Posts Tagged ‘al-Qaida’

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New FoundationThe Seminal. Learn how the war in Afghanistan undermines U.S. security: watch Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six), & visit

If Matthew Hoh could tell you one thing to help you understand the U.S.’s predicament in Afghanistan, he’d tell you:

The presence of our ground combat troops is not doing anything to defeat al-Qaida.

Think about that for a moment. We are paying roughly $1 million per troop, per year in Afghanistan. That’s roughly twice the per-troop cost in Iraq. We’ve suffered well more than 800 deaths in Afghanistan. And yet here is the former top civilian official in Afghanistan’s Zabul province, a former Marine who served in Anbar province in Iraq, telling us that the presence of our ground forces does nothing to defeat the organization that’s supposedly the target of our operations in that country.

So, if we’re not going about the business of defeating al-Qaida in Afghanistan, what are we doing?

We’re involved in a civil war in Afghanistan. We’re only taking one side in that civil war. And, our presence there is only encouraging the civil war to go on.

Hmm. This is all sounding very familiar.

I spoke to Matthew on Friday afternoon by phone from the front seat of my car. My first call to him went straight to voicemail, where I learned that apparently he’d had so many press calls about his resignation letter that his voicemail message directed inquiries on that topic to his email address. If you recall, the State Department took his letter seriously enough that it prompted job offers from Ambassadors Eikenberry and Holbrooke to get him to stay. Since then, Hoh has been the focus of a great deal of media attention, and for good reasons:

  • With all the rhetoric about the “success” of the so-called “surge” in Iraq and its supposed lessons for Afghanistan, the opinion of a person with experience with both has a lot of heft.
  • The fact that his feelings about the situation were strong enough to provoke a resignation and a subsequent rejection of a position in Washington gave him moral authority.
  • And, Hoh was the beneficiary of good timing: his resignation came at a time when the media and policymakers had been cajoled into a willingness to entertain views outside the Washington, D.C. conventional wisdom that failure to send more troops immediately would lead to disaster.

Over the course of the past year, groups opposed to deepening U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan (such as Brave New Foundation’s Rethink Afghanistan project, the Get Afghanistan Right coalition and many other groups and individuals) worked relentlessly to keep a critical perspective on the war in Afghanistan in the public debate. These escalation opponents relentlessly hammered the proponents of a counterinsurgency (COIN) effort for their inconsistencies and self-contradictions, especially with regard to the COIN doctrine’s need for a legitimate host-nation partner. By the time the Afghan presidential elections exploded into a showcase of abject corruption and illegitimacy, these activists had laid the groundwork that helped the American people interpret the events of late August 2009 as a serious blow to the assumptions underlying the rationale for a deep military involvement. At the same time, President Obama refused to be rushed into a second troop increase in Afghanistan by an increasingly abrasive Pentagon whisper campaign, allowing the nation to take a collective breath and widen the debate about options. These factors, combined with cratering public support for the war effort, pushed policymakers and the media into a willingness to entertain views dissenting from those presented by General Stanley McChrystal. Enter Matthew Hoh.

Matthew’s letter is a four-page punch in the gut to the rhetoric of pro-counterinsurgency factions. It wrecks the idea that the U.S. will ever have a legitimate partner (referred to by the COIN field manual as a “north star”) in Afghanistan or that our strategy will lead to the destruction of al-Qaida. He ends the letter with regret that assurances can no longer be given that those who died in Afghanistan gave their lives in a mission worth the cost in “futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept.”

Hoh sees our presence driving the conflict in at least two ways. On one hand, our military support for the corrupt Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan assures the Kabul cartel that we will not allow them to be overrun by insurgents. Because of that perception, the GoIRA is not willing to work out a political settlement with their opponents to form a true national government. The support we have given thus far (which is very close to the maximum possible support we can give), however, is not enough to allow the GoIRA to crush the insurgency totally. Thus, within the constraints on U.S. and Afghan national power, the only possible solution to the conflict other than strategic failure is a political solution negotiated between GoIRA and it’s opponents–and that’s precisely what the GoIRA won’t seek as long as they can be assured of our continued military support.

[T]he only way to end this civil war is through political reconciliation, through some kind of political negotiation reaching to some kind of settlement. …The Afghan officials who are on our side have no interest in doing that. …They have no interest in giving up the position they have right now. And our presence there keeps them in power that way. I don’t really see them having any interest in taking Afghanistan into, you know, a modern age or a progressive country, all of the things we believed we were doing there for the past 8 years.

On the other hand, the U.S. presence fuels the ever-expanding insurgency, pulling people who resent our support for a corrupt, predatory government and who intensely resent outside interference in their lives into conflict with coalition troops.

