Permissible Arms

All I know is that I don’t know nothin’

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us military by Karaka on 27 April 2010

I haven’t posted about Afghanistan in awhile, due in large part to how much I was reading about it, and due in small part to, you know, not really posting much over the last several months. Afghanistan is in many ways an exercise in continued education for me. No matter how much I read, contemporary or historical, I doubt I will ever be fully versed in the subject. I just find it so damned fascinating.

For example, I had no idea until recently that bodybuilding was such a beloved sport (is it a sport? I’ve never really grasped that either, you don’t really do anything except stand and flex) in Afghanistan. I could sort of work out the attraction of hypermasculinity in such a resoundingly patriarchal culture transitioning from traditional shows of physical force into less violent ones. (That’s my armchair anthology for the day.) But it doesn’t really matter if I get it–the competition for “Mr Afghanistan” is entirely serious.


FP has several more images available here.

Say what you want about Michael Yon, but the man sure can take a bloody picture. Whatever ridiculous controversy is being stoked around him and his Facebook page–seriously?–his most recent report from Afghanistan out of Kandahar was compelling and visually stunning as always.

Speaking of Kandahar, I saw this headline from S&S and wondered if Michael Cohen was laughing darkly into his coffee this morning. Battle for Kandahar may be tougher than expected :

The drive this summer to secure Kandahar was supposed to build on the success of the much smaller Marjah operations.

But so far the U.S. and NATO haven’t achieved their goals in Marjah, military and civilian officials said, as the government has been slow to provide services and villagers have not rallied in large numbers to the Kabul-based government.

“We’re still moving forward more slowly than the people would like,” Mark Sedwill, NATO’s senior civilian representative, said on a trip to Marjah this month.

And then this morning came news of yet another in a too-long series of attacks on Western personnel in Kandahar City (good overview in this morning’s AfPak Channel brief). Ahmed Wali Karzai has declared his support for the effort, which I suppose means something coming from Don Corelone, the Afghan Variation.

This, to me, puts Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s WP article on the U.S. training Afghan villagers to fight the Taliban into some curious perspective. Bearing in mind that the Arghandab District is located just outside Kandahar City, Chandrasekaran writes:

The goal was to win support for a program that was hatched at a Pentagon City sports bar last year by Special Forces Lt. Col. David S. Mann and Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. political scientist who focuses on Afghanistan. They questioned whether the United States and NATO were missing an opportunity by concentrating so many resources on building up the national police, the army and other formal institutions, arguing that the Afghans should try to re-create the informal village-level defense forces that existed in parts of the country when it was a monarchy.

Mann and Jones’s plan, which senior U.S. commanders endorsed, seeks to allay fears that the effort will breed militias: The forces are not paid or given weapons, and to minimize the risk of warlordism, they are supposed to be under the authority of a group of tribal elders — not just one person.

-and-

It has taken three months of intense effort by one detachment to turn around — for the moment — just one village. Although there are several dozen detachments in Afghanistan, not all of them could be reassigned to this task. And even if a few dozen villages were flipped, it might not have the hoped-for strategic impact.

Among members of the village defense force here, however, questions of growth are less important than what happens once the flow of U.S. cash ends. Will the group demobilize? Or will it, like so many other armed outfits in Afghanistan’s history, morph into something larger and more troublesome?

Nasarullah, the local elder, insists that he does not have the money, or the desire, to sustain the effort himself. Even the members do not regard their current roles as a permanent occupation. Some said they would like to join the police. Others said they will go back to their farms.

“I am only doing this for my village,” said Zahir Jan, who owns a small shop in Kandahar that he has entrusted to his brother while he serves in the defense force. “I am looking forward to the day I can put my gun down. But that day has not arrived.”

I finally bought a copy of Burgoyne and Marckwardt’s Defense of Jisr Al Doreaa, and read The Fifth Dream this morning on my way to work. The last lesson of the chapter is succint and to the point:

16. Transition is primary! To achieve lasting success, the security and government functions of your area of operations must be transferred to local security forces and local government officials.

Now, most any response would note that those local security forces are probably supposed to be a nation’s police force rather than armed neighbourhood watch programmes. But does the Special Forces outfit have the right idea in this particular situation? Still contemplating that one.

Meanwhile in Kandahar City, COIN and humanitarian aid do their slightly awkward dance while trying to keep the lights on for the city’s residents.

