I only just now got around to reading Jon Lee Anderson’s dispatch from Khost Province for The New Yorker. He starts his story with some history, then recounts a meeting between a LTC Stephen Lutsky and Pacha Khan Zadran.
Lutsky arrived in Khost province in January, 2010, taking command of a volatile wedge of territory along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier that included Zadran’s traditional turf. He was meeting Zadran to try to persuade him to assemble a paramilitary security force…
Although the U.S. has thousands of troops in the area, the Haqqanis operate across the border with impunity, taking advantage of their tribal connections and knowledge of the local smuggling routes to carry out audacious strikes. In recent years, with the aid of the I.S.I., the Haqqanis have become increasingly active, fostering spectacular suicide commando attacks in Kabul, Khost, and elsewhere. The most recent of these, a suicide car bomb that exploded in a Khost marketplace in February, killed eleven Afghans.
Lutsky was interested in Zadran partly because his tribe had long been rivals of the Haqqanis. During the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the Haqqanis allied themselves with Al Qaeda, while Zadran’s men fought alongside the Americans. “We need a leader of the Zadran tribe to unite the subtribes and defeat the insurgency,” he told Zadran. “And when I think of the person who can do this I think of you.”
Naturally, Pacha Khan did what Pacha Khan does, and played coy and tried to extract maximum money from the exchange. But what I found worrying, and I suspect this might be because no one knew to ask, is what the relationship is between Pacha Khan and the Haqqanis. See, Pacha Khan was given governorship of Paktia Province in 2002 partially because of his vote for Hamid Karzai during the Bonn Conference. Both Pacha Khan and Jalaluddin (and Sirajuddin) Haqqani are Zadran—while they come from different “branches” of the Zadran tribe, there is a certain agnatic rivalry between the two of them.
Many Haqqani attacks in the area are directed against the U.S., and some are directed at rival Zadran business ventures in the area. It’s complex, and after years of studying the province I’m no closer to speaking definitively about the tangled social and militant networks in the area. Anderson is reporting on an American effort to involve itself, more or less, in a bloody, hyper-violent family feud. And none of them seem to realize what they’re really asking (which is also, I suspect, part of the reason behind Pacha Khan’s prevarications). It is, in fact, very similar to the problems with Kim Barker’s account of her 2002 interview with Pacha Khan: it’s just not aware of all the social history of the people involved. Anderson continues:
The two men exchanged cell-phone numbers, and Lutsky and his men climbed into their armored vehicles and drove off. He was pleased. The meeting had allowed him to check off a couple of important boxes on the score sheet of counter-insurgency doctrine: a “key leader engagement” that offered an opportunity to secure greater control of a “key terrain area.” As an American counter-insurgency adviser explained it, “What we’re doing here is a very big hand wave. The idea is to work as best we can to create little bubbles of civilization and see where it gets us, see if we can’t connect them up.” The adviser stressed that, in and around Khost, “partnering with Afghans is a key element of what we’re doing.”
(Emphasis mine.) This is at the heart of why American policy in Afghanistan is doomed to failure: we’re working off checklists, blundering through meetings we don’t understand with people we never bothered to learn about, and assuming that “partnering” will somehow bring magic Afghan mojo to the same operations that remain fundamentally flawed.
But there’s something else at play, too: the Army shouldn’t have this problem. Readers of this site are familiar with my fraught involvement with the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System, where I spent a few years as an analyst. Since at least 2007, the HTS research center where I worked has been assembling district-by-district profiles of provinces like Khost and distributing them to the military units operating there. We included things like major figures, tribal groups—I wrote two separate reports specifically on the Zadran, and I know other analysts have as well—and a history of operations and important populated areas.
Four years later, apparently none of that has sunk in. At this point, the Army’s inability to hold onto information is infamous, widely acknowledged, and utterly tangential to any operations. At HTS, we’d have to feverishly mirror the SIPR portals of outgoing brigades so that when the new ones deployed and wiped the data we’d have copies to work from. The most common question we’d get throughout 2008 was about previous operations in the area, since the new unit never bothered to hold on to that information once they were there. Clearly the Army hasn’t changed.
But reading Anderson’s piece it’s also clear that the war itself hasn’t changed in Khost province, either. This should be a scandal, but it isn’t. For years, people had lifted up Khost as an example of progress, but the reality is, outside of the city itself the war there hasn’t changed. Part of that is because the operational guys think there is some checklist they have to tick off to say they’re doing a good job—which to me indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of what COIN is and how you go about actually connecting people to their government (don’t get me started on KLEs, which have for years been a very sore spot with me starting with the term being undefined in literally every doctrine-ish document you find).
Beyond that, what Anderson’s piece, which is absolutely worth reading along with everything else he’s ever written, shows is how strategically adrift the war in Afghanistan truly is—and almost as worryingly, how shallow and mistaken our understanding of the basic issues driving the war really are. It’s why we get ridiculous scare-pieces repeating Taliban bluster about how Nuristan is somehow really important strategically, when we should be making note of Pashtuns’ general love of boisterous, flowery hyperbole and oh yeah actual maps which show, despite our best efforts to pave the valleys, just how cut off and isolated that province really is. It’s why we have guys conducting KLEs with wretched tinpot warlords and hoping they can take sides in a decades-old family rivalry and actually come out of the exchange better positioned to win (which is, of course, not even defined in most “strategic” documents).
Anderson closes his piece by noting that the most effective operations in the war are performed not by Big Army but by the CIA and by special operations forces. And this is true, if you define “effective” only in terms of killing bad guys—which, in all fairness, the Obama administration does (in its talk of “pressure” and “reversing momentum” and whatnot). But that’s not really effective—as Ahmad Shuja has noted, the Taliban aren’t really responding to that pressure, and in any case they’re changing up their tactics and becoming even deadlier (a consequence of which is that one of my favorite blogs, Free Range International, has had to go silent for safety reasons).
But what’s so remarkable looking back on Khost over the last four years isn’t the few points of success, or of hope. It is of the grinding stagnation there: how reporters who don’t really know enough about the war there, or who aren’t assigned to write about it with the context needed to understand it, can’t properly tell that story. And, just as worryingly, how little hope there is for all the death and pain and struggle to amount to much. That is the most depressing of all.