Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

On Thursday, December 16, 2010, the White House will use its December review to try to spin the disastrous Afghanistan War plan by citing “progress” in the military campaign, but the available facts paint a picture of a war that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the cost.

Let’s take a look at just the very broad strokes of the information. After more than nine years and a full year of a massive escalation policy:

And yet, we are told we can expect a report touting security gains and “progress,” and that there’s virtually zero chance of any significant policy change from this review. It sort of begs the question: just what level of catastrophe in Afghanistan would signal that we need a change in direction?

Insurgency Growing and Getting Stronger

This cat is already out of the bag, no matter how hard the Pentagon tries to reel it back in. In the ironically named “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” published several weeks ago, the Pentagon told Congress that the insurgency’s organizational and geographic reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding. This growth is reflected in other statistics. According to USA TODAY, U.S. troops were hit with 7,000 more attacks this year compared to last year. About 3,800 troops were killed and injured by IEDs, about 1,000 more than last year. These statistics depict an insurgency with unbroken momentum, despite administration and military claims to the contrary.

As the signers of the Afghanistan Call to Reason put it last week,

“Despite these huge costs, the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country. It is now very difficult to work outside the cities or even move around Afghanistan by road. The insurgents have built momentum, exploiting the shortcomings of the Afghan government and the mistakes of the coalition. The Taliban today are now a national movement with a serious presence in the north and the west of the country. Foreign bases are completely isolated from their local environment and unable to protect the population.”

The insurgents’ momentum is clearly shown by the number of attacks they’ve initiated across the country so far this year. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO),

“The [Taliban] counter-offensive is increasingly mature, complex & effective. Country wide attacks have grown by 59% (p.10) while sophisticated recruitment techniques have helped activate networks of fighters in the North where European NATO contributors have failed to provide an adequate deterrent (p.11). Some provinces here are experiencing double the country average growth rate (p.12) and their districts are in danger of slipping beyond any control. Clumsy attempts to stem the developments, through the formation of local militia’s and intelligence-poor operations, have served to polarize communities with the IEA capitalizing on the local grievances that result. In the South, despite more robust efforts from the US NATO contingents, counterinsurgency operations in Kandahar and Marjah have similarly failed to degrade the IEA’s ability to fight, reduce the number of civilian combat fatalities (p.13) or deliver boxed Government.”

Here’s a helpful chart from ANSO’s report that shows the level of ever-escalating insurgent attacks across Afghanistan.

ANSO Chart, Afghanistan violence

The White House wants to weasel out of the implications of the data above by saying that the reason the statistics are going south is because, as Petraeus so often says, “when you take away areas important to the enemy, the enemy fights back.” So, we’re “on offense,” as President told troops few weeks ago during his trip to Afghanistan. Well, so what? The 1976 Buccaneers went on offense, too, but that didn’t mean they won games.

When the administration claims that they’re seeing “progress” in pockets of southern Helmand and Kandahar (a claim open to serious dispute, by the way, and strangely contradicted by some of Petraeus’ own spin), they’re displaying a familiar kind of confusion between the tactical and the strategic, one that seems to always pop up when we’re confronting a failed war.

“One of the iconic exchanges of Vietnam came, some years after the war, between Col. Harry Summers, a military historian, and a counterpart in the North Vietnamese Army. As Summers recalled it, he said, ‘You never defeated us in the field.’ To which the NVA officer replied: ‘That may be true. It is also irrelevant.'”

Pakistan’s Double Game

That brings us to Pakistan. According to the New York Times, two new National Intelligence Estimates “offer a more negative assessment [than the administration’s upcoming review] and say there is a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its Afghan border.” But that’s some serious wishful thinking, since Pakistan has long used the Taliban as a cat’s paw to combat growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan wants the militants who threaten it internally suppressed, but it finds the militants who threaten the Karzai regime useful. Fixing that problem would requite U.S. policy follow the roots of their support of the Taliban all the way up to the India/Pakistan animosity, and nothing–nothing–in the U.S.’s military-first strategy comes close to doing so.

Troops Pay the Price

While U.S. politicians nibble at the edges of this real crisis, U.S. troops pay the bloody price, a price that’s gotten much worse with the arrival of the new escalation policy over the course of this year. At least 874 American troops have been killed in the war so far this year, compared to 317 for all of 2009. In the NATO hospital near Kandahar, doctors performed a major amputation once very other day in September.

