The Breathless, Embarrassing Cheerleading of NATO in Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 11/28/2011 · 3 comments

Simon Gass, the senior NATO representative in Afghanistan, wrote about how victory in Afghanistan is still imminently around the corner. So I’ve decided to contrast his arguments with reality and recent history about the war to show that his case is not just wrong, but completely ignorant of recent history.


In Helmand province, the Pashtun heartland, U.S. Marines prepared to fight their way north as far as the strategically important Kajaki Dam. They expected a tough battle. Route 611, the main supply route, runs through country that in recent years has been crawling with Taliban fighters who desperately want to keep control of an important assembly area. I feared heavy casualties when we set out. But that didn’t materialize. The Marines met relatively slight resistance as they cleared and secured the road to the north. Most of the Taliban fled rather than fight. Perhaps we should have expected it. The Taliban have taken a ferocious beating over the past year in what were once their strongholds in southern and southwestern Afghanistan. They are demoralized and finding it harder to resupply with men, money and weapons., February 2010:

Over the summer, when the Marines were advertising their latest “surge” into Helmand (at least the third Marine Surge and at least the fifth misfocused ISAF surge into the province), many expressed surprise at the Taliban’s propensity to “melt away” from a fight—that, rather than facing certain death with the Marines, they’ll just slink away to cause trouble elsewhere. This isn’t a new thing—the Taliban have been doing it since, oh, let’s go with 2001—but the Marine Corps nevertheless seemed surprised by it.


But make no mistake: Taliban commanders in Quetta and Peshawar have plenty to worry about. Nobody should think they are winning or can have any expectation of winning. The Afghan people don’t want them back. A recent, authoritative opinion survey by the Asia Foundation found that the number of Afghans who have no sympathy for the insurgents has risen from 36 percent in 2009 to 64 percent in 2011.

Dan Smock, September, 2011:

So a survey that interviewed 6,467 people in a country of 28 million, conducted 23% of its surveys in the Central/Kabul region, and 14% of its surveys in Kabul province itself (the next nearest closest percentage was 7% in Herat), should be classified as “one of the broadest public opinion polls in the country?”

It should not. The truth of the matter is, the Asia Foundation polls are deeply flawed instruments that say little of consequence. But they are actively malicious for how they provide objective-seeming cover for officials trying to hype the war.


Furthermore, the Afghan army has added muscle: The days when army units could be beaten up by Taliban groups are over.

According to Oxfam earlier this year, the problem was never that the Afghan Army would be unable to fight, but rather about what costs would be associated with that fighting.

As greater responsibility is handed over to the Afghan NationalSecurity Forces, there is a serious risk that unless adequate accountability mechanisms are put in place, violations of humanrights and humanitarian law will escalate – and Afghan civilians will pay the price. Troop-contributing states have been slow to honour their moral and legal obligation to ensure the accountability of the national security forces; and time to do so is running out.


The good news is that Afghanistan has huge mineral resources — oil, gas, copper, iron and rare-earth metals — that, in time, will allow its government to pay its bills. This is not sunny optimism. It is fact.

Reuters had to “reality check” this ridiculous story last year:

So is Afghanistan going to mine its way out of its current troubles ? For all the hope the finding has stirred in a landscape of death and destruction, unlocking Afghanistan’s mineral riches may be decades away, experts say. The country has almost no mining infrastructure, is in the midst of a wrenching war and has a reputation for government corruption. The risks are far too big for most companies to get involved, however enticing the deposits look.

Facts, indeed. Also, shouldn’t the bitter experience of “Iraq’s oil will let it pay for its own reconstruction” have created at least some hesitation amongst western officials to crow about the vast mineral wealth waiting to be yanked from the ground in its newly conquered territories? Good grief.


An Afghan colleague pointed out recently that Afghanistan wasn’t always the war-torn country that we see in the news. It was once peaceful. And if we can bear the cost for just a little longer, it can be again. That would be good for Afghanistan and good for us, too.

That’s correct. In the 1970s, Afghanistan was a peaceful place, mostly. But it is no longer the 1970s, and pretending that just a little more time, a little more spending, and a little more troop deployments are all that is needed to make everything work like they did during the Golden Age last century is worse than misleading. It is willfully obtuse. No Afghan looks at the country and sees the potential for it to become the carefree hippy wunderland it was 45years ago. That the senior NATO representative does is… well it leaves me speechless.

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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 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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Ben November 28, 2011 at 5:53 pm

The same BS line by all western players. The military PR people are repeating this narrative so much even their own bosses believe it.

Don Bacon November 28, 2011 at 6:06 pm

It’s not enough that we have to listen to generals lying about progress, as they always do, even though they ought to know better, now we have to listen to diplomats like Sir Simon Lawrance Gass KCMG CVO pretend that they know something about military matters.

The whole point of unconventional war is to avoid set battles. I’m sure that Sir Simon would do the same if he were an Afghan freedom fighter. What is currently needed is some diplomacy, not more war propaganda.

Regarding bearing the cost just a little longer, the recent Loya Jirga, a four-day gathering of some 2,000 Afghan representatives, endorsed President Hamid Karzai’s plan for an agreement on a long-term American military presence. So things are not going so well, apparently, according to Afghan leaders.

Let’s see what happens next week. The “Bonn+10” Conference (ten years after December 2001) is due to start on Monday December 5. It is scheduled to include more than 1,000 delegates from 90 nations, international organizations and the United Nations to discuss the transfer of responsibility for security to the Afghan government by 2014.

Pakistan and Uzbekistan might not be there, but hey, we can always look forward to Bonn+20. /s

Osman November 29, 2011 at 8:00 pm

I can bet that real Afghans who actually live among their own, and not in highly guarded mansions in Kabul, were not present at this mockery of a Loya Jirga.

Men like this, for example.

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