Dispatches from AfPak: A Tale of Two Logars and the Trip that Wasn’t

by Joshua Foust on 7/6/2010 · 12 comments

Naheed Mustafa is a Canadian freelance broadcast and print journalist. She’s currently on a reporting trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan and will be posting dispatches from her trip.

I was supposed to be in Logar. Instead I’m sitting in my room at the Park
Palace Guesthouse thinking about public relations.

I was looking for a particular kind of interview and my fixer, who’s from Logar, said he knew exactly the person I was looking for – an old man living in one of the local villages.

So we planned to leave early to beat the convoys and Kabul’s tortourous traffic and be in Logar an hour later. But at 11 the night before, I got a call: my fixer’s family was in a state of panic. They had recently heard from relatives that the situation was particularly bad in their home province. They didn’t want their son and brother going to a place where the police collude with Taliban and others in kidnapping for ransom, where death by IED is a regular occurrence. Though they are natives of the province, they rarely visit. He was embarrassed but he had to back out.

What could I possibly say? There’s never a good reason to compel people to take risks and feel insecure. I cancelled.

Later, I spoke to a local politician, also from Logar. He protested my aborted trip. The province is safe, he said. There are 24,000 US troops there. Would he go back and forth on a regular basis if it wasn’t perfectly fine? He said too many Afghans base their information on rumour and didn’t really know the reality in the rural areas.

There are many reasons to spin the truth, of course; fear of death is certainly a good one. But pointing to Logar’s dangers is hardly borne of rumour-mongering. The average person has little to gain from misrepresenting the security situation. And if the only people who can travel a road are those with a high profile and an elaborate network of contacts, then whose perception of danger is a better reflection of reality?

Of course the politician has a vested interest in making his constituency look safe – stability is good for getting elected. But discounting the reality that most Afghans experience is part of a larger attempt to soften the edges on a harsh truth: the conditions are rough here and they’re getting worse. Violence is increasing and the decision makers are clawing desperately at any opportunity to put a pretty face on it.

Each time something particularly bad happens in Afghanistan – an errant air strike; a cluster of soldiers killed; a story about mass corruption or government wheeling and dealing; poison gas and schoolgirls – we sit back and ask: how did it get so bad?

My response is usually: when was it ever that good? Afghanistan just had better PR and the international community—and some Afghans—were more willing to spin it. But now it seems more and more hopeless and in the struggle for primacy between the dueling narratives of Risky Adventure and Re-birth of a Nation, it looks like Risky Adventure will take it.

There’s a general sense here that a massive PR push is afoot, to make things look as good as possible to as many people as possible. There’s a drive toward “good news” stories, which isn’t necessarily a problem except that because there are so few, they take on a disproportionate importance. And no one denies these stories are a deliberate part of the media strategy. They’ll help immensely when Afghans are left to clean up the mess after the internationals are long gone and the world can shrug it off by pointing to the good news and saying Afghanistan was doing ok when we left.


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– 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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{ 12 comments }

anan July 6, 2010 at 2:41 pm

“The province is safe, he said. There are 24,000 US troops there.” Did he really say that? Where exactly are these 24,000 troops?

Lowgar has a Czech lead ISAF PRT, probably one czech and one other ISAF mentored 201st ANA Corps battalion [although there could only be one ANA battalion in the province], about a thousand Jordanian troops, and maybe two thosand US troops. How do you go from that to 24,000 US troops? Am I wrong? Has there been a surge of US troops into Lowgar that I don’t know about?

Be interested in more data about Lowgar. For example, whether there really are 2 ANA battalions in the province and what countries mentor them. [they would be mentored by Czech Republic, Portugal, Jordan or cjtf101.] Be interesting to learn more about the Lowgar police and what countries have POMLTs with them. Heard from someone who was in the province a few months ago that the Lowgar ANP cannot be trusted and were horrible. The ANA are better. [Sounds cliche doesn’t it? Sigh.] The fresh out of consolidated fielding deployed to the province are green but enthusiastic. This is based on one anecdotal account.

Naheed Mustafa, the Afghans are pushing the good news angle because they want to encourage economic growth, and want to encourage NGOs and international aid agencies to operate in Afghanistan. The job of a President is to be the country’s number 1 cheerleader. If Afghanistan’s leaders were not trying to cheer up and inspire their country, they would be incompetent, or worse, traitors.

Naheed July 6, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Cheerleading is one thing. Lying is another. And, yes, he really did say 24000 US troops.

anan July 6, 2010 at 5:55 pm

“And, yes, he really did say 24000 US troops.” What a moron. 🙁

Naheed, something really has changed in Afghanistan. ISAF didn’t begin seriously building the ANSF until November, 2009. [Until November, 2009, the priority was not building a force structure that was too expensive for Afghanistan to afford.] There is a very large surge in the size and quality of the ANSF and in Afghan economic growth driven by ANSF procurement from the Afghan private sector.

