Archive for March, 2009

Since General David Petraeus and his team took the Sunni insurgents out of the equation of war in Iraq by paying them off, what happened in Baghdad over the weekend¹ has been waiting to happen. I don’t think anyone ever seriously believed the Iraqi government would try to bring 90,000 former fighters back into the fold, let alone give them money. And yet, the chewing-gum-and-duct-tape nature of Petraeus’s peace raised no alarms.

Now, it turns out, not only are the Sons of Iraq screwed, but, bound by the Status of Forces Agreement, their erstwhile benefactor is about to help the Maliki government screw them over. Here’s Petraeus’s former XO Pete Mansoor:

As I recall what I said was that the status of forces agreement would put U.S. forces into a position where they could not intervene to stop the government of Iraq from attacking the SOI.  If the Iraqi Security Forces needed help once engaged against the SOI, U.S. forces could be drawn into the fight against the very people who helped us turn the war around.

I certainly hope this doesn’t come to pass, but given what we’ve just seen happen in Baghdad, the possibility is disturbing.

It might be worth remembering, however, that not everyone in Petraeus’s circle of advisors thinks so highly of the SoI. Last June, Marc Lynch reported a surprising outburst from General Jack Keane, widely regarded as the primus motor behind the surge:

‘We’re not bringing 90,000 hoodlums into the Iraqi security forces… we don’t have to accommodate these people.’ They aren’t qualified, they know it, and they will just have to deal with it, [Keane] said – never mind that these are the same people who evidently were quite adequately qualified to fight a multi-year insurgency against the United States to the point of near-victory in 2006, by Keane’s own account.

[¹ Two years ago, I stood in a Combat Support Hospital ER room and watched as a three-year-old Sunni boy fought for his life, his stomach punctured by a stray bullet. My son was the same age, and I sort of took the little guy’s struggle personally. I tagged along as he was taken to surgery, and watched as they cut open his stomach, and the next day I watched as he was reunited with his black-clad young mother, whose first question to the nurse was: “Will he be a normal boy again?” The reason I mention this is that they were from al-Fadhil, the same Sunni neighbourhood where gunbattles erupted again on Saturday. I hope the boy is safe and won’t be watching the firefights from the rooftop this time.]

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I suppose we should be thankful there’s finally sentient life in the White House. Still, in all honesty, Obama’s “White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group’s Report on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan” — aka “The Af-Pak Policy” — doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. In fact, the six-page paper is remarkable only in its vagueness. Disrupt terrorist networks, bolster civilian governments, train local security forces, negotiate with “reconcilables” when possible — it’s a mishmash of strategies that could’ve come from the Soviet playbook in the 80s.

Bearing this in mind, here’s a recommendation: if you haven’t already read it, Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble is a must-have. It’s an amazingly detailed account of the screw-up that started it all — the Soviet Union’s ten-year military misstep into Afghanistan. I’m sure my better-informed fellow bloggers will have a few choice words to say about the book’s sociological merits, but as military history, it’s top shit and should be required reading for all U.S. and NATO planners.

Sure, as noted before, there are significant differences between the Soviet debacle and the West’s current tribulations. For one, the coalition didn’t stumble across the Hindu Kush by accident, without no one actually giving the order to invade, as the Soviets did. And despite some civilian casualties, even the most ardent opponent of the war would be hard pressed to call ISAF’s efforts a scorched earth strategy. Even so, some similarities, like the lack of a cohesive strategy and the failure to define a desirable and achievable end state, are unnerving.

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Message from Management

My period of infrequent posting will soon be followed by 10 days of no posting, as I’ll be heading for the North to ski with the family.

In the mean time, those new to the blog may want to look around and enjoy my year’s worth of stupidity. Just type ‘Afghanistan’ or ‘Iraq’ in the search box and you’ll see what I mean.

[Oh, and go read Reidar Visser’s latest essay on Iraq’s future. He also links to two interesting research papers, one by him, and the other by — gasp — a group of Iraqi academics.]

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The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody by the International Committee of the Red Cross

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Finally, something to applaud:

Pakistan’s government agreed on Monday to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry as chief justice to defuse a political crisis and end a street agitation that was threatening to turn into violent confrontation.

Iraq provides the cloud for the silver lining:

In Anbar Province, six former Camp Bucca detainees were on their way home on Friday when local police officers abducted and killed them in revenge for their days as insurgents, according to relatives of the victims.

In Wasit Province, a hard-line new police chief appointed by the prime minister has been transferring corrupt policemen out of the area, but local political opponents say that is the reason the local murder rate seems to have doubled.

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I have tremendous respect for International Crisis Group. In fact, I think they’re pretty much infallible. Needless to say, I’m taking their new report on Afghanistan very seriously, and I think everyone else should, too. In case 20 pages sounds like too daunting a task for a Friday night, let me briefly summarise the section titled “What Should Not Be Done”:

  • Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff and negotiate with the wheat! Think again: “Numerous peace agreements with jihadi groups and networks, in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, have broken down within months. In each case they have enhanced the power and activities of violent insurgents while doing nothing to build sustainable institutions.
  • Okay, so how about arming one tribe against the others? Fuhgeddaboutit: “Afghanistan is awash with weapons and armed groups. Creating unaccountable local militias — based on false analogies with Iraq — will only worsen ethnic tensions and violence.”
  • Screw it, let’s go home. Not so fast, amigo: “Withdrawing international troops with the threat that any regrouping of jihadis or al-Qaeda can be countered by air power and special forces would simply return the country to the control of jihadis. Air power has not proven successful against insurgents or terrorist bases. Neglect would allow the region to descend into further chaos, as it did in the 1990s.”

