Posts Tagged ‘McChrystal’

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.

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Rethink Afghanistan Year Ten video graphic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANSOgraph2010

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

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

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

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

Defense Secretary Gates wants to extricate himself and the president from the impending P.R. disaster shaping up around the flailing Kandahar operation set for this Summer Fall.

“I think it’s important to remember that Kandahar is not Afghanistan,” Gates said in comments that appeared to play down a U.S.-led operation for control of the area, known as the birthplace of the Taliban.

“Kandahar and Helmand are important but they are not the only provinces in Afghanistan that matter in terms of the outcome of this struggle,” he said.

From the Pentagon’s most recent Afghanistan report to Congress, here’s a chart showing how optional Kandahar and Helmand are for the success of the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy being pursued by U.S. and allied forces.

Kandahar and Helmand....meh.

Kandahar and Helmand....meh.

From p. 126 of the Report on Progress Towards Security and Stability in Afghanistan (April 2010), emphasis mine:

8.1:  ISAF Strategy

Under the ISAF concept of operations, the main effort is to conduct decisive clearing operations concentrated on the most threatened population in the southern part of the country to establish population security and implement measures that diminish insurgent influence over the people.  As described in Figure 23 – ISAF Concept of Operations, the main effort in RC-South, by province, is in Helmand and Kandahar, where efforts are focused on clearing districts most threatened by insurgents.

No reporter should let Secretary Gates, General McChrystal, or President Obama off the hook in the coming months regarding the make-or-break nature of the Kandahar operation for their (poorly) chosen COIN strategy in Afghanistan. As described in the report to Congress, Kandahar/Helmand is the main effort, and everything else is either a “shaping,” “supporting,” or “economy of force (read: leftovers)” operation. Kandahar/Helmand is the COIN strategy. If ISAF fails there, it fails, period.

Members of Congress considering funding the ongoing Kandahar/Helmand/escalation strategy should read these comments from Secretary Gates with alarm. He’s hedging and trying to set expectations because he knows the COIN effort is in serious, “bleeding ulcer” trouble. Congress should save us all a whole lot of trouble and vote against the $33 billion war spending supplemental under consideration. As Daniel Ellsberg says in the most recent Rethink Afghanistan video, this war can be infinitely prolonged, but “winning” through military force is a pipe dream that’s killing people.

UPDATE: ISAF and the Pentagon are now comically denying that they ever planned an “offensive” in Kandahar, emphasis mine:

The commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, insisted that there never was a planned offensive. “The media have chosen to use the term offensive,” he said. Instead, he said, “we have certainly talked about a military uplift, but there has been no military use of the term offensive.”

Sure, the media chose the word “offensive.” Specifically, the American Forces Press Service (in a story cross posted on the Pentagon website and the ISAF website!), quoting one Maj. Gen. Nick Carter:

The general stressed that the planning and execution of an offensive in Kandahar are Afghan-led initiatives directed by President Hamid Karzai. The provincial governor is reaching out to his city and district mayors to engage the population and build relationships with the population, he said.

Carter said he expects the offensive to begin in the “next month or two,” and that by Ramadan, which begins in August, security improvements will begin to be apparent. It will take some three months before a strong, credible government is formed in Marja, he said, leading him to believe that it could take just as long, if not longer, to sway public support and perception in Kandahar.

For more use of the word “offensive” in posts on ISAF’s website, see here and here.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the Battle-God, great, and his Kingdom –
A field where a thousand corpses lie.

–Stephen Crane, Do not weep, maiden for war is kind.

According to The New York Times, 1,000 U.S. troops have now died in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

Here is this wide altar, Afghanistan, on which our empire leaves its tribute to the true god of all empires. One thousand of the young, blown apart by rough-made bombs buried on roads to nowhere, shot by snipers, or worse, by their own.  One thousand sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, neighbors, mentors, students, friends, husbands, wives, lovers. A thousand goats led into the wild to appease the spirit of the wilderness, the maker of weapons, sent to the desert for our impurities.

Often we elevate troops who die far up on a pedestal in our national mythology. I think this is a mistake. It obscures why people join the military, it obscures what we’ve lost, and it prevents us from thinking critically about the choices we make that lead to their deaths. When a thousand of our people go into the dark, we should ask what led them there, what they hoped to gain and what we hoped to gain from sending them.

