Nagging Questions about Afghanistan

An NBC News report last week painted a picture of military futility in Afghanistan. The more recent large operation in Helmand has a more cogent rationale, but it to suffers from viewing the Afghanistan fight as a US operation. Robert McNamara’s death reminds us that we will lose if we view it as our fight rather than as the fight of local (not initially national) partners who we contrive to support.

1) NBC Nightly News last week had a few minutes of a fire fight with a Marine unit. The Marines hiked up to a seemingly deserted unit, saying along the way that they expected to be ambushed because they figured locals would have tipped off the Taliban. Sure enough they set up and were attacked by about ten enemy, of which they thought they killed maybe three, with no US casualties. The Marines and the Taliban fought with essentially the same weapons, though the Marines could call in air strikes if needed. No advanced technology was in evidence on the US side. The US forces were not accompanied by any Afghani nationals. In fact, given that the “Taliban” may have been non-Afghani forces, it’s possible that no one from Afghanistan was involved in the episode. NBC saw this engagement as a success, primarily because of the lack of US casualties but what did it accomplish? Practically, nothing, except perhaps demonstrating that the US did not control the area. Why are we sending US forces to fight for no real tactical or strategic purpose and without any decisive military capability?

2) The large operation of the Marines in Helmand province has an entirely different focus — to move in and protect the people with a permanent US force presence, rather than kill the enemy. This is the counter-insurgency theory that is at the heart of current US military thinking. The Center of a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington DC is a hotbed of this counter-insurgency (COIN) thinking — it’s worth looking at www.cnas.org, and particularly the paper by Exum, Fick, Humayun, and Kilcullen entitled Triage: The Next Twelve Months In Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the one by LTC Jim Crider (US Army), entitled Inside the Surge: One Commander’s Lessons in Counterinsurgency, based on his experience during the “surge” in Baghdad. Crider is especially good on recognizing the crux of the issue is the contest for intelligence, which we were bound to lose so long as we did not fully engage the locals.

3) Robert McNamara’s death reminds us that COIN was a buzzword back in 1962 as well, when he thought we were winning in Vietnam. In the end, if there are not indigenous forces that are upright and attractive to their compatriots that want to succeed as much as the insurgents, then nothing outsiders can do will prevail. The outsiders just become the target for nationalist mobilization. In their can-do American spirit, the CNAS folks talk about what “we” should do to win in Afghanistan, and they offer solutions that hinge on improving the capacity of Afghanistan’s central government and its military and police forces, and they want to stay as long as is necessary. What “we” Americans ought to be doing in Afghanistan is helping to identify and reinforce local power structures that can protect their own local people, with (for a time) US forces and (soon) regional police or central government forces providing strike forces to deal with insurgent concentrations that might overwhelm local capabilities.

Update: The July 8 NYT reports “Allied Officers Concerned by Lack of Afhan Forces.” It’s important to note that owing to ethnic and cultural differences within Afghanistan, central forces may not be all that much better than American ones.

Give them some money

Buy the Afghan opium harvest.

Great minds are struggling with the problem of Afghan agriculture (viz: the peasants choose to grow opium).

The White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group’s Report on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan:

A dramatic increase in Afghan civilian expertise is needed to … create economic alternatives to the insurgency at all levels of Afghan society, particularly in agriculture. …

Crop substitution and alternative livelihood programs that are a key pillar of effectively countering narcotics have been disastrously underdeveloped and under-resourced, however, and the narcotics trade will persist until such programs allow Afghans to reclaim their land for licit agriculture. Targeting those who grow the poppy will continue, but the focus will shift to higher level drug lords.

And from a BBC report on a recent meeting in Brussels:

Richard Holbrooke said the $800m (£550m) a year the US was spending on counter-narcotics would be better used in supporting Afghan farmers.

The brain-racking has not led to any actual proposals that might, you know, work. Why are they ignoring the obvious?

Milton Friedman’s recommended policy for dealing with the poor was to give them some money. (The actual phrase may be apocryphal but he certainly made the argument.) The parallel policy in Afghanistan is:

Buy the opium.

