Sunday’s Massacre in Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 3/13/2012 · 14 comments

The massacre on Sunday of 16 innocent Afghans — 9 of them children — is appalling. It is impossible to imagine, even as we see images floating over the TV and newspapers. But what does it mean? I tried to answer this a bit on Sunday and over the last two days. On Aljazeera English, there was a definite sense of frustration about “yet another” civilian casualty incident in Afghanistan. While this was rare, I tried to say, the war has other issues to deal with that are probably more important.

For the BBC Newshour (minute 6), we discussed what sort of legal action would be available for this psychopath. Sadly, there aren’t many options, since the U.S. will not allow any American working for the government to be tried in Afghanistan (Jack Idema only claimed to be working for the government — he wasn’t when he ran that horrid torture prison in Afghanistan). For CNN, I tried to explain why this horrible act is not actually going to change the war:

So where does the war go from here? A huge challenge facing President Obama is that the U.S. is fighting one war while the insurgency is fighting a very different one.

The U.S. war is obsessed with the traditional metrics of warfare: holding territory, killing or capturing bad guys, exacting details of building roads, schools, and hospitals. The insurgency, on the other hand, is obsessed with influence, undermining confidence in the government, and creating the perception that the U.S. is at war with Islam.

Put simply, the U.S. never put in place the strategic and political framework to make much headway in Afghanistan. Despite the renewed push for negotiations with the Taliban, there is no political strategy for the country. There is no end state for the war, either — right now, the plan is to drawdown to about 20,000 troops or so — similar to troop levels in 2008 — and stay that way for the indefinite future. That’s not a strategy, and it’s not a plan.

It was already directionless and pointless, in other words. This massacre doesn’t change any of the ground truths of what’s happening. But still, there’s a big groundswell of support for accelerating the withdrawal — especially on the Right. For Salon, I tried to explain why that, too, is a terrible idea:

But a more rapid withdrawal would be the worst possible outcome for Afghanistan right now. The desire to cut losses is understandable, even justified, but it would plunge Afghanistan into madness and anarchy.

That’s because there remains no political process at work in Afghanistan than can address the fundamental conflict driving the war: a political contest between the current, corrupt government and the insurgency that rejects that government. The current line about so-called reconciliation – the negotiations process, which demands the Taliban accept the very Afghan constitution they’re fighting to upend – doesn’t account for any of Afghanistan’s politics. It is merely a call to surrender.

President Obama missed a critical opportunity in 2009 to reorient the war away from a military-led battle with some political trappings, to a political strategy with a military component. It’s not too late to make that shift in perspective and outlook – not yet, at least. While Sunday’s mass murder is shocking, it does provide some space in Washington for a pivot point to reorient the war where it needs to be: on the politics of Afghanistan, and not on the insurgency of Afghanistan.

Sadly, I just don’t see any reason to think that such a change in thinking is around the corner. President Obama is determined to drawdown to that infinite training mission and ride out the rest of his term. None of the problems of the war are being addressed, and we’re going to leave a horrible mess when we finally give up and come home.

It’s utterly depressing. All of it.

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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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tierbess March 13, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Your assessment of Washington’s obsession with traditional warfare metrics is spot on. Your conclusion that Washington can’t or shouldn’t withdraw precipitously from Afghanistan is less so. If you mean that logistically, getting 90k US troops out of Afghanistan in less than two years than fine, I’d be prepared to her you out. But you emphasized leaving behind “madness and anarchy”. It seems you too are falling trap to the “it-is-better-if-we-stay” argument. You’re no Lindsay Graham or Joe Liebermann, but you’re arguing for staying the course when you’ve also repeatedly argued that we have no strategy for Afghanistan. I understand your concern for Afghans and your skepticm of COIN and CT. Should Washington keep all 90k troops behind and continue the war a la Max Boot? Should we drop to 50k? Or 20k? Or 0?

Don Bacon March 14, 2012 at 12:21 am

Correct. A more rapid withdrawal, accompanied by some creative diplomacy, would be the best possible outcome.

This is where we need Mr. Foust’s creative suggestions. He’s thinking about it, you can tell, as in: “None of the problems of the war are being addressed.”

Either that or we call in Paula Broadwell. 🙂

carl March 14, 2012 at 9:59 am

Agreed on the need for creative suggestions. They will make for interesting discussion. But no matter how creative the suggestions, they will not lead to creative diplomacy. We don’t do creative diplomacy.

Junaid March 14, 2012 at 11:59 pm

I am from Afghanistan and have worked with both the Ministry of Defense and Interior. Withdrawing troops is the solution. Afghanistan is a tragedy that can only be solved over decades, and through indigenous Afghan leadership. Not the West. There should have been a promise from President Bush not to have committed any troops in the country. The presence of troops have caused this insurgency.

Dilshod March 16, 2012 at 3:11 am

Truly imho (never been to Afghanistan): I think we will have to admit the fact that the initial intention of the military action which was to destroy the enemy and eliminate it’s sources and resources has been by and large achieved. However, the efforts going beyond that objective, – to help that nation develop into better functioning and more open, more prosperous and peaceful society have failed. One of the possible reasons is the traditional economy that has not changed much for ordinary people. Billions of money poured into country weren’t aimed to restructure the Afghan economy, international assistance targeted primarily mindset and culture, politics and laws. Those are important factors, but as long as they are not directly linked to survival, old patterns and social fabric remains virtually unchallenged.

RScott March 16, 2012 at 6:35 pm

The point is that the people we have been fighting for the past 10 years were not our enemy when we started. As Junaid above said: “The presence of troops have caused this insurgency.” In areas like Helmand for example, we were liked and trusted as we had been working there on the largest irrigation system in the country between 1946-79, established a cash crop economy, helped with a land settlement program, etc etc. It was perhaps the most pro-American region of the country but in recent years has become the center of the opposition along with Kandahar…and of course with the most troops, both US and British, and a booming narcotics trade which has been at the base of the widespread corruption. One suggestion has been made: “Instead, Washington should pursue a peace settlement (with the Taliban) along the following lines: the guarantee of a complete withdrawal of Western forces; the exclusion by the Taliban of all international terrorists from the areas they control; and a Taliban crackdown on heroin production in return for international development aid to those areas.” (Lievens, Opinion, NYTimes a couple of days back) But of course, we will not do it. We are even allowing the negotiations to break down.

Junaid March 16, 2012 at 11:04 pm

Unfortunately, the US demands for a negotiated settlement are unrealistic (unless their rhetoric is just to save face). Demanding the Taliban to lay down arms is evidence of how the State Department is disconnected from the realities of the ground.

There are positives. The Afghan National Army is not seen as a corrupt institution in the way the police and politicians are. Many Afghans see it as a source of national pride, even if it’s largely composed of former Northern Alliance, and I think they’ll prevent the Taliban from taking over Kabul or other major cities.

Local fighters will lay down their arms once US military presence is gone, which will be a blow to Mullah Omar whose control over the insurgency is dubious. It will be difficult to justify high levels of violence when there is no occupation force. They had already discredited themselves with their brutal, appalling and stupid way of governing. Afghans are generally wealthier, and while the country continues to be poor and fragile, most are to fatigued of war.

RScott March 17, 2012 at 12:05 pm

No doubt many of the “insurgence” will stop fighting when the foreign, not just US, presence is gone as happened with the mujahadin when the Soviets left. But It is not clear what will happen in the south when the mostly Northern Alliance national army become the occupiers (They are there now with the foreign troops.) or how they will act toward the local populations in places like Kandahar. Hopefully they will act differently from the actions of the Jausjanis(sp) under Dostum in Kandahar at the time of the Soviets. And for many in these areas, the present local and central governments are not considered acceptable and too corrupt. Someone has to deal with the corruption and the drug trade. Will the present government act? Doubtful.

Junaid March 17, 2012 at 12:31 pm

I think an even bigger problem is the economy. Once the NGOs, foreign aid workers and the military leave, there will be nothing left. House prices are already plummeting. It’s astonishing that 11 years on, President Karzai has not taken any initiatives or funded any economic projects.

