A Dishonest Five Percent

by Joshua Foust on 6/29/2011 · 9 comments

David Ignatius, Washington Post, 28 June 2011:

Politicians from both parties are already writing off Afghanistan as a lost cause. But [General] Petraeus argues that Obama’s December 2009 troop surge is beginning to pay dividends, even as Washington sours on the war: The level of violence in recent weeks has been down about 5 percent from a year ago, and Taliban fighters have failed to regain control of Kandahar and Helmand strongholds that were cleared in 2010. Afghan troops are performing better, he insists, and they are suffering three times as many deaths as NATO forces.

Bill Varner, Bloomberg, 29 June 2011:

Violence in Afghanistan, led by Taliban suicide attacks and assassinations, increased by 51 percent in the past three months compared with the same period in 2010, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.

This does not mean General Petraeus is lying. Much like the tricks he played when ignoring his own intelligence analysts, Petraeus could mean that an arbitrary period of time—”in recent weeks” could mean just about anything—has marginally less violence than the same arbitrary period of time last year. But overall violence is unquestionably higher.

So Petraeus is probably not lying. But his portrayal of violence in those terms is deeply dishonest, and I wish David Ignatius would develop the self-respect to stop enabling it. And even if that five percent represented an honest portrayal of violence trends in Afghanistan, as Spencer Ackerman asks, is that possibly worth it?

It is not. The leadership of this war needs to be called out, openly and explicitly, about its dishonest portrayal of it.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

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

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


M Shannon June 29, 2011 at 4:05 pm

The real measures of the war are how much is it costing, how much will health care, pensions and equipment replacement cost in the future, how much is borrowed and where are interest rates going.

By that measure year 2010 was a disaster and 2011 just as bad if not worse. Let’s hope 2012 will be better.

CE June 29, 2011 at 9:31 pm

I thought it was pretty well established that UBL expected and wanted the US to get bogged down in Afghanistan in order to weaken us economically, militarily, socially, politically, etc. It was a Great Game-type rope-a-dope maneuver that seems to be roping all the dopes in DC. (Basically what Scheuer has been saying for the past decade.)

Actually, didn’t Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri explain all of this to Syed Saleem Shahzad already?

“Saleem! I will draw your attention to the basics of the present war theater and use that to explain the whole strategy of the upcoming battles. Those who planned this battle actually aimed to bring the world’s biggest Satan [US] and its allies into this trap and swamp [Afghanistan]. Afghanistan is a unique place in the world where the hunter has all sorts of traps to choose from.

“It might be deserts, rivers, mountains and the urban centers as well. This was the thinking of the planners of this war who were sick and tired of the great Satan’s global intrigues and they aim for its demise to make this world a place of peace and justice. However, the great Satan was full of arrogance of its superiority and thought of Afghans as helpless statues who would be hit from all four sides by its war machines, and they would not have the power and capacity to retaliate.

“This was the illusion on which a great alliance of world powers came to Afghanistan, but due to their misplaced conceptions they gradually became trapped in Afghanistan. Today, NATO does not have any significance or relevance. They have lost the war in Afghanistan. Now, when they realized their defeat, they developed an emphasis that this entire battle is being fought from outside of Afghanistan, that is, the two Waziristans. To me, this military thesis is a mirage which has created a complex situation in the region and created reactions and counter-reactions. I would not like to go into the details, to me that was nothing but deviation. As a military commander, the reality is that the trap of Afghanistan is successful and the basic military targets on the ground have been achieved,” Ilyas said.

I responded that the relocation of 313 Brigade from Kashmir was itself proof that foreign hands were involved in Afghanistan.

“The entire basis of your argument is wrong, that this war is being fought from outside of Afghanistan. This is just an out-of-context understanding of the whole situation. If you discuss myself and 313 Brigade, I decided to join the Afghan resistance as an individual and I had quite a reason for that. Everybody knows that only a decade ago I was fighting a war of liberation for my homeland Kashmir.

“However, I realized that decades of armed and political struggles could not help to inch forward a resolution of this issue. Nevertheless, East Timor’s issue was resolved without losing much time. Why? Because the entire game was in the hands of the great Satan, the USA. Organs like the UN and countries like India and Israel were simply the extension of its resources and that’s why there was a failure to resolve the Palestinian issue, the Kashmir issue and the plight of Afghanistan.

“So I and many people all across the world realized that analyzing the situation in any narrow regional political perspective was an incorrect approach. This is a different ball game altogether for which a unified strategy is compulsory. The defeat of American global hegemony is a must if I want the liberation of my homeland Kashmir, and therefore it provided the reasoning for my presence in this war theater.

Ilyas continued, “When I came here I found my step justified; how the world regional powers operate under the umbrella of the great Satan and how they are supportive of its great plans. This can be seen here in Afghanistan.” He added that al-Qaeda’s regional war strategy, in which they have hit Indian targets, is actually to chop off American strength.

Call me cynical, but for me the war provides political cover for those politicians who would rather get pilloried over a lack of strategy than over a terrorist attack on the homeland. So, they’ll ‘take the fight to the enemy,’ and leave it there for as long as they can, because they know that if even a single granny gets blown up at the Des Moines county fair while showing off her prize-winning pumpkin, it’s game over, politically.

If you think like a politician, it’s easy to see why you would choose to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the terrorism problem—drones, troops, lives, money, carrots, sticks, hugs, kisses, the works. As it stands, Obama dodged two bullets, not because his administration was top notch at repelling threats, but because the terrorists were complete klutzes (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Faisal Shahzad).

The war in Afghanistan has a political solution, alright, but the application of that solution needs to start in Washington.

