Archive for November, 2009

Tom Ricks lists the top 10 COINdinistas, and Schmedlap, not unreasonably, takes issue with the omissions.

My question, though, is this: who are the top practitioners of COINcraft — or whatever you prefer to call inventive soldiering these days — on the ground in Afghanistan right now? No, I don’t mean McChrystal and Rodriguez. Who — and where — are the McMasters and McFarlands of this war?

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U.S. President Barack Obama vowed on Tuesday to ‘finish the job’ of an unpopular and costly eight-year war in Afghanistan, and officials said he could announce an increase of around 30,000 troops next week.

Okay. If by “finishing the job” he means achieving the core goals he set in his March White Paper — “disrupting terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan”, “promoting a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan” etc. — I think it’s safe to say that’s not gonna happen. He simply won’t have enough time on his clock. According to David Kilcullen’s recent estimate, even failing counterinsurgency campaigns usually take 9-11 years. By my count, that would put us way past the end of Obama’s second term.

To realise just how hard this stuff is, look at the massive international efforts in Bosnia and DR Congo. Fourteen years after the war, Bosnia is still beset by ethnic divisions and hatred, according to The Washington Post:

In June, the international envoy who oversees the rebuilding of Bosnia invoked emergency powers that he said were necessary to hold the country together. Although U.S. and European officials have been trying to get Bosnia to stand on its own feet for years, many Bosnian leaders say the only thing that can permanently fix their gridlocked government is for Washington to intervene — again — and rewrite the treaty that ended the war in 1995.

In the DRC, more than 4 million people have died since 1996, yet by its own admission the United Nations has failed miserably in its efforts to bring about peace:

The massive U.N. peacekeeping effort in eastern Congo has failed to deliver a knockout blow to Rwandan rebels while local insurgents have seized new territory under its nose, United Nations experts said Wednesday.

Far from resolving the root causes of the violence, the presence of the world’s biggest peacekeeping mission has aggravated the conflict in North and South Kivu provinces, the report seen by Reuters Wednesday said.

Just sayin’.

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The Best Blog About Iraq

Many of you probably already know this, but just in case you don’t, Reidar Visser now has a blog. What was supposed to be “an occasional supplement” to his excellent website Historiae.org has quickly become the place to visit for deep and up-to-date information on Iraq. There’s a lot to absorb there, but if you have at least one scholarly bone in your body, it’s hugely rewarding. Commenters include heavyweights like Sam Parker and Michael Hanna.

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I’m going to recommend a couple of things that y’all should read, ay-sap. One you can download for free; the other you need to pay for. One you can digest pretty quickly; the other is academic and requires a little effort.

The first one is the new Oxfam Afghan poll (sort of), titled The Cost of War. You can download it here. It is important because it represents a good cross-section of rarely heard Afghan public opinion. The paper notes, among other things, that Afghans don’t see the presence of foreign troops as one of the major causes of the current war:

Seven in ten (70%) individuals saw unemployment and poverty as a major cause of the conflict, while almost half (48%) pointed to the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Afghan government. Other factors that individuals identified as major drivers of the conflict were: the Taliban (36%); interference by other countries (25%); Al Qaeda (18%); the presence of international forces (18%); lack of support from the international community (17%); warlords (15%); and criminal groups (14%).

My second recommendation is Decoding the New Taliban, a collection of scholarly articles edited by Antonio Giustozzi. It’s not this blog’s policy to link to commercial outlets, but I’m sure you’ll find a place to buy it online in no time. When you get it, start from Thomas Ruttig’s piece on Haqqani — a real eye-opener even for us who have met the old man.

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There is much to recommend in Joost Hiltermann’s article in The New York Review of Books about the daunting challenges that may yet lead to Iraq’s unraveling. Money quote from a Western aid worker living in Baghdad’s “red zone”:

Some four hundred to five hundred people are killed per month. Compared to other countries, this is extremely high, but here, that’s quite good. There is a feeling things are almost normal. Bombs are going off all the time, but we could call it a ‘banalization’ of violence: people sitting in one room no longer pay attention to the bomb going off next door, so to speak.

I’ve heard it called “residual violence” and “the irreducible minimum”, but never banal. The brutalising impact, of course, remains just as deadly as ever. As long as the madness continues, the nation will not heal. Hence, it’s not so much a question of why the Arabs and the Kurds would go to war as it is of why the hell not.

[h/t Ricks.]

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They may have looked like a farce, but at the local level the Afghan elections actually did change the balance of power, and in a relatively peaceful manner, Noah Coburn and Anna Larson write in an excellent new AREU briefing paper. Their conclusions:

  • Local elections matter and need to be prioritised by both national and international actors.
  • Elections in 2009 were not a complete failure: people did vote and power balances did change at the local level; but
  • There is an urgent need to reassess (especially international) expectations of what an ‘electoral success’ might look like. In a context in which an ongoing insurgency meant that much of the country was not represented at the polls, and with a flawed voter registration process that has been a poor substitute for a valid census, it was misguided to expect elections this year to be a test of ‘democracy’ in Afghanistan
  • Preparations for 2010 parliamentary elections must begin now if the polls are to be seen by the voting public—and the international community—as worthwhile and credible.

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So he quits.

I’ll be very interested to hear what Obama has to say about Afghanistan when he finally lays out his strategy, presumably next week. How does he explain a troop increase to bolster a COIN campaign when the host government clearly has lost its legitimacy? Or will he use this as an opportunity for a face-saving exit instead? Has Abdullah just handed Obama the ticket out?

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