In 2006, the Pentagon found that when asked their main motivation for enlisting, 61.9 percent cited a reason other than “service to country,” a figure that the RAND Corporation’s Beth Asch cautioned could actually be higher since new recruits often cast their decision in idealistic terms. While “service to country” was the main reason for the plurality of recruits, skills acquisition, adventure, money for education, benefits, travel and pay were the other top reasons, listed in descending order. We also know that when the economy is in the tank, military recruitment increases. (I note, though, that the reason for enlistment may not remain their motivation to continue in military service, and that membership in a community in danger and under pressure tends to radically alter one’s orientation toward the group. So, someone who joins for economic reasons may not remain in the service for that reason alone, or at all.)

To say that troops join the military for economic reasons is not to degrade them. Supporting a family is not a selfish cause. But that little detail – that Private Smith died in a dangerous job that she took to support a family – is fraught with human connection and tragedy, and we lose that if we over-idealize what led them to the battlefield. The same is true if they just joined the service to escape a mind-numbing routine, or to overcome a criminal record, or to cut ties with a past.

All this is to say that portraying our troops as selfless warrior monks of virtue fails to honor the truth about the lives that ended in Afghanistan. These men and women were generally not burning with a desire to suppress their hopes and dreams so that the rest of us could have our hopes and dreams. They had their own plans, their own purposes, their own desired futures for themselves toward which military service was a step, and very few of them included dying on a battlefield. Their lives had their own meaning independent of the lives and “freedom” of the survivors. Obscuring their desires in an over-bright halo also obscures the futures that we lost with them.

We did not lose sacrificial lambs, born to die on our behalf. We lost the doctors, the lawyers, teachers, pilots, writers, mechanics, all of the potential for achievement which many of them hoped to unlock through the skills and opportunities they hoped to gain from their time in the military. We lost fathers, mothers, bedtime stories and a comforting, rock-solid presence in the bleachers at their kid’s sporting events. We lost them spoiling their grandkids. We lost the entire life of the person they would have become and all the gifts they would have given the human race.

Putting these troops so high on the pedestal that they “died for you and me,” high enough where their sacrifice is just shy of a crucifixion, also conveniently obscures our role in killing them. We all know the rhetoric we can expect to hear as we whistle past this marker: “It’s up to us to make sure they didn’t die in vain.” Empty-headed exhortations to “support the troops.” Support, as in, “do not gainsay the purpose for which power-holders are willing to see them die.” Don’t say anything that would upset these troops on the way to the killing floor.

I’m reminded of the dialogue in Monster’s Ball, where Billy Bob Thornton harangues Heath Ledger for vomiting while escorting a prisoner to the gas chamber: “You f***ed up that man’s last walk! How would you like it if someone f***ed up your last walk?!” The condemned deserve a placid walk; don’t let on what’s really happening here.

Similarly, the support we’ll be urged to give today will be the kind that doesn’t disturb the walk of the 1,001st troop. But let’s be honest, here – those who will spout this kind of rhetoric are at least as concerned with our disturbing the consciences of those who set the policies for which the soldiers died (or those of their constituents). Any bets on whether these exhortations and these policies come from the same people? How convenient is the demand: silence for the sake of the victims protects those who sent them to die.

Now is not the time for silence. One thousand Americans are dead in Afghanistan in a war that’s not making us safer. One thousand people are dead, and many others are wounded and deranged, because we continue to choose military action as the solution to a political problem. Al-Qaida is long gone from the country. The arterial wealth of our nation is gushing out in trillion dollar spurts. All this is obscured behind the glow of the sacralized dead, a glow that, we are told, will vanish if we question the purpose of the ritual and the plans of those who ordered the sacrifice.

One thousand American troops are dead in Afghanistan.

Look past the false sacred glow with which the power-holders will try to cover the dead, and by association, their policies.

See the field where a thousand corpses lie.

Remember the real people who lie there, and remember the real people on their way to join them.

Defend them from the Battle-God.

End this war.

Last week, the military published an ironically titled “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan” that wrapped blunt admissions of strategic collapse in typical Pentagon happy talk. Short version: Violence is up 87 percent (p. 39), the insurgency has population sympathy/support in 92 of 121 key regions, and local support for International Security Assistance Force’s mission in the toilet (p. 38-39). Oh, and we’re killing more civilians, too. Oh, and Marja is crumbling under NATO’s feet. But worry not! Unnamed senior administration officials tell us, “We are on the cusp! Moving in the right direction!”