DD June 30, 2011 at 1:49 am

Big drop in ISAF casualties, when comparing June 2010 to June 2011, from 103 to 62. In comparing the first 6 months of 2010 to the first 6 months of 2011, ISAF casualties go from 323 to to 278. Now, this doesn’t account for ANSF deaths, or CIVCAS. So, easy for Petraeus to spin these numbers in a favorable light.


Joshua Foust June 30, 2011 at 8:58 am

I know what you’re saying, but even those numbers don’t make sense. ISAF casualties saw a 20% drop in the first six months, using those numbers. For June, they were a 60% drop. Neither matches the weird 5% number Petraeus used, which just might have been pulled directly from his ass and then handed to David Ignatius.

DD June 30, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Ya, I don’t know either, but since they didn’t give specific dates and referred to “recent weeks” they could have pushed that out the moment the June death toll looked like it was going to come out on the low side. I really can’t say if any drop can be attributed to US strategy, or to a shift in focus on behalf of the insurgents to increased attacks against GIRoA/ANSF. With the announcement of the draw down, it’s possible at least some insurgent factions see more bang for the buck in attacking the gov, vs the Americans who are now assuredly leaving anyway. (I’m aware that the draw down will be gradual and that trainers and SOF elements will remain, but the Taliban don’t need much for an IO campaign, and I’m sure the announcement of the draw down is more than enough for them to run on). This is also coupled with Taliban concerns over (perceived?) efficacy of ALP, but I am getting a bit off topic.

M Shannon June 30, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Lowering ISAF casualties was never a stated goal of the “surge”- protecting Afghan civilians was and since civilian fatalities are up the “strategy” has failed.

ANSF casualties are unknown but must be equal to ISAF just from road accidents, negligent discharges and general carelessness. Taliban action probably at least triples those numbers and desertion triples or quadruples it again.

ISAF fatal casualties in June are down but serious injuries- multiple amputations have been going up at a alarming rate. This is probably due to better armour and trauma care. Not to be too cold but if your aim is to cost the US money and demoralize the enemy the latter is better.

DD July 1, 2011 at 1:40 am

Lowering ISAF casualties was not a stated goal of the surge, you are correct. However, domestic support for the war is already well on its way out, and the lower the American casualties, the slower the attrition of support will be. The slower that attrition is, the better the chance of bolstering ANSF, the only entity with a prayer of turning this thing around.

“Lowering ISAF casualties was never a stated goal of the “surge”- protecting Afghan civilians was and since civilian fatalities are up the “strategy” has failed.”

I would add that all heroin addicts I know like 7up, so all people who drink 7up are heroin addicts.

But seriously. Regardless of ISAF’s inability to do things properly (pick your definition of what that might be) in Afghanistan, the increased CIVCAS is a tragedy brought about by an almost artistic level of disregard for life the current insurgent forces seem to have cultivated for common Afghans. For all its mistakes with drones, missiles and bullets, ISAF accounts for only 13-14% of CIVCAS. Like most Americans (not sure if you are one, but they tend to think in a certain way) the immediacy of gratification is seen as proof of failure or success. Couple this with electoral politics, the economy, and you come up with a society who has no interest in a prolonged conflict any longer. That’s fine, but an interesting thing is occurring, and for all our flailing about and lack of strategy, the results can still be positive.

Approval for ANSF is improving over all, mostly because they don’t slaughter people in the same manner as the Taliban and other networks. Our withdrawal will lead to bloodshed, and very likely civil war of some kind. I hope it’s a military coup against the Karzai regime, (maybe a bloodless one?), because ANSF is gaining the best reputation of any aspect of the government. If that day comes, and your average Afghan has to choose between a relatively popular military and a bunch of trigger happy Quran-thumping Pashtun hillbillies, the likelihood that they will support the military is increasing almost daily. If ISAF and Karzai leave the picture, the Taliban don’t have much to stand on, but ANSF does. They have the advantage in training, infrastructure, mobility, coverage, and increasingly, reputation. It looks like the international community will be around to fund them for a while yet, as well.

Also, I don’t actually know any heroin addicts.

anan July 1, 2011 at 2:27 am

DD, ISAF + ANSF might cause 15% of civilian casualties. Of these 5% are by ANSF and about 10% by ISAF.

This said, certain Taliban factions [former Ilyas Kashmiri, Sirajuddin, LeT, LeJ, Bde 313/095, TTP, TNSM, Al Qaeda] cause the large majority of Afghan civilian casualties. There are local Taliban in Afghanistan who try to avoid civilian casualties.

ANSF popularity and competence change sharply by valley and village and unit.

The Taliban’s primary target [and what they fear most] is the ANSF, followed by a possible future Northern Alliance plus, followed by GIRoA, followed by ISAF.

Isn’t Afghanistan already fighting a civil war?

Suspect you have heard that President Obama has demanded sharp cuts in the ANSF budget versus what Petraeus/COINdinistas have advocated. Pres Obama also opposes letting India and Russia train/equip the ANSF.

The ANSF can win this war with sufficient predictable funding and enablers. But do you think the ANSF will get sufficient reliable funding and enablers to win their war? Do you think that President Obama, the US congress and American public really want the ANSF to defeat the Taliban [versus it would be nice if it happened but not worth a brass penny if it doesn’t]?

Are you worried by growing anti ISAF sentiment among the ANSF rank and file, as well as growing suspicion that ISAF plans to help the Taliban and stab the ANSF in the back? What do you think ISAF can do about it?

Steve C July 4, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Ah yes: the old “stab in the back” complaint, a war cry that rings through the ages. Normally employed by people without the emotional and moral fortitude to end the bloodshed, it has, since time immemorial, served to keep wars going long past their sell-by date.

For a good roundup of the 20th century application of this folly I recommend Ikle’s “Every War Must End”.

Previous post:

Next post: