A loss of faith in Afghanistan

Erik Malmstrom

Following my deployment to the northeastern region of Afghanistan in 2006-2007, I arrived at many of the same conclusions as President Obama has over recent months to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. I believed that the faltering mission required a revamped approach, more troops and more resources. Dealing with the dysfunctions of the U.S.-led effort, serving in an overstretched unit and suffering casualties in my platoon prompted my initial diagnosis. However, time, distance and perspective from my experience have forced me to reconsider that assessment.

President Obama’s goals are sound. Training Afghan security forces, rewarding good governance, reducing corruption, supporting the rights of all Afghans and strengthening the international coalition are vital to the fight against Al Qaeda. However, a fatal flaw plagues the counterinsurgency strategy adopted by the president: the more the U.S. and its allies deepen their involvement and commitment in Afghanistan, the more they undercut the Afghan sense of ownership, accountability and sustainability that will determine the long-term fate of the mission. Simply put, the president’s strategy is directly at odds with his goals.

Most importantly, Mr. Obama’s plan lacks the most essential prerequisite to any successful counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan: a credible Afghan government. The Karzai regime is weak, corrupt and perceived to be illegitimate by most Afghans. Similar problems hamper provincial, district and village governments.

Last year’s fraudulent elections made this already bad situation even worse. By and large, Afghans have lost faith in the Afghan president, the current government and the democratic process irself. In my own experience, this lack of confidence was pervasive, palpable and deep-seated. It poisoned the very integrity of our mission.

Ironically, President Obama’s call for better governance ignores our own culpability for the sorry state of affairs in Afghanistan. Our mere presence has insulated the Karzai government from the consequences of its actions. It has enabled its corruption, laziness and ineffectiveness. It has stunted the growth of the Afghan state, institutions and civil society. At some point, Karzai must answer to his people for his dismal performance. In turn, the U.S. must prepare for the potential collapse of his government and plan for various contingencies.

Ultimately, this is an Afghan war that must be won or lost by Afghans. Thus, the true path to progress rests on thrusting the Afghan government into a position of genuine responsibility and relegating the U.S. and NATO to a supporting role. While the U.S. will be an important player in Afghanistan both now and in the future, one must be careful not to overstate the U.S. role and understate the Afghan role. Furthermore, one must understand that escalating the U.S. presence will only exacerbate the problem of undermining Afghan ownership of the conflict.

Furthermore, the U.S. and other NATO countries lack the domestic political support, money and resolve to escalate the war for more than a short period. Given such an abbreviated timeline, any potential gains from the president’s strategy are likely to be ephemeral and superficial. In the coming years, the U.S. will likely find itself still in a similarly poor situation if it fails to significantly change its strategy.

Erik Malmstrom served in northeastern Afghanistan in 2006-2007 as an infantry officer with the 10th Mountain Division. He is currently a graduate student at the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School. His op-ed is edited from The New York Times, January 28, 2010.

– PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2010

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Congress should require an exit strategy from Afghanistan

United States troops have been in Iraq longer than the combined U.S. involvement in both World Wars. How long are they going to be in Afghanistan? The British commander of Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan, in an interview last year on National Public Radio, said, “Conservatively, we’re saying 2020” to hand the air field back to the Afghans. He has a budget of some $780 million to further develop the infrastructure at the base. North of Kandahar is the U.S.-run Bagram Air Base, which is also expanding.

In February, President Obama authorized 17,000 additional combat troops and 4,000 military trainers for deployment to Afghanistan during 2009, bringing the total U.S. force there to about 68,000 by the end of the year. With Taliban insurgency violence at its highest level since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, an increasing number of American troops are paying for the war with their lives. More than 700 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan. Increasing troop deaths have pushed Britain’s overall toll in Afghanistan beyond that in Iraq, increasing pressure on the British government to justify the mission.

In March, President Obama told CBS “60 Minutes” that the United States must have an exit strategy in Afghanistan. Ninety-four Members of Congress agree and are going further by saying that Congress and the American people should be told what the exit strategy is. They are sponsoring H.R. 2404, a bill introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) whose text is one sentence long: “Not later than December 31, 2009, the Secretary of Defense shall submit to Congress a report outlining the United States exit strategy for United States military forces in Afghanistan participating in Operation Enduring Freedom.”

