First, I’d like to announce a new blog, Afghan Blue III, which will be more about the experience than about COIN. Of course, the way that I perceive things is affected by what I know, like anyone. This blog will continue as what it has become.
I will be back in Afghanistan within the next day or so. On the way in, my perception is that Afghanistan is more complex and convoluted than ever. COIN is discredited in the United States. We are seeking the door, looking for a way to claim some sort of victory or wash our hands of responsibility for any potential insurgent success. Domestic politics drives our strategy, election timeliness hold sway over operational considerations. Our allies follow our lead, happy to be relieved of the burden. Our Afghan allies seek to firm up their personal retirement plans, seeking external refuge in greater numbers. The insurgents see light at the end of the tunnel, vindicated in their approach of waiting us out.
The French have cried uncle after a pair of green-on-blue incidents, giving insurgents the message that Afghans in uniform shooting Coalition soldiers will hasten the withdrawal of foreign forces, speeding the day when it is insurgent vs. lone government.
It’s not looking good, folks.
Secretary Panetta is in Brussels, outlining the shift from combat units to advisors, to be completed in 2013. This is a good thing. Major maneuver units have possibly done as much harm as good over the years. The titles, “battlespace owner,” and, “land owner,” have given some Coalition officers a sense of entitlement and stand-alone decision-making authority that have made assistance forces feel like occupation forces. This fight has always been an Afghan fight. The drivers of instability have always been Afghan drivers. Some of our well-meaning efforts have been productive; some have contributed to dysfunction.
Our military has never been of a single mind in its approach to this fight. Our government has been lopsided in its approach, heavily weighted towards military effort in a struggle which is primarily a contest for the right to govern. The most progress had been made by advisors, but these successes have mostly been with Afghan security forces. Most Afghans struggling with governance have had little or no mentoring or advising. Shifting back towards an advisory role with the security forces is appropriate. Unfortunately the governance piece will still lack manpower and emphasis.
Perhaps Afghan line ministry employees will magically develop professionally, but likely not. Inept governance creates a supply-and-demand system that stimulates corruption and decreases incentive to become more effective. Better to keep prices high and provide more limited service than to service everyone equally and accept only one’s base pay.
If governance does not improve, security will be impossible to maintain.
As we sit in Manas awaiting transportation to Afghanistan, those leaving Afghanistan share stories of their recent experiences in places I have served. Areas once fairly pacified have slid into hellish instability. The road from Methar Lam to Kalagush, once fairly secure, is now seeded densely with IED’s. Ceding Kunar to the insurgents gave the internal safe haven that brought greater violence to Laghman.
Soldiers express disgust with Afghan farmers who fail to warn them of IED’s. No doubt those farmers resent the renewed vigor of insurgents in their neighborhoods, feeling the decline in security to be the failure of the foreigners in their ever-larger armored vehicles.
Only the homeward-bound Marines express any sense of optimism that their sacrifices are bearing fruit. I have yet to find one Marine grateful to the urinating snipers for that recent contribution to the legacy of the Marines in Afghanistan, by the way. I did speak to one who knew those Marines in the video. He expressed surprise, saying no one in his unit would have believed it had they not seen the video. None of those Marines had bragged about the feat in-country. It seems that only those safely at home feel congratulatory towards the urinating Marines. Those who were painted by that brush in Afghanistan were less than thankful, at least among those I’ve spoken with. While a limited sampling, it was unanimous. None thought it funny.
While the Marines passing in the opposite direction are proud of their efforts, the Army Soldiers are obviously relieved to be out, but much less optimistic that what they have done makes a difference. They mostly express dislike for Afghans and frustration with them. They brag about the punishment their units suffered, about how many kills they have. They almost universally express disdain for Afghan forces. The Marines discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the ANA and ANP (now referred to as the AUP, or Afghan Uniformed Police), while Soldiers express loathing and little else.
I’m not alone in this perception. Taco, another member of my team, made the same observation. I have my opinions about the reasons for the difference in attitudes, but there is no doubt that there is a difference.
These are some of my thoughts as I await the flight that will carry me to my last tour of duty in Afghanistan.
It’s been awhile, no doubt, and there are many reasons why I have eschewed posting on this site for some time. Not all of them bear exploration. However, there are a couple of cats to let out of the bag. First; I’m going back, yet again, to Afghanistan. Second; I started blogging as a way to keep my friends and family connected to what I was doing. Perhaps Facebook explains why so few new bloggers have entered the fray in the past couple of years. I’ve realized that there are two different readerships that have followed what I’ve written over the past couple of years, and so I’ve decided that I will open a separate blog for the experiential piece, since this blog has become more or less dedicated to COIN theory and practice.
Perhaps I will take up Facebook as well. I’ve found that social media sites take a lot of time. I’ve had lots of encouragement to do so, though.
I’ll announce the address of the new site as soon as I make the first post. But, if anyone’s still out there, please stay tuned and it will come soon enough.
