I’m still seeking to understand why ISAF rejects the analysis of, literally, all outside experts, plus the entire intelligence community, when it brags of success and progress in Afghanistan. There is a serious break: either ISAF is right and our entire system for understanding places and events is so fundamentally flawed we should probably scrap everything and ponder our lives for a few months… or ISAF is, plainly, lying about the war. Something tells me it’s the latter.
Take General Rodriguez’s press conference yesterday. It’s the usual amalgam of half-truths and cheerful spin on otherwise horrifying trends and dynamics. But there are some new doozies in there that warrant focus and some analysis.
So now in Arghandab — a district just outside Kandahar City that you know has been a tough place since the first time we really went in there and stayed, beginning in July 2009, was a Taliban stronghold, and people could not move around without fear. In that 18-month period, the district governor was killed, the district police chief was maimed, and there were no government officials or police present any place with — but the district center, which some of the Afghans described as a combat outpost.
I was there two weeks ago, and there were 16 government employees working with a new district governor. There’s a new police chief who has a police force that’s out and about. And the people on a Friday afternoon, Afghan family time, were out picnicking in the Arghandab River Valley — a significant change from 18 months ago.
When the NY Times Magazine’s James Traub was there this past summer, he got one of the last interviews with that murdered district governor. More interestingly, he ended his article with this: “Arghandab was something of a show district… And yet the Taliban continued to afflict the district like a low-grade virus.”
But Rodriguez is also wrong about the atmosphere. Not only is January a weird time of year for families to be out picnicking, they were doing so during the supposedly dark angry days of 2009—which Rodriguez would have known had he consulted actual people who lived there. People picnic there all the time, in fact, because it’s a pleasant place. There is an important story to be told about this: the Taliban were not there in 2007-8. They moved into the area after Mullah Naqib died in October of 2007. Then in February Hakim Jan was killed at a dog fight; that summer Habibullah Jan was shot dead on his way home in Zhari. There was a coordinated effort to isolate and occupy central Kandahar during this period of time; Karzai made things worse by meddling with Naqib’s succession, and the U.S. made things worse first by waiting until things became intolerable then going in without understanding the politics of the province.
So yes, it’s good news that people are supposedly taking January picnics along the Arghandab River as if it never gets cold there (really?). But it’s not really “good,” in the sense of meaning people there are better off.
We started to expand the Kabul security zone both east and south; in the east, saw gains in discrete areas, in Jalalabad, out in Nangarhar, which is at number four on your map, as well as pockets in Logar and Wardak, just south of Kabul City.
The east, of course, as you know, has difficult, complex and physical terrain, and there’s much work to be done there.
Hahaha, that’s all he says about the East (later on, he says soldiers are “working hard” and there’s a lot of people there). Progress indeed.
Up in the north, we focused on Baghlan.
And what’s important in that area is the intersection of two of the main commerce routes. So we expanded the security around that intersection and increased the freedom of movement in that area in the north. And if you look at number six, going around counter-clockwise on your map, that’s very important, because that’s the last place that the Ring Road has to be completed — of course, an important commerce route to connect the west and the north. And we made security gains in both Baghdis and Faryab.
General Rodriguez made yet another outrageous claim during the Q&A period, where he said there’s no need to to address the safe havens in Pakistan for success in RC-East (because of all those folks doing “hard work,” see?). Not only is this at odds with, let’s go with half a decade of universal statements to the contrary from the IC, from ISAF, from the Pentagon, from Secretary Gates, from two Presidents, and every single analyst in the IC, or whatever else is out there… well I don’t really know what to say. When even Elizabeth Bulmiller thinks you, a three-star general, are kind of delusional about something, then it’s really time to reconsider your public statements.
I’m sure there’s more in there. And I don’t mean to downplay the successes that have happened, especially in Helmand. But those successes show that 30,000 Marines in a tiny patch of land can achieve calm. And it’s okay to acknowledge that! But what is unacceptable is the current method of thinking inside ISAF and amongst its most rabid boosters: the absolute, dogged, almost faith-based rejection of evidence that doesn’t fit their worldview that they’re winning and victory is just a few months away. That delusion, the denial, which is so constant, pervasive, and insistent even people who know better are at a loss to combat it, is what is currently losing the war.
Almost two years ago, I pasted this passage, from the conclusion to Les Grau’s The Bear Went Over the Mountain. It’s weird: almost every officer that deploys to Afghanistan reads it and says he gets it, but what always strikes me about that is they seem to gloss right over this passage. It is about how and why the Soviet Army deluded itself into thinking it was winning the war, using willing shills in the Soviet media, right up until the moment it began to withdraw.
Ideologically, the Soviet leadership was unable to come to grips with war in Afghanistan. Marxist-Leninist dogma did not allow for a “war of national liberation” where people would fight against a Marxist regime. So, initially, the press carried pictures of happy Soviet soldiers building orphanages—and did not mention that they were also engaged in combat and filling those very orphanages. By the end of 1983, the Soviet press had only reported six dead and wounded soldiers, although by that time, the 40th Army had suffered 6,262 dead and 9,880 combat wounded… It was only during the last three years of the war, under Gorbachev’s glastnost policy, that the press began to report more accurately on the Afghanistan war…
The Soviet Army that marched into Afghanistan was trained to fight within the context of a theater war against a modern enemy who would obligingly occupy defensive positions stretching across the northern European plain [i.e., the Fulda Gap]… The mujahideen did not accommodate the Soviet Army by fighting a northern-European-plain war… [Thus] the Soviet Army never had enough forces in Afghanistan to win. From the entire book, it is apparent that Soviet forces were spread very thin… There was also an evident dislike of close combat and a preference to use massive amounts of fire power instead…
Grau concludes that this inability to see the micro-level picture on the ground, coupled with the Soviet “distaste” for close-combat and a preference for mass-casualty air strikes, fatally undermined the invasion.
Anyway, we’re better than the Soviets, as LTC Flynn helpfully told Spencer Ackerman the other day. He, too, says he read this book. I have my doubts.