Consider the facts.

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Not cricket

Why did terrorists in Pakistan attack Sri Lankan cricketers?

On March 3rd, unknown terrorist gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, the old capital of the Punjab and second city of Pakistan. Six police guards were killed, but the cricketers escaped.

The story is nasty in a standard way, and very odd in others.

The easiest anomaly to explain is the survival of the cricketers. They were lucky – but also made their own luck. They came from a society with its own long history of terrorism by the Tamil Tiger separatists. Besides, they were professional athletes: very fit young men, with the quick reactions selected for by any ball game, and honed by its high-level practice. Cricket may look languid, as games last so long; but the ball is hard, like a baseball, may be bowled at 90 mph, and it’s legitimate to aim at the batsman’s head or body to intimidate him. The fielders are expected to take catches of mis-hit balls travelling at only slightly lower speeds, barehanded. At this level, you have to be pretty brave as well as quick. So when the team heard gunshots outside their bus, they did the right thing: they dived for the floor and shouted to the driver to keep going. And it worked.

Clip of highlights from a recent match between India and Sri Lanka:

What is harder to understand is: why pick on Sri Lankans? And why cricketers? To jihadist Muslims, Sri Lankans are infidels – Hindus and Buddhists – but they come from a poor country with no recent history of conflict with Muslims. They are just generic foreigners. The one thing that could have made them stand out is that they replaced an Indian cricket team whose tour was sensibly cancelled after the Mumbai attacks.

There’s even less logic to attacking cricketers. Surprisingly, the Takiban are in favour of it. Before 1978, most Afghans despised the game as a British imperialist relic. But following the Soviet invasion of 1978, young Afghan refugees in Peshawar picked up the game from Pakistanis, much as Tibetan refugees in Nepal have adopted spicy subcontinental food. The Taliban took the game back to Afghanistan when they gained power. A cricket website writes:

In January 2000, the Taliban regime wrote to the Pakistan Cricket Board seeking support to join the International Cricket Council as an associate member.

A decorously bearded Afghan team played in Rawalpindi in May 2001. So its unlikely that the Taliban would have chosen cricketers as suitable symbolic targets. The Middle Easterners in Al-Qaeda presumably do not play the game, which never caught on in the British Empire in that part of the world; but why should they hate it?

Terrorism works by symbolic association. If observers are left scratching their heads because they can’t see the point, an attack has failed. This one makes the Pakistan government look weak and incompetent, which it is, and may therefore have some obscure payoff in Pakistani internal politics. It may also backfire. The mass of the Pakistani population live in the Indus plain and like cricket. Making them angry and liable to demand action against the anarchist backwoodsmen in the mountains doesn’t look to me like a brilliant idea.

The Viagra Maneuver

So we’re bribing Afghan sheikhs with Viagra. Fine. But why blab to the press about it?

1. Figuring out ways to bribe Afghan tribal elders: good idea!

2. Doing so with Viagra: pretty clever.

3. Yapping about it to reporters: pretty stupid.

Can’t do good, might do harm.

How long do you think it will take the Taliban to start telling jokes about limp-dicked traitors to Islam?

Six feet of cyberspace

The Brits provide their war dead with decent cybermemorials, why not the Pentagon?

The last soldier of the British Army to die in combat was Rifleman Yubraj Rai of the Gurkhas, from Khotang province in Nepal. who was killed in Afghanistan on Tuesday 4 November. Here’s a screenshot of his page on the website of the British Ministry of Defence:

Ministry of Defence - Defence News - Military Operations - Rifleman Yubraj Rai killed in Afghanistan_1226432331100.jpeg

.. and it goes on.

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Nul points

America’s moral standing is lower than Afghanistan’s, according to the British Army.

A certain John Bellinger, legal adviser to the State Department, has been complaining in London that British forces in Afghanistan have actually been applying European human rights standards to their Taliban foes and indeed not even taking them prisoners.

Leave aside the moral warp and look at this as practical foot-in-mouth diplomacy.

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