One final thing is to acknowledge some things regarding the lack of writing about what I have seen and learned these past few months regarding COIN, the war in Afghanistan, and what I think about our evolving role in the world. I came back with the strength of my convictions about what I was seeing on the ground in Afghanistan. I came home to find, yet again, a disconnect between the ongoing conversation back here and what I knew that I was seeing in Afghanistan. Here, COIN is being widely shouted down… and anyone who claims to see it work is being shouted down as well. Those who have the bona fides to claim wisdom and analytical superiority are dismissive. There have also been those who made serious prognostications from Kabul about the state of affairs.
I got tired of it.
Much has transpired, and there have been many thoughts that have gone unwritten. It just felt like a waste of time and effort. Between that, the struggle with the general feeling of disconnection due to the amount of time I’ve spent overseas, and the general attitude that experience on the ground is trumped by the theoretical and long-distance analysis of the wise… well… it takes a lot of energy to continually try to rise above the din. It has just seemed a losing struggle. Inertia is carrying us towards what I observe to be a practically inevitable conclusion.
While I was at liberty to discuss the impending deployment, there were those in my life who I care about deeply… my children… whose summer I did not want to spoil. This has been in the works since shortly after I returned a little over a year ago. I was asked by a brigade commander to be his COIN advisor for the brigade’s upcoming tour. I agreed, because I saw that as a call to serve. I also wanted for the Buckeye Brigade to acquit itself well in its mission.
We have been at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, since August, except for a brief break of about a week between Title 32 and Title 10 active duty. What I’ve seen about the pre-deployment training of the National Guard by 1st Army would fill a small book and there are too many big rice bowls; it is well and truly broken and nothing I can do or say will ever fix it. I need to complete this tour and retire before I really detail that or I will surely wind up in very poor condition. No one wants to hear it, anyway; not those who can influence or change it.
Overall, the Army has done a much better job of training COIN. Some do better than others. The stars are the Combat Advisor trainers of the 162nd Brigade, the guys who train Combat Advisors at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and the National Training Center. The quality of training provided by the 162nd, especially the training for advisors deploying to Afghanistan, is light years above the training my team and I received at Fort Riley in 2007. Unfortunately, the advisors attached to this brigade only received 10 days of specialized training from the 162nd here at Camp Shelby.
The National Training Center is the other winner. In early August the leadership of the brigade spent about a week at the NTC being brought up to speed on the expectations and learning about the big rocks they would have to lift there. The NTC provides the capstone exercise prior to deployment. I was thrilled when they briefed the brigade and battalion leaders that they would be expected to assemble a PMESII/ASCOPE analysis of their operational area. When the staff of the NTC laid out the expectation that the units would be expected to use the District Stability Framework during the conduct of the exercise, I almost lost my mind. Good stuff.
It is new to the NTC, but they are working to incorporate it into their insurgency/counterinsurgency exercises.
The secondary effect was that it convinced the brigade leadership that they needed to embrace the DSF, which I had been encouraging them to get trained in for months.
That is less than half the story… so torn about what has transpired in the meantime. This is my first time deploying with a National Guard unit, and it’s been enlightening.
There has also been much that has transpired in Central Asia over the past months. Pakistan has been very active in many ways, and the developments between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have been fascinating. So much to examine. Soon I will be back on the ground in Afghanistan, seeing things once more having passed through that portal into the reality of that land and events therein.
If anyone’s out there, please let me know. Whistling in the dark is difficult these days. I could use a little encouragement.
The report discussed in the NYT is not new. I read the report about six weeks ago, and from personal experience it makes some sense. I would encourage leaders preparing to deploy to read it. This is why I’m disappointed that ISAF is refuting the report rather than learning from it. At least they appear to not be taking it seriously. If this is true, it is a mistake.
Granted, the sample was small and geographically limited. The sampling of US troops is even smaller than the sample of Afghans. So, yes, the report has limitations. It is less science than it is anecdotal… but as a combat advisor who has worked with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the report does carry the ring of truth. The NYT scarcely touches on the real point; the enemy is within… us. It turns out that most of the fratricidal murders that have occurred were not the work of insurgent infiltrators, but the work of very angry ANSF. It is easier to put more money into vetting ANSF recruits than it is to effectively deal with the real problem.
Our counterinsurgency manual lists a set of behaviors that are historically proven to be unsuccessful practices. One of those is a “low priority on quality advisors.” Army Special Forces have a selection process that is designed to weed out those who, among other things, are not suited to working with indigenous peoples. My own experience demonstrates what every other non-SF combat advisor knows; we were not selected based upon on any key criteria for what it takes to be a high quality advisor. We were warm bodies with the requisite military skill set and the requisite rank. Some didn’t even have those prerequisites; they simply had a pulse. There was no personality testing. There was no stress testing. There was no selection process. Individual team chiefs (those who actually had an opportunity and a pool to select from) sometimes made efforts to select a quality team… mostly based on records reviews and interviews, which are very limited in what they can tell a leader. It was a shot in the dark. Mostly, it has worked out. We are discussing what happens when it doesn’t.
Trends emerged. Guardsmen turned out to be particularly well-suited to advisor roles. This does not mean that Regular Army officers and NCO’s were never successful; there are lots of success stories. But, on the whole, the Guard is better suited to advisory roles. It is generally accepted that Guardsmen have more well-rounded experience based on their immersion in civilian culture. There is a lot there to be plumbed; another entire discussion could be had about what the reasons for this phenomenon are. At this point, suffice to say that it has been more than adequately demonstrated to those of us who have served in close relationships with ANSF that some people have absolutely no business being in proximity to Afghans. We have all seen them, Guard and Regular alike; they are a danger to themselves and others, and sometimes they have gotten people killed. The last several paragraphs address the advisor issue, but more and more American line troops, not trained as advisors, are coming into constant contact with ANSF.
These types of killings are not new, but there has been an increase. The article quotes the report’s author, Dr. Bordin, as stating that 16% of hostile Coalition deaths are attributable to these fratricidal murders. I don’t know if this is accurate, but any other problem, the resolution of which could result in 16% fewer casualties, would be attacked with vigor. Well, they are attacking… but they are attacking the statistically much less significant problem of preventing insurgent infiltrators. It appears that the problems that contribute to the majority of these events are being left to smolder, dismissed by officials. Those officials can smear the techniques, they can smear the language, but I’m here to tell you that the message makes sense to me and many other advisors, and it can be addressed just as the military addresses any other recognized source of injuries and deaths; command emphasis.
A few questions may come to mind. Why would a non-insurgent Afghan soldier or policeman decide to open fire on his own allies? The report indicates a number of reasons, key among them being issues related to respect. Profane language and behavior are cited.
Afghans do not use profanity in their language as a matter of course. In the American military, the use of profanity surpasses even the use of profanity in American culture in general (with the possible exception of gangsta rap). Use of the f-bomb is rampant in American movies. Profane name-calling is an art form. In Afghan culture, to insinuate even jokingly that a man has intimate relations with his mother is an offense so great that it may inspire lethal ire. Americans call each other “motherfuckers” all the time. I have witnessed American soldiers calling Afghans such things, or referring to an Afghan as such when discussing them with another Afghan. This then gets back to the Afghan so-referenced and a resentment is begun. This may seem a simple misunderstanding, but it has been known to have lethal consequences.
I’ve seen violence almost break out over cultural issues. I’ve heard Afghan soldiers make death threats against American soldiers because the American soldier made a statement about Afghan women. The American soldier who had been threatened saw hypocrisy in the anger. Afghans see American movies and the promiscuity depicted as a matter of course. They also see American porn. Afghan soldiers love American porn, and they view American women as loose. The American soldier had been listening to his Afghan counterparts talking about American women, became irritated and said that he wanted to see photos of naked Afghan women. That was all it took. It could have resulted in a killing, but the situation was diffused and the soldier was strongly admonished not to engage in such discussions with Afghans for any reason. He survived. Others have not.
Basically, the problem is akin to racism; ignorance and arrogance combine to form a sense of natural superiority that is difficult and sometimes impossible to overcome. Just as many do not suffer from such delusions, some do things that endanger themselves and others. We have a military culture that is not only fond of profanity, it is fond of judging one’s self in relation to others. Esprit d’ corps is often built upon inculcating the belief that the members of a given unit are somehow superior and more elite than members of another unit. Now, how is a young man who has been raised since he was at the tail end of his childhood to believe that this is how to judge others (especially those in uniform) supposed to suddenly suspend this value system because he is put into close daily contact with indigenous forces?
It is nigh on impossible. Some will have the personal characteristics to overcome it, but enough who cannot will make it into these close situations. Some leaders, even some commanders, will recognize the danger and take action. Enough do not, and there is no higher-level emphasis that this is a responsibility of leadership; to recognize and remove such threats from our own ranks. To do so leaves us even more short-handed than we appear to be on paper. To not do so leaves us open to up to 16% higher casualties.
Why has the rate of such incidents increased? What has changed? An emphasis on “partnering” with Afghan units and a move away from emphasizing advising/mentoring. The cited report indicates that ANSF had uniformly positive impressions of American advisors, such as ETT’s and PMT’s, and are less happy with American units more recently. American and Coalition regular units are being placed in close living and working situations with ANSF on a frequent basis. This is, overall, a good thing; even if the advising is being downplayed (generally, there is a mixture). However, since we have the immature and arrogant in our midst, there is a greater potential for dangerous situations to occur. They have, in fact.
Younger soldiers who have been in a strictly military environment since shortly after they graduated from high school have a greater tendency to be unable to adapt to the cultural differences between Afghans and Americans. They are more likely to blithely err in ways that are not intuitively dangerous to American youth. Add to this the small but significant enough number of officers and NCO’s who are unable to effectively work with ANSF and you have a recipe for isolated outbreaks of lethal violence among allies.
While cultural training has improved, it is spotty in its stress on language and gestures. Afghan cultural training often stresses not using the left hand to gesture and emphasizes never showing the soles of your feet. Well, Afghans will often wave with their left hand, especially if the right hand is busy… but they will never shake with it. They will offer the right forearm if the right hand is busy, wet or dirty. Afghans do not appreciate the carelessly rude or purposeful display of the sole of the foot, but they are not so sensitive that accidental or comfort-related moves that expose the sole are taken as an offense.
While making too much an issue of the left hand, offensive gestures and language are often overlooked. Afghans view profane language as very distasteful and ignorant (even if they are illiterate). Profane names are absolutely out and never acceptable. The thumbs-up used to be an offensive gesture, but because of its common American use, it is accepted. However, the American fist pump to the chest is the equivalent of flipping an Afghan the bird and is considered to be extremely offensive… but I’ve only seen one cultural trainer who actually explained this. It’s not just cultural training that can be improved, it’s also incorporating this knowledge into individual task training.
Recently, a National Guard unit was performing its pre-mobilization required individual task training. One of these tasks was “perform detainee operations.” The emphasis was on searching detainees. The trainers were well-rehearsed and professional, executing the task to the precise standards they were given; including how a male searches a female. Teaching male soldiers how to search females puts the idea in their heads that an American male soldier searching an Afghan female could under some bizarre circumstance be acceptable. It is never acceptable, ever (did I mention ever?). There are other ways to deal with the problem. Always. Our premobilization task training is not battle focused on the only battle these young men will serve in. We can adjust that. We can do better with tailoring our training to suit the combat environment, especially culturally.
Finally, a quote from an American officer emerges from the end of the article:
“In this culture, they shoot first, ask questions later,” said Lt. Col. David C. Simons, a spokesman for the training mission in Afghanistan. “Back in the States, if this happens a guy punches you and you walk away and hope you don’t get arrested. But here, you just hope you don’t get killed.”
Well, okay… but part of that is bullshit. Afghans do value human life, and it’s not “shoot first and ask questions later.” It’s a difference in what is worth taking life over. If you call an Afghan a “motherfucker” (just an example) and he actually understands you… as more and more of them do… you are taking your life and possibly those of your buddies into dangerous waters. Oh, and everyone has a weapon capable of ending life with the twitch of a finger. No, the questions do not need to be asked later. You have answered any question required to convince that man that you need to die based on every value he was raised with. In fact, his honor demands it. With all due respect to LTC Simons, he is a spokesman and does not appear to be an advisor. If it were shoot first and ask questions later, many more advisors would have died during the course of this war. I never walked around wondering if I was about to be shot by the Afghans I worked with. That’s a cowboy quote that is unhelpful in considering the problem. The view from Camp Eggers does not include the experience necessary to evaluate what is worth killing a man over in Afghanistan, but since he is actually in Afghanistan, it was a juicy quote that sounded ominous in the NYT. All I can say is, “Thank you, Sir.”
It’s stuff like that which makes young men go to Afghanistan fearing sudden death from any quarter. Being respectful when you are frightened is more difficult than having awareness of the cultural don’ts.
As noted, the report is not great science; but it still hits home. To ignore its findings is to continue to suffer unnecessary casualties. A recommendation to mitigate the risk is to encourage commanders and leaders in general to identify and remove from contact with Afghans any individuals who appear to lack the ability to adapt to working with ANSF. Just as each unit is mandated to have an Equal Opportunity (EO) officer or NCO to investigate and recommend action to mitigate issues of racism and sexism, a similar emphasis should be made to identify and remediate the risks of both soldiers and leaders who place their fellows at risk through imprudent language and behaviors. Education and training are helpful, but we have all seen that they are not enough. Some individuals simply will not adapt. Sometimes, in the immortal words of Offspring, “you gotta keep ‘em separated.”
If the end result is 16% fewer casualties, you tell me where the effort is a waste of time.
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.
There have been a couple of decent articles in the past week or so that are good conversation-starters regarding Afghanistan and the challenges facing both Afghans and Coalition forces on the local level. The first, a AP piece by Deb Reichmann of the Associated Press, paints what appears to be a gloomy picture of the challenges of working with local governance in, in this example, Logar Province. It’s a good piece to spark some discussion, and anyone who has worked on the local level in Afghanistan would recognize the dynamics at work.
The piece mentions what appears to be a dire prediction by Sec. Gates concerning what it will take to get Afghan governance up and running (decades). It also mentions a shift, which I saw beginning in 2009, towards focusing efforts on local governance. This does not mean that GIRoA is escaping notice, with its major challenges corruption, croneyism, nepotism and criminal/narco links. Not at all. But it does indicate that more effort is being focused on what actually matters to the Afghan who lives in the little valley… or about 80% of the population.
While Ms. Reichmann paints a picture of the obstacles, and of a day where things didn’t quite work out, read between the lines. Efforts are being made at the local level and, while many of the quotes came from government officials, there was some indication of local population preference for the success of the Afghan government. Reading it, I had to grin. I can feel for LTC Chlebowski, and he certainly has his work cut out for him, but I’ve been in similar situations. I will never forget asking a villager in a small village in the Tagab Valley who he supported. He answered, “You are here every week or so, the Taliban are here every other night. Who do I have to support?”
Another question that could be asked would be, “Who do you want to support?” Hearing about Afghans expressing that they want to support the government is a good thing. Giving them the security to do that is a difficult chore, no doubt, but there are two good things in this article; Afghans who want to support the government and a focus on local governance. One thing missing; mention of civilian stability partners other than Afghan government officials.
The article contains one phrase that I absolutely hate: “Hearts and minds.” It is the most misunderstood phrase in counterinsurgency, because to the average person… and a lot of military personnel… it conjurs up images of passing out stuffed animals and packets of flower seeds. Yech. Not at all what the original author intended. It does not necessarily mean soft power or cutting out paper dolls with the locals. I cannot override the fluffy bunny imagery of the phrase, so I just hate it whenever it is used.
The point is that Reichmann identifies local governance as being important, and that lagging gains in governance are pivotal to success in Logar (and, by extension, on each local level). That is what really made me grin. To have such a thing recognized by a mainstream journalist means that the realization is truly catching on.
In any case, Reichmann’s article could provide the start for an hour or so of lively discussion in an adequate forum.
The second, more recent article is from the NYT. Carlotta Gall hints that we may have reached the magical “tipping point” in Afghanistan. She may be right. If she is, it is by accident and not by design. Historically, the tipping point is very difficult to pinpoint, pretty much never recognized contemporaneously, and bickered over endlessly after the fact. Case in point; Iraq. The “surge” in Iraq is credited by many with having tipped the scales, but there is a strong (and noisy) camp that contends vociferously and endlessly that the “Sunni Awakening” was a spontaneous change of hearts at the grassroots level, was underway before the surge troops even arrived and would have had the same results with or without the “surge.”
Part of why it is so difficult to become even adequate practitioners of COIN is the ability to get nearly irretrievably lost in such arguments. For the detractors of COIN, it is an imperative to convince others of their version of the story. At a minimum, the undecided must be convinced that there is a reasonable possibility that they are buying into a total, well-orchestrated farce; that COIN is quite possibly snake oil. What happens to their arguments… and their priorities… if it turns out that counterinsurgency was effectively applied and… it worked?
Now is the time to note that not one major anti-COIN mouthpiece has admitted to even partial success of the surge. None of the louder voices have been swayed, and some have even reached back into history to challenge the reason for historical COIN successes such as Malaysia.
So those who buy into the “surge narrative” (or any similar narrative) are (and must be) derided as gullible fools or mindless chauvinists. For every successful counterinsurgency, there is always more than one explanation put forth for the success itself. Different sources will strive to put forth their own “tipping point” for each conflict. It is nearly impossible to actually recognize the tipping point while it is happening. Usually the fact that it has been reached in an insurgency is not apparent for months or even years afterwards.
Often, as in the case of examining the success of the “surge” in Iraq, a more blended approach which acknowledges all reasonable inputs would be most accurate. Of course, these would not be simple enough to be easily portrayed and less easily sold as a competing narrative. So the search for truth goes out the window in the interest of political expedience. In the dirty knife fight that is the struggle over COIN and stability operations in our military and in the civilian organs of foreign policy, the narratives do not blend. Each side is entrenched in its own fortifications, and any successes or failures will be vociferously contended, perhaps for years following the resolution of the main insurgency, such as in Iraq.
Even if Gall were correct in pinpointing the tipping point, it would never be broadly accepted. Politics is murky, war covered in fog; the two together are beyond enigma.
As in Reichmann’s article, Gall identifies the work being done on the local level, particularly along the governance line, as being pivotal. She mentions that people are beginning to trust their local government, even though they doubt the ability of GIRoA to continue the gains in the absence of foreign assistance. That is a reasonable fear, certainly, but it is possible for that to change as well as the local government. Remember, 15 months ago there was no local GIRoA government in Marjah. That line of operation lagged far behind the security effort for months and months. The disconnect between the delivery of local governance and the other lines of operation is what caused the fight for Marjah to be so much more drawn-out than the overly optimistic projections coming out of ISAF. Some trumpeted Marjah as the perfect example of the failure of COIN. That declaration is fading, even partially forgotten. Marjah is no longer the “bleeding ulcer” of ISAF.
In COIN, incremental success makes for a jumbled, ugly picture. No victorious flag-raising, no victor hoisting his sword to the heavens in triumph. The tipping point in a local situation isn’t even recognizable when it occurs.
ISAF’s latest report on the progress of the conflict retains the phrase, “fragile but reversible gains.” We all expect rhetoric from ISAF. But the fact that some of these things are being noted by mainstream reporters… whether they are COIN gurus or not… speaks volumes. To me, it speaks even louder that they are by no means experts in counterinsurgency. If they were, the filters they applied may muddy the information. These two articles are largely devoid of all but superficial analysis, and that makes them stronger indicators. If an MSM reporter can convey some of this, and if one of them even flirts with the concept of the “tipping point,” that is an interesting conversation-starter.
Bear in mind that the “tipping point” is not a new concept, not a newly added page to the book. No one was talking about tipping points two years ago, and it has come up several times only lately. This is why having the discussion is interesting.
One other interesting congruence in these two separate articles is the reference to the current insurgent tactics. A certain reliance on suicide bombings and assassinations is being recognized. The insurgents are working very hard to portray themselves as having influence greater than their actual grasp. Just because one can infiltrate a civilian city and detonate a concealed weapon does not denote the ability to influence the daily activities of those residents, other than to inspire a bit of fear (hence the term, “terrorism”). It actually indicates a certain weakening of the insurgent, a sense of desperation. Like a team that has fallen behind in a playoff game, “Hail Mary” passes and continued efforts to pull off a big play actually display a recognition of being disadvantaged. The Afghan insurgents may be displaying these signs.
Lastly, recent reports indicate that Afghan civilian casualty incidents (CIVCAS) are higher than ever… with pro-government forces being attributed with only 12% of the casualties. An increase in reliance on more indiscriminate weapons also indicates that the insurgents are less able to confront their foes directly. Force preservation is an insurgent imperative even in good times. They are insurgents precisely because they are overwhelmed by their opponents. Assymetry in warfare is not a choice made by the strong, it is a necessity for the weak. When insurgents are a bit more flush, politically and militarily, they can afford to be more direct and discriminating in their attacks. A rise in the use of “victim-initiated” devices, such as pressure plate IED’s, indicates an inability or unwillingness to use riskier and more time-consuming command detonation techniques. This may also be an indication of insurgent weakness and the acceptance, in the minds of the insurgents, that the unintended (or even intended) infliction of civilian casualties is more acceptable or even necessary.
Unchallenged or ineffectively challenged insurgents kill civilians sparingly and with discrimination. There is purpose to each killing, and wanton or indiscriminate killing is recognized as being harmful. One must be careful not to push the sheep into defending themselves en masse, and even a spate of phone calls can be devastating. Keeping each family hoping that the angel of death will pass them by if they only behave themselves is a key control measure. The purpose is to keep everyone in line. The sudden acceptance of wanton civilian casualties is an indication that keeping individuals in line is not the primary concern; this is in itself an indication that things are not going all that well for the insurgents. Just a concept to add to the discussion.
Note that there are exceptions, such as in Kunar and Nuristan in the east. Both have been the venues this year for a series of infantry battles, as the HiG and Taliban in these areas have been granted internal safe havens due to repositioning of Coalition forces. Recent reports indicate that Parun, the capitol of Nuristan, has been surrounded by insurgents. This only supports the above, as it is verification that when they feel safe enough, insurgents will evolve into a war of movement and openly battle their opposition. With this move, the reliance on safer activities, such as IED’s, wanes and maneuver warfare becomes the preferred method of engagement.
What does legitimacy mean to any of us? The “birthers” here in the US claim that President Obama cannot be the legitimate President of the United States. But they have not picked up arms. Most of them still pay taxes. There have been isolated outbursts, including at least one military officer who refused to deploy based upon his belief that the commander in chief is illegitimate. Other than that, the legitimacy of the United States government is not in serious question.
For most of us, the legitimacy of our government starts when we leave the door of our house and head out into the public areas of our world. For most of us, the first line of contact with our government is the police… and the tax column of our pay stubs. Both are reinforcement of the legitimacy of our government; local, state and federal. But the police that we see on our streets are not federal police. They are local police. Local elections have a greater impact on our daily lives than who occupies the Oval Office in a distant city. The point is that if we never had any contact with our government, how would it be legitimate to us?
Our government is not monolithic. Our paychecks demonstrate that the federal government can reach into our pockets to pay for the national-level services, such as defense. But it’s the local police who influence our daily behavior. When we are speeding, and we see a cop parked next to the road, we check our speed and slow down. That guy with a badge and a gun had an immediate impact on our behavior. That is, at a very basic level, legitimacy in our (American) context. Our government has the ability, whether we like it or not, to enforce its will upon us. We consider that will to be the will of the people. Our elected representatives set the speed limit that we are compelled to observe by threat of that police officer.
We have a national government, but we also have state and local government. Even our state laws are most often enforced by local government officials such as county, city or township police. When there is a question or a conflict, we find ourselves most often in local courts. Our perceptions of the local courts are overwhelmingly positive when it comes to issues such as corruption. While we believe that money does buy justice, we believe that boils down to being able to afford a decent lawyer, rather than in paying off a judge. Very few of us believe that the criminal courts can be bought through bribery.
We know that the government of Afghanistan (GIRoA) is beset by corruption. A massive and pernicious problem, it threatens the perception of legitimacy amongst the people. But, like us, Afghans decide upon the legitimacy of the government based upon their interactions with it. They are not interacting with the government in Kabul. They are interacting with the ANP, the District and perhaps Provincial governments, and the courts. Afghan legitimacy starts at the local level. This does not mean that corruption in Kabul need not be addressed. It means that more Afghans will be influenced by addressing issues at multiple local levels than by making fewer corrections at the national level.
Many military personnel who have experienced the maze of local corruption will tell tales of frustration in dealing with a governor or sub-governor who stubbornly clung to his network of corruption. Many of us experienced a lack of support from other international actors at the local level. The State Department and USAID were not often in evidence in 2007, for instance. One or two DoS representatives per province… in the provinces where they were present… just wasn’t getting it. We had very few USAID workers available in the provinces. We were working the military/security line of operation as hard as we could, but the governance and development lines were being defaulted on. The “surge” in Afghanistan didn’t just include a military surge, but a civilian surge as well. More civilians are needed, but there was still a great increase, and it has made a difference.
