I’ll Have What He’s Smoking

by Joshua Foust on 2/4/2010 · 9 comments

Who is General McChrystal’s hashish dealer? Because that stank be good.

A top U.S. military commander offered a hint of optimism on the war in Afghanistan on Thursday by declaring, in contrast to other officials, that the security situation in the Central Asian state was no longer “deteriorating” but merely “serious.”

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s assessment, a modest upgrade to the nine-year war, runs counter to that of officials in Afghanistan and other nations who say they worry the Taliban has expanded its influence and that the situation has become explosive.

McChrystal says he agrees the Taliban has made strides in recent months and said he is “not prepared to say we’ve turned a corner.” Even so, he told reporters, the Afghan government and U.S. forces are making enough progress to leave him more optimistic about the war than he was last summer, when he declared it backsliding.

So, according to iCasualties.org, during January—which is normally at least half as deadly than the previous summer—the U.S. experienced 45 combat deaths in Afghanistan. January of 2009 saw only 25. January of 2008? 14. Similarly, General McChrystal’s senior intelligence officer, General Michael Flynn, put out just six weeks ago a powerpoint (though he hates powerpoint!) that claims the Taliban not only can “sustain itself indefinitely,” but that its “organizational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding,” and that the “strength and ability of shadow governance [is] increasing.” Similarly, year after year the ability of humanitarian groups to deliver basic aid and sustainment to the population is increasingly restricted by the fighting.

In McChrystal’s universe, this is evidence not of continued backsliding, but of mere seriousness with hopeful progress. Where is this progress happening?

General McChrystal said the highly anticipated offensive to begin soon in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province would be a significant example of the improved partnership between foreign and Afghan security forces. Helmand is a focus of insurgent activity and the narcotics trade, and is viewed as a center of gravy in the allied counterinsurgency strategy because of its fertile river valley and significant population centers.

That slapping sound you just heard was my palm impacting upon my face. Despite all the assertion to the contrary, there is no evidence to support the claim that Helmand is vital to the insurgency, or that the heroin it grows is essential to Taliban financing (seriously: argh).

Most importantly: where are all the significant population centers in Helmand? For some reason—hint hint, shining minds at CNAS—the myth persists that Helmand is somehow a major center of commerce with a high population density… when nothing is further than the truth. According to the Central Statistics Organization, in 2009 Helmand province had approximately 835,000 people. Neighboring Kandahar province, which unlike Helmand contains an actual city and actual importance to most Pashtuns, has about one million people.

Other provinces with more people, bigger, more established cities under threat, and actively deteriorating security include Kunduz (pop. approx. 900,000), Ghazni (pop. approx. 1.1 million), even Takhar (pop. approx. 860,000). And we’re not even talking about population density—Takhar, for example, is a far smaller province than Helmand, with more people, a major city almost the same size as Helmand’s capital Lashkar Gah, and a steadily deteriorating safety record in an area once considered perfectly safe and permissable.

That safe areas in the north are being thrown to the wolves while we send wave after wave after wave after wave of soldiers at a barely stalemated situation in Helmand—that we can’t even muster up a few thousand more troops to arrest the appalling deteriorating in Kandahar—is unforgivable when the commander of ISAF is running to the newspapers declaring province. There is no discernable metric out there—overall civilian casualties, Coalition casualties, security incidents, IEDs emplacements, governance intiatives—that have trended in a positive direction (the only metric I know of to be trending positively is Coalition-induced civilian casualties). And yet there General McChrystal is, talking of progress and how we’re no longer backsliding.

To conclude: why would I accuse Petraeus 2.0 of smoking the marijuana? Because it is a more comforting assumption—the man who sleeps in his office and eats one meal a day is human in some part of his life—than the more obvious one, which is that he is misleading us to continue support for a war he has lost control of. Now there could be some magical data out there that indicates we’re secretly learning from our mistakes and trying to capitalize on successes and not just mindlessly repeating the same four things over and over again… but it’s nowhere I can find it, not on the Internet. How disappointing.

Update: Michael Cohen points out that McChrystal is directly contradicting his own metrics for success. Good for him, I say.

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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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Capt. Monkey February 4, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Boy, this reminds me of what you and I were just discussing earlier this week by email. There is no evidence to support that things are stabilizing here. Taking a peek at the SigAct databases (CIDNE, TIGR, Etc) show that things are still intensifying.

