Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
The U.S. military has stopped the Taliban momentum in southern Afghanistan, and is probably starting to reverse it following the surge, according to a study we wrote about this week here. The view from the ground, though, is much less rosy.
Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy has published a paper under its Afghan Voices series looking at how ordinary Afghans view the current round of military operations centred around Kandahar.
Author Zabih Ullah spoke to people in Kandahar and its surrounding districts and they don’t seem particularly impressed with the surge. Most believe the offensive will end up like so many other operations in the past and that the only people to suffer will be ordinary Afghans. It’s the ordinary people with no links to the Taliban who end up losing lives, getting wounded or arrested in these operations, they believe.
That said, though, the people of Kandahar don’t want the coalition to leave. They see a role for foreign forces in the province, but one that is focused more on stabilisation and peace building rather than hunt down-the-Taliban operations that U.S. military generals have repeatedly mounted in the troubled region.
from Tales from the Trail:
As President Barack Obama begins his visit to India, his erstwhile rival John McCain is voicing hope that Washington and New Delhi will tighten up their military cooperation in the face of China's "troubling" assertiveness.
McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate and the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told a think-tank audience in Washington on Friday that the two huge democracies were natural allies in the quest to temper China's ambitions.
The United States cannot win a fight for hearts and minds if it outsources critical missions to unaccountable contractors, U.S. President Barack Obama said during a speech he made as a senator back in 2007. It hasn’t changed much in Afghanistan since then as a U.S. Congressional investigation into a $2.16 billion supply chain that provides soldiers everything from muffins to mine-resistant vehicles shows.
Security for the supply chain running through remote and hostile terrain has been outsourced to contractors, “an arrangement that has fuelled a vast protection racket run by a shadowy network of warlords, strongmen, commanders, corrupt Afghan officials, and perhaps others,” according to John F.Tierney, chairman of the
subcommittee on National Security And Foreign Affairs.
I was embedded with Western troops a few days ago. Beforehand I was warned of austere living conditions at the combat outpost. I thought about the agony — since I suffer from technophobia — of filing stories through a satellite phone in the scorching heat.
As I rolled out my sleeping bag I noticed all the soldiers had mosquito nets over theirs. Actually, they were there to keep camel spiders and scorpions away. It was remote as can be. Grape fields, mountains and villages with mud brick huts with, probably, no electricity.
Walking into a mess hall at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan can be confusing.
Soldiers from NATO countries, walking in all directions, have plenty to choose from. Asian workers load heaps of food on plates as long rows of soldiers wait patiently. There is the salad bar. The fruit bar. The bread toasting area. In the centre of mess halls are short order cooks who make stir fry meals, for instance. The drinks section offers everything from apple to multi-vitamin juices to chilled milk.
Reuters correspondent Michael Georgy is on an embed in Kandahar airfield where U.S.-led NATO troops are preparing an operation against the Taliban in their southern Afghan stronghold. Here’s a glimpse of life on the base.
By Michael Georgy
I walked by TGI Friday’s and a Canadian brand coffee shop as men and women playing volleyball looked like they were enjoying
the beach in California. People were drinking milkshakes along a lovely boardwalk. There was a French-style patisserie for those seeking a bit of European culture.
Only 41 percent of likely U.S. voters believe that the country can win the war in Afghanistan, a new poll shows, down from 51 percent in December when President Barack Obama announced a new war strategy. The Rasmussen telephone poll conducted last week found that 36 percent of those surveyed didn’t think the United States could win in Afghanistan. Another 23 percent were unsure.
Doubts about the handling of the Afghan war have continuously been growing, except for that spike in hopes soon after Obama announced a surge as part of his strategy to stabilise Afghanistan and bring the troops home. Indeed, 48 percent of those polled said ending the war now was a more important goal than winning it, reflecting falling confidence in the war effort.
(A protester outside the White House in Washington dressed as a Guantanamo Bay detainee. Photo by Kevin Lamarque)
The United States is considering a proposal to hold foreign terrorism suspects at the Bagram military base in Afghanistan, the Los Angeles Times reported this week, a new Guantanamo Bay just as it is trying to close down the original facility in Cuba.
Early this month Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered what military experts are saying was the final nail in the coffin of the Powell doctrine, a set of principles that General Colin Powell during his tenure as chairman laid out for the use of military force. A key element was that the military plan should employ decisive and overwhelming force in order to achieve a rapid result. A clear exit strategy must be thought through right from the beginning and the use of force must only be a last resort, Powell said, the experience of Vietnam clearly weighing on him.
U.S. military involvement overseas has deviated far from those principles since then but Mullen finally finished it off, according to Robert Haddick in this piece for Foreign Policy. The United States is faced with low-level warfare and the public must accept it as a way of life. The question no longer is whether to use military force; America’s enemies whether in Afghanistan or Iraq or Yemen have settled that issue, ensuring it remains engaged in conflict. The question is how should it use its vast power.
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)