September 21, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading, part 3

Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown:

The crucial question on Afghanistan today is not whether this war is important. It is. It is not whether the consequences of failure are serious. They are. It is a much more brutal question: can we win? And the answer is no. Unless we change both our current policies and our present attitudes, failure is inevitable...

If, despite the cloud hanging over the election, President Karzai is returned to power, we have to ensure that Karzai II is very different from Karzai I. His government must not be made up of the unfragrant coalition of war lords and crime bosses he put together to get himself elected. It should be a genuine government of national unity, which will clean out corruption, and pursue an aggressive policy of integration of those Taliban who are willing to pursue their aims through the constitution, not the gun.

And they should all have their own ponies. With pretty pink manes...

If this is so, it's time to consider plan B. One option would be to concentrate our forces in the cities in future, so as to deepen the effect of the development process where it matters most, and then build out from there as force levels and resources allow.

Beyond that we may even have to consider plan C, a modern version of the old policy of Lord Curzon, but run from Kabul instead of Calcutta, which would use air power and special forces to prevent the Taliban ever again marching on Kabul or becoming a haven for al-Qaida, while we concentrate on the rest of the country outside the Pashtun belt.

All this will be very uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as reinforcing failure with more lost lives. It is not yet lost in Afghanistan. Not quite. We are in the territory of the last chance. There will be no more.

Plan B: Inkspot out from the cities. Plan C: Inkspot out from the cities in the north. Check.

Hey, I'm not saying that they're wrong. Just unoriginal.

Posted by BruceR at 04:57 PM

Today's essential Afghan reading, part 2

William Maley (still easily the best working Afghanistan historian, IMHO) and colleagues on the recent elections:

The international community knew going into these elections that they were going to be problematic. We could and should have done better. There was evidence of fraud months beforehand, with over-registration of voters in the insecure southern parts of Afghanistan and voter registration cards for sale at markets in Kabul. Although we did not personally witness any significant electoral fraud on election day in Kabul, reports from our colleagues and contacts in other parts of Afghanistan provided evidence of significant, state-supported fraud...

A nightmare scenario is one in which the United States is expected to partner with a government delegitimized by the very process by which it has hung on to power. Ordinary Afghans, denied the opportunity to use peaceful, democratic means to clean up their government, would be more vulnerable than ever to the blandishments of the Taliban, and this would add monumentally to the problems facing U.S. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and his colleagues. Our entire strategy for dealing with the Afghan insurgency could be at stake.

Posted by BruceR at 01:28 PM

On that Wente column

The Torch is an amazing resource, and a great Canadian milblog. But it can get a little defensive about the military at times (as indeed, can I). Case in point today, reacting to a Margaret Wente Globe and Mail column that was critical of the military last week:

"Ms Wente might wish to read this..."

Unfortunately, a careful read of the article linked, however, actually reinforces Wente's argument, that Canadian troops are not outside of the wire enough, engaging with the Afghans.

Wente's article was eminently attackable on one point, that the Canadians were mostly inside the wire back at Kandahar Air Field (KAF). That's not true, as many commentators have since pointed out. The majority of combat troops are forward of KAF, in suitably named Forward Operating Bases. KAF is a soul-destroying place: the food alone makes you weep for humanity. No one who has an excuse to get outside the wire doesn't jump at the chance. I was luckier in some respects in that regard. But Wente's larger, hidden point, that we're not having the effects we should have for all our outlay, is still valid despite her error in that regard. Goes the article:

"There's a thin line of defence between this area of the sparesly (sic) populated Panjwaii district and the wild, wild west where the Taliban are pretty much free to roam at will..."

The interview is with troops of the Canadian company at FOB Sperwan Ghar, a Masada-type fortress, a hell of a defensive location that dominates Central Panjwaii. A natural hill feature resembling a Vaubanesque fort, I'm sure it's been used by militaries passing through the area for millenia. Alexander probably camped there for a night. With military improvements, it is, for all intents and purposes, impregnable.

"Jordain and his men have been involved in 13 combat missions and gone on 125 patrols in recent months..."

Um, okay, here's where we get back to Wente. The company in Sperwan Ghar has been in position since probably mid-April. At least 125 days now, more like 150 actually. I have no doubt every one of those patrols was heartbreakingly hazardous. But what the Canadian company commander is saying there is that his company, one third of Canada's infantry strength in the country, has only been able to achieve a sustained rate of framework interactions with their surrounding environment and its population at a rate of less than once a day, undoubtedly in almost all cases for durations of less than 24 hours, with perhaps a platoon of soldiers (a third or less of the company's strength) each time.

Yes, they did operations, too. And yes, undoubtedly the ANA and mentored ANP interactions need to be added to that total. But pushing people outside the wire at that kind of rate is likely going to be insufficient to establish any kind of security presence in the surrounding area.

It's estimated the west contains only 10 to 15,000 residents while Kandahar city and its surrounding area have close to a half million.

It's only a matter of time before the footprint makes its way further west says the commander of Task Force Kandahar.

Not mentioned: that the "footprint", even six months ago, did extend farther west, about 20 km, to include those people. A year ago there were 3 ANA bases suppressing enemy activity in that area with its 15,000 residents. They have all been closed, largely because insurgent IEDs had made ground movement to and from them impossible. All the government's supporters among those 15,000 people can be assumed to be dead or gone or converted. (One of the villages now non-permissive to Canadians, Zangabad, was one of the villages from which massive electoral fraud was reported last month.) Strapped for resources as we were, over the last year and a half we have been conducting a tactical retrograde, and abandoning thousands of Afghans we once attempted to help; it's that retrograde that hopefully, as Gen. Vance indicates, will now be redressed by the arrival of the Americans in strength in the last month. One likes to believe that, like McArthur, we will return, and soon.

All that to say, look, yes, Wente's piece was somewhat over the top, but we shouldn't knee-jerk too far in the other direction. Above all, we shouldn't pretend that there's some secret asterisk implied, one that says, "psst, not you, Canadians" in Gen. McChrystal's report this week:

"McChrystal is equally critical of the command he has led since June 15. The key weakness of ISAF, he says, is that it is not aggressively defending the Afghan population. "Pre-occupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us -- physically and psychologically -- from the people we seek to protect. . . . The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves."

We're far from the worst offender in ISAF in this regard. But to a degree the Commander is talking about Canadians, too. The senior general in theatre is actually agreeing with Wente when he says he wants to see us, and the rest of our allies, taking even more risks with our soldiers than we are now. As a country, we need to hoist that in.

Posted by BruceR at 01:12 PM

Today's essential Afghan reading: part 1

Ann Jones, author of the excellent memoir Kabul in Winter, on where the 90,000 strong ANA really is:

My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of "Basic Warrior Training" 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.

In a country where 40% of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it's a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin -- the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets -- and many are undoubtedly Taliban.

American trainers have taken careful note of the fact that, when ANA soldiers were given leave after basic training to return home with their pay, they generally didn't come back. To foil paycheck scams and decrease soaring rates of desertion, they recently devised a money-transfer system that allows the soldiers to send pay home without ever leaving their base. That sounds like a good idea, but like many expensive American solutions to Afghan problems, it misses the point. It's not just the money the soldier wants to transfer home, it's himself as well.

There's certainly some truth to this (it's also not all the answer, though). And it's a problem that's only going to be exacerbated by further rapid growth. That's why the last Canadian quarterly report, which showed the number of ANA in Kandahar Province has actually been dropping rapidly in the last three months, should probably have gotten more attention, as well. While I suspect this is more reflective of bringing the book strength closer in line with the actual number of effectives (about 1,600 when I was there) than increased desertions, it should still be seen as troublesome. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, a reporter would have to take the time to compare the Benchmarks from three months ago with the current Benchmarks report to see the change. Which sort of defeats the whole point of the benchmarks.

I very much doubt there's many Afghan battalions with more than 400 effectives on the line at any one time right now. And there's about 100 battalions on paper. That makes 40,000. Afghan headquarters may be big, but they're not that big. That means there's a lot of book strength in the ANA that simply isn't there, and overall ANA numbers greater than 60,000 or so simply shouldn't be taken as any more than that: paper estimates. (Jones doesn't mention why the Afghan commanders would be complicit in this; a padded payroll is the obvious reason. In Vietnam, the expression was "ghost soldiers.")

Posted by BruceR at 09:03 AM