An attempt to attach the language as an amendment to the 2010 military budget authorization bill was not successful.

– compiled from JustForeignPolicy.org, National Public Radio, The Associated Press and The Washington Post
PeaceMeal, July/August 2009

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Afghanistan strategy needs overhaul

“All is not lost in Afghanistan, but urgent measures — what might be called ‘game-changing steps’ — are now needed to stem an increasingly violent insurgency,” RAND Corporation experts said in a report released in February by the congressionally funded United States Institute of Peace. The new report by the nonprofit global policy think tank adds to the growing consensus among officials and private analysts that sending more troops to the now 7-year-old war will mean little without a new strategy.

The report says efforts to build a police force have been disappointing, and that work to disarm former combatants and militias is “all but moribund.” It notes that U.S. intelligence indicates Afghan officials are involved in the drug trade; traffickers have bought off hundreds of police chiefs, judges and officials, and it suggests the immediate firing of corrupt officials.

Gen. David Petraeus warned of “a downward spiral of security” in Afghanistan in February and noted that efforts now might be too little, too late. Richard C. Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, concurred, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates concluded that “we are lost” if our military cannot stop killing so many Afghan civilians. Our bombing attacks with remote-controlled, unmanned aircraft have killed thousands of civilians, turning many Afghans against the U.S.

President Obama unveiled his plan on March 27 to further bolster American forces in Afghanistan, increase aid to Pakistan, and for the first time set benchmarks for progress in fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban in both chaotic countries. He warned both governments that they had to take far greater responsibility in tackling their own corruption and the lethal insurgency that is threatening their survival. Obama promised neither to write a “blank check” nor to “blindly stay the course” if his risky strategy does not achieve its ambitious goals.

The RAND report asserts, “It is unlikely the United States and NATO will defeat the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan,”so any additional troops sent should be used to mentor Afghan security forces. Officials also must stop hoping they can build a central government strong enough to keep order across Afghanistan, the report says, because such a goal goes against the country’s history. Instead, tribes and local groups must be fostered.

The report faults international donors for not delivering all the aid promised. It says strategies are splintered and some efforts have been counterproductive because nations working there don’t even agree on whether the biggest threat is al-Qaeda, the skyrocketing drug trade, or other issues. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has chastised the massive private contracts that were let to U.S. firms under the Bush administration for reconstruction work in Afghanistan. According to recent government audits, they are poorly coordinated and have wasted billions of dollars.

The guiding principle for our involvement in Afghanistan should be to help Afghans help themselves. Ideally that would have happened after the U.S.-backed defeat of the Soviet occupation in 1989, when it may have prevented the Taliban from filling the power vacuum we left behind. But at least the Obama administration sees the need for a multi-faceted surge that will invest Afghans in rebuilding their own country.

– edited from Associated Press, Kansas City Star & New York TimesPeaceMeal, May/June 2009

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Fearing an Obama quagmire in Afghanistan

Helene Cooper, diplomatic correspondent, The New York Times

Can President Obama succeed in Afghanistan— a place that has crushed foreign occupiers for more than 2,000 years?

Ever since the Bush administration diverted its attention and resources to the war in Iraq from the war in Afghanistan, military planners and foreign policy experts have bemoaned the dearth of troops to keep that country from sliding back into Taliban control. And in that time, the insurgency blossomed, as Taliban militants took advantage of huge swaths of territory that NATO troops weren’t able to fill.

Enter Mr. Obama. During the campaign he promised to send two additional brigades — 7,000 troops — to Afghanistan. During the transition, military planners started talking about adding as many as 30,000 troops. And within days of taking office, Mr. Obama announced the appointment of Richard Holbrooke, architect of the Balkan peace accords, to execute a new Afghanistan policy.

But even as Mr. Obama’s military planners prepare for the first wave of the new Afghanistan “surge,” there is growing debate, even among those who agree with the plan to send more troops, about whether the troops can accomplish their mission, and just what the mission is. Afghanistan has, after all, stymied would-be conquerors since Alexander the Great. It’s always the same story: the invaders — most recently British, Soviets and now Americans — control the cities, but not the countryside. And eventually, the invaders don’t even control the cities and are sent packing.

