Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
from Tales from the Trail:
Former President George W. Bush used to talk about the "soft bigotry of low expectations." He was talking about education in the United States.
But these days, that phrase could easily refer to the U.S. government's attitudes towards Afghanistan. Just look at the following phrases from American officials this year.
"We never promised Afghans a perfect democracy," "Afghans have lower expectations in terms of security," "we have to recognise Afghanistan will always remain a poor, conservative land with a low-level insurgency," "our goal in Afghanistan is simply to prevent al Qaeda using its territory to attack us."
All perfectly reasonable in many ways, but hardly a compelling manifesto to win Afghan hearts and minds.
from Tales from the Trail:
On Monday, the State Department sent out its no. 2 official to tout how it was managing to get U.S. civilians out into the field in Afghanistan, with nearly 1,000 expected to be in place by year-end.
A day later, it was in damage control mode after the resignation of one of its star employees was plastered on the front page of The Washington Post and on the Internet.
Here’s a transcript of an interview with Senator John Kerry on US policy in Afghanistan from the PBS news show The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Margaret Warner conducted the interview on October 26 with the influential Democrat after he had delivered a speech to the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.
Some pundits have suggested that Kerry, who chairs the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, is ‘running cover’ for President Barack Obama in case the President decides not to meet General Stanley McChrystal’s demand to send more troops to Afghanistan.
Much of the rationale for the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has to do with making sure that it doesn’t become a haven for militant groups once again. As President Barack Obama weighs U.S. and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation for 40,000 more troops at a time of fading public support for the war in Afghanistan, some people are questioning the basic premise that America must remain militarily committed there so that al Qaeda doesn’t creep back under the protection of the Taliban.
Richard N.Haass, the president of the Council for Foreign Relations, kicked off the debate this month, arguing that al Qaeda didn’t really “require Afghan real estate to constitute a regional or global threat”. Terrorists head to areas of least resistance, and if it is not Afghanistan, they will choose other unstable countries such as Somalia or Yemen, if it hasn’t happened already, he argues. And the United States cannot conceivably secure all the terrorist havens in the world.
On a recent embed with U.S. Marines in a remote spot of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, the Taliban, or Taliban-linked insurgents, seemed so elusive and invisible that it was easy to doubt whether they actually existed.
Only the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) planted crudely under dirt tracks indicated insurgents were lurking somewhere in Helmand’s vast cornfields and desert plains. Every home or compound that was visited and searched by the Marines I accompanied on foot patrol appeared to be safe or occupied by harmless residents who just wanted to get along with their lives.
The Marines, who had been ambushed by a group of insurgents and successfully cleared a path laced with bombs a day or so before, were by and large convinced that someone, somewhere in these villages, knew where the insurgents were or when they were likely to turn up next.
Patrolling villages in “Taliban country”, is an essential plank of the U.S. military’s counter-insurgency, the strategy championed by General David Petreus in Iraq and largely credited for quelling the insurgency there.
Most U.S. military officers in Afghanistan swear by Field Manual 3-24 (FM 3-24) — the military’s counter-insurgency (COIN) bible. They admit to having “drank the Cool Aid” and most are confident it is the best hope Washington has of gaining the upper hand on the Taliban, securing the support of the population, while trying to keep civilian casualties as low as possible.
But with reports that as many as 40,000 more U.S. troops have been requested for Afghanistan by the commander of foreign forces there, Army General Stanley McChrystal, many are beginning to question whether COIN is too costly, whether it’s misguided and if more troops actually feeds the insurgency.
In his recent assessment of the war in Afghanistan McChrystal said that protecting the population was of paramount importance in efforts to defeat the insurgency. This is one of the core mantras from a French scholar and military officer, David Galula, whose work heavily informs the FM 3-24.
Galula, however, was writing in the 1960s, with reference to France’s struggle against Algeria’s National Liberation Front. As such some scholars such as Thomas Rid at the Woodrow Wilson Institute have said that because counter-insurgency as a military doctrine is the product of a colonial age, rooted in 19th centruy scholarship, it may essentially be outdated or inappropriate for a 21st century war in Afghanistan.
