Archive for June, 2009

Mindful of their nationalist credentials in an election year, Iraqi politicians are pressing ahead with plans to hold a referendum on the U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement, The New York Times reports. If the pact is voted down, U.S. troops will have to pack up and leave one year ahead of schedule, in 2010. Marc Lynch saw this coming already in January:

Should the SOFA/WA fail to pass, U.S. forces will need either to begin withdrawing at an uncomfortably rapid rate or else find some other formal authorization to remain. Neither will be an attractive proposition. The government wants the agreement to pass, and will likely establish rules and a format conducive to success. But opposition forces will attempt to mobilize outrage at every opportunity to portray the United States as violating the terms of the SOFA/WA and not actually intending to withdraw. The referendum will almost certainly become a major issue in intra-Shia (and to a lesser extent intra-Sunni) political competition. U.S. policy needs to be extremely careful to not feed these flames.

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In Triage, the new CNAS report on Afghanistan and Pakistan authored by Andrew Exum, Nathaniel Fick, Ahmed Humayun and David Kilcullen, the word ‘Taliban’ is used 69 times. For example:

The Taliban is pursuing a strategy of exhaustion designed to bleed away public support in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe for continued Western engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan.


In Afghanistan, Taliban influence has displaced government control in large sections of the country, while the government and the coalition have been unable or unwilling to guarantee security for the people.


Taliban control is increasing along with civilian casualties. According to one estimate, the Taliban have a ‘heavy presence’ across approximately three-quarters of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts, up from one-half only one year ago.


Until the coalition and the Afghan government are able to do so, the Taliban will maintain and expand their control, compelling and persuading the people of Afghanistan to resist the government and the coalition.

My question is this: if these bad guys are so important as to warrant being mentioned 69 times, how come not one word in the 36-page report is devoted to defining who they actually are?

The answer, of course, is that such a definition would’ve exposed a fundamental flaw in the strategy the authors propose. While a group called ‘the Taliban’ does indeed exist, CNAS has chosen to use the term to denote all non-AQ opposition to the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition. This misidentifies a wide range of forces currently destabilising Afghanistan, and frankly, I’m at a loss as to why guys with this much combined brainpower didn’t bother to sort out the mess.

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At Jihadica, which to my great relief is going strong despite Will McCants’s departure, Thomas Hegghammer decodes bin Laden’s latest audiotape and concludes all may not be well at the house of al-Qaeda:

What we have here is a short, outdated tape delivered manually following a series of longer, up-to-date statements distributed online. This suggests to me that Bin Ladin’s personal situation has changed in the past few months. He may have moved to a new location, and/or he is taking much stricter security precautions than before.

Peter Bergen, speaking in an International Press Institute panel here in Helsinki earlier today, suggested Al Jazeera may actually have sat on the tape for some time, waiting for “a newsworthy moment”.

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There’s a whole bunch of good stuff in the new CNAS report on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also a few tangles of seriously confused thinking. The authors’ definition of “securing the population”, for example, is a mess. On the one hand, they define it — correctly — as “denying [the population’s] passive or active support to the Taliban.” But then there’s this:

Afghan civilian casualties, whether at the hands of the coalition, the Taliban, or the Afghan government, will be the most telling measure of progress.

Okay, see if you can spot the difference:

In Iraq, killing non-combatants was part of the insurgents’ strategy. Hence, in 2006 and 2007, it wasn’t uncommon for 2,000 civilians to die every month. In Afghanistan, that was the number of civilian casualties for the whole of 2008 — with more than a third killed not by the Taleban but by foreign troops. It follows from this that:

  • In Iraq, “securing the population” meant stopping it from getting killed by the insurgents.
  • In Afghanistan, it means stopping it from supporting the insurgents.

It also follows that, contrary to what the paper claims, civilian casualties in Afghanistan are not “the key metric”. In fact, they’re no metric at all. The only thing they’re good for is measuring ISAF’s efforts to screw up less.

None of this is to say shielding the population from the Taleban shouldn’t be the top priority. You should do it, and you can do it; it’s just that there’s no meaningful way to measure your success when dealing with intangibles like “support” or “opposition” — unless you count opinion polls, but I’m guessing they’re not concrete enough for Exum et al.

