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.

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.


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.

25 Years After the Soviets Left, Seven Reasons Why We Should Stay

25 years ago, in February 1989, the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan. It’s not a happy anniversary for those wanting to see a stable and prosperous Afghanistan.
    This month the Taliban issued a statement equating America with the USSR.  The statement crowed, “Today America is facing the same fate as the former Soviets and trying to escape from our country.”
    To be sure, 1989 was not the worst of the experience for the Afghans. That agony started in the 1970s, when the king was deposed and Communist factions began feuding, followed shortly by Soviet intervention and the outright rebellion that killed up to 1.5 million Afghans and about 14,000 Soviets.  The civil war that followed the withdrawal killed tens of thousands more.
    It’s been a hard road since 2001 and looks to get even harder as the Taliban keep trying to take back what they lost.
    People in America wonder why we are still there. Why are 38,000 US soldiers and even more international troops trying to help the Afghans hold back the encroaching tide?  Why not throw in the towel on an intractable problem and just leave.  Here are seven reasons why that idea is wrong.
    For a start, we’ve spent over $500 billion and over 2,300 lives in pursuit of a stable Afghanistan. To leave would be to negate that investment in blood and money.
    The cost of making it come right is much less.  That would probably cost in the region of $4 billion a year for ten years as well as keeping about 10,000 soldiers, Marines and airmen there to provide training and support, which might cost another $5 billion in US direct costs per year.  At least most of those who remain would stay mostly on bases and keep pretty safe.  
      Another reason is, ironically, Pakistan. Pakistan is having its own trouble with a home-grown Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban is just as well organized as the Afghan Taliban, and the Pakistani government has lost thousands of men fighting them.
    Ironically, were we to pull out and the Taliban and other insurgents such as the Haqqani Network take over Afghanistan, then Pakistan would be next.  With insurgents using Afghanistan to mount attacks against Islamabad unmolested, Pakistan would be seriously destabilized, as happens with us now.
    (In Pakistan the situation is that the Afghan Taliban roam unmolested in the south. There is a line drawn on the map north of Quetta where the security forces will not arrest Afghan Taliban thus allowing them to operate relatively freely to overthrow Karzai.  North of that line the no-arrest agreement is off.  Amazingly, elements of the Pakistani security forces actively help equip and train the Afghan Taliban even as we pay the Pakistani security forces billions of dollars to help us!)
       An unstable Pakistan is bad for us because Pakistan has nuclear weapons. If it were to topple under pressure from the Pakistani Taliban, then nuclear weapons could easily pass to jihadists who hate America.  By the way, Pakistan has excellent air and sea links to the West.
    A third reason is that Al Qaeda this month announced it will try to reconstitute in Afghanistan if America pulls out in force. Right now American-flown drones are keeping its ability to congregate with new members at a minimum.
    Number four: the Afghans have done little wrong to warrant our abandoning them.  We asked them to build up a government on a model we helped design. They did so.  We asked them to build up a security force structure along the lines we helped design. They did so.
    The fact that we feel their government is corrupt or badly run, or that President Hamid Karzai is a difficult partner, or that the Afghan security forces are ill-equipped and have poor logistics, is our fault as well as theirs.  We helped design a lot of those problems.
    For instance, the police are corrupt in large measure because for years we insisted on paying patrolmen $60 a month, even though poor shopkeepers made $120 or more. Policemen couldn’t eat so they took money illegally from motorists, baking in corruption.  We knew the pay was too low because we had US Army advisors helping the police who passed it up the military chain of command.  But for years we did nothing about it, until we finally raised their pay seven years into the war.
    (The pay was kept low so professional like doctors would not be tempted to become policemen but would remain doctors, which are in short supply).
     Another reason not to pull out is that it would undermine the standing of America in the world and to make us unsafe.  Every jihadist from Chechnya to Somalia would decide that America had been kicked out with its tail between its legs.  Which would incite the mass of terrorists to ever greater efforts.  Like it or not, for now the world needs an organizing superpower.  Our allies need a strong friend, not one stymied by a backwater conflict.
    A sixth reason: Iraq turned democratic under our watch. Even if it is imperfect one, the ink-stained thumbs of voters were testament to the idea that a Muslim democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia can work.  The same can be said for Afghanistan, which has its own millions of ink-stained thumbs.  We can leave that as a legacy, imperfect as it is.  A win there for democracy is good for everyone; the Afghans, us and moderates from Algiers to Jakarta.  Or our legacy can resemble that of the Soviets; an unstable regime that limped along for another few years and died a violent death, dragging millions down with it into despotism.  
    Lastly, if we can’t afford $9 billion a year to work our will on the world we might as well hang it up as a superpower and become isolationist.  A superpower without the will to prevail is no superpower at all.  Winning will cost a few billion more but it is worth doing even if for the last reason alone.  