In a recent interview with news channel Al Jazeera, former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said that COIN principles were outdated and would not work in Afghanistan. Even the idea of conducting a western-style democratic election was laughable to him and had echoes of how the Soviet Union tried to impose communism on Afghans in the 1980s.
More soldiers will inevitably foster more discontent within the population, Brzezinski said. A few years down the line, the insurgency would have grown leading to another call for more troops, perpetuating a troops-violence-troops cycle.
The supporters of COIN maintain that it’s the only way to ensure that a viable state can be built and supported. This blog post on the AfPak Channel says that what appears to be going on in Washington, particularly after President Barack Obama’s strategy review of Afghanistan back in April, is an attempt to combine COIN with counter-terrorism, something which “threatens to leave the U.S. with no clarity of strategy, doctrine, tactics and objectives.”
Another crucial part of Afghanistan’s future stability is the power of its own security forces. Right now the Afghan army, which is seen as broadly successful and relatively effective, is far too small. Only 650 Afghan troops pushed into Helmand with 4,000 U.S. Marines this summer.
Marine commanders on the ground say the Afghan army needs to significantly expand together with Afghan police. The police are paid between $70 and $100 a month to work one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, as they are often the first target of insurgents. They are also by and large poorly-educated or illiterate and because they are locally deployed, they tend to have loyalties to certain tribes and are known for turning a blind eye on insurgent activities in some areas.
Afghan army officers themselves are sometimes at odds with the U.S. approach. Foreign troops respond to insurgent gunfire using sophisticated weaponry and stronger force. It is a tactic some Afghan officers say is unnecessary and provokes local anger, even before foreign troops can advance into villages. “I think language is the strongest weapon of all, not guns, I think we should do a lot more talking” one Afghan sergeant in Helmand recently told me.
None of the villagers I interviewed in Helmand last week seemed happy to see Marines turning up at their front door, at best some were indifferent. In one shura I observed, the tone of the Marines, who are often decades younger than the wizened, bearded elders they try to communicate with, seemed frustrated and they appeared convinced the local elders were hiding information from them.
The elders are never asked whether they are happy to see their new neighbours, it is taken as a given that they should be grateful for their presence. The line often used to try and turn them into informants is: “you give us information on the Taliban and we will build you a school”.
(Photos: on a foot patrol with U.S. Marines in Darwishan, Helmand; a U.S. Marine takes a break while on patrol in Mian Poshtay, Helmand; Afghan soldiers search a compound in Mian Poshtay, Helmand. Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)
from Tales from the Trail:
Power plays are always a tricky business in Washington and sometimes it's better to make a joke out of it. Or not.
Special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, used that tactic on Friday when asked about reports that veteran Senator John Kerry is stealing his limelight.
from Tales from the Trail:
The White House is firing back at former Vice President Dick Cheney who accused President Barack Obama of "dithering" and being "afraid to make a decision" on whether to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
"I think it's a curious comment," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters at his midday briefing.
Asmaa Waguih is a Reuters photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. She is currently embedded with U.S. Marines in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province. Here’s an account of her time in one of the country’s most violent regions.
An Afghan boy walks among U.S. Marines of the 8th Regiment, Second Battalion, during their patrol with Afghan National Army soldiers around Mian Poshtay area, in Helmand province, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih
Some of my nastiest moments as a war correspondent in the Caucasus and Central Asia had nothing to do with bullets, explosions or tanks. It is one thing to cover a conflict where you speak the language and quite another when you don’t. Working with a poor interpreter is worrisome at best, downright dangerous at worst.
I got by most of the time by speaking Russian, which is not an option in Afghanistan today. A recent PBS documentary on the conflict showed a U.S. squad in one isolated village having great difficulty making itself understood properly because the interpreter was second-rate.