In both the east and the south, where our troops were heavily engaged in combat…on a daily basis, those are areas populated by rural Pashtuns…The bulk of those people were fighting us just because we’re occupying them–not out of any ideology, not out of any real ties to the Taliban, not out of any hatred for the West. It was just because they did not want foreign troops, or, for that matter, the Afghan national army or Afghan national police, which do not represent them, in their valleys and villages.

…If you take the Korengal Valley, for example, which is well-known to the American people as “The Valley of Death,” …it’s 15-20 miles long, it only has about 10,000 residents, they speak Korengali…these are people who are not interested in things outside their valley. They prefer to be left alone. Of course, putting more troops in their valley is something they’re going to rebel against, especially troops from the central government, which does not represent them. …It’s really a question of these people wanting to determine their own existence and …govern themselves. For every Korengal we’re in, there’s a hundred that we’re not in, and if we were in [them], it would be the same issue of us having to fight them only because we’re occupying them.

On the topic of that corrupt, unrepresentative government, Hoh offered a couple of anecdotal examples of the corruption that permeates every level of government in Afghanistan:

I know a USAID official who got into a plane…with the governor of his province, and the governor had about $300,000 in a duffel bag with him. …The governor that I worked with had been removed from another province as the governor because he had been caught red-handed in a fairly extreme corruption case. Now this governor, Governor Sari, has been a friend of President Karzai for 35 years. So, after the U.S. embassy exposed this and complained about it, all Karzai did was move this governor…from one province to another province….To believe that the vast majority of Afghan officials that you’re working with have any allegiance to what we’re trying to do other than to enrich themselves or to make out in some manner is wrong.

I asked Hoh about the recent report on the quadrupling of the insurgency since 2006. According to at least one estimate, 10 percent of the estimated 25,000-man-strong insurgency were hardcore religious extremists, while the rest accepted training and funds from the “Taliban,” but lacked ties to their ideology or broader agenda beyond throwing out the invaders.

I completely agree. The number I’ve seen is that there are 25,000 “Taliban” (which I believe is an incorrect term to apply to the people who are fighting us because it makes a reference to the Taliban regime of pre-September 11, 2001, and I think that misleads people and causes confusion, particularly among the American public about who we are actually fighting there.). But if you go with that 25,000 number…only a few thousand of those are actual hardcore “Taliban” with a capital “T.” The majority of the rest of those groups are local fighters who are pretty independent of one another, just primarily concerned with their local areas, their valleys, their village, and who are tied to the Taliban with a capital “T” only through monetary or funding allegiances, and through a desire not to be occupied by a foreign power or by the other side in a civil war.

…But, if there are 25,000 troops now, Derrick…if we put more troops into the south, if we put 20,000 or 30,000 or 40,000 troops into the south, next year there will be 30,000, 35,000 or 40,000 enemies fighting us. As we move into more valleys and more villages…people are going to rebel against us.

So, the continued presence of massive numbers of U.S. troops removes the incentives for the GoIRA to negotiate a political settlement while providing the fuel for the growth of the insurgency. Hoh’s advice to policymakers? End combat operations and sharply reduce U.S. troop levels. Doing so would pull U.S. troops out of areas where locals fight us just because we are there and would compel the GoIRA to negotiate with their opponents. Otherwise the U.S. presence will continue to fuel an unsustainable dynamic whereby the GoIRA has a near-term upper hand but cannot decisively defeat their opponents while the opponents use our presence as a recruiting tool for the resistance movement.

You’re either characterized as all in our all out, and that’s wrong. I don’t think anyone is calling for us to completely wash our hands of Afghanistan and just walk away. When I call for withdrawal I call for stopping combat operations because it just doesn’t make any sense; all it does it just prolong the conflict. I call for some kind of political reconciliation to end the fighting there. So a withdrawal would have to be somewhat gradual while negotiations were going on.

But wait, one might ask: what about al-Qaida? Hoh’s policy prescription deals mainly with settling the civil war between the “Taliban” and the GoIRA. How does al-Qaida fit into this? Aren’t they the reason we’re in Afghanistan in the first place? Wouldn’t our withdraw allow them to reestablish “safe havens” and allow them to keep the ones they have in Pakistan?

I don’t believe al-Qaida needs or wants safe havens [like they had in 2001]. They just don’t operate that way. they recruit worldwide. They are really an ideological force that exists on the Internet. They influence individuals or their operations are carried out by these small, independent, autonomous cells that really don’t require much to operate other than a couple of rooms and a satellite phone or an internet connection. and if you look at the vast majority of attacks that have happened over the last decade regarding al-Qaida, they’ve been carried out by people not from the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, but residents of North Africa, residents of the gulf states or citizens of Europe or citizens and residents of the United States who do their preparation and their training in countries where the attacks occur. So this idea of a safe haven and their requirement for it is not borne out by any evidence of the way al-Qaida has operated for at least the last decade. After 2001, they evolved. They don’t need a safe haven. It would be great for the United States if they did have safe havens because then we could bomb them. So we have to attack al-Qaida as the organization as it exists and not as we want it to exist.

The concern that our presence their encourages people to respond to their ideology is a valid one. We’re currently occupying two Muslim countries, and we have to understand that lends credence to al-Qaida’s argument that it is defending the Muslim world from Western invasion.

How many recruits do they [al-Qaida] get per year? A hundred? Two hundred? The Muslim population is over a billion. You’re talking about such a small fraction. It’s really associated with such a fringe movement that we have to attack using human intelligence and using law enforcement techniques. Army brigade combat teams do not affect al-Qaida. Having 60,00 troops in Afghanistan is not affecting al-Qaida. …[T]he destruction of al-Qaida should be our priority…but we need to go after that organization as it exists and not with ground combat troops in Afghanistan.

Matthew said he’s pleased with the state of debate following his resignation and return to the United States.

I can tell you that one of the things that pushed me to resign was this feeling that I had, and I think most people had, or a lot of people had, particularly guys I was serving with in Afghanistan, that an escalation of troops and an open-ended commitment to supporting the Karzai regime seemed almost like a done deal all throughout the summer…There was no discussion of any other type of strategy…it seemed almost like a guarantee…I got home in September and that’s when I first heard there were debates on this within the administration…I’m very pleased the way the debates have been going. I’m not sure what’s going that’s going to happen with [the troop ]increase–I’m sure we’re going to get one. The best thing though …is that we’re going to get some kind of withdrawal date, which is what we need.  If we can get a withdrawal date within a year or two I’ll be very happy, because that’s so much better, so infinitely better, than some type of open-ended commitment or some type of 4- or 5-year plan. My thoughts are hopefully we can get some type of commitment to withdraw and stop combat operations within the next year or two.

I guess that’s being a realist. I’d like to see it stop tomorrow.

Brave New Conversations
recently filmed a conversation between Hoh and Daniel Ellsberg. Here’s a clip:

You can find the full episode on the Brave New Conversations website.


Jeff Huber’s recent piece describes the “tragic flaw” of the Obama presidency in his recent piece:

Candidate Obama stuck his nose in the wringer when he deflected criticism of his vote against the surge in Iraq by saying it took vital assets away from the effort in Afghanistan, the “war of necessity.” That may turn out to be the tragic flaw of his presidency. The war in Afghanistan is no more necessary than most other American wars have been. None of the 9/11 attackers came from Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda isn’t there any more. As best we can tell, what remains of al-Qaeda is in Pakistan, and very little remains of it.

Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. Learn how the war in Afghanistan undermines U.S. security: watch Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six), & visit

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is showing his Bush Administration credentials by tossing around any and all justifications for continued U.S. military action in Afghanistan to see what sticks. Lately, he’s been pushing the goofy idea that we have to maintain or expand our military presence in Afghanistan so that extremists can never brag to their friends.

From Danger Room’s Adam Rawnsley:

There have been plenty of reasons given for keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan: denying Al Qaeda and their allies a sanctuary, saving the locals from some rather ruthless theocrats, preventing another 9/11. To that Defense Secretary added a different rationale Monday night. He wants to keep Osama’s legions from scoring a propaganda win.

…Defining al-Qaeda as both an ideology and an organization, Gates said their ability to successfully “challenge not only the United States, but NATO — 42 nations and so on” on such a symbolically important battlefield would represent “a hugely empowering message” for an organization whose narrative has suffered much in the eight years since 9/11.

The morally bankrupt, self-contradictory piece by Michael Sheuer on Foreign Policy Magazine‘s website restated the secretary’s argument thus:

The only way to create a less threatening Taliban is for the Obama administration to admit defeat and turn over Afghanistan to Mullah Omar, knowing that he will allow bin Laden and al Qaeda to stay in place and that U.S. defeat will have an enormous galvanizing impact on the Islamist movement around the world.

You can see a more plainspoken strain of this meme on This Ain’t Hell and similar sites:

Anyone who doesn’t think that the Taliban and al Qaeda aren’t encouraged by [congressional efforts to block a troop increase], is fooling themselves. Anyone who doesn’t think that the antics of the far left over the last eight years is the reason that we’re still fighting these stone age cretins on barren mountain slopes halfway around the world doesn’t grasp the idea of low intensity warfare.

Every death, every lost limb, every case of PTSD can be laid at the feet of the anti-war, pro-terrorist left.