So, can we, like, move on now?

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Fred and Kimberly Kagan, accompanied by Max Boot, have taken a Petraeus-organised package tour in Afghanistan and have arrived at a cheerful conclusion: not only is the war winnable, but it’ll be a cakewalk:

Even without much popular backing, Afghan insurgents are staging an increasing number of attacks, but major cities like Kabul and Jalalabad, which we visited, are relatively safe and flourishing. The civilian death toll in Afghanistan last year was 16 times lower than that in Iraq in the pre-surge year of 2006, even though Afghanistan is more populous.

There is no question that we can succeed against these much weaker foes, notwithstanding the support they receive from Pakistan and to a lesser extent Iran. President Obama’s recent decision to send 17,000 additional troops is a good start. While increased security operations will result in a temporary increase in casualties, that spike should be followed by broad reductions in violence, just as with the Iraq surge.

In other words:

[…] The odds of success are much better than they were in Iraq when we launched the forlorn hope known as the surge.

Now, Fred was one of the architects of the surge, Kimberly has written a book about it, and even if Boot is better known for cheering on while his president commits colossal blunders, it’s not like this trio doesn’t have the credentials for tackling national security issues.

But clearly someone has taken the blue pill here.

Sure, it must be tempting, after the undeniable military success of the COIN campaign in Iraq, to take the surge, make it a model, and apply it everywhere regardless of what locality you happen to be fighting in. But let’s stop for a moment and take a deep breath and listen to what two pretty smart guys, Carter Malkasian and Jerry Meyerle think about this:

Factors that loom large in any counterinsurgency campaign—politics, society, the policies of the insurgents, economics, and outside support for the insurgency—bear only a passing resemblance to Al Anbar or Iraq. Politically, Iraq has been defined by its civil war. Staunching it has been an imperative for US forces. In contrast, sectarian (and ethnic) divides are muted in Afghanistan; a fairly representative government exists. The political problem is that the government has failed to rule fairly or well. The structure of society differs too. The basis of the turnaround in Al Anbar was a social movement—the alliance of tribes who together threw out Al Qaeda in Iraq. In Afghanistan, tribes are highly de-centralized, broken into small bits and averse to coming together. Nor does the insurgency itself look the same. Insurgents in Afghanistan pay closer attention to keeping the support of tribes and the population. There is no obvious analogy to Al Anbar’s rift between the tribes and Al Qaeda in Iraq. Tribes may have disagreements with the Taliban or Al Qaeda but as of yet no major rifts have formed that unite the majority of the tribes behind the government. Finally there are the two most obvious differences between Afghanistan and Al Anbar: the poppy trade, which pumps money into the insurgency, and the insurgent safe haven in Pakistan, which dwarfs anything that Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan ever afforded the Sunni insurgents.

As for the idea that the Taleban are somehow “weaker” than the Sunni insurgents, AQI bombers and JAM guerrillas the U.S. faced in Iraq, here’s some Kilcullen for ya:

On the basis of my field experience in 2005–08 in Iraq, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, I assess the current generation of Taliban fighters, within the broader Taliban confederation (which loosely combines old Taliban cadres with Pashtun nationalists, tribal fighters, and religious extremists), as the most tactically competent enemy we currently face in any theater.

I’ve said this before, and others have said it as well: you don’t succeed in Afghanistan by transplanting a strategy that, partly due to fortuitous circumstances, happened to work elsewhere. What you need is a McMaster or a MacFarland, a creative thinker with the guts of a soldier and the wits of a social worker. And when the field guys start to come up with unorthodox solutions, you need an Odierno or a Petraeus to take the ball and run with it.

So here’s an idea: Maybe instead of Anbar we ought to look at what those lazy-ass Europeans who don’t kill enough are up to in Uruzgan:

Dutch army commanders have pursued an ‘ink-spot’ approach, in which they focus on controlling the three central districts where 70% of the 627,000 population is concentrated. Other areas have been ceded, they say, until they can win popular support by demonstrating progress in the centre. […] Dutch forces fought a long battle in the [Baluchi] valley in late 2007, built patrol bases at either end of it and then stood back for a year, content to study the complex dynamics of the area from afar.

The result? Not bad, considering:

Grudgingly, local people concede there has been some improvement. Haji Zal, a tribal elder in Tirin Khot, the provincial capital, points to better security and new roads, and judges things ‘10%’ better than a year ago.

Sure, other locals say credit should go to the Australian and American special forces operating in the area. Still, the Dutch general has a point:

[…] The Taliban are less of a threat to the tottering structures of the Afghan state than feuding local tribes and predatory warlords. The Uruzgan insurgency is mixed up with a notably vicious tribal war between the Popolzai tribe and minority Ghilzai tribes. Jan Mohammad Khan, a Popolzai warlord and former Uruzgan governor, marginalised the Ghilzais. This seems to have created lasting turmoil which is exploited by the Taliban.

I realise that any armchair general equipped with a pair of extra special nightvision hindsight goggles will chaingun the crap out of this piece of peace-mongering Euro-sociology in no time. But I also think that with options dwindling, we can’t afford to go berserk and do a Ghazni on every solution that doesn’t conform to the time-honoured maxim of “kill ’em all”.

[UPDATE: Spencer has a thoughtful post up on the subject. He complains that the Kagan/Boot op-ed doesn’t define “success”, but I think it’s obvious what they mean. Hint: it smells like napalm in the morning.]

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