These statistics go hand-in-hand with the huge rise in civilian casualties, which number some 2,400 this year so far, according to the Campaign for Innocent Civilians in Conflict.

Time for the White House to Get Real

The Obama administration is kidding itself if it thinks the American people will buy this attempted whitewash of the failure of the escalation strategy in Afghanistan. We are in the grips of a desperate unemployment crisis, wrapped in a larger economic meltdown. We are not ignorant of the $2 billion dollars sent per week on the war, and we want that money, and those young people, back here at home so we put people back to work.

Following the death of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the president should take a step back and realize that we all have to travel down that road some day. He should think about what legacy he wants to leave behind him. Postponing a final end to U.S. military action in Afghanistan until 2014 puts U.S. taxpayers and American troops on the hook for an enormous investment of blood and treasure in a failing enterprise with no prospects for a turnaround.

A real, honest review would objectively conclude that the enterprise is failing and that the best alternative is to start removing U.S. troops immediately to stave off continued economic and social damage caused by this war that’s not making us safer nor worth the cost.

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It may not feel like it while President Obama is talking about four more years of futile, brutal combat operations in Afghanistan, but the anti-war movement is winning. We just don’t know it.

Part of the problem is that most people in our movement have very little understanding about the way social movements grow and evolve, so we buy into narratives of failure and irrelevance, like this one from the September 4, 2010 issue of Politico:

Paradoxically, the anti-war movement has grown weaker even as public opposition to the Afghanistan war has grown stronger.  A recent Gallup poll found that 43 percent of those surveyed think the Afghanistan war was a mistake, compared with 30 percent in January 2009. But an anti-war rally in Washington in March 2009 drew fewer than 10,000 people — a fraction of the 500,000 activists who attended an anti-Iraq war rally in Manhattan in 2003.

This conflation of one aspect of a social movement–public anti-war rallies–with the entire movement is common, even among activists. That’s why people like CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin and Cindy Sheehan can be fully aware of the massive public opposition to the war but still say things like this:

“We don’t have a very vibrant anti-war movement anymore,” lamented Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Codepink, one of the anti-war movement’s most visible organizations.

“I basically think that it’s over,” Sheehan said.

It’s a common idea among people who consider themselves activists that a lack of huge rallies, marches or mass demonstrations equals a dead movement. Thankfully, these activists are just wrong.

The author of the Politico article quoted above unwittingly described a social movement that is succeeding and that has outgrown a particular stage of its life and moved on to a much more powerful and widespread incarnation. According to Bill Moyer’s seminal 2001 book on social movements, Doing Democracy, huge rallies, marches and other demonstrations are expected to fade away as a movement progresses through the various stages of its life toward success. If we look at the movement through the lens of Moyer’s model of social movements, its clear that not only is the anti-Afghanistan War movement not “over,” but we’re winning.

There are eight stages of social movements in Moyer’s model (excerpted from p. 44-45):

  1. Normal times. A critical social problem exists that violates widely held values; the public is unaware of the problem and supports powerholders. Problem is not a public issue.
  2. Prove the failure of official institutions. Many new local opposition groups spring up. Social movement members use  official channels –courts, government offices, commissions, hearings, etc. — and prove in the process that they don’t work. Movement members do research and become experts.
  3. Ripening conditions. Recognition of the problem and its victims grows as the movement makes the victims’ faces visible. 20 to 30 percent of the public oppose powerholder policies.
  4. Take off. Trigger event(s) occurs. Dramatic nonviolent actions/campaigns occur that show the public that the problem violates widely held values. The new social movement rapidly takes off. 40 percent of the public opposes current policies.
  5. Perception of failure. Movement members see goals are unachieved and powerholders unchanged. Numbers at demonstrations decline and it seems like a return to normal times. Despair, hopelessness, burnout, dropout pervade the movement. The “negative rebel” emerges more strongly.
  6. Majority public opinion. The majority of the population opposes conditions and powerholder policies. The movement demonstrates how the problem and policies affect all sectors of society, involving mainstream citizens and institutions in addressing the problem. Problem is put on the official agenda and alternatives promoted. The movement must begin to counter each new powerholder strategy while powerholders demonize movement and its alternatives. The movement promotes a paradigm shift and seize on re-trigger events.
  7. Success. Large majority opposes current policies and does not fear the alternatives. Powerholders split off and change positions, changing policies, losing power or lose by attrition. New laws or policies are instituted. Powerholders attempt to make minimal reforms while movement demands broad social change.
  8. Continuing the struggle. The movement extends its successes, opposes attempts at backlash, promotes its paradigm shift and focuses on other sub-issues. It recognizes and celebrates its successes so far.