You know what’s funny, though? Al-Qaida is going to claim victory in Afghanistan no matter what. On Wednesday, ex-spook Paul Pillar told Congress:

Being able to claim victory over the superpower would boost al-Qa’ida and other Islamist radicals, according to this concern.  Such perceptions do come into play, and they do matter….But on this issue as on others, one has to consider carefully the difference that a U.S.-led counterinsurgency would or would not make.  Once the United States has made a commitment, radicals find ways to claim victory no matter when that commitment ends, and with little reference to how it ends.  In the spin game of defining victory and defeat, terrorists have inherent advantages.  Even if the U.S. military command achieves everything it sets out to achieve in stabilizing the Afghan government and the portions of the country most Afghans inhabit, al-Qa’ida and other terrorist groups will still be out there—in Pakistan, in the unpacified portions of Afghanistan, or elsewhere.  They still will be issuing their audiotapes and other propaganda.  And all it takes is a single terrorist attack against U.S. interests to punctuate their boast that they have not been defeated.

This propagandizing is likely no matter what the United States does from this point forward in Afghanistan.  A larger and more costly U.S. military commitment may make the propaganda all the more effective by bolstering arguments that the United States has been unable to deliver a knockout blow to the jihadist movement even when it pours large resources into the effort.

Mr. Secretary, let’s talk about playing into propaganda traps for a moment.

First: Remember this Bin Laden message from November 2004?

All that we have mentioned has made it easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two Mujahedin to the farthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qa’ida in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits to their private companies…So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.

During the year Osama bin Laden made that tape, the average monthly troop total for U.S. forces was 15,200. Since then, we’ve more than tripled the average monthly troop levels to 50,700, and we’re now spending $1 million per troop, per year of borrowed money in Afghanistan. Hmm.

Second: there are numerous warnings circulating in the public domain about the presence of foreign forces being a key recruiting point for the Afghan insurgency.

For example:

The mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban.

And again:

Religious motivation is only one of several reason for joining or supporting the Taliban or Hizb-i Islami. A religious message does resonate with the majority but this is mainly because it is couched in terms of two keenly felt pragmatic grievances: the corruption of government and the presence of foreign forces.

Between 2006 and today, the U.S. average monthly troop level more than doubled. In 2006, the insurgency totalled around 5,000 people. Today, it’s around 25,000. This, of course, is a coincidence.

I’m sorry…what were you saying about denying extremists a propaganda win? I’m not following.

As shown above, the U.S. makes a habit of discarding propaganda considerations whenever it would interfere with our preferred options. It only comes in to play for the administration when its convenient. Further, Gates et. al. act as if extremists will only spread propaganda if it conforms to the reality on the ground, which is of course silly: that’s why AQ’s communicators are called propagandists. If they only said things they know to be true, we’d call them journalists.

The argument that we should stay in Afghanistan to deny al-Qaida a propaganda win is ludicrous.

If you agree, sign Rethink Afghanistan’s petition calling for civilian solutions.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. Learn how the war in Afghanistan undermines U.S. security: watch Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six), & visit

As the president and his war council (Pollyanna asks: never a peace council?) meet to finalize the latest most updated new new new strategy review in Afghanistan, ex-CIA man Paul Pillar gave the House Armed Services Committee the right question to ask:

[I]s the difference between the terrorist threat Americans would face if we wage a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and the threat we would face if we do not wage it, sufficiently large—and in the right direction—to justify the costs and risks of the counterinsurgency itself?

The short answer is, “No.”


Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. Learn how the war in Afghanistan undermines U.S. security: watch Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six), & visit

At least Michael Scheuer’s snarling, morally bankrupt piece (oddly promoted as the front-page story on Foreign Policy Magazine‘s website) correctly diagnoses the problem in Afghanistan: the anti-government elements have put the U.S. and allied forces in a position where “winning” (defined as “defeating” the Taliban) would require actions so brutal and expensive that they are beyond the pale for our political leadership. But rather than salute the allied forces for their principles, Scheuer assails them, telling them to “Get Nasty or Go Home.”

First, Scheuer begins from a correct description of the phase shift we’ve seen in the past few years in the content of the insurgency:

Until roughly late 2006, the war against the U.S.-NATO coalition was largely fought by the Taliban, other Islamists groups like that led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and al Qaeda. Since then, however, the Islamists have been joined by Afghans who simply do not want Muslim Afghanistan occupied by all sorts of infidels from all sorts of Christian and polytheist countries. In short, an Islamist insurgency has evolved into an Islamist-nationalist freedom struggle not unlike that which beat the Red Army.