Anyone who bothered to read the report could see right through this silly bit of P.R. work. But senior administration officials and elected Democrats can’t be bothered with such petty details as mission failure. They have neocons and neolibs to sop and hippies to punch. Thank G-d for talking-point-laden CODELs!

Here’s TIME’s Joe Klein, quoting an unnamed senior administration official:

McChrystal’s optimism is based on information that he cannot share. …”The counterterrorism effort has broken the momentum that the Taliban built up over the past few years.”

Here’s U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Missouri), paraphrasing General McChrystal from his latest razzle-dazzle CODEL:

Speaking from Pakistan before returning home, Carnahan, D-St. Louis, said the United States is making progress but that tough challenges remain. He said Gen. Stanley McChrystal…told Carnahan and fellow members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the trip that the tide may be turning.

“He believes that they (the Taliban) had lost momentum and that we have an opportunity … but we’re not there yet,” Carnahan said.

Here’s U.S. Rep. Michael McMahon (D-New York):

McMahon said U.S. military leaders, including Gen. Stanley McChrystal…told him and other members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the “new counter-insurgency strategy is taking hold.”

“They are seeing progress,” said McMahon…and praised the “marriage of military and civilian support” forces.

McMahon plans to vote for that $33 billion supplemental war spending bill, by the way.

These Democrats would have better served constituents and taxpayers had they stayed home, read the reports that they mandated the military provide them, and applied their critical thinking skills rather than getting a Potemkin-village tour from the military. Instead, though, they opted for a little war tourism and spent a nice afternoon regurgitating the talking points given to them by the military over which they supposedly have oversight authority.

Recall that in December 2009, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn gave a presentation, The State of the Insurgency [h/t Wired’s Danger Room blog], that described insurgent momentum:

“Organizational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding”

Now see this assessment from the list of insurgent strengths from last week’s report:

The Afghan insurgency has a robust means of sustaining its operations…A ready supply of recruits is drawn from the frustrated population…Organizational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding. …Insurgents’ tactics, techniques, and procedures for conducting complex attacks are increasing in sophistication and strategic effect. (p. 21)

See all that “broken,” “lost” momentum? Me neither. The list of insurgent strengths listed on page 21 of last week’s report is almost identical to the list of strengths on slide 16 of Flynn’s December presentation. The insurgents’ momentum apparently carried on such that the report authors could cut and paste its description from the December 2009 report.

There’s a major set of votes coming up on $33 billion in new war spending to fund President Obama’s latest massive deployment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan and on U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern’s (D-Mass.) bill to require an exit strategy. But, it looks like many Members of Congress can’t be bothered to do their homework or question the happy-talk handed to them during their tourist stops in Kabul. While the military is cutting and pasting its reports together, some Members of Congress are cutting and pasting their talking points.

Fantastic.

I’d like to remind my readers that in September 2009, McChrystal said:

“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.”

For those who are counting, that was almost 9 months ago.

Had enough? Join us on Rethink Afghanistan’s Facebook page.

I usually don’t do this, but I have to take my friend Spencer Ackerman out for a ride. (In my defense, brother, just keep in mind that I’m taking you out for a ride for a blog post in which you took your friend out for a ride. Just sayin’.) And, I want to say at the outset that on a critical point he’s the victim of some really bad timing, and that on that point he’s made a concession, but the episode is illustrative of a larger problem within the ranks of the left-leaning national security crowd and the way they’ve handled counterinsurgency doctrine in the public debate.

Also, pardon my French. Some things merit swearing.

Spencer wrote a strongly worded critique of Matthew Yglesias’ article on civilian casualties and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Specifically, Spencer said Yglesias “didn’t deal with the relevant body of data on civilian casualties in the counterinsurgency era in Afghanistan,” pointing to UNAMA data that showed a 28-percent drop in civilian deaths attributed to U.S. and allied forces for 2009 compared to the previous year. He says (emphasis mine):

I don’t know how you can neglect the reduced proportion of U.S.-caused deaths when evaluating the success of a strategy that seeks to get that civilian-casualty-causation figure down. No one I have ever encountered who has waged, studied or advocated for counterinsurgency has made the case that counterinsurgency is a kinder or gentler method of warfare…

…Everything McChrystal has said in command has indicated that he embrace the perspective that U.S.-caused civilian casualties needs to drop if his mission is to succeed on his own terms, and his actions and that of his predecessor– so far at least, and clearly not sufficiently — have gotten results in that regard.

