Posts Tagged ‘escalation’

The Pentagon wants you to ignore some inconvenient facts about the failure of the escalation strategy in Afghanistan.

The latest Petraeus/Gates media tour is under way in preparation for the general’s testimony to Congress next week, and they’re trotting out the same, tired spin they’ve been using since McChrystal was replaced in disgrace last year. Despite the most violent year of the war so far, despite the highest civilian and military toll of the war so far, and despite the continued growth of the insurgency, they want you to believe that we’re “making progress.” While they spend this week fudging and shading and spinning, we’ll waste another $2 billion on this brutal, futile war, and we won’t be any closer to “victory” than we are today.

Let me make a couple of predictions about Petraeus’ testimony based on experience. He will attempt to narrow the conversation to a few showcase districts in Afghanistan, use a lot of aspirational language (“What we’re attempting to do,” instead of, “What we’ve done“) and assure the hand-wringers among the congressional hawks that he’ll be happy to suggest to the president that they stay longer in Afghanistan if that’s what he thinks is best. Most importantly, he will try to keep the conversation as far away from a high-level strategic assessment based on his own counterinsurgency doctrine as possible, because if Congress bothers to check his assertions of “progress” against what he wrote in the counterinsurgency manual, he’s in for a world of hurt.

Here’s what Petraeus’ own U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual says about the main goal of a COIN campaign:

“I-113. The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.”

Not by any stretch of the imagination is the counterinsurgency campaign under Petraeus’ direction serving what his own field manual says is the primary goal of his campaign. If we were looking for a legitimate government in Afghanistan, it’s crystal clear that we backed the wrong horse. Hamid Karzai and his family are neck-deep in any number of corruption scandals, the most glaring of which involves the largest private bank in Afghanistan and a sweeping control fraud scheme that has already resulted in unrest across the country. (That scandal, by the way, is likely to result in a U.S.-taxpayer-funded bank bailout for Kabulbank, according to white-collar crime expert Bill Black.) The Karzai administration is an embarrassment of illegitimacy and cronyism, and the local tentacles of the Kabul cartel are as likely to inspire people to join the insurgency as they are to win over popular support.

Even if the Karzai regime where a glimmering example of the rule of law, the military campaign under Petraeus would be utterly failing to achieve what counterinsurgency doctrine holds up as the primary way in which a legitimate government wins over support from the people: securing the population. From the COIN manual:

“5-68. Progress in building support for the HN [“host nation”] government requires protecting the local populace. People who do not believe they are secure from insurgent intimidation, coercion, and reprisals will not risk overtly supporting COIN efforts.”

The United Nations reports that 2010 was the deadliest year of the war for civilians of the decade-long war, and targeted killings of Kabul government officials are at an all-time high. Petraeus often seeks to deflect this point by citing insurgent responsibility for the vast majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but that is largely beside the point. As his own field manual makes clear, reducing the number of civilians killed by your forces is insufficient according to COIN doctrine. If you can’t protect the population (or the officials within the host nation government!) from insurgent violence and intimidation, you can’t win a counterinsurgency.

Petraeus and Gates like to talk around this blatant break in his own strategic doctrine by narrowing the conversation to what they call “security bubbles.” In his recent remarks following his trip to Afghanistan, Gates spoke of “linking zones of security in Helmand to Kandahar.” But those two provinces have seen huge spikes in violence over the course of the past year, with attacks initiated by insurgents up 124 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Today’s New York Times explains one of the main reasons for these jumps in violence as U.S. troops arrive in new areas:

“[G]enerals have designated scores of rural areas ‘key terrain districts.’ The soldiers are creating, at cost of money and blood, pockets of security.

“But when Americans arrive in a new area, attacks and improvised bombs typically follow — making roads and trails more dangerous for the civilians whom, under current Pentagon counterinsurgency doctrine, the soldiers have arrived to protect.”

The military escalations in Afghanistan have failed their key purpose under counterinsurgency doctrine, which is to secure Afghans from insurgent violence and intimidation.

While the U.S. government is failing to achieve its military objectives in Afghanistan, it’s also failing to make good on the other components of counterinsurgency strategy, especially the civilian/political component. Here’s what The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual says on p. xxix, emphasis mine:

“Nonmilitary Capacity Is the Exit Strategy

“The [counterinsurgency] manual highlights military dependence not simply upon civilian political direction at all levels of operation, but also upon civilian capabilities in the field. ...[T]he primacy of the political requires significant and ongoing civilian involvement at virtually every level of operations.”

