Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

In Vain

May 27, 2019

Just over seven years ago I detailed how the 4,500 American deaths in Iraq fit the definition of in vain. If we include Afghanistan, the total climbs to almost 7,000. Nothing of worth was achieved. Afghanistan is still a semi-failed state, and the Taliban still (or again) controls much of the country. Iraq is an Iranian ally, and the capital still doesn’t have reliable electricity — 16 years after our disastrously inept intervention.

And aside from the useless deaths, the damage to Americans who made it back is enough to make you weep.

The history is bad enough that The American Conservative, not known for liberal hand-wringing, this week published an article wherein an Iraq veteran confirms my assessment — it was in vain. All of it.

Ponder that, this Memorial Day.

Trump in Afghanistan

August 22, 2017

If draining the swamp in DC isn’t working, the obvious alternative is to move deeper into a different quagmire.

Trump has announced that we will be playing whack-a-mole with terrorists in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. So, nothing has changed. We won’t be doing “nation-building”, which is good, because the US Army isn’t trained for that (and doesn’t want to be), and the various State Department entities aren’t funded for it, and it would take a lifetime or longer to complete. Besides, Afghanistan really isn’t a nation. It’s a collection of tribal entities under a handful of local warlords, and the power of the central government doesn’t extend much beyond pistol-shot from Kabul. I almost said corrupt local warlords, but that’s only by our standards. The Afghans have a different view of life and their relation to their leadership. Which brings up another point. Afghan loyalties run family, then tribe, then, weakly, region, with national coming in a long way out of the running. Why does this matter? Because it matters to them.

The primary social interaction between communities in Afghanistan may well be the blood feud. Think Hatfields and McCoys, writ large and decades long. You kill my cousin and you have made blood enemies of every person in our extended family. Every terrorist is somebody’s cousin. Or brother. Maybe the Taliban core leadership is from elsewhere, but everybody surrounding them is local. You put a drone through the window of a Taliban headquarters and you kill leader A, who will soon be replaced. You also kill locals B through K, who have cousins. It will never end. The Soviets were a lot more callous than we are about civilian casualties and collateral damage, and they couldn’t do it.

A final point. Trump has said we will not be announcing troop numbers. That policy will be of limited use, and will mostly work to our detriment. Why? Because the Afghan government will know how many troops we are moving in and out of their country, if for no other reason than they provide most of the on-the-ground logistical support. And if the Afghan government knows, the Taliban knows. To make the chain a little longer, if the Afghan government knows, then the Pakistani intelligence services know (and metric tons of our support comes through Pakistani ports), and if the Pakistani intelligence services know, then the Taliban knows.

You know who won’t know? The American people, the press and the taxpayers and the voters. This is not a way to provide OPSEC, it’s a way to hide the magnitude of the upcoming losses.

One commenter calls it “a recipe for unending colonial style war waged by the US in South Asia.”

Ground Truth

February 9, 2012

Ground truth is an imagery analysis term. We know what something looks like on a picture, taken from ten kilometers, or maybe a thousand kilometers up, but we can’t have full confidence in our assessment until we have walked the ground and found the truth. Statements out of DC, and out of the various joint and theater command headquarters have given us a high level view of what’s going on in Afghanistan. Now it’s time for some ground truth.

Here’s a report from Armed Forces Journal, a non-government publication, by an Army LTC just back from an extensive tour of the theater. He’s a seasoned combat veteran with four tours of duty in Iraq and AF. His conclusion? We aren’t winning. We never were winning. We don’t stand any chance of winning unless we want to stay another twenty years. Any statements to the contrary by theater commanders and their staffs are just attempts to do what I would describe, in my most kindly moment, as ‘put lipstick on a pig’.

One of the problems in an old, established, institution, like a large, traditional corporation, or a religious institution, or the military, is that failure is not a career enhancer. That’s particularly true of goal-oriented organizations, like business or the military, and it’s doubly true of an organization, like the military, where an assignment may only be for one year and a bad evaluation can kill a career. If you can paper over the cracks and hold things together until the end of your tour, then you’ve been personally successful. It’s much worse in politics, where the dynamics are different but the result is the same — if you are in office when we finally admit that some effort (wars, housing, the tax structure) is a failure, then it’s your failure.

So, we have an experienced, currently-serving officer, we have an experienced, well-respected reporter, and we have an official Intelligence Community agreed-upon National Intelligence Estimate all coming to essentially the same conclusion. It’s time to leave.

