Flailing About, Blindly

by Joshua Foust on 9/14/2009 · 8 comments

Rajiv Chandrasekaran has another interesting dispatch from Kandahar. Most of it is fairly unsurprising to regular readers here: the troops were misplaced when they surged into Helmand, the Taliban operate mostly through intimidation rather than direct violence, there is a desperate need for more Security Force Assistance and Big Army troops but none is forthcoming. However, two things really jumped out at me:

Other military officials in Afghanistan, including top leaders of the regional headquarters that encompasses Kandahar, contend that sending more foreign troops into the city would only pull in more Taliban fighters from rural areas, drawing NATO forces into perilous urban combat…

But what occurred in Dand may be hard to pull off elsewhere, Canadians note, because that district has fewer tribal rivalries and is relatively small, resulting in a much higher concentration of NATO troops to residents than will be possible in other places. And thus far, NATO officials have been reluctant to embrace tribal solutions to combating the insurgency out of fear that will create a new class of warlords.

So, it sounds like NATO would rather fight a rural insurgency… and apparently they’re reluctant to employ a tribal solution. Because they fear warlords more than the Taliban. That just doesn’t make any sense—tribal “solutions” remain the only framework most military planners are even willing to consider (remember that whole “Afghanistan is tribal” thing?), and for a group that hates warlords they sure have a bunch on their side in the government (ahem).

And since when do we prefer rural insurgencies to urban ones?

Anyway, it’s interesting, too, because Chandrasekaran seems to have only interviewed NATO officials for the story, which is why all the solutions there involve the military and only the military. The reality is, police mentoring won’t address the corruption issue, at least not for a very long time. That requires a political and institutional solution, which means politics and economy.

The military (umm, all of them) remains uncomfortable dealing with politics… because that’s not their job. It’s USAID and the State Department’s job to handle relations with another government and provide development assistance. And when even NATO officials say the biggest problems facing the new centerpiece of the insurgency (I guess?) are primarily political (Ahmed Wali Karzai) and institutional (corrupt police) and social (intimidation), surging more troops into the area really won’t address those fundamental reasons why the Taliban is there and is able to operate so freely.

Just don’t tell Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, and John McCain, who seem only capable of channeling Iraq in 2004 when discussing Afghanistan. I’m not sold we need more troops; we need to use our troops better. Otherwise, it’s like throwing good money after bad.


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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 Registan.net. 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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{ 8 comments }

M Shannon September 14, 2009 at 7:58 am

Why would NATO prefer a rural insurgency? They can use their surveillance capacity, air and firepower to better effect. The down side is the threat from IEDs is so far greater in the countryside but the last thing they need are battles in which they have been forbidden to use air or arty hence the preference for a rural insurgency. If the Taliban are smart they will move into the city and create covertly fortified no-go areas with a parallel government and give NATO the choice of abandoning the city or the districts.

Why did the Marines go to Helmand when Kandahar is obviously more important? To keep the Brits in the war. Afghanistan is unpopular enough in the UK without the US appearing to abandon them in Helmand.

The Canadians have pulled nothing off yet. It’s too early to tell if the model village will work. The Taliban have a say and long memories.

Tina September 14, 2009 at 3:24 pm

I thought they went into Helmand to give the impression that a national election was actually taking place.

David M September 14, 2009 at 9:59 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/14/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Bernard Finel September 14, 2009 at 7:54 pm

This is an interesting point: “It’s USAID and the State Department’s job to handle relations with another government and provide development assistance.”

A problem of course is that USAID has been gutted and is now just largely a contracting instrument. A bigger problem is that I don’t know that we actually know how to promote either economic development or anti-corruption initiatives. At the very least, our success at either is pretty spotty, even in countries at peace and with better factor endowments than Afghanistan.

M Shannon September 14, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Tina: The Brit public rationale for their latest Helmand operations was the election. Since the UK took over Helmand as “it’s province” it’s stuck. It can’t just leave and it has do something other than defend besieged out posts. The Canadians, who have no intention of putting any more troops into harms way, got a US brigade + to reinforce Kandahar so the Brits got one as well. It now appears that evenly dividing the reinforcements may have been an error on the tactical level. From the US point of view it still may have been the correct strategic option if it keeps the UK in the war for the very long term. The Brits will probably in any event be the last NATO ally to leave but if they left early (before the POTUS said it was ok for them to go) it would start a stampede for the exits.

dennis September 14, 2009 at 10:19 pm

maybe one day we might get it right.

Stephen Pampinella September 14, 2009 at 11:56 pm

Good article. For a moment, I’m going to risk thinking that some solutions in Iraq can (tentatively) be applied to Afghanistan. Reading Tom Ricks and Bing West both suggest that the only way to prevent insurgent intimidation of the indigenous people is by placing our counterinsurgents directly in the population centers. This reduces the risks to the civilian population, who we need to provide us with intelligence regarding the identity of the insurgents. Persistent presence also prevents insurgent intimidation of local security forces (the Army and Police, who may be simply (and rationally) too afraid to show up to work b/c of night letters). It also gives us more eyes on local security forces, giving us greater normative influence with which we can use to discourage corruption. Both Abizaid and Casey avoided doing this in 2005 because they thought that adding more forces would piss off the locals. Instead, adding more troops creates the secure conditions necessary for security cooperation.

As to the point that the military shouldn’t and can’t be doing politics: this strikes me as Jominian. If we are there, side by side with the ANSF and the locals, we implicitly have political influence by the virtue of our behavior. If we enact their (local) values of security, we create new conditions that may empower others to practice those same values, and also humiliate guys like Wali Karzai whose actions violate those values. In this sense, I would argue that police mentoring is the principle step in an institutional solution. It can create friction for the corrupt officials that undermines their position.

M Shannon September 15, 2009 at 7:36 am

Stephen Pampinella. NATO troops cannot stop the intimidation of locals by the insurgents. There are thousands of villages spread across the south and east. Unlike Iraq most Afghans live in rural areas and most of the roads to them are pitiful. To put a platoon in every village would take roughly 10 infantry divisions or approximately the entire US regular army. It would take 50 infantry battalions to put a platoon in every district with one in reserve for each battalion and no other reserves or maneuver forces allotted. Perhaps a platoon per village is overkill but a platoon for every three or four still takes up a full corps and we still haven’t answered how this platoon guards it’s fort, patrols and stops night letters and assassinations, looks for IEDs, and gets re-supplied.

Of course we should put ANSF in every village. If we had enough and if they wouldn’t abuse the villagers and if they didn’t simply sell their weapons and ammo and if they’d actually try to protect the village.

The only way to stop intimidation of the locals is for the insurgents to be more afraid of the local tribes than the tribesmen are of the insurgents. This is what happened in Iraq. I don’t buy the “surge platoon house” version of events there.

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