USAID officials have asked military commanders to deploy more troops to the Kajaki area so construction can resume. But the question of whether the dam should be a focus for military forces centers on different interpretations of what it means to protect the population, the buzz phrase of counterinsurgency strategy. To the military, it means concentrating troops where the people are — in and around Kandahar. But to some civilians, it makes sense to put forces in less-populous areas if they can secure an important public resource.

Military and civilian officials also remain divided over whether increasing electricity in Kandahar will have a substantial effect on the security situation there. Military officers in southern Afghanistan maintain that if residents’ power supply increases, they will have a better opinion of their government and employment will increase, which will help to marginalize the Taliban.

The top NATO commander in southern Afghanistan, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, said increasing power in the city will produce a “head-turning moment” among residents and will lead them to rally behind the Afghan government.

I did some reading up on the Kajaki Dam last year (there are some fascinating pictures out there of the dam’s original development by the British in the 1950′s) and NPR has a decent rundown of the power (bad pun, sorry) struggles behind getting it refurbished and keeping it running, from about three years ago. Seems like this would be a COIN project clearly in line with the ideals of the doctrine, but there are a lot of different entities pulling the strings there.

All this, and then last Friday NATO and the US agreed to start handing various authority mechanisms back to the Afghan government:

“Increasingly this year the momentum will be ours,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. He said the transition to Afghan control is important to demonstrate not only to Afghans but also to the Western countries fighting there that an end to the war is in sight.

“Our aims in 2010 are clear: to take the initiative against the insurgents, to help the Afghan government exercise its sovereignty, and to start handing over responsibility for Afghanistan to the Afghans this year,” Fogh Rasmussen said. He added, however, that even if the transition unfolds as expected it will takes decades of additional assistance for Afghanistan to stand on its own.

Sedwill said the first provinces to be transferred to government control would likely be in the north and west, where the Taliban is less active. And he said the idea is to hand over a cluster of contiguous provinces at the same time to increase the odds of their withstanding the insurgents.

Clinton warned of a hard road ahead, but said she was not discouraged by the obstacles.

Honestly, doesn’t this seem rather premature? I know, I know, 2011 deadline, et cetera. But there’s withdrawing troops and there’s banking a lot on an armed national force that suffers from a lack of military resources–both in [highly-trained] personnel and adequate supplies. It makes the local neighborhood watch look a little more appealing, honestly, if a bit less rule-of-law.

From the other side of the country, Greg Jaffe filed a report on the withdrawal of US forces from the Korengal Valley that I wish had gotten a bit more attention, because it’s a window into reticence and failure in Afghanistan, and maybe a hard lesson or two about the operation of COIN from the outset of a campain.

U.S. troops arrived here in 2005 to flush out al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. They stayed on the theory that their presence drew insurgents away from areas where the U.S. role is more tolerated and there is a greater desire for development. The troops were, in essence, bullet magnets.

In 2010, a new set of commanders concluded that the United States had blundered into a blood feud with fierce and clannish villagers who wanted, above all, to be left alone. By this logic, subduing the Korengal wasn’t worth the cost in American blood.

The retreat carries risks. Insurgents could use the Korengal as a haven to plan attacks in other parts of Afghanistan. The withdrawal could offer proof to other Afghans that U.S. troops can be forced out.

The American hope is that pulling out of the Korengal rectifies a mistake and that Moretti’s troops can be put to better use stabilizing larger, less violent areas.

“You can’t force the local populace to accept you in their valley,” Moretti said. “You can’t make them want to work with us.”

Perhaps this is a case of cutting losses to focus on more troublesome spots that could turn into significant gains. Does returning Korengalis to their own authority count towards giving power back to Afghanistan? Because Korengalis sure don’t seem to have much contact with their own government. (The Big Picture published a gallery of photos taken in the Korengal Valley from 2008, which is very much from the soldier’s point of view, but is still relevant today.)

Finally, speaking of Seth Jones above (regarding the Special Forces training neighbourhood watch programmes), he has an article out in Foreign Policy this month analyzing the content of some recently published books on Afghanistan. I’m waiting for my paper copy to come into the mail, but my initial scan shows it to be interesting.

And if all this journalism on Afghanistan hasn’t stirred up something in you, well, maybe this guest post from Kabul Expat over at Registan will at least make you snort derisively in the direction of the Kabul news desks.

Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Afghanistan is big: thirty-four provinces, 30-somehting million people who are too busy embezzling and warring and plotting your death to read your article. The country is full of booming cities, small market towns, lush farmlands, fishing villages and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions stark and sinister and imprecise. Never, under any circumstances, mention peaceful areas like Bamiyan, except on those rare occasions you need a line or two about Buddha statues.

See, this is why I should post more about Afghanistan. I have too much to say. And read.

Taking a stand against whole grains and world peace

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us defense, us politics by Karaka on 27 October 2009

A couple quick links before I hit the sack:

Banned USB Drives May Get Thumbs Up:

After being banned almost a year ago as bug-infested cyber threats, thumb drives may soon be allowed to plug back into U.S. Defense Department computers and networks.

But not all thumb drives. And not for all computer users, according to Pentagon officials and industry sources.

Thumb drives were banned in November 2008 after thousands of military computers and networks became infected by worms, viruses and other malicious software. Many of the infections were traced to thumb drives, which acquired malicious software from computers or the Internet and passed them on.

The ban has been a major hassle for many who came to rely on thumb drives.

I seriously cannot imagine my life without the three thumb drives I carry with me every day.

Via Danger Room, Simon Klingert‘s photographs of medevacs in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Helmand Medevac Marines

U.S. Marine soldiers carry an injured Afghan boy towards a Medevac helicopter of Charly Company, 3rd Battlion 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade in the Garmser district of Helmand province, Afghanistan, August 26, 2009

Finally, I don’t always take the National Security Expert blog terribly seriously, because in a sea of wankiness their topic discussions always stand out as being particularly wanky, but I noted this week’s panel discussion. How Is Hillary Clinton Doing As Secretary Of State?

Clinton has taken charge of relations with great powers China and Russia, and is a key player in reinforcing Obama’s multilateral approach to international issues, one of the things that the Nobel committee cited in giving him the Peace Prize. People give her credit for giving this administration some spine. And she certainly is getting more resources for the State Department. David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote a piece in the Washington Post in August saying that Clinton is “rethinking the very nature of diplomacy and translating that vision into a revitalized State Department, one that approaches U.S. allies and rivals in ways that challenge long-held traditions.”

But we would like to know what you, the experts, think about Hillary’s performance so far, what she has accomplished, and what more she could or should be doing. So what kind of report card do you give Hillary Rodham Clinton so far as secretary of State? Was she a good, or bad, choice as the nation’s top diplomat?

The responses are a mixed criticism of celebritas, political history, and the minor accomplishments thus far this year; but the real point to me, that only a couple of the respondents touch on, is that ten months is too early to make grand proclamations about any staff member’s work. By elevating her performance to criticism so early on, she can’t help but fail in some respect. A bunch of dudes trying to discern trends and scry future challenges only focuses on a face rather than a mission, a person rather than the department. What’s the point?

Tuesday Errata

Relevant interesting links:

Judah Grunstein over at the WPR blog tackles the lack of response from NATO in regard to the tactical review going on in the White House. Michael Cohen also takes an angle on the McChrystal drama, and Greg Jaffe at the Washington Post does an op-ed comparing McChrystal to Petraeus.

These similarities were a big selling point for the Obama administration, which this summer decided it wanted its own Petraeus — a creative wartime commander and gifted manager who could push the military in Afghanistan into unfamiliar realms, such as economic development and tribal politics…These days, the last thing that the White House and the Pentagon brass want is a general who can bypass the chain of command; a general who speaks directly to the president; a general who emerges as the dominant American voice on the war. The last thing they want, in other words, is another Petraeus.

You know, I always find the USNI blog very interesting and educational, and today it and I wish the US Navy a happy birthday!

H/t Diplopundit for this article on the State Department’s conflict over aid to Pakistan, which continues my media watch on USAID.

Also regarding Pakistan, the Pakistani army launched its offensive today, in response to the significant array of attacks last week.

George Packer has a really interesting post about Rufus Phillps, Vietnam, and the Obama administration:

About to turn eighty, Phillips was contemplating a trip halfway around the world to Kabul. He was worried about the war in Afghanistan and thought that the presidential election, set for August 20th, would be a critical event. An independent Afghan group, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, had invited him to come over as an unpaid adviser. Having seen America try and fail to win a war without a political strategy once before, he thought he had something to contribute in Afghanistan. He asked me for advice on what to wear, what kind of cell phone to bring, how to get into the city from the airport. I asked him why he was going to put himself through it, and he replied that he believed in putting your money where your mouth is. “I’ve still got the fire,” he said as he walked me to the elevator.