The trick to models like this is that they can tend to convey to users that there are clear demarcations between the stages, but the truth is that the transition between them is murky, and sometimes two stages can overlap. Despite that, Moyer provides a very useful framework for discerning where the movement is and what it’s job is at this point in the movement’s life.

I’d argue that the movement to end the Afghanistan War is in a combination of Stages 5 and 6, Majority Public Opinion and Perception of Failure, with the first hints of Success peeking through. Here’s my evidence:

  • A solid majority of Americans opposes the Afghanistan War. Most Americans think we shouldn’t even be involved there (Quinnipiac University Poll. Nov. 8-15, 2010), most think it is a lost cause (Bloomberg National Poll conducted by Selzer & Co. Oct. 7-10, 2010), and most want troop withdrawals to begin on or before July 2011 (Newsweek Poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Aug. 25-26, 2010).
  • Alternatives are being proposed. The Council on Foreign Relations, the thermometer of Very Serious Thinking on foreign policy in Washington, D.C., has proposed rapid troop withdrawals if progress isn’t being made (and it isn’t). The Afghanistan Study Group proposed a significant troop reduction beginning next year. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace proposed its own withdrawal plans. And, of course, anti-Afghanistan-War activists have been calling for withdrawals on a much faster time-line for months now.
  • All of this has contributed to a drastically altered national conversation about the war, which now focuses almost entirely on how and when we withdraw our troops. The administration attempts to diffuse solid public opposition by offering vague, unacceptable withdrawal time-lines, but this is exactly what the model predicts–an attempt by powerholders to co-opt the language and momentum of the movement to diffuse opposition without offering solid concessions. This is an indicator of success, and even though it’s frustrating as hell, it’s something that should be recognized and celebrated as a milestone of progress toward the end goal.

And yet, the movement is struggling with a perception of failure. Many of the activists I talk to express feelings of burnout, cynicism, and powerlessness in the face of the powerholder intransigence. I often feel these things myself. Moyer’s description of the Perception of Failure stage probably resonates with a lot of us, emphasis mine:

…[T]the high hopes of instant victory in the movement take-off stage inevitably turn into despair as some activists begin to believe that their movement is failing. It has not achieved its goals and, in their eyes, it has not had any “real” victories. They come to believe that powerholders are too strong and are determined not to change their policies. Moreover, the powerholders and the mass media report that the movement is dead, irrelevant, or nonexistent. Activists in Stage Five also believe that the movement is dead because it no longer looks like it did at the start of the take-off stage: the numbers at demonstrations and civil disobedience actions have dropped substantially. Many Stage Five activists develop cynical attitudes and some turn to destructive behavior. (p. 59)

But, Moyer cautions that these feelings and the powerholders’ intransigence are poor indicators of progress for the movement precisely because “powerholders will be the last segment of society to change their minds and policies.”

He also warns that the intellectual and emotional capital that we built up at the beginning of the struggle–the expertise about the depth of the problem and the knowledge of the damage it does to the victims, the burning drive to devote every waking minute to the fight, etc.–can begin to work against us personally. We fail to celebrate the milestones along the way to ending the problem, and we fail to take time for “adequate rest, leisure, fun and attendance to personal needs.” We overwork, we can’t see the forest for the trees, and we burn out. But that feeling of burnout is about us, and isn’t a good measure of the movement’s progress.

Think about the changed dynamic between this year and last year.

At this time last year, the public opposed the Afghanistan War, but President Obama decided to push ahead with a troop increase. However, this president, who campaigned on escalating the war, was compelled by public opposition into providing a concession: “In 18 months, our troops will begin to come home,” he said. War supporters worked mightily to redefine that concession into meaninglessness, and after McChrystal resigned in disgrace, General Petraeus worked to try to convince the American people that we were “making progress” even when it was obvious we weren’t. He failed spectacularly, and public opinion remained solidly in opposition to the war. As it was prior to the last two decisions by President Obama to send more troops to Afghanistan, the war is clearly failing to achieve the stated goals of its supporters. And yet, somehow, the option of sending another major surge of troops is off the table, even though administration officials have repeatedly stated that the troop levels have not been “capped.” That didn’t just magically happen. The political environment shaped by the work of anti-war activists did that.