In Afghanistan, Talks and Peace Will Only Follow More Fighting

Word leaked this month that President Karzai has been trying to engage the Taliban in back-channel talks.  Karzai is desperate to end the war that has killed over 8,000 civilians in the past year alone, according to the UN.
But it is not likely Karzai’s ploy will work. It will just annoy his allies and disturb his friends.
For those who hope this raises a chance for peace, forget it.  There is a lot more fighting to come as America pulls out because the Taliban have little incentive to settle right now.
This is not the latest scheme to engage to Taliban in talks. That’s been happening for years.  For instance, the Taliban opened an office to hold talks in the United Arab Emirates in June 2013, but this closed a few weeks later after a series of mis-steps on all sides.
In late 2012 the Taliban met with Afghan government officials in France.  They even met with the two Afghan women included in the government’s delegation.  There, the Taliban said that they don’t need to have a monopoly on power in any government after Hamid Karzai leaves.
This web of talks and meetings suggests that the Taliban is softening, reforming and becoming more government-worthy.  It all raises the question whether peace might eventually break out.
But peace in the near term is unlikely for a few simple reasons.
One is the nature of the war.  If the Taliban really wanted to push out the Americans they would stop fighting tomorrow.  If the number of attacks dropped to zero the Americans, in this political climate, would have no reason not to leave immediately and completely, leaving no military advisors.
But the Taliban won’t do that because that’s not how insurgencies work.  Insurgencies are like trains.  They take a long time to start and a long time to stop. There are sub-commanders all up and down the food chain that have been encouraged to fight for years.  Turning them off again takes time.
Then again, insurgencies are like airplanes too.  If they stop moving, they stop flying.  It is death for an insurgency to quit fighting; fighters go home, get a job and they don’t want to come back.  To pause the fighting is to really end the fighting for good.  To take a one-year break to allow the US to leave is simply impossible for this reason.
So the Taliban face a basic choice: keep fighting or stop fighting forever.  They’ll keep fighting for that and other reasons too.
The Afghan army and police are pretty soon going to be lacking a lot of the things that make them stronger than the Taliban.  Fewer Americans on the ground means less air support and fire support and much worse logistics.  These were all propped up by the Americans.
The flow of replacement equipment will dwindle to a trickle; already when the Afghan Army’s unarmored Ford Ranger pickups get blown up it is tough to get them replaced.
A lot of this help is going away.  Already Congress cut the civilian aid by half in 2014.
The Afghan military needs a minimum of $4 billion a year to function, but this is in jeopardy with no guarantees it will continue at any level, for any specified amount of time.  Try being an Afghan commander planning a war while facing that problem!
(Which is too bad. The US absolutely should spend $4 billion a year after they leave because it costs a lot less to have Afghans fight than Americans. But that’s a story for another day).
So the Taliban have a huge incentive to push the security forces and see how hollow they become in 2104, 2015 and 2016.  Without enough guns and ammunition, maybe the government will fold.
Meanwhile, in the villages the Afghan civil government has failed to affect many people’s lives. This lowers the people’s support for the government.
Even though the economy is better and there is healthcare for some, and schools are open in many provinces, are there development projects?  Does the Afghan government, except in a minority of cases, provide needed services that keep the villagers talking to the district governments?  Services such as impartial judges, free healthcare, adequate roads and a few working wells to drink from?  Sure it does in some places but usually not often enough, or even not at all, especially in the restive south and east.
Besides, the Taliban are committed to their cause. They believe in this jihad as a calling.  Anyway, most Taliban commanders have no alternate day job.  Is a fighting mullah really going to hand in his AK-47 and start working as a property developer?  Not likely.
Put this all together and there will be no ceasefire until the Taliban really try to win, give it their best shot and fail.
Simply put, the Taliban, with their 30,000 fighters, have little incentive to stop fighting.  The Afghan government is going to get weaker, not stronger after the Americans leave, despite its 352,000-man security forces.  If the Taliban keep fighting they can test just how much weaker the government will get.  Maybe they’ll capture a province or two, or (less likely) the whole shebang.
It is nice to think that talks will work (despite their poor progress thus far).  That the Taliban will act honorably, and if the movement attains power it will not kill its political “allies”.  That the Taliban really mean it when they present a kinder and gentler side.  That they really want to compromise.
For me, I’ll pay more attention to peace talks in 2016, once the Taliban have tried to take over and failed.  That’s when the talking will probably bear some fruit, at last.