Archive for August, 2009

Blogging Break

Will vacation w/ family until Sept. 15. There will be absolutely no blogging.

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Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission has received more than 2,000 complaints of fraud or abuse in last week’s disputed presidential election, with 270 now listed as serious enough to affect the result, it said Friday.

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How did the Sri Lankan government finally prevail in the conflict with the Tamil Tigers after 28 years of failure? Easy — instead of trying to protect the population or offer a political solution, it proceeded to wage total war, dismissing international opinion and with little regard for civilian casualties.

The Indian Defence Review, in an article I predict will become hugely influential within the U.S. and European COIN community, summarises the “Eight Fundamentals of Victory” of the so-called “Rajapaksa Model of Fighting Terror”, named after Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa:

  1. Unwavering political will;
  2. Disregard for international opinion distracting from the goal;
  3. No negotiations with the forces of terror;
  4. Unidirectional floor of conflict information;
  5. Absence of political intervention to pull away from complete defeat of the LTTE;
  6. Complete operational freedom for the security forces — let the best men do the task;
  7. Accent on young commanders;
  8. Keep your neighbors in the loop.

Reading this, I remembered something that had stuck to my mind when listening to Josh Foust and Michael Cohen discuss Afghan strategy at Bloggingheads.tv. At one point, to Foust’s apparent astonishment, Cohen brings up the concept of total war and (apologies for paraphrasing from memory) wonders whether the reluctance of the U.S. and its allies to fight wars WWII-style impedes efforts to defeat adversaries like the Taliban.

Keeping this in mind, and lest we jump into conclusions about the applicability of the Rajapaksa Model to the war effort in Afghanistan, let me try to put the “Eight Fundamentals” in context:

  1. The precedent. This was not the first time in Sri Lankan history that the Colombo government used overwhelming conventional force to annihilate an insurgent enemy. In fact, this has been part of the Sri Lankan way of war for almost 40 years. Interestingly, the strategy was first tested on the majority Sinhala population, not on Tamils. In 1971, and again in 1989, the government crushed a rebellion by the Communist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, or JVP, with a combination of military force, political intimidation and extra-judicial violence. Thousands died but the JVP was wiped out, although it has since resurfaced as a political party that, in one of life’s small ironies, supported Rajapaksa in his drive against the Tamil Tigers.
  2. The Ninth Fundamental. An unstated prerequisite for the success of the Rajapaksa Model was the transformation of the Sri Lankan army into an efficient killing machine. This “Ninth Fundamental” would not have been possible without a massive infusion of Chinese arms, ammunition and equipment. The SLA that defeated the LTTE in 2009 was not the same army that fought it unsuccessfully through the 80s and 90s.
  3. The geography. Although Sri Lanka is a small piece of land surrounded by a large body of water, only a narrow stretch of sea separates it from India’s Tamil Nadu state, where the LTTE built its safe haven in the 80s. Once they lost it, though, and once the Sri Lankan government put its mind to it — and, as per “Fundamental #8”, brought neighbouring India “into the loop” — it was easily able to cut the rebels’ supply lines. From then on, thanks to the country’s small size, it was a matter of pushing the Tigers into an ever-shrinking corner until there was no one left to carry on the fight.
  4. The cost. This is perhaps the most important point to keep in mind: Victory for the government didn’t come without a price. Sri Lankan democracy, once among Asia’s sturdiest, lies in tatters after years of brutality. Human rights reports detail intimidation, torture, abductions, disappearances, and murder. As per “Fundamental #4”, press freedom is a thing of the past. The tragedy, of course, is that with Sri Lankans fed up with the war, and with public opinion overwhelmingly supporting a military solution, the government probably could’ve prosecuted the war successfully without resorting to abuse.

Finally, there is the question of peace. Sri Lanka certainly deserves it, as the LTTE deserved its fate. Who knows, maybe the war really is over, and maybe with time the enmity will subside. But it’s far too early to tell. Just as the jury is still out on whether the American counterinsurgency efforts really succeeded in ending the Iraq war, the Rajapaksa Model of Fighting Terror has yet to prove its worth.