Today, there’s an end date to combat operations on the table. This date is too vague, too far out and comes with too many loose ends, but it’s not insignificant. We’re past the “ifs” of withdrawal and are into the “whens,” and whether we realize it or not, powerholders have entered into a bargaining process with public opinion.

Now, it’s incumbent on us to recognize powerholders’ true intent here. As Moyer warns, the purpose of this negotiation is “for show and to confuse, defuse, split, and co-opt the opposition. Any serious negotiation will not happen until Stage Seven.” They’re hoping slapping a vague end date to something like combat operations will act as a steam valve on public opposition. Our job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. But again, regardless of the powerholders’ intent, this move on their part is a sign that we’re making headway and are on the road to bringing this war to an end.

The success that we’re headed for, by all indications, is what Moyer calls the “quiet showdown” or “victorious retreat.”

A quiet showdown happens when powerholders realize that they can no longer continue their present policies and they launch a face-saving endgame process of “victorious retreat.” Rather than admit defeat and praise the movement for its correct views and its principled stand, the powerholders adopt and carry out many of the goals and policies that were demanded by the movement. The powerholders claim credit for victory, even though they have been forced to reverse their previously held hard-line policies. the mainstream media complies by reporting this as a success of the powerholders. (p. 76)

President Obama and his administration will likely never say anything like, “Man, you anti-war activists really shut me down. Good job. We’re ending combat operations because I can’t sustain political support if I keep pushing policies in opposition to you.” What he will say is something like, well, what he’s saying right now. It will be something along these lines:

“Thanks to the outstanding performance of our troops and General David Petraeus, our assessment shows we’re making sufficient progress to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011, if not before, and we’ll end combat operations by [insert end date here].”

We’ll do every thing we can to push that end date forward in time, and the generals and the pro-war politicians will do what they can to roll it back, but in the end, we will end this war. The president will do his best to save face, the media will, as always, comply and convey the powerholders’ narrative, but we’ll tell our grandchildren how we ended the Afghanistan War.

Most people agree with us that the Afghanistan War isn’t making us safer and isn’t worth the cost. The national conversation has shifted onto a playing field that is advantageous to ending the war. Further major troop increases appear to be off the table. The powerholders are fencing with us, attempting to co-opt the energy of our support base through the use of the language of withdrawal, yet offering as little as possible in the way of real concessions. The latter can be frustrating, but is also a sign that they cannot ignore us and the sentiment we’ve helped generate in the public at large. This is no time to get complacent, but it’s not a time for despair either.

Take care of yourselves, keep your eye on the prize, and keep up the fight. It’s later than you think.

Last week I posted about the silly contradictions in the various spin pieces coming from General Petraeus’ press shop in Afghanistan. At the time, ISAF was claiming that a) Kandahar and Helmand were “security bubbles” and b) ISAF was obviously winning because they were confining most of the violence in Afghanistan to…Kandahar and Helmand. This week, ISAF wants to top their crossed messages with whole new contradictions.

Today Petraeus’ folks are screaming bloody murder about the Taliban’s killing of civilians:

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) — The NATO-led command in Afghanistan said insurgent fighters were responsible for scores of civilian casualties in October — more than 100 deaths and 200 injuries.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, which has been staunchly criticized by Afghans over the years for civilian casualties during the war, said the latest violence belies senior Taliban claims that the insurgents have protected civilians.

“Their message simply does not match the reality that every day, insurgents are deliberately killing, injuring and intimidating Afghan civilians.” [Rear Adm. Vic Beck, ISAF spokesman]

But wait…remember this from last week?

The number of civilians wounded and killed last quarter (July-September) was 20 percent lower than the same period last year, despite the increase in fighting and increased numbers of coalition forces and Afghan forces. ISAF believes this means that even with rising attacks, it is reducing the ability of insurgents to harm the Afghan civilian population.

Since both of these stories were filed by CNN staff, it sure would be nice if any of their 4,000 news professionals asked ISAF about these contradictions, wouldn’t it?

The truth is that the massive troop presence and escalated military activity isn’t protecting Afghan civilians. That means the U.S. and allied forces are failing at the basic requirement of counterinsurgency: protect the population. The war’s not making us safer, and it’s not worth the cost. Get those troops home.

Rethink Afghanistan Year Ten video graphic

Watch Rethink Afghanistan’s latest video at RethinkAfghanistan.com.

