This will be brief. Does anyone else find it ironic that the Pakistanis are now suffering insurgent incursions from Afghan territory and are actually complaining that the Afghans need to prevent these incursions? Yes, it’s ironic that the shoe would be on other foot. It’s even more ironic that the Pakistanis would feel the frustration of not being able to pursue cross-border insurgents back to their havens.
It’s almost like we ceded the Korengal, Nuristan and goodly parts of Kunar to demonstrate to Pakistan that the pendulum swings both ways. Of course, that is just too diabolical to even contemplate. But for someone who has felt the deep frustration of Afghans who have suffered the whims of the ISI for years, there is just a hint of perverse enjoyment. On most levels, there is nothing funny about this additional pressure on Pakistan’s already strained schizophrenic government, but the irony is… well… a little funny. I can imagine some of the Afghans I’ve met saying, “Yeah, welcome to my world, Ashfaq!”
Most external observers of Pakistan can easily see how the minions can turn on the master. Pakistan’s veritable refusal to actually govern their own territory, cutting deals with violent organizations so they don’t actually have to, and attempting to use organizations such as LeT to further their national aims with plausible deniability is enormously frustrating. Watching Pakistan’s internal violence ratchet up as groups such as the Pakistani Taliban become an internal security challenge is not really surprising to most of us. It’s like the story of the man and the talking viper who asked the man to carry him across the river… “You knew I was a snake when you picked me up.”
Pakistan is currently at that part in the story where the snake starts biting the silly man in the middle of the river.
Stability isn’t the only thing that can be spread like an oil spot. Instability in one area can be corrosive to stability in neighboring areas (especially when those areas are not stabilized to begin with). When you seed instability, it can come back to you. You reap what you sow.
Pakistan has been featuring prominently in the news for quite some time now. Questions abound regarding why Pakistan seems to be a willing host to terrorists and insurgents. In the aftermath of the death of bin Laden on Pakistani soil the Pakistanis are expressing righteous indignation about their violated sovereignty and muted approval for the death of the poster child for international terrorism. Still, questions remain about the nexus of complicity and incompetence in the Pakistani security apparatus. “Why,” we ask, “do the Pakistanis harbor our enemies from Afghanistan and permit the most wanted man in the world to dwell right under their noses?”
Did the Pakistanis know that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad? The world may never know. Of course, it may… but that will undoubtedly take time. Eventually we will likely know the truth. In the meantime, why does the Pakistani government appear to be duplicitous in their relations with us? The Afghans don’t really wonder about it. Many, if not most, I’ve spoken with view Pakistan with a jaundiced eye. They have their own understanding of the history of Afghan relations with their populous and well-armed neighbor.
Everyone looks out for their perceived interests, we all know that. How is the Pakistani government likely to view their interests? Pakistan has only existed as a nation since 1947. A goodly chunk of what is now Pakistan was traditionally the land of the (then united) Pashtun. Roughly 60% of the Pashtun ethnicity currently reside in the under-governed areas of Pakistan’s northwest. The other (roughly) 40% of the Pashtun live in Afghanistan. They are separated by a border which was artificially and vengefully laid out by the British and named after its architect; the infamous Durand Line. Only one Afghan government… ever… has officially recognized the Durand Line as the rightful border of Afghanistan and Pakistan; the Taliban. Presumably this recognition was in return for the Pakistani patronage that sponsored the Taliban in their growth from local uprising to national power in the 1990’s.
Afghanistan has, historically, had good relations with India and Iran and poorer relations with Pakistan, including the severing of diplomatic relations in 1955. Pakistan claims to have repelled a major cross-border incursion by Afghanistan in Bajaur in 1961. While Pakistan may have made inroads in Afghan eyes due to their support for the Mujaheddin during the Soviet occupation, any good will was squandered with their seizing upon the Taliban as their opportunity to further their influence in post-Soviet Afghanistan. Average Afghans and government officials alike take a fairly dim view of Pakistan and particularly of the ISI, sometimes blaming them for more trouble than the ISI can actually cause. The ISI is the bogeyman of the Afghan man on the street.
Sometimes it was a chore to redirect the Afghans away from the problems they could not solve (Pakistani machinations) and back onto problems they could solve.
Pakistan does not likely view a strong and viable Afghanistan (with its own national interests) on its western border. Their paranoia is not unfounded, as I have heard otherwise reasonable Afghans, good friends, express optimism that one day Afghanistan will be strong enough to push out to what they view as the natural border; the Indus River.
That’s a big chunk of (currently Pakistani) real estate. Pakistan is not enamored of this idea, regardless of how viable the concept.
It’s not the threat of Pashtun reunification that realistically disturbs the Pakistanis, though. It’s not likely that they view an Afghan invasion to seize the NWFP as a real danger to their security. They are threatened by the concept of a stable Afghanistan, which will likely see good relations with India as being more beneficial than Pakistani goodwill. This idea irks the Pakistani security apparatus. So our desired end state is not necessarily how all Pakistanis see their best interests being upheld. But that’s only half of the equation.
Anyone who sees a foregone conclusion coming down the pike will get on the train and ride it. We view our commitment to Afghanistan as strong (well, sort of), but the Pakistanis do not see the commensurate commitment of what they would consider to be the resources necessary to make it a foregone conclusion. The Pakistanis have the sixth largest military in the world, with a couple of the largest land armies on the planet camped out on their borders; India (viewed with enmity), and China (viewed as a useful ally).
Yes, I know the People’s Liberation Army is not literally camped on the Pakistani border, but you get the idea. The Chinese are not viewed as a threat by Pakistan. Neither Pakistan nor China views Indian power as a joyful thing.
In any case, Pakistan has a large army and a not-insignificant air force. But they are not as adept as humanly possible. Being somewhat clumsy by our standards, the Pakistanis must dedicate several times as many troops-to-task as we normally would. They cannot fathom how we can expect to subdue a pernicious insurgency with such paltry numbers as we have committed (certainly in the early days… the first 8 years). To their minds, we cannot possibly be trying to achieve our stated goals. Add to this the Pakistani view that America is by its nature capricious and you have a deep conviction that the American presence in, and support for, Afghanistan is transitory. Pakistan must position itself for post-America (and Coalition) Afghanistan. Without Pakistani support and interference, there is a chance that GIRoA can succeed. With Pakistan hedging its bets, the issue remains in doubt and Pakistan has a shot at maintaining influence in post-GIRoA Afghanistan.
A couple of disclaimers are in order. First, the Pakistani government is not by any means monolithic. President Zardari, shortly after taking office, declared that the ISI would fall under civilian control. Shortly thereafter, the ISI announced that this was not the case… and that was the end of that. We have a military that is totally subservient to the civilian authorities in the United States. Pakistan has been ruled by it’s generals no less than three times since its inception… and that wasn’t that long ago. Pakistan’s short history has been rife with warfare, and on no less than three occasions, the Pakistanis have felt abandoned by what they perceive as a “sometime ally” in the United States. The US has imposed an arms embargo against both the Indians and the Pakistanis on these occasions of confrontation between Pakistan and India, but the Pakistanis were more reliant on US aid than the Indians.
The Pakistanis then turned to China, who is eager to stoke the coals of conflict between India and Pakistan. The Pakistanis build a license-built copy of the Chinese version of the T-72. The Pakistanis call their version the “Al Khalid.” They also build a licensed copy of a Chinese fighter-bomber that the Pakistanis call the JS-17. The Pakistani nuclear program had significant outside support as well, which did not come from the United States.