RScott March 17, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Correct and one of the largest elements in the present economy is in the opium traffic which no one has done anything effective about. We have spent millions in Helmand on mostly irrelevant projects, irrelevant to the farmers, the ag. economy. As the farmers in central Helmand were asking for help as early as 1997 with the cotton prices as one of the prerequisites for getting out of the opium poppy business, we have done nothing and in a recent response from DFID/Helmand, the people running the PRT, they are still making studies but no action as of last month. The Brits built the cotton gin in Lashkar Gah in about 1965 and it still functions and still buys some cotton. The farmers still grow cotton at reduced rates in competition with poppy. But we have continued to ignore it as a viable cash crop as poppy booms…and blooms. I have been writing about it in email/memos to contacts in USAID, State, DFID and many other organizations that should be interested since my first visit back into the area in 1997 (see the 35 memos to date in my website: Nothing done to date. There has been a free wheat seed program in the area but it has had virtually no effect on opium cultivation for Helmand. The usual ineffective eradication program is presently underway which allows additional income for the eradication teams with farmer bribes from those that can afford to pay.

Junaid March 18, 2012 at 3:48 am

It’s very difficult to ascertain what will happen in the coming months or years. General John Allen and the Pentagon are convinced they will be able to maintain a military presence post-2014. I think Hilary and Panetta are on the side of having a light presence, while Biden is unequivocal against leaving anyone behind. It’s all up to Obama.

anan March 29, 2012 at 9:49 pm

“Local fighters will lay down their arms once US military presence is gone, which will be a blow to Mullah Omar whose control over the insurgency is dubious.” And trees fly in the sky. The ANA and Taliban fight each other because they don’t like each other. The ANA and deep state like each other even less. If the deep state and Taliban think they can win, they are likely to push hard against the ANA, causing a large surge in violence.

“It will be difficult to justify high levels of violence when there is no occupation force.” The ANA “IS THE OCCUPATION FORCE.” As RScott correctly said.

Rscott, Karzai has tried to negotiate with the Taliban for a long time. The negotiations have gone nowhere. The idea that the UNAMA, ISAF, NATO, US can expedite these negotiations strikes me as fantasy.

Rscott, can you share your perspective for how security is doing in the parts of Helmand managed by the ANSF? Helmand is rapidly transitioning to ANSF and GIRoA control. Why has violence dropped sharply in Helmand? Has Mullah Omar decided to focus on other provinces at the expense of Helmand? If so, is this temporary, or is this a longer term strategic reallocation of Taliban resources?

RScott March 30, 2012 at 9:51 am

The reason the Taliban dont negotiate with the Karzai government (according to them) is that it is not considered a legitimate Afghan government brought to power and kept in power by a foreign invasion and occupation. At the time of the Soviet occupation and process of withdrawal, there were elements of the mujahadin that were also unwilling to negotiate with the Afghan “government” at that time.
Being asked to negotiate with/by the foreign (us) invaders/occupiers gives the Taliban international status as having basically won or at least fought the invasion to a stalemate. A situation not politically acceptable to us. Not winnable with military force, as several of our military leaders have been saying for some time but unacceptable to those presently supporting the new strategy.
I dont know about the reasons for the reduction of violence in Helmand but it has not stopped. Still the roadside bombs are killing both military and civilians. Perhaps the Taliban dont see a need to keep up the pressure. I dont think it is because “they have been driven out”. I think most live there and are just waiting to see what is going to happen. And the roadside bombs that kill civilians in mini-vans going to Lashkar Gah from Marja, for example, are not happy events. Perhaps, as in Vietnam, the Taliban have reduced violence to allow the in progress development projects (which in my view are not focused on the right goals…roads vs. support for the cash crop ag. economy) to increase. To get as much done with foreign money as possible since they likely assume that with our withdrawal all support for development/reconstruction will end…which is probably correct. This ignores the high level of corruption associated with many of these projects recently reported on but which has been going on from the start.
And is seems unlikely that the ANSF and GIRoA are actually “in control” when areas are turned over to them for security.

Dishonesty March 31, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Why has violence dropped sharply in Helmand?
Anan,its simply,less patrol bases,less combat patrol,less troop in contact=progress!!!

Maj. Gen. John Toolan, the current battlefield commander, had 250 Marine outposts and forward operating bases in November. Since then, 96 have been closed or transferred to the Afghans, and he expects the number to drop over the next year to about 25 or 30. Remaining positions will be used to house Marine trainers and other support personnel long-term.

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