Unfortunately for Spencer, within a few hours of his post, USA TODAY reported new data from NATO that shows that the downward trend in the civilian death rate has reversed itself with a vengeance:

KABUL — Deaths of Afghan civilians by NATO troops have more than doubled [so far] this year, NATO statistics show, jeopardizing a U.S. campaign to win over the local population by protecting them against insurgent attacks.

NATO troops accidentally killed 72 civilians in the first three months of 2010, up from 29 in the same period in 2009, according to figures the International Security Assistance Force gave USA TODAY.

Ouch. To his credit, Spencer addressed this new information in an update to his post and in a new post today. And if the basic premise of the main argument in this blog post were the only problem, I’d probably let this go with a snarky tweet and some good-natured ribbing about bad timing. However, this piece has other problems besides inconvenient expiration of facts, and they illustrate the way counterinsurgency doctrine is misused and abused by its supposed backers to give themselves cover to back an ongoing brutal exercise in Afghanistan. We shouldn’t let those issues go unaddressed.

Warm and Fuzzy War

Spencer also wrote:

No one I have ever encountered who has waged, studied or advocated for counterinsurgency has made the case that counterinsurgency is a kinder or gentler method of warfare, or that it’s no more than development work with an M4.

No one ever called counterinsurgency a kinder, gentler kind of war in the same way that President Bush never explicitly said Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks, but, gee, I wonder how so many Americans got that idea. I mean, it’s almost like someone wrote this in the introduction to the COIN manual on pages xxx – xxxi:

“Equally important, success in COIN relies upon nonkinetic activities like providing electricity, jobs, and a functioning judicial system…

…If these other instruments of national power don’t show up, can’t stay or aren’t effective, the buck then passes back to military forces…[T]he manual ultimately recognizes military responsibility for those tasks, particularly when an insurgency is violent…Recognizing the need to ensure the population’s well-being, the manual directs military forces to be able to conduct political, social, information, and economic programs ‘as necessary.'”

I can’t tell you how many House Armed Services terrorism subcommittee hearings I’ve sat through in which someone related  the story about how during one particular special forces operation, their most important weapon was a dentist. Or, you know, when Air Force spokespeople comically assert that the purpose of air power in counterinsurgency is “to bring goodness, and not death” (skip to 2:30 here). Yeah, I don’t know where we got that kinder, gentler idea.

However, I’m glad to see Spencer own the brutality of counterinsurgency. To give you a sense of that brutality, consider that the field manual for this doctrine refers to our involvement in the Salvadoran civil war as a success story. Yes, the El Salvador adventure that saw us training and funding the forces that were running around raping and killing nuns and murdering Archbishop Oscar Romero during mass and shooting up his funeral and had U.S. military advisers supervising the torture of prisoners. More than 70,000 dead to protect a political arrangement that’s overturned in a few decades by the people who were victims of our “help”– that’s what “success” looks like in counterinsurgency. One wonders how a manual on a doctrine from which McChrystal can derive his continued homages to civilian protection can refer to El Salvador as a success story…that is, unless it’s a slick-sounding snake-oil cookbook full of hypocritical bullshit.

Selective Interpretation

COIN doctrine as interpreted by Ackerman with the aid of the stats he used asserts something like this: McChrystal and friends reduce by 28 percent the number of civilians they kill, while the Taliban increase the number they kill. The local population’s animosity builds toward the Taliban, triggering a shift in political support to the U.S. and allies, a withdrawal of support for the Taliban and an influx of intelligence to the counter-insurgents. This interpretation, however, is a very academic exercise with major blind spots as to the actual dynamic in Afghanistan and the actual COIN doctrine described in the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual:

“Progress in building support for the [host nation] government requires protecting the local populace. People who do now believe they are secure from insurgent intimidation, coercion, and reprisals will not risk overtly supporting COIN efforts. The populace decides when it feels secure enough to support COIN efforts. (p. 179)”

“During any period of instability, people’s primary interest is physical security for themselves and their families. When [host nation] forces fail to provide security or threaten the security of civilians, the population is likely to seek security guarantees from insurgents, militias, or other armed groups. This situation can feed support for an insurgency. (p 98)”

“Counterinsurgents should not expect people to willingly provide information if insurgents have the ability to violently intimidate sources. (p. 120)”

Here’s Stanley McChrystal explicitly stating that COIN doctrine requires you to protect the population from the insurgents.