Then comes yesterday’s declaration by Pakistani prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani that China is Pakistan’s “best and most trusted friend.” While this is seen as a being a “dig” at the United States, it is really a clear statement of how Pakistan views their relationships and has throughout the past several decades. They view us as powerful, currently angry, and capable of considerable largesse; but capricious and untrustworthy. They view the Chinese as having goals and interests that are mostly aligned with their own and likely to remain that way in the future.
It is important to understand how Pakistan views the relationship between them and ourselves. It is important to understand why they see things the way that they do. Understanding does not mean agreeing with their viewpoint, but it does help in reviewing their behavior and the disconnects between what they sometimes say and do.
The above is the work of an amateur, so take it for what it’s worth. But it is taken from the experiences and conversations of an amateur who has spoken with Afghans and Pakistanis as well as having been briefed by intelligence officers who have worked with the Pakistanis. Nothing classified has been disclosed. Academics would no doubt find the synopsis above to be less than adequate. It is by no means complete, but it is my understanding, and the actions of the Pakistanis seem to agree with this depiction of their mindset and motivations. Also, I’m not seeing strong attempts being made to “break it down” for people who are asking why the Pakistanis and ourselves seem to be at such great odds when we should see each other as natural allies in the struggle against extremism.
If your understanding of our mission in Afghanistan was that the entire operation was to capture or kill bin Laden, then it will seem as if the mission has been accomplished. All of our problems have been solved. Finis.
Not that the death of bin Laden isn’t a good thing. The monster is dead… or is it? I have often said that bin Laden was a poster child, a lightning rod for those who share his world view. Those people are still alive. All of the pieces that have been assembled over the years are still in place. I’m sure that morale is currently low and anger is correspondingly high. Bin Laden was, indeed, more than just a poster child. But he was obviously not exerting the same degree of command and control that he had at one time. Al Qaeda was still plugging away, doing the things that al Qaeda does.
What does this mean to Afghanistan? Well, I’m sure that morale is higher amongst the troops. My morale is higher… in a way. The question of whether or not this is a game-changer remains to be seen. Is this going to change what the local insurgent commander or shadow provincial governor in Afghanistan does? Probably not. This is waaay above his pay grade.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a lot of Afghans about bin Laden. First, they never viewed him as being their main problem. Sure, bin Laden supported the Taliban. Al Qaeda funded, recruited, equipped, trained and fielded a “brigade” that fought against the Northern Alliance in the years prior to 9/11. That much we know. Al Qaeda and bin Laden were shielded from the rest of the world and provided for by the Taliban when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan. In recent years, al Qaeda wound up with better relations with the Haqqani network than they did with the Quetta Shura Taliban. At least it appeared so. Admittedly, al Qaeda’s actual presence in Afghanistan was limited to a couple of hundred individuals. Afghans have more immediate problems with people who do intend to stay there and rule them, such as Gulbuddin and Mullah Omar.
I don’t think that the death of bin Laden is a game-changer in Afghanistan.
External support for the Taliban and/or their affiliates may suffer in some way, but I’m in no way convinced that this will be disabling to the Taliban, et al, in any meaningful way. It does not change the threat to Afghanistan from the Taliban, Haqqani and Hizbi Islami Gulbuddin (HiG). Nor does it defeat the criminal patronage networks. It does not magically improve the capability of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA). The degradation of even al Qaeda remains to be seen.
The many Afghans I had the opportunity to speak with over the years I’ve spent in Afghanistan expressed concern that if we ever did catch up with bin Laden that it would be to the detriment of Afghanistan. Already, there are calls in Congress to abandon Afghanistan. While this is predictable, it is shallow and short-sighted. These calls have been coming from a not insignificant group for some time.
Once the complexity and difficulty of Afghanistan became clear, the “good war” came under fire. Most of us who were personally involved in Afghanistan while it was still the “forgotten, good war” (as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq), knew that the goodwill towards Afghanistan would wane as the nature of the conflict proceeded to baffle the minds of the ill-informed and idealistic. Now there is a more plausible reason to declare victory and abandon Afghanistan to its fate, as if it will never again influence the world it is a part of. This opportunity to cut and run will not be wasted, and it will likely gain adherents rather than lose them.
It boils down to the struggle between two schools of thought. One contends that the world hates us (particularly Muslims), and that they have good reason to. This school believes that withdrawal and accommodation will assuage this hatred. This school of thought argues that instability does not impact other nations, and certainly is not a threat to the national security of more developed countries.
The other school of thought agrees that instability, in a globalized world that is only getting smaller, has the demonstrated ability to provide festering grounds for non nation-state actors who are now capable of exporting violence on a scale that was formerly the realm of nation-states. Japan used six aircraft carriers and over 400 planes to cause a similar number of American dead in the attacks on Pearl Harbor; this compared to four aircraft-cum-cruise missiles acquired for the price of a few airline tickets on 9/11. That was not the last attack, nor has Afghanistan been the only country to harbor such plotters. But we have seen what “leaving Afghanistan to its fate” has accomplished for us.
Predicting the future is impossible. Could the “Mission Accomplished” crowd be right? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t agree with them. So my answer is, “No.” What we have done in the past was not successful.
So what does the death of bin Laden mean?
It means that we have had some measure of revenge. We have had some resolution for part of our anger. We have cut the head off the snake, and whether that snake is a hydra or a cobra remains to be seen. Many insurgent leaders have been killed in Afghanistan, only to be replaced by less reticent commanders who were more brutal than the ones who we killed. Will that happen with al Qaeda? Only time will tell. We cannot predict that.
More damage may be done to al Qaeda by the “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East than by the death of bin Laden. Al Qaeda has called for uprisings against the regimes in power for years. Al Qaeda wished to inspire general uprisings based upon Islamic rage, not upon the principles of personal liberty and government accountability. The uprisings of the past few weeks in the Middle East were not at all what al Qaeda and bin Laden wished to inspire. If regime changes in the Middle East replace repressive regimes with an opportunity for hope, the very hopeless rage that drives young men into the arms of al Qaeda will come unglued. The death of bin Laden is icing on that cake.
The final results of the Arab uprisings in the Middle East are far from clear. This could still all go horribly awry. The United States has an opportunity to support the development of enduring institutions, non-military institutions, in these countries. In our recent history, our first answer has been to provide military assistance. But the lack of responsive, accountable institutions has been a key factor driving the disaffected to seek solutions to their problems that often wound up being religiously driven. Who can save you from hopelessness? God. Whatever name to use to refer to God, when the world is too big and too hard, many seek explanations and solutions from religious leaders. Christians have had many such as Jim Jones and David Koresh. Muslims have had such leaders as well, and those who find themselves seeking solutions to the intractable problems of their world are drawn to them. Bin Laden counted on these people as his recruiting base.
What happens if this base suddenly gains hope from another source? What happens if they create and sustain institutions that provide accountability and responsiveness? What happens if the governments and economies of these countries begin to offer opportunities and hope? Bin Laden was already beginning to lose his appeal. Now that he is dead, his survivors in al Qaeda will have to deal with this lost traction.
Our struggle remains with competing visions of our role in the post-Cold War world. The death of bin Laden does not end that argument, but will add artificial lubricant to the side which espouses self-centered navel gazing above striving to find a productive way to add to stability in a shrinking world.
Insurgencies do not usually end with a bang. They usually end in a whimper. Statistically, according to Rand, out of 73 concluded insurgencies, 47 ended with either a government win or what Rand calls a “mixed outcome.” Rand considers a mixed outcome to be a negotiated settlement of the conflict. Government victories and negotiated endings are almost always whimpers. Insurgent success is usually with a bang. Almost exactly two thirds of insurgencies end in whimpers.
Galula described this effect, and described the political win as rendering the insurgent “irrelevant.” Galula pointed out that the goal of the counterinsurgent is to make the insurgent irrelevant and then the “true believers” are reduced to the level of violent criminals. When this happens, it is eventually a “win” for the government. But, I would consider a negotiated settlement a win as well.