[h/t Abu Muqawama.]

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I cannot often claim to have been prescient about anything, so forgive me for advertising my own stuff a little.

Last May, after returning from Baghdad, I posted a bullet-point list of gloomy thoughts about the country’s immediate future. I was wide off the mark on one issue — predicting that the transition of security duties from U.S. troops to the ISF would be “much slower than news reports would let you believe” — but, alas, on target on two others.

Here’s what I wrote about the security forces:

Neither the Iraqi public nor the American officers I spoke to, nor the police themselves, believe the NP will be able to stop the wave of violence everyone seems to agree is imminent once there are no more Americans on the streets. The NP simply doesn’t have the manpower or training or tenacity to man their checkpoints day in and day out regardless of how badly they get hit. They are easily demoralised and lose focus when bombs start going off. After having seen how they live, and knowing how little they get paid, I can’t really blame them. Still, the sight of a fearful Iraqi police officer being literally led by an American platoon on a short presence patrol through his own neighbourhood isn’t exactly encouraging.

And about the removal of blast walls from Baghdad’s thoroughfares:

Here’s another stupid move: facing pressure from the local business community, the Maliki government has started to remove the life-saving but commerce-hindering T-walls in Baghdad’s central districts, supposedly replacing them with smaller Jersey barriers. Again, this is politics trumping security in the worst possible way. Talk to any American field officer and he will tell you it is premature and potentially disastrous, as the Iraqis haven’t had time to gauge the situation properly.

And about the logic behind the violence:

I find it hard to agree with Nir Rosen, who seems to think the recent mass-casualty bombings in Baghdad are basically pointless. They aren’t; their point is to take away from Maliki the only thing he has going for him in the next election — the credit for ending the violence.

Last week’s truck bombs, of course, not only laid waste to whole blocks in central Baghdad, they finally shattered the illusion that all was quiet on the Western front. Here’s how Jane Arraf, the Christian Science Monitor correspondent in Baghdad, describes the situation in a CFR interview:

On the security level, it has cast light on what really, truly does appear to be systemic failure of the Iraqi security apparatus. We’re talking about the ability of whoever was behind this to put together two huge truck bombs–these were four-ton trucks. The one that hit the foreign ministry was packed with two tons of explosives and they were allowed to drive through the streets on roads where you’re not supposed to drive any trucks in daylight hours. That says something about what the government believes is negligence, if not collaboration, by some of the security forces.


Those bombings indicated to a lot of people that we have to stop pretending that things are fine and that applies to the U.S. commanders as well. One Iraqi senior official told me literally that they can’t pretend that everything’s fine as they engage in a responsible drawdown. Because in some cases, Iraqi security cannot handle it. They don’t have the intelligence capability. They don’t have the technology to detect explosives.

They don’t have a lot of the more sophisticated skills and the technological assets they actually would need to be able to fight this insurgency. They certainly have what it takes in terms of cultural knowledge, obviously, but this is still an insurgency. When you can build two-ton truck bombs in the middle of Baghdad, which is, according the interior ministry, where it happened, and then drive them through the streets, there’s got to be something wrong there.

And finally:

These were the worst attacks in more than a year and half, but it’s really the repercussions that will have as major an impact as the bombings themselves.

Indeed. And it will only get worse.

[h/t Captain’s Journal.]

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Meanwhile, in the Forgotten War:

Major Shiite groups have formed a new alliance that will exclude the Iraqi prime minister, lawmakers said Monday, a move likely to stoke fears of increasing Iranian influence and shake up the political landscape ahead of January parliamentary elections.

The coalition will include the largest Shiite party, the Iranian-backed Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc, which could give Tehran deeper influence in Iraq just as U.S. forces begin to withdraw.

Prime Minister al-Sadr?