To take just one example, instead of just training one thousand ANP at any given time [I kid you not, that is all they were training until 2009], now the MoI/NTM-A trains 10,300 at any given time. This rises to 17,000 being trained at any given time by June, 2011, and 24,000 by March, 2012. Even better, contractor trainers are being replaced by large numbers of experienced international policing professionals from the EGF [Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Netherlands], Turkey, Jordan, America, and other countries. Turkey plans to train 1,000 ANP at any given time on Turkish soil [in addition to the ANP Turkey trains in Afghanistan.] Jordan, UAE also plan to train large numbers of ANP officers [long term training] on their soil. [MoI hopes that this will break the culture of corruption and low expectations.] Imagine the consequences of surging large numbers of well trained ANP across Afghanistan. Too bad that ISAF only got permission and funding to start this process in November, 2009.

Naheed July 7, 2010 at 1:22 am

I’ve read about that and was quite shocked to know that training deficits weren’t adequately addressed until so recently (and even then, will it be effective?) So much of this project of intervention in Afghanistan seems absolutely divorced from common sense.

anan July 7, 2010 at 2:21 am

“So much of this project of intervention in Afghanistan seems absolutely divorced from common sense.” We could each write a hundred different articles about different reasons this is true. 🙁

“and even then, will it be effective?” If history is any guide, for the lengthier training courses . . . yes. The MoI’s only trained police force is ANCOP. All of them are either officers or NCOs and had to pass actual training and literacy courses. Based on all accounts I have been able to find, 18 or 19 of the 20 ANCOP battalions are good quality and respected by Afghan civilians. Unfortunately, there are only 6 thousand of them in a country of 33 million. Not a joke. [don’t even ask how many ANCOP there were a year ago.]

Another proof of concept is the quality of ANA commandos, ANA commando special forces, ANA graduates from 4 year NMAA, ANA graduates from 12 weeks or longer NCO training courses. When MoD’s ANATC [ANA Training Command] and NTM-A actually bother to put ANSF through serious training courses with a high ratio of good instructors, they perform. In many cases perform very well. Have been told anecdotally that ANA 4 year cadets perform very competitively in competitions with graduates from many other 4 year academies including America’s West Point. The ANA commando special forces A-teams are trained to live with villages and tribes, and organize local militias, or local collaborative community projects. Unfortunately, they only started training them in December, 2009. There are only 4 teams with about 15-20 soldiers each. By all accounts, they are very good.

A great fear that many in ISAF, ANSF, GIRoA have right now is that MoI and MoD are greatly reducing the length of training cycles to surge ANSF forces more quickly, so as to show serious progress by July, 2011. This risks damaging the quality of the ANSF. There is a reason the ANA use to train their soldiers for 16 weeks versus the 9 weeks the ANA trains now. The ANP has reduced training cycles to only 6 weeks. This is a big deal in terms of literacy, professionalism, physical fitness, breaking bad habits, and weeding out bad actors. The ANA E5 NCO course is now only 4 weeks long.

Longer training cycles would mean that training the same number of ANSF at any given time would generate less trained forces per year, and result in a much longer waiting list to join the ANSF. Having a long waiting list to join the ANSF allows more selective recruiting, but it would have also forced a significant delay in the Helmand and Kandahar offensives.

The real solution is to train more ANSF at any given time and have the international community pay for it. Iraq trains 40 thousand police at any given time even though it is much smaller geographically and much less populous than Afghanistan. If Afghanistan were training 40 thousand ANP at any given time, the Taliban would lose quickly.

“I’ve read about that and was quite shocked to know that training deficits weren’t adequately addressed until so recently” I have tracked this since 2001, and have been continually surprised at how Rumsfeld and Cheney blocked efforts to train the ANSF until 2009. They apparently believed it wasn’t America’s responsibility and that Afghans or other countries should train, advise, equip and fund ANSF. They also wanted to make sure that American taxpayers weren’t saddled with part of the bill for the long term ANSF operating budget. There are unconfirmed reports of President Obama being stunned when told by McChrystal and Caldwell in November, 2009, that America hadn’t started training the Afghan National Police yet [beyond in a symbolic way.]

Bob Jones July 7, 2010 at 6:52 am

I love how now that you can’t access sensitive information and pass it off as your own clever insights, your posts have dwindled away to nothing, and now you’re just reposting someone else’s words.

At least you actually gave credit to the author in this one.

Joshua Foust July 7, 2010 at 7:16 am

Hey there “Bob!”

