November 19, 2009

Oh no no no

Canadian soldiers will recall that once upon a time we had an unarmored jeep-type runabout called an Iltis. The Germans used it for base MP duties. The Canadians, because we had nothing better at the time, used it as a primary tactical reconnaissance platform briefly, even if it wasn't big enough to fit a machine gun on.

A friend of mine likes to tell of the day he was working with a Bundeswehr colleague, who was telling him how the MPs had the same jeep back on his base back home... but when the German found out Iltises would be the first vehicles the rampaging Soviet hordes would have to deal with, he adopted a look of petrified horror, and started muttering and rocking back and forth, "Oh, no.... no, no, no.... no, no, no..."

After reading Joe Klein this week I know how the German felt.

The military has been shockingly slow when it comes to matching U.S. training companies with Afghan battalions. No such joint units currently exist... And the idea that illiterate and tribal Afghans can be trained into soldiers and police officers remains more a hope than a fact.

An accurate diagnosis. It's his proposed solution that alarms:

When the military, for example, thinks about sending more troops to Kandahar, it thinks about months of planning, new fortifications and so forth--instead of a quick, transitional insertion. There is a huge airbase just outside of Kandahar city that could house substantial numbers of U.S. troops on a temporary basis, in tents if necessary, while joint security stations and the other accoutrements of counterinsurgency warfare are established in the city itself. This is especially necessary since, I"m told, the situation in Kandahar is declining rapidly. "We've lost the surrounding areas," one counterinsurgency expert recently told me, "and I'm not so sure we're in control of the city, especially at night."

Oh no... oh no no no...

Look, experience has proved the only way you keep the Afghan police alive and honest long enough for them to make a difference is by living with them 24/7, not by driving out on alternate mornings to see if they're still breathing. Putting more soldiers into KAF, by contrast, will increase the lineups at the French bistro and the Burger King, but will do absolutely nothing to help Afghans. Nothing in KAF is ever a net-positive for this war: like BAF in the north, at best it's a necessary evil. But it's also a gigantic, Afghan-free soul-destroying vortex of resources and Western-style banality that mostly only succeeds in making its inhabitants weep for humanity's fall. Fewer KAF rats, not more, please. Do what we did when we were in the city*. Live light. Keep out of sight. Take risks. Trust your Afghan hosts to want to stay alive as much as you do.

Or, alternatively, you could always take over Nathan Smith from the Canadian PRT and dedicate it completely to police mentoring (it already does quite a bit). Put the other essential personnel from that organization who need daily contact with the governor, etc. somewhere in the city where that might actually happen at least as reliably, and evacuate the rest back to KAF. Or back home for that matter. Because realistically, if you're in KAF you're over halfway there anyway.

*For the record, less than four weeks total, and none of it at Nathan Smith, FWTW.

Posted by BruceR at 09:37 PM

The prisoner of Mushan

It's probably fair to say that the latest claims of abuse of former Canadian detainees by the Afghan secret police, the NDS in Kandahar have put perhaps the last nail, if one was even needed, on a post-2011 Canadian military deployment in that country.

The first allegations that the NDS were then abusing the detainees we gave them in 2007 had led to a Canadian freeze on all detainee transfers for a while, and by the time I got there in late 2008, detainee issues were still very much a concern. The one guaranteed way you could make a hard-bitten Canadian duty officer blanch was to tell him that an Afghan had been taken into Canadian custody, as opposed to Afghan custody, with all the extra work THAT entailed.

Whenever humanly possible in late 2008 and early 2009, detainee responsibilities were diverted by Canadians to the closest thing to an Afghan authority figure that they could find nearby: police, Afghan army, a passing civilian district leader... -- right at the point and time of capture. Taking them into our national custody for even a minute was always the suboptimal alternative. Working "jointly" with Afghans in this way did serve to limit our national reporting and followup requirements; it had other potential advantages from an Afghan capacity-building and national sovereignty point of view, too, obviously.* But because there were no Western mentors working with the NDS at the time, we didn't really have any visibility to say one way or the other what was happening to all those undocumented, non-Canadian detainees.

With detainees, we always seemed to be in one of those perfect catch-22s that typified the ISAF mission; in this case we and the ANA were also running perpetually afoul of the Afghan government's own, possibly more effective anti-NDS abuse measure. Afghan law at the time said all detainees had to be brought before a judge (for a sort of "show-cause" hearing) within 72 hours of capture, without fail. In Kandahar, this was actually being fairly rigorously enforced, to NDS officers' chagrin at the time. Unfortunately, that made it kind of difficult, given the IED situation and everything else, for ISAF or Afghan forces to establish any kind of evidentiary linkage with an IED attack or other insurgent activity that would justify their continued detention and then deliver detainee and evidence by road to Kandahar in time (if it was ISAF-collected evidence, the declassification and translation processes each might have taken days if not weeks). So by a literal reading of Afghan law, nearly all detainees, both innocent and guilty as hell, should have been promptly released by the judge at their first court appearance, and certainly many were.

Perhaps Canadians, who've hadn't taken detainees in a counterinsurgency situation before this since, oh, about 1902, weren't the best people to be instructing the Afghans on how to do this right. And once again, really we were falling afoul of that early handover by the West of Afghan sovereignty, to the point where we really had insufficient influence left over what had been essential processes in previous counterinsurgency fights: the courts, the pre-trial prison system, police questioning. But all we could do was carry on, trying not to notice how much that deficit might have been subverting our other efforts.

The title of this piece refers to one of the more amusing detainee moments during our tour. Strongpoint Mushan, deep into Panjwaii, now long closed, once housed a Canadian mentor team and an ANA company. Late in 2008, the Afghan company commander there rousted up someone he claimed was a local insurgent leader, Shasta Gul by name, and took him back to Mushan as his detainee. So... now what? The only way you got to or from Mushan at that time was by helicopter. But at the time an Afghan soldier prisoner escort would not be allowed on ISAF helicopters (safety: couldn't understand in-flight instructions, we were told), and if the detainee had been transferred by an ISAF flight crew, he'd have then become the West's detainee by virtue of us having custody for that period, which was what we strenously wished to avoid. So, having no way to actually do anything with young Shasta, and not wanting him to just walk away and resume attacking them so soon, the Afghans kept him around the strongpoint for a while. The story we heard was the detainee was doing their cooking**... But a couple weeks later, after it was clear the Afghan National Air Force probably wasn't going to be mature enough to pick the guy up any time soon, the Prisoner of Mushan was released, and walked out of the now thoroughly reconned strongpoint a free man. (Even if he had somehow been teleported back to KAF, it wouldn't have mattered anyway, as our 72 hours had long since passed; all we'd have done thereby would have been increase his cab fare to get home.)

It was hard for us not to interpret these sorts of paradoxical catch-and-release events at the time as partly attributable to that earlier Western reaction to ANSF prisoner abuse allegations. But whether that was justifiable of us to say or not, this was still Afghanistan: no matter what you did, there were rarely good choices, but you always had your pick of the bad ones.

*Please note, in case I haven't made it clear enough yet: my tour and detainee experiences related here came 1-2 years after the period of the Colvin allegations in the press this week (and long after the first Afghan prisoner stories began to appear in the papers) allegations on which I have nothing useful to relate. It was in many ways a very different war back in Colvin's time.

**I'm proud to state that the ANA I worked with always treated their detainees with extreme civility. They had learned our lessons well (plus an Afghan's default mode is always hospitality): detainees in the army's charge were invariably treated honorably, transferred to the NDS as soon as possible (that quirky 72-hr rule applied to them, too) and filling out any tiresome intelligence- or custody-related documentation on them was thereby avoided.

Posted by BruceR at 09:36 PM

Today's essential Afghan viewing

Blogging Heads, in particular David Frum in his guest appearances, has been doing some good Afghan work recently. His discussion with Time's Joe Klein is definitely worth your time. He had another one yesterday with Andrew Bacevich I'm saving for my next deskbound number crunch time.

The Afghan-related dialog between Christopher Preble and Peter Beinart was good, too.

Posted by BruceR at 09:16 AM