Archive for September, 2010

Judah Grunstein writes [h/t Joshua Foust, emphasis mine]:

To my mind, the problem that the debate reveals, and that no one has addressed so far, is the degree to which Afghanistan now represents policy paralysis: We cannot achieve our goals with our current approach, but we can neither afford the costs that a fully resourced approach would entail, nor accept the risks that a more limited approach would expose us to. What’s more, because of the uncertainty of outcomes in Afghanistan, you could interchange the verb clauses of that sentence in all the various permutations, and it still holds up.

This reminds me strongly of a passage from The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene (ironically, about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan):

…Rommel once made a distinction between a gamble and a risk. Both cases involve an action with only a chance of success, a chance that is heightened by acting with boldness. The difference is that with a risk, if you lose, you can recover: your reputation will suffer no long-term damage, your resources will not be depleted, and you can return to your original position with acceptable losses. With a gamble, on the other hand, defeat can lead to a slew of problems that are likely to spiral out of control. …[I]f you encounter difficulties in a gamble, it becomes harder to pull out–you realize that the stakes are too high; you cannot afford to lose. So you try harder to rescue the situation, often making it worse and sinking deeper in to the hole that you cannot get out of. People are drawn into gambles by their emotions…Taking risks is essential; gambling is foolhardy.

The worst way to end…a war…is slowly and painfully…Before entering any action, you must calculate in precise terms your exit strategy…If the answers…seem to vague and full of speculation, if success seems all too alluring and failure somewhat dangerous, you are more than likely taking a gamble. Your emotions are leading you into a situation that could end up a quagmire.

Before that happens, catch yourself. And if you do find you have made this mistake, you have only two rational solutions: either end the conflict as quickly as you can, with a strong, violent blow aimed to win, accepting the costs and knowing they are better than a slow and painful death, or cut your losses and quit without delay. Never let pride or concern for your reputation pull you farther into the morass; both will suffer far greater blows by your persistence. Short-term defeat is better than long-term disaster.

Various sides of this debate are right in ways other than those described by Grunstein: terrible things are happening now, terrible things will happen when we leave, and there’s no “win” to be had. Policy-makers in the United States made a gamble over the last year-and-a-half in Afghanistan, and they lost. The decisions on the table are not when we leave, but if, and how best to mitigate the inevitable fallout from a string of bad decisions. But staying in Afghanistan with a heavy military footprint because we can’t admit these things to ourselves will only make the inevitable pain that much worse.

The Afghanistan Study Group report is out, and the fight is on. A number of critiques have been leveled at the report, one of the most influential being Joshua Foust’s over at Registan.net, chunks of which are percolating upward into larger outlets. Foust is a smart guy with whom I regularly debate, but there’s a particularly offensive landmine hiding at the end of Foust’s post that I want to highlight:

But in a real way, this is symptomatic of much of the anti-war movement in this country: it starts with a conclusion and works backward to develop justifications for it. That is an inversion of reasoned argument, as it relies on assumption and beliefs to shape reality, rather than using reality as a base for arguments and beliefs.

That’s pretty rich, especially considering the outrageous intellectual dishonesty on display over the past couple of weeks with regard to the pro-counterinsurgency decision-makers in this country, who spent the last few weeks furiously redefining not only reality but their own doctrine. I don’t mean to deflect from Foust’s substantive critiques of the ASG’s report, some of which I plan to return to in a latter post, and I should be clear that I also have some points of contention to raise with some of the particulars of the report, but this drive-by smear is too offensive to let go without a detailed response.

I read Joshua’s swipe as calling out the anti-war movement in the current debate as being the parties particularly guilty of this activity, and if that’s the case, let me go out on a limb here and say that such an assertion is flatly ridiculous on its face. This is particularly offensive given that in the last couple of weeks, our opponents have worked furiously to construct a dishonest narrative of “progress” while their strategy is clearly failing to arrest the deterioration of security in Afghanistan.

To get a sense of the pro-COIN crowd’s continuous intellectual dishonesty, let’s take the most glaring example: how they deal with the “north star” of counterinsurgency, “a legitimate host nation government.”

A writer might mean “legitimate” in a couple of different ways:

  • Winning tangible local support such that the population is either a) tangibly supporting government efforts to root out insurgents, b) refusing to tolerate insurgent operations in within their area or population, or c) all of the above.
  • Relatively non-corrupt. This aspect of legitimacy influences the prior aspect. It’s an especially important aspect of legitimacy in the current conflict because corruption was a major factor seized on by the Taliban in their last rise to power (hypocrisy notwithstanding).

