people of Afghanistan will win” the second war, but it may be by beating us.

“NATO Not Losing Afghan War, Commander Says.” New York Times (online), October 12, 2008 (story provided by Reuters).

Grim Prospects in Afghanistan

Posted in 2001, Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , , on October 9, 2008 by whatafteriraq

The war in Afghanistan is now seven years old, and it is no closer to being over than it was when it began. For years, it has flown beneath the radar cover provided by Iraq. As the Iraq war winds down, however, attention has, as noted earlier this week, begun to shift to the landscape and prospects in Afghanistan. The picture is not pretty; grim may be the best way to describe it.

The U.S. government has begun to turn its attention eastward from Iraq as well.The Pentagon has urged looking again at what we are doing and what we hope to accomplish, and a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is due out any day. They are likely to cast even longer shadows on our involvement.

The Pentagon has asked for a thorough review at both the conceptual and operational levels. The conceptual part begins with a review of America’s objectives in Afghanistan. It is mind-boggling to think that any country would fight a war for seven years without knowing the objective (what it seeks to accomplish), but unfortunately such a question is not inappropriate.

What is the policitcal objective in Afghanistan? Almost everyone would agree that getting rid of Al Qaeda tops the list, as noted in the last post, but what after that? A democratic, stable Afghanistan? A surgical removal of Al Qaeda from Pashtun territories on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that leads to democratic stability in Pakistan as well? How important are each of these possible objectives to the United States? No one seems to know, or be publicly willing to discuss or defend.

The Pentagon apparently also wants to know which of these goals are achievable, particularly through the application of military force. When the question is asked this way, the prospects become especially grim.

We all agree that we want to rid ourselves (and the world) of Al Qaeda, but how? Conventional military force clearly is inapplicable in the forbidden territories along the Afghan-Pakistani border (the so-called Durand Line, named after the British diplomat who drew it in the late nineteenth century to separate the British Raj from Afghanistan). Surgical air strikes turn out not to be so surgical, miss their intended targets much of the time, and maximize collateral damage–civilian deaths–and thus end up doing as much or more harm than good. Is there a military strategy that will accomplish the goal? In any traditional sense, the answer seems to be no, and adding more conventional forces to the field will not change that assessment.

One response has been to transfer the Patraeus Iraq strategy of counterinsiurgency to Afghanistan, but that model does not apply. The heart of COIN doctrine is the establishment of secure, safe territories wherein the battle for hearts and minds can be waged. The area in contest is NOT amenable to that approach. Most of it (on both sides of the Durand line) consists of Pashtun tribal villages, whose tradition is to resist, not embrace, outsiders who say they want to liberate them. As Martin Ewans summarizes the Afghan/Pashtun tradition, “an overriding feature of their history…has been a history of conflict–of invasions, battles and sieges, of vendettas, assassinations and massacres, or tribel feuding, dynastic strife, and civil war. Rarely have the Afghans allowed themselves, or allowed others with whom they have come in contact, to lead out heir lives in peace.” How the U.S. military is going to be able to reverse that tradition is not covered in FM 3-24 (the joint Army-Marine cointerinsurgency manual associated with Petraeus). It is not too strong an assertion to say the military effort as now constituted is a fool’s errand. This situation is only redoubled if one slips across the border into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan–an area the central Pakistani government has effectively ceded control over and in its current weakened position is hardly likely to challenge.

The other objectives can be taken more or less seriously. The United States, under the Bush Doctrine, would prefer a stable democracy in Kabul, but Afghan history suggests it will be lucky to get one or the other. Once again quoting Ewans, “The state has never been strong enough to establish effective control over the countryside….A sense of national unity has always been weak, except when an unusually strong leader has appeared or the nation has come together when threatened by an external enemy.” Hamid Karzai is not that unusual leader; the United States and its NATO allies, however, might qualify as an external enemy.

The prospects in Pakistan are even more forbidding. Attacking Al Qaeda by breaching the Durand Line from Afghanistan only emphasizes the impotence of the Pakistani government and weakens its popular appeal among its own citizens. The United States wants simultaneously to encourage democracy in Pakistan and to hunt down Al Qaeda in the FATA. The two goals are in fact contradictory; the United States had better choose one or the other; pursuing both is likely to result in attaining neither.

How did we get into this terrible mess? The short answer is through inadequate thinking and inattention. Obama is right about taking the eye off the ball in 2001 when we might have destroyed Al Qaeda, nut after that failed, we quit thinking about what to do next. Instead, we kept doing the same things that have been failing in the hopes of different outcomes. We still are, and that is not a compliment to our sagacity.

U.S. policy suffers from two major shortcomings in Afghanistan. First, we really do not know what we want to accomplish (what are the objectives?). Beyond eradicating Al Qaeda, do we really care what happens there? Your answer can lead to very different conclusions and courses of action. Second, what CAN we accomplish? The lessons of history do not encourage military adventurism in Afghanistan by outsiders. Ask the British or the Russians, or scores of others before them. The retiring British commander in Afghanistan suggested we could be there another ten years. For what? 

Martin Ewans. Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics. New York: HarperCollins Perennial, 2002.

Afghanistan and the Presidential Campaign

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, War on Terror with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2008 by whatafteriraq

The war in Iraq has largely fallen off the table among issues being contested in the presidential election campaign, but America’s “other” war in Afghanistan, has begun to attract more attention, at least in part because of increased U.S. casualties in that theater. Since the economy will almost certainly continue to dominate election concerns between now and the first Tuesday in November, what is being said about Afghanistan is hardly likely to be critical in who wins the White House. Whoever does win, however, will to some extent be stuck with what he has already said on the matter. In that sense, the debate does matter.

The candidates are in agreement on two matters. The first is that the effort is important because of the terrorism problem, although Obama tends to place more emphasis on this theater because it drives home his point that Iraq diverted attention from this more impotant problem. They also both agree that at least part of the solution is more American troops to Afghanistan.

They disagree on other aspects of the issue, and their positions are more problematical than is typically discussed.

McCain argues that the United States can prevail in Afghanistan because in a McCain administration, the emphasis would be on transferring the Petraeus “doctrine” of cointerinsurgency (COIN) to Afghanistan. This formulation is questionable on at least three grounds.

First, it assumes the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan are similar enough that what worked in one would also work in the other. Aside from both being in the same general part of the world, that is an assumption for which the supporting evidence is less than overwhelming. Iraq, in other words, probably is NOT Pakistan (more in a subsequent posting). Second, it assumes that the COIN strategy with which Patraeus’ name is attached is a balm for the current problem in Afghanistan. One can argue that other factors, not COIN, have improved the situation in Iraq. Effective COIN (in those cases where it works) requires huge numbers of forces to protect a population being pacified and coverted to the cointerinsurgents’ cause. Even then, the outcome is not assured. The necessary levels of force are unlikely ever to be available for textbook COIN in Afghanistan. The analogy fails.

Third, in present circumstances, General Petraeus, McCain’s man on the white horse, does not even have operational control or responsibility for Afghanistan. NATO is (largely at American prodding) a NATO operation, and General David McKiernan (or is it McClellan?) does not report to CENTCOM commander Petraeus, but to NATO. The United States has recently called for a reorganization of the NATO effort to put the Americans under CENTCOM, but that has not happened and is opposed by many in NATO (see Sengupta article). Before McCain can even try his proposed strategy in Afghanistan, he will have to negotiate a change in the NATO command structure in Afghanistan, a move that could easily create as many problems as it solves.

The Obama approach is also not without controversy. The heart of Obama’s message is that the United States erred in diverting is efforts to stomp out Al Qaeda by going into Iraq and that once the Iraqi diversion is over, it can successfully reorient itself to Afghanistan. To his credit (or is it the Biden touch?), he has admitted that much of the reorientation must be improved political relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan lubricated by significant amounts of developmental assistance to improve conditions on the ground as a way to compete for the “hearts and minds” of the mostly Pashtun population (which forms the base of the Taliban) along the border area between the two where Al Qaeda is encamped.

The Obama approach is also subject to questions. First, it has been elusive about what exactly constitutes success in Afghanistan (McCain hasn’t said either): how will we know we’ve won? Second, Afghan history does not encourage the use of military force/occupation as a successful strategy against the Afghans–ask a long history of invaders of that land. Third, he has not explained how the United States, in its contemporary economic situation, is going to find the money to pay for all the economic assisance that is supposed to “buy” support for the Karzai regime (or, for that matter, how to avoid the Afghan government from stealing most of it). Can money “buy you love”, in the words of an old Beatles song.

Nobody is questioning the candidates closely on Afghanistan now, because it does not seem terribly critical to the election. Afghanistan policy is, however, going to be sitting near the top of the in-box for the new president in January, and it is a policy area with all the potential corrosiveness of Iraq or even Vietnam. What the candidates think and say now could come home to bite them in the future.

Kim Sengupta, “US Seeking Sole Command of NATO’s War against the Taliban.”, September 18,2008.