That would indeed be what loony outliers like myself would think, but Reidar Visser suggests another possibility:

During the spring there was a lot of cross-sectarian cooperation in the Iraqi parliament, but while this resulted in victories like the provincial elections law, nothing durable came out of all the promises of a monster national alliance. Maliki, for his part, will also need to go beyond what he accomplished in the local elections, which was more of a shift in rhetoric than a real integration of new political forces outside the Shiite Islamist core. So far there has been talk about an alliance between Maliki and the awakening forces of Anbar. As for the nationalists, there are signs of growing cooperation between forces like Iraqiyya, the Constitutional Party of Jawad al-Bulani, Tariq al-Hashimi, Salih al-Mutlak, Nadim al-Jabiri (from Fadila, which early on rejected the UIA makeover as political theatre but which now is reported as a last-minute convert to the project) and Mahmud al-Mashhadani (the former speaker of parliament, associated with the 22 July movement) – a trend that seems particularly significant in that it could potentially reverse a tendency of Iraqiyya to sometimes support ISCI in parliament even in cases where this runs counter to its own declared ideological principles (in early August there was even a visit by an Iraqiyya delegation to Iran). If two such grand cross-sectarian coalitions should emerge then the next elections could indeed become a step forward for Iraq.

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Matthew Yglesias thinks I’m overestimating the Taliban:

Seriously, however high ‘toppling the Pakistani government’ may be on the Taliban to-do list, it’s still, you know, hard. Indeed, it’s worth emphasizing that on both sides of the border there are actual human beings living and fighting against the Taliban who would continue to resist Taliban domination of their countries even if the United States didn’t lift a finger to help them. It’s important not to confuse the difficulty the U.S., Karzai, Pakistan, etc. have with dislodging the Pakistan from their home base with the idea that the Taliban is some kind of all-powerful super-army capable of easily overrunning Islamabad or the Panjshir Valley.

Matthew. Dude. Lemme tell you a story, hmmkay?

There was a time, back when you were, um, on fifth grade, when this weird bunch of black-turbaned madrassa students driving fancy Toyota pickups appeared out of nowhere in Southern Afghanistan. Even those of us who had been covering Afghanistan for some time went like, whoa, WTF is this now? But the country at the time was in pretty bad shape — you know, bodies on the streets and stuff — so we thought, first of all, these guys ain’t gonna last, and second, even if they did, is that really so bad, seeing as they were kind of bringing order to a crazy situation? Next thing we knew, they’d taken this butthole-of-the-world sort of town called Kandahar (pronounced like ‘Pandahar’ but with a ‘k’). We said okay, that was easy ’cause that’s their home turf, but from now on it’s uphill and getting steeper. Yeah, well. A year later they were in Herat, and then Kabul fell. And then they started striking all these deals with local honchos in places where there weren’t even any of those majority Pashtun people, and one morning we woke up and the bastards were all over Mazar-e-Sharif. They weren’t supposed to. They were supposed to be just this ragtag bunch of redneck zealots. I mean, hell, it was supposed to be, you know, hard to take over Afghanistan. But just ’cause you think nothing bad’s gonna happen doesn’t mean it won’t.

So, dude, most of us kinda spent the 90s underestimating the Taliban. We were wrong so many times a dork like yours truly couldn’t even count that far. These hillbillies turned out to be pretty awesome at manipulating other bad guys to join them and making the rest really really pissed off at each other, and they weren’t too bad at waging war, either. And when they were done, we were, like, whoa, what just happened?

Oh, and then there were these other yahoos called al-Qaeda (pronounced ‘Al Cayda’, like a mobster or something). But that’s another story.


