When is a coalition not a coalition?

May 15, 2009

How can you tell when U.S. forces in Afghanistan are operating alone?

When they call it “the coalition”.

That’s not a joke. It’s just how things work in Afghanistan, where two separate forces with two separate command structures — one completely American, the other about half American — operate side by side under the command of the same U.S. general.

 “When we say ‘coalition’, basically that means it’s just us,” a helpful U.S. military spokeswoman explained last month to a reporter who had just arrived in country after being away for a couple of  years. “Otherwise, it’s the ‘alliance’.”

And it’s not just words.

“The alliance” and “the coalition” maintain completely separate press offices, each of which is often allowed to give only bits and pieces of detail about the same incident. The result can be a bit confusing.

First, some history.

The “coalition” refers to Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. (or, as they like to say, “U.S.-led”) mission ordered by President George W. Bush back in 2001 to catch Osama bin Laden and overthrow the Taliban.

Occasionally over the past eight years it has actually operated as a coalition, with contributions from Britain and other countries.

But these days, it’s strictly an American mission, with thousands of U.S. troops engaged in hunting insurgents, training Afghans and providing air support. (Well, maybe not quite strictly American: there could be a handful of British or Australian special forces in there too. But that’s a secret.)

“The alliance”, meanwhile, refers to NATO, which now leads the International Security Assistance Force, set up by the United Nations to provide a small number of mostly European peacekeepers for the capital after the fall of the Taliban, also back in 2001.

ISAF’s role gradually expanded until 2006, when it spread throughout the country, got a lot bigger and began fighting the Taliban, especially in the south and east. ISAF now includes contributions from around 40 nations, but these days the force is about half American and getting more so by the week as thousands of U.S. reinforcements arrive.

Since last year, ISAF and “the coalition” have both been commanded by the same U.S. General, David McKiernan, who is about to be replaced by another, Stanley McChrystal.

Because ISAF — unlike “the coalition” — actually IS a coalition, it has stringent rules on what its members let it say. When its troops are involved in an incident, ISAF won’t say what country they come from, or precisely where in Afghanistan the incident took place.

The defence ministry of each country is supposed to reveal that information back home, but that can take hours or even days. And if troops from more than one Western country are involved — not to mention Afghan soldiers and police — piecing details together can require the skills of Sherlock Holmes.

Here’s an example: a few weeks ago, “the coalition” said one of its soldiers was killed in an incident. NATO said four of its soldiers had died. Neither said where: somewhere in eastern Afghanistan. It took several hours and phone calls throughout Afghanistan and Riga to determine that three of the soldiers were Americans, two were Latvians, and that the incident was the same as one Afghan troops had already reported in Kunar province.

The investigation ended with a conversation that went like something like this:

    Reuters: You’ve said one American was killed, right?
    U.S. military spokeswoman: That’s what we’ve said, yes.
    Reuters: And four NATO soldiers were also killed, right?
    U.S. military spokeswoman: Yes, that’s what ISAF has said.
    Reuters: And two of those NATO soldiers were also American?
    U.S. military spokeswoman: Yes, I can confirm that.
    Reuters: So actually three Americans were killed, yes?
    U.S. military spokeswoman: Yes, that’s correct.

 Confused? Join the coalition…


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It’s not confusing at all. This war-loving president and the rest of the government (not unlike all those before them) love to play with words that they think will keep the public supporting their wars.

Posted by Russ in PA | Report as abusive

Alliance refers to a formally aligned group of Nations such as NATO, while a coalition is a group of nations that come together for a specific task and is far less formalized than an alliance. The military of the US as other nations with large competent armed forces have strict vocabularies formalized in dictionaries. The overarching US Military dictionary is Joint Publication 1-02.Words have specific meanings that enable precise communication so when words such as alliance or coalition are used, people in the US military and government know what is meant.I suggest the writer do some research and explain the difference rather than mock. It either shows the writer’s intent or ignorance. I am unsure which.

Posted by Pete | Report as abusive

You don’t even mention Canada. Roughly 2,500-2,830 Canadian Forces personnel are currently deployed in Afghanistan as part of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF. Since 2002, 118 Canadian soldiers have been killed serving in the Afghanistan mission. http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/afghan istan/casualties/list.html. In April 2002, four Canadians were killed and eight seriously wounded when a United States warplane dropped a bomb on a training exercise. No wonder the US has trouble getting other countries to fight on their side….

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

When will we start recognising that the “Taliban” is actually the rebel force that is entirely based in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This ethnic group, almost forty percent of the population in Afghanistan is not represented in government and is at the bottom of the economic structure. Only Karzai is a token Pashtun representative and he owes his power to the West and to the warlords of the Northern Alliance.Good luck with bringing this country into the 21 century.

Posted by wevers | Report as abusive

Finally! Some clarity for this whole mess! My hat is off to Mr. Graff for some ‘real’ reporting, not the fluff and incomplete reporting we normally get. Nice job!

Posted by Phillip Redmond | Report as abusive

You know, you just might want to educate yourself on the role of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. They’ve been covering for the Americans since they pulled out to get all those WMD out of Iraq. BTW, how you making out with that one?

Posted by John | Report as abusive

A comment to the author:The US has the largest military in the world, and launched the attack in the first place, so it does make sense they make up a majority of the forces.However, as a Canadian citizen, I feel that the Canadian troop commitment has been marginalized by the American media many times, such as the segment on Fox’s Red Eye, and this just adds to it. Canadians (and British) were fighting in some of the areas of Afghanistan where the insurgents were the worst, and dying in larger proportion than American soldiers, all the while the US was pulling more and more troops out to fight the war in Iraq.The Americans are now in the Kandahar region, which has aided in providing stability. All this article does is serve as a reminder of a US-centric world view where no one else matters, regardless of what they do.

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

I just had a quick look to check that Pakistan hadn’t made the “World Crises from Alertnet” column just below, and was relieve to see it hadn’t… yet. What’s going to happen if AIPAC drags Iran into the mess? Or is that just a quick and easy job, with the troops back by Christmas?Personally I’m not too worried about the military not issuing blow by blow accounts to the media as that would give out too much information. It’s the people instructing the military I’m worried about.

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

Thank you all for responding. To the Canadian readers who have posted: certainly I intended no offense toward NATO-member Canada or any of the other 40 or so countries who have sent troops to participate in ISAF. I agree, by the way, that the dangerous Canadian mission in Kandahar province in particular is often under-reported in the international media.Thank you also to the poster who provided definitions of “coalition” and “alliance”. These words do indeed have different meanings, and I never intended to conflate them.About half of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan are in fact serving in a coalition: ISAF (which is led by NATO — an alliance — and also includes troops from non-NATO countries such as Australia and New Zealand). But what is unusual is that when the U.S. military refers to “the coalition”, they mean precisely the other half — the U.S. troops who are acting outside of the ISAF coaltion, in a separate “coalition” that includes just themselves.Thanks for reading and please keep the brickbats flying!Peter

Posted by Peter Graff | Report as abusive

I’m sure the Dutch and Canadians who have been doing battle the whole time the bulk of our military war diverted to Iraq would differ with the concept of the coalition being Americans fighting alone.Over a year ago, a Dutch interview show interviewed troops home from their (latest) tour in Afghanistan, and they only discussed the ways they dealt with the situation at hand (instead of chest thumping hero posturing). They left it up to their government to practically and openly demand that the other NATO countries get off their butts and help out.

Posted by Brian Foulkrod | Report as abusive

Just to update my comment from May 15th, 2009; Pakistan IS now on the “World Crises from Alertnet” column.

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

I think its obvious that despite the pride nationals have for their troops, the only other country to have made anything more than a token commitment in Iraq or Afghanistan has been England..I also think the point of the article was obvious and commend the author for some ‘real reporting’ which unfortunately is not easy to find. Too often transparency and honesty are seen as unpatriotic, when in truth they are essential to maintaining and improving the democratic standards that makes us feel like the good guys in the first place.Communications from any branch of state, especially the military, are often confused with different standards of reporting in the US and indeed most other western countries. People are ill informed that the mechanisms of state communications are designed to produce a certain result and are engineered by professionals down to the word to have the desired effect. Honesty is not a consideration unless it is essential to fulfilling a higher priority.Propaganda? But it doesn’t sound German, or Communist.. I know, but different times call for different measures.We should all insist on higher standards of truth in media and public service and punishments for dishonest conduct in both sectors.Especially when wars are being waged based on these lies.