I spent several days last week giving guest lectures about the Afghanistan War to freshmen and seniors at Anderson High School in Austin, Texas. It’s no secret that I loathe this brutal, futile war that’s not making us safer. So, when I talk to kids about it, I state my biases up-front, and I do my best to represent my opponents’ views fairly. In the process of playing devil’s advocate during these talks, I usually ask people if they remember how they felt on 9/11. I do this because I think it’s a good way to get into the mindset of decision-makers who led us down this road back in 2001. But this year, something startling happened: When I asked the students this question, they laughed at me.

“Dude, that was a long time ago,” they giggled. “We were, like, in 3rd grade or something.” In other words, no, Mr. Old Guy, we don’t remember. We weren’t even 10 years old when that happened.

Year 10. That’s where we are, starting October 7, 2010. We are now in the Afghanistan War’s 10th year. Of course most of those kids don’t remember what they felt like when the towers fell. It was almost a decade ago, more than half of their lives ago.

It’s startling to be reminded how long ago 9/11 was because our public figures keep talking about the Afghanistan War like it started last year. General Petraeus let us know back in February in a Meet the Press interview that we were just then getting “the inputs about right,” and were now “starting to see some of the outputs.” Nine years into this war, and Petraeus lets us know they’re just getting warmed up. Good God.

U.S. foreign policy luminaries have this habit of talking about Afghanistan like it’s some sort of laboratory experiment, some controlled environment where we can just start over if Counterinsurgency Hypothesis A doesn’t pan out. We talk about it like it’s therapy, where “making progress” is good enough. But Afghanistan isn’t a controlled environment where we can safely discard old models and just roll up our sleeves and start over; it’s the Graveyard of Empires ™, and it’s full of people who die when we wipe their slates clean. And as far as progress goes, please fire any public servant who utters those words to cover their inability to produce results.

Dana Perino said we’re making progress… remember her? She was the last president’s spokesperson. You remember, that president so terrible we don’t even like talking about him in polite company. And he said we were making progress, along with the last two commanding officers of the Afghanistan mission we kicked to the curb for various forms of stupidity.

We’ve been making progress for nine-plus years now, progress into the deadliest year for U.S. troops since the war began, progress into record levels of suicide terrorism directed at Americans, progress into war debt so high we’ll probably never be able to pay it off. No more progress in Afghanistan, please. I want these poor high school kids, who don’t remember how they felt back in the Paleolithic Era when the war began, to be left with something resembling the country in which I was lucky enough to grow up.

The war in Afghanistan isn’t making us safer. According to Robert Pape’s research, since the Afghanistan and Iraq wars began, suicide attacks around the world increased by a factor of six, and 90 percent of all suicide attacks are now anti-American. According to Homeland Security back in May:

“The number and pace of attempted attacks against the United States over the past nine months have surpassed the number of attempts during any other previous one-year period.”

This has also been the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Afghanistan already with several months left to go. We are not safer. We are less safe.

The war in Afghanistan isn’t worth the cost. War costs have already exceeded $1 trillion and will go much higher once the cost of caring for the veterans kicks in. It costs us $1 million per troop, per year to occupy that country. And civilian deaths in Afghanistan are up more than 30 percent so far this year; I strain to imagine a goal that would make that level of death “worth it.”

We are 10 years into this godforsaken catastrophe of a war with virtually no chance of a turnaround brought about by military force. We are not about to turn a corner. We are not about to turn the tide. Despite Petraeus’ “dark before the dawn” rhetoric, the spike in violence we’re seeing now is consistent with a well-established pattern of ever-increasing violence as the insurgency metastasizes across the country. Here’s a chart to illustrate from the Afghan NGO Safety Office, showing the level of insurgent-initiated violence:

ANSOgraph2010

Year 10 has to be the last year of this war. The president doesn’t need to wait until next July to start pulling out troops. He should start withdrawals today, this afternoon, before dinner. He should drag generals by the four-starred shirt to the radios to give the signal if that’s what it takes. He should admit that our national interest isn’t served by throwing a 100,000-plus-troop war machine at a dirt-poor country to catch fewer than 100 nutcases. We should be in the White House’s face, in the Pentagon’s face, every day, telling them that we won’t tolerate mealy-mouthed dithering on “conditions” while our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers get ground into record numbers of amputees and coffin-filler.

And we should make damn sure they know we won’t sit around and watch while they drag kids too young to really remember how they felt on September 11, 2001, into a war that we’re too proud to admit is a failure.

It’s not working. It’s not going to work. It’s over. Shut it down. Bring them home.

If you want to help us make sure this war’s 10th year is its last year, join us at Rethink Afghanistan.

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: