Of Bomb Counts and Chickens

by Joshua Foust on 8/3/2011 · 10 comments

In one of many fawning interviews at the end of his year-long tenure as ISAF commander, General David Petraeus (now the director of the CIA) made an extraordinary claim:

Yet the general said signs of progress were beginning to appear. Insurgent attacks were down in May and June compared with the same months in 2010, and July is showing the same trend, he said.

“This just means that they have less capacity; they have been degraded somewhat,” he said of the insurgents. “This is the first real indicator — for the first time since 2006 — compared to the previous year, insurgent attack numbers are lower.”

It was a claim difficult to square with reality, as a new report at the National Journal suggests. “The number of IED attacks in Afghanistan has spiked to all-time high,” Yochi Dreazen quotes U.S. military officials saying, “because of the free flow of critical bomb-making materials from neighboring Pakistan.”

This, too, is difficult to square with reality. Further investigation of Petraeus’ remarks indicated he did not include IEDs in his estimate of violence—that is, he chose not to count the most common form of violence so that he could claim violence has been reduced. It was a pretty shocking piece of dishonesty. However, blaming the rise of IEDs on bomb components (fertilizer, wires, radios, and so on) also makes very little sense.

One of the fundamental challenges the U.S. military has never really figured out is what to do about IEDs. They’ve built bigger trucks, designed robot blimps, and bulldozed entire villages to deal with the homemade bombs. The race against IEDs is, in a way, an arms race—one where the defensive party (that’s us!) has all of the disadvantages.

But IEDs are more than their constituent components. Right now, many IEDs are triggered by timers or even pressure plates that were buried in the road. This is because the U.S. military blankets areas with radio scramblers to prevent remote detonation. They can detect signal lasers and physical cables leading off the road to a detonator. For each measure the U.S. adopts to one-up the IEDs, the insurgents create new workarounds that are harder and harder to defeat.

At its heart, however, the scourge of IEDs is not a technological problem. We can safely assume the arms race of measure and counter-measure will continue for a long time at huge cost. The real problem of IEDs is a political and strategic one. Much like with suicide bombing, insurgents use IEDs because they are effective: they’re hard to defeat, they cause a lot of damage if not a lot of death, and the psychological toll they exact on the counterinsurgents is extreme.

The Taliban pay attention to this. They know IEDs are a horrific thing to encounter: much worse than ambushes, gun fights, and snipers, because they seem so random. As a political strategy—to demonstrate the impotence of the foreign forces and to show that all the billions of dollars of gadgets they use still can’t protect them—it is devastatingly effective.

ISAF, whether led by General Petraeus or not, still does not understand that the war in Afghanistan is a political war first and foremost: a war of emotions, perceptions, and messages. His tone-deaf statements to the press notwithstanding, the entirety of ISAF’s messaging misses the politics of the situation unfolding in Afghanistan. As an example, here is a recent move the Taliban has made in Ghazni province:

GHAZNI CITY (PAN): The Taliban have banned frozen chicken sales in several parts of southern Ghazni province on the grounds that the method of slaughter is un-Islamic.

Abdul Fatah, a vendor of frozen chickens, said that consumers no longer bought poultry products in some districts. “Shopkeepers and butchers who had been buying from us were told by the fighters to stop because the method of slaughter is un-Islamic.”

The frozen chickens are imported from the United States, Brazil, China and India. The Taliban say butchers in those countries do not follow Islamic slaughtering practices.

It’s easy to laugh at this, cry for the humanity, and move on to something else. But as goofy as forbidding inexpensive imported frozen chickens might seem, this prohibition is speaking to a much deeper issue with the war. From the start of their re-emergence in 2003, the Taliban have spoken to the politics and the faith of Afghanistan: we are good Muslims, they say, and we wish to protect you from these anti-Muslim outsiders.

As non-Muslim foreigners, it is a difficult message to counter on our own. It is where the Afghan government could play a role. Only, when it passes laws deemed by foreigners to be too “Islamic” they face resistance. When they’re pressured by ISAF to restrict the sale of fertilizer (ammonium nitrate is a cheap fertilizer and a cheap explosive), it affects farmers severely while the rate of IEDs continues to climb upward.

Banning fertilizer and chickens, misleading claims about violence, and the ever-increasing rate of IEDs explosions and death are a part of the same problem: the war, at its very top, lacks strategic focus and political awareness. That is the real battle to be fought: not for hearts and minds, but for political control of the war and the government. But it is also, as we keep learning time and again, completely ignored.


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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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{ 10 comments }

doylecjd August 3, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Excellent post however, the Taliban message or more importantly, the air of compliance or acceptance of that message may come more from, “don’t buy those chickens, because they weren’t slaughtered properly according to Islamic rules” with the important addition of “because if you do, we may kill you or your eight year old son” or something along those lines.

The Taliban have been very effective in the coercion because they have proven the will to back up their words with action. The US fails miserably because, deep down we assume that (to borrow from Full Metal Jacket) deep down in each Afghan is a freedom loving American just longing for democracy.

The reality is that the people want to be left alone from all sides. They’ll comply with the Taliban and ignore Kabul and the US simply because the Taliban will act in many cases were Kabul or the US are incapable. The people will look to comply with the Taliban out of fear moreso than any sense of the Taliban being accepted or a desired source of rule.

From the very beginning the pressure has been on for positive trends. For Petraeus to ignore IED’s to cook the books is, in my view, unexcusable. Separate out deaths via car accidents, unrelated health issues (heart attacks, etc.), or perhaps even consider suicide a different category, but to remove a source of injury and death that expressly comes as a result of insurgent activity is beyond disingenuous, it’s a flat out lie.

A huge part of the problem is that by applying a one military fits all solution to Afghanistan, we’ve done zip to build incentives for the majority of Afghans to take the lead on their future. The entire country is in a holding pattern of sorts with the expectation that as the US leaves, the status quo of 2001 will return shortly after.

Retributions are going to be severe. The Taliban is poised for it, the people are dreading it, US policy is completely unaware of it at any decision making level, and Karzai is scouting retirement options anywhere but within Afghanistan.

CE August 3, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Actually, I would prefer to eat an Islamic chicken any day over the mass-produced, steroid-filled, mutated, flavorless monstrosities that are sold here at home. I like my bird sans salmonella, thank you very much.

As to strategy vs. tactics, or political vs. military solutions, I don’t think it really matters anymore; I don’t know why, but I have a hunch that this effort is beyond un-salvageable. Also, it’s hard to keep focus on the security debate and take the talking heads seriously if you subscribe, as I do, to the Gary Brecher School of Thought on counterinsurgency campaigns: namely, that, short of genocide, there is no modern military (or political) solution to urban (or rural) guerilla warfare.

Relevant passages from a very relevant 2005 article on the Iraqi insurgency:

[We]have to face the historical fact that modern armies still don’t have an effective counter for that mode of warfare.

And all that ancient Greek stuff won’t help [us] deal with urban guerrilla war, because there was nothing like it in the ancient world. In those days conquerors wiped out cities the second they showed any sign of uppity behavior. Urban guerrilla wars were pretty quick and pretty unsuccessful: rise up against the occupier, and literally every man, woman and child gets slaughtered, and the offending city covered in salt. End of story.

One of my favorite examples of Roman “pacification” policy was what happened to the Helvetii, a Celtic tribe that used to live where Switzerland is now. Europe was a feisty, tricky place in those days, like Africa is now. Tribes were always on the move…At the end of the battle, they had slaughtered 220,000 men, women and children—60% of the whole tribe. Must have been exhausting too. Imagine the sheer hard work it took to kill that many screaming, scrambling people with the Roman short sword, not much bigger than a Bowie knife.

We could do it, way more easily than the Romans. We’d burn only as many calories as it takes to press a button. If we had the will, we could wipe out the whole population of the Sunni Triangle in a few days. If we used neutron bombs, we could do it without even messing up the area too badly. It would sure stop the insurgency.

Trouble is, that kind of genocide just isn’t popular these days, and nobody, not even Professor Hanson, is ready to argue for it. It’s hard to argue you want to bring democracy to the Sunnis by making them extinct. And what Hanson and morons like him won’t admit is that short of genocide, there is no military solution to urban guerrilla warfare.

So Hanson cheats like a ninth grader, trying to avoid facing the urban-guerrilla problem. He makes fake lists like this one: “From the various insurgencies of the Peloponnesian War to the British victory over Communist guerrillas in Malaya, there remain constants across 2,500 years of time and space that presage victory or defeat.”

Oh, like we’re supposed to believe he chose that Malaya example just by chance, huh? It so happens that the Malayan insurgency of the 1950s is the ONLY guerrilla war that was won by the occupying army, in this case the Brits, and that’s why Bush’s spinners like to cite It. You know why the Brits “succeeded”? It’s real simple: the insurgents were all ethnic Chinese, and the Malays hated their guts. They were a small, easily identified ethnic minority. The Malays never needed much of an excuse to start chopping up Chinese people, and when the Brits gave them license to kill they went at it full time. Then the Brits up and left.

It was a relatively small affair: over 12 years, some 7,000 MRLA guerrillas were killed. Just to give you a real comparison, one American general recently said that in the last year alone, we’ve killed or captured 50,000 Iraqi insurgents, yet, this same general admitted that the insurgency is only gaining strength.

If [we] think we can chop up millions of heavily armed, aggressive Sunni Iraqis the way the Brits mopped up a few thousand Red Chinese in Malaysia, [we’re] insane.

It’s depressing insights such as these that have convinced me to take up another school of thought, where matters of war are concerned—the George Carlin “War as Entertainment” approach.

BruceR August 4, 2011 at 8:03 am

Josh, not to quibble, but the linked article says “not every IED is an attack on the international or Afghan forces,” meaning they only excluded IEDs that deliberately or accidentally killed Afghan civilians only, in a statistic that is meant to represent attacks on military forces only. That’s not exactly nuts.

Yes, certainly, IED attacks that kill civilians might not have been targeted at them: for instance, someone detonating a device that was laid to kill soldiers, which is a very common occurrence. But counting that kind of event as an attack on soldiers, when none were injured or possibly even present, would present its own problems. To remain rigorous, I think you would have to go with Petraeus and leave that in the “civilian attacks” column as a general rule.

The more interesting question to me is, since the stat in question was “enemy initiated attacks,” which presumably does include IEDs that detonated in the presence of coalition soldiers, what did they do in terms of counting the IED finds that didn’t detonate? I suspect they didn’t count them in (again, because it gets really fuzzy if you do), which makes one wonder how much that recent drop in enemy-initiated attack stats could be related to improvements in the find rate, or degradation of IED quality. So I agree with you it’s a stat that raises more questions than it answers by itself.

Dafydd August 4, 2011 at 8:13 am

I think that total number of IEDs represents Taliban capability better than a subset defined by target.

Either way to make the comparison fair you would have to count only IEDs resulting in military casualties in both years, and highlight any change in the number of military patrols.

BruceR August 4, 2011 at 10:09 am

My first sentence was a little muddy. To be absolutely clear, how I would interpret the statement is that the ISAF’s “enemy initiated attacks” figure Petraeus is citing as proof of improved conditions over last year has not as a rule included any IED attacks that deliberately or incidentally killed *or injured or frightened* Afghan civilians only.

Which of course brings up another question that always messed up our attempts to do stats like this in theatre: how do you count the civilian truck drivers carrying ISAF logistics or NGO aid, and their armed convoy escorts, that often bear the brunt of IED and ambush attacks on places like Highway 1? Could a drop in attacks on MRAPs just mean the triggermen are waiting for juicier and softer targets a little more often? And what do you count it as if (as often happens) the local ANSF guys who were blown up were moonlighting as convoy escorts in their spare time and not “on duty”? It gets very muddy, quickly.

Or to draw a hopefully-not-totally-inapt analogy, in WW2, if you found in one month the number of U-boat attacks on convoy escorts was going down, couldn’t that just mean they were getting better at saving their torpedoes for the oil tankers?

BruceR August 4, 2011 at 10:14 am

Sorry, one more on this and I’m done, promise.

I remember briefing a similar set of stats on month-over-month changes to “civilian deaths” in theatre once. The asterix at the bottom at the slide noted that convoy driver and escort casualties (which were heavy at the time) had been counted in that stat. The briefing target, who knew what he was talking about, made two observations: that most of the escorts he saw tended to be better armed than the local police, and the rest *were* the local police on their days off, so maybe I needed another column for those the next time.

Dafydd August 4, 2011 at 8:05 am

Off on a bit of a tangent, but fertilizer and chickens are kind of linked in a way you didn’t touch on.

Ban fertilizer and you hurt the Afghan farmer.

Ban chicken imports and you help the Afghan farmer.

With Afghanistan being so rural, and the Taliban getting a lot of its support from rural areas, could this move partly be a piece of clever politics?

M Shannon August 4, 2011 at 12:33 pm

ISAF has known for years that counting their armed guards and drivers who become casualties as “civilians” was deceptive. Ditto for senior GOA members/ warlords. Was Ahmed Wali Karzai really a civilian?

Clearly the categories should be “parties to the conflict” and “non-parties” with those split again for “foreign” and “Afghan”.

My hunch is that the insurgents would be found to kill far fewer “innocent civilians” than reported by NATO and the UN and NATO/GOA casualties would be much higher than thought.

M Shannon August 4, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Incident counting has always been subjective. If an insurgent launches five 107mm rockets at a FOB at one time that’s one incident. If he does it over five days it’s five.

ANSO and the UN don’t get classified reports so their totals are always low and on top of it don’t count a “found” IED as an insurgent initiated incident.

I’d guess that whatever is reported is at most half of reality before counting night letters and other non-violent insurgent acts.

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