To meet this prerequisite for a successful counterinsurgency strategy, the administration promised a “civilian surge” to accompany the military escalation. But the March 8, 2011 edition of The Washington Post shows that the civilian surge has so far been a flop that’s alienating the local population:

“Efforts to improve local government in critical Afghan districts have fallen far behind schedule…according to U.S. and Afghan officials familiar with the program.

“It is now expected to take four more years to assess the needs of more than 80 ‘key terrain’ districts where the bulk of the population lives, based on figures from Afghan officials who said that escalating violence has made it difficult to recruit civil servants to work in the field.

“…Of the 1,100 U.S. civilian officials in Afghanistan, two-thirds are stationed in Kabul, according to the State Department.

“‘At best, our Kabul-based experts simply reinforce the sense of big government coming from Kabul that ultimately alienates populations and leaders in the provinces,’ a former U.S. official said.”

As with the military side of the equation, the civilian side of the strategy is so badly broken that it’s actually pushing us further away from the administration’s stated goals in Afghanistan.

The costs of this pile of failure are huge. It costs us $1 million per troop, per year to maintain our occupation of Afghanistan. That’s $2 billion every week. Politicians at the federal level are contemplating ugly cuts to social safety nets, while politicians at the state level are already shredding programs that protect people suffering in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In this context, the admonitions from the White House and the Pentagon to be patient while this misbegotten strategy limps along the progress-road-to-nowhere seem perverse. The American people have been patient for roughly a decade now, but that patience has run out.

Petraeus and Gates want to you to ignore the ugly truths of the Afghanistan War: it’s not making us safer, and it’s not worth the costs. The escalation strategy isn’t working. It’s not going to work. Enough is enough. End it now.

If you’re fed up with this war that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the costs, join a local Rethink the Afghanistan War Meetup and follow Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter.

Exactly one year ago, on February 13, 2010, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan launched the first major military operations enabled by President Obama’s 30,000 troop increase. President Obama and the high priests of counterinsurgency warfare, Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, made two major assertions about the escalation, that it would a) enable coalition forces to reverse the insurgents’ momentum and b) increase security for the Afghan people. After a year of fighting, neither of those things happened. The escalation is a failure, and it’s time to bring our troops home.

February 13, 2010: The Push into Marjah

Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, U.S. and other international forces began Operation Moshtarak, the invasion of Marja District in Helmand Province. Looking back, the hubris and hype surrounding this military operation boggle the mind. General McChrystal promised, “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” meaning that good governance and the extension of Kabul’s writ would be implemented very rapidly. The operation was supposed to be a prototype for future campaigns in Afghanistan and a “confidence builder” for both U.S. forces and a restive political class in Washington, D.C., not all of whom were happy about the escalation or McChrystal’s brashness in pushing it.

To put it mildly, Moshtarak failed to live up to the hype:

“[I]n the weeks leading up to the imminent offensive to take the Helmand River Valley town of Marjah in southern Afghanistan, the Marines’ commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, sat with dozens of Afghan tribal elders…offering reassurances that his top priority will be the safety of Afghan civilians.”Chicago Tribune, February 10, 2010.

Almost immediately, this hype about an operation purported to be proof-of-concept for the population-protecting counterinsurgency strategy fell apart in the face of U.S.-caused civilian deaths.  Just prior to the operation, coalition forces dropped leaflets on the largely illiterate district warning people to stay in their homes. An Italian NGO, Emergeny, warned that military blockades were preventing civilians from fleeing the area.  At the same time commanders bragged that the “evacuation” of the residents would allow the use of air strikes without the danger of civilian casualties. These contradictions soon bore deadly fruit: On the second day of the offensive, U.S. troops fired a HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) weapon on a house full of civilians, killing roughly a dozen people. By February 23, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that ISAF forces were responsible for most civilian deaths so far in the incursion.

As insurgents melted away (as all guerrillas do in the face of superior firepower–to bide time and return once counter-insurgents are dug in) the “government in a box” hype fell apart as well. The coalition’s hand-picked governor, Abdul Zahir, turned out to be an ex-convict who served part of a prison sentence for stabbing his own son. By July, he would be replaced as part of a “reform procedure.”