The Afghanistan Estimate

January 16, 2012

The Los Angeles Times has an article on a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was recently prepared on Afghanistan. The picture it paints is as gloomy as anything that came out of the Viet Nam era. Despite local successes against the Taliban in the south, the central government is still considered to be fragile, the security forces are corrupt, and Taliban elements in the east are still finding refuge in Pakistan. The only thing holding up the whole house of cards is us, and it’s all likely to go pear-shaped before the door hits us on the butt.

The Pentagon, and the theater military commanders disagree. If you go back to the NIE’s coming out of Viet Nam, you find the same thing — gloomy NIE’s (unless distorted by pressure from policy-makers), denials from the military leadership at all levels, and requests for increased troop strengths for, as Uncle Owen would say “only one more season”. (more…)

History Repeats

September 15, 2011

Last week in Afghanistan:

Soldiers conducted a thorough search of several compounds, and discovered approximately 250 pounds of HME material, eight Russian-made hand grenades, two 82mm mortar rounds, blasting caps and detonation cord, handguns, and other explosive device components. Two suspected insurgents at the scene were detained for further questioning by coalition forces.
The Afghan and coalition forces also found an underground bunker that was well-hidden in a pomegranate field, and believed to be a bed-down location for insurgents or a storage area for weapons. The bunker and its connecting tunnel to a compound were both destroyed by explosives.

Forty-five years ago this week, in VietNam:

On September 11, 1966, the battalion command group (1st Bn, 5th Infantry, Bobcats) moved to XT 637211. Company A conducted an S&D operation, destroying bunker and tunnel complexes. At 1205 hours two WIAs were sustained from small arms fire. At 1220 hrs a 105mm artillery round was command detonated against an APC wounding 3 Bobcats. Company B conducted an S&D operation, destroying bunkers and tunnel complexes and munitions. 3 APCs detonated mines with no casualties.

But, this time, it’s different.

The drawdown begins

June 23, 2011

I don’t have much to say on President Obama’s decision to start the withdrawals. It is certainly the right thing to do, and the rate at which they will be pulled out sounds like the right pace, but I don’t have enough information to make a decision.

I am intrigued by the reported position of the military vs the President. He doesn’t want the surge troops to be extended for an additional eighteen months, while the military guys are saying that it’s just one more “fighting season”. I think we’ve heard that argument before.

It's only one more season

Yon on Afghanistan

June 20, 2011

I admire Michael Yon very much. I consider him the modern equivalent to Ernie Pyle, and fear that his fate will be the same. He has the interests of the combat trooper at heart, and he isn’t afraid to speak truth to power. And yet. And yet. I am afraid I can’t agree with him in his latest essay on Afghanistan. Or let’s say, I agree with almost everything he says, and yet come to a different conclusion.

If I may summarize his position, it is that:

1. The surge is winning.
2. More troops, or at least, the same number of troops for longer, will ultimately beat the Talibs*

3. We are engaged in nation-building, admit it or not
4. We only win if we leave behind a viable nation
5. Building the new AF will take decades


So, tell me again who won the war?

September 18, 2010

More indications that our ill-conceived adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan is doing us no good at all. Our friends, the Kurds, in northern Iraq, are now getting a significant proportion of their Internet connectivity supplied by Iran. Our clients, the Afghans, have also started using Iranian links. Just one more indication of how Iran is taking advantage of the economic and power vacuum we’ve created in the area.

Systems and Afghanistan

September 6, 2010

Michael Yon links to an interesting article by Rice and Filippelli on using technology to fight corruption in Afghanistan (I am using his version because it’s easier to read). As usual, I have grave doubts about the likely success of any technological solution to a complex societal problem. I have written about the Multiple Perspectives issue before, and I think it applies here.

In a nutshell, systems scientist Hal Linstone posits three Perspectives on any organizational problem — Technical factors (how the associated technology works), Organizational factors (how the rules of the organization are structured) and Personal factors (how key individuals see the problem and the issues surrounding it). In the computer field, most IT people think in terms of technical solutions to problems. Most of the time their solutions don’t work the way they think they should, because of the other two. To pull an example off the top of my head, what is the use of an ultra-secure voting machine in promoting democracy, if the law limits voting to males, and the president of the country thinks it ought to be males with property?

In the Rice and Filippelli article they point out how using cellphones for salary payments to police and soldiers cut out the middle-men, who were all corrupt, and actually sent all the money to bank accounts belonging to actual people — no skimming and no payroll padding. The police and soldiers involved thought they’d gotten a substantial pay raise, when all they got was their true salary.

