Control of the Afghan Population Is Uneven

This week the Afghan government lost another district in Helmand, named Khanashin District, (also known as Reg).  Lying 60 miles or so southwest of the capital Lashkar Gah, Khanashin is a belt of irrigated land alongside the Helmand River in the middle of a great big desert.  The US Marines lost men to pacify it, then handed it over to the Afghans, who have lost it.

The loss is no surprise. This year the Afghans already lost two other districts in Helmand – Musa Qalah and Naw Zad, where the Marines and British also lost men.  The Afghan security forces pulled out, having decided they were indefensible and not much was gained by staying anyway.

I’m not writing to lament another defeat that no one really notices. That’s an old story.

The real issue lies in how we Americans have swept the truth of poor security in the districts under the rug for years.  We don’t own up to what is really happening across Afghanistan. Please bear with me, because you won’t see this described elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the US engages in fancy footwork that puts a relatively happy gloss on the war.  We are constantly told the war is going “well enough.”   Which prevents us getting a realistic view of the war or making adjustments.

The story continues until something significant breaks, such as General Campbell declaring Americans drawdown has to be halted for a while, since security is too fragile.

Or a city falls, as Kunduz did for a couple of weeks last September (predictably, there’s an “it wasn’t that bad” story about that, too).

Or the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan reports, as it did in January, “The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001.”

Then we get a peek of the problems lying just beneath the surface.

To understand what officialdom’s fancy footwork looks like, consider Musa Qalah.  The Daily Telegraph in London described the fall of Musa Qalah in December, some four months ago.  The district center was lost, the Taliban triumphed and controlled the entire district.

Well, not the entire district.  You see, the government forces kept one tiny toehold in Musa Qalah.  A wind-swept hill called Roshan Tower, plus a couple of checkpoints scattered across the desert.  (Roshan is the name of an Afghan phone company, and the hill is named after the phone tower on it).

From the hill, you can see the Helmand River and some villages. But the security forces on the hill could affect neither the villagers nor the Taliban controlling the district center and moving freely.  Roshan Towers offered great views and little else.

So the Afghan security forces pulled out last month.  Why maintain a useless base?  They also pulled out of neighboring Naw Zad District for much the same reason.

But until then, the government marked Musa Qalah as being in their hands.  US officials referred queries on the status of districts to the Afghans. Americans back home, if they cared to check, would naturally assume the government controlled the population.  After all, the district hadn’t fallen, right?

Wrong. The Taliban controlled the population, despite Roshan Tower.

This misperception is, for want of a better word, a miscommunication to the American public.  Or an inadvertent fraud.  The numbers are fudged across Afghanistan and have been for years.  This probably isn’t done with any particular decision by the US military in Kabul to pervert the understanding of the American public.  They simply see things with a can-do attitude.

But it is wrong.  Across Afghanistan, areas where government control is tenuous, where it perhaps holds the district center and not much else, are considered in the government column.  The idea that holding a district center or a hill means something is a fallacy.  The reality in these places (of which there are many) is that the Taliban control almost all the people.

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In Atgar District in Zabul Province, the security forces control the bazaar outside the base and make sporadic forays into the surrounding village, where their hold is tenuous.

The US commander, General John Campbell, just left, after handing over to a new man named General John Nicholson. Campbell was complacent about the state of the war in the districts, even when the district centers were overrun.

Last August, Campbell said losing district centers posed no problem, because they would eventually be won back.  In his words, “They [the Taliban] are going to take a district center and they’re going to lose it.  They’re going to take another district center and they’re going to lose it.  So they’re not going to take terrain, you talk about the cities, the ring road, they’re not going to gain any territory that means a great deal or has any value top Afghanistan.”

Of course, a few weeks later the government lost Kunduz.  And a few weeks after that Campbell halted the US withdrawal. I doubt the Afghan villagers, who see the Taliban overrunning government strongholds, would be so sanguine.

How can we explain officialdom’s alternate view of reality?  I don’t know. It’s a problem though, because when we don’t hear the realistic situation, we don’t feel the need to discuss options that might help solve the problems. Options such as mentoring the Afghans in more locations, more bombing to support checkpoints under attack, faster development of the Afghan Air Force, or even guarantees of aid past 2017 (where the guarantee now stops).

These options never reach the table for discussion, even though ordinary failures in the districts are undermining our strategic goals.  The example of Musa Qalah helps explain how the obscuring veil is cast.