Note that all of these statements deal with the importance not just of the protection of civilians from killings by counterinsurgents, but the protection of the people in general. Counterinsurgency doctrine says that people aren’t going to switch to your side if they think they’ll get killed for it, no matter how low you drop the rate at which you cause civilian deaths. In other words, a drop in casualties caused by U.S. and allied groups is not sufficient for the hoped-for dynamic to take hold, according to COIN doctrine. It must be paired with an increase in security from insurgent violence as well. And that’s a problem for Spencer’s interpretation of counterinsurgency doctrine and his assessments of progress in Afghanistan, especially since the data he cites shows that in 2009:

“The escalation and spread of armed conflict resulted in the highest number of civilian casualties recorded since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 and in the further erosion of humanitarian space.”

So, even if we just went with the information that was available early yesterday, which said that McChrystal and Co. were killing fewer civilians, they still hadn’t managed to increase security for civilians in Afghanistan as measured by the total civilian deaths caused by the parties to the conflict. The Afghans, especially those in Kandahar, know it. The elders who live in the area targeted for the next big offensive told Karzai and McChrystal they didn’t want an operation in their area and specifically cited the increased risk to the civilian population from insurgent IEDs. Even if McChrystal proved he could drive down civilian casualties when he puts his mind to it, he’s also managed to prove over the last year that he can’t protect the population.

People who claim to actually believe in the efficacy of and the necessity for actual counterinsurgency in Afghanistan need to start screaming, right now, about what’s going on in Afghanistan under General McChrystal because their credibility is now unambiguously on the line. To his credit, Spencer notes in today’s post that, “By McChrystal’s own reckoning…the system is blinking red and new measures have to be put in place…” The problem is, though, that in an honest reading of counterinsurgency doctrine should have indicated that the system was already blinking red in 2009, but for whatever reason people continued to sing the praises of Saint Stanley McChrystal and took up gross distortions of COIN doctrine to do so. Numerous prerequisites for success as articulated by COIN doctrine remained absent and/or further degraded over 2009, including host nation government legitimacy and security for the local population, yet many writers focused on one particular statistic (casualties caused by pro-government forces) because it let them tell the story they wanted to tell.

The facts are these: Not only are we not protecting the population generally, but we’re demolishing progress made on decreasing civilian deaths attributed to us and our allies. We’ve doubled the number of special forces in the country, forces responsible for some of the most outrageous, alienating incidents of the war. We don’t have a legitimate local partner or a legitimate host nation government. And after paying lip-service to getting local buy-in for a Kandahar operation, McChrystal’s people now inform us that we plan to go ahead whether the people of Kandahar like it or not. McChrystal is letting the COIN pretensions fall away as the reality of the Afghanistan war reveals them as the hypocritical bullshit they always were. What’s left is the uncompromising and ugly truth: we are fighting a brutal war in Afghanistan, it’s going badly and we don’t have a credible prospect for a turnaround.

Spencer is right, the system is blinking red. It’s been blinking for years.

Cross-posted from Rethink Afghanistan.

In case you hadn’t heard, the next stop in General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan is Kandahar, the ideological heart of the Taliban. Using the spadework done in advance of the Marjah operation as a template, McChrystal says the plan is to:

"…do the political groundwork, so that when it’s time to do the military operation, the significant part of the population is pulling us in and supporting us, so that we’re not only doing what they want, but we’re operating in a way that they’re comfortable with."

Remember that:

  1. "what they want," and
  2. "operating in a way that they’re comfortable with."

"What They Want"

That was March, and it sure sounded nice. But this is April, and the people who live in Kandahar are telling the Kabul government and McChrystal’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), "Not so much."

Earlier this month, McChrystal travelled with Karzai to a shura in Kandahar, presumably to get the kind of rubber-stamp for the upcoming operation that the Marjah elders gave them prior to Operation Moshtarak. It didn’t go as planned.