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

All in the name of Peace:WASHINGTON, May 18: A special death squad assassinated Pakistans former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on the orders of former US vice-president Dick Cheney, claims an American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.Mr Hersh, a Washington-based journalist who writes for the New Yorker magazine and other prominent media outlets, also claims that the former vice-president was running an “executive assassination ring” throughout the Bush years. The cell reported directly to Mr Cheney.In an interview to an Arab television channel, Mr Hersh indicated that the same unit killed Ms Bhutto because in an interview with Al Jazeera TV on Nov 2, 2007, she had said she believed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was already dead. She said she believed Omar Saeed Sheikh, an Al Qaeda activist imprisoned in Pakistan for killing US journalist Daniel Pearl had murdered Bin Laden.But the interviewer, veteran British journalist David Frost, deleted her claim from the interview, Mr Hersh said.The controversial US journalist told Gulf News on May 12 he believed Ms Bhutto was assassinated because the US leadership did not want Bin Laden to be declared dead.The Bush administration wanted to keep Bin Laden alive to justify the presence of US army in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban, Mr Hersh said.The Pulitzer prize-winning American journalist claimed that the unit also killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafique Al Hariri and the army chief of that country.Mr Hariri and the Lebanese army chief were murdered for not safeguarding US interests and refusing to allow US to set up military bases in Lebanon. Ariel Sharon, the then prime minister of Israel, was also a key man in the plot, Mr Hersh said.According to Mr Hersh, Lt-Gen Stanley McChrystal who was last week named the new commander in charge of US forces in Afghanistan, ran the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an elite unit so clandestine that the Pentagon for years refused to acknowledge its existence.Gen McChrystal, a West Point graduate and a Green Beret, is currently director of Staff at the Pentagon, the executive to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.A media report noted that most of what Gen. McChrystal has done over a 33-year career remains classified, including service between 2003 and 2008 as commander of the JSOC.On July 22, 2006, Human Rights Watch issued a report titled ‘No blood, no foul’ about American torture practices at three facilities in Iraq. One of them was Camp Nama, which was operated by JSOC, under the direction of then Major Gen. McChrystal.Gen McChrystal was officially based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, but he was a frequent visitor to Camp Nama and other Special Forces bases in Iraq and Afghanistan where forces under his command were based.An interrogator at Camp Nama known as Jeff described locking prisoners in shipping containers for 24 hours at a time in extreme heat; exposing them to extreme cold with periodic soaking in cold water; bombardment with bright lights and loud music; sleep deprivation; and severe beatings.When he and other interrogators went to the colonel in charge and expressed concern that this kind of treatment was not legal, and that they might be investigated by the military’s Criminal Investigation Division or the International Committee of the Red Cross, the colonel told them he had “this directly from Gen McChrystal and the Pentagon that there’s no way that the Red Cross could get in”.On March 11, Mr Hersh told a seminar at the University of Minnesota that the unit Mr Cheney headed was very deeply involved in extra-legal operations.“It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently,” he explained. “They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office … Congress has no oversight of it … It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on.”Mr Hersh said: “Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us.”Although Mr Cheney had ignored such allegations in the past, recently he began responding to these charges, making counter-allegations against the Obama administration.Last week in particular, Mr Cheney appeared almost daily on popular talk shows and also delivered a formal address at the American Enterprise Institute on the importance of interrogation techniques widely considered to be torture. Once known for his reticence and low profile, Mr Cheney has now become his party’s most audible voice.Media commentators, however, attribute his sudden exuberance to the fear that if he did not defend himself, he might be prosecuted for authorising torture.“Mr Cheney knew, when he began his media assault, that the worst of the horrors inflicted upon detainees at his specific command are not yet widely known,” said one commentator. “If the real stuff comes into full public light, he feared the general outrage will be so furious and all-encompassing that the Obama administration will have no choice but to … seek prosecutions of those Bush-era officials who specifically demanded those barbaric acts be inflicted upon prisoners.”One blogger wrote that Mr Cheney not only authorised water-boarding, putting prisoners in confined spaces, pushing them, slapping them, putting bugs on them or demeaning them and their religious faith.He quoted former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as telling a congressional panel in July of 2004 that if pictures of such acts were “released to the public, obviously it’s going to make matters worse”.Mr Hersh recently gave a speech to the American Civil Liberties Union making the charge that children were sodomised in front of women in the prison, and the Pentagon had tape of it.

Posted by Peace | Report as abusive

Gotta love the US centric press…which has lead to a population that is absolutely ignorant about the outside world. As a Canadian service member who often travels to the US for work I am often appalled at the ignorance and outright lack of gratitude Americans have for the contributions of other nations towards their security.Just try checking in to an airline with a non-US military ID card. They will charge you the luggage charge and overages even if you are on duty heading to an exercise in the US. And that will follow comments like, “I didn’t know Canada had a military.” or “I didn’t know you guys were in Afghanistan.” And Americans wonder why nobody wants to help them….

Posted by Keith | Report as abusive