Spreading the Word in the Muslim World

The Islamic State occupies two cities in Iraq.  In one, Fallujah, the local people have just about had enough. Young men are rising up and opposing the extremists.  (The other city is Mosul in the north).
Fallujah, in western Anbar Province, is the heartland of the Sunnis in Iraq.  If anyone in Iraq would approve of IS, it would be these guys.

The people in Fallujah are being forced to take action because the Iraqi army and militias, which are mostly Shia, have surrounded the city.  Food is scarce and people blame IS. But that’s not the only reason.

Anbar has a history of banding together to throw off the rule of extremists. In mid-2006, at the height of the insurgency in Iraq, tribes began to work with the Americans, determined to push out al Qaeda in Iraq.  AQI ran most of Anbar, and the people didn’t like it one bit. Lucky for us, the Sunni tribes worked with us to get rid of them. It was a huge success.

Just a few months ago, local Sunni tribes helped the government kick IS out of the othermajor city in Anbar Province, named Ramadi.

The point of this summary is that just because you are Islamic, or even Sunni, and live in Iraq or any of the Middle Eastern countries, does not mean you automatically support IS. In fact, you probably don’t. You probably find their policies to be abhorrent and anachronistic.  But what can you do?  They have the guns.  Well, there is something they can do.

This dislike of IS is true across almost all of the Muslim world. Afghanistan, Indonesia, Sudan.  Nobody likes these people, even where they have what apparently looks like a lot of support. For instance, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula exists in Yemen, but only in the eastern desert wastelands, not in Sanaa, the capital.

The extremists live in a larger Islamic world where the cultural traditions are multifaceted.  In the last century, Muslims have spent more time coexisting than killing each other. The Iran-Iraq war began because (secular) Saddar Hussein decided to grab some territory from a distracted Iran, a miscalculation that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. How secular? Saddam, when he came to power, used to spend Fridays handing out bottles of scotch whiskey to picnickers on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad.
So the fighting and divisions in the Islamic world are not inevitable, nor are they a sign that Muslim people are crazy. We are seeing, rather, a civil war of ideas in which a very loud and well-armed minority is making a bid to take over the whole enchilada. This is a war of ideas backed up by a war of guns.

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A mosque in Baghdad, 2005

Because it is primarily a war of ideas, we can look at our own daily experience to calculate who’s “winning”.  After all, everyone in the West understands exactly what IS stands for, what they want and what they will do to get it

But who understands what so-called moderate Muslims believe?  What they want, what they will fight for, what they need for support?

Few people in the West know.  In fact, Islamic moderates are fragmented, distracted and under siege, beset by crises from Mali and Libya to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

To fight this war of ideas, moderates Muslims need a public relations revolution. That is, governments, clerics, nationalist and religious organizations working together to make the argument that the extremists anywhere and everywhere are wrong. Wrong in aim and wrong in action.

This message in the war of ideas is not being made in a systematic, global way.  Clerics speak out, private organizations such as “Dawah” act, and governments oppose, but not in concert.  Meanwhile, private donations and recruits roll in to IS.  A PR revolution is not easy.  Concerted action faces a rocky road.

The status quo governments have little credibility with exploding populations who face stagnant job markets. They look incompetent, which bolsters the extremist message of change.

They are ideologically bust, too. Saudi Arabia might be the keeper of the most holy sites, but its princes’ notoriously drink, gamble and employ call girls across the European Mediterranean shore.  These rulers have poor credibility to issue a message opposing an extremist religious message.

And, all too often, these status-quo governments have supported ideas akin to the extreme: the Saudi state is built on a pact with Wahhabis, who have more in common with mullahs in Raqqa than those in Omaha. Pakistan has supported extremists for 30 years.

Thus far, a unified effort is missing but it is necessary.  The US can help, but not much.  We have some ability to influence the social media space, but IS makes the US media effort look amateur.  And we can help militarily, but that has limited effect in what is primarily a war of ideas.

This is primarily an Islamic affair.

So it is up to Islamic moderates to speak up and get organized, transnationally. (Think al Jazeera television on steroids).  It can work.  Public/private PR campaigns in Indonesia stamped out most extremists by harnessing many voices against extremism.

Still, widespread collaboration is a tall order in a region wracked by high unemployment, anger at the status quo, illegitimate governments and fundamentalist influences.

Extremist ideas have been around for a long time and they aren’t going to fade away quickly.  But they can be countered if the moderates get better organized, ala Indonesia.  This is because average, ordinary people in the Muslim world aren’t extremists.