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Robert Kaplan: Man vs. Afghanistan



“In December 2006, Williams told me, there were more than 140 suicide bombings in Baghdad, a level of violence that he likened to the Nazi Blitz on London. In December 2007, there were five. “General McChrystal delivered that statistic,” a feat that not even the recent bombings in Baghdad can detract from. In Iraq, he went on, General Stanley A. McChrystal raised the “hard, nasty business” of counterterrorism—of “black ops”—to an industrial scale, with 10 nightly raids throughout the city, 300 a month, that McChrystal, now 55, regularly joined.”

“The insurgency is only fundamentally effective in the Pashtun belt. The critical part of the population is where the water and the roads are. People near water are more important economically: along the Helmand and Kabul rivers. You secure these areas, and you take the oxygen out of the insurgency.” (McChrystal)

“The dispersal of Afghanistan’s larger population over greater territory than Iraq’s is basically meaningless, British Army Major General Colin Boag told me: because 65 percent of the population lives within 35 miles of the main road system, which approximates the old medieval caravan routes, only 80 out of 342 districts are really key to military success.Afghanistan is not some barbaric back-of-beyond, but the heart of a cultural continuum connecting the cosmopolitan centers of Persia and India. In fact, Afghanistan has been governed from the center since the 18th century: Kabul, if not always a point of authority, has been at least a point of arbitration. Especially between the early 1930s and the early 1970s, Afghanistan experienced moderate and constructive government under the constitutional monarchy of Zahir Shah. A highway system on which it was safe to travel united the major cities, while estimable health and development programs were on the verge of eradicating malaria. Toward the end of this period, I hitchhiked and rode buses across Afghanistan. I never felt threatened, and I was able to send books and clothes back home through functioning post offices.”

“Afghanistan was a cakewalk in 2001 and 2002,” says Sarah Chayes, former special adviser to McChrystal’s headquarters. “We started out with a country that hated the Taliban and by 2009 were driving people back into the arms of the Taliban. That’s not fate. That’s poor policy.” We enabled an administration, led by Hamid Karzai, that is less a government than a protection racket, in which bribery is the basis of a whole chain of transactions, from small sums paid to criminals at roadblocks in the south of the country to tens of millions of dollars smuggled out of the Kabul airport by government ministers. The myth is that the absence of governance in Afghanistan creates a vacuum in which the Taliban thrive. But the truth, as Chayes explains, is the opposite. Karzai governs everywhere in the revenue belt, synonymous with Pashtunistan, in the south and east of the country: the Taliban succeed in these very places, not because of no governance but because of corrupt and abusive governance.

Referring to the evolution of the former mujahideen commanders into gangster-oligarchs under Karzai, an Afghan analyst, Walid Tamim, told me: “Warlords like Rabbani, Fahim, Sayyaf, and Dostum have all been empowered by Karzai and the U.S. government. Why is [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar any worse than these guys?” Ashraf Ghani, the country’s finance minister from 2002 to 2004, explained: “The core threat we all face is the Afghan government itself. About two-thirds of revenue is lost to abuse. This isn’t like corruption in Indonesia, where money is stolen but things still get built; here it is all looted, because the warlords are insecure about what may come next in Afghan politics.” Even as American officers talk publicly in bland clichés about partnering with and improving the performance of the Karzai government, the grim reality of Afghan public life is distinguished by corruption, criminality, and poverty.

To accomplish this gargantuan mission, we have stood up the doctrine of counterinsurgency, the rough military equivalent of liberal internationalism, moral interventionism, and nation-building rolled into one. Counterinsurgency’s core goal is to protect and nurture the civilian population—the center of gravity in postmodern war—and psychologically and physically separate it from the insurgents. Culturally sensitive troops build schools and dig wells for the villagers, even as they train and mentor local forces to fight the enemy, and strive to monopolize the use of force in a given space.

Counterinsurgency is not new to the U.S. military—indeed, it dates back at least to the Philippine War more than a century ago—but its lessons were repeatedly forgotten by the U.S. Army over the course of the 20th century. To make sure that doesn’t happen again, the Army and Marines cooperated on a Counterinsurgency Field Manual, published three years ago. Remarkably, its introduction was written by a former director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Sarah Sewall. In it, she notes that the manual “challenges much of what is holy about the American way of war,” for it directs U.S. forces to “make securing the civilian, rather than destroying the enemy, their top priority.” But what is the counterinsurgent to do, given that in an era of total war as waged by radical Islamists, distinguishing between combatant and noncombatant is often impossible? The answer, according to Sewall, is to “assume more risk.”

In order to be a more effective weapon of war, American ground forces are therefore becoming more like armed relief workers. They will still train to kill, they will continue to kill in counterterrorism operations, and they will be prepared to kill in more-traditional kinds of interstate war that might erupt in the course of the new century. For the moment, however, American troops will incur more casualties in the service of idealist interventionism, in a place far less developed than either the Balkans or Iraq.

Rory Stewart: Even if the Taliban did overrun a major city, they are unlikely to repeat the mistake of the 1990s and shelter alQaeda. In short, the Taliban are neither as easily defeated nor as dangerous as we like to think. Forget about state-building or counterinsurgency, he implies, which remains “the irresistible illusion.”

McChrystal and his team are burdened by Stewart’s misgivings. Contemplating failure for a moment, McChrystal told me, “We’ll know it when we won’t be able to move our troops around.” McChrystal had Stewart to dinner to talk about his article. “He’s got a different point of view,” McChrystal said, uncharacteristically struggling for words. “I just think that Afghanistan has been a country and that the pieces can be put in place to make it work.”

“Look,” said Sir Graeme Lamb, a former British Special Air Service commander and McChrystal adviser, “we don’t have a grand design [as Stewart thinks]. We’ve been doing this kind of thing in Iraq, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Africa, and other places for a long time, and we’re comfortable in these thresholds of complexity and chaos. We’re the men ‘in the arena,’ to take a line from Theodore Roosevelt. We will adjust the positions of authority on the battlefield in 2010 so that good things can naturally emerge.”

…Major General Michael Flynn, McChrystal’s intelligence chief, views the Taliban less benignly:

“Like the rest of us,” Flynn told me, “Mullah Omar is a decade older and wiser than he was on 9/11. He has restructured his political organization to give it more staying power, if in fact it gets back into power. In the meantime, they are killing us with IEDs [improvised explosive devices] the way the mujahideen killed the Soviets with our Stinger missiles. This is a vastly harder enemy than in 2001. They’re better than even the Eritreans were [in the 1970s and 1980s]. They absolutely know insurgency doctrine and are spread throughout the country, including the north, in order to disperse us, which they are succeeding at.” Unlike Stewart, Flynn believes that if we left Afghanistan, the Taliban might well be able to triumph over non-Pashtun groups.

Kolenda, a West Point graduate with the sharp-eyed, comforting manner of a family physician, commanded the 1st Squadron of the 91st Cavalry from May 2007 to July 2008 in northeastern Afghanistan, on the border with Pakistan. When Kolenda’s 800-soldier battalion arrived, armed violence was endemic. Coalition headquarters in Kabul blamed a Pakistan-based insurgency. “The conventional wisdom was wrong,” Kolenda told me. “Almost all of the insurgents were locals who fought for a whole variety of reasons: they were disgusted with ISAF, as well as the government in Kabul; their fathers had fought the Soviets and now the sons were fighting the new foreigners.”

…A deal with the insurgents constitutes another part of a withdrawal strategy. While becoming more organizationally formidable since 9/11, the Taliban have also modified their behavior. Mullah Omar has sent out a directive banning beheadings and unauthorized kidnappings as well as other forms of violent and criminal activity, according to both Al-Jazeera and ISAF officials. “In a way, we’re seeing a kinder, gentler Taliban,” said both Commander Eggers and General Flynn. Moreover, in working with the tribes in the spirit of Churchill’s Malakand Field Force, Flynn, the intelligence chief, went so far as to suggest that the insurgent leaders Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are both “absolutely salvageable.” “The HIG already have members in Karzai’s government, and it could evolve into a political party, even though Hekmatyar may be providing alQaeda leaders refuge in Kunar. Hekmatyar has reconcilable ambitions. As for the Haqqani network, I can tell you they are tired of fighting, but are not about to give up. They have lucrative business interests to protect: the road traffic from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to Central Asia.” Lamb, the former SAS commander, added: “Haqqani and Hekmatyar are pragmatists tied to the probability of outcomes. With all the talk of Islamic ideology, this is the land of the deal."

… the resemblance to the 1980s is telling, with leading anti-Soviet combatants like Haqqani and Hekmatyar central to the military equation, and a partially irrelevant Karzai: today ISAF officials talk quietly about working around Karzai by dealing directly with the ministries of interior and defense, and with the offices of the provincial governors, all of which they are fortifying with Western advisers.

…Now the American military is about to bear down hard on Greater Kandahar, where Taliban- and Karzai-affiliated warlords hold considerable sway. “We will get to about 33 percent of the Afghan landmass in the next 15 months or so, affecting 60 percent of the population,” Rodriguez assured me.

by teru kuwayama at 2010-03-11 15:53:24 UTC | Bookmark | | Report spam→

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teru kuwayama, I/O teru kuwayama
New York , United States


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