ISAF Explains Security Using Schools and Cellphones…and It’s Adorable

by Sunny in Kabul on 5/6/2013 · 4 comments

ISAF‘s stopped releasing it’s monthly numbers, so for the duration of Operation Ready or Not we’re going to be stuck with whatever press releases they deign to unleash upon us huddled masses. Which is what we had here last week. It was yet another plethora of misguided metrics and an apparent misunderstanding of what’s really happening in this country. I don’t know what sort of Cotton Candy Palace ISAF lives in, but by God I want to go there forever. 

Recently Joseph “Fighting Joe” Dunford released his official statement on the security situation in Afghanistan. Historically, statements from ISAF require readers to suspend disbelief at Beckett-ish levels, and since this is what’s commonly referred to as a “war,” reading their releases generally makes me sad. Not Daredevil sad. Maybe Elektra sad. Or Eric Bana‘s Hulk sad.

To avoid said sadness, I choose to view these announcements as high satire…otherwise they’re terribly depressing, and booze is expensive. From the top, Dunford’s already dropping the ISAF “f” bomb.

While numerous challenges remain, there are some basic facts that highlight the improved security across the country.

I’m giddy. Really. I like “facts,” and I’m more hopeful than Ralphie on Christmas morning that maybe this time ISAF is going to give us actual, no kidding…facts. About…security.

Want security? Then build a…school. Apparently.

So naturally, we’re gonna talk about schools:

Today, almost 8 million children are in school, some 40% of which are girls. Under the Taliban, only one million children were in school, almost all of them boys.

Sure, education is part of full spectrum COINerific awesomeness, but the number of students in schools says nothing about security. What it does say is that you can build more schools. Same goes for the number of girls in schools.* This number of children in schools is often portrayed as the result of Taliban opposition to education, which was only part of the problem. What Dunford (and  other Afghan observers) fail to take into account is what people call “numbers” which are then used to illustrate “facts,” such as this table from a 2001 UNESCO report on the state of Afghan education. Note the last time there were 1 million kids in schools.

Afghan Education

Yup: after the 1978 Soviet invasion, and at that “peak,” only 18% of them were  female. Granted, population numbers being what they are, there is a greater percentage of students enrolled in schools today. However, that has less to do with reduced Taliban opposition (i.e. “improved security”) than it does with the ability of Afghan’s resources (i.e. “foreign money”) to support the number of students currently enrolled in schools. I’d recommend reading the UNESCO report referenced above, since it goes into some detail regarding the growth of education in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion, and the challenges the government faced. Bottom line? Trying to reach a predominantly rural population with an adequate number of schools and teachers is a challenge. Philosophical considerations aside, the Taliban did not have access to the foreign development funds that have poured into Afghanistan post-2001. So an increase in education doesn’t mean fewer Taliban so much as it does more resources. Poorly allocated, often wasted, but still resources that didn’t exist in this country when the Taliban were large and in charge.

Can you hear me now?

But what’s better than schools? Why, cellphones, of course.

Under the Taliban, there were only 10,000 fixed phone lines, and today there are over 17 million people using cell phones.

Because the Taliban hate cellphones. When members of the press want to contact the Taliban, they’re forced to find a landline, crank that handle, then wait for the operator to connect them. Half the time it’s a party line, too, so who knows who might be listening in.

Do you know how hard it is to set off an IED with one of those? 17 million cell phones is another great example of what happens when foreign donors pump a lot of money into something, which is why 3G is happening here. The availability of any particular technology isn’t a sign of security any more than the number of students in schools. Technology spreads mainly because of the bottom line: if it costs less, more people will have it. Since 2001, cellphones have become cheaper and the infrastructure to support them has done the same. (See above re: Taliban and resources.) So in a world where there’s such a thing as a “Taliban ringtone,” a cellphone in your hand says nothing about security.

Uprisings…or “Indisputable” is the new “Inconceivable”

Dunford goes on:

ISAF’s analysis indicates that 80% of the enemy attacks are occurring in areas where less than 20% of the Afghan population lives. More than 40% of all enemy attacks are occurring in just 10 districts, most of which are in the northern reaches of Helmand Province and western Kandahar Province.

