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.
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.
“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.