Well worth your time, that.

Via S&S, AP covers the continuing conflict over the Afghan election, including the resignation of Afghan election commissioner Maulavi Mustafa Barakzai and the acknowledgment–finally–by the UN of the problems with the election process.

U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique called the resignation “regrettable” but said the U.N. continues to trust that the group will produce a fair outcome. “We have full confidence in the ECC as the important work continues,” Siddique said, adding that the U.N. “stands by the work that they are doing on behalf of the Afghan people.”

Barakzai’s resignation was the latest in a series of problems that have confounded the electoral process since the election, the first run by the Afghans since the war began in 2001.

The NYT reports that Secstate Clinton and Secdef Gates are working on the same side of the tactical review, which seems to have surprised everyone but me. I guess I was the only one who listened to that panel from GWU last week; they seemed pretty similar-spirited then.

Khaleej Times printed an op-ed by Ehsan Ahrari today (h/t SWJ) which doesn’t necessarily offer anything new to the debate, but does summarize a couple things nicely:

What most Western observers are missing when they offer their expert advice regarding Afghanistan is an absence of a strong sense of history and an understanding of the culture of that country. Stewart is an exception to 
that observation.

The decision to add more troops in Afghanistan cannot be made purely by couching it in the requirements of American domestic politics, and by viewing it from the perspective of what is appropriate and acceptable inside the United States. I say that because, as more troops are inserted in Afghanistan, that will be seen as an evidence of commitment by outsiders, but not necessarily by the Afghans. They need more persuading than mere escalation troops for now.

The abruptness by which the United States left Afghanistan after the redeployment of the Soviet troops in 1989 leaves them no reason to believe that we are likely to stay there. This time there is no much difference. All they have to do is to watch the current debate regarding Afghanistan inside the United States.

Mind you, I am not questioning the legitimacy of these debates. They are quite genuine in the sense that, before more US young men and women are sent there and before more money is invested, we need to debate the nature of our commitment. However, that is precisely why the Afghans are skeptical that we mean to stay there for a long while this time.

And there went my Tuesday morning.

Maybe we should all go underground

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, pakistan, us military, us politics by Karaka on 7 October 2009

A quick rundown of what I’ve been reading this week:

Sameer Lalwani and Peter Bergen’s op-ed in the NYT last week is both timely and worth noting; as Specrep Holbrooke develops a more active military presence in Afghanistan, as he seems likely to do, this could effectively pay for the training–and eventual security–of the ANA and ANSF in the nation.

Nicholas Schmidle’s article in the Fall ’09 issue of WAJ, Talibanistan: The Talibs at Home. This too is timely, as discussion ramps up about what to do in Pakistan as much as in Afghanistan. More anecdotal than anything, it gives a particularly Western view into the poltics Holbrooke is wading into.

During the two years I lived in Pakistan, on a writing fellowship, I watched this process unfold. In the spring of 2006, I browsed the hashish and gun markets in Dara Adam Khel, a frontier town in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which fell to the Taliban a short time later. When I visited the Swat Valley with my wife in June of 2007, the government was as in control as it ever was; when I returned alone four months later, the Taliban had established checkpoints throughout the valley and scared off the police through a campaign of ambushes and suicide attacks.

KOW had a nice conversation starter, Strategies are Like Sausages, which dovetailed nicely with the essay put out by SWJ last month by Adam Elkus and Mark Sanfranski, Theory, Policy, and Strategy: A Conceptual Muddle. Lots of good stuff in both posts’ comment sections. Both come to more-or-less the same conclusion–that current dialogue about Afghanistan (et al) tends to conflate “strategy” with any number of other things, but most particularly practice and policy. In the case of the SWJ essay, the authors suggest that frequently a strategy is derived from an operational methodology, which is the intellectual equivalent of putting the cart before the horse. In the case of KOW, the author dissects the relationship of politics and policy in light of a given strategy. I don’t have much in response that I haven’t already said elsewhere, but this paragraph from the conclusion of the SWJ paper stuck out to me:

But the basic problem remains that policy elites increasingly lack the experience and cognitive frameworks to create strategy, and in the absence of a clear threat it is likely that the short term considerations of domestic politics and international crisis management will win out over long term strategy. It is difficult for democratic systems to produce grand strategy because of the role of interests and lobbies, the tendency of politicians, to erase the doctrines of their predecessors regardless of their utility, and the paucity of basic knowledge of strategic concepts, coaltion warfare, and strategic history.

