Permissible Arms

Pressure Drop (Upcoming Afghan Elections)

Posted in afghanistan by Karaka on 7 September 2010

Hope the Americans enjoyed their Labor Day as much as I did–with family, friends, and a barbecue in the backyard. Posting has been spotty as I’ve been working on some projects behind the curtain, but I hope to bear the fruits of those labors soon.

Stories of interest:

Afghans to handle most security for Sept. 18 election.

Afghan soldiers and police will take the lead securing provincial elections later this month with international forces backing them up, according to the International Security Assistance Force.

“These elections are Afghan-led, Afghan-run and the Afghan National Security Forces have the lead in providing election security throughout the nation,” Air Force Capt. Will Powell, an ISAF public affairs officer, said in an e-mail this week.

Afghan National Police will be responsible for protecting voters at polling centers while the Afghan National Army secures nearby neighborhoods and roads, he said.

“It’s a critical step in the development of both the Afghan Security Forces, but also the country as a whole, for the people to see and develop trust and confidence in their own security agencies,” he said.

This is good news and good press, especially in light of the failed ANSF mission last month. Putting an Afghan face on Afghan security operations is exactly what ISAF has been working towards, and what ANSF are beginning to claim. Speaking of, this parliamentary election has the greatest number of women running for an elected position in the short history of Afghanistan’s democracy. To my utter lack of surprise, however, those female candidates and those that support them are finding their experience to be a very dangerous one. Women running for Afghanistan parliament now have tougher time:

But not since the five-year reign of the Taliban, which ended in 2001, have female candidates faced such intense political intimidation, the women say. Less than two weeks before the balloting, many are deeply frustrated by their inability to get out and connect with voters, particularly in rural areas.

Even in Kabul, the capital, where campaign posters showing women’s faces are tolerated, the electoral placards are sometimes defaced with marks and slashes. But in villages where the Taliban is active, campaign workers are often too frightened to put them up.

Female candidates and their supporters receive a stream of threatening phone calls. Large campaign rallies are almost unheard of, because voters and office-seekers alike fear suicide bombings. Terrified family members sometimes plead with would-be lawmakers to drop out of the race, and some have heeded the call.

The respect I have for those candidates–both male and female–who are pursuing this election at risk to themselves, their families, and their colleagues is unparalleled. Not to be too starry-eyed, but this is pioneerism in action. I hope election day comes quickly and with fewer casualties.

Also on the election, Scott Worden’s piece on Afghan election fraud provides some good context:

The main question, then, is not whether the parliamentary election will be clean, but what the consequences of another highly flawed election will be.

To assess the potential damage that significant irregularities in the parliamentary elections could cause, it is useful to consider the fraud that occurred in the provincial council vote in 2009. While the dispute over the presidential race dominated international headlines and absorbed most of the diplomatic energy devoted to rescuing the legitimacy of the process, the provincial council elections involved the same constituencies as this year’s elections and were equally if not more flawed. Both ballot stuffing and counterfeit tally sheets skewed the results in many of the provinces. But because the provincial councils, like the parliament, involve dozens of candidates running for multiple seats in the same constituency, the patterns of fraud are more difficult for outsiders to detect.

Voters and candidates within a province know, however, when a vote has been stolen when the list of winners is announced. Does one family or tribe dominate the list? Are certain ethnic groups left out? Did the winning margin for a controversial candidate come from only one polling center where there was violence on election day and no-one showed up to vote? This puts a premium on having a fair and transparent dispute resolution process that has both domestic and international support.

This election has the potential to right some wrongs (and should a strong parliament emerge, also act as a needed check on Karzai’s rather unilateral power–shall we take bets on parliament strength? No? Yeah, that’s what I thought, too) and do some image scrubbing internationally for the Afghan political process; but it also has the very real potential to go horribly, heinously wrong.