Another thing I found curious is how CNAS would prioritise resources:

Focusing on protecting the population requires making difficult operational tradeoffs. There will never be enough coalition forces in Afghanistan to execute a perfect population-centric counterinsurgency, and it will take years to train and deploy Afghan forces in sufficient numbers and of sufficiently high quality to undertake this mission effectively. It is necessary, therefore, to focus available forces where the fewest number of government and coalition troops can protect the greatest number of Afghans. This will require the coalition to depart some areas it currently occupies. For example, U.S. forces might be compelled to withdraw from sparsely populated Taliban strongholds such as the Korengal Valley in order to better protect more of the population in Kandahar City or Lashkar Gah.

Maybe so — I haven’t been on the ground for almost three years, so who knows, maybe Afghanistan has suddenly become an urban society. Last I looked, though, it was nothing like Iraq, and I can’t help wondering whether here, too, memories of the Surge are confusing otherwise bright minds.

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Josh Foust summarises an e-mail from a concerned reader in Kabul:

Indeed, the big concern he raised is whether or not the war is being ‘Americanized.’ It is certainly a growing theme, as an American takes over command in Kandahar and RC-South is flooded with U.S. troops (Rajiv Chandrasekaran, for example, has filed multiple reports to this effect). The reader said that McKiernan was adamant about limiting the American footprint in ISAF so that it’s not seen as a U.S. puppet


[…] ‘The mission of ISAF is broader than just to exact revenge on terrorists and their supporters for September 11 or even to remove Afghanistan’s capability of supporting terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda.’


Alas, this is now America’s war. The Commander-in-Chief himself has pared it down to a revenge mission, which makes sense for a cash-strapped superpower. For their part, the oft-ridiculed allies will be happy to leave. The Brits will stay, of course, as will the Aussies, and perhaps the Dutch and the Danes will have enough political stamina to keep going despite loud grumbling at home. But the German and Scandinavian governments will face increasing pressure to scale down their commitment, and I wouldn’t really count on them Frogs and Dagos either.

Needless to say, this will be a mixed blessing for McChrystal. Good news is, he will get rid of the beer-bellied slobs cowering in their FOBs in search of a reason not to go on patrol. On the other hand, when the allies have packed up and gone, the Americans will have themselves some seriously empty space in Northern Afghanistan. Maybe the region’s ethnic makeup will be enough to keep the Taleban at bay. If not, it’s an exposed flank no sane commander would want.

I’m no apologist for ISAF ineptitude, but let’s be honest: for eight years, Europeans have been covering America’s ass in the north. What happens when they pull out is anybody’s guess. Make no mistake, though: now that they’ve been handed an excuse on a silver platter, they will leave.

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Abu Muqawama and Michael Cohen have themselves a right old spat over the dangers and virtues of counterinsurgency. Frankly, I think the mano-a-mano is ridiculous — Cohen has already made an ass of himself by claiming the war in Afghanistan isn’t necessarily a COIN fight — , but while I generally side with Exum, I need to take issue with one of his pet assertions:

In the context of a counterinsurgency campaign — which we can all agree we’re engaged in — enemy body count is a poor metric. Civilian body counts, by contrast, are a better metric — the fewer civilians dying, the better.

Now look. Civilian body counts may be a good metric in a conflict where one side is intentionally killing non-combatants. Iraq is one such conflict, as Exum correctly points out. There, American counterinsurgents needed to secure the population before they could proceed to eliminate the enemy. Afghanistan, by contrast, is not a sectarian civil war. Yes, ordinary Afghanis have much to fear from the Taleban, but by and large it’s a Pashtun nationalist insurgency, and they have little to gain from attacking their own countrymen.

Thus, if you think looking at civilian casualties will give you an idea of how the war is going, you’re going to be looking until hell freezes over. It’s a dead metric — the numbers will not change significantly no matter what happens, since both sides have only to gain from not killing civilians.

[Yes, there are ethical issues as well, but we’ll not go there.]

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If you intend to read just one newspaper piece about Iraq this year, it’s here. Eloquent, knowledgeable, intelligent and witty, Anthony Shadid is a brilliant correspondent and without equal as a writer. Unlike many of his award-winning colleagues, who excel in reporting but bury it in bland prose, Shadid has a keen eye for visual detail and a playwright’s ear for dialogue. In his stories, people actually carry out conversations that sound authentic. There are no contrived narrative structures, no pat endings, no fake emotions designed to boost the drama. Like I said — check it out.

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