Sending Afghan National Police forces to establish rule of law proved to be a cruel joke on the local residents:

“In the weeks since they were sent to Helmand province as part of the U.S.-led offensive in Marjah, ANCOP members have set up checkpoints to shake down residents, been kicked out for using drugs and shunned in some areas as outsiders, according to U.S. officials briefed on a recent analysis by the RAND Corp. …More than a quarter of the officers in one ANCOP battalion in Helmand were dismissed for drug use, and the rest were sent off for urgent retraining. One Western official who attended the briefing termed ANCOP’s role in Marjah a disaster.”

As late as October 2010, residents of the town said the area was “more insecure than ever,” and Reuters classified the Taliban re-infiltration as a “full-blown insurgency.” And, although U.S. commanders want us to believe that the fighting in Marjah is “essentially over” as of December, the numbers tell a different story. According to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, in Helmand Province, in which Marjah is located, the number of attacks by insurgents in spiked from 620 in 2009 to 1387 in 2010, a 124-percent increase (.pdf).
A Wider Pattern of Failure

This pattern of hype (“Protecting civilians! Reversing insurgents momentum!”) followed by a failure to deliver extended from Marjah to the whole of the escalation strategy across Afghanistan. Even after a month of fighting in Marjah in which U.S. and coalition forces were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths, Defense Secretary Robert Gates characterized the offensive in this way on March 8, 2010:

“Of course the operation in Marjah is only one of many battles to come in a much longer campaign focused on protecting the people of Afghanistan.”

As was the case in Marjah, that broader campaign has utterly failed to protect the people of Afghanistan in terms of the reach of the insurgency, the levels of war-related violence and the number of civilians killed or injured in the conflict.

Although President Obama, General Petraeus and others have repeatedly asserted in public remarks that the U.S. has reversed the insurgents’ momentum, reports from the Pentagon and from NGOs agree that the insurgency continued to grow in size and sophistication throughout 2010. By one measure, insurgent-initiated attacks this January are up almost 80 percent versus last January. Worse, a new report from Alex Strick von Linschoten and Felix Kuehn at the Center on International Cooperation warns that the U.S. targeted killings of senior Taliban leadership is not only failing to retard the growth of the insurgency, but it’s providing opportunities for much more radical junior leaders to take control of the operation, making the Taliban more susceptible to al-Qaeda influence and making the insurgents less willing to negotiate. In short, over the year in which the U.S. was pursuing its escalated military strategy, the insurgency got larger, smarter and more radical.

When testifying to Congress immediately following President Obama’s 2009 West Point speech, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen asserted the escalation would “improve security for the Afghan people.” The past year proved him wrong. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office’s (ANSO) Q4 2010 report (.pdf),

“Consistent with the five year trend…attacks by armed opposition groups continue to rise. This year they were 64% higher than 2009, the highest inter‐annual growth rate we have recorded… If averaged, the total of 12,244 armed operations (mostly small arms ambushes, below right) represents roughly 33 attacks per day, every single day of the year. …[T]aking the national data as a whole we consider this indisputable evidence that conditions are deteriorating.”

General Petraeus has taken to speaking of “security bubbles” in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, but violence is up in those provinces by 20 percent and 124 percent, respectively, according to ANSO. Security in Afghanistan for Afghan civilians sharply declined in the period following the launch of the escalated military campaign.

This heightened level of insurgent-initiated violence, combined with attacks initiated by U.S. and coalition forces, led to a predictable result: 2010 was the worst year of the war so far for war-related civilian deaths.

President Obama and numerous Pentagon officials asserted that the escalation strategy, which began one year ago with the invasion of Majah, would enable U.S. forces to reverse insurgent momentum and protect the population. They were wrong. Measured by the standards of its backers, the escalation strategy in Afghanistan is a miserable failure.

Because It’s Time

Let’s have some accountability here. In the leaked strategic assesment that’s largely responsible for getting us into this mess, General Stanley McChrystal used dire language to describe the “need” for escalation (.pdf):

“The long-term fight will require patience and commitment, but I believe the short-term fight will be decisive. Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

McChrystal wrote those words in late August 2009, under Petraeus’ supervision. The insurgency’s momentum has not been reversed and security continues to deteriorate across Afghanistan. So let’s take the generals at their word when they say we had to reverse insurgent momentum by late August 2010 to have a chance at defeating the insurgency. Let’s also take the Pentagon at its word that insurgent “operation capability and geographic reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding.” That means that today, on the one-year anniversary of the launch of the escalated military campaign, we’re several months past the point of no return. And that’s if you bought the analysis of those who thought the escalation was a good idea in the first place.

