My friend Gilles Dorronsoro has written a scathing report based on his recent research trip to Afghanistan which was, it is important to note, not sponsored or funded by the military (which is why I think it is so pessimistic). “If anything,” he writes, “the current strategy is making a political solution less likely, notably because it is antagonizing Pakistan without containing the rise of the armed opposition.” What leapt out at me were two passages. The first, on pages 9-10, describes a familiar dynamic:
The coalition’s biggest mistake was to become involved in local power struggles. As it happens, many arrests are based on denunciations that are actually a settling of accounts by different communities. The Korengal Valley had been open to American troops until 2004, for example, when the United States made the mistake of getting involved in a local conflict. Korengal competed with the Pech Valley in logging (the wood often sent illegally to Pakistan). Notables of the Pech Valley, in an effort to discredit Haji Matin, a leader in Korengal, convinced U.S. forces that he was working for the Taliban. The consequences were disastrous: The United States bombed the house of Haji Matin, who turned to the Taliban.15 The Korengal Valley became the bloodiest area of the Afghan theater for U.S. forces, who finally had to evacuate their outpost in 2008. By the same token, the Shinwaris, at first favorable to the United States, went over to the opposition as a result of manipulation by another tribal group. The explanation that local populations are xenophobic is inadequate, as the American troops initially received a warm welcome and one would also have to explain the population’s acceptance of hundreds of foreign fighters in these areas.
I’d phrase this differently—the U.S. has played a positive role in local dispute resolution, but it’s been through bringing in Afghan mediators and government officials to settle things. But the process Gilles is describing, of Americans misunderstanding local conflicts, then intervening in them for some short term objective (the Jim Gant strategem, if you will) and creating far more problems than originally existed, is absolutely right. He is also right, and I think at his most penetrating, to note that many of the worst areas of Afghanistan were not at first antagonistic to an American presence—as I argued at length in my book, the problem in Afghanistan is not presence but policy. What we do matters, which is why I rail so much at ISAF’s unwillingness to critically examine its own actions.
But Gilles also brings up something else.
Nowadays the insurgency is dominated by the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami, and, in Kunar and Nuristan, Lashkar-e-Taiba and al-Qaeda. In Loya Paktia, the political map is simpler: Most of the groups refer to themselves as Taliban, within which one can distinguish the Haqqani and Mansur groups, while others are more directly linked to the Balochistan-based Quetta Shura.
I’ve never heard that the insurgency in Kunar and Nuristan is dominated by LeT. I’ve heard it’s a noticeable presence, and that it was expanding. But I’ve always heard that most of the insurgents in Nuristan in particular were HiG, not LeT. That’s not to say he’s wrong. It is to say, however, that if he’s right then it’s a really bad development for the war. If you guys have any more data on this I’d love to hear of it.