Here’s where the wheels come off this faster than a Lindsay Lohan comeback movie: civilian casualties are on the rise. For the first three months of 2013, there was a 30% increase in civilian Afghan deaths compared with the same period in 2012. So those attacks, while apparently occurring in places where Afghans don’t live, would appear to be killing more Afghans. ISAF’s focus on that 40% makes no sense, either, since Helmand and Kandahar are places where, generally speaking, ISAF has fought the most. And it begs the follow-up question: where are the other 60% of attacks occurring? It’s impossible to check ISAF’s data on this, since they quit reporting enemy attacks earlier this year. But there’s hope: Afghans have got their hate on for the Taliban.

Equally important to the insurgency’s decreasing relevancy, the expectations of the Afghan people have changed. Surveys clearly reflect that the Afghan people will simply not tolerate the oppressive policies imposed by the former Taliban Government. In some areas, this sentiment has manifested in anti-Taliban movements.

That’s true…except for: They may not like the Taliban, but they do seem to like their courts, at least in Zabul:

The Taliban may not be popular, but their courts seem to be. Even a senior adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai admits that many Afghans prefer Taliban courts to the government’s legal system. And a member of Parliament from Zabul province, Qadar Qalatwal, agrees, saying local government courts are simply hopeless. “The local government is drowning in corruption so no one trusts the justice system,” he says.

The “popular uprising” in say, Andar, hasn’t exactly turned into an “Andar Awakening“:

One of the new headaches for the Andar population is the presence of armed youth, who are acting as militia forces without any accountability or control. Safiullah, who had recently returned from Saudi Arabia where he earns a living by running a shop, was visiting his relatives in Miryani village when he was stopped by arbakai fighters. They took his car and never returned it. His crime: visiting a village frequently used by Taleban for mounting recent attacks on the arbakai. In a similar case, three residents of the neighbouring Waghaz district were robbed of their car, mobile phones, and other assets when the arbakai found out that they were returning from the Taleban’s head judge for the district of Andar to whom they had turned to solve a dispute.

And contrast this from the New York Times

Mr. Wudood said he had received warnings that the Taliban had ordered his assassination. Yet he remained defiant.

“This time it is not only me,” he said. “There are thousands of us in Zangabad and in Sperwan. They cannot eliminate us all. We are the true owners of this land and the men who are attacking us are coming from outside, and we are not scared. We will defend our land.”

…with this report from the Afghan Analysts Network on that same individual a month later:

The movement called ‘uprising’, however, is far from collectively popular. Wadud has even failed to convince two of his eight sons and a younger brother to stand with him, which is highly unusual in this deeply tribal area. The three are reportedly disapproving of his action. Even Haji Habibullah, the septuagenarian leader of the Khogyani tribe in Zangabad, could not mobilise more than a handful of his men for the cause. It is simply insufficient to call such joining of people to ALP an uprising without wide-spread participation, if not a consensus, by the local population. Perceptions, or spun stories, like that of the ISAF Commander of RC-South about ‘the people’ participating are simply too upbeat, overrated due to the accounts from local officials and ALP-connected sources.

So in the Taliban “heartland,” folks still aren’t sold on the idea that the government’s going to get the job done. But long live the anti-Taliban movement, y’all! And in closing…

The coalition and the good people of Afghanistan won’t be satisfied until there is a secure, stable Afghanistan at peace with its neighbors. Despite the remaining challenges, the progress toward that goal is indisputable.

Indisputable? Cue inevitable Princess Bride reference. And given that we leveraged the ISI back in the day to start this mess in the first place, I’m not sure we’re ever going to really want peace with the neighbors. If we had that, where oh where would we park all them drones?

Your metrics suck

The problem with most metrics in Afghanistan is that the focus is too often placed on security versus indicators of progress like economic growth. Cellphones are, potentially, one such indicator, but more cellphones does not a security picture make. Time and again ISAF has demonstrated an inability to establish metrics, report them accurately, or even be honest about the progress of the actual security situation in key areas of the country. The US in particular wants so badly for THIS war to end well that they have to spin even the most mundane event as another shining example of long-term success. US policy here has long been shaped by making Afghanistan not-Iraq, and the resultant spin long ago went from mildly absurd to downright tragic.

One metric that is impossible to ignore is the number of Afghan casualties, both civilian and military. With responsibility shifting to the Afghan National Security Forces, the numbers of ANSF dead and wounded over the last several months have already eclipsed the coalition dead and wounded from over a decade of conflict. And more Afghan civilians are dying every day. The fact that the commander of the NATO effort talks about “indisputable progress” at a time when the death toll keeps climbing is yet another indication of how disconnected ISAF “messaging” is from reality. More importantly, it’s a sign of how far the US is willing to go in order to make dead Afghans look like winning.