The American people have been more than patient with Washington, D.C. when it comes to the Afghanistan War. In fact, we’ve been downright indulgent, having forked over more than $375 billion in tax dollars and debt and having given the Pentagon almost a decade now to play Risk with other people’s lives in other people’s country. Every deadline that’s been laid down has been fudged. Every justification that’s been given for just one more big push has fallen apart. Every guarantee of a positive outcome has been junked. We’ve had enough.

Rethink Afghanistan and our supporters are tired of politicans’ making excuses for their failure to rein in this debacle, so we’re doing a little escalating of our own. Starting on Sunday, February 13, Rethink Afghanistan will have a new ad on CNN in Washington, D.C., featuring the winners of our Because It’s Time contest, calling for an end to the Afghanistan War. They represent the voices of the 72 percent of Americans who support congressional action to speed up the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The ad buy also coincides with the upcoming reintroduction of U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee’s Responsible End to the War in Afghanistan Act in the House of Representatives. These actions send a strong message that we want decisive action from our elected officials to bring our troops home–because it’s time.

Today is the one-year anniversary of the launch of the escalated military strategy in Afghanistan. It’s clear from the last 12 months that the escalation strategy is a failure. It’s time to come home.

If you’re tired of this war that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the cost, join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter.

The press is getting it wrong regarding the president’s announcement of the newest of his escalations in Afghanistan, which said:

I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home…Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.

The headline for The New York Times’ article on the speech reads “Obama Adds Troops, but Maps Exit Plan.”

Keep in mind, this president told you back in March 2009, after he decided to send the first big troop increase to Afghanistan, that:

We now have resourced, properly, this strategy. It’s not going to be an open-ended commitment of infinite resources…Just because we needed to ramp up from the greatly under-resourced levels that we had, doesn’t automatically mean that if this strategy doesn’t work that what’s needed is even more troops.

The way out of Afghanistan for the U.S. begins by refusing to add more troops. Despite any number of headlines to the contrary, this is not an exit strategy nor a withdrawal timeline. It is, at best, an intention, and one which is undermined by adding 30,000 troops. Here’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a hearing today:

After several back-and-forth exchanges, Gates concedes that there will be a “thorough review” in December 2010 and that if the strategy is not working, “we will take a long look” at the July 2011 date. This seems an important concession, and McCain declares that is this is the case.

…Graham then bores in hard on the July, 2011 date. He asks if the president has locked himself into that date, and Gates and Mullen try hard to say that as commander in chief, Obama obviously retains all options to change his mind. But, Gates argues, the date Obama offered Tuesday night as the starting point for withdrawing troops is a “clear statement of strong intent.”

Gates only got to this point in the hearing after getting kicked around like a soccer ball between senators who got him to first say the withdrawal starting in 2011 would not be tied to conditions on the ground, and then got him to retract and revise that statement.

This is also, by the way, the same Defense Secretary who said he’d be “very skeptical of any additional force levels” back in January 2009.

If the president has an exit strategy, he didn’t tell you about it last night. He painted a picture of intentions after telling you he was sending 30,000 more troops to kill and die in Afghanistan. And you know what they say about the road to Hell.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. Say no to escalation in Afghanistan by signing our CREDO petition at For each signature, CREDO will donate a dollar to support Crowe’s work. You can also join Brave New Foundation’s #NoWar candlelight vigil on Facebook and Twitter to show your opposition to the war. But make these your first steps as an activist to end this war, not your last.

The President Announces Another Escalation

I’ll be liveblogging the President’s speech tonight at The Seminal. Hope you’ll stop in.

The orders have been given. All that’s left is to give the speech before a bunch of strapping young cadets and install the procurator Augusti. Thirty-six thousand more troopsThirty thousand more troops, $1 million a piece, per year. More IEDs in response. More bombs. More night searches. More economic damage. Hope. Change.