Visiting last week to rally support for the offensive, the president was instead overwhelmed by a barrage of complaints about corruption and misrule. As he was heckled at a shura of 1,500 tribal leaders and elders, he appeared to offer them a veto over military action. “Are you happy or unhappy for the operation to be carried out?” he asked.

The elders shouted back: “We are not happy.”

“Then until the time you say you are happy, the operation will not happen,” Karzai replied.

General Stanley McChrystal, the Nato commander, who was sitting behind him, looked distinctly apprehensive. The remarks have compounded US anger and bewilderment with Karzai, who has already accused the United States of rigging last year’s presidential elections and even threatened to switch sides to join the Taliban.

Presumably, ISAF and the Karzai government will keep working the shuras until they get what they need in the way of a signed and sealed invite to flood the region with international and Afghan National Security Forces military and police personnel. But as it stands, it’s clear that a military offensive in Kandahar is not "what they want."

"Operating In A Way That They’re Comfortable With"

If the shura harangue were not enough, yesterday a U.S. troop fired on a civilian passenger bus in Kandahar, killing at least 4 people and injuring 18.

Here’s how ISAF described the incident (take with grain of salt, given their recent propensity for spin):

Before dawn this morning, an unknown, large vehicle approached a slow-moving ISAF route-clearance patrol from the rear at a high rate of speed. The convoy could not move to the side of the road to allow the vehicle to pass due to the steep embankment.

The ISAF patrol warned off the approaching vehicle once with a flashlight and three times with flares, which were not heeded.

Perceiving a threat when the vehicle approached once more at an increased rate of speed, the patrol attempted to warn off the vehicle with hand signals prior to firing upon it. Once engaged, the vehicle then stopped.

However, at least one eyewitness who credibly claimed to be the bus driver had a different story:

Abdul Ghani, an Afghan man who told The Washington Post in a telephone interview that he was the driver of the bus, said the soldiers "didn’t give me any kind of signal. . . . They just opened fire. No signal at all."

Ghani’s account could not be independently confirmed, and other news organizations quoted a different person who said he was the driver. But Ghani, 35, related to The Post specific details about the bus and the incident that suggest he knew what had occurred.

He said the green and white 1984 German vehicle left a Kandahar city bus depot at 4:30 a.m., bound for Nimruz province, seven hours away. Half an hour into the trip, the bus drove up behind the U.S. convoy. The gunfire erupted when the bus was 80 to 100 meters behind the convoy, he said.

The bullets tore into the passenger side of the windshield and struck several rows. The American soldiers walked around the bus after the shooting stopped, Ghani said, then climbed on board without speaking to him. "They saw the people who were killed and left them there. And then they took the injured ones and started doing first aid immediately."

Ghani said he was eventually was able to drive the bus back to the city. "Why we are being killed by these people?" he said. "They are here to protect us, not to kill us."

The locals were understandably enraged, and hundreds of them gathered around the bus shouting, "Death to America!" and related anti-Western phrases. The local NATO commander, Maj. General Nick Carter (no, not that Nick Carter) tried to apologize, but just couldn’t seem to help himself and got a dig in at the local hicks in the course of the apology (Skip to 1:56 in the video below). Apparently, when you shoot up a civilian bus at a checkpoint, "it’s a two-way street" when it comes to responsibility.

Right.

"We have shot an amazing number of people [at military checkpoints], but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat," said McChrystal during a recent video-conference with troops…

But hey, at least he could rattle off "salaam alaikum" at the beginning of the "apology."

Here’s what one local had to say about this incident:

“Zhari [district in Kandahar Province] is where they were planning to do an operation,” Haji Wali Jan said. “Now the people there are furious with the Americans, and everyone knows that without local support from the people, it’s very hard to do an operation.” Haji Jan Mohammed, another elder who lives in Kandahar city, said: “These incidents have a bad effect. Already, most people didn’t trust the foreign troops. With this incident, foreign troops lost all their trust.

“All the elders, everyone knows, if the operation starts, there will be lots of civilian casualties.”

Somehow I doubt that this qualifies as "operating in a way that they’re comfortable with."

Sending more troops to Kandahar will not make us safer. The president should decrease, not increase, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

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