Category Archives: Afghanistan

Afghanistan, logistics, geopolitics, war, peace

The WaPo’s Craig Whitlock has an informative piece in today’s paper about the many continuing challenges the U.S. military has faced as it attempted to provide logistic support to the “surged” U.S. troop presence in very distant Afghanistan.
Supplying these troops is particularly hard, due to three factors:

    1. Um, Afghanistan is a long way away from the United States; it is landlocked with high mountains surrounding it on nearly every side; and it has lousy internal infrastructure.
    2. The all-volunteer U.S. military is configured in a certain way and most of it fights in a certain way. Bottom line here: supporting one service-member in the field, what with bottled water, air-conditioning when at all possible, decent electric supplies, warm meals whenever possible– oh, not to mention the high cost of her or his weaponry, very high-tech vehicles, and the fuel needed to power them– etc., etc., places huge demands on the supply branches such as would not be placed by, for example, a Maoist-style field force “living off the land.”
    3. U.S. politics certainly constrains logistics choices that might otherwise be far simpler (and less expensive) to make. For example: one look at the map so handily provided by the WaPo today shows a big U.S.-logistics black hole in the whole of Iran, a neighbor of Afghanistan that has a number of pretty good land links with it. But the U.S. can’t use Iran as a transit zone! (More on this, below.) In addition, though, domestic U.S. political pressures mandate that the vast bulk of the goods supplied to U.S. forces be bought from (and shipped from) U.S. suppliers. So it might make a lot more sense to source the supplies from elsewhere. (And I believe that in the case of bottled water, this is not shipped in from the United States– can anyone confirm that?) But still, that domestic-sourcing pressure might help save a few jobs back in the United States, but it certainly adds hugely to the logistical challenge.

So yes, in some respects the U.S. military is a competent organization; and by and large it has been able to meet the logistical challenges created by the above factors.
Whitlock quotes Alan F. Estevez, the Pentagon’s principal deputy assistant secretary for logistics, as saying “If you look at what we’ve done there in the last two years, we look at it more or less as a logistics miracle.”
H’mm. “Miraculous”, maybe. But also a truly gargantuan money sump for the currently hard-pressed U.S. taxpayer, a massive burden on the global environment and especially the environment of the war zone itself… And all for– what exactly?
In order to deliver the machinery of lethal combat into one of the poorest countries on earth…

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Afghanistan’s election: Some reflections

Back in 2004-05, Pres. Bush and his people were trying to ‘re-brand’ America’s overseas military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as being part of a campaign to bring the wonderful fruits of democracy to various peoples around the world. At the tip of a cruise missile, no less… Oh my goodness how tragic and wrongheaded every single step along this way has been…
Thus we had the sudden emergence of the phenomenon of the ‘purple finger’. Images of those people emerging from voting booths with their purple-stained digits were flashed around the world. (And one purple digiteer even got to attend Bush’s State of the Union Address in January 2006, I seem to recall. ‘Our’ achievement there…)
Today, the people of Afghanistan went to the polls for their second nationwide election since the U.S.-led invasion of their country in 2001. I’ve been following the reporting from there via Twitter’s #Afghan10 hashtag. Canadian journo Naheed Mustafa tweeted “I’m not convinced it’s all worth it for 40% turnout and little legitimacy.” She linked to this piece of serious-looking reporting from the ever-professional folks at McClatchy.
Mustafa is quite right to take seriously the legitimacy angle, since that above all is what the U.S. government seeks to gain from a ‘successful’ holding of the election. Of course, Afghanistan’s 30 million people probably have different meta-goals… which quite likely would include there– as in other war-torn countries– the goal that election result in the formation of a stable and accountable national government that can lead a successful process of internal reconciliation while rapidly building up its ability to deliver basic services to the Afghan people.
Right. I imagine many Afghan citizens have had the opportunity to see what has happened in Iraq since the (technically more or less ‘successful’) holding of the nationwide election there back in early March.
In Iraq, the four large political blocs have still not been able to come to agreement on forming their new government, more than six months later. And in the absence of any new governing authority having emerged, the caretaker government of PM Nouri al-Maliki is still limping along. The security situation continues to be terrible, with large-scale suicide bombings still happening every couple of weeks. And the delivery of other basic services like clean water, electricity, banking services, etc etc, continues to be performed at levels considerably worse than what Iraq’s people enjoyed back in the 1970s.
A technically ‘successful’ election guarantees nothing in terms of quality of governance; and therefore nothing in terms of people actually being able to enjoy the basic rights of citizenship.
… Ah, but here in the U.S., Pres. Obama has been continuing to trumpet the arguments that what has been happening in both Iraq and Afghanistan somehow represent the “progress” that he promised and that he still hopes to embody. regarding Iraq, he has been careful not to engage in the kind of jejune “Mission Accomplished” triumphalism that Pres. Bush used to revel in. But still, as the August 31 deadline for the “end of U.S. combat operations” in Iraq went by, Obama did his best to describe that milestone– which was not actually such a real milestone at all– as marking something that the U.S. had indeed ‘accomplished.’ Um, well, the timetable leading toward a complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq is one that was agreed between the Bush administration and PM Maliki’s government in Iraq back in November 2008. So if Obama is saying that he has been trying to stick to the U.S.’s promises in that regard (well, more or less), than is that really anything to trumpet as an “accomplishment”? Shouldn’t nations and governments be expected as a matter of course to live up their international commitments?
I believe Obama could and should have done a lot more to remind people in the U.S. and overseas that it was a national (and Republican-initiated) commitment he was living up to in Iraq. And he still could and should be doing a lot more to engage all the international community– including, of course, all six of Iraq’s neighbors– in a joint effort to underline the value of Iraq’s territorial unity and independence, and to offer all support for the speedy formation of a stable and empowered national government there.
And then there is Afghanistan, which is currently much more “Obama’s war” than Iraq is or ever has been. After all, Obama supported the original U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (as he did not, of Iraq); and he was also, last winter, the president who made the solemn decision to undertake a new surge of American forces there.
Today, the WaPo had a very significant piece of reporting by Karen DeYoung, in which she just about confirmed what I have been arguing for 10 months now, namely that the whole “strategy” according to which Obama had decided to undertake the Afghan surge was one directed much more at U.S. domestic audiences than at making any actual, definable strategic gains on the ground in Afghanistan.
DeYoung wrote:

    Despite discouraging news from Afghanistan and growing doubts in Congress and among the American public, the Obama administration has concluded that its war strategy is sound and that a December review, once seen as a pivotal moment, is unlikely to yield any major changes.
    This resolve arises amid a flurry of reports from outside experts and former officials who are convinced that the administration’s path in Afghanistan is unsustainable and its objectives are unclear. Lawmakers from both parties are insisting that they be given a bigger say in assessing the war’s trajectory.
    The White House calculus is that the strategy retains enough public and political support to weather any near-term objections. Officials do not expect real pressure for progress and a more precise definition of goals to build until next year, with the approach of a July deadline President Obama has set for decisions on troop withdrawals and the beginning of the 2012 electoral season…

Well, the way I read that, the only “strategy” the people in the White House are really concerned about is the one that has to do with domestic considerations… They just want things in Afghanistan to not look too bad until they are able– as per the announced timetable next year– to start pulling the American forces home… with that part of the timetable tied tightly to the beginning of the U.S. electoral season…
How solipsistic can a country and a (democratically elected) government become? There seems to be literally no limit.
Finally, of course, I cannot leave this short reflection on U.S. policies and the push toward purple fingerism in distant countries under the sway of the U.S. without some quick reference to what happened in Egypt and Palestine after the U.S. had successfully lobbied– back in 2005 and early 2006– for the holding of ‘democratic’ elections in both countries. In Egypt, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood did considerably better than the U.S. had expected, and Pres. Mubarak thereafter moved back into his traditionally repressive mode with no further U.S. intervention in the matter… And after Hamas won the free and fair elections in Palestine in January 2006… Well, I guess I don’t have to remind many JWN readers about what happened there.

Afghanistan War Logs on US extra-judicial killings

I’ve begun reading the accounts from Wikileaks’s Afghanistan War Logs (AWL) that are being provided by the NYT, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel.
The revelations that have interested me most have been those about the extra-judicial killings (assassinations) that have been carried out by the U.S. military against suspected (or merely accused) Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Conducting extra-judicial killings is, of course, a tactic the US military has picked up from Israel, which has used them for many years now.
An “extra-judicial” killing is, of course, just that. It is a killing in which any “evidence” there is against the target is compiled and judged only in secret, by secret accusers.
In the U.S. military, the tendency is to say that the orders that result from this process are to “capture or kill” those designated as targets. But as this Guardian review of the AWL material reveals,

    In many cases, the unit has set out to seize a target for internment, but in others it has simply killed them without attempting to capture. The logs reveal that TF 373 has also killed civilian men, women and children and even Afghan police officers who have strayed into its path.

The Guardian piece, which was written by Nick Davies, says that,

    The Nato coalition in Afghanistan has been using an undisclosed “black” unit of special forces, Task Force 373, to hunt down targets for death or detention without trial. Details of more than 2,000 senior figures from the Taliban and al-Qaida are held on a “kill or capture” list, known as Jpel, the joint prioritised effects list.