We’ve seen planes in the windows of buildings crumbled in
We’ve seen flames send the chills through London
And we’ve sent planes to kill them
But some of them were children
And still we crumbling the building
–Flobots, “Stand Up”

This evening, the Austin Peace and Justice Center organized a vigil to mourn the escalation outside of the offices of Senator John Cornyn. I decided to attend the vigil, even though I’d have to be late because of work. I drove down to 6th and Lavaca. I didn’t have a sign, but if they had candles, I’d gladly join in. No luck. When I drove past, I saw between a half-dozen and a dozen participants, some in costume, most with signs, but no candles. At most, I could stand there with them and hope not to be mistaken for a pedestrian waiting for a light. Maybe it was a cop-out, but I decided I could do more here at my kitchen table on my laptop to voice my opposition to the war than by standing without a sign on a street corner.

From Lavaca, I turned right on 7th to make my way to I-35, which would take me home. As I rounded the corner, a flock of black birds swooped and circled above. This is that strange time of the migratory birds in Austin, when thousands upon thousands of dark, screeching shapes fill the air, swarm the telephone poles, perch on the the power lines. I’ve never lived anywhere that was such a gathering place for this many birds in the fall. Tonight at dusk they were particularly agitated, diving and jerking in mad formations, the air thick with them. They thinned enough as I drove toward I-35 that I could pay more attention to my surroundings. That’s when I saw the intersection of 7th and Neches.

The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, ARCH, sits on that street corner. Tonight, the homeless were as thick as the birds, crowding all the way around the block. The sound of the crowd’s chatter temporarily blocked that of the birds as I drove by with my window cracked. Some talked, some shouted, some sang, all while they waited for help to get through a chilly, rainy night. One million dollars per troop, per year, I thought. Guns or butter.

Then, I thought, We’re all going to Hell for this. (more…)

Death Star II

"After this we'll clone some troops to fill the gap for an escalation in Afghanistan."

The last few hours have been a flurry of news reports on the President’s supposed decision on troop levels for Afghanistan. First, CBS News reported that the president planned to send roughly 40,000 troops to Afghanistan for about four years.  Then, CNN reported that the White House angrily denied CBS News’ assertions, with two unnamed “senior administration officials” accusing Pentagon sources of leaking the story to set expectations and box the president into executing what’s essentially McChrystal’s preferred plan. Now, ABC News reports that, while the president has apparently not made a final decision, all five of the options now on the table would send more troops to Afghanistan.

There are a few explanations for the mixed signals. The first could be that some staff flunkie at the Pentagon wanted to impress a reporter and phoned in a tip before they knew what they were talking about, prompting an angry response from a White House still settling on options, all of which involve more troops. The second is slightly more sinister: elements in the Pentagon could be attempting to force the president’s hand, which would be a very subversive move and an assault on civilian control of the military. The third explanation is even darker: that the administration is more unified than it appears, and that it’s using leaks about high-end troop level estimates to desensitize the public and position the president’s inevitable, smaller troop increase as the more reasonable option. None of these explanations provide much comfort.

The simple truth is that even if one grants all the administration’s other assumptions about war and international politics (which I certainly do not), the troops are just not available for anything remotely approaching McChrystal’s preferred way forward, and certainly not within the critical period mentioned by his strategy paper. Spencer Ackerman:

The thing is, can we actually get 34,000 new troops into Afghanistan before summer of 2010? Remember that in the McChrystal strategy review, completed in late August, the commanding general talks about a window of about 12-18 month wherein he’ll know if he can arrest Taliban momentum. (That’s different, notice, than rolling back Taliban gains.)

Ackerman points to Politics Daily, which notes:

Maintaining one brigade combat team in the field requires two others on standby. So, for every unit in combat, planners keep a second one in training and a third one in “reset” after a long combat deployment – time when the Army can send its soldiers off for advanced schooling, absorb new replacements, receive new gear. Thus, a total of three BCTs are tied up.

Just to maintain the 16 current brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan is, let’s see, three times 16 is 48 and – oops! We’re already out of BCTs! And here’s the White House blithely batting around numbers like 40,000 more troops. That’s roughly eight BCTs, which do not exist.

Storm Troopers on Tatooine

"So this guy pulls me straight out of the cloning vats and says, 'Congratulations, we're sending you to Afghanistan!' Guess what my first word was!"

One of the only ways available to provide the levels of troops needed for anything remotely approaching a McChrystal plan would be to shorten dwell time at home for troops. That would be, in short, a mental health disaster. As PD notes,

Tragically, and despite an all-out prevention effort, the Army is experiencing another record-setting year for suicides. From January through September this year there were 117 reported suicides among active duty soldiers, up from 108 reported during the same period in 2008.

This is why, as Robert Naiman notes, the Joint Chiefs are begging the president not to do anything to shorten dwell times at home. Shorter dwell times means more mental health problems, period. The fact that troops “volunteered” (which is a rather flexible term in many situations) does not give the government the right to use them up until they break their brains. See how long your beloved “all-volunteer force” lasts when future recruits see that you’re shoving them into overseas hell holes over and over with shorter recovery periods between nightmares. At some point basic human dignity demands we end this farce.

I have to admit a certain level of exhaustion as a member of the anti-war movement focused on Afghanistan, especially when the debate moves into a place where our opponents start sputtering, “Well what’s your alternative?!” as if the options they push are reasonable and moored to the real resources available. The simple fact is that a person pushing for anything resembling a McChrystal strategy either a) has no clue as to the manpower restraints on the U.S. military or b) doesn’t give a damn about the mental health of the people they want to throw into combat. In fact, they don’t even understand fully McChrystal’s reasoning because key sections of his report were redacted for public consumption. A person asking me what my alternative is to troop increases in Afghanistan might as well be asking what my alternative is to firing the Death Star at Kandahar.

I don’t have to know how to construct a working safety belt to demand the recall of a car with a defective safety belt. I don’t have to know how to fashion a health reform bill to know that the health care system is broken and to demand that my elected representatives do something other than endorse the status quo. And I sure don’t have to be able to plot out the detailed exit strategy for our forces in Afghanistan to be able to say with integrity that we shouldn’t have our military tramping around someone else’s country killing people.

What I do know is this: every single person I’ve heard the president cite as a moral and philosophical guiding light, from Jesus of Nazareth, to Gandhi, to Martin Luther King, Jr., to Cesar Chavez, to Reinhold Niebuhr, would reject the idea that the U.S. should be dropping bombs on people in Afghanistan in the pursuit of U.S. national security. Every single one. The president probably knows this too, and only the most cynical politician would continue to drop these names at campaign stops and press conferences while ordering more and more troops to fight and die and kill in Asia.

That’s enough now, Mr. President. Stop this war.

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

During his confirmation hearing, General McChrystal said:

American success in Afghanistan should be measured by “the number of Afghans shielded from violence,” not the number of enemy fighters killed, he said.

McChrystal is now running around demanding more troops for Afghanistan so he can increase “the number of Afghans shielded from violence.”

Yeah, about that:

U.S. troop levels by month compared with the number of civilians killed in each two-month period so far in 2009.

U.S. troop levels by month compared with the number of civilians killed in each two-month period so far in 2009.

Check, please.

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

General McChrystal’s “new strategy” has been leaked to press in what looks to me like a continued effort to box in the President on troop increases. Here’s the core of the document:

The New Strategy: Focus on the Population

…To accomplish the mission and defeat the insurgency we also require a properly resourced strategy built on four main pillars:

  1. Improve effectiveness through greater partnering with ANSF.  We will increase the size and accelerate the growth of the ANSF, with a radically improved partnership at every level, to improve effectiveness and prepare them to take the lead in security operations.
  2. Prioritize responsive and accountable governance. We must assist in improving governance at all levels through both formal and traditional mechanisms.
  3. Gain the initiative. Our first imperative, in a series of operational stages, is to gain the initiative and reverse the insurgency’s momentum.
  4. Focus resources. We will prioritize available resources to those critical areas where vulnerable populations are most threatened.

The first two pillars seem to have been written while someone was smoking hashish. Let’s take them one at a time. First:

1. Improve effectiveness through greater partnering with ANSF. We will increase the size and accelerate the growth of the ANSF, with a radically improved partnership at every level, to improve effectiveness and prepare them to take the lead in security operations.

