War Gone Wild in Afghanistan

Posted: September 6, 2009 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

When the people of an occupied country want foreign troops out while the people of the occupying country want their troops to come home, and the troops remain, something is wrong. Both the American people and the Afghan people want a troop decrease in Afghanistan. Yet this weekend, the President is reviewing a strategic assessment prepared by General Stanley McChrystal widely portrayed as a prelude to a request for an escalation. Should the president approve such a request, he’d be saying, in effect, that to protect democracy in America and to build it in Afghanistan, we must trample it.

Source: Afghan public opinion poll, ABC News/BBC/ARD 1/09; U.S. public opinion poll, CBS News, 8/09

Source: Afghan public opinion poll, ABC News/BBC/ARD 1/09; U.S. public opinion poll, CBS News, 8/09

On September 4,  I went on al-Jazeera English to debate the future of U.S. foreign policy versus Abe Greenwald. When I insisted that we don’t have indications that the Pashtuns are flipping their support to the Afghan national government, Abe asserted that polling shows that American forces and the Afghan national government get higher marks than the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Based on the most recent polling I can find on Afghanistan public opinion, he is roughly correct. His assertion is also irrelevant.

I am assuming that Greenwald refers to a 1/12/09 ABC News/BBC/ARD poll, versus the more-recent IRI polling (If he wasn’t, then he should have, as it asks more relevant questions about Afghan desires on U.S. troop levels.). According to that poll, the Taliban presence is supported by only 8 percent of those surveyed. The Afghan government gets 49 percent job approval. The United States gets a 47 percent favorable rating. So yes, according to this poll, attitudes among all Afghans toward the United States compare favorably with the Afghan government and the Taliban. Again, this warm feeling is irrelevant.

The problem for Abe’s argument is that the 47 percent approval rating for the U.S. is accompanied by a 52 percent disapproval rating among Afghans, That unfavorable rating has spiked 20 points since the end of 2007. The pace with which the unfavorable rating grows is accelerating. The number of Afghans who say attacks on the U.S. and allies can be justified doubled since 2006. Only 32 percent say the U.S. has performed well in Afghanistan. Only 37 percent say that the local population supports Western forces. And–here’s the most important question regarding the decision before President Obama–when asked about coalition troop levels, only 18 percent of Afghans wanted troop levels increased. Twenty-nine percent wanted the same number of troops, and 44 percent wanted troops decreased.

This situation is even more dire when you consider Anthony Cordesman’s (an escalation supporter, mind you) statement that “all insurgency is local.” In the Kandahar region, 84 percent of Afghans surveyed held an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. and 55 percent of those surveyed said attacks against U.S./NATO forces were justified. In Nangarhar, 90 percent held an unfavorable view, and 63 percent justified attacks against U.S./NATO troops. This is the Pashtun “sea” for the Taliban-led insurgency; the dismal 5-10 percent turnout for the August election in the Pashtun areas and the numbers above show that U.S. counterinsurgency strategy has totally failed.

Keep in mind, this poll was taken in January 2009. The intervening eight months have been a public-relations disaster for the United States. A May 4, 2009 airstrike killed as many as 86 civilians, an outrage compounded by NATO’s inability to admit the error for more than a month. This past week, on September 4, at least 40 civilians died when a U.S. pilot dropped ordinance on two fuel tankers surrounded by non-combatants. In the first six months of this year, coalition forces caused more civilian deaths than the same period last year (310 vs 276, respectively), and they did so during an escalation initiated over the objections of Afghan public opinion. That last point is worth emphasizing, especially considering that the presence of foreign forces fighting a war in Afghanistan is the prime driver of the resurgence of the Taliban. Needless to say, these factors likely did not arrest the precipitous loss of support for our policies in Afghanistan.

U.S. public opinion very closely mirrors that of the Afghan people. A CBS News poll taken 8/27-31/09 found that 25 percent of Americans favor a troop increase; 23 want to maintain troop levels; and 41 percent want to reduce troop levels. Opposition to troop increases and support for troop withdrawals are especially intense among the President’s base, as shown in this graphic from The Washington Post:

Source: ABC News/WAPO

Source: ABC News/WAPO

These results also come before the latest catastrophe for U.S. counterinsurgency policy: the catastrophically corrupted August elections.Again, we find ourselves looking at polling data taken before events that are likely to drive down support for an already-unpopular policy of ever-deepening military involvement.

