Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

How to Make More Taleban

They don’t mention this in FM 3-24, but it’s actually pretty easy to create an insurgent. Here’s how:

An American patrol gets lost near the Pakistani border and finds itself conducting a KLE, or “key leader engagement” in the wrong village. The usual bunch shows up: snot-nosed kids, giggling teenagers and local layabouts, but definitely no “key leaders”. Tea is poured and the platoon leader, an industrious young lieutenant with a Ranger tab on his sleeve, tries to strike up a conversation through his interpreter.

Just as the lieutenant is starting to get fidgety, one of the sullen young men squatting in front of him speaks up — in fluent, Pakistani-accented English. An exchange ensues. The man wants to know why the patrol is in the village; the lieutenant wants to know where the man has learned English.

“In Peshawar. I’m a medical student.”

“A med student? So why are you here?”

“My family lives in that house over there.”

“What does your father do?”

“He is a cardiologist.”

The conversation turns to politics. The lieutenant wants to know what the man thinks of the Taleban; the man wants to know why the foreign troops are in Afghanistan.

“You tear up our holy Quran and urinate on it.”

“That is not true.”

“Also, you secretly photograph our women. I have read about it.”

The platoon returns to the COP. The lieutenant reports the bad news — wrong village — and the good — an encounter with a suspected Taleban sympathiser. “There was definitely something fishy about that dude”, he tells the company commander. “Yeah”, the commander says, “judging by what you’ve told me I’d say he’s definitely Taleban.”

News of 1st Platoon’s stroke of luck travels fast. Everyone agrees there’s no fucking way you’d quote anti-ISAF propaganda unless you’re a bad guy. The fishiness of the English-speaking dude is pondered on endlessly, and by chowtime the son of a local doctor has become “a Taleban medic”.

[In case the Americans portrayed in my last two blog posts come across as bungling idiots, let me clarify: they were anything but. The soldiers and officers of the unit I embedded with were courteous and disciplined, with superb tactical skills and excellent knowledge of their battlespace. Commanded by a bespectacled young captain, himself a veteran of two tours in Iraq, the company had suffered more casualties during its deployment than any other unit in RC-East; yet the men treated the locals with respect. Alas, this was Afghanistan, and their task — expanding the “security bubble” around the COP — was proving near impossible. The mission has since ended, and I don’t know what happened to them. But I’m pretty sure they learned, like everyone else, that in Afghanistan, meaning well does not equate with doing well.]

       © Jari Lindholm

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Has counterinsurgency failed in Afghanistan? Two stories from an embed:

An American ISAF patrol discovers an IED on a treeless hillock near the Pakistani border. EOD is called in. Their Black Hawk lands on a local farmer’s wheat field, ruining his harvest.

Dismayed villagers gather around to look at the destruction. The Americans, fearing ambush, do nothing, until a young sergeant decides to take matters into his own hands and approaches the farmer.

“I just lost 700 kilos of wheat”, the man says, barely able to hide his rage. “What are you going to do about it?”

“Well”, says the sergeant, “we will give money to the district sub-governor, and he will compensate you for your loss.”

The farmer stares at the soldier. “You don’t understand. If the Taleban see me entering the sub-governor’s house, they will come at night and kill me. In any case, the sub-governor is a thief. He will just keep the money for himself. It is much better if I come to your base tomorrow and you give me cash.”

“Well, sir”, says the sergeant, ever polite, “I will certainly take the matter up with my commanding officer.”

The meeting ends. The farmer never gets his money.

An American rifle company manning a small COP near the Pakistani border gets fed up with the constant rocket and mortar fire. In a show of force, the Americans, supported by 17 armoured trucks and 80 soldiers from a nearby FOB, with air cover by F-15s, Tornados and Kiowas, cordon off a troublesome bazaar. All adult males, numbering at least 1,000, are marched out of the village and made to wait in the searing heat. Their irises are then scanned with portable biometric devices called HIIDEs, and the photos, along with their personal details, are uploaded into a database.

When the procedure is over, the Afghans are free to leave, but not until the Americans have stamped the backs of their hands with the battle cry of the Oklahoma Sooners: “Boomer Sooner!”  The Afghans don’t seem to appreciate the joke, but the Americans savour their payback. “The Taleban sure are gonna be pissed off!”

And so they are: an hour after the operation ends, recoilless rounds once again hit the COP. Later, a lieutenant checks the day’s iris scans against the HIIDE database for bad guys. Number of hits: zero.

       © Jari Lindholm

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In the now-infamous Rolling Stone piece, General Stanley McChrystal and his staff  — “a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs” — imagine the general dismissing Vice President Joe Biden in a press conference “with a good one-liner”:

‘Are you asking about Vice President Biden?’ McChrystal says with a laugh. ‘Who’s that?’

‘Biden?’ suggests a top adviser. ‘Did you say: Bite Me?’

At another point, McChrystal checks his BlackBerry.

‘Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke,’ he groans. ‘I don’t even want to open it.’ He clicks on the message and reads the salutation out loud, then stuffs the BlackBerry back in his pocket, not bothering to conceal his annoyance.

‘Make sure you don’t get any of that on your leg,’ an aide jokes, referring to the e-mail.

Innocent shit like that and a guy gets fired? Jeez, what’s the world coming to…

For a while I was at a loss why McChrystal, who by all accounts is not totally unsavvy when it comes to the media, would allow himself and his team to vent like that when a reporter is around. But then I read this bit in a Reuters interview with the magazine’s Executive Editor, Eric Bates:

Indeed, [Bates] said, most of the general’s most explosive remarks came within five hours of Rolling Stone’s reporter gaining access to him.

What this tells me is that McChrystal no longer gave a fuck about his command and had decided to go out cowboy style, using as a vehicle a magazine that actually prints swear words. Why he would expect a story like that to “shift the debate” and not just make him look like a dork is beyond me. And frankly, who cares after this bit of news?

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One of the reasons I’m so tired of debating Afghanistan — and, frankly, of blogging about it — is that bad ideas just don’t seem to go away. It’s like talking to a wall: “Let’s destroy the poppy fields.” “But it’s a bad idea.” “Yeah. Umm, let’s destroy the poppy fields.”  Or how about the continuing obsession over tribal militias? Alex Strick van Linschoten calls it — quite generously, I think — “hope tactics”. What it actually reminds me of is this:

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Hey, who says we’re not pulling our weight?

Finland has decided to send more forces to Afghanistan. The Cabinet Committee on Foreign and Security Policy, along with President Tarja Halonen, decided on Friday that Finland should increase its current deployment of about 120 soldiers by more than 50.

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As if things weren’t gloomy enough, the UNODC report on corruption in Afghanistan is out:

In the aggregate, Afghans paid out $2.5 billion in bribes over the past 12 months – that’s equivalent to almost one quarter (23%) of Afghanistan’s GDP. By coincidence, this is similar to the revenue accrued by the opium trade in 2009 (which we have estimated separately at $2.8 billion). In other words, and this is shocking, drugs and bribes are the two largest income generators in Afghanistan: together they amount to about half the country’s (licit) GDP.

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The United States won the war in Afghanistan in 2002. That’s right — seven years ago. How do I know? Because Bernard Finel says so. He even quotes some other dude as saying basically the same thing:

This war should have been over the moment we disposed of the Taliban.

Fellas. It was. And that’s exactly the problem. The U.S. had 5,200 troops in Afghanistan in 2002. It still had only 15,200 troops in 2004 when the insurgency was already picking up steam. The United States, as is its wont, considered the war won and the job done when it wasn’t. That is why we are where we are today.

Just in case this is somehow difficult to grasp, let me repeat: The United States hasn’t been fighting a full-scale war in Afghanistan for the past eight years. It had a light military presence in the country for seven years while its enemies regrouped. Because it neglected Afghanistan and failed to commit what was needed and finish what it had started, it is now in an unsalvageable situation. No amount of “we-chased-the-Taliban-away-and-destroyed-al-Qaeda’s-camps-and-we-won-we-won-we-won” fantasising will change this fact.

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Although Obama didn’t specifically say much about anything in Tuesday’s speech — in comparison, Bush’s January 2007 address read like a Petraeus PowerPoint — we did get a few numbers:

  • 30,000. The number of extra troops to be sent to Afghanistan. It may be inadequate in terms of commonly used counterinsurgent/civilian ratios for COIN campaigns, but compared to Bush’s Iraq “surge” it’s a massive increase in troop strength — close to 50 percent. Not only will it have a profound social impact in the U.S., it will be very visible on the ground and affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Afghans. Unfortunately, it will also generate huge media interest in the West, leading to a parallel surge of bad reportage and stupid punditry.
  • 18. The number of months until the start of drawdown. Also known as “a year and a half”. Incidentally, also the number of months Obama allocated for his promised Iraq withdrawal. While this time frame has nothing whatsoever to do with Afghanistan, there is nothing arbitrary about it either. Simply put, it is the longest period of time a politician can describe in a difficult speech using months instead of years without sounding like a slimeball.
  • 6. The number of years the U.S. neglected Afghanistan, according to Obama. Also the number of House Republicans who opposed authorising Bush to invade Iraq.
  • 2011. Year of the promised “responsible transition” of U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. Also the year of U.S. pullout from Iraq. Also the year of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Also the year of Canada’s announced departure from Afghanistan. (The Dutch will leave in 2010. The German mandate expires the same year.) Also the year when Obama will start preparing for his re-election campaign. Also the year when, according to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the world will end.

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Christian pretty much said it all, but let’s not forget the human dimension:

During a nationally televised address Tuesday, a visibly tired and worn President Obama informed the country that he was going out for a pack of cigarettes and would be back in 10 minutes or so.

At press time, it was already getting dark and he had not yet returned.

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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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