While this pillar may look like it’s following the guidance of the COIN manual, when we consider the Afghans’ inability to sustain such a force, it clearly ignores many of the manual’s warnings.Here’s a sample:

Make only commitments that can be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. (p. 172) Establishing activities that the HN government is unable to sustain may be counterproductive. (p. 170)…[Host nation] security forces should…[b]e sustainable by the host nation after U.S. and multinational forces depart. (p. 208)

As has been pointed out many times, even the current ANSF force levels cannot be sustained by the Afghan economy. From a January 2009 CRS report (p. 71):

Senior Afghan and international officials estimate that it will cost approximately $3.5 billion per year to increase ANSF force structure, and then $2.2 billion per year to sustain it. …GIRoA, which contributed $320 million to the ANSF in 2008, is not a realistic source of ANSF funding in the near term.

In addition to the warnings about sustainability, the COIN manual also warns against trying to recreate the ANSF in our own image:

Avoid mirror-imaging (trying to make the host-nation forces look like the U.S. military). That solution fits few cultures or situations. (p. 168)

Once again, the counterinsurgency we have in Afghanistan throws out the doctrine’s manual.

If we left Afghanistan tomorrow, lock stock and barrel…the ANA and ANP would completely evaporate as functioning institutions in much of the country, probably in a matter of days if not hours. They are still very much artificial constructs that we’ve imposed on the country, and wholly dependent on our technology for their survival so long as they continue to use the tactics we’ve taught them….

We’ve taught them to fight the way we do. They’re not as good at it as we are, of course, in part because of issues like illiteracy. We’ve suppressed any way of fighting we cannot support and participate in fully, because to do so could, frankly, end up with more dead Afghan soldiers due to friendly fire and deconfliction problems than dead enemy. And so here we are. What wouldn’t seem to be a profitable strategy right now, in that light, is accelerating the expansion of the ANA even further, which some are advocating.

Ann Jones wrote a great article detailing our mirror-imaging over at TomDispatch:

Their American trainers spoke of “upper body strength deficiency” and prescribed pushups because their [ANSF] trainees buckle under the backpacks filled with 50 pounds of equipment and ammo they are expected to carry. All this material must seem absurd to men whose fathers and brothers, wearing only the old cotton shirts and baggy pants of everyday life and carrying battered Russian Kalashnikov rifles, defeated the Red Army two decades ago. American trainers marvel that, freed from heavy equipment and uniforms, Afghan soldiers can run through the mountains all day — as the Taliban guerrillas in fact do with great effect — but the U.S. military is determined to train them for another style of war.

In other words, we’re training them to be like us, COIN manual guidelines be damned.

Conformity to the COIN manual should not be conflated with good policy, but when a commander justifies the investment of blood and resources because of the supposed absolute necessity of implementing a given strategy, his failure to conform to the guidelines of that strategy should be a warning that we wander in the wilderness. We’re being asked to invest heavily for the foreseeable future in a program that will not deliver a self-sufficient, effective ANSF. Why should we be expected to do so when the official rationale–counterinsurgency doctrine–warns us against taking this path?


2. Prioritize responsive and accountable governance. We must assist in improving governance at all levels through both formal and traditional mechanisms.

On which planet is the good general living? I’ve never seen a person whose allegedly been in charge of assassination squads play Pollyanna. His own document does a pretty good job illustrating how unrealistic his second pillar is:

The second threat, of a very different kind, is the crisis of popular confidence that springs from the weakness of GIRoA institutions, the unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and power-brokers, a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement and a longstanding lack of economic opportunity.

…There are no clear lines separating insurgent groups, criminal networds (including the narcotics networks), and corrupt GIRoA officials. Malign actors within GIRoA support insurgent groups directly, support criminal networks that are linked to insurgents, and support corruption that helps feed the insurgency.

These GoIRA qualities are bad enough, but the above doesn’t even touch on the potentially explosive political dynamic set up by Karzai’s massive and transparent attempt to steal the election, nor the vows of Abdullah followers to take to the streets “with Kalashnikovs” (you know, the one’s they’ve apparently been stockpiling for a while now) should Karzai declare victory. Afghanistan ranks 176th out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perception Index. How exactly does McChrystal, as someone outside of the Afghan government and without authority to excise corrupt cadres from the GoIRA, expect to adequately take this off the table as a strategic factor within the 12-month window he’s established in which major progress must be made?