Both the Guardian account and the Der Spiegel account note that U.S. military commanders have gone to great lengths to conceal he existence of TF-373, which it describes as,

    The unit of elite soldiers, which includes members of the Navy Seals and the Delta Force, get their orders directly from the Pentagon in Washington and operate outside of the chain of command of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

I note parenthetically that ABC News had a story today about the Taliban in Afghanistan having claimed that they had killed one U.S. Navy member and captured another one.
What on earth were two U.S. “sailors” doing in seriously landlocked Afghanistan, I wondered?
The Spiegel story notes that,

    [T]he new information about the secret commando missions could… prove embarrassing for the German government. Roughly 300 men with TF 373 have been stationed on the grounds of Camp Marmal, the German field base in Mazar-e-Sharif, since the summer of 2009. The special unit has chosen a strategically advantageous and shielded location at the airfield, where it operates from the Regional Command North, which is under the command of Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr.
    The stationing of the unit was a sensitive issue from the very beginning, and officials in Berlin persistently sought to prevent much discussion of the issue.

The Spiegel story also gives the distinct impression that the activities of the JPEL-related teams have been stepped up in recent months.
So much for Pres. Obama having brought a new respect for the rule of law into the conduct of U.S. government activities overseas.
The Guardian account gives many details of instances in which there have been significant killings of bystanders in conjunction with the activities of TF 373. The killing of bystanders (a.k.a. “collateral damage”) is indeed horrendous, and tragic. But even if no bystanders were killed at all, the idea of designating individuals for execution based on secret accusations against them is itself inherently anti-democratic and repellent.
I really don’t see why Pres. Obama and his advisers don’t understand this.
(Perhaps he listens too much to the advice he gets from his many Israeli friends? Of course, Israel’s longstanding and persistent use of this grisly tactic hasn’t “solved” its many remaining problems with its neighbors, has it? Indeed, by most accounts, it has merely exacerbated those problems. Obama might usefully ponder on that… )

On war

I have been meaning for a while now to blog some of my thoughts on the nature of, and prospects for, our country’s continuing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq…. That intention was rekindled by reading the latest issue of Middle East Report, which has some good articles on the subject– as well as a good piece on Washington’s political interventions in Iraqi politics by none other than Reidar Visser.
Regarding U.S. military doctrine, and the whole issue of Gen. Petraeus having been rushed in to take over from McChrystal in Afghanistan, I’ve been thinking for a while that we really need to do a thorough re-examination of this whole “doctrine” of “counter-insurgency” (COIN), of which, of course, Petraeus was one of the principal authors. In this issue of MER, Rochelle Davis, Laleh Khalili, and B.D. Hopkins all have good articles on various aspects of ‘COIN’, and Steve Niva has a good piece on the ‘lessons’ from Israel’s failure to win the 33-day war against Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006. You can read the whole text of Davis’s and Khalili’s pieces there, free.
My own emerging thoughts are that the entire “doctrine” of COIN may well be most appropriately thought of as a huge, elaborate Potemkin village, designed mainly to bamboozle the U.S. public into thinking our brave men and women in uniform are actually able to do something of some value in those distant battlefields, and that they will “achieve” something of value there before– as will inevitably happen– financial constraints at home and the constraints of the hugely intractable facts on the ground in those distant places will force a U.S. withdrawal “redeployment” from them. (As I wrote in Boston Review, last December.)
Maybe we should start calling it (Potem-)COIN.
… And in a very important and related development, Gen. Ray Odierno, the guy who’s in charge of all the U.S. forces in Iraq, told the AP on Tuesday that,

    U.N. peacekeeping forces may need to replace departing U.S. troops in the nation’s oil-rich north if a simmering feud between Arabs and minority Kurds continues through 2011.

That is not a direct quotation from Odierno, but the version reported by AP’s Lara Jakes. She also commented,

    A U.N. force might offer both the Iraqi leadership and President Barack Obama a politically palatable alternative to an ongoing U.S. presence to prevent ethnic tensions from descending into war. Although occasional bombings by Sunni extremists on Shiite targets grab the headlines, many observers believe the Kurdish-Arab dispute is the most powerful fault line in Iraq today.