Now, let’s talk about that “tangible local support” for a second. The dream of the counterinsurgent is that “living among the population” and “protecting them” from the insurgents (U.N. condemnation of this practice as one that endangers civilians notwithstanding) is supposed to give locals the “freedom” to side with the counterinsurgents and the local government. Two of the most important manifestations of that support are supposed to be:

  1. increased intelligence from the locals about insurgent activities, and
  2. a measurable increase in the number of locals willing to put their lives on the line by siding with the local government against the insurgents.

As Matthew Hoh points out in his response to Foust and others, the Afghan population only reported one percent of the improvised explosive devices found or detonated in June. That number has been in decline every year since NATO started adding troops in Pashtun areas in 2006:

In late 2005, the civilian population was informing U.S. and NATO troops of about 15 percent of of all IEDs planted. That proportion fell to just over nine percent in 2006, to less than seven percent in 2007 to about three percent in 2008, and again to 2.8 percent in 2009.

In the first six months of 2010, that ratio dropped to 2.6 percent, and in May and June it fell to 1.4 and one percent, respectively.

This is especially salient given that one of the other bloggers attacking the ASG report, Andrew Exum, previously identified this as a core metric for local support and security:

Conversely, a drop in the proportion of IEDs found and cleared indicates the population is not passing on information to security forces, and is standing by while they are attacked — a sign of deteriorating security.

Spontaneous tip-offs from the population, where local people volunteer information about the enemy (known as “walk ins” in the intelligence community), indicate confidence by the people in the government and security forces, and are another useful measurement of cooperation and progress.

And, as I pointed out earlier this week, efforts to recruit for the Afghan National Army out of the local populations that form core insurgent constituencies are failing abysmally, with the only 66 of the more than 3,000 recruits in August coming from the southern Pashtun population (Recall that in February, the deputy commander of the NATO Training Mission called the ethnic makeup of the ANA a “very sensitive issue.”).

In other words, on points 1 and 2, U.S. and our allies are failing to see the signs of increased legitimacy among local populations that are essential for counterinsurgency. Yet, war supporters drone on and on about how public opinion polls–that don’t mean squat without #1 and #2 above–show “popular support” for the Afghan government and opposition to the Taliban.

And corruption. Oh, corruption. Over the last few months, we’ve seen a string of statements from U.S. and NATO officials, including Petraeus, that corruption is, “an enemy,” “counter to our strategy,” that addressing it is “an operational imperative.” Petraeus’ most recent counterinsurgency guidance (.doc) calls corruption one of the “recruiters for the Taliban.” He tells his forces:

Act with your Afghan partners to confront, isolate, pressure, and defund malign actors – and, where appropriate, to refer malign actors for prosecution.

President Obama said last Friday that tackling corruption was essential to “helping President Karzai stand up a broadly accepted, legitimate government.”

Let’s not leave out the admonitions from Andrew Exum from last year, either:

In the next 12 months, however, the priority of civilian-led efforts should be neither small-scale development projects, nor ambiguous “capacity building.” Instead, the civilian surge should have one overriding objective: visibly decreasing corruption inside the Afghan government in order to increase the confidence of Afghans in their own government.

And yet, the moment the full extent of the corruption of our “partner” in Afghanistan breaks into full view with a financial fraud and political corruption scandal that implicates virtually the whole top echelon of the Kabul administration, we get headlines like these:

Exum also abruptly “admitted” he “was wrong,” saying “I am not sure that we should focus to heavily on corruption as an issue unless we plan on retaining a very strong presence in Afghanistan well past June 2011.” Admitting when you’re wrong is laudable. However, it’s one thing to say you’re wrong and another thing to admit just how far into your position’s premises such an admission eats. As recently as September 1, Exum wrote:

Corruption is not something to be opposed merely on the grounds of principle or morality…There are many other reasons, but perhaps the most damaging in the current climate is the effect it has of alienating the disenfranchised and propelling them to turn to non-state actors to provide security, legal redress or relief.  It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that ending corruption is a recurrent theme with extremists.

