A suggestion to the Afghan hawks:
Give us facts, not just hot air
By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / October 30, 2009
The supporters of Joe Biden seem to be on the defensive in the debate over what to do in Afghanistan even though the hawks have not advanced a strong case for escalating our involvement there. There seems still to be a basic assumption abroad that Americans must police the world, blindly follow the Pentagon, and apply more force when in doubt.
Those were clearly the assumptions of Dick Cheney, our most outspoken hawk, when he accused President Barack Obama of “dithering,” claiming taking time to deliberate about Afghanistan policy amounted to putting American lives at risk. In conjured images of a surrounded unit waiting for reinforcements. The former vice president has the right to criticize Obama, but we have a right to expect solid arguments rather than loaded words and appeals to emotion. If he had good arguments to offer, he did not bother to make them.
Of course, the greatest hawks are in the military. On October 13, Sy Hersh told a Duke University audience that the Pentagon was at war with the White House, and he bluntly stated that some of this was racially motivated. He added that the struggle is about control of policy and that it was calculated that President Barack Obama will lose support no matter what he does. All of this is reminiscent of the insubordination of Douglas MacArthur, the bad information the Pentagon fed LBJ in 1965, and the Navy’s theft of Nixon documents in 1971-1972.
When Pentagon staffers said they could not prepare a report on the advantages of a counterterrorism-only option because there were none, any serious observer could see that the military was in danger of exceeding its constitutional role. Hersh, a famous investigative reporter whose reports have been consistently well sourced, predicted that the Pentagon would get Obama to accept its will.
The Afghanistan hawks are talking about putting many more Americans in harm’s way. Those lives are precious. We have also reached the point where more care should be taken with the money we spend. By a conservative estimate Bush’s wars will cost between three and five trillion. Who knows how much more McCrystal’s proposed escalation will cost?
There is also the matter of priorities. Conservatives are outraged that almost $900 billion will be spent over ten years to extend health care to almost all Americans. They do not begrudge spending any amount on war and destruction.
Some might remember that the Pentagon strategists used game theory in the Sigma simulations to test various strategies for winning the Vietnam War. They never found one that would assure victory. Nevertheless, we slogged on because it was inconceivable that the commitment of massive forces and resources would not work.
The hawks have not offered compelling reasons to wade deeper into the Afghan morass, nor have they offered a strategy that promises success.
Before committing more troops to Afghanistan, the hawks should be sure that all or almost all of the following are true.
1. There should be a government in place in Kabul that will win the confidence of the great majority of the people.
This is what we know. The Afghans had a disputed election, and the UN sacked Peter Galbraith for revealing that there was a great deal of cheating on behalf of President Hamid Karzai. There were “ghost polling-stations” and far fewer people voted than were claimed. Bitterness against Karzai’s election tactics is intense. No one believes bitterness over the recently rigged election will dissipate soon. A third of the ballots cast for Karzai were tossed out and he now must face a run-off election. It is estimated that again there will be a low turnout due to Taliban threats and the widespread opinion there that the IEC favors Karzai. That may be why the Sirai Haqqani Taliban faction, operating out of North Waziristan in Pakistan, targeted the UN guest houses.
Few think we can be successful in Afghanistan without a government that commands the allegiance of most Afghans. Almost all admit that the Karzai government is impossibly corrupt. It is widely claimed that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother, is involved with a drug trafficker who also does business with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Yet many think this regime will be a solid and useful partner in ending the insurgency there. No one believes bitterness over the recently rigged election will dissipate soon.
In eight years, Karzai has made little progress in building up the army and police forces. The Afghan National Army stands at 94,000 and has had a little success in the north. It will take two years to increase it to 134,000. That is still far short of the 300 or 400 thousand that are needed. Who can remember that there were 91,000 when George W. Bush began to rebuild the ANA.
Counterinsurgency is really about keeping the Taliban from gaining control of any large part of Afghanistan so that they will not give Al Qaeda a safe haven. Richard Barrett, coordinator of the U.N.’s Al Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, quotes remarks by Mullah Omar to the effect that the Taliban will focus on consolidating power, not bringing in Al Qaeda. The Taliban realize that giving bases to Al Qaeda got them kicked out in the first place. Doing so again would result in tremendous punishment and probable loss of power.
Any extended commitment that looks like imperialism or occupation will fail. To battle that perception, the administration should talk in terms of an expeditionary force that will remain around two years, more or less. Less, if the Afghan government does not appear to improve. . That puts the Karzai regime on notice that it must quickly put its house in order, and it precludes an open-ended war.
2. Pakistan will stop assisting the Afghanistan Taliban and will prevent its Taliban from entering Afghanistan.
Pakistan will continue playing a double game — doing enough to get aid while keeping the Afghan Taliban alive. Pakistan has a vital interest preserving great interest in Afghan affairs. They distrust Karzai because he is too close to India and is permitting Indians to invest in Afghanistan. India is doing many good things there to help the Afghan people; the trouble is that their presence is one reason Pakistan still helps the Afghan Taliban.