To which, all I can say is two things: (1) Yes! Make this a role and challenge for an invigorated UN– a body in which all the nations of the world, including Iraq’s neighbors, are represented; but (2) How tragic that it has taken Washington and the U.S. military so many long years to get this far towards the idea that it might indeed not be the U.S. alone and its chosen lackeys inside Iraq who determine the future of that severely war- and occupation-battered country.
Of course, it would have been far, far better if the U.S. had never invaded Iraq at all. But Bush and Cheney were determined to do so, and did. Then, relatively soon after the invasion/occupation I started arguing– e.g. here in Kansas in May 2004 (scroll down to the comment from my dear, subsequently deceased, friend Misty Gerner), and doubtless also earlier– that the best way to deal with the tough challenges the U.S. faced in running the occupation would be to hand the whole basket of big questions involved over to the U.N.
But of course they didn’t take my advice. 3,000-plus U.S. service-members have been killed in Iraq since then, and many scores of thousands wounded. And more than 100,000 Iraqis probably lost their lives in the waves of sectarian violence that erupted in 2006 and 2007– stoked in good part by Washington’s blatant policy of emphasizing sectarian and ethnic differences in a sustained attempt to suppress adherence to any continuing form of (pan-)Iraqi nationalist feeling.
… And all for what? Because the powers that be in Washington did not want to admit that they needed to share decision-making power in Iraq with the U.N.
So now here’s Ray Odierno in July 2010 saying, Oh yes, and maybe now we need the U.N. in Iraq.
Staggeringly tragic. Much, much more to write about here.
But I have a huge bundle of things I need to do for my business in the days ahead. Stay tuned…

Chinese official discusses Afghanistan

Khaleej Times has an interesting interview today with Sun Weidong, Deputy Director General of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Asian Department.
It’s a particularly timely interview because Afghanistan has been high on the agenda of the annual summit of the Chinese-hosted Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and has among its observer-states Mongolia, Pakistan, Iran and India.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai was invited to attend the meeting, but it’s not clear whether he did so.
People’s Daily reports that the summit repeated its earlier call for the U.N. to play a greater role in Afghanistan and expressed the belief that believed “‘military means alone’ cannot solve the country’s problems.”
Sun expanded on that latter point in his interview with the Khaleej Times. He noted– as was also made clear in the SCO summit statement– that China and all of Afghanistan’s other neighbors have been experiencing great problems from the inflow of drugs to their countries from Afghanistan.
Here is some of what Sun said about political initiatives in Afghanistan, the links between the situation there and the challenges China faces from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and the limited utility of military power:

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US project approaching doom in Afghanistan?

Whenever I read the news about the U.S.-led military project in Afghanistan these days, I feel a knot of dread in my stomach. The project is so palpably rushing toward a denouement that will be disastrous for many of its participants in the project itself– and also, most likely, for unforeseeable numbers of Afghans.
I already felt pretty pessimistic about the chances of Obama’s “surge” there back in December, when I wrote this short essay for Boston Review. I have felt even worse about it in recent weeks.
Within just the past five days, anti-ISAF forces have undertaken bold attacks against an ISAF convoy in Kabul (where three high-ranking U.S. officers and one Canadian ditto were reportedly among the casualties); against Bagram air base near Kabul; and then, last night, against the big ISAF air-base in Kandahar.
It was always an exercise in imperial hubris to imagine that bringing the number of NATO/ISAF troops up to 90,000, as Obama’s surge is now in the midst of doing, could somehow turn the strategic tide in Afghanistan in ISAF’s favor. In the 1980s the Soviet Union, which bordered directly onto Afghanistan (thus ensuring that its supply lines were considerably shorter than American supply lines today) and was the repository of considerable historical, ethnographic, and directly-gained political knowledge about Afghanistan, was unable to impose its will on Afghanistan’s people even though it had more than 100,000 troops there.
Why should Americans politicians imagine that ISAF’s much more vulnerable and more poorly informed 90,000 could succeed?
So, the destructive power the ISAF can (and sometimes does) employ in Afghanistan, is considerably heftier, more mobile, and more lethal than that used by the Russians?
That doesn’t count for anything strategically meaningful on today’s battlefield. It “matters” only to the communities that get ripped apart by those very destructive air and artillery attacks… communities where lives and livelihoods alike can be blown out of existence by a single piece of hyper-destructive ordnance.
But the political– that is, the truly strategic– result of such attacks has frequently been merely to harden opinion against those who have launched them. The ability (and willingness) to use hyper-lethal force thus very frequently turns out to be counter-productive… As, to their credit, Gen. Petraeus and the other authors of the U.S. military’s 2006 “Counterinsurgency Manual” recognized when they were writing it.
Enter the “softer, gentler” way of American warfare in Afghanistan… As was described in this May 20 report on NPR by Jackie Northam, and in this report in today’s WaPo by Karen De Young.
Northam:

    Until a few weeks ago, U.S. and NATO military officials were describing the upcoming operation in Kandahar as a major offensive — the cornerstone of the new strategy meant to break the momentum of the Taliban insurgency — and said it was due to get under way this spring or in early summer, to be wrapped up by August.
    But then last month, American military spokesmen in Kabul began telling reporters it was incorrect to use terms such as “offensive” or “operation” in describing plans for Kandahar. Last week, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the “efforts” in Kandahar are a process, not an event.
    … “We’re not using the term ‘operation’ or ‘major operations,’ because that often brings to mind in people’s psyche the idea of a D-Day and an H-hour and an attack,” he said.
    Not only has the terminology changed, but so too has the timeline. Officials with the departments of State and Defense say an outright offensive won’t be launched until this autumn at the earliest.

DeYoung today:

    “It’s not a military operation in the normal sense of the word,” an administration official said.
    … The name of the offensive — Hamkari Baraye Kandahar, or Cooperation for Kandahar — was carefully chosen to avoid the word “operation,” which suggests violence. The administration official described it benignly as a “military presence” and [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai has defined it as a “process.”

But the U.S.’s softer, gentler way of warfare is not going well. The mantra for this COIN-inspired approach is that the counterinsurgency forces need to “clear, hold, and build” in the successive chunks of the land that they operate in.
In Kandahar, which is widely considered the key to “breaking” the Afghan Taliban, the prospects for “clear and hold” already look pretty bleak. Yesterday’s Wapo had this (notably “Kim”-like) story about pro-Talib operatives who in recent weeks have already been quietly assassinating and poisoning pro-U.S. community leaders throughout the city.
Significantly, the writer there, Joshua Partlow, reports that in most cases the assassins have delivered “night letters” to their targets a few nights before the killings. You could describe that as a scare tactic. Or, more generously, you could say that it gives the recipients “one last chance” to cease their cooperation with the U.S…. but on pain of death.
For his story, Partlow got to interview the surviving relatives of some of those who ended up killed, and of course, many of their stories were heart-rending. Who he did not, I imagine, get to interview were the families where a member had received such a threatening letter and then moved swiftly to cut all ties with the Americans (including with military-accompanied U.S. reporters like Partlow.) Who knows what the proportion between the members of those two groups would be?
… And then, regarding the third, “build” phase of the COIN program, DeYoung’s piece gives us an indication of how very challenging (or perhaps, actually, doomed from the get-go) that phase promises to be. She cites a recent, military-produced analysis as reporting that,

    Of 784 uniformed police in Kandahar city and the surrounding area, only 25 percent to 30 percent have been trained, although new forces are scheduled to arrive for the offensive. Of 87 slots for local judges, nine are filled. Saraposa prison, the main detention facility in Kandahar, is overpopulated and is considered less than secure, and the offensive is expected to produce “far more” prisoners than it can handle…

As Northam noted, the U.S. military and many other actors have been looking at the fate of the U.S. military’s “clear, hold, and build” in the much smaller town/district of Marjah last February as giving an indication of what might lie ahead in Kandahar.
What they’ve been seeing must have been very dishearterning for the military.
On May 18, the London Sunday Times’s Marie Colvin, who had just been in Marjah, had this to report:

    I personally was out on patrol with the American Marines. We were on a night patrol and we were spotted by what was the Taliban. They started following us with the light from a roof and there were others in the tree line. It was very clear that they had some kind of network in Marjah. I would say about 50 percent are local Marjah residents. Everyone knows who they were, they put their Kalishnikovs down, they picked up a shovel, and now they’ve come back, given that the poppy harvest is in.
    The Taliban make their money from taxing local poppy farmers… Certainly other Taliban, other supporters have come back into Marjah. But a lot of the insurgents and the intimidation you’re seeing is actually coming from local Marjah Taliban sympathizers or members.

NPR host Robert Siegel, who was interviewing Colvin there, framed the report with this assessment:

    In February, the U.S. Marines moved into Marjah in force, having publically declared the district of 75,000 a key objective. They were there to push the Taliban out of their last remaining stronghold in the province. This was part of the Afghan surge, more U.S. and Afghan troops that would hold the city and protect the population.
    Well, after initial reports of resistance and then success, here’s what’s disconcerting: the Taliban have resumed their insurgency and Afghan civilians are fleeing the area…