For Mr. Obama, Afghanistan is the signal foreign policy crisis that he must address quickly. Some 34,000 American troops are already fighting an insurgency that grows stronger by the month, making this a dynamically deteriorating situation in a region fraught with consequence for American security aims. Mr. Obama’s extra troops will largely be battling a Taliban insurgency fed by an opium trade estimated at $300 million a year. And that insurgency is dispersed among a largely rural population living in villages scattered across 78,000 square miles of southern Afghanistan.

One question for Mr. Obama is whether 30,000 more troops are enough. Karin von Hippel, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she favored the troop increase, but only as a precursor to changing America’s policy so it focuses more on the countryside, as opposed to the capital. “In Afghanistan, the number of troops, if you combine NATO, American and Afghan troops, is 200,000 forces versus 600,000 in Iraq,” Ms. von Hippel said. “Those numbers are so low that an extra 30,000 isn’t going to get you to where you need to be. It’s more of a stop-gap measure. But something,” she said, “is better than nothing.”

That last assertion, however, is also open to debate. Some foreign policy experts argue that Mr. Obama’s decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan is simply an extension of Bush administration policy in the region, with the difference being that Mr. Obama could be putting more American lives at risk to pursue a failed policy. While more American troops can help to stabilize southern Afghanistan, that argument goes, they cannot turn the situation around in the country unless there are major changes in overall policy. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, the darling of the Bush administration, has begun to lose his luster. American and European officials now express private frustration over his refusal to arrest drug lords who have been running the opium trade.

Recently, a draft of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate said that increasingly effective Taliban insurgent attacks and widespread corruption in President Karzai’s government have eroded its authority, and concluded that the country is in a “downward spiral.”

Before sending in more American troops, argues Andrew Bacevich, an international relations professor at Boston University, Mr. Obama should figure out if he is going to change an underlying American policy that has shrunk from putting pressure on Mr. Karzai. “It seems there’s a rush to send in more reinforcements absent the careful analysis that’s most needed here,” he said.

Mr. Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, added, “There’s clearly a consensus that things are heading in the wrong direction. What’s not clear to me is why sending 30,000 more troops is the essential step to changing that. My understanding of the larger objective of the allied enterprise in Afghanistan is to bring into existence something that looks like a modern cohesive Afghan state. Well, it could be that that’s an unrealistic objective. It could be that sending 30,000 more troops is throwing money and lives down a rat hole.”

Putting aside the question of whether a modern cohesive Afghan state is a realistic objective, United States policy makers would like, at the very least, to get to a point in Afghanistan where the country is no longer a launching pad for terrorist attacks like what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. Beating back the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, and rooting out al-Qaeda training camps on the Pakistani border in eastern Afghanistan with the goal of finding Osama bin Laden, are all central parts of American policy.

Can 30,000 more troops help with that objective? A leaked diplomatic cable quoted the British Ambassador as saying that “the presence of the coalition, in particular its military presence, is part of the problem, not part of its solution.”

J. Alexander Their, an Afghanistan expert at the United States Institute of Peace, argues that additional troops can form a basis for stability, but that their presence will be for naught unless there is also government reform. “The Afghan population, particularly in the rural areas, have a strong degree of ambivalence toward the government,” he said. “People expect very little from government, or expect bad things. Yet we’ve ignored government reform and rule of law as part of our strategy.”

The appointment of Mr. Holbrooke as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan may signal the direction that the Obama administration will take there. In the past, Mr. Holbrooke has written that in Afghanistan, “massive, officially sanctioned corruption and the drug trade are the most serious problems the country faces, and they offer the Taliban its only exploitable opportunity to gain support.”

And during her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Afghanistan a “narco-state” with a government “plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption.” So an Obama administration may, indeed, look for ways to press Mr. Karzai to crack down on corruption and drug trafficking.

But Mr. Their of the peace institute says that for a troop increase to produce anything but the limited securing of a few areas, Mr. Obama and NATO may have to go further. “There has to be increasing recognition that what is most important is some form of accountable government,” he said. “If they’re willing to contemplate a world without Karzai, they’ll be more open to a fair process and more open to the idea that there may be others out there.”

– edited from The New York Times, January 25, 2009
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2009

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Pentagon’s Afghan strategy not working

In sobering testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on Sept. 10, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that the U.S. is losing the battle against an increasingly deadly insurgency in Afghanistan, and added: “We cannot kill our way to victory.” Admiral Mullen’s testimony came nearly seven years after U.S.-led forces toppled the former Taliban regime, following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., and allowed the Taliban fighters to escape across the border into mountain strongholds in Pakistan.

Taliban insurgents, once derided as a ragtag rabble unable to match U.S. troops, have transformed into an advanced fighting force. Mullen acknowledged that the al Qaeda-backed insurgents, who have adopted techniques developed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country, have “grown bolder” and now have the ability “to launch ever-more sophisticated — even infantry like — attacks against coalition positions.” In July, U.S. troops abandoned a remote Army outpost two days after a large-scale Taliban attack took the lives of nine comrades. 2008 is already the deadliest year since the 2001 invasion for both U.S. troops and Afghan civilians. And civilian deaths due to U.S. action have caused rising anti-U.S. anger and protests.

Adm. Mullen said, “We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan ... but until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming.”

Mullen was speaking after the U.S. stepped up its campaign of attacks against militant targets inside Pakistan with missile strikes from unmanned drones and a raid by helicopter-borne commandos. The increase in U.S. attacks has sparked an outcry from Pakistani leaders and potentially complicated the challenges facing newly elected Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. “Add to this a poor and struggling Afghan economy, a still-healthy narcotics trade there and a significant political uncertainty in Pakistan, and you have all the makings of a complex, difficult struggle that will take time,” he said.

Adm. Mullen also warned that time was running out on the ability of the West to provide vital nonmilitary assistance for Afghanistan, including roads, schools, alternative crops for farmers and the rule of law. Two costly mistakes the Bush administration made in Afghanistan — and repeated in Iraq — is that it did not adequately concern itself with issues of internal security and it seriously underestimated the amount of aid it would take to pay for both relief and reconstruction needs.

The violence in Afghanistan has steadily increased for three years in a row, with suicide and roadside bombings now at unprecedented levels. In congressional testimony back in December, Adm. Mullen was asked why we were not doing more to deal with the deteriorating situation there. He responded that in Iraq we do what we must, but in Afghanistan we only do what we can.

Mullen’s statement points to a major problem: U.S. troops are woefully overextended and worn out. Gen. David McKiernan, the ground commander in charge of the 50,000-strong NATO-led force in Afghanistan, has requested his own “surge” of 10,000 U.S. troops to bolster the 33,000 already there. But the only place they can come from is Iraq. President Bush has announced a reassignment of 5,000 troops to Afghanistan. But Gen. David Petraeus, newly appointed chief of U.S. Central Command, opposes further troop shifts until next year because of serious concerns that al Qaeda and “residual militia elements” could cause widespread violence to re-erupt in Iraq. Those fears were reinforced by five bomb attacks in Baghdad on Sunday, Sept. 28, that killed at least 27 people and wounded 84.

Furthermore, the security gains achieved in Iraq this year have not been taken advantage of by the Iraqi government to make necessary political progress. Provincial elections to redistribute power among Iraq’s deeply divided groups are stalled.

The political situation in Afghanistan is even more vexing. George Friedman, head of Stratfor, an independent intelligence risk assessment agency, said Gen. Petraeus must consider bringing even the Taliban into the political process, along with rival tribal chiefs. Petraeus recognized the need but stressed that the decision to reach out to militants would be up to the Afghan government.

The United States is now mired between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.” If the Bush administration has bitten off more than we can chew — militarily and financially, how long will it take before the United States chokes?

– edited from NBC News, The Associated Press, The New York Times and Newsweek
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2008

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Afghanistan: Losing the people, losing the war

Howard Zinn

The resurgence of fighting in Afghanistan is a good moment to reflect on the beginning of U.S. involvement there. There should be sobering thoughts to those who say that attacking Iraq was wrong, but attacking Afghanistan was right.

Go back to Sept. 11, 2001. Hijackers direct jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing close to 3,000. A terrorist act, inexcusable by any moral code. The nation is aroused. President Bush orders the invasion and bombing of Afghanistan, and the American public is swept into approval by a wave of fear and anger. Bush announces a “war on terror.”

Except for terrorists, we are all against terror. So a war on terror sounded right. But there was a problem, which most Americans did not consider in the heat of the moment: President Bush, despite his confident bravado, had no idea how to make war against terror.