I don’t understand at all–nor does Exum’s explanation illuminate–how one can support a policy that views “Karzai as our man in Kabul” while holding the above (correct) view. If one is intellectually honest, admitting that highly caustic corruption is so endemic to your local partner that you can’t address it without the whole enterprise coming apart is tantamount to admitting you shouldn’t be doing counterinsurgency with that partner. After all, as Exum points out, Pillar #1 of counterinsurgency doctrine is supposedly “protect the people,” to which all other COIN directives must be subservient. Yet we’ve seen that the people we have to protect the people from apparently includes the Karzai administration and the private business cronies around it. How exactly does building a nice, shiny security force that answers to corrupt human rights abusers “protect the people?”  I wait with bated breath for a real explanation.

Petraeus is trying to put lipstick on the pig by saying things like, “So, there’s actually been quite a bit of activity in the realm of anti-corruption,” pointing to the arrest of a police official as his evidence. Well, yes, general, they did arrest a “very important provincial police chief,” but that’s a little myopic while government workers and security force employees are being literally beaten away from trying to get their salaries out of the president’s brother’s corrupt bank, isn’t it? (This, by the way, is emblematic of Petraeus’ spin campaign: use tiny bites of “progress” to try to paint a narrative while the broader strategic picture is rapidly deteriorating. If the reporter had pressed him a bit on this, you would have seen his other standard response, “Yes, absolutely, more needs to be done, but we’re making progress.”) This is intellectual dishonesty in the extreme and a blatant case of starting with a conclusion (“progress”) and working backwards to find facts that fit the frame.

Foust is a frequent critic of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. He thinks “the fight in the south is a waste of resources” and says so, so I don’t want to try to try to lay the burden of defending all the outrageous contradictions listed above on him. But in the context of the above, it really takes some gall to try to portray the anti-war movement as the faction starting with a conclusion and working backwards to develop justifications and frame reality.

Every movement has elements that frame facts to fit their interpretation to win arguments, on both sides, and it’s fair to call those folks out when it happens. If one wants to assert that a particular person is being dishonest in their interpretation of facts, just make your case and be done with it. This kind of swipe is an evolution of the old smear that those with anti-war views are irrational and “don’t live in the real world,” and it betrays more bias in those that use it than in those it targets. Here’s a little bit of that bias peeking through in Foust’s over-the-top criticism of ASG’s report, emphasis mine:

“[T]he Afghanistan Study Group blames our problems on Afghanistan—the civil war, the al Qaeda safe havens, and so on. It’s the equivalent of complaining, “math is hard” when you do poorly on a math quiz. …To be clear: the real problem in Afghanistan isn’t Afghanistan itself…So [ASG’s report is] misdiagnosing the problem, and perpetuating the likelihood that a similarly mishandling of policies and expectations will happen next time.That is a incredibly dangerous thing to do, and, ultimately, cowardly.”

But I don’t recall him calling Exum “cowardly” when Exum showed a similar tendency last year while he was helping with McChrystal’s strategy review, emphasis mine:

I was and am still haunted by one of the last paragraphs in David B. Edwards’ majesterial Heroes of the Age: “Afghanistan’s central problem [is] Afghanistan itself, specifically certain profound moral contradictions that have inhibited this country from forging a coherent civil society. These contradictions are deeply rooted in Afghan culture, but they have come to the fore in the last one hundred years, since the advent of the nation-state, the laying down of permanent borders, and the attempt to establish an extensive state bureaucracy and to invest that bureaucracy with novel forms of authority and control.” Ooph. With that paragraph in mind I set about examining ISAF operations and strategy…

To try to indict the anti-war movement as being particularly guilty of framing facts to fit untrue realities after the last nine years is intellectually dishonest and, may I say, total garbage. I would, however, be happy to hear a clarification from Foust that I’m reading his comment incorrectly, and I’ll be happy to correct this post if it turns out he took Exum to task for his “cowardly” frame of mind during McChrystal’s strategy review. (I don’t think any of this is necessarily intentional. Mostly I think Foust got carried away by requests he received for him to “destroy” the ASG report.) But I’d be even happier to hear counterinsurgency pushers either stick to their doctrine and announce that we have no business doing COIN in Afghanistan if Karzai is our “partner,” or admit that the stuff they’ve been shoveling for the last 9 years on Afghanistan originates from the back end of a bull.

Update: Foust let me know that he did criticize Exum for a number of contradictions last year, and I want to include the link here to be fair.

As President Obama’s strategy review for Afghanistan commences, let’s hope he’s balancing the information coming to him from his happy-talking generals with some independent news reading of his own.