The big, quasi-state visit that Karzai and 15 members of his government made to Washington just 10-12 days ago now already seems a distant memory. He got the expected rapping over the knuckles from some of his hosts about the need for him to “crack down on corruption”, etc.
Like most other aspects of his visit, that one was really an act of kabuki theater (and I really don’t know how participants in such gatherings can keep themselves from giggling at key moments.) Because of course, one of the major “weapons” the U.S. military is planning to use during its “surge” in Kandahar– as it did in Iraq’s Anbar province in 2007– is great bags-full of dollar bills, with which it hopes to buy off as many of the insurgents as possible.
Anyway, one thing Karzai was able to win from his American hosts during his visit was their “permission” that he could go ahead and organize a “peace jirga” later this month, to try to engage key figures close to the Taliban in a peace negotiation.
On May 20, AP had a report that he and his people have already been sending out some pretty serious peace feelers to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami, including with a meeting then underway in the Maldives and an earlier meeting in Kabul.
The Hizb is thought to be a lot smaller than the Taliban; and Karzai was said to have been upset that the initiative in convening the Maldives meeting had been taken by Hekmatyar’s son-in-law, not himself. For more on the Maldives meeting, see Tim Coghlan’s May 21 piece in the London Times.
Anyway, between the promised peace jirga and the Maldives meeting, it seems that Karzai is still a lot more eager to explore a negotiated resolution of the conflict with the Taliban than the Americans are.
Pres. Obama needs to be a lot more open than he currently is to the idea of making a speedy and substantial shift away from military confrontation in Afghanistan, and toward real negotiations with all the substantial political currents in the country, with a U.N. framework being the one best designed to support such talks.
Hey, he could always say this is part of the “new internationalism” he was so eager to talk about during the commencement address he gave at the West Point Military Academy yesterday.
Absent such a shift, many more of Afghanistan’s chronically war-battered people are going to continue to find their lives blighted– or snuffed out completely– by the continuing conflict; many more U.S. service-members are going to find themselves at risk in a very distant, very hostile land; and the extraordinary costs of this military campaign in Afghanistan will continue sucking life out of our country’s present economy and our future economic prospects.
Call off this military confrontation, Obama! Find a way to the peace table while you can.

2m2ba #4: Killings and cover-ups

Jerome Starkey of the London Times published a great piece of reporting yesterday about an incident in Afghanistan’s Paktia province on February 12 when U.S. Special forces gunned down two pregnant women, a teenage girl, a police officer and his brother in their home– and then “dug bullets out of their victims’ bodies in the bloody aftermath of a botched night raid, then washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened… ”
Glenn Greenwald has an excellent follow-up today in which he gives extensive details of how successful the cover-up was. Well, it was especially successful in that the military concocted a cover-up story–as shown in this NATO press release from the time– and then most of the US MSM just swallowed that whole story completely and regurgitated it without trying to do any independent reporting.
The NATO cover-up story was particularly odious because it blamed the U.S.’s opponents for the killings and quoted NATO/ISAF’s Canadian spokesman as saying,

    “ISAF continually works with our Afghan partners to fight criminals and terrorists who do not care about the life of civilians.”

He should resign.
Greenwald noted that the only independent reporting that came out at the time was performed by AP and by Pajhwok Afghan News, an independent news agency created in Afghanistan to enable war reporting by Afghans.
Late on Sunday night, the U.S. military command in Kabul finally admitted that its forces had, in fact, killed the women during the nighttime raid.
This news comes out at the same time that Wikileaks, yesterday, published some extremely disturbing footage, shot from a U.S. attack helicopter in Baghdad in July 2007, that shows the chopper’s gunners gunning down a group of around 7-8 people who appear to be relaxedly standing and walking in a street. The group included two TV cameramen for Reuters. It seems the troops on the chopper thought the cameras were weapons– but no-one shown o the video looks as though they’re in any kind of combat stance.
Reuters has been trying since 2007 to get the military to release the video. Wikileaks does not say how it got it.
On the video, the U.S. troops later fire at a van that comes to pick up a wounded survivor from the assault. Then, as U.S. ground troops arrive, one of their voices on the intercom is laughing about having driven over a body.
All these revelations that keep coming out about the strong propensity of U.S. (and Israeli) troops to engage in excessive violence, and the propensity of their respective high commands to cover up that fact, underline a couple of important lessons:

    1. Armed conflict is always violent, and extremely damaging to anyone who is in the war zone. No matter how often they tell us about “pinpoint accuracy”, “smart weapons”, and so on, the vast majority of the violence involved in armed conflict is brutal and anything but “pinpoint”.
    2. Armed conflict always also brutalizes those sent out to engage in it. And it brutalizes people more and more over time, as acts that earlier are seen as taboo or “exceptional” progressively become more and more routine. Time was, in Israel, the military would rigorously investigate the cause of every death-in-conflict of a Palestinian. Then it stopped doing that. Then it started acting as if extrajudicial executions could be considered as “just routine”…

Using violence to try to resolve differences is outrageous, and barbaric. All of us who live in countries that claim to respect human life and human liberties should renounce it. Guess what, we do now have international institutions that, if further strengthened, could help us resolve all the world’s big conflicts without recourse to war.