Finally, Sharifullah Sahak’s piece in the NYT At War blog, A Pashtun Writes, provides some heady insight into the Afghan electorate going into this month’s elections. He’s writing on the execution of the pregnant window by the Taliban early last month.

I felt anger that the authorities weren’t able to protect her. The Taliban have no right to judge her. The government should protect her, but cannot in such areas.

And I felt confused, as all Afghans do, at how many different laws our people have to live under – the laws of their tribe, or of the Taliban, or of the government. The laws should protect her, but we have so many different laws.

A lot of people probably read about that story and thought, No wonder, they’re just Afghans, or They’re just Pashtuns, what do you expect of such savages?

Well I’m an Afghan, and I am also a Pashtun, and I think what they did, whether it was in the name of religion or tribal custom or whatever, was wrong and horrible.

And I am neither the only Afghan who feels that way, nor the only Pashtun who finds the Taliban’s actions to be extreme. There are many savages in our country, it’s true, because war makes life safe for savages and unsafe for educated people.

It is very easy for those of us in the west to discuss and analyze the political implications of the upcoming elections–myself included–but I have found time and time again that the most pertinent voices are from Afghans themselves who have access to a public voice.

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Embrace the Frago

This NYT op-ed by Ross Douthat is my pick for read of the day.

Here is the grim paradox of America’s involvement in Afghanistan: The darker things get and the more setbacks we suffer, the better the odds that we’ll be staying there indefinitely.

Not the way we’re there today, with 90,000 American troops in-theater and an assortment of NATO allies fighting alongside. But if the current counterinsurgency campaign collapses, it almost guarantees that some kind of American military presence will be propping up some sort of Afghan state in 2020 and beyond. Failure promises to trap us; success is our only ticket out.

Why? Because of three considerations. First, the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Second, the continued presence of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan’s northwest frontier, which makes it difficult for any American president to contemplate giving up the base for counterterrorism operations that Afghanistan affords. Third, the larger region’s volatility: it’s the part of the world where the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists is most likely to become a reality, so no American president can afford to upset the balance of power by pulling out and leaving a security vacuum behind.

This explains why the Obama administration, throughout all its internal debates and strategic reviews, hasn’t been choosing between remaining in Afghanistan and withdrawing from the fight. It’s been choosing between two ways of staying.

Yes. Yes, this. Yes, for a clear explanation of why the whole McChrystal situation was not, and never could be, the Administration’s argument for a change in policy or an argument for withdrawal (I’m looking at you, Mr. Bacevich). By choosing General Petraeus, Obama fully reinforced his commitment to his strategy, because there was no other tenable option. Not for any kind of timetable of withdrawal, even if, as has been suggested, Petraeus is on the side of those who soft-ball the 07-2011 deadline. But setting that aside, any reasonable, high-number withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan is dependent on adhering to a policy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region that account for the problems of counterterrorism+ Douthat outlines in his piece above:

  1. Bargains, especially bargains with people who only desire power and money, fail. And when they fail, they fail hard.
  2. Prioritizing civilian security is a necessity to prevent the genesis of further insurgents. Counterterrorism racks up a higher body count than counterinsurgency, because the priority is the valuing of killing an insurgent (or terrorist) rather than the valuing of civilian lives.
  3. Plan B (counterterrorism+) sucks, because it relies heavily on points 1 and 2 to succeed in order to leverage withdrawal of troops. But points 1 and 2 are unlikely to succeed, which is why the administration went with Plan A (counterinsurgency) in the first place.

And to that list I would add a fourth:

    4. Whatever happens, the US is probably going to retain a presence in Afghanistan for a long, long time, whether the country has been pacified or not. See also: Kuwait, South Korea, Germany, Japan.

That is the real underlying point that generally goes unsaid. The US is unlikely to cede the strategic benefit of staying in Afghanistan, not when it offers access to the Middle East and to China. If you look down the barrel of the M-14 to ten years from now, I am certain there will still be US troops in Afghanistan. Whether they’re still engaged in counterinsurgency or have made the biggest FOB a more permanent home, some strategist in a Pentagon basement has a transition plan that doesn’t include full-scale withdrawal. And that has to be taken into consideration when the squabbling about how best to operate in Afghanistan and the unlikely course of withdrawal is discussed.