Since you’re the only person from that wretched agency to have the stones to actually tell me what you people accused me of doing, I’d like to invite you to tell me, via email (joshua dot foust at gmail dot com), exactly what sensitive information I blogged as my “own clever insights.” None of the investigations you and/or your friends began actually found me at fault… because I didn’t do a thing wrong.

You seem to be under the impression I violated security rules by posting links to newspaper stories and publishing emails my friends sent me. I’d like the chance to correct that impression. Quite unlike the uniformed soldier Bradley Manning, I never stole anything off the closed networks, I never reposted material that was marked FOUO, and I sure as shit didn’t send Wikileaks classified, encrypted video in a fit of moralistic rage. Maybe you could try focusing your righteous efforts at the actual security risks in the Army, instead of the easy targets at the contracting firms?

Oh, and just a point of style: you have a non-attributable account over there, right? Next time you should use it to post comments, unless you want me outing your logged activities to your boss. It’s a pretty major OPSEC violation to discuss access to sensitive information while leaving an email address and your government IP address.

See, I’m aware of my security footprint, and I make sure I don’t expose myself. You should try it. I’ll keep your place of work between us for now. Discretion, valor, and all that.

Nobody July 11, 2010 at 1:01 am

I find that rant kinda funny, I have to say.

By way of cooling off – could someone there (as in Afg) PULEEZE write a story about guns?

I have heard repeatedly that Blackwater is up to its filthy gills gun running, and that coz u must have a license to have a gun, you have to buy from long beards, who charge one grand for guns that jam and then trot across teh goat tracks back to AfPak where they buy three or four brand new AK 47s or whatever. Thus, we are arming the Taliban.

Anybody hear anything similar?

PS Tell Isaf to fuck off. Better yet, tell them to fire all the generals who got us into this shit. Even better, write to your congressman and tell him to stop funding the war, axe the Pentagon budget by 80 percnet, and indict all drone operators for war crimes. It’ll shut Bob up and make you feel better.

anan July 11, 2010 at 1:11 am

Nobody, do you back violent attacks by the Taliban and AQ linked networks against the ANA and ANP? Do you as a matter of principle oppose all international training, advising, funding and equipping of the ANA and ANP?

What percentage of Afghans do you think support violent attacks against the ANA by Taliban and AQ linked networks?

Nobody July 11, 2010 at 12:22 pm

I know for a fact some of ANSF are very good, but most are awful. And I don’t get the segue between what I said and the suggestion that I oppose international training of ANSF.

I question the rationale behind the ANSF. One senior Afghan said to me every national police or army in Afghanistan has only ever been used to suppress the population. Afghanistan needs a different security arrangement, they say.

My issue is with the entire ISAF mission. The West’s objectives in Afghanistan would have been far more effectively achieved through a smaller, smarter and CHEAPER civilian program.

I am all in favour of accountability, actually: I would like to see the Pentagon and its generals held to account for the fantastic fuck up that is Afghanistan. I would like to see Cheney and Bush tried and hanged, not just for the waste of Western blood and treasure, but for the devastating damage done to Afghanistan and its people.

Al Qaeda isn’t in Afghanistan. Taliban linked to AQ are a tiny minority, and best dealt with by the Paks. Bottom line: you don’t need 130,000 troops to deal with this problem. You only need 130,000 troops if you’re in the business of siphoning off taxpayer dollars into a bank account purportedly used to provide elaborate phony services for those troops.

Afghanistan is a shell game run by Halliburton and Dick Cheney’s buddies. It’s been running down for a decade and it’s time to shut it down. It’s also time to start giving the people of Afghanistan a bit of peace and quiet. Dig wells, rebuild fields, start up small business, support microfinance, import livestock, demine like mad, and leave them all the hell alone to mind their own business. That’s my prescription for Afghanistan.

anan July 11, 2010 at 9:20 pm

“I know for a fact some of ANSF are very good, but most are awful.” Are most ANA “awful”? Maybe so so. But not awful.

By your definition, most Taliban fighters are “awful” fighters. How often do the Taliban win platoon sized engagements with the ANA? [Yes they win more than a few with the ANP.] If your proof of poor ANSF quality is high ANSF casualties; Taliban casualties are also extremely high.

“And I don’t get the segue between what I said and the suggestion that I oppose international training of ANSF.”

ISAF has two components:
NTM-A that works with MoI and MoD on ANSF capacity building.

ISAF Joint Command that partnered embeds with the ANSF with joint combined headquarters that command both ANSF and ISAF forces. ISAF Joint Command focuses primarily on mentoring and improving existing ANSF formations.

This is the new structure MChrystal enforced in 2009 [against heavy opposition.] Not all the allied forces are following the new policy, but most ISAF forces increasingly are.