I could go on and on about the internal contradictions of this document (for example, how does Stan the Man plan to “decentralize” and “Improve Unity of Effort and Command?”), but the simple fact is that you don’t have to go past pillars 1 and 2 to realize that this isn’t a credible strategy. It’s a wish list of desired pre-existing conditions and a proposed action plan whose success is predicated on those desired pre-existing conditions. That makes it even more distasteful that the military would attempt to use this junk “strategy” to bully the president into sending more troops. For example:

But Obama’s deliberative pace — he has held only one meeting of his top national security advisers to discuss McChrystal’s report so far — is a source of growing consternation within the military. “Either accept the assessment or correct it, or let’s have a discussion,” one Pentagon official said. “Will you read it and tell us what you think?” Within the military, this official said, “there is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration.”

Add to that anonymous posturing, the leak of a conveniently redacted and declassified version of McChrystal’s memo and Mullen’s remarks to Congress, and you’ve got the rough outline of an information op being directed at the American people with the purpose of forcing the President’s hand.

If the president was looking for a signal that the situation had progressed to a stage in which the military could not offer a credible plan to deal with it, this is it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: ABC News/WAPO

Source: ABC News/WAPO

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for the fresh start.

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. officials and those in their orbit are now using the words “Vietnam” and “Afghanistan” in the same sentence.

Top U.S. officials have reached out to a leading Vietnam war scholar to discuss the similarities of that conflict 40 years ago with American involvement in Afghanistan, where the U.S. is seeking ways to isolate an elusive guerrilla force and win over a skeptical local population.

The overture to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Stanley Karnow, who opposes the Afghan war, comes as the U.S. is evaluating its strategy there.

When asked what could be drawn from the Vietnam experience, Karnow replied: “What did we learn from Vietnam? We learned that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Obama and everybody else seem to want to be in Afghanistan, but not I.”

Karnow’s quote reminds me of a recent quote from regional expert Rory Stewart in the Financial Times:

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says …’”

For the record, here’s some of Rory’s actual thoughts on Afghanistan and Pakistan:

Rory’s analogy in turn reminds me of a comment I made in an exchange with one of my frequent debate partners:

There’s not a magic wand nonviolent answer to this that has the result of some people not getting hurt, but that’s in large part because we’ve been put in this situation by people who refused to listen to the nonviolent in the first place. It’s kind of like asking people who tell you not to drink and drive what they’re solution is now that you’ve killed someone while driving drunk.

Speaking to the AP reporter, Richard Holbrooke displayed a talent for unintentional irony:

Holbrooke briefly commented on contrasts between the two conflicts, noting that the military regime in Saigon was corrupt and unpopular, while the international community seeks to build a democracy in Afghanistan.

Wait, what?

Kept afloat by billions of dollars in American and other foreign aid, the government of Afghanistan is shot through with corruption and graft. From the lowliest traffic policeman to the family of President Hamid Karzai himself, the state built on the ruins of the Taliban government seven years ago now often seems to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it.

From Rethink Afghanistan:

This is no small point. The counterinsurgency manual refers to a legitimate host nation government as the counterinsurgent’s “north star,” meaning it’s essential for victory. “Legitimate host government” joins “a 20-civilian : 1-troop ratio” among several non-existent, basic building blocks of a counterinsurgency strategy. Here’s Bernard Finel [h/t Steve Hynd]:

The COIN theorists would like the Afghan government to field a force of somewhere in the neighborhood of 400,000-600,000 disciplined troops, capable of using discriminant force and avoiding civilian casualties.  They’d like the Aghan government to eliminate corruption.  They’d like the central government to find a way to build loyalty from provincial governors and other local elites, to ensure an Afghan “whole of government” response.

Actually, it isn’t that the COIN theorists would “like” this.  They require it as a precondition for the viability of their strategy.

In other words, the Very Serious Consensus that counterinsurgency will save the day in Afghanistan is built on fairies, leprechauns and unicorns.

Elections are coming up. The political outcomes could be dire. For example, if Karzai wins, his main rival is a Tajik named Abdullah Abdullah whose supporters already promised “Iranian-style protests, but ‘with Kalashnikovs’, should the President win a second term.” And, not insignificantly, the U.S. will still be saddled with a weak leader of a corrupt government that Obama advisors have started comparing to South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Here’s a tip for policymakers: if you’re in a situation that’s requiring you to look to the American experience in VIetnam for guidance, you should start looking for the door.