Why would a negotiated settlement be a win? Let’s narrow down the bang and whimper thing. Insurgencies end with either the reintegration into the (non-violent) political process of the greater part of the insurgency, they end with a total changeover of the government (insurgent win), or they end up with the annihilation of the insurgent. Annihilation of the movements themselves are rare. The most recent example is the defeat of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan government. But there are few similarities and significant differences between the Tamil Tigers and Afghan insurgencies.
From what we see, nearly two thirds of insurgencies that have been decided ended either with reintegration of enough of the insurgency into the process to make further insurgency irrelevant or the total destruction of the insurgent. Let’s look at the first case, since the second is much rarer. Reintegration sometimes happened by the government responding to the legitimate concerns of the people and reducing the level of dissatisfaction (grievances) while simultaneously protecting both its own employees and the people themselves from insurgent influence. It sometimes happened through negotiating to bring the insurgents back into the political process. Either is acceptable, so long as the core values of the government are not breached. A combination would also work. The point is, when the political violence ends or ceases to be a serious threat to the government, the issues and contenders exit the realm of warfare and enter the realm of domestic politics. That is success, because the insurgency is effectively over, and it has not completely unseated the legitimate government.
The particulars of whether it is by reformation, negotiation or any mixture of both are irrelevant. The end result was the inclusion or re-inclusion of the formerly violent opposition into a civil political process, ending their participation in hostilities. That, truly is the goal of the counterinsurgent. Any other outcome is either indecisive or a loss for the counterinsurgent. Indecisive is when the fighting continues.
When the government wins, it is often not even apparent for some time. Governments usually win by a combination of factors that include some type of political reform. Either the government gets better, or it will likely lose. In a competition to govern, one path to success is to actually win in the area of governance. The violent component of insurgency can interfere with this to a great extent, so security is a key feature of success as well.
The most ideologically-driven insurgents will often “fight on” for years, but eventually become a criminal problem rather than a real political threat. Nonetheless, the apparent continuation of hostilities will often give the illusion of continued insurgency, but there is a point, which is very hard to describe or pinpoint, that insurgency degrades into a condition that looks more like Timothy McVeigh and less like Mao. That is the true tipping point, but it is often not clearly seen except in retrospect. That is a challenge for the government under threat of an insurgency, but it is even more of a challenge for the public support of international counterinsurgents; the home front.
National will is tested severely in counterinsurgencies. The will of the nation beset by an insurgency is severely tested, and the lives of its citizenry are at risk and often made miserable by the contest. The national will of nations assisting a counterinsurgency are also seriously tested, as we see in our own country. The significant delay in perception of when momentum actually shifts in a counterinsurgency is not a positive when it comes to maintaining public support for a course of action that includes active counterinsurgency by an international force.
The insurgency itself is also tested, and continuously so. Insurgents have natural strengths, such as the ability to remain largely difficult to detect. But they also have weaknesses or challenges to overcome, including morale, funding, recruitment, losses and sometimes even the basics like food and shelter. Weapons are not free, and neither is ammunition. In Afghanistan, it is remarkable that in many areas the insurgent can only afford to engage once every few days. This provides pressure on the insurgents to keep supplies coming. When governance improves and security is improved, local public support becomes harder to come by and information regarding the insurgents will begin to trickle in.
If things continue to improve, many pressures are put on the part-timers to quit showing up for ambushes. Finally, the local die-hards don’t quite quit at that point and probably never will. These long-term local engagements with insurgents are the real chess games in Afghanistan. They are like that weird 3-D game of chess on Star Trek, because each instance of the game will have three main components; military/security, governance and economic development. This game of 3-D chess is normally played out between locally savvy elder insurgents, generally one or more local GIRoA officials, and a series of Captains and Lieutenant Colonels who are on the ground for a year at a time. In the past couple of years, it has increasingly included USAID and State Department personnel. The insurgent competes in the military/security and governance lines and sometimes in the development line, although the insurgency itself provides little in the way of economic development.
By exception, in Afghanistan, poppy provides a significant example of how insurgents can provide development to serve their purposes. Of course, it’s not what we would like to see in long-term, sustainable development, but I submit that it is an example of insurgents manipulating the economy and providing employment opportunities. Insurgents may also control the access of humanitarian organizations to create the impression of providing services or development. However, there is no strong evidence that not providing social services has ever led to the failure of an insurgency. There is also no strong evidence that the provision of social services will result in a government win. Providing effective and acceptable governance, on the other hand, unarguably does often result in government wins. The provision of social services is a feel-good action that is not synonymous with good governance.
Statistically, the longer an insurgency is dragged out, the incidents of counterinsurgent wins actually increase slightly. But the loss or unreliability of foreign support has been a significant factor in a number of insurgent wins. Foreign forces engaged in counterinsurgencies are successful a little less than 50 percent of the time; if “government wins” is the measure of success as used by Rand. However, if we consider a success to include negotiated solutions that bring an end to insurgency, then the success rate of foreign active interventions is 12 of 17 or 70%.
As we’ve seen, about two thirds of insurgencies end with what could be termed success for the sitting government. While the outright collapse of insurgencies is included in that two thirds, more often it is by degrees and may include negotiated settlements. Quite often, it is months after the tipping point is reached before it is apparent that an insurgency is subsiding.
This describes how insurgencies have tended to work out, and a few examples of how these principles apply in Afghanistan. Obviously, we are trying to work this one into the two thirds of “successful” outcomes.
A success will sound more like a whimper than a bang. This doesn’t sit so well in a country that likes touchdowns, home runs and actually seeing someone win on “The Biggest Loser” or “American Idol.” Yet, that’s exactly what we are striving for. The next question is, “How do we fit Afghanistan into that successful, whimpering two thirds?”
I was very pessimistic after my tour as a PMT in 2007-2008. What I saw then was a near-complete disconnect between the military and civilian efforts. Two of the main lines of operation were largely absent, and so any security gains were followed by… nothing. The Army cleared and then left, turning hard-fought gains back over to the tender mercies of insurgents, criminals and ineffectual governance. Units fobbed-up and commuted to work, bound by vehicles and often interacting poorly or not at all with the local population. The influx of Iraq-trained troops who brought the driving tactics they had learned there began to irritate everyday Afghans with overt aggression. Units were often interested more in self-protection than in accomplishing anything. The answer to nearly every tactical situation was spelled, “J-D-A-M.” The doctrine of COIN was known only as a set of buzzwords which everyone immediately put into use… to describe actions that were most often decidedly un-COIN. The war was on a seemingly inexorable downward spiral.
I arrived back in Afghanistan in July of 2010 determined to make a difference by educating whoever I could on COIN. That I did, to varying effect. I trained and worked with troops and civilians from over 30 different countries over the course of the subsequent fifteen months. General McChrystal had just taken over the reigns in Afghanistan. A renewed emphasis on COIN had been settled upon, along with an increase in the numbers of troops and civilians on the ground, as the strategy that would be employed to stop the downward spiral.
Field grade military officers were often quite resistant to the concepts taught in the COIN course. Many had either no previous experience fighting an insurgency or had served only in Iraq pre-2007. Some of the questions posed to the instructors were quite oppositional, showing the mindsets that we were dealing with. Informal polling showed that, consistently, about 15% of incoming US Army field grade officers had read even so much as FM 3-24, much less any other texts regarding insurgencies or how to counter them. Senior NCO’s almost universally had not read the manual describing the doctrine. Ignorance of the available information, prejudices inculcated by years of conventional training and pop-culture influence and any number of internal resentments combined to provide many oppositional students. A great deal of patience was required. Angrily countering such arguments as were raised could “lose” a student permanently, yet it was necessary to understand how to counter each objection in an intelligent and persuasive way.