Too much to blog about #2: Karzai

Oh, the U.S. has such a pesky “Host Nation” problem in Afghanistan these days, doesn’t it?
On Saturday, the U.S.-installed president, Hamid Karzai said he would join the Taliban if the western nations don’t stop meddling in his country.
H’mmm.
“Host Nation” is a key concept in the US Army and Marine Corps’s 2006 manual on counter-insurgency. U.S. counter-insurgency theory, you see– or ‘COIN’ as the cognoscenti call it– is all based on the idea that the U.S. military will be fighting these vicious, basically anti-guerrilla wars inside somebody else’s country. Thus there is from the get-go a deep problem of the legitimacy of the U.S. presence; and the U.S. military can attempt to solve this only by upholding the myth that they are always there “at the invitation” of the local government of what is called the “Host Nation”.
Never mind that it may well have been– as in the case of Karzai government in Afghanistan or the Nuri al-Maliki government in Iraq– only the power of the U.S. military that brought these men to power in the first place. That fact needs to be airbrushed out of this account of the roots of the U.S. military’s legitimacy.
But then, those U.S.-installed “leaders” tend to go majorly off the reservation and start acting on their own account. Both these men, for example, have fairly warm relations with the Iranian government. (But only Karzai could pull off the complicated political trick of being on good terms with both the Iranian mullahs and the fiercely anti-Shiite Taliban!)
Actually, U.S.-installed leaders are going off the reservation in other countries, too. How about that Saad Hariri, all lovey-dovey with Syria these days?
… I just went back and read the lengthy critique I did here in January 2007 of the U.S. military’s whole COIN doctrine, and the problem it has with the legitimacy issue and with Host Nation relations. It is really not too bad. Scroll on down to the table there.
Within Afghanistan, Karzai’s present truculence toward the Americans poses huge problems for the American military’s plan to mount a big anti-Taliban operation in Kandahar over the summer. This operation has, I think, been intended to be the capstone of the big “look-tough” policy Obama and his advisers planned as a prelude to the major drawdown of U.S. forces that he has all along planned. (As I wrote in my Boston Review piece last December.)
But for the U.S. military to get tough in Kandahar, they’ll need to be confronting the provincial governor, who is Karzai’s reportedly very corrupt brother Ahmed Wali Karzai. I suspect that’s what much of the current U.S.-Karzai tension is really about?
At abroader level, though, the endgame for the U.S. military’s 8.5-year presence in Afghanistan now looks as though it might well be rather ignominious. As I’ve argued in numerous places before, it would be much better for Washington to take the “Afghanistan question” back to the U.N Security Council and win the real support of all the other big powers there for a resolution that will allow an orderly shrinkage of U.S. military power in the region, real buy-in from Afghanistan’s neighbors and all the other big Asian powers to some broad regional settlement, and a re-balancing of the west-rest balance both in that region and everywhere else in the world.
Maintaining the fiction that Americans of any description– whether grunts earnestly trying to follow Gen. Petraeus’s COIN manual, or the former Marine Corps general who’s Obama’s national security adviser, or the former junior senator from New York who’s now the country’s top diplomat– have any clue at all as to how to resolve Afghanistan’s many very thorny problems of internal balance, governance, and relations with its neighbors is a mistake that it’s very costly to continue making for very much longer.

U.S. facing big problems in Marja

Richard A. Oppel had a fascinating, closely reported piece from Marja, Afghanistan, in the NYT today, telling how that small part of Helmand province, which was supposed to be the showcase for how Obama’s very own surge in Afghanistan could “turn the tide” against the Taliban, has in fact done nothing of the sort.
Oppel’s lede:

    Since their offensive here in February, the Marines have flooded Marja with hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. The tactic aims to win over wary residents by paying them compensation for property damage or putting to work men who would otherwise look to the Taliban for support.
    The approach helped turn the tide of insurgency in Iraq. But in Marja, where the Taliban seem to know everything — and most of the time it is impossible to even tell who they are — they have already found ways to thwart the strategy in many places, including killing or beating some who take the Marines’ money, or pocketing it themselves.
    Just a few weeks since the start of the operation here, the Taliban have “reseized control and the momentum in a lot of ways” in northern Marja, Maj. James Coffman, civil affairs leader for the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, said in an interview in late March. “We have to change tactics to get the locals back on our side.”
    Col. Ghulam Sakhi, an Afghan National Police commander here, says his informants have told him that at least 30 Taliban have come to one Marine outpost here to take money from the Marines as compensation for property damage or family members killed during the operation in February.
    “You shake hands with them, but you don’t know they are Taliban,” Colonel Sakhi said. “They have the same clothes, and the same style. And they are using the money against the Marines. They are buying I.E.D.’s and buying ammunition, everything.”

Oppel says directly that the Marines trying to do the “hold and build” phases of the “war” in Marja are “somewhat flummoxed”:

    In Marja, the Taliban are hardly a distinct militant group, and the Marines have collided with a Taliban identity so dominant that the movement appears more akin to the only political organization in a one-party town, with an influence that touches everyone. Even the Marines admit to being somewhat flummoxed.
    “We’ve got to re-evaluate our definition of the word ‘enemy,’ ” said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand Province. “Most people here identify themselves as Taliban.”
    “We have to readjust our thinking so we’re not trying to chase the Taliban out of Marja, we’re trying to chase the enemy out,” he said. “We have to deal with these people.”

The story also strongly suggests to me that the Afghan National Police commander quoted, Col. Ghulam Sakhi, is either on bad terms with the man whom the Americans have parachuted in as been district governor, “Hajji” Abdul Zahir, or Ghulam Sakhi feels he’s not getting enough of a payoff from the huge amounts of money Abdul Zahir has been given control of by the Americans (or both.)
These kinds of problems within Afghan politics probably pose an even greater threat to Gen. McChrystal’s “COIN” plan for Afghanistan than do the Talibs and the other insurgents. The next big campaign for the “surge” will pose an even greater political challenge. That will be Kandahar, where PM Hamid Karzai’s brother is governor and is viewed by the Americans as a huge political problem.
Well, relations between the Americans and the PM are in pretty poor shape right now, too… In fact, the political problems the U.S. forces are facing in Afghanistan these days probably make the ones they faced in Iraq in 2006-07 look simple by comparison. Ditto the logistical challenges. (For the latter, see e.g. here and here. Scroll down for the story in that second one.)
Over at Registan, Joshua Foust has pointed out that in the excellent op-ed he had in the NYT a month ago, he predicted exactly these kinds of problems in Marja.
Having read the Oppel piece this morning, it was strange to get to the WaPo this evening and see the usually sensible David Ignatius writing an incredibly upbeat piece from Marja today. He was indicating that the process of convening tribal shuras and spreading money around was working very well:

    This is how conflicts end in Afghanistan: The Afghans talk out their grievances and eventually reach a deal. Money is exchanged and honor restored. Fighting often continues in the background, but most people go home until the next conflict begins.
    “By all appearances, the people of Marja just want to get on with their lives,” says Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was an enthusiastic observer of the shura here. He assured an audience of Afghan journalists later in Kabul: “All of us want to see this [war] end as soon as possible.”

Ignatius, however, gives no evidence that he’s spent anything like the amount of time in Marja itself that Oppel and his photographer, Moises Saman, did. So though i usually have a lot of respect for Ignatius’s work, on this one I’m incline to trust Oppel more. (By the way, the print version of the story is much longer and more detailed than the web version. Worth getting hold of.)
Back in December, I argued in this Boston Review article that most of the thinking behind Obama’s decision to “surge” in Afghanistan was actually U.S. domestic politics. I still think that’s the case. But for Obama’s original plan to work, he has to find a way to subsequently get out of Afghanistan that’s not a rout. Not easy.

In Boston Review forum– on Afghanistan

I have a contribution in this latest Boston Review forum on Afghanistan. The forum is built around a great piece of reporting by Nir Rosen.
I wish I’d had more time to work on my contribution. But given the time constraints I was under, I’m pretty happy about it.
There are some other good contributions there, too. I haven’t read them all yet; but I looked at Andy Bacevich’s and it’s filled with his usual good sense.
Fwiw, my life has been extremely busy since I took on this job at CNI two months ago. The job has involved a ton more administration than I’d envisaged, and has left just about zero time or energy to do anything else. In fact, this BR contribution is the only non-CNI work I’ve done since October 20.
My very first contribution to BR, back in 2001, was this contribution to a forum they were running on the one-state project in Palestine/Israel. At that time, I was against it, mainly because of its political unfeasibility. As I have noted elsewhere about this piece, “My views later evolved.”
Hey, maybe my views on the unwinnability of the US’s war in Afghanistan might “evolve”, too. At this point, though, I am not expecting that they will…
And here, obviously, is something else very sad about my work load. I haven’t had time to do any JWN blogging… Boo-hoo…
Anyway, if anyone’s reading this, Have a Great Christmas/Holiday time!