Pakistan also complains that the Karzai regime is top heavy with Tajiks and that the Pashtuns are seriously underrepresented. The Pakistanis put the Taliban in power in the mid-1990s and learned that they are not ideal clients. For the moment, they are a useful tool. Pakistan would prefer to broker a new power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan that would give the Pashtuns the upper hand while keeping the Taliban from the main levers of power.
The second problem with Pakistan is control of its border. It is true that Pakistan has sent 30,000 troops to deal with the Mehsud Taliban. The Nehsud insurgents no longer have much public support, but they will prove to be difficult to handle on the battle field.
It is a battle between troops trained to battle Indians in conventional warfare against guerillas. So far, that army has not shown skill in dealing with civilians in Taliban-infested areas or in helping refugees from the fighting.
The Pakistan Army managed to crack the alliance between the Mehsud and the Pashtun Pakistani Talibans led by Mullah Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur. The army has repeatedly failed to deal effectively with them and has had to resort to bribery. Now Major General Athar Abbas promises to deal with those two, as soon as the Mehsud are crushed: “If you get the biggest bully in [the tribal lands,] all the other guys will fall into line.” If this were believable, Zazir and Bahadur would not have let the alliance with the Mehsud dissolve.
There is also another Pakistani Pashtun Taliban under Sirajuddin Hawwani, which is thought responsible for the Kabul bombings. In the past he had close ties to the ISI, Pakistan’s CIA. Now the Pakis tell us they have no idea where he is. The United States has evidence that he is operating out of North Waziristan. All three of these Paki Pashtun Talibans are Afghanistan-oriented and likely to be sending troops across the border with greater frequency.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confronted Pakistan on the matter of Siraj Hawwani and other Taliban who have been hiding out in Pakistan since 2002. Her charge that Pakistan has been colluding with these terrorists offended the Pakistanis, but it was important that she confront them on t his. The Pakistanis are willing to fight home-grown Taliban when those people threaten the regime. So far they have not moved against the Afghan Taliban in the tribal areas.
So long as these units are not attacking the Pakistani army, it is not in the army’s self interest to move against them. Similarly, there is no good reason to injure the Taliban in Afghanistan so long as Karzai pursues the same policies with respect to India and the Pashtuns.
It would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that the Afghan Taliban might eventually obtain shoulder mounted missile launchers from people in the Pakistani military. The Pakistanis have a large store of them, which they have manufactured. Though the military was once thoroughly secular, Islamic fundamentalism jihadism is common among the rank and file and is growing in the officer corps. We know that the Pakistani Taliban is using heavy weapons against the Pakistani army. How did they obtain them?
3. The “surge” techniques used in Iraq will be successful in Afghanistan.
The surge in Iraq focused on urban areas, and there are far fewer of them in Afghanistan. In Iraq, it involved buying off Sunni tribal leaders and their followers. It would be a step toward realistic thinking if advocates of escalation in Afghanistan admitted that purchasing support was a big part of the surge’s success. Bribery is worth trying in Afghanistan, where insurgent fighters get about $10 a month. We should try that in any case, but it is necessary to realize that the tribal structures in Afghanistan are not as powerful and coherent as in Iraq.
Only Bob Woodward has openly discussed another reason why the surge worked. Special Forces in Iraq, under McCrystal, carried out something like the Vietnam War’s Operation Phoenix and eliminated thousands of the insurgent cadre. It seems that that technique may not work in Afghanistan. Black ops there seem to convert people into Taliban supporters. That is partly why pilots and drone operators must get permission from a superior officer and a JAG lawyer before firing missiles. There is also concern about the negative consequences under international law if too many civilians are injured.
A U.S. counterinsurgency program will require far more troops that McCrystal is now requesting, in part because there are fewer urban concentrations and because of disadvantages presented by weather and terrain. Afghans in the south and east already see the U.S. as an occupying power, and the presence of more troops is certain to deepen that impression in those places and possibly spread it to the rest of the country. The McCrystal strategy would be an occupation, and foreign occupations of that country since the time of Alexander the Great have been failures.
Simply put, occupations breed anger, and long occupations breed still more anger and violence. Many experts claim that raising the number of U.S. troops there will simply provoke a great nationalist backlash. The Carnegie Institute concluded earlier this year that the coming of additional American forces actually helped the insurgency as Afghans saw them as occupiers. Success will require substantial forces in remote, mountainous places, where we have not always had great success.
Pakistan has 32 different linguistic groups, a mountain chain that extends 300 miles, and only 11,000 miles of roads — less than a fifth of them paved. This will be an extremely difficult environment for effective counterinsurgency activity by foreign forces.
The battle of Wanat, Afghanistan, lasted only two hours on July 13. The base was up in the mountains at a place where we could disrupt the flow of Taliban fighters coming in from Pakistan. Nine Americans were killed and 29 were injured, amounting to a casualty rate of 75%. Warfare is the number one sport in Afghanistan, and these illiterate warriors are smart when it comes to tactics. They know that frequent bad weather inhibits airpower and they first go after heavy weapons and communications. They look for windows of opportunity to attack.