Fabius Maximus, who I kindly suggest should breathe into a paper bag next time before posting, directs a payload of snark my way as retaliation for my Alarmist and Inflammatory South Asian Nuclear Armageddon Scenario™.  As a gentle rejoinder, I offer the following:

  1. In the space of just two and half years — that’s 32 months — after India’s second nuclear test and Pakistan carrying out its own in 1998, the two countries were on the brink of nuclear war twice. Both times, in the Kargil War of 1999 and the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, the issue was Kashmir, a conflict greatly exacerbated by the instability in Afghanistan, where many of the pro-Pakistan terrorist groups formed and trained. In short, this is a uniquely dangerous place, and if you think the probability of nuclear war is “well under 1%”, as Fabius does, please visit your local library, and we’ll talk more.
  2. Contrary to what Fabius claims, I’m not declaring anything “to be a reason for war”. I’m merely suggesting we cannot disengage without risking a wider confrontation that may include the use of weapons of mass destruction. A Taliban takeover in Afghanistan would further destabilise Pakistan, possibly prompting a military coup, which in turn would increase the risk of another standoff with India. Even more importantly, a precipitous departure of foreign troops from Afghanistan would lead to rapid loss of Western diplomatic leverage in the region. See Iraq, Republic of.
  3. Pointing out Finland’s ludicrously small contribution to ISAF, something I have frequently criticised, Fabius asks: “What do you mean by ‘we’, Mr. Lindholm?” Well, let’s see. There are 42 countries fighting this war — or “managing the crisis”, as we say in Finland –, so by “we” I could mean a pretty good cross-section of the international community, right? Or, since Finland, Sweden and Norway, together with Germany, are securing ISAF’s northern flank, I could maybe mean “the European Union”, no? Or, hey, with Swedish and Finnish troops now engaged in firefights almost daily in Sar-e-Pol, and being hit with suicide bombers and IEDs in the meantime, could I possibly mean “we Scandinavians”? Alas, with Finland lagging so embarrassingly behind in the number of combat deaths, by “we” I couldn’t possibly mean “we Finns” until we earn our place in Fabius Maximus’s short list of honourable warfighting nations, right?

[Fabius has updated his post with more huffing and puffing. Habibi: You like to say you “don’t understand” my arguments. But I think you understand them all too well; you’re just confusing “not understanding” with “not hearing what one wants to hear”. That’s okay — I get that a lot at home with my 6-year-old. I’m glad, though, that you did get the Onionesque tone of my take on Yglesias’s post. That was my way of saying I think most of the time you guys don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Maybe you’re too young, maybe you don’t study the region enough, who knows. Bottom line: with this issue, I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.]

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Bernard Finel lays out an alternative strategy for Afghanistan:

  1. A “relatively rapid” withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan.
  2. Development aid and military assistance to the Afghan government.
  3. Should the Taliban regain power, “limited but consistent” diplomatic engagement and “credible communication” of “our commitment to again remove them from power if they in any way tolerate the establishment of anti-American terrorist networks on their soil.”
  4. Recommitment to do “everything in our power to resolve tensions between India and Pakistan.”
  5. Ensuring the safety and well-being of Afghans who have supported the U.S. since 2001.
  6. Continuing clarification of the international legal obligations of states regarding terrorist groups operating from their soil.

I have a number of problems with this.

The first one is fundamental. It isn’t a strategy. Whereas the U.S. and its partners in Afghanistan have tended to call any statement of desired outcomes a “strategy”, Finel’s list is all means and no end. What is the preferred end state here? If it is a viable, non-Taliban Afghan state, surely we agree that the strategy for getting there ought to be different from one for dealing with the Taliban? You don’t design a working strategy by caveating it with “in case we fail”. You choose an aim and plot a course. At least that’s what I was taught.

My second objection should be obvious to anyone who has read my previous posts on Afghan strategy. I simply don’t think this would work. And I think, with all due respect, that this line of reasoning is intellectually a little dishonest — it assumes the best when suggesting a withdrawal but the worst when discussing escalation.

In any case, it all sounds so, I dunno… 90s: political and material support to local power players, assistance and aid through the UN and NGOs, diplomatic “engagement” of good guys and bad, trying to keep the Indo-Pak rivalry at bay by long-distance mediation… I think it’s fair to say it didn’t work. And I think at this point in time, with all the historical evidence to the contrary, it’s wishful thinking to assume that without our military presence, a foreign-supported government in Kabul could withstand the Taliban assault — and that, when the Taliban did seize power, we could persuade them to play nice with the other kids just by threatening to slap them on the wrist with a wet tram ticket.

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