  • While General David Petraeus serenades the major news media in the United States with the siren song of “progress,” security in Afghanistan is rapidly deteriorating, and efforts in the south to win legitimacy for the Kabul government are failing.
  • Hamid Karzai seems dead set on proving just how corrupt he and his business connections are.
  • Efforts to transform the Afghan National Army from a carpetbagger army to a legitimate, representative force capable of keeping peace in the south are a flop.

All of these reports are clear indications that the massive influx of troops into Afghanistan under Obama failed to improve the situation in that country and very likely made it worse. The president should seize on any of the numerous signs of policy failure–from the massively corrupt Kabulbank fiasco to the collapse of security across the country–and use this strategy review to create a plan that begins immediate U.S. troop withdrawals.

Security Crumbles

Aid groups warn that security in Afghanistan is rapidly deteriorating, and they strongly dispute military assurances that things are “getting worse before they get better.” According to The New York Times:

Even as more American troops flow into the country, Afghanistan is more dangerous than it has ever been during this war, with security deteriorating in recent months, according to international organizations and humanitarian groups.

…Last month, ISAF recorded 4,919 “kinetic events,” …a 7 percent increase over the previous month, and a 49 percent increase over August 2009, according to Maj. Sunset R. Belinsky, an ISAF spokeswoman. August 2009 was itself an unusually active month for the insurgency as it sought to disrupt the presidential elections then.

With one attack after another, the Taliban and their insurgent allies have degraded security in almost every part of the country (the one exception is Panjshir Province in the north, which has never succumbed to Taliban control).

While Petraeus has been on a media blitz claiming that the rise in violence can be attributed to the Taliban fighting back as NATO forces “take away areas that are important to the enemy,” the Times’ story makes clear that his explanation fails to address rapidly deteriorating security in parts of the country where the NATO presence is light. In fact, compared to August 2009, insurgent attacks more than doubled last month.

Kabulbank Corruption

General Petraeus’ manual on how to conduct counterinsurgency refers to a legitimate host nation government as “a north star.” But over the past week, we’ve been treated to a sickening spectacle showing just how corrupt Hamid Karzai and his cronies really are. A real estate market collapse in Dubai rocked the privately owned Kabulbank, exposing the “investment” of hundreds of millions of depositor assets in palatial homes on Palm Jumeirah off Dubai’s cost, handed out to friends and family of the government. As media attention zeroed in on the bank, we learned that presidential campaign contributions were given to Karzai by Kabulbank in exchange for naming a major shareholder’s brother (a notorious war criminal) as his vice presidential running mate; that Karzai’s brother, Mahmoud Karzai, sat at the center of the scandal; and that key campaign advisers had become major shareholders in the bank. Now government forces and security guards are beating people away (literally) as outraged depositors seek to get their money out. Karzai’s inner circle was implicated so thoroughly that now the U.S. is backing off its repeated pronouncements of the importance of rooting out corruption.

In short, we lack one of the prerequisites asserted by Petraeus’ own doctrine for success under the current strategy in Afghanistan, and we’ve stopped even really trying to construct one.

Southern Pashtuns Stay Away from ANA

Another of the key components of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is to create an army with a sizable enough southern Pashtun contingent to allow the security forces to operate in the Taliban’s traditional strongholds without being seen as an occupying force from the north. According to The Wall Street Journal, that effort is failing:

Recent initiatives to recruit more southern Pashtuns into the Afghan security forces…appear to have backfired.

In January, southern Pashtuns accounted for 3.4% of recruits that month, falling to 1.1% in July and 1.8% in August.

Last month, just 66 of the 3,708 Afghan recruits were Pashtuns, U.S. officials said.

Overall, Pashtuns account for 43% of the Afghan army, but very few of them are from the south.

Afghanistan’s recent history is fraught with internal strife between factions and ethnic groups, including a nasty conflict between those forces comprising the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. Pashtuns in the south likely aren’t going to take kindly to the presence of a U.S.-backed force made up of northerners. The fact that the security forces can’t recruit southern Pashtuns speaks volumes about the failure of efforts to persuade populations in the heart of Taliban territory to support the Kabul regime.

There’s No Time Like the Present

Giles Dorronsoro, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, just returned from Afghanistan with a stark warning:

“Washington wants to weaken the Taliban by beefing up the counterinsurgency campaign to the point where the Taliban will be forced to ask for amnesty and join the government. But the Taliban are growing stronger and there are no indications that U.S. efforts can defeat the insurgents…

“Since last year there has not been one serious element of progress and the situation will not improve without a strategic recalculation. …In a year, the Taliban will not disappear as a political force or even be weakened militarily—the longer it takes for negotiations to begin, the harder it will be for the coalition to carry out the best possible exit strategy.  …In the coming months, the American-led coalition needs to declare a ceasefire and begin talking to the Taliban. While negotiations could be an extremely long and fraught process, the sooner they begin the more likely they are to achieve results.”