So, say R&F, why not move more of the payment system onto cellphones? Well, this is why not — the Kabul Bank is in danger of collapsing due to corruption and fraud. A cellphone based economy is subject to the same kinds of problems a paper economy is, just in a different form. If you have a corrupt banking Organization, and Afghanistan’s appears to be very corrupt, the kleptocracy will find ways to steal the peoples money from the bank. And, if the top People involved, like the president and his relatives, view the country as their own personal ATM, there will ultimately be little done to correct it. After all, from the view of the people on top, it is working.

I think that R&F’s point is a useful one, and I’m not saying don’t do it. I am saying that the Technical solution is not a panacea, and that we have to attack the problem on a wide range of fronts. Of course, that assumes that we have the power to do so. In this case, the Organizational kicker is that Afghanistan is a sovereign country that doesn’t need to do what we say.

UPDATE: Here is another example of how making an improvement in technology doesn’t always improve things.

The Afghan Reports

July 26, 2010

The big news from AF is, of course the Wikileaks…leak. Reactions to the leak generally fall into two categories. The regular newspaper reporting (OMG, casualties!) is one. Pat Lang’s blog (so what’s new?) is typical of the other.

As Lang says, it’s a compilation of the daily message traffic from one of the NATO HQs in AF. I make it about 40 or so messages per day for six years. That’s probably 20% of the actual reporting. In my VN days I had to go through tons of stuff like this to produce the daily INTSUM. Most of it is operational reporting of the kind that goes on all the time in a war. The big change since VN is that we have kept refining (i.e. adding on) what kind of reports need to go up the chain and when they have to be reported. We could call it a tsunami, but the waters never recede.

Mixed in with the opreps are various Intelligence reports. For those not familiar with the genre, the quality of any given report can vary wildly. The few I looked at didn’t use the evaluation system I grew up with (quality of source A-F, quality of info 1-8), but most would probably be rated F-8 (unknown quality, truth not verifiable). This has always been the case. There is a very low signal to noise ratio in these reports. That’s what contributes to the various ‘Intelligence failures’ through the years. Sources report stuff because they want to be seen as hard working, or friendly, or useful. Intelligence officers pass even the bad reports on because they don’t want to be the one who missed a bit of the jigsaw, because regulations require it, because they know they can’t see the whole picture but maybe someone else can. Sturgeon’s law applies. Added note: It’s the job of the higher level “all source” analyst to bring together this human resource based intelligence (HUMINT) with imagery (IMINT), and signals intelligence (SIGINT) to try to make a coherent whole out of the hash.

One commenter, Londonstani, over at Abu Muqawama, had an interesting take: it’s not that the information is new, it’s the form in which it is presented. He compares it to last year’s UK’s MP expense account scandal. When people said MPs were greedy, everybody said “So? They’re politicians”, but when the press outed the details (“duckhouses and flatscreen televisions”), there was a public opinion explosion. The same may happen here.

I have no idea how this will play out. I think we should be out of AF, and I think we missed a bet by not bailing after last year’s rigged election. I think it would be unfortunate if we were driven from AF in such a way that the right wing interventionists can claim we were stabbed in the back by public opinion. Not because we don’t need that lesson – we should have learned it in VN, but didn’t (Sometimes history doesn’t repeat itself. Sometimes it picks up a club and says “Weren’t you listening the first time?” – Pratchett). Maybe it will stick this time. No, my fear is that it will cripple Obama’s ability to function on the domestic front, which is where the action is really needed.


June 17, 2010

Anthony Cordesman recently published a commentary on the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. Comments on the commentary were then made by Abu Muqawama, Max Boot, and Michael Cohen. Let me add my own two cents.

First, he questions the strategic reasons for the war:  “The US has no enduring reason to maintain a strategic presence in Afghanistan or Central Asia. It has far more important strategic priorities in virtually every other part of the world….” Then, he gives us one: “The key reasons for the war remain Al Qa’ida and the threat of a sanctuary and base for international terrorism, and the fact the conflict now involves Pakistan’s future stability.” OK, two, actually, three. All are likely to be wrong.

Let’s look at AQ and international terrorism. These can be seen as two different concepts. AQ is a coordinator, an inspirer, a financier — one might even say venture capitalist. It doesn’t need Afghanistan as a sanctuary. It has places all over the world it can go to. What it needs is a secure communications system, and access to large amounts of funding that it can funnel to the people it inspires. Most of that requires the services of a modern economy (although the Moslem informal banking system is apparently a help). It doesn’t particularly need training camps, if what it is doing is indoctrinating a few people and showing them how to take over airplanes. The best agency to defend against AQ right now is probably the Treasury Department, followed by the FBI, and FBI liason officers at the US embassies.

The groups clumped under the title international terrorism appear to be mostly involved in training foot soldiers and NCOs and exporting their skills to insurgencies in other Moslem countries. They require camps where people can run around, shooting AK-47s, but they are not a major threat to the US, except where we are on their soil. Most of the output of these camps appears to be going to AF and PK, not to NY.

The stability of PK wasn’t an issue until we started pressuring them to push forces into the tribal areas of the NW frontier. If the PK government were to stop, to go back to ruling this region through benign neglect, the single most potent reason for a destabilizing insurgency would disappear.

We solve the international terrorist problem, and possibly much of the AQ problem as well, by removing the source of their recruiting appeal. We leave AF to the Afghans. We reduce pressure on the PK government to stir up the tribes on the NW Frontier. We continue our pullout from Iraq. We change our Middle East policy to be overtly more even-handed between Israel and the Palestinians, instead of being knee-jerk supporters of whatever policy the hopelessly fragmented Israeli government comes up with this week.

The second thing that Cordesman questions is whether or  not the war in AF is “winnable.” He thinks it is, but not with the original goals. He thinks we can achieve a “good enough” solution to make it seem like we have won. This is a far cry from what we wanted. It’s still probably unachievable. One commentator was quoted as saying that you had to spend a year on the ground in AF to be qualified to make any kind of statement about the country. I haven’t done that. Neither have our policy makers nor most of those who advise them. Even the reduced goals that Cordesman has espoused seem to have little to do with the overt strategic reasons he gave above. Here’s a not-very-insightful list of what I think the spectrum of post-US AF possibilities looks like.

1. A return to the Taliban

2. A stable government, with insurgent participation,  probably not pro-US, but not necessarily anti-. By stable government I mean that they have, you know, a flag and a head of state, and some way of guaranteeing the safety of embassies. I don’t necessarily mean that the government’s writ runs beyond rifle shot of a paved road.

3. A pro-US government, capable of defeating the insurgents over the long haul

4. A western-style democracy

The last is not achievable in our lifetimes. The third one will require a decade of US military presence and casualties, with all the domestic angst and international terrorist recruiting fodder and PK instability that implies. The first two are the most likely results of the US ending its presence in AF in a timely fashion.  I have no idea which is more likely. My position is that any of these, once achieved, solves most of the problems and answers most of our current reasons for being in AF. The question is, which can be arrived at with the least expenditure of lives and treasure. I’d say that getting us out faster is better.

They hate us for our freedoms 8

May 22, 2010

An interesting commentary from McClatchey today. Two recent novels describe the changed life of Pakistanis living in America after 9/11. They chronicle “integrated, happy immigrants”, who are driven back to their Islamist roots by the drumbeat hatred sponsored by the government and mainstream media. The commentator holds up failed NYC bomber Faisal Shahzad as a real life example. That’s one side of the coin.

The other side is the word (from US investigators) that, in addition to having his personal life disrupted, Shahzad was angry at US for attacks on his tribal homeland, and that he had help from a small, formerly domestic, PK Taliban group. The PK govt says their investigations don’t confirm the report of a Taliban link. But let’s assume they are correct. What are the implications of this coin for US policy? Well, it’s payback.

For those who can’t connect the dots, we are driving people who love America (because of our freedoms) into the hands of groups who hate America. In this case, they don’t hate us for our freedoms, they hate us primarily because the American war in AF has spilled over into PK, and is being conducted in the same heavy-handed we-got-’em-let’s-launch-’em approach that proved so unsuccessful so far in AF. Is anyone surprised at this?

If we’d just get out of Afghanistan, and let it return to its own medieval lifestyle, we’d be far better off, and we could go back to towing cars out of Times Square for parking violations, rather than closing down the theater district.

Getting out of Afghanistan – Obama's Nobel speech

December 11, 2009

There’s been a wide range of reaction to Obama’s Nobel speech. Informed Comment didn’t like it. Jon Taplin did. Joe Galloway didn’t comment on the Nobel speech, but from what he said about West Point, I doubt he would have agreed with any of it.

As Juan Cole pointed out, there were a number of rhetorical sleight of hands: “The fringe terrorist group al-Qaeda is depicted as a challenge for the Pentagon, not the Interpol. Then Afghan insurgents are equated to al-Qaeda.” It was probably the best speech he could have given, given that he made the decisions he did, but the decisions were not very good. The oratory was inspiring. The basis for it was flawed. One might even say, built on sand.