The COIN Leaders Course (CLC) conducted during the last week of every month, was the most comprehensive course offered. This five day course incorporated the normal curriculum with a fair number of guest speakers, many of them Afghan senior officials from the ministries, Army and National Police. Students from many participating nations attended the course, with a heavy attendance by civilians. As much time as possible was devoted to discussions involving the members of each small group, or “syndicates” as they were called (the Australian influence was clearly visible in this). The time available for discussions varied, but was never enough for the students. Practical exercises sparked discussions and raised issues in microcosm, such as working with Afghans through language barriers. Prejudices surfaced; military, political, national and ethnic. Some interfered, many were overcome.
The CLC was not the only course offered. There were other, shorter courses at the CTC-A during the month, and each regional team ventured forth into their respective region for several weeks each month. Units and organizations were trained in the field, sometimes in tents. Our interpreters got a full workout and were often subjected to poor treatment at the hands of American forces, such as our adventures at Bagram (truly horrible at times). Still, our interpreters hung in there and sometimes taught classes to Afghans practically unaided. They were that good.
As I traveled around the country, I was able to witness the behaviors of various units from various countries on the ground… and the effects they were achieving. It wasn’t looking all that great. I was teaching commanders and staffs about the virtues of learning the details of their Areas of Responsibility (AOR) regarding the people and what was important to them using a framework called ASCOPE/PMESII. “That’s great!” they all said as they completed the course. Weeks or months later I would see them out in the provinces, working their magic.
“So, how is your ASCOPE coming?”
“Yeah, uh… we don’t really have time for that,” they would reply.
I began to acquire a persistent shallow in my forehead from smacking the heel of my hand into it and making the Homer Simpson “Doh!” sound.
Conventionally organized staffs, who had trained for months on staff processes geared more towards conventional operations than to support COIN information flows, simply could not implement an informational framework such as the ASCOPE/PMESII while simultaneously supporting ongoing operations on the ground. Reorganizing staff processes on the fly turned out to be as challenging as changing shoes while running without breaking stride.
Civilians were pouring into the country; USAID, State and contractors. Many had scant knowledge of Afghanistan and were full of prejudices about the country and what it needed. Many civilians attend the CTC-A or are taught the course out in the field as the instructors roam about the Regional Commands. They provided their own challenges. One civilian I trained, who was very disruptive in training, had been in the country for four months, had worked for State for five, and her previous work experience was working on Hillary Clinton’s campaign followed by, in her words and with quotation marks swiped at the air, “another campaign.” Political appointees with no prior experience were side by side with workers whose prior experience was in Africa. They had a tendency to believe that they had it all in hand and knew exactly what was needed both locally and nationally. Afghanistan would soon beat that out of them, however. Reality is an awesome mindset adjustment tool, and in reality these were smart people with good intentions.
Another problem they had was in working with the military. It was mutual. The military has a tendency to view civilians engaged in development work as flower-munching, Birkenstock-wearing tree-huggers. Civilians engaged in development work have a tendency to view military personnel as linear-thinking knuckle-draggers. Fun.
Meanwhile, USAID’s Dr. Jim Derleth had brought the District Stability Framework to Afghanistan and was out busily training units to perform it… in the absence of the deep understanding that thorough reconnaissance of the human terrain (ASCOPE, which is now built into the toolset) brings. Units, starting with the Brits, were beginning to recognize the pitfalls of having foreign military personnel conducting TCAPF (Tactical Conflict Assessment Planning Framework) questioning, the famous four questions, to gather local inputs necessary for the accurate completion of the Tactical Stability Matrix were proving more than problematic in that regard. Everything was disconnected. Efforts were scattered and much less effective than coordinated actions can be. USAID became frustrated with their ability to train people how to use the methodology in significant numbers.
I’m not sure how it came to be, but there were talks about training the COIN instructors at the COIN Training Center – Afghanistan (CTC-A) to teach the DSF. COL John Agoglia, the visionary director of the CTC-A during that time, recognized the value of the DSF. It was the missing link; a common operational framework that could be used by military, foreign civilians, Afghan civilian development workers and the local populations. In COIN and Stability Operations, unity of effort is key… and highly elusive. A common operational framework enabled the development of a common operational picture, a necessity to develop unity of effort. Even across languages, if you are talking about the same information organized in a framework that is commonly understood, you are speaking the same “language.” It was decided to train the instructors. This was followed by a couple of weeks of intensive work at the CTC-A and the assignment of an instructor as a subject matter expert to assist in adapting the DSF training to dovetail with the COIN training in partnership with USAID.
As the military “surge” gained momentum, the most common feedback we heard was, “We wish we had gotten this education six to nine months earlier… so we could practice it in training.” We were training leaders, most often at the battalion level and above. Soldiers and NCO’s got, at best, a few hours and were full of the same prejudices. As I was seeing in practice in the field, the lessons of COIN are not best taught after boots-on-ground. We were a band-aid on a gushing arterial bleed.
Things weren’t looking all that encouraging. One thing about COIN and Stability Ops is the perception delay. Just as poor performance is not manifested immediately, so positive inputs do not create immediate and undeniable positive effects. This is one of the reasons that appropriate metrics are so difficult to choose.
Six months into my tour I was feeling enormous frustration.
A couple of commenters on the post “Trending Positive” deserve answers. I’m going to take them in logical instead of chronological order. So the first question is, “Is this (COIN) what we our troops should be doing?”.
Yes. The why of it requires an answer that spans a number of subjects ranging from the purpose of having armed forces to the dangers of foreign national/regional instability in the era of globalization. We have, in part, created this very situation with our own might. By that I don’t mean that our various “nefarious plots” are coming home to roost. I mean that we are too strong for others to take on toe-to-toe with any reasonable assurance of possible success.
Insurgents are not insurgents because they always aspired to be insurgents. They are insurgents out of weakness in the face of vastly superior physical strength. They dare not mass and present targets for overmatching firepower. In 2007, Afghan insurgents dared on several occasions to mass up to company-plus strength and attempt maneuver warfare. This led to mass casualties for the insurgents. One of the strengths of the insurgent is his ability to control his loss rate by controllong how much of his force he exposes to the risk of loss. This, however, sacrifices the ability to inflict more losses on the counterinsurgent… nothing ventured, nothing gained. We know that this insurgency actually thinks in this manner, as they have openly referred to their operations in terms of classic Maoist insurgent doctrinal terms such as “strategic defensive,” the phase they have achieved in much of the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan.
All of that is enemy centric. Insurgency is a political problem with an armed and violent component, not a military problem with a political element. If you choose a method other than Counterinsurgency to fight an insurgency, such as counter-guerrilla warfare, you are doomed to fail; you are fighting a type of warfare other than that in which you are engaged. If you are not conducting Stability Operations, you are leaving in place the very problems that left room for an insurgency to gain traction. In analyzing the events in Afghanistan, it is chrystal clear that we are are engaged in countering an insurgency. Therefore, COIN and its parent, Stability Operations are the types of operations we must use to defeat it.
This is not impossible, nor is it an impenetrable mystery. It is less dangerous for the average American Soldier or Marine than nearly any other American conflict to date. It is not an unreasonable task to ask of the Armed Forces of the United States… unless we do not train them for or support them in the effort.
Yes, this what our forces should be doing. Now, it must be understood that the military/security aspect is only one leg of a three-legged stool that includes Governance and Reconstruction and Development as the other two legs. Military COIN Operations are useless without these concurrent efforts, and these efforts are not most effectively performed by military forces. They require such governmental organs as the State Department and USAID. That is part of supporting the troops in the field; not committing them to an effort that is half-baked from the start.
Appropriate delivery of Stabilization Operations can actually diffuse a latent insurgency and innoculate against the potential of having to engage in COIN Operations.
In order to buy in to the concept that our organs of foreign policy need to be engaged in Stability Operations in far-flung regions of the world, one must accept the events of 9/11, London, Madrid, and Mumbai as manifestations of the new reality of living in a globalized world. Non-state actors can now deliver violence on a scale that would previously have been available only to nation-states. The Soviet Union would have loved to have punched a hole in the Pentagon. The Third Reich would have have committed significant resources to knocking down the tallest buildings in New York if it had been feasible. Both would have found it delicious to do so without presenting a clear, easy target for retribution. Neither found it within their grasp to do so. Yet non-state groups, loosely confederated and working in a distributed manner, headquartered in a dark backwater of the world found the means to organize and execute such attacks employing effective methods, such as the largest cruise missiles ever launched, without presenting an obvious target for retaliation. The deterrent of our massive conventional capability and nuclear arsenal meant nothing. Welcome to the New World Order.
The second question had to do with the President’s “run away date.”. It’s not a run away date. It is a date that he hopes to start drawing down from the surge. This has caused some problems domestically, although the Democratic Party leadership is happy; it’s what they always demanded from President Bush. It has caused more problems in Afghanistan, because the message was misunderstood. Many, both here and abroad, heard, “run away date.” For Afghans, that could easily mean, “Time for me to figure out Plan B.” That is not what I need for my Afghan counterpart to be doing. We could really use a clarification from the President on what he really meant when he made the statement.
It was also a call to action for both the Coalition and the Afghans to show progress, the lack of which could spur abandonment of the mission. To be fair, the only ones who probably have a solid definition of the consequences for failing to show adequate progress are GEN McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry. The rest of us only have educate guesses at best.
That being said, GEN McChrystal has a more than solid grasp of both Stability and COIN Operations. His problem is not one of a lack of personal vision, but the challenge of getting a very diverse group of people of all levels of education to understand and to execute the intent that the vision generates. This challenge cannot be understated, but it is not insurmountable. GEN McChrystal has demonstrated not only a powerful vision, but the tactical patience to get the ship to begin turning despite counterforce and inertia. That is an achievement in its own right. I’m encouraged.
Those who disparage GEN McChrystal demonstrate a marked lack of knowledge of COIN and Stability Operations. When you don’t know what right looks like, there are many stones to be thrown. Unfortunately, some of those voices have developed the illusion of authority on the subject, but my observations lead me to sense a lack of any deep understanding other than a bunch of popular buzzwords. This is also indicated by praise for commanders who have been some of the worst practitioners of COIN ever to wear an American flag in Afghanistan while slamming the best commander that has yet served on the ground here.
None of these spurious calls for GEN McChrystal to be fired do anyone any favors. History will show these calls to be ill-advised. That’s a long time to wait. In the meantime, perhaps my current, firsthand knowledge of Afghanistan, fairly extensive travel within the country, and experience as a combat asdvisor in this theater, along with a strong enough knowledge of both COIN and Stability Operations to have taught them to the O-7 level, will suffice as my bona fides. Assuming that these qualifications are adequate, let me be clear that such wildly cast aspersions as to the abilities of COMISAF are not the works of an educated, well-considered opinion and are of no analytical value whatsoever. In fact, such unsupported yet vociferous noises are irresponsible and potentially dangerous. It would be, in my informed and considered opinion, wise to ignore such calls and understand that correspondents can be very skilled at description and capturing imagery while being dangerously ill-equipped for providing worthwhile analysis. To the reader at home it may be difficult to tell, so hopefully hearing it from a serving Soldier with a stromg enough knowledge of COIN to successfully teach it will be helpful in clarifying the issue.
There are lots of people who are tired of war. The young men and women on their third and fourth deployments are tired of war. Some say that the Afghans are tired of war, while others point out that if they were truly tired of war, they would perhaps cease fighting. Matthew Hoh is tired of war.
When you tire of war, the reason for fighting gets lost in the shuffle. The immediate emotion of it all fades and the real work begins. The young often picture war as an adventure. Some picture it as a righteous cause, with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” wafting through the whole scene.
War is hard work.
War is not glamorous. War is dirty, it is occasionally exceedingly violent; but mostly it is tedious and boring. Especially this type of war. There are some areas of Afghanistan that see activity on a daily basis. Most do not. Helmand, Khost, Kunar and some other places in Afghanistan have relatively constant conflict, with active insurgencies that threaten the peace on a daily basis. Other places are relatively calm, with spates of violent outbursts that shatter the day-to-day routine of Afghan life with smoky, dusty, noisy destruction.
There is no truly national solution for all of Afghanistan. Each area has its own particular situation and broad generalizations simply do not work in this country. Afghanistan is largely rural, and all politics is local. Each place requires specific knowledge of the area, the drivers, the personalities and the issues of particular concern. Foreign knowledge wins nothing here. Experience elsewhere is no guarantee of success here. The lessons of Iraq are often counter-productive here, especially the hard-won TTP’s that assisted in survival in the urban violence. Here, they are often an over-reaction that only alienates those whose trust we are working so hard to gain.
When the zest for war has long-since drained, it takes a special kind of motivation to keep going day-by-day and still putting effort into it. I have seen those who have stacked arms after a few months, thereafter taking the easy way. I have seen those who once had a fire in their belly who have run out of wind, their endurance spent, they are no longer mentally capable of making their way through productively. They become, at times, worse than dead weight. There are those who just flat lose their minds. They lose their grasp of the why, and their disillusionment becomes worse than an anchor dragging their souls against the sandy bottom of the sea of time. It becomes a sail that catches the headwind and drives them backwards.
Perhaps that is what happened to Matt Hoh. I don’t live in his head, so I don’t really know. There has been much discussion in the past day or so about his letter of resignation. One of the young Captains expressed a type of admiration for his having the “courage of his convictions.” I’m not inclined to be so charitable. I think he’s a loser. I think he’s perhaps an example of how some of the young “whiz kids” are not what they seem to be; that a 36 year old may not have what it takes to be the senior civilian officer in charge of our government’s efforts in one of Afghanistan’s provinces. A Marine officer, one of the many Captains to have left the services without rising to Field Grade rank during this war… perhaps out of fatigue… he then joined the civilian ranks and worked in Iraq as a contractor. Visit his LinkedIn page and see that the longest period of time he’s listed as staying in one place is a year and half. Not exactly a stellar resume, in terms of what civilian employers would look for in a hiring decision. Look at the types of contacts he’s open to… new opportunities, consulting jobs, that type of thing.
He’s a job-hopper.
Matthew Hoh is not a shining example of American intellectual might carefully applied to the problem of Afghanistan. He was only in this country since April. Hell, he scarcely had time to learn anything other than, “This shit is really hard.”
It made his head hurt.
Why are we hiring people like Matt Hoh to do important work in troubled provinces in Afghanistan? That’s the question that we should be asking. One of the officers here met him while working in Zabul Province earlier this year. I asked him what he thought of Hoh.
“He was a dick.”
Short, succinct, to the point. This officer was an embedded combat advisor who knows more than the average bear about insurgency and counterinsurgency. He’s been an officer longer than Hoh has held any one position in his life… going by his own LinkedIn page, that is. The officer worked with real Afghans in real situations on the ground in Zabul Province for months. In my opinion, the officer’s opinion holds water.
As for the “courage of his convictions,” Matthew Hoh has now positioned himself, career-wise, better than he ever was as a contracted officer with the State Department with a one-year contract. He is, for today, the hero of the Huffington Post. However, he has thrown himself into the dustbin of history. He’s a quitter, and while some may say that he quit on principle, the most telling line of his own resignation is this one:
“…I have lost understanding of… ”
Yes, young Matthew, you have lost understanding. Judging from the other information, I’m not sure that you ever had any, really. I am not feeling very understanding towards Hoh, either. Hoh admitted that there was a timing issue in his resignation. He has now been doing interviews, playing the instant celebrity, and he’s been getting his share of pats on the back from the “my head hurts” crowd. In one for the Washington Post, he says,
I am happy for the attention to my issues and to the points I am raising, because I believe they have been absent in the public debate of the war.
Ah, so it’s a statement. This is not one man heeding his conscience. It is one man using his position, and his resignation from it, to influence policy through public opinion. That’s what he tells us. He believes… what he wants for us to see. He admits in his interview with the Post that he had doubts, and that he had studied Afghanistan, and then that his experience here confirmed what he thought… so he resigned. Because to him, that’s service.
In other words, he is so damned principled, and so damned intelligent, that he knows better than all the other people who have spent years and years on these issues, as well as the elected officers of our government. He knows so much, and so well, that his resignation… made public by himself and now on an interview tour… is so damned important that this minor ex-functionary with a PRT should influence public opinion?
He spent only a few short months on the ground here and then quits… to much publicity, which he undoubtedly generated by releasing the resignation letter. I sense purpose. Hmmm.
This week, Hoh is scheduled to meet with Vice President Biden’s foreign policy adviser, Antony Blinken, at Blinken’s invitation.
Yep… that makes sense. Joining Team Biden may be in the works then, eh? I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Pretty consistent… he’ll fit right in.
Now, let’s take a look at the real importance of such a man, the most senior of three State Department officials in Zabul Province. That is a man who has risen in the ranks to oversee the efforts of two other civilian officials in the PRT in Zabul. Wow. Really important guy. Very effective. He admitted to achieving pretty much of nothing while he was there but felt that he had “represented” well.
I don’t think so. It’s easy to be impressive for short periods of time. It’s harder to actually do real things in this country that do make a difference over a long period of time. I find that Mr. Hoh is singularly unimpressive. He claims great expertise with only a few months experience in this country, and now demands that his words have great sway in a very important debate. He will have his fifteen minutes of fame, and then he will fade. In the larger picture, he’s nobody. Instead of doing what he can to make a real difference in a tough situation, he has cashed in his chips and run away from any responsibility. He was offered a seat at the table where he could perhaps fight the good fight and influence policy, but he chose not to. I’m sure somebody, somewhere, will take pleasure in his current behavior and hire him in. Hoh will not starve from lack of work. He may very well wind up working with the rest of the foreign policy rocket scientists on Team Biden. But, as in this case, he will disappoint and wind up with another sub-two-year job on his resume.
In the meantime, I think that the State Department needs to look at its hiring practices and determine why it is attracting such people and missing the indicators (a year and a half max in the past eight years or so) that may indicate an inability to make the long term contribution that is needed. They also need to take a look at the commitment level of those it is considering hiring. Hoh was not deeply committed when he arrived, and he conveys that clearly in his interview. How did the hiring authorities at State miss that? How did his supervisor not recognize the growing problem and do what supervisors are supposed to do? How did the PRT commander not recognize that Hoh needed counseling, that he had, in his own words, “lost his understanding?”
War is tiring. It’s really, really hard on those who have difficulty in keeping the same job for awhile. Perhaps now he sees himself as finally saving the drowning men. When Hoh’s fifteen minutes are up, I will not miss him. While Ambassador Eikenberry was overly civil to him, I am not. Hoh’s reppenhagen in my book. He has joined the ranks of the infamous.
Josh Foust over at Registan wrote recently about the attacks in Nuristan being part of a larger strategy, and also questioned the possibility that American presence increased violence there. I’m convinced that the latest attack in Nuristan is part of a larger operational strategy on the part of insurgents. Actually, I believe that it ties in to the persistent insurgent presence in the Tag Ab Valley of Kapisa. Numerous rat lines have existed through Kunar and Nuristan, many of them leading to Tag Ab, which ties them in to the ancient smuggling route that avoids the capital… or leads to it. There is no doubt in my mind that the increase in violence is tied to the increase in Coalition (and GIRoA) presence in Kunar and Nuristan. There was no reason for violence prior to the increased presence and control in Kunar and Nuristan, because they had free run of the area. The people were easily intimidated and there is significant appeal to residents because they are so isolated and fear outside (especially un-Islamic) presence. In this area, Arabs are preferable to Americans as far as the locals are concerned… and they bring money to pay for local men to participate.
Yes, Haqqani is more active in this area, but Haqqani has been pushing more to the southwest in seeking influence, whereas HiG has always been relatively strong along the rat lines from Pakistan and has always been stronger in Tag Ab than the Taliban. We did see Taliban and HiG cooperating in Tag Ab in 2007 and through to today. Haqqani is seeking, and having, more influence in Khost, for instance, but he is starting to run into QST and they are pushing back. Sirajudin Haqqani is more aggressive in this way than his father. During my service in Nuristan, it was well known that there were Arabic speakers in the local area, reputedly carrying large sums of money with which to pay part-time fighters, buy ammunition for them, etc. They would also transport 107mm rockets etc.
Remember, “Taliban” has become a catch-all word for the Coalition, whereas “Dushman” is the catch-all Afghan (cross-language) word. Various factions and even criminal elements can be lumped under or can attach themselves to the “Taliban” brand as it suits them. There is a significant criminal element in Nuristan, partially driven by the primary industry there, gem mining, which has been criminalized by the Afghan government because they do not have the capacity to manage and tax it. As the natural resources are considered the property of the government, they don’t want the gems mined until they can benefit from it, so they have criminalized gem mining. Whereas the opium crop is more prevalent in other provinces, here the driver is gems. Again, the “Taliban” blends with the criminal element to mutual benefit… but are they Taliban, Haqqani or HiG? All three names are heard locally. Haqqani’s faction is often just called, “Taliban” by the locals, so it’s hard to tell… at least that’s my take on it.
While all politics is local, it is tied to other local politics. The issues in Kunar and Nuristan are not disconnected from the problems in Tag Ab. It is part of a chain that leads back to Pakistan. In Tag Ab we didn’t get a lot of Arabic-speakers, but we did get significant Pakistani presence and also at one point a suspected Chechen cell was present, with a marked increase in the effects of small arms and RPG’s (after weeks of misses with RPG’s, there were 8 turret hits with RPG’s in a three week span and several head shots with aimed fire). This corresponded with information that one insurgent commander had agreed to accept “foreign” help, an action that caused actual firefights among sub-factions of insurgents in the Ala Say area in September of 2007. The brothers of two local commanders were killed in these clashes.
Also, the insurgents in Tag Ab have shown a remarkable ability to reinforce. Locals in the Ala Say area have been frustrated this year by the inability to clear the district of insurgents (again commonly referred to as Taliban but certainly including both Taliban and HiG elements).
The ability to mass forces for the assaults on both Wanat and Keating are very likely seasoned cadre brought in from Pakistan (both Afghan and foreign cadre), reinforced with locals who provide logistics support, shelter and fighters. A deal was struck in 2007 at Keating to stay out of the local villages in return for a lack of attacks. The villages were ceded to insurgent influence, but the Coalition and Afghan forces did not have the strength locally to quash the pressure (attacks) to acquiesce to the villages’ demands to keep out. They could not stop the attacks on Keating, so they agreed to the deal to cede the village. The deal struck pretty much guaranteed that insurgent influence would grow in the village over time. Keating has always been a thorn in the side of the insurgent rat lines, but never completely effective. Insurgent checkpoints have been well-known only a few kilometers north, still in the Kamdesh District. Insurgents operated relatively nearby as if they had impugnity for the past couple of years. Did Keating interfere with the rat lines? Yes. Were they capable of having a tremendous impact towards extending GIRoA control/legitimacy in Kamdesh District or Nuristan? No, not really.