On that day they attacked at 4:20 a.m., firing rocket grenades at anti-tank rocket launchers and a 50 caliber machine gun. It took time for the choppers to arrive, and visibility was tough. The aircraft took some hits, but we retained the base.
Two weeks ago, at a base north of Wanat, we lost eight soldiers in a bloody day-long battle. They were killed by a well-armed force that dwarfed them in size. Their mission was to try to stem the flow of Pakistani Taliban fighters over the border to join their allies in the Afghan Taliban. Indeed, a number of the fighters were Pakistani Taliban expelled from the Swat Valley by Pakistan’s army.
The guerilla force that confronted the Americans numbered about 300. In Iraq, the guerilla forces seldom exceeded 30, with the possible exception of the fighting in Fallujah.
We found it necessary to abandon both those bases in Nurestan province.
Even General Stanley McCrystal admits we have not mastered the math of counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Sometimes 20-2+0. That is we take out 2 insurgents and the other eighteen might just quit and go home. Good. But sometimes 20-2= 47. We take out two important insurgents and their male relatives join the Taliban or some groups using that name.
Economic aid is a good thing, but we still have not mastered how to administer it. We have only learned recently that using non-Afghan contractors almost always alienates people. But now we learn that we have to be careful which Afghan contractors should be used.
4. Our allies are prepared to soldier on in Afghanistan for at least several more years.
Afghanistan has become a NATO mission, and our president would be well advised to invite NATO to join in these deliberations. Otherwise, it will appear that we are continuing the Bush policy of dictating to others. Obama was selected for the Nobel Prize in part because he turned away from unilateralism and opted for engaging our allies and others.
Obama asked Germany for more troops, and the Federal Republic refused. Now we learn that Italian troops in Sarobi area of Afghanistan bribed the Taliban not to attack them. This left the French vulnerable to attack because the Italians had not warned the French that they were bribing the Taliban.
The mood in Europe is clearly against sending more troops. France, Germany, and Great Britain have asked for an international conference to discuss how NATO forces can be phased out in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Gordon Brown upped his contribution by 500 troops and said counterinsurgency efforts were necessary. But he tied his commitment to more troops from other NATO countries and Afghan commitments to be more inclusive, fight corruption, and deploy more soldiers.
In view of the growing sentiment in Europe against the Afghanistan operation, it would be wise to learn how much support we could count on if we ramp up the effort to provide population security. Already some writers fear that extended involvement in Afghanistan could be the rock on which the NATO vessel breaks. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has endorsed Obama’s decision to review the policy and has said that it is more important to get the right strategy than to rely on putting in more troops.
1. The escalation plan has a diplomatic component that will contribute to success on the ground.
There are diplomatic options, but they do not promise success. Some of them may not be acceptable to the American people.
Hillary Clinton, supported by Henry Kissinger, has suggested that we call for a regional conference to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. It should include Iran, China, India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Our nervous NATO allies should also be represented. Maybe nothing will come of a conference, but Iran, Russia, China, and India have many reasons to want stability in Afghanistan. The last thing they need is a state that exports terrorism. This would be a remodeled version of the old UN sponsored six plus talks of the 1990s and 2001. The U.S. should be represented by experienced diplomats from both parties.
Talks on Afghanistan might somehow be coordinated with talks about Iran. Russian Foreign Minister Sergi Lavrov told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that Russia and China opposed more sanctions against Iran at this time and favored multilateral talks with Iran. The U.S. has previously said it favored talking to the Iranians. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is in China arranging for the building of a refinery there in return for loans to Russian banks. He is probably also discussing Afghanistan.
Russia and China have been drawing closer to one another and, through the Shanghai Cooperation Council, are demonstrating that they do not want to see U.S. hegemony in Central Asia. They will not stand for Iran being crushed, but they oppose a nuclear armed Iran. It is possible we could work out a broad deal for Central Asia with them.
Our internal discussion of the Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan questions takes place as though they are not related. But they are interlinked. Many Afghans who are now on our side speak Persian and are strongly influenced by Iran. Iran could make things even worse for us in Afghanistan, but it has no reason now to want an unstable Afghanistan. By the same token, Iran could make the Iraq situation much worse if it supplied Shiite insurgents with ground to air missiles or even simply the devices the mujahedeen used against the Russians.
Our dealings with Iran can impact upon what goes on in Afghanistan. So far, they have gone tit for tat. For each black op and insurgent activity we sponsor in Iran, they have answered in kind. By appearing to be more reasonable than Bush, President Obama has obtained some important concessions from Iran and may be able to do more. But if Israel were to move against Iran, we could expect Iran to use its influence against us among its Afghan clients.
These are all important and relevant questions. The debate over what to do in Afghanistan could be improved if the hawks attempted to answer these questions. So far, the hawks have advanced nothing but macho appeals, emotionalism, and distortions. Years ago, this sort of thing was dismissed as “foreign policy fundamentalism” and was identified with Strangelove types like Curtis LeMay and unsophisticated politicians from the most remote provinces. Today, we hear it from a former Vice President, and it seems to represent the foreign policy of a party once respected for its real politik in foreign policy.
[Sherman DeBrosse is a retired history teacher. Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go here.]