Maybe We’re Not Winning in Khost

by Joshua Foust on 9/22/2008 · 2 comments

Tom Johnson and Chris Mason, les bête noires of Afghan studies, have a hard-hitting piece in The Atlantic about how we’re doing it all wrong wrong wrong in Afghanistan:

Local teams with on-site development personnel—“District Development Teams,” if you will—could change all that, and also serve to support nonmilitary development projects.

Oh they must mean like the National Solidarity Programme. Woops—that doesn’t make it once into their piece. Nevermind. Let’s see what else might be missing.

As in Vietnam, the U.S. has never lost a tactical engagement in Afghanistan, and this tactical success is still often conflated with strategic progress. Yet the Taliban insurgency grows more intense and gains more popular traction each year. More and more, the American effort in Afghanistan resembles the Vietnam War—with its emphasis on body counts and air strikes, its cross-border sanctuaries, and its daily tactical victories that never affected the slow and eventually decisive erosion of rural support for the counterinsurgency.

So let’s set up an analogy table to see just how similar Vietnam and Afghanistan are:

Vietnam Afghanistan
French colony
Soviet Invasion
Dien Bien Phu The Battle of Jaji
Ho Chi Minh Mullah Mohammed Omar
Emperor Bao Dai Ahmed Shah Massoud?
Ngo Dinh Diem Hamid Karzai
Strategic Hamlet Program ???

Okay, that’s not a good idea. Comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam is… well, it’s daft.

As the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, noted in a blunt interview with the BBC in May, the current military engagement is also beginning to look like the Soviets’ decade-long Afghan adventure, which ended ignominiously in 1989. That intervention, like the current one, was based on a strategy of administering and securing Afghanistan from urban centers such as Kabul and the provincial capitals. The Soviets held all the provincial capitals, just as we do, and sought to exert influence from there. The mujahideen stoked insurgency in the rural areas of the Pashtun south and east, just as the Taliban do now.

Again, the problem with analogy. There is no current analog to the CIA/Saudi drive to fund the Peshawar Seven, just as the U.S./ISAF mission (despite some similarities) is not analogous to the Soviet invasion. And notice how Johnson and Mason can’t rely on any Western officials, experts, or analysts to say this—they have to go to the Russian ambassador in Kabul, someone who is, to put it lightly, not a disinterested observer.

The U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is foundering because of the endemic failure to engage and protect rural villages, and to immunize them against insurgency.

Jesus. And I thought we were against torture… look at what they did to that metaphor! Also, I think they’re misusing “endemic.” I think they meant “systemic.” Anyway, I thought the genius of our counterinsurgency in Khost was engaging the locals and providing services? Hrm.

National government has never much mattered in Afghanistan. Only once in its troubled history has the country had something like the system of strong central government that’s mandated by the current constitution. That was under the “Iron Emir,” Abdur Rehman, in the late 19th century, and Rehman famously maintained control by building towers of skulls from the heads of all who opposed him, a tactic unavailable to the current president, Hamid Karzai.

Without writing an entire essay about this, it is, simply, wrong. At least back into the 1800’s, Afghanistan enjoyed a strong and recognized Amir in Kabul. The real distinction, as Olivier Roy has argued, between Afghanistan’s governments and the West’s idea of government, is how that government has related to its people.

Hell, last year Johnson and Mason didn’t know what a Gardez province was, and couldn’t tell any of the various militant groups apart, that is when they weren’t arguing the Taliban are driven by the Durrani-Ghilzai rivalry. Yet now it’s the West’s fault, for an “endemic” failure to engage rural communities and not build a strong national government? Maybe the next dart they throw at the “failure” board will hit something accurate.

Politically and strategically, the most important level of governance in Afghanistan is neither national nor regional nor provincial. Afghan identity is rooted in the woleswali: the districts within each province that are typically home to a single clan or tribe. Historically, unrest has always bubbled up from this stratum—whether against Alexander, the Victorian British, or the Soviet Union. Yet the woleswali are last, not first, in U.S. military and political strategy.

Again, this is astoundingly wrong, though kudos for the exotic native word. Districts in Afghanistan are not even mostly divided by clan or tribe. District-level government has nothing to do with “Afghan identity,” which is expressed differently by adjacent groups of Pashtuns, to say nothing of other ethnicities there. Afghan identity is rooted in qawm, not the district—otherwise, there wouldn’t have been the multiple movements after 2001 to turn ethnically-homogeneous districts into entire provinces—which is why we now have a Panjshir and a Daikondi province—nor would there be multiple unofficial districts acting to secure community interests. They’re confusing something that happens to take place generally at the district level now for something that is driven by district-level identities. But with few exceptions—such as some of the districts in the Loya Paktiya area like Wazi Zadran or Jaji—districts are not explicitly related to tribes.

Historically conflict has not bubbled up from the “stratum” of district administration. Until very recently—and especially not on the historical scale he’s talking about (there WAS no Afghanistan, or even any Pashtuns, during Alexander’s campaign, for example)—conflict has “bubbled up” from the qawm, from communities. Sometimes, these might have been districts involved. The 1978 Pech Uprising against the communists, for example, was not a woleswali uprising—it was explicitly community-driven. The Safi Uprising of 1945, for example, was driven by a dispute with the government’s conscription policies and the harassment of elders. When the British invaded—twice—Afghanistan didn’t even have districts. Further back, the rebellion against the Mughal Emperor Aurenzeb wasn’t district-driven, nor was the eventual rebellion against the Timurids.

Again: the level of ignorance on display by supposed experts is just breathtaking.

The rural Pashtun south has its own systems of tribal governance and law, and its people don’t want Western styles of either. But nor are they predisposed to support the Taliban, which espouses an alien and intolerant form of Islam, and goes against the grain of traditional respect for elders and decision by consensus. Re-empowering the village coun­cils of elders and restoring their community leadership is the only way to re-create the traditional check against the powerful political network of rural mullahs, who have been radicalized by the Taliban. But the elders won’t commit to opposing the Taliban if they and their families are vulnerable to Taliban torture and murder, and they can hardly be blamed for that.

Yes, the south is wonderful to talk about. But before there was even an insurgency in the south—before Kandahar was surrounded by Taliban, for example, or before Uruzgan was a major center of operations—the EAST was the primary infiltration point for the militants, and the EAST was where most of the violence took place. There has been a Coalition presence in Kandahar, for example, since 2001, but there was zero Coalition presence in Nuristan until 2006. The Korengal Valley has seen near-constant conflict for seven years. Ghazni has never been particularly safe, even while aid workers were busy trudging to Lashkar Gah to set up aid programs.

Similarly, the Taliban is not alien, and while they are intolerant, so are modern Afghans. Pretending that all the rural Pashtuns are just as purdah-licious and Sufist as they were in 1978 is unhelpful: the vicious mujahideen government of 1992-1996 was just as brutal toward women, and Rabbani’s instincts for governance are not noticeably different than the Taliban’s save his slightly less developed xenophobia.

But, pretending the Taliban right now is the same Taliban from 1998 is a mistake, too. As Giustozzi documents quite well in his book, they now operate in a much more sophisticated way, not necessarily by brutally imposing their will (though they do that), but by acting as mediators in local disputes, and displacing the government as the primary provider of goods and services (such as justice). Almost always, you will find the losing side of a local dispute teaming up with the Taliban to gain an edge over their rival; and almost always, you will find the majority side complain to the Coalition about the Taliban. The problem at the local level is far more complex than Johnson and Mason are giving it credit for; as a result, their prescriptions for action are not just overly simplistic, but ignorant and wrong.

To reverse its fortunes in Afghanistan, the U.S. needs to fundamentally reconfigure its operations, creating small development and security teams posted at new compounds in every district in the south and east of the country. This approach would not necessarily require adding troops, although that would help—200 district-based teams of 100 people each would require 20,000 personnel, one-third of the 60,000 foreign troops currently in the country.

You mean like this?

In early 2007, Custer, 43, developed a plan to meet the insurgency at the most local level. He decided to disperse his 187 paratroopers throughout the province, stationing 20 to 30 men in Force Protection Facilities (FPFs) in each of Khost’s district centers. Living next door to a subgovernor’s offices, they could protect him and his officials. (Subgovernors are like county executives in the United States. Appointed by the provincial governors, they are typically responsible for districts of 60,000-100,000 people.) U.S. soldiers could also play on-the-spot mentor to the Afghan National Police, who continue to be a byword for inefficiency and corruption. Khost’s Provincial Reconstruction Team–87 men and women from both the Army and State Department–would build schools and clinics near the FPFs, bringing the tangible benefits of government to Afghan citizens.

That’s Ann Marlowe, talking about LTC Scott Custer’s attempt to do exactly what Johnson and Mason are advocating in Khost province. Guess what—it didn’t work. Violence in Khost is worse now than it ever has been since the 2001 invasion, and the Taliban continue to threaten, assault, and take over entire district centers and FOBs throughout the East.