ISAF is the UNSC mandated international force that is suppose to stand up, mentor and improve the ANSF. ISAF is also suppose to assist the ANSF with basic security until the ANSF assumes full security responsibility. However, now, the primary focus of ISAF is ANSF development and mentoring.

“I question the rationale behind the ANSF. One senior Afghan said to me every national police or army in Afghanistan has only ever been used to suppress the population. Afghanistan needs a different security arrangement, they say.”
Afghanistan has always had an army garrisoned in its territory for the last 5 thousand years. For that matter, the vast majority of countries have an army. Commend you and your friends for trying something new that hasn’t been tried before.

“My issue is with the entire ISAF mission. The West’s objectives in Afghanistan would have been far more effectively achieved through a smaller, smarter and CHEAPER civilian program.”
ISAF’s strategy for ANSF development was dysfunctional until November, 2009. But hasn’t that changed now?

“I am all in favour of accountability, actually: I would like to see the Pentagon and its generals held to account for the fantastic fuck up that is Afghanistan. I would like to see Cheney and Bush tried and hanged, not just for the waste of Western blood and treasure, but for the devastating damage done to Afghanistan and its people.”
The US didn’t do much of anything inside Afghanistan until 2007. Rumsfeld was obsessed with keeping the US troop presence down to 7 thousand troops or some other ridiculously low number [while sending over 140 thousand to Iraq]. Rumsfeld also prevented the US from seriously developing the ANSF, to save US taxpayers money. Americans more or less ignored Afghanistan. How many Afghan civilians met an ISAF soldier during the first half decade of the ISAF mission? They really didn’t get out or do all that much. This is one reason ANSF casualties were 5 to 10 times ISAF casualties in 2008.

“Al Qaeda isn’t in Afghanistan. Taliban linked to AQ are a tiny minority, and best dealt with by the Paks.”
What are your thoughts about Siraj Haqqani and his links with Lashkar e Taiba, Lashkar e Jhanvi, TTP, TNSM, IJU, IMU, Iyas Kashmiri’s brigade 313, Lashkar al Zil? International Takfiris serve as embedded combat advisors and trainers for the frontline Taliban units that are causing the greatest ANSF and ISAF casualties.

What is Al Qaeda? TTP, TNSM, LeJ should scare the world a lot more than Al Qaeda. They are willing to kill everyone without hesitation. And they don’t hide their global ambitions.

“Afghanistan is a shell game run by Halliburton and Dick Cheney’s buddies. It’s been running down for a decade and it’s time to shut it down. It’s also time to start giving the people of Afghanistan a bit of peace and quiet. Dig wells, rebuild fields, start up small business, support microfinance, import livestock, demine like mad, and leave them all the hell alone to mind their own business. That’s my prescription for Afghanistan.”
All that you recommend in this paragraph is being attempted. It isn’t easy. The Afghan education budget alone is substantially greater than GIRoA annual revenues. All of the international aid that you support [and I support] are seriously distorting the Afghan economy and preventing exports.

In 2009, the Taliban killed about 2000 ANP. [More ANA and ISAF on top of that.] What should the new incoming MoI minister Bismillah Mohammadi Khan do about this?

Nobody July 12, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Well, that’s the problem isn’t it. Once you start equating LeT and TTP and Ilyas Kashmiri’s Brigade 313 with Al Qaeda, things get awfully muddy don’t they. But you’re correct to separate them out from Mullah Omar and his buddies. And for our purposes, the one-eyed mullah is the key player, would you not agree? I note you don’t take the trouble to parse the semantics of “Afghan Taliban,” but that’s actually our far more relevant issue. Let the Paks deal with the AQ linked groups in the NWFP. And let the Afghans figure out how to deal with their homegrown, so-called “Taliban.” Given that the term now describes the average village male of fighting age, some accommodation is inevitable, no matter how unpalatable that may feel to Isaf and its spokespeople. (Such as yourself?)

I’m also not at all sure what you’re talking about when you say Afg has had an army garrisoned in the country for the past five thousand years. I know plenty of Afghans who would fundamentally disagree with you on that.

Regardless, I do not doubt that the mission in Afghanistan is difficult but it is, let us be honest, largely difficult because we have chosen to make it so. Our arrogance and stupidity and local ignorance, along with the corrupt absurdities of the resident US military machine have led to massive mistakes, which we will now pay for for decades.

But we’re still better off than the average Afghan, who can expect to live an illiterate and impoverished and largely hopeless 42 years. That should be a source of embarrassment, in my view. Surely, we are capable of better than this? Is this really the best we can do?

I find Afghanistan a source of embarrassment, as a Westerner. If that is the best our institutions can do, then we have problems to address that far exceed those we confront in Afghanistan. What we have there is a situation of crashing, stupendous incompetence. If that’s the best our militaries and statesmen can do, we are really in trouble.

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