There were different dynamics at work as far as proximal causes for the two attacks. Wanat was a case of quashing an outpost before it became a problem, whereas Keating was simply taking advantage of a planned withdrawal. The abandonment of COP Keating was due to happen, anyway. This attack did not change that. What it did do was make it appear, for IO purposes, to be an insurgent victory. Wanat involved complicity with the local ANP and almost certainly the Sub-Governor, whereas there is no evidence (at this point) of complicity of ANSF in or near Keating… although it is possible that some of the ANP, knowing that they are about to be abandoned to their fate, were currying favor with insurgent leaders in preparation for the abandonment. The root cause of the attacks were the same; clear the rat lines to improve communications along the lines that lead to Kapisa, bypassing Jalalabad and Kabul and allowing control of/access to the ancient smuggling route up the Tag Ab Valley. This provides the ability to either bypass or infiltrate Kabul, and potentially allows massing of forces within a few dozen kilometers of Kabul.
Many actors at play here, for various reasons ranging from political to military to criminal. International actors are at play as well, but thin out the farther from the Pakistani border that they get.
The current strategy is to leave areas alone until the Coalition/GIRoA has the strength to deal with them. Instead of spreading too thinly across a vast mountainous area, focus on the areas that can be controlled now and then push out over time. If the rest of the area is well-governed, the government can push into these areas and subdue them one by one. In the meantime, violence in those areas will decrease as the insurgents won’t have targets in that particular area. This may seem like giving up, but what it really is doing is putting a stop to unproductive behaviors, trying to influence or hang on to areas where there isn’t the ability to mass effects on the target population. This is consistent with current guidance, which is not to clear what we cannot hold and not to try to hold unless there is the capacity to build. The timing of the assault on Keating was unfortunate, but certainly no accident. A weakened outpost was attacked, certainly hoping to overrun it and claim a great victory to add to the illusion of inexorable victory for the insurgents. I would have to describe that effort as a success, even though they failed to annihiliate the garrison and overrun the entire COP. The end result; Americans abandoning the outpost within a short time afterward and the appearance of insurgents causation… as in Wanat… is the same.
I heard the blast.
And again, the Taliban take credit, and again, they were probably not the drivers for the attack. LeT, with probable involvement from the ISI, are the ones with the gripes and concerns about the Indians in Afghanistan. Why would the Taliban care about Indian involvement in Afghanistan?
Because Pakistan cares.
Why would the Taliban claim responsibility? Because it makes them look powerful. Perhaps they were involved… and if they were, then the ties between the Taliban and external groups, under question at the moment, are still vibrant. Those of us here in country really don’t doubt that. It’s others, for whom the argument that the Taliban are really a single-issue organization, who would benefit from wide acceptance of the idea that the Taliban really only exist because we are here, or because they are only interested in Afghanistan.
Try this on from the Summer of 2001:
Usama bin Ladin’s Role
The Taliban’s increasing internationalism is particularly exemplified by its grant of safe haven to Usama bin Ladin. Bin Ladin had been active in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation but left after the Red Army’s withdrawal. When he returned to the country in 1996, he first settled in an area neutral in the war between the United Front and the Taliban, though he and the Taliban quickly developed a mutual affinity, prompting bin Ladin to establish a new base for himself at the movement’s headquarters in Kandahar. The Taliban have claimed that they have prevented him from playing any role in terrorism. (Contrarily, the U.S. government holds him responsible for the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa and likely the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.)
Yet it is certain that bin Ladin himself has become increasingly radicalized while with the Taliban. He issued his most notorious anti-American fatwa (decree) in 1998, calling on his followers to kill any American—civilian or military, adults or children—anywhere in the world. Also in 1998, it became known through an intercept of bin Ladin’s satellite telephone calls, that he was linked to the embassy bombings in East Africa. The Taliban responded that they had taken away his communications equipment.
Apart from this, much has been rumored but little proven about bin Ladin’s activities inside Afghanistan and the exact nature of his relationship with the Taliban. Taliban leader Mullah ‘Umar may have married one of bin Ladin’s daughters. Pakistani papers at times have reported that bin Ladin visits Taliban troops on the front lines and the wounded in hospitals. He is also believed to have given money directly to the Taliban for their war and to have financed a so-called “bin Ladin brigade” of at least several hundred foreign fighters.25 He has also aided these fighters through the distribution of his “terrorist encyclopedia,” which has been found on some of the Taliban killed or captured by the United Front.26 United Front military leaders claim that bin Ladin has offered rewards for their assassination.27
Bin Ladin’s links also help the Taliban in other ways. For instance, it is conceivable that as Taliban leaders have become increasingly involved in the drug trade, bin Ladin’s international network may have helped them in distributing these narcotics. Numerous terrorist-affiliated websites are certainly active in soliciting funds for the Taliban.28 As a symbol of defiance toward the United States and of adherence toward the cause of militant Islam, bin Ladin is also valuable to the Taliban as a source of donations from abroad, particularly from the wealthy Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.
Where the Taliban end and bin Ladin’s Al-Qa‘ida organization begins is difficult to determine. Both the Taliban and Al-Qa‘ida are perhaps best viewed as links in the same chain of the international terrorist network. The Taliban have created an indispensable haven in Afghanistan, a base where extremists like bin Ladin and others can meet and plan future attacks in relative safety. The paramount importance of the Taliban’s connection with bin Ladin is best described by the bin Ladin-affiliated website Azzam.com, which argues in a Taliban fundraising appeal that “the fall of an Islamic Afghanistan … will be a calamity that will make other Muslim calamities look like nothing in comparison.”29
It’s amazing how a linkage that was only too clear to some prior to 9/11 is somehow now an absurdity. Has al Qaeda been disrupted? Clearly, yes. Have they been destroyed? Clearly, no. For linkage, just wondering here, if the Afghan in Colorado who has admitted to a terror plot inside the United States would be working completely alone and without any support, training, assistance, organizational or information support, or if there is some kind of distributed support network that he has some access to. Just wondering. Also wondering why this doesn’t bring home the concept that Afghanistan and those who it can harbor are and can be a threat to the internal security of the United States.
Could this guy just be a terrorist mastermind working alone and without a net? Could he be a Wallenda of terror? Yes, I suppose it is possible, but that’s not the greatest possibility now, is it?
So, while we have some who are assuring us that al Qaeda has been whittled down to perhaps… and this seems to be the consensus… about 100 people, we have two little items of note in the very recent past that bring that contention into a bit of doubt. What would be the purpose, I wonder? Who would benefit from the public somehow buying into the myth of al Qaeda irrelevance?
GEN McChrystal’s assessment has now been “leaked.” Now what? For some time now, it has seemed that the tide of public opinion has been turning against the “Good War.” Why do you think that is?
Because suddenly everyone has realized that Afghanistan is a complex, dynamic situation. It is what analysts call a “wicked problem.” Everyone thought that Iraq was complicated and that Afghanistan was more simple. Now that people have really taken a look at Afghanistan, they realize that it is not so simple. In many ways, it is more complex than Iraq. It makes people’s heads hurt.
Not being able to make sense of the problem, they figure that nobody can, and that’s when the pessimism of the public takes hold.