It might seem a minor point, but this gets at the heart of why Tom Johnson is such an unreliable expert on Afghanistan: he doesn’t even know what’s been tried, to say nothing of what might actually work, because he can’t accurately diagnose the problem. All he can do right now is paraphrase work someone else already has done, and not notice that she described exactly the system he advocates, and not even care to check to see if it had an effect whatsoever.

But then, there’s this:

Perhaps most important, district-based teams would serve as the primary organization for Afghan rural development. Currently, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams,” based in each provincial capital, are responsible for the U.S. military’s local development efforts. These teams have had no strategic impact on the insurgency, because they are too thin on the ground—the ratio of impoverished Afghan Pashtuns to provincial reconstruction teams is roughly a million to one. Few teams are able to visit every district in their province even once a month; it’s no wonder that rural development has been marred by poor design and ineffective execution.

Local teams with on-site development personnel—“District Development Teams,” if you will—could change all that, and also serve to support nonmilitary development projects. State Department and USAID personnel, along with medics, veterinarians, engineers, agricultural experts, hydrologists, and so on, could live on the local compounds and work in their districts daily, building trust and confidence.

I am a little surprised Johnson and Mason don’t know what the National Solidarity Programme is, but then again by this point I kind of expect not to see any homework behind their analysis. From the NSP website:

The National Solidarity Programme (NSP) was created in 2003 by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development to develop the ability of afghan communities to identify, plan, manage and monitor their own development projects. Through the promotion of good local governance, the NSP works to empower rural communities to make decision affecting their own lives and livelihoods. Empowered rural communities collectively contribute to increased human security. The programme is inclusive, supporting entire communities including the poorest and vulnerable people.

That sounds almost exactly like what they’re advocating, only it’s local and Afghan-run, so it has a much better chance at success than the questionable progress wrought by our PRTs. And it’s not like the NSP is a secret: Robert Zoellick wrote of it last month in the Washington Post, and it has been a centerpiece of the World Bank‘s capacity-building campaign.

Then again, the U.S. is poised to cut funding for the NSP, so maybe Johnson and Mason are looking to do the exact same thing only with foreigners who don’t know the locals and can’t administer a project on-budget to save their lives.

But here’s the kicker:

Deploying relatively small units in numerous forward positions would undoubtedly put more troops in harm’s way. But the Taliban have not demonstrated the ability to overrun international elements of this size, and the teams could be mutually reinforcing. (Air support would be critical.) Ultimately, we have to accept a certain amount of risk; you can’t beat a rural insurgency without a rural security presence.

As long as the compounds are discreetly sited, house Afghan soldiers to provide the most visible security presence, and fly the Afghan flag, they need not exacerbate fears of foreign occupation. Instead, they would reinforce the country’s most important, most neglected political units; strengthen the tribal elders; win local support; and reverse the slow slide into strategic failure.

Ahh yes, let’s put more troops out under the exclusive protection of air strikes—which was been ++super successful, btw—and pretend the Afghans are stupid and don’t think the ANA operates at the discretion and funding of a foreign occupying power. You see, treating the locals like idiots who can’t see two feet in front of their own faces is a recipe for success. Just ask Nadir Tawakil.

And so again, we come to the crux of the matter: Johnson and Mason almost kind of get it right, yet what they write is in stark contrast to their own previous works (with no explanation for how or why their views have evolved). They hopelessly simplify the situation, then advocate solutions that have already been tried and don’t know of solutions that are currently enjoying success. They draw bad analogies, and demonstrate a poor understanding of history. But they get essays run in The Atlantic, so I should really just shut my mouth and bow at the feet of their brilliantly shining expertise.

“Taliban,” Where the “A” Stands for Apache, and the “N” Stands for Navajo
Learning the Value of Differences
Digging Deeper into the Pashtun Tribal Areas

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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steve September 22, 2008 at 9:31 pm

Put this in a letter and mail it to The Atlantic. Maybe they’ll excerpt some of it on their Letters page.

Péter September 23, 2008 at 7:48 am

I find it funny how this point is always made, as it is, in this case by Johnson and Mason, that if the occupation becomes too visible, “Afghans” will surely revolt.

I mean, imagine : the local elder goes up to the ANA soldier in front of the compound housing a “forward team,” and says, “You better keep that Afghan flag flying above that compound, young fellow Afghan, or we villagers will RPG it… also we’d better not see any of the Americans inside poke their head out too much… but you know, if they stay inside and the flag is flying, that’s fine with us…”

Truly amazing thinking to assume this.

Is it really difficult to get for some that, depending on which side of which local conflict one is on, one might even wear a shalwar kamiz with stars and stripes on it, proverbially speaking? Or do only “Afghans” understand this?

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