Supporting Scheuer’s analysis is the rapid insurgent numbers growth from 7,000 to 25,000 between 2006 and today. According to a recent Boston Globe report,

WASHINGTON – Nearly all of the insurgents battling US and NATO troops in Afghanistan are not religiously motivated Taliban and Al Qaeda warriors, but a new generation of tribal fighters vying for control of territory, mineral wealth, and smuggling routes, according to summaries of new US intelligence reports.

“Ninety percent is a tribal, localized insurgency,’’ said one US intelligence official in Washington who helped draft the assessments. “Ten percent are hardcore ideologues fighting for the Taliban.’’

From here, however, things go off the rails. You can almost feel the spit landing on your face:

Team Obama faces quite a dilemma. McChrystal’s plan to stave off defeat by asking for substantial immediate reinforcements — a request that is still far short of what is needed to “win” in Afghanistan — is a sure sign that long-term intense fighting and high casualties lie ahead. The United States’ latest Nobel Prize winner now has a choice: He must act quickly on the advice of McChrystal and the U.S. intelligence community to save a marooned U.S. Army, or dither behind the harebrained split-al-Qaeda-from-the-Taliban strategizing and let more overmatched U.S. soldiers and Marines die amid the ego-building praise of effete Americans, pacifist NGOs, and the Nobelistas.

Then, oddly, he tells us that drawing down forces in Afghanistan is the only way to mellow the insurgency.

As long as U.S. forces are in Afghanistan, this reality will remain the same. The only way to create a less threatening Taliban is for the Obama administration to admit defeat and turn over Afghanistan to Mullah Omar, knowing that he will allow bin Laden and al Qaeda to stay in place and that U.S. defeat will have an enormous galvanizing impact on the Islamist movement around the world.

Okay wait…if we withdraw our troops from Afghanistan, it will take the steam out of the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban are rich and al-Qaida is begging for cash, meaning the Taliban don’t need al-Qaeda funding. and it’s not at all clear that the Afghan Taliban will find it in their self-interest nor to their taste to host al-Qaeda again. From a recent issue of AFCEA Intelligence’s NightWatch analysis [h/t Gareth Porter]:

The point worth noting is that the [October 7] Taliban posting reinforces the statement on Sunday by US National Security Advisor Jones that there are fewer than 100 al Qaida in Afghanistan.  Al Qaida is not welcome in Afghanistan by either side of the fight. The statement posted on the website is accurate, based on the past eight years.  The Taliban resurgence is a home grown development that did not appeal to, rely on or seek Arab or al Qaida help, according to information in the public domain.

After their ouster from Kandahar in 2001, the Taliban openly derided the Arabs of al Qaida and blamed them for the Taliban’s misfortunes. They vowed never to allow the foreigners — especially the haughty, insensitive Arabs — back into Afghanistan, consistent with the history of Pashtun xenophobia. They have been true to that vow ever since, as General Jones confirmed, indirectly.

The premise that Afghanistan would become an al Qaida safe haven under any future government is alarmist and bespeaks a lack of understanding of the Pashtuns on this issue and a superficial knowledge of recent Afghan history.

In December 2001, Omar was ridiculed in public by his own commanders for inviting the “Arabs” and other foreigners, which led to their flight to Pakistan.

But here’s the rub, tough guy: pouring hundreds of thousands of Western troops into Afghanistan will also have an enormous galvanizing impact on the Islamist movement around the world. The difference is that the former has absolutely no chance of bankrupting the U.S. and ending Obama’s hopes for his agenda, while the latter certainly could.

So let’s see:

  • Option 1: Propaganda win for jihadist terrorists, risk of terror attacks and all the costs they entail;
  • Option 2: Propaganda win for jihadist terrorists, risk of terror attacks and all the costs they entail, certain U.S. military casualties, and massive economic damage.

Gee, this is a tough call.

But wait, there’s more!

Because the U.S.-NATO occupation powers the Afghan insurgency and international Muslim support for it, we must either destroy it root and branch or leave. This issue merits debate, but that must wait until McChrystal gets the troops needed to delay defeat. Afterward, only the all-out use of large, conventional U.S. military forces can be expected to have a shot at winning in Afghanistan. Since 1996, the United States has definitively proven that clandestine operations, covert action, Special Forces actions, and aerial drone attacks cannot defeat al Qaeda. It has likewise proven beyond doubt that nation-building in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand.

That said, military victory would require 400,000 to 500,000 additional troops, the wide use of land mines (even if Princess Diana spins in her grave), and the killing of the enemy and its civilian supporters in the numbers needed to make them admit the game is not worth the candle. This clearly is not a viable option. We do not have enough troops, and U.S. political leaders, many U.S. generals, and the anti-American academy and media do not think “military victory” is an appropriate or moral goal; their mantra is: “Better dead Americans at home and abroad than criticism from Europe, the media, and the academy.”

Wait, what? The coalition is a bunch of spineless wimps if they don’t throw in 500,000 more troops? With land-mines? Nonchalant killing of civilians? Let me translate:

You bunch of wimps don’t have the balls to destroy Afghanistan, so f*** you, you anti-American bookworm p*****s! Leave! When you get hit with a terror attack, I’ll be happy to tell you ‘I told you so!’

What is this garbage doing on the front page of Foreign Policy Magazine?

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting

Apparently I underestimated the U.S. government’s capacity for crazy.

Last week, I said:

The prospects for success of a quick, violent blow are dim.  The hardened core of the Taliban is the Quetta Shura Taliban. It’s called the Quetta Shura Taliban because it’s based in Quetta, capital of Balochistan in Pakistan. That’s where we suspect Mullah Omar and possibly Osama bin Laden hide from U.S. forces. It’s also a major city of 750,000+ people, almost all of them non-combatants. Thus, our ability to strike the “violent blow” that could end the al-Qaida/Taliban threat (assuming we’re not willing to drop 600,000+ troops into Afghanistan tomorrow to suddenly begin a textbook counterinsurgency) would depend on our willingness to repeat the carnage of Fallujah 2004 in a city roughly twice its size. This move would ignite Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it would put their nuclear arsenal on the game board in the scramble.

In the days after my attribution of a modicum of good sense and humanitarian concern to the U.S. government, the Telegraph reported that the U.S. is threatening to launch drone attacks against suspected Taliban targets in Quetta. The story labels this potential move a “major escalation,” and they’re not kidding.

[L]ast week Anne Patterson, America’s ambassador to Islamabad, told the Daily Telegraph that the offensive in Swat was not targeting the insurgents posing the greatest danger to Nato forces in Afghanistan.An official at the Pakistani interior ministry told the Daily Telegraph: “The Americans said we have been raising this issue with you time and again. These elements are attacking Nato forces in southern Afghanistan, especially in Helmand. The Americans said ‘If you don’t take action, we will.'”

US unmanned drone strikes have so far been confined to Pakistan’s federally administrated tribal border regions where Islamabad holds little sway. But attacks in or around Quetta, in Baluchistan, would strike deep into the Pakistan government’s territory and are likely to cause a huge outcry in the country.

This is crazy town, people. An attack on Quetta would cause a phase shift in Pakistan. We’re talking destabilization par excellence. A recent poll by Gallup Pakistan showed that the Pakistanis view the U.S. as the biggest threat to their country, far surpassing India and the Taliban:

When respondents were asked what they consider to be the biggest threat to the nation of Pakistan, 11 per cent of the population identified the Taliban fighters, who have been blamed for scores of deadly bomb attacks across the country in recent years.

Another 18 per cent said that they believe that the greatest threat came from neighbouring India, which has fought three wars with Pakistan since partition in 1947.

But an overwhelming number, 59 per cent of respondents, said the greatest threat to Pakistan right now is, in fact, the US…

That kind of visceral reaction to the United States comes, in large part, from a popular rejection of U.S. drone activity over Pakistan. From a May op-ed in the NYT by Kilcullen and Exum:

[T]he drone war has created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians…the strikes are now exciting visceral opposition across a broad spectrum of Pakistani opinion in Punjab and Sindh, the nation’s two most populous provinces. Covered extensively by the news media, drone attacks are popularly believed to have caused even more civilian casualties than is actually the case. The persistence of these attacks on Pakistani territory offends people’s deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan’s instability.

An airstrike open-season over Quetta would be the apotheosis of stupid. It would cause public opinion in Pakistan regarding the U.S. to metastasize further while increasing sympathy for the Taliban and al-Qaida. The Pakistani civilian government, already pushed by public outrage into publicly distancing themselves from the drone policy and assuring their populace that it would end soon, would look impotent and consent to their governance could become brittle. In short, we’d succeed in taking on the role we’ve attributed to the Taliban–the destabilizer of a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

In addition to lighting the fuse on the instability mentioned above, there’s the moral repugnance of firing ordinance into such a densely populated area. From a March NYT story on the same topic:

Missile strikes or American commando raids in the city of Quetta or the teeming Afghan settlements and refugee camps around the city and near the Afghan border would carry high risks of civilian casualties, American officials acknowledge.

Drone operators executing strikes in Pakistan tend to rely on spotters on the ground placing infrared beacons near suspected Taliban targets. (Otherwise, the drone operators are firing on people that appear to be moving dots on the ground, indistinguishable from non-combatants.) Those beacons are often placed by paid informants who have financial incentives to place as many of them as possible, meaning there’s no guarantee the missiles will hit actual Taliban. Thus, the drone strikes have killed massive numbers of civilians and relatively few suspected Taliban or other combatants. But, even if you’re fine with the potential for non-combatant deaths, you still need some functional intel coming in to guide the strikes if the purpose is to kill Mullah Omar and/or Bin Laden.

The Telegraph’s story seems to make clear that we either lack actionable intelligence, or we lack confidence that the Pakistanis wouldn’t tip off the targets and allow them to escape:

Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, said the US had so far been unable to provide detailed intelligence to target the Quetta Shura. He said: “We need real-time intelligence. The Americans have never told us any location.”

The lack of trust and/or usable intelligence leads the U.S. to consider even worse ideas, like sending U.S. commandos into Quetta:

Western intelligence officers say Pakistan has been moving Taliban leaders to the volatile city of Karachi, where it would be impossible to strike. US officials have even discussed sending commandos to Quetta to capture or kill the Taliban chiefs before they are moved.

As Joshua Foust noted back in 2008, if we take this belligerent stance of, “Do it or by God we’ll do it,” and then we follow through with boots on the ground or missiles from the air without the authorization of the Pakistani government, it’d be tantamount to a declaration of war on Pakistan.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting

The Pentagon expects to receive General McChrystal’s troop request by the end of the week (remember, you heard it here first). If we accept Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell’s remarks during today’s press briefing, Defense Secretary Gates will pocket the document until the Obama Administration completes its strategic review. But, Morrell is clearly working to prevent the document from becoming a “moment of truth” for the secretary and the president, and I would be very surprised if a strategy assessment took place without a cost/benefit analysis. After all, a discussion on strategy not constrained by resource considerations would produce strategies as useful as a retirement plan that included “win the lottery” as a necessary step.

Looking for evaluative tools for the upcoming troop request, I flipped through my copy of The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene and came across this passage:

…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.

Greene writes these words interpreting the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. They apply equally well to the situation in which the United States finds itself in the same country.

Let’s review how we got here. (Finger-pointing, unless you were one of the brave few who were against a military response to 9/11, is useless. We got here together.) President Bush (backed by almost all of us) acted on our emotions following the attacks without planning all the way to the end. Then, he launched the Iraq war without adequately thinking through the consequences for the endeavor in Afghanistan. While President Obama correctly assailed him for the Iraq blunder (such a small, inadequate word for that crime), he and the Democrats managed a neat trick of being anti-Iraq-war hawks by promising a chest-thumping charge into Afghanistan to “finish the job.” Obama and his allies also failed to plan all the way to the end, to account for things like lost time, sputtering public enthusiasm for another presidential term lost in fever dreams of war and the awful human cost of the tough-guy promises to hit terrorists in Pakistan with drone strikes.

But, damning the torpedoes, we went full speed ahead, and in the period during which President Obama escalated drone strikes over Pakistan, ordered and escalation and then sent the new troops on a push into Helmand, the insurgent influence in Afghanistan went from this:

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Nov. 2008

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Nov. 2008

to this:

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Sept. 2009

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Sept. 2009

The number of insurgent attacks has also followed a steady upward trend since the U.S. invasion.

Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan Jan 06 - Jun 09

Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan Jan 06 - Jun 09

There’s little doubt that we’re in the morass against which Greene warns in the quote above.  It should be useful, then, to examine Greene’s “two rational solutions” to the problem: the violent, crushing blow that ends the conflict quickly, or the rapid exit to prevent a worse catastrophe.

The prospects for success of a quick, violent blow are dim.  The hardened core of the Taliban is the Quetta Shura Taliban. It’s called the Quetta Shura Taliban because it’s based in Quetta, capital of Balochistan in Pakistan. That’s where we suspect Mullah Omar and possibly Osama bin Laden hide from U.S. forces. It’s also a major city of 750,000+ people, almost all of them non-combatants. Thus, our ability to strike the “violent blow” that could end the al-Qaida/Taliban threat (assuming we’re not willing to drop 600,000+ troops into Afghanistan tomorrow to suddenly begin a textbook counterinsurgency) would depend on our willingness to repeat the carnage of Fallujah 2004 in a city roughly twice its size. This move would ignite Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it would put their nuclear arsenal on the game board in the scramble.

In other words, no sudden, violent blow, absent pristine intelligence revealing the precise, time-stamped location of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, can end this conflict quickly without entailing costs we cannot bear.

That leaves us with option 2: cut your losses and quit without delay. So why do we remain?

First, the strategic complications of the situation boggle the mind. However, the strategic implications of the region have been on our radar for years, but cooler heads without the burden of the 9/11 trauma kept the U.S. out of a heavy military operation in Afghanistan even at the height of the Afghan civil war, and I can imagine that a desire to avoid precisely this predicament played a role in those decisions. But while I do not doubt that the strategic monstrosity of Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan/Kashmir/India deeply concerns the president, I can also imagine that what really keeps him and his advisers up at night are fears of a possible crisis that would fall most heavily on the civilian population of Afghanistan following a U.S. withdrawal. The human, economic and political costs of our military operation are so high that, absent this humanitarian concern, I doubt we’d still be discussing whether to add or subtract troops. We’d be on our way home.

Regular readers of my blog know that I am a Christian whose understanding of Jesus’ teachings prevent me from supporting the use of violence in any circumstances. The far more (nominally) prevalent formulation among fellow Christians, obviously, is my faith’s adaptation of just war criteria. One of the main architects of Christian just war theory, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and tutor to Augustine, articulated the viewpoint that helped drive just war criteria into Christian thought, and it’s exactly this sentiment that keeps well-meaning people of all faiths and of no faith tethered to the moral “necessity” of a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan:

He who does not keep harm off a friend, if he can, is as much in fault as he who causes it.

This is the sentiment that bridges the gap between the Sermon on the Mount and the Christian acceptance of war. And, as much as I disagree with it (note the deftness with which it queues noble sympathy for a friend while avoiding the truly revolutionary call of Jesus to love one’s enemies and to not violently resist an evil person), I understand it. However, the middle clause of the sentence is one of the most important pieces of guidance for the just war adherent: “if he can.” Courage is not the only issue, nor is sentiment: likelihood of success is crucial. That’s why the Catechism of the Catholic Church includes in its explanation of just war this explicit restriction on military actions with poor prospects for success:

1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

3. there must be serious prospects of success;

4. the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition” [CCC 2309].

Desire to keep harm off a friend is insufficient to excuse your use of violence to save him. To be morally permissible, in this view, your violence must have a serious prospect of succeeding. Otherwise one simply adds to the level of violence and suffering already present.

The U.S. lacks a credible, legitimate partner in our attempt to use counterinsurgency strategy as a means of counterterrorism, and in COIN operations you live and die by the legitimacy of the host nation government. The COIN manual goes so far as to call host nation government legitimacy the “north star.” Steadily rising attacks and maps of spreading insurgency are all symptoms of our lack of this fundamental prerequisite for the success of our chosen strategy. In addition, every single troop increase has been followed in the next year by an increased civilian casualty rate and a persistently increasing level of insurgent violence. Insurgents now have a significant presence in more than 90 percent of the country. Finally, evidence shows that even our humanitarian aid funneled through the military fuels violence in Afghanistan. We lack “serious” prospects for success; it is stretching to even say we have “credible” prospects for success. As such, our use of violence in pursuit of even humanitarian objectives only adds to the butcher’s bill in Afghanistan, and we can no longer be excused by our good intentions.

And don’t think for a second that “fewer troops, more drones” is an answer in Afghanistan. Drones have an indiscriminate track record already in Pakistan, and their expansion in Afghanistan would violate any formulation of just war ethics, causing a massive increase in death and suffering caused by U.S. forces. If one accepts the proposition that our purpose in Afghanistan is primarily to reduce the threat of terrorism against the United States, one should carefully consider the following from P.W. Singer’s excellent book on military robotics, Wired for War:

[Mubashar Jawed “M.J.” Akbar concludes] that another unintentional effect must be watched out for. The greater use of unmanned systems, the more likely it will motivate terrorist strikes at America’s homeland. “It will be seen as a sign of American unwillingness to face death. Therefore, new ways to hit America will have to be devised…”(p. 312-313)

Singer also quotes Nir Rosen, who expects:

that the continuing trend will “encourage terrorism,” maybe especially among those not fighting that way now. As he explains…not every fighter is an al-Qaeda terrorist intent on attacking the United States. “the insurgents are defending their area and focusing on troops they see as occupiers. But if they can’t kill soldiers on the battlefield, they will have to do it somewhere else” He predicts that the more we take American soldiers off the battlefields [through robotics], the more it will “drive them to hit back home.” (p. 313)

None of the credible violent options in Afghanistan offer real chances for rolling back the insurgent reaction to our presence and to the corruption of the central government, nor do these options hold the potential for reducing terrorism against the United States. Because we lack a serious prospect for success via military force, we cannot justify its continued use. We should therefore make the only justifiable strategic and moral decision by grounding the drones and bringing our troops home, seeking instead humanitarian, political and diplomatic means to alleviate the inevitable suffering caused in part by our bad gamble in Afghanistan.


Embedded in General Stanley McChrystal’s classified assessment of the war in Afghanistan is his conclusion that a successful counterinsurgency strategy will require 500,000 troops over five years.

Any takers?