How is it possible that when the populations of both countries and the Commander-in-Chief’s political base agree on a policy direction we find ourselves moving in the opposite direction?

A partial answer might be that the president has surrounded himself with advisers who counsel escalation when they ought to know better. These advisers know full well all of the information described above. They’ve also engaged in severe intellectual dishonesty to avoid reckoning with the failure of strategies they helped construct.

Foremost among these advisers is Bruce Riedel, who chaired the last policy review that resulted in the prior escalation. Riedel co-wrote a recent article in which he claimed that the results of an Afghan public opinion poll conducted July 16-26, 2009, prior to the Afghan elections, indicated “a fresh burst of hopefulness among Afghans.” On that basis, Riedel claimed we had one last “fresh start” in Afghanistan, tied by the pollsters and by Riedel to the success of the vote.

Just a few days before the election, Riedel wrote an articled titled “Obama’s Afghan Test,” in which he said that “Thursday’s election in Afghanistan is a critical early test of America’s new strategy in the war,” and that “[t]he ‘metrics’ to measure Obama’s war—which many are calling for—will be in Thursday’s votes.”

The election was a disaster, marked by pervasive vote fraud, intimidation and violence. Thousands of fraud accusations surfaced, hundreds serious enough to flip the election results. Officials in the Shobarak district assert that some 23,900 votes were stuffed on President Hamid Karzai’s behalf. Up to 70,000 fraudulent votes may have been cast in a cluster of polling stations east of Kabul. Officials responsible for ensuring vote integrity sold voter cards for cash. Political alliances made to swing large voting blocs will likely increase the power of Afghanistan’s narcotics-fueled warlords. According to The Washington Post’s Pamela Constable, the elections left Afghans “confused, jittery and bracing for street violence — or at least a protracted period of political polarization and drift.”

So much for the fresh start.

Despite this failure of the test Riedel set up for the Afghanistan strategy and the obliteration of the hypothetical opening offered by a legitimate election, he continues to assert the existence of a new start. Five days after the election, when reports already indicated massive election fraud, he told a panel audience, “[T]his really is the last chance.”  Riedel now says we need another 12-18 months before we can assess the President’s new strategy. He has not acknowledged the failure of a strategy he helped to craft nor explained how the supposed “fresh start” persists after the collapse of the legitimacy of the election.

Sitting next to Riedel on that Brookings panel was Anthony Cordesman, who in April of this year gave a dire presentation in which he noted all of the above warning signs in Afghan public opinion. Yet Cordesman is among the most fire-breathing supporters for another escalation. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Cordesman very helpfully hinted at the need for anywhere between 6,900 and 40,000 additional troops to bring the U.S. “victory” in Afghanistan, ignoring the massive Afghan public opposition on which he reported just a few month earlier and the potential for a further inflamed Pashtun population.

Cordesman also neglected to define “victory,” and that’s not surprising, given that the administration can’t get it’s story straight on what victory would look like. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry says we’re nation-building [h/t Steve Hynd], Secretary Gates says we’re not, and Ambassador Holbrooke just gives up and says he’ll know victory when he sees it. Lacking any clear endpoint, a possible range of recommended troop increases 33,100-wide, and thus lacking any solid measures against which to measure the costs and benefits, Cordesman’s “advice” recedes into chest-thumping nonsense, completely useless other than as an exhortation to President Obama to not be a wuss. And don’t forget–he’s only able to offer this drivel because he’s ignored the will/rage of the Afghan people on which he reported a few months earlier.

After more than 800 U.S. military casualties, tens of thousands of Afghan civilian deaths and $228 billion allocated so far, we have zero indications that Pashtuns in Afghanistan are any closer to giving their support to the Kabul government, the essential criteria for “victory” according to U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine. If that’s not enough to convince the president to abandon this bloody adventure, then let’s hope that, as the chief instrument of the people’s control over the executive branch, President Obama can be swayed by a basic respect for the strong desires of his people and the people whose land we’re occupying. The American and Afghan peoples want fewer, not more U.S. troops in Afghanistan. If, in the face of this pairing, the president decides to escalate again, he will confirm what many of us already fear: that this awful war has taken on a terrible independence from the will of the people.

(Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the awful human costs of the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Four): Civilian Casualties, or by visiting http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.)

  1. Geir (Gerhardt) Smith says:

    obama antichrist

  2. DC, I never see anything remotely positive about the situation in Afghanistan, and at the risk of your blog becoming dreary and depressing, here are some positive developments in the country (courtesy of Foreign Policy), or at least some things to think about besides gloom, gloom, and uh, gloom:

    More than five million refugees have returned home since the fall of the Taliban. This is one of the most substantial refugee repatriations in history, yet it is little remarked upon because it has largely gone so smoothly.
    One in six Afghans now has a cell phone. Under the Taliban there was no phone system.
    Millions of kids are now in school, including many girls. Under the Taliban girls were not allowed to be educated.
    In 2008, Afghanistan’s real GDP growth was 7.5 percent. Under the Taliban the economy was in free fall.
    You were more likely to be murdered in the United States in 1991 than an Afghan civilian is to be killed in the war today.

    Also, read this article from today’s Washington Post; it is readily apparent that the new ISAF Command team is serious about changing operational culture:

    McChrystal’s advisers allowed a Washington Post reporter to travel with a NATO fact-finding team and attend its otherwise closed-door meetings with German troops and Afghan officials. Portions of this account are based on those discussions. At midday Saturday, after visiting the hospital and flying over the bombing site in a helicopter, the team met with two local officials. The NATO officers were expecting anger and calls for compensation. What they received was a totally unanticipated sort of criticism. “I don’t agree with the rumor that there were a lot of civilian casualties,” said one key local official, who said he did not want to be named because he fears Taliban retribution. “Who goes out at 2 in the morning for fuel? These were bad people, and this was a good operation.” A few hours later, McChrystal arrived at the reconstruction team’s base in Kunduz. A group of leaders from the area, including the chairman of the provincial council and the police chief, were there to meet him. So, too, were members of an investigative team dispatched by President Hamid Karzai. McChrystal began expressing sympathy “for anyone who has been hurt or killed.”

    The council chairman, Ahmadullah Wardak, cut him off. He wanted to talk about the deteriorating security situation in Kunduz, where Taliban activity has increased significantly in recent months. NATO forces in the area, he told the fact-finding team before McChrystal arrived, need to be acting “more strongly” in the area.His concern is shared by some officials at the NATO mission headquarters, who contend that German troops in Kunduz have not been confronting the rise in Taliban activity with enough ground patrols and comprehensive counterinsurgency tactics. “If we do three more operations like was done the other night, stability will come to Kunduz,” Wardak told McChrystal. “If people do not want to live in peace and harmony, that’s not our fault.” McChrystal seemed to be caught off guard.

    Did you pick up on the piece about the WAPO reporter accompanying the investigators? a little different than the past, no? In a place devastated by three decades of war, any little bit of change counts for something.

    Happy Labor Day.

    • dcrowe says:

      Hi wilsonrofishing:

      Happy Labor Day to you, too…do you get the day off?

      Before I get to the meat of your comment, I note that it does not address any of the points made in the above post. I’d appreciate your thoughts about the topic of the article.

      General McChrystal visiting the site of the latest mass civilian death was definitely a fantastic p.r. move, no question. However, I don’t want readers of the thread to come away with a mistaken impression based on the section you blockquoted above. Despite what that official asserts, the rest of the article and the other reporting from journalists on the scene clearly indicate that many civilians died during the incident. I generally respect the author of the article, but others have come away from that scene with a much different impression of the local mood, and the fact that the Pentagon has been screening journalists prior to embeds makes me wonder why Chandrasekaran was chosen to accompany the general on this particular trip. (I’m not saying I’m sure that he was chosen because he would give a positive slant, but I am saying the question occurs to me following the reports on the Rendon group’s work for the Pentagon.)

