Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
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.
Some experts argue that physical space isn’t really the key to militant groups survival anymore in the age of the Internet. Paul R Pillar, a former CIA counterterrorism official, said in a piece for the Washington Post that safe havens were usually used by militants to hold basic training for recruits. The operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not require such a home, and he cites the Sept 11, 2001 attacks as an example. “The preparations most important to the attacks took place not in camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States,” he says.
In the past couple of decades, international terrorist groups have thrived by exploiting globalization and information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens. it’s not that a sanctuary such as Afghanistan will not help al Qaeda; or other militant groups; the issue is whether denying them the space will prevent an attack, and that, Pillar says, is no longer guaranteed.
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)
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
from Pakistan: Now or Never?:
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have questioned before the value of the "AfPak" label, which implies that an incredibly complicated situation involving many different countries can be reduced to a five-letter word.
Having spent the last couple of days trying to make sense of the suicide bomb attack in Iran which Tehran blamed on Jundollah, an ethnic Baluchi, Sunni insurgent group it says has bases in Pakistan, I'm more inclined than ever to believe the "AfPak" label blinds us to the broader regional context. Analysts argue that Jundollah has been heavily influenced by hardline Sunni sectarian Islamist thinking within Pakistan which is itself the product of 30 years of proxy wars in the region dating back to the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan towards the end of the same year.
On a hilltop in central Kabul, the relics of Soviet armoured vehicles sit in the shadow of an incongruously vast and empty swimming pool. A tower of diving boards looks down into the concrete carcass built by the Russians. Boys play football there and on Fridays the basin is used for dog fights; combat is the only option for the canine gladiators, as they cannot climb up the sheer, steep sides. From the vantage point you can see the city’s graveyards, its bright new mosques, the narco-palaces of drug-funded business potentates and the spread of modest brick homes where most Kabulis live. It’s a favourite spot for reporters when they need to escape the press of urgent events and get cleaner air in their lungs.
For years journalists have sought to tell stories that go beyond the conflict in Afghanistan. We’ve tried to portray this country – the crossroads of central Asia, the summer home of Moghul emperors, the cockpit of clashing empires – as more than a place of blood, deprivation and extremism. Amid the dust and the heat it has its oases of tranquility, its laughter and its charms. From the market stalls of sweet pomengranates that line the road in autumn to the rose gardens newly planted in central Kabul, Afghanistan is a place of thorny history, cultural complexity and spartan beauty.