Until next time, you stay on that sunny side, everybody!

Dunford’s statement highlights the “fact” that there were girls being educated under the Taliban. Yet he still manages to ignore another “fact”: that a ban on girls’ education pre-dates the Taliban in parts of Afghanistan. The idea that a woman does not need an education was not a concept exclusive to the Taliban, and is an idea that will pervade in many rural areas in Afghanistan no matter how much foreign money is poured into the Afghan educational system.


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This post was written by...

– author of 15 posts on Registan.net.

Happily married, cynic, and I long to drink the Kool-Aid. Two tours in Iraq, once as an Infantry officer, once as a Civil Affairs officer supporting a PRT. Now it's civilian development work in Afghanistan since 2009. I want to believe, it's just that the lies are so laughable.

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{ 4 comments }

Adigine May 13, 2013 at 3:41 am

Honestly, why be so snarky with your analysis? It’s obvious that the ISAF don’t buy their own press about security, but rather are cynically producing reports of progress with whatever metrics they can muster. They are consciously sanitizing a daunting truth, yes, but you are doing nothing to expose that truth. You are not reporting on hidden facets of the ISAF exit strategy that genuinely need to be brought to light. You are simply writing sarcasm-laden columns that report what everyone (everyone in Registan’s small readership, at least) already knows – including Dunford himself. If anything, Dunford isn’t naive (living in a Cotton Candy Palace, as you say) for writing this stuff; you are either naive or wantonly dismissive of him for not acknowledging that he is writing it cynically because he is compelled to by the circumstances.

This is a broader problem with Registan’s regular posters, of course. I get the sense that this blog is fueled more by resentment of successful flacks like Alexander Cooley than by a real collective mandate to inform. I follow your blog despite the massive inferiority complex that seems to pervade every second post, but I sincerely wish I didn’t have to wince so often as I read it.

Rather than write snarky commentary, why not offer a level headed analysis of the factors driving this disconnect between the ISAF’s optimism and the situation on the ground? Frankly, those factors are themselves quite obvious and generally known to your readership, but as someone with first-hand experience of the situation, I would expect that you would have deeper insights into this disconnect that someone like me would actually find informative.

Sunny in Kabul May 28, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Your question here:

Rather than write snarky commentary, why not offer a level headed analysis of the factors driving this disconnect between the ISAF’s optimism and the situation on the ground? Frankly, those factors are themselves quite obvious and generally known to your readership, but as someone with first-hand experience of the situation, I would expect that you would have deeper insights into this disconnect that someone like me would actually find informative.

If those factors are so obvious, then what’s the point of yet another analysis of those factors? I’m snarky because otherwise I’d have to drink heavily and probably throw stuff to get through the days here. If I wrote what I genuinely felt about what we’ve done to this country, I’d regularly be rocking myself to sleep in a corner. That, and there are plenty of writers out there doing that kind of analysis. Snark and sarcasm are things I’m good at, and I like to think that underneath the cynicism people might actually learn something about what’s going on here. I may be overly optimistic with that, but I don’t think so.

I don’t resent the fabulists and flacks. If I’m lucky, someday someone’s going to pay me to do this for a living. Which, would be a hoot. So I don’t resent their success. I do resent the fact that so much of the time they put out truly awful information, and my greatest fear is that those individuals are going to be responsible for our next International Intervention Extravaganza. Which, they generally are, and that does actually keep me awake at night.

And frankly, I believe ISAF (or some of them) do buy their own press. I’ve met several who aren’t true believers, but they generally get shouted down by the purveyors of the Kool-Aid. I’m neither “naive” nor am I “wantonly dismissive” of COMISAF. He’s not writing cynically. He’s writing politically. Whether he believes it or not is a question I can’t answer.

Thanks for reading!

hamdard May 31, 2013 at 10:07 am

“Honestly, why be so snarky with your analysis?” – Amen to that! I used to come here to read some decent analysis; and now it is all ‘look at me I am so smart, I caught this, while everyone else is looking at the upside-down map of what they call UsPakistan…’

Sunny in Kabul June 6, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Think I’ve covered the “why,” but feel free to not see it as analysis.

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