The Push Into Andar?

by Joshua Foust on 2/1/2011

It’s always interesting to watch how news about Afghanistan travels in clusters. I have my theories about why this is the case, but it’s not difficult to see clusters of stories appear in the major wires and newspapers. Right now, it’s Andar, and for the last month reporters from the CNN, the AFP, and NPR have all traveled through the district. It’s to their credit that NPR and CNN have written stories about actual Afghans—CNN discusses the challenges the Taliban pose to schooling, and NPR wrote of local anxiety over the U.S. plan to force local militias on communities, for example—but the clustering remains very interesting.

It’s into this context of a reporting cluster that I wish to highlight CJ Chivers’ continued excellent reporting from Afghanistan, where he’s been focusing on the weapons the Taliban use. He reports that the local American unit has seized a fairly normal assortment of weapons, with two exceptions: counterfeit Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifles. Which is, of course, a great reason to talk about tactics and violence patterns:

Second, in this zone of frequent (and usually brief) small-arms attacks, the Lee-Enfield line has not been widely used. The officers in the battalion’s intelligence section said there had been only a few incidents of the single-shot, carefully aimed fire, compared to almost uncountable attacks by automatic arms fired in bursts at American patrols. This tactical fact is evident in the body language of the American soldiers on patrols. When snipers are about, troops quickly learn to mask their movements and reduce their exposure in subtle ways – by kneeling, crouching, remaining behind walls or constantly moving in erratic steps, a set of deliberate behaviors that can frustrate a watching sniper’s aim. The Americans here, however, often move confidently across the open. They are alert to the possibility of ambush, but not apparently worried about being sniped. When providing security to their officers who are interviewing local men, the battalion’s soldiers often stand upright in prominent places, projecting their presence while watching over the countryside and village lanes. In areas where snipers have been successful or are abundant, troops generally do not do that.

It’s actually a really interesting report on how you can use the forensics from gun seizures to learn about the relative strengths and weaknesses of an insurgent movement. But something Chivers wrote a few days ago gave me pause. He wrote, in an earlier post on Andar for the Times’ At War blog, that the battalion he’s visiting was using an old magazine article for intelligence targeting:

The second article highlighted today, Mr. Rosen’s “How We Lost the War We Won,” approached the Afghan war from a different angle, arrived at similar conclusions, but has found a surprising new life…

The reason the article is of interest to the What They Are Reading series is what could be called its second life. In September 2010, as part of the Obama administration’s campaign against the Taliban, an American infantry battalion from the 101st Airborne Division was assigned to operate in the area where Mr. Rosen had traveled with Taliban fighters two years before. The battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. David G. Fivecoat, assigned Mr. Rosen’s article as required reading for his officers. And the battalion’s intelligence section pored over it, using it to develop a list of buildings to be watched and searched, and insurgents to be focused on.

These days, when visitors come to Andar and meet the American battalion here, Colonel Fivecoat does nothing to hide his enthusiasm for Mr. Rosen’s reporting.

Mr. Rosen’s account of the Taliban’s behaviors and locations aligns with the battalion’s own impressions of the area, he said, and had been useful in shaping some of the battalion’s operations.

“We really enjoyed his article,” the colonel said in a recent briefing. “Some of the guys he met and visited, we’ve been able to go after this year.”

Now, I had my problems with Rosen’s article, and I still don’t think I need to update that post. Rosen described the Taliban as behaving like Afghans behave (that is, in a pragmatic and flexible way while bickering about it constantly), and I think there is actually tremendous value to that. The Taliban are not, as I argue in this space ad nauseum, inscrutable aliens. So seeing the battalion responsible for Andar try to incorporate that sort of understanding into their planning and outlook is actually very positive. But what bothers is me is why an S2 shop is using a 27-month old article (whose information is even older than that) to do targeting, especially when Nir was up front in saying he tried to obscure the identities of the men he interacted with. That gives me very serious pause, because Nir would never give his notes to the Battalion. Which means there is really no way to positively identify or confirm the activities of anyone he wrote about, at least to a sufficient confidence that taking action would make sense.

So I’m missing something there. It sits poorly.

There’s something else, too. In 2007, Andar was the focus of a major ANA operation to clear the district, given the baggage-laden name Operation Maiwand (pdf, pg. 5). It was, apparently, a huge success. But when Nir wrote his article in 2008, Andar was apparently much more violent, so much so that he claims to have seen damaged Coalition vehicles struggling to escape a nasty firefight. a buddy of mine was deployed to Andar, back when the U.S. Army was obsessed with the “Focused District Development” plan to train police. The idea behind FDD was that concentrated training efforts could secure individual districts, which would then “ink spot” outward and create security zones. The 2008 FDD initiative in Andar was a resounding failure (and my friend is completing a book that documents how thoroughly it failed). It wound up focusing on holding “key terrain” with units that were not structured to hold anything, as they were meant to train the Afghan security forces.

That we still have to “surge” troops into Andar in 2011, after all of that work three and four years ago, should be a stinging indictment of ISAF policies in the East. This can be for many reasons—Americans embedded with the Poles reported that, despite positive spin to the contrary, they have done a terrible job in securing the province. In the interim, Radio Shariat made a return to the province, and a wave of violence has prompted riots. According to data released by the Afghan NGO Safety Office (pdf), Ghazni is the most violent province in Afghanistan, with a 234% increase in attacks. It is more violent than Helmand (as is Kunar, but that’s another story).

So, for some reason, the last several years of ISAF activity in Ghazni have been, at best, ineffective at stemming the province’s slide into chaos. Needless to say, when I tried to visit Ghazni in 2009, it was not this violent, though at the time the U.S. Army advisers I spoke with were worried sick about what was happening to the province. I don’t have any idea of what Ghazni’s story is, however: none of those clustered reports about the area actually delve into why things are as bad as they are, or how a few ALPs are really going to address the years of decline into chaos. They’re too temporal, and don’t discuss the context of why or how Ghazni is the way it is. We have to bridge that gap if we’re to understand what is going on here, if we’re to move beyond doing weapons forensics to actively and pro-actively building a sustainable set of institutions that can reverse the violence. But so far, in the reporting cluster, there’s no sense that that is actually happening. Maybe in another four years.

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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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