Just turn off your phone. It’s not that hard.

I don’t care if the Army said it was nifty keen, I can’t get this stupid Lady Gaga song OUT OF MY HEAD and I’m blaming it on paratroopers.

Of note: Stephen McInerney’s article on budget & appropriations for the Middle East in 2011. His analysis notes the increases in funding for Yemen, the withdrawal of support to Iraq in line with the withdrawal of assets and personnel, and the continued increase in funding to Afghanistan/Pakistan. The URL itself is actually a nice brief on Obama’s budget submission, but there’s a longer PDF as well. Shadi Hamid at Democracy Arsenal responds, noting the Problem of Egypt.

USAID has released a couple of reports of note, including a report on internally displaced persons in Iraq, and human resources and logistical support in Afghanistan (both PDF). The GAO has also released Operation Iraqi Freedom: Actions Needed to Facilitate the Efficient Drawdown of U.S. Forces and Equipment from Iraq, which is sure to be a scintillating read, and a report on the problems of aid and contracting in Iraq and Afganistan (both PDF, more at Diplopundit).

Break the Kandahar Mafia:

It’s even worse than that, according to an in-depth poll of Kandahar residents completed last month for the U.S. and ISAF command. Conducted by U.S. Army human terrain teams, the poll found that corruption is viewed as “a widespread problem,” and that “most people have sympathy for the reasons AGEs (anti-government elements, i.e., the Taliban) take up arms against the government.”

A majority of the 1,994 people surveyed said a lack of security was their biggest problem, and that they felt danger mostly from Afghan army and police checkpoints and convoys.

The poll found “almost universal agreement that negotiation with the Taliban is preferable to continued fighting.”

At leas the Human Terrain Teams are working? I feel like my comparison of Ahmed Wali Karzai to Don Corleone is a little more on the nose now. From the Washington Post, the US is shoring up support the actual, technical governor of Kandahar:

In the hope of pushing power brokers such as Karzai to the sidelines, American officials are trying to infuse Wesa and his government with more clout and credibility. They see better governance as a central part of a U.S.-led effort that has brought thousands of troops to the region for a summer offensive against the Taliban.

But the government headed by Wesa has severe problems of its own. It remains understaffed, is viewed by many as corrupt and does not reflect the province’s tribal mix. Karzai and other allegedly corrupt political bosses who dominate Kandahar show no sign of giving way.

“Wesa is a weak governor,” said Rahmatullah Raufi, a former general and Kandahar governor. “If Ahmed Wali Karzai wants him to die, he will die. If he says, ‘Live,’ he’ll live.”

Isn’t that something. If it looks like a warlord, quacks like a warlord, it must be…

AP via Stars & Stripes covers the perils of contracting in Afghanistan:

Afghan companies often bid on projects that they don’t have the money or skills to complete, Wilson said. Quality inspectors end up teaching the basics of drainage or safe electrical wiring.

Small Afghan companies are also under more pressure to pay bribes to local authorities than large international firms, Wilson said. The military has received invoices for as much as $40,000 from Afghan contractors for bogus building permits, he said. International companies either have the power to say no or don’t even try to get their money back from the military.

On NATO bases, hours are also lost each day getting Afghan workers through security.

Despite the problems, Wilson says the “Afghan First” program is the right approach given the new focus on winning over the population. The problem is that this year, in the midst of a troop surge, there’s just too much to build.

Makes you wonder how much of the appropriations for Afghanistan in the budget above will actually be used for stated purposes.

Anthony Cordesman issued a pointed critique of the Obama administration’s communications efforts (or lack thereof) on Afghanistan et cetera via CSIS; some good notes, though I wonder what, if anything, Cordesman might have changed