This, by the way, is why I don’t think McChrystal was ever particularly out of line in his remarks. He was advocating a policy that took long-term operations into consideration (for a value of “long-term” that is at least longer than any American politican would like to see US forces in southwestern Asia) rather than the politics of a mid-term election process, the political picture of sending more troops, or a short term fix that would allow American forces to withdraw. He was well in line with what he had been asked to do by his superiors, in line with the strategy laid out in March; a strategy which, according to Sec Clinton, has not changed.

Speaking of Clinton, her appearance with Sec Gates at GWU earlier this week was recorded and is available streaming here; transcript here. Well worth listening to. If nothing else–and there is a lot else–this speaking engagement reflects a very different working atmosphere in the Obama administration from that of his predecessor. The candidness with with both Secretaries spoke and their support of one another spoke to that. There’s several things worth review, but here’s one of many I find interesting:

SESNO: But — but my — my question was, what are the things that the military is now doing that should be handled and are better handled by our diplomats?

CLINTON: Well, Frank, let — let me just answer that, because a lot of what happens when our military — and they’ve been doing an incredible job against a really ferocious enemy in Afghanistan, particularly along the south and along the border — without civilians, it’s very hard to make the transition from, you know, the soldier or the Marine holding the automatic weapon who has been trying to route out the Taliban to going and trying to help a farmer get enough yield out of his wheat crop so that he doesn’t want to grow poppies.

I mean, that’s — that’s, you know, an issue that is very difficult for the military to take on a sustained basis. But in the last several years, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it was young lieutenants, captains, majors, they were doing that.

They were trying to do both jobs. And at a certain point, we need to support them. And I appreciate what Bob said about how it affects — trained civilians are force multipliers. They can begin to do the civilian interaction with, you know, tribal elders and others that will help to make the environment more secure that our Marines and soldiers have helped to create.

That is pretty much my essential thesis when it comes to Afghanistan. (Why this isn’t available as a podcast is beyond me.) Use your military to establish security so that civilian presence can be installed more long term. Interestingly, Ricks reports a kind of pilot programme that might be heading in this direction:

Word at the Pentagon is that the Army is going to designate the XVIII Airborne Corps as the permanent headquarters for Afghanistan. This is part of Gen. McChrystal’s long-term plan to create a team of “Afghan Hands” who can build for several years, during multiple tours, on their experience and relationships in the country.

In order to do this, the corps headquarters will nearly double in size. At any given time, about half will be in Afghanistan and the other half back home in Fort Bragg, N.C.

Something to keep an eye on.

Tuesday Errata

I’ve been pretty deep in a couple books–Åsne Seierstad’s A Hundred and One Days, the Oxford World Classic edition of the Qur’an, and Nate Fick’s One Bullet Away. My booklist keeps growing like Tennessee kudzu; I think at last count I had sixty-three books on my “remember to buy these” list, in addition to the teetering stack crowding my desk at home.

Even so, I’ve been following a couple things–Secs. Clinton and Gates defending McChrystal from the press backlash at GWU yesterday (and Walter Pincus’ editorial from today), the news of General Petraeus’ cancer diagnosis, the escalating Pakistani response to the Word Food Program, and the face of eastern Afghanistan. I think McCrystal is taking more shit than he deserves, and that it’s easy to jump all over the new guy in charge. It sucks yet is admirable that Petraeus seems to be taking cancer in stride, though it explains his recent absence from the press. And I’m rapidly realizing the more I learn about Afghanistan, the harder it becomes to maintain any black-and-white view.

Granted, I’m a philosopher first and a blogger second, so black-and-whites aren’t really my bag; I’ve always been more comfortable living in greys. But the two books I mention above, minus the Qur’an, are two very different pictures of the same space of time in the same nation, and I’ve been trying to reconcile them with minimal success.

Also, I can’t figure out how to put the VALOUR-IT widget on this blog, and I suspect I won’t be able to unless I purchase something from WordPress, which is very annoying. Any advice, blogosphere?

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