A few words of caution: First, the American public has nothing of the real story of Afghanistan presented to them. The only brave reporters in the country are busying themselves with covering combat. The rest remain in Kabul, running stringers of dubious quality and unknown affiliations. For the first time, today, I was asked by a civilian, “Why is none of the good stuff that we are doing getting told back home? Why is the press ignoring the real stories here?”
I cannot answer that question in a way that sounds even vaguely like I feel that the mainstream media has a clue. Media people are allowed to attend the Counterinsurgency Training Center. Damned few take up the offer. How can a press corps even pretend to know what they are talking about when they don’t do their best to understand the reasoning, the doctrine, the strategy behind what they are seeing? Most of them, a select few exempted, have no idea what they are looking at when they watch the military do anything beyond brushing their teeth. Not only that, but they don’t try.
What does this have to do with GEN McChrystal’s assessment? Well, the General points out a few things that are being glossed over back home. First, the Afghans want us here. He quotes General Wardak in his report as saying just that. Wardak also notes that the time is ripe for success. The raw material for a comprehensive and integrated approach to the counterinsurgency is building in Afghanistan, and for the first time, we are hearing that the American public is now tilting against this theater. Amazing. What timing. Americans, like my beloved but hapless Bengals, have a particular talent ever since the early seventies for snatching defeat from the jaws of success. It is quite possible for us to succeed in Afghanistan. The situation is far from ideal. It is serious, and that is our fault. No doubt. But it is not hopeless.
I am still digesting the report; but having seen the followup briefings, where the story unfolds further, the assessment is no surprise. I cannot discuss the briefings on where, specifically, the General plans to take this, but I can tell you that he is not tolerating among our leadership here the kind of pessimism that runs rampant in our homeland. We cannot afford to let it make our heads hurt. It is our job to handle the wicked problem. There are some very determined people involved here. Now we are seeing determined, hopeful people who don’t wear uniforms bringing their talents to bear where they should have been years ago. It is not too late, and the General states this clearly. Now is the time; not to double down just to be doubling down, but to learn, adapt and take our performance of real counterinsurgency to the next level.
President Obama has, somehow or other, wound up with the “Dream Team” on the issue of Afghanistan. Just as Al Qaeda has shifted resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, so have we. Many of the people who sharpened their claws in Iraq have been shifted over to Afghanistan, and the good war has taken on a primacy of effort that was lacking when I first arrived in April of 2007. While still sparsely resourced, people who know how to do stability and counterinsurgency operations have begun to come into the country, and they are having an impact. GEN McChrystal has got some wicked smart people working for him on projects large and small that will make a positive impact on this country.
Now the President, swayed by the possibility of an unpopular decision, begins to waffle. This is not the right time to waffle. This is the time to be decisive.
I was recently thanked by a foreign officer for something I said to a group of American officers. I told the American officers that the rest of the world views us as the big fat rich kid on the world playground. We want everyone to like us, and are heartbroken to discover that a few don’t. We are easily aroused and like to throw our weight around. We think that what we think is going to be the most important thing on everyone’s agenda. We are not afraid to fight, and we have heavy hands. God help you if we catch you with a punch; few can withstand a beating from us. But, we are clumsy. We can be hurt, and we have no stamina; no real will. If we can be made to bleed a little, and if we can be run in circles for more than a little while, we tire easily. We have the propensity, when things get tough and we get a little winded, to take our ball and go home. We are prone to quitting. We have quit before, and we are more than likely to quit again. The Taliban know that, and the Afghan people know that. It is part of the insurgent song to the people, a message designed to keep them on the fence, unsure of which way best suits their interests. If they commit to the government being helped the by the fat kid, and the fat kid runs away to mope, they can die. Many dare not commit. Many who have committed in the last eight years have paid the price with their lives as we have moved into an area, cleared it out and announced that the bad times were over. As the good-intentioned patriots emerged to help heal their communities, we have left their damaged communities with nothing to guarantee security. Our focus was on developing the Army, after all. The Police? Nobody wanted to work with them, to improve them. Yet we left those communities in their untrained, ill-led hands and scampered off in search of more Taliban to chase. The Taliban returned to those communities and killed those who had stood up in their absence. It is a phenomenon we call “mowing the grass.”
We have mowed a lot of grass. Many would-be patriots have died as a result of our inability to grasp the importance of a comprehensive, integrated approach to assisting in the rebuilding of a society damaged to its core by over thirty years of warfare and upheaval, suffering from a chronic insurgency. We are world famous for abandoning those who we had told, “We will not abandon you.”
The foreign officer thanked me for saying what all of the Coalition and Afghan partners were thinking. They were afraid to raise the point, though; because we can be an ill-tempered lot when our assumptions about ourselves are challenged. To those men, it just isn’t worth it to hold up their mirror for us to look at. It’s like when someone who really doesn’t care about you lets you walk around with spinach in your teeth.
The fat kid is wheezing now. We are faltering, cocooning, withdrawing within ourselves and our head hurts from the complexity of it all. We want to quit. We want to take our ball and go home. We will cede this area to instability and leave, like we are leaving our debt, the mortal threat for our children to handle. It’s all just too much for us to bear.
Who would have thought, four years ago, that of the two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, that the one where we would tire out and be losers would be Afghanistan? When Obama made Afghanistan the “good war,” and when he called Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” you would have expected firm, decisive movement. Initially, that is what was shown. He went along with firing McKiernan and replacing him with McChrystal, whose vision and leadership has shaken the “same old, same old” sensibilities of the Afghanistan mission. GEN McChrystal promises, through his actions and initiatives, to do things that have never been done in Afghanistan. Now, the President is poised to force the resignation of this leader, which will be the political death of his administration. But he will leave the General no recourse if he fails to resource the mission properly.
In the meantime, back home, ill-informed people who knew nothing about Afghanistan at this time last year other than it wasn’t Iraq and it was where Osama was when the World Trade Center crashed to the ground, have had the chance to learn a little more about this ancient land. What they learned was that it wasn’t so simple. It wasn’t so easy. It made their heads hurt. It is a wicked, dynamic problem, and it makes heads hurt. They stare and stare at the picture, but they just can’t see the damned dolphin. So, their answer is to quit. They begin to waver. President Obama, the most politically sensitive president I’ve ever seen… a veritable political weather vane, senses the wind shift… and dissembles accordingly.
The news today is that the President is considering a plan brought forth in the spring by another great military leader and strategic genius. It is certainly cheaper, and is likely to prove enormously popular with the waffles back home. It actually involves fewer troops in Afghanistan, a great reliance on drone strikes and Special Operations raids in Pakistan (boy, I bet that makes the Pakistanis happy!) That sounds as effective as lobbing 63 cruise missiles at a few mud huts. Not like that’s ever been done before.
Meanwhile, cheerleaders all over Washington and parts of the press are laying it on thick in a bid to win their agendas. They are the part of the fat kid’s mind that tells him that he is afraid, that he is tired, that nothing is worth it. I’ve watched the voices become strident. “This is a long, steep hill,” the voice in his head tells the fat kid, “you can quit any time you want. Let’s go have some ice cream. You know it’s hard, and you’re sweaty, and you’re tired. Your head hurts. This wasn’t all easy like you thought. It’s too hard. Ice cream sounds good. Let’s go get some ice cream and watch American Idol.”
We are the big, rich, fat kid. We talk a big story, but our word isn’t worth a plugged nickel. That’s what Omar means when he says, “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” He knows us well enough to know that we are quitters.
For those of you who are tracking, remember that you are not even getting half of the story of what is actually happening over here. As for how to deal with the, “My Head Hurts” crowd, just tell your fellow citizens to take some Advil and stand by. The next move is Obama’s, and it will determine the immediate future of my mission in Afghanistan, my son’s future, and how long we will stay the fat, rich kid who talks big and runs away when the other kid hits back.