      If you’re looking for someone to sing the praises of the result of foreign investment in Afghanistan, I’d be happy to say that I welcome it when it doesn’t come in the form of tanks and bombs and occupation. However, I think it’s pretty clear that this blog’s focus is on violence and nonviolence. That puts me in a tough position when it comes to writing about “progress,” because very often folks use the bits and pieces of good news from Afghanistan to justify the full endeavor, and that’s not legitimate in my opinion. If you’re looking for anyone to say, ever, that violence is justified because some good grew in its shadow, you’re definitely on the wrong blog.

      Take for instance the reference above to the 1991 U.S. murder rate. I find that to be silly and arbitrary. If Russia occupied the United States and didn’t kill more than 24,700 people, would that have any bearing at all for you? That’s how many Americans were murdered in 1991. The choice of 1991 is also illustrative, as it was the highest murder rate in the U.S. in the last 50 years. So, what, as long as we’re killing Afghans non-combatants at a lower rate that we were killing each other in the most violent year in the last half century, then there’s nothing to see here, folks? And, direct death as a result from combat only partially accounts for the mortality caused by war. Afghanistan has the eighth worst overall death rate in the world, and it’s not like continual war, which we’ve helped with quite a bit, has helped lower that rate.

      Do not get me started on the canard of “Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan = good on women’s rights while Taliban = bad.”

  3. Dear all,

    See how 3 Afghan kids deal with enemies and grudges in From Afghanistan, we plead with the American public ‎and the world. ( 54 seconds ) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vtHQ412eEQ

    From Afghanistan, we plead with the American public and the world

    As a human being witnessing the current Afghan and international strategy, together with Afghan friends in ‎Afghanistan, I search for hope that we humans will always have room for a less limited creativity.‎

    So, we plead with the American public and the world.‎

    Please do not solely give a chance to the approach of our fellow human beings from the US military leadership.‎

    Please also give a chance to the alternative approaches of our fellow human beings from the ordinary, civilian ‎world.‎

    In a global crisis of truth and kindness clouded by desperate voices and extreme violence, please give a chance ‎to test another hypothesis and strategy : that an approach which is primarily non-violent and humanitarian can ‎work, to alleviate our shared distrust and fears.‎

    Yes, we can…‎

    Simply, humanly, if we can make friends and not more enemies, we will not lose.‎

    History, reality and sometimes, polls, reveal that our human hearts sense the fogginess of war, that fighting with ‎one another neither lessens our distrust or fears, nor guides us to be truer or kinder. Its fatal human price doesn’t ‎make our world any safer.‎

    We fight, fight and fight……fellow humans die, die and die…..it’s time we win in different and more humane ‎ways. ‎

    Civilization has already had sufficient centuries of patience with war strategies. The Obama war strategy in ‎Afghanistan is not new and our patience with it will be patience with an ancient-old, tribal instinct of partisan ‎triumph and revenge for our names, killing in our names. It is an instinct Afghans namelessly understand.‎

    If, for life, we don’t re-define victory, we need to do so at least for death, because whereas life may repeat itself, ‎death cannot.‎

    I’m neither American or Afghan, and like the Afghan children in the real-life video, I’m neither Republican or ‎Democrat, left or right.‎

    I am human.‎

    And, grieving in the current Afghan and international tragedy, together with Afghan friends in Afghanistan, I ‎search for hope that we humans will always have room for a less complicated love. ‎

    So, we plead with the American public and the world.‎

    On behalf of Our Journey to Smile, Afghanistan

  4. […] that we’ve already failed based on the last set of benchmarks we set for ourselves; ignore  senior advisers’ intellectual dishonesty about “fresh starts”; and please don’t evaluate us before we have time to sweep a massive strategic mistake under […]

  5. […] people halfway around the world, sure to suffer under a narco-state armed to the teeth by the U.S. As I wrote this past weekend: …[T]he president has surrounded himself with advisers who counsel escalation when they ought […]

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