Also, one of your links is to an earlier blog about trying to fight a rural-based insurgency using pop-centric techniques. I’m a little confused. I’ve recently come to a similar conclusion that we’re trying to do that, and will be unsuccessful. Yet you also seem to advocate moving troops from rural areas (Helmand). Is that because you view Helmand as just not strategically important, despite the numbers? The Alingar and Tagab valleys are also considered to be “sparsely” populated but remain strategically important because they’re part of the smuggling route from Chitral into Kabul and provide the insurgency the ability to get close to the capital, right?

Joshua Foust February 4, 2010 at 11:04 pm

As far as strategery goes, there is *some* value to Helmand. I just think its value is misplaced when we start thinking of priorities. For example, despite its use as a smuggling route, I also think Nuristan should be deprioritized, since we simply do not have the manpower to effectively control it (assuming manpower was the critical weakness).

Helmand is obviously a different story. It does need to be controlled, but what Helmand is showing is one of three possible things:

1) If you throw enough troops at an area—any area—you can control it and at least restore the vestiges of order and control;

2) Despite throwing a tremendous number of extra troops—more than 10,000 in the last year alone—you cannot control it; or

3) Throwing so many troops at an area with relatively little change shows there is a fundamental flaw in the military’s strategy.

I used to think it was number 1; recent experience has inched me more toward number 3: our priorities and focus are wrong. Despite all the extra troops, Helmand is relatively stalemated; that tells me we can scale back our troops and maintain a relative stalemate, while sending troops at precipitous problems like Kunduz, Kandahar, Nangarhar, and Herat, all of which I would prioritize over Helmand if we’re talking about culture, population, religion, and economic centers of gravity.

I hope that makes sense. I don’t think we should abandon Helmand, just remove it as the keystone of our entire effort.

Capt. Monkey February 5, 2010 at 2:48 am

Ah, I see. That makes more sense. Thank you for clarifying.

vb February 5, 2010 at 3:57 am

I am familiar with the North. Have travelled through it many times. The security situation has great improved since July 2009.

The problem is the press waits for something negative to happen and then prints it. However, overall in the North, the people are a lot more secure than they used to be. Even in really bad places like Cha Dahra in Kunduz, a lot of the Taliban have been removed. It’s still dangerous, however, a year ago the Taliban used to drive through the streets and play music. A lot have been irradicated from the area.

When I tell the Kunduz and Baghlan people what I am reading in the press about their areas they just laugh. I think some journalists need to be more responsible.

Joshua Foust February 5, 2010 at 9:44 am

Data, please. Recent incidents say otherwise.

Dafydd February 5, 2010 at 5:40 am

Problem is, so much has been invested in Helmand that deprioritisation (I would call it retreat) looks like a bad failure.

You would be right, in my opinion, to conclude this is handing the Taliban a massive gift. They can tie down a large section of the international forces with very little of importance (i.e. Helmand) at stake.

Even if they are ultimately defeated there tomorrow, the time it took for it to happen gives a propaganda victory.

But it is a major opium centre.

For the US to ignore that would require a transformation of its political culture. I think drugs are a more salient political issue for the US (and the rest of the West, but less so) than for the Taliban.

Stephen Pampinella February 5, 2010 at 1:26 pm

To play Devil’s Advocate, perhaps improvements in the security situation don’t happen in a linear, or cumulative fashion, but occur exponentially once a tipping point has reached. Gen. McFarland’s article introduces this concept as an explanation for the success of his BCT and supporting Marines in Anbar. The Awakening doesn’t really begin to take off until October 2006, and only the month before that, Col. Devlin’s memo argued that Anbar was completely lost. So, it could be that we simply haven’t reached that tipping point in Helmand for various reasons (Marjah still creates instability in the province) or that we never will (which would call into question all our assumptions about whether or not counterinsurgency could be effective) and anywhere we deployed those troops would lead only to stalemate, and not a counterinsurgent success.

Stephen Pampinella February 5, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Link to MacFarland’s article (apologies for misspelling this in original comment)


Toryalay Shirzay February 6, 2010 at 12:10 am

In the past few days the US and ISAF have openly been talking about new military operations in Helmand.Don’t the US/ISAF know the Taliban are listening to whatever they are saying? I wonder.Here is something that will spare them certain hardship:in Afstan,you never openly talk about where will military operations take place,you do what you have to do and then talk after the fact.This will save them a lot of pain,trust me. I thought the ultra smart big bro knew better,but maybe not, eh.

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