Yes, Al Qaeda — a relatively small but ruthless group of fanatics — was apparently responsible for the attacks. And, yes, there was evidence that Osama bin Laden and others were based in Afghan-istan. But the United States did not know exactly where they were, so it invaded and bombed the whole country. That made many people feel righteous. “We had to do something,” you heard people say.

Yes, we had to do something. But not thoughtlessly, not recklessly. Would we approve of a police chief, knowing there was a vicious criminal somewhere in a neighborhood, ordering that the entire neighborhood be bombed? There was soon a civilian death toll in Afghanistan of more than 3,000 — exceeding the number of deaths in the Sept. 11 attacks. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans were driven from their homes and turned into wandering refugees.

Two months after the invasion of Afghanistan, a Boston Globe story described a 10-year-old in a hospital bed: “He lost his eyes and hands to the bomb that hit his house after Sunday dinner.” The doctor attending him said: “The United States must be thinking he is Osama. If he is not Osama, then why would they do this?”

We should be asking the presidential candidates: Is our war in Afghanistan ending terrorism, or provoking it? And is not war itself terrorism?

Howard Zinn is an American historian, political scientist, playwright, World War II combat veteran, anti-war activist, and author of the bestseller, “A People’s History of the United States.” This article is excerpted from The Boston Globe, July 17, 2008.

– PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2008

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

U.S. deaths in Afghanistan signal Taliban resurgence

In a troubling sign of the growing resurgence of Taliban forces in Afghanistan, the United States Army suffered one of its biggest single losses of life there on Sunday, July 13, when nine soldiers were killed during a militant attack on a remote Army outpost. Taliban insurgents mounted a large-scale attack in the early morning hours, firing machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars from homes and a mosque in Wanat, a village in a mountainous region that borders Pakistan. Fierce fighting continued through the day. Although the attack was eventually repulsed, U.S. troops and Afghan soldiers abandoned the post two days later.

The Taliban assault on the Wanat outpost was the deadliest single attack on the NATO security force in Afghanistan in three years. The retreat from the post will be considered a victory by the insurgents, and comes after a spate of security setbacks for Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government. Karzai blames the attacks — including suicide bombings and cross-border raids — on Pakistan’s intelligence service, alleging they are behind the insurgency in Afghanistan. Pakistan denies the charge saying Karzai is trying to create “an artificial crisis” to deflect attention from his own failings. The accusations have pitched relations between these key U.S. allies to their lowest point since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The U.S. deaths add to a casualty count that has already made 2008 the deadliest year in Afghanistan since the invasion. More American and allied troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq in May and June, a trend that continued into July. In addition, nearly 700 Afghan civilians were killed in the first five months of the year, a marked increase on previous years, U.N. officials have said.

Pentagon leaders said they are wrestling with ways to send additional troops to Afghanistan this year, an acceleration in what had been plans to shift forces there no earlier than next year. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said commanders in Afghanistan clearly want more troops. The pressing need in Afghanistan is causing the Bush administration to consider the withdrawal of additional forces from Iraq beginning in September, a far more ambitious plan than expected only months ago.

Gen. David D. McKiernan, the American commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, expressed confidence that the government of Afghanistan “will prevail over time.” How long that will take depends on “three big ifs,” he said: how quickly Afghan ability in security and government can be built up; whether the international community stays committed in Afghanistan; and, largely, whether Pakistan curbs the militants on its side of the border.

– edited from The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor and The Associated Press
PeaceMeal, July/August 2008

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Who counts? Who cares?
Estimates of Afghanistan's civilian dead

News media in the U.S. have generally de-emphasized and understated the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan by U.S. bombing in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, and overstated the precision of U.S. weaponry in harmony with Pentagon claims.

Several more exhaustive tallies have emerged that quantify what U.S. media reports missed. In the most widely circulated, a study by Professor Marc W. Herold of the University of New Hampshire uses international media reports to arrive at a total of almost 3,800 civilian Afghan deaths during the U.S. campaign's first 60 days. The seven worst incidents totaled at least 1,100 deaths.

Unlike the accounting for World Trade Center dead, Afghanistan's conditions make even general estimates difficult. But those conditions make it easier to undercount than not.

Professor Herold thinks his overall total is "a serious underestimate of actual civilian casualties." His study is available online at http://www.cursor.org/stories/civilian_deaths.htm

- PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2002