Every individual factor listed above would be a body blow to the premises of a counterinsurgency strategy according to General Petraeus’ own handbook. Taken together, they’ve exposed the Afghanistan War as a brutal fiasco that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the cost.

The American people, recognizing the futility of spending more U.S. lives and dollars on this failing war, have turned solidly against it, with nearly six-in-10 saying they oppose the war in CNN’s most recent poll. The president should keep that in mind as we approach our own midterm elections here in the U.S.

We can’t wait until July 2011. Those troops need to start coming home, now.

If you’re tired of this costly, brutal war that’s not making us safer, join us at Rethink Afghanistan:

The text from the lectionary for tomorrow in Christian churches is the story of the parable of the prodigal son. The deeper meaning of the story is Jesus’ warning to his ethnic brethren that the cultural purity movement they’d mounted in resistance to the Roman occupation of Palestine had become so exclusionary as to render it ripe for the judgment of God. And so it’s fitting that those of us who show up in church tomorrow, the day after September 11, should have to sit and listen to it. It’s especially fitting considering the rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry washing over the United States, driven largely by people who declare this a “Christian nation.”

Let me put this as clearly as I can: the folks in New York City who want to build an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan should be welcomed. If there’s construction work to be done, Christians should be out there with their sleeves rolled up and their brows sweating to get it built.

Here’s what one cultural center opponent had to say today about his desire to see the cultural center moved:

“Got to be someplace else, not over here, because that’s like a slap on the face of the people who lost their families over here,” said another opponent.

Alongside the mosque’s opponents were anti-abortion activists and other demonstrators who were focused on Christian topics.

News flash, bigots. Muslims died when the towers fell. In fact, the 17th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center contained an Islamic prayer room. Muslims have lived in New York long before 9/11, and they have every right to build whatever center they want to build to deepen their involvement in the community. What does your convenient white-and-Jesus-washing of the dead in the attacks say to your neighbors (oh, be careful how you relate to those folks as Christians…not a lot of fine print in that commandment from your Lord and Savior)? Do you think maybe it could be interpreted as a slap in the face? And just what was Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount about a slap in the face, anyway?

Shame on those of you out there pushing that smug, self-righteous message that Muslims in this country should be culturally sensitive because of September 11 and what happened at Ground Zero. Do you have any idea what it was like for Muslims across this country the day after September 11?

I remember riding on a bus in Lubbock, Texas in September 2001, when some cocky jackass college kid stood up and started showing off for his friends by yelling, “Where the fuck are the Afghans on this bus? I’ll fuck you up!” I’m sure that was the least of the white Christian cultural sensitivity the Muslim community in Lubbock had to endure. Every Muslim had to suddenly declare in public that they condemn an act of horrendous violence, and if they didn’t out of self-respect, watch out for the ugly arguments from silence coming from the culturally sensitive Christian majority. I believe there’s another saying of Jesus about a plank in one’s own eye, or something.

This Islamophobia isn’t limited to the rallies in New York. Here in my own state of Texas, the State Board of Education is actually going to consider a resolution later this month that claims that the textbooks we use in this state are biased toward Muslims and against Christians. Raise your hand if you felt pressured to declare “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his profit” while sitting through World History in Texas. I’d be willing to bet my next margarita that your hands, dear Texans, are down.

But Texas is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a cultural purity movement afoot in this country, and what’s worse, political demagogues, having humiliated themselves by failing to govern for 8 years and getting thrown out of office, are trying to stoke a populist, bigoted backlash to get back into power. Even the dead on September 11 have to all be non-Muslims–reality be damned.

Know this, fellow Christians: claiming that you belong to a “Christian nation” is not a trivial thing. And while you’re sitting there in church tomorrow, listening to the words of Jesus echoing forward through the centuries, you better really listen. You better think twice about trying to exclude the unworthy from your culture. God is running toward the outsider, always and forever. If you are trying to keep the Other out, “your mouth is writing a check your butt can’t cash.” As we say here in Texas.

Love the Lord God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like unto it. You shall love your Muslim New York neighbor as yourself.

From tomorrow’s reading, Luke 15:11-32:

11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”