We see movement in Afghanistan. I saw it when I was there. GEN Petraeus’ latest reports indicate progress. I know that the official reports are taken with a grain of salt, but there is corroboration. The actions of the insurgents indicate growing weakness. Their tactics this year are aimed at making themselves appear to be larger than they actually are, focusing on areas where they are not necessarily strong, but where they would like to appear to have influence. This is an indicator that they have lost ground not only militarily but also with their ability to influence the population. My observation is that this is due to a greater balance in the application of effort across the non-military lines of operation on a number of local levels. This is the result of refocusing of efforts to the local level, a greater number of civilians present to work on the local level and a greater ability to work in some level of synchrony across the main lines of operation.
The use of consistent tool sets is becoming more widespread. Using ASCOPE/PMESII as the information framework makes it easier for units to to knowledge transfer during the Relief In Place / Transfer of Authority (RIP/TOA). This, combined with the growing use of the District Stability Framework (DSF), makes it easier for the military and civilian actors to synchronize actions across the lines of operation. Both tools are focused on the local level, and aimed at identifying, developing, increasing and protecting capacity at the local level. As indicated above, the local government makes the most difference in the lives of Americans, and it does the same in Afghanistan; only more so.
Afghanistan’s history is one of local governance loosely tied to a national government that is not very prone to micromanagement. The national government has not tended to be a strong influence in the daily lives of farmers and shop keepers in the little villages in the many valleys far from Kabul. This does not remove the pressure to fix what is wrong with the Karzai regime, often described as a kleptocracy. It does give some breathing room to the efforts to develop a national government that is capable of performing the basic functions required and as free of corruption as possible. With local governance improving incrementally, there is a cross-pollination of legitimacy that the national government benefits from. Coalition forces also benefit from progress on the local level, because they are then viewed as being supportive of a legitimate government, rather than tipping the scales in favor of one of two evils.
This year will be very challenging in Afghanistan. As described above, the insurgents are doing their level best to give the impression of being more influential than they are. There is a faint whiff of desperation in the air. There are most certainly areas where the insurgent is actually in better shape than he was two years ago; take the Korengal, for example. Whether or not the tipping point is near or has been reached will not be clear for some time. It is clear that there have been some important steps taken towards improving local governance, security and development. It is clear that the insurgents are under considerable pressure, and not just militarily. Local governance has a greater impact on the daily lives of Afghans than the national government, even a short distance from Kabul. The perception of legitimacy in Afghanistan is more predicated upon local government than the Kabul government.
Losing. Or winning.
First, if an insurgent perceives himself to be “winning,” he will not negotiate unless it is to freeze the government in place while the insurgent prepares himself for the final push to topple the government. This has happened numerous times throughout history, with insurgents negotiating a change in military tactics or limiting the use of weapons. This then gives the insurgent time and space in which to solidify his gains and reach the tipping point on the verge of victory. In the case of foreign assistance to the host nation government, a key negotiating point for the insurgents will be the limiting or removal of foreign forces. A government teetering on collapse is more amenable to such negotiations. A foreign assistance force is more amenable to negotiate their own withdrawal in such cases as well. Either way, the objective of the ascendant insurgent is to cause the government to expose itself to easier military conquest. The idea is that if you break your word, but you win, you get to write the history. Oddly, numerous governments have fallen for the ploy over time.
What about “losing?” Either the insurgent has to be visibly losing or he has to perceive that he is losing. Does it have to be the threat of imminent defeat? Not necessarily. That depends on many factors.
A favorite (and effective) insurgent propaganda catchphrase in Afghanistan is, “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” Data shows that the longer an insurgency drags on, the likelihood of insurgent success actually decreases. So we have competing ideas. One is based on data, and it’s only an incremental change in counterinsurgent success. But it is real, based on “resolved” insurgencies. The other is a catchy phrase leveraged with our own popular history. We are seen, especially in the region, as being fickle friends. In a nation with a strong oral history and a love for analogy, shaping popular perceptions of our history through ready memes is fairly easy. Afghans often perceive that America lost interest in them at a critical time, ultimately resulting in the rise of the Taliban. HiG leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar hates the United States for failing to support his drive to take over Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the Soviets, having his own tale of American abandonment. Afghan insurgents have their own reasons for either beginning to seek a settlement or not, but if they begin to feel as if they are running out of time, the mental door to compromise begins to open.
Mullah Omar is said to be adamantly opposed to negotiations. While Omar would be a key figure to negotiate a cessation of hostilities and a return to civil life for the Quetta Shura Taliban, a failure on his part to participate would possibly cause fractures in the QST. Sub-commanders who view the situation differently may break with the Taliban to negotiate on their own. Some of this has apparently happened.
Most likely it is not due to one issue, but a combination of effects on the insurgency. Fatigue, and the fatigue of the population, may have something to do with the higher failure rate amongst insurgencies of longer duration. Real progress by the government on the issues upon which the insurgents rely for leverage may also play a role. Difficulty in mounting attacks due to improved security and lower recruitment will also play a role.
The HiG were actually a more violent spin-off of the Hizbi islami Kulis (HiK), a political party. Many “former” HiG participate in GIRoA. While coalition members view them with considerable caution, they are participating in the process. They often maintain contacts with their former comrades in arms. Gulbuddin will likely never participate himself, but is not beyond the realm of possibility. Again, fractures and defections may come into play and apparently already have. Given the ceding of areas of the RC East by the coalition in the past year and a half, the HiG are not likely feeling disadvantaged.
The Haqqani network, with the closest ties to al Qaeda, is another question.
Finally reconciliation programs that provide honorable reintegration for former insurgents, often combined with a higher mortality rate associated with participation in the insurgency, provide a powerful inducement to cease fighting. Mistreatment of insurgents by the host nation government does not provide a similar benefit.
In the end, if the insurgency feels that they are “winning,” they will not negotiate except for deceptive reasons. If they perceive themselves to be “losing,” they will begin to have difficulty with more than one factor of the overall insurgency and will become more likely to negotiate. The participation of the leadership is very helpful, but in the end the insurgency consists of many individuals who must decide for themselves when they are no longer willing to kill.
The United States has been meeting with the Taliban’s Tayyab Agha, who is either one of Mullah Omar’s best friends or he is on the outs with him… depending on who you listen to. While the news was pretty much under the radar as far as news coverage, there has been plenty of opinion expressed by many Americans about the concept of a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. Much of it is reflexively negative.
Why shouldn’t we be negative towards reconciling the Taliban with Afghan society? The Taliban have a miserable record as a government and as an insurgency. They are every bit as brutal as most pernicious insurgencies have ever been. Terrorizing the population in order to control them is an ancient insurgent tactic. It causes deep divisions and grudges that last for decades, if not centuries.
It has been pointed out how past insurgencies have ended in one of three ways. Either the government wins, the insurgent wins, or there is a “mixed outcome.” A mixed outcome keeps the government largely in place while compromises are made to resolve the issues that drove portions of the population into the arms of the insurgency. Insurgents are allowed to take part in the political process in exchange for laying down arms and rejoining the process.
What is there to compromise about? What do the Taliban have that GIRoA needs? Well, other than the fact that they use violence that the government needs for them to eschew, they do have some things that the people actually want. The Taliban were a horror by any analysis of what a real government is. During the Taliban tenure, infrastructure, education and health care all went to hell in a hand basket. Nothing there. However, while they were undoubtedly ineffective by most measures of governance, they were not widely perceived to be corrupt.
While the average American Joe cannot relate a lot of deep knowledge about Afghanistan, they do know one word that goes along with any real discussion of GIRoA; corruption. GIRoA is rife with corruption, and the average Afghan citizen is affected by it deeply. The average Afghan pays hundreds of dollars a year in bribes, this out of an income that may be less than $2,000 a year. Nowhere is this more deeply felt than in court. Criminal prosecution and conflict resolution are key issues in nearly every Afghan community, and both are seriously hindered by corruption.
For the average Afghan, access to justice relies on being able to pay the bribes. Often, there is a race for corruption that begins with the police and offers opportunities to short-circuit the system all the way up the chain. An honest judge can be done in by higher courts. An honest policeman can become seriously disheartened by the knowledge that his best work can be undone by a corrupt prosecutor or judge.
Insurgency in the Afghan context is about a competition to govern, and that competition is most often leveraged by the insurgents in the area of justice. The Afghan legal system is so corrupt that it is all too easy to supplant GIRoA courts with shadow courts. In 2007, the story was that the Taliban would arrive with a traveling court and force the residents to bring their cases before the Taliban court. Something sounded fishy about that. How do you figure out who has a grievance that needs to be aired? Well, it turns out that this was wishful thinking. The populace didn’t need to be coerced to access Taliban justice.
They sought it out.
The only thing that the Taliban ever brought to Afghanistan, and the only thing that the people actually miss, was swift and incorruptible justice. That’s just one idea of what the Taliban possess that GIRoA doesn’t. Would it be a bad thing if the one strength of the Taliban was assimilated into a future Afghanistan?
What if the Taliban were allowed to be a political party? What if they ran for office? What if they won a few seats in parliament? Would it be the end of the modern world? No, clearly not. Our own revolution had to do with the inability to redress grievances. Taxation without representation; a lack of ability to participate in government. What would have happened to the American revolution if the king had made concessions that removed this issue?
Would the revolution have been forestalled or even completely avoided? We will never really know. But it is very possible, especially given the number of hardcore loyalists in the thirteen colonies, that the revolution would have lost steam. Another good example would be our own civil rights movement here in the United States. Had the various laws and executive orders not been put in place, is it possible that violence related to the civil rights struggle would have become widespread? Is it possible that greater access to participation, to redress of grievances, even as halting as it was, was enough to prevent more people from seeking to express these frustrations violently?
Is the American civil right movement a good example of a latent insurgency that was derailed by compromise?
History shows us that insurgencies often end with compromise. Afghanistan is not some imponderable morass of humanity where the eternal verities of man are suspended. Job number one is to stop the shooting. That requires a combination of security-related actions, improvements in governance and socio-economic development that remove the prerequisites of insurgency; the key drivers of instability. Then the serious work of developing the capacity to govern and grow begins. Part of the governance work may very well include some compromises that bring the now-distant factions close enough to stop shooting at each other.
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.