A Very Spinny North

by Joshua Foust on 4/24/2011 · 5 comments

Dear Diary,

I was all set to enjoy a nice quiet Easter, until I opened my web browser. Something on the news page caught my attention.

“NATO, Afghan Forces Make ‘Huge’ Gains in North,” the headline says. My stomach dropped. What could they possibly be on about, I wonder. Then I see what they really mean.

“I see a huge difference when I compare to 2006,” Maj. Gen. Markus Kneip of the German army, commander of Regional Command North, told Pentagon reporters in a video news conference from his headquarters in Afghanistan. I wonder if that’s because 2006 was substantially less violent than 2011? Diary, sometimes I just do not understand why the senior military leadership thinks we’re all stupid and can’t see the data that says the opposite of their press conferences.

Diary, I think that German guy must mean it’s better than 2006. But in what way? I don’t see how one could make that argument. “Much of the Taliban in the north have cleared out and moved to Pakistan,” he said. I know what he means—we call that “winter,” diary, when most of the Taliban leave the country to vacation in Pakistan. The trouble is, I’m not sure even that means very much, since each winter is substantially more violent than the previous one.

Plus, my dear diary, when you think of how violence usually behaves, we seem to be on track for the worst year ever.

As I thought about this, diary, I hoped, fervently hoped, that maybe this German guy had some sort of special insight into why he felt so confident about the job his country had done in the north. “The populace feels good about security throughout [the north],” the general said later. The people, he said, are “pretty optimistic about the Afghans starting to take control of the government.” This, too makes perfect sense.

“We are scared of both sides,” a village elder, Mutayeb Khan, told the soldiers, expressing a litany of concerns shared by many villagers in remote parts of the country.

They worry that NATO and Afghan forces will confuse them for insurgents while they’re tending their fields or collecting wood in the hills; that the Taliban will attack them if they help, or even talk to coalition forces; that government forces will detain their young men, perhaps for years.

Well, to keep it perfectly fair, diary, that story is about Paktika, which is very much not in the north. Because I mean, it’s not like government forces abuse and brutalize the Afghans in the north. That, dear diary, would be Taliban propaganda.

Alas, diary, I’m more confused than ever. I don’t want to accuse anyone in charge of lying, because I really don’t have the information to say. But what could possibly explain this vast, vast gulf between what the data we have in the public say, and what our leaders fighting the war say about it? That is something I am truly afraid to answer.

Charts come courtesy of Indicium Consulting, which collects this stuff.

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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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Tim Haggerty April 24, 2011 at 1:13 pm

It is about the mission, to complete the mission given in spite of the facts. It tell the troops and press we are getting the job done. To maintain theater that we matter and are helping even if the data says otherwise.

Until POTUS says “fuck it we are done” you have to maintain the theater of “getting it done”. We have come to the point where the military and political masters talk across each other playing the same game. Waiting for the other to say “we are done here.”

Dan G April 24, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Can you explain the initials on the vertical axis of the first graph?

CE April 25, 2011 at 3:37 am

I wonder how ISAF will spin the latest security/governance debacle.

“No, you don’t understand! It was not a major Taliban-orchestrated prison break! It was actually an ISAF-directed, ANSF-sponsored CHADO, or Counter-intelligence Human Asset Dispersion Operation! You see, the plan is to let the bad guys run, so that we may then be able to track their movements and associations with the hope of taking down the big fishes later on down the line! It’s a strategy we’re borrowing from our friends at the ATF! Operation Fast & Furious, I think they call it!”

Dishonesty? April 25, 2011 at 8:09 am

Administration victory?

The larger that headquarters become the more the staff there force soldiers into wasteful activity which results in lots of people “who aren’t doing anything about the enemy; they aren’t even thinking about the enemy; they’re thinking about how to make a pretty picture of how they think someone else ought to think about the enemy.”

The article also states that British headquarters deployed in Afghanistan now produced a terabyte of written orders and reports every month – equivalent to hundreds of thousands of documents.


Dan April 28, 2011 at 5:45 am

Hey Joshua,

I am based in a Northern province (i am a civilian) and in our case, we “breath” more than we used to in terms of security one year ago – the insurgency has been weakened in its strongholds although it had also spread (although at lower) intensity to less traditional areas, which is definitely not a good thing but has *so far* proven less disruptive. The incidents we record are usually less intense with a few big visible/scary ones and some areas have been “cleared” (of armed-and-active insurgents)- not that this is evidence of a sustainable change at this stage (or likely to be sadly). There are many ways to interpret the changes in terms of improved or worsened security obviously…

I think however that the political situation (as in the “legal sphere” of politics – although that’s an ambitious term for Afghan politics) is getting worse and worse in the north and i find this much more dangerous and preoccupying than the insurgency (partly because the politics of the place trigger the insurgency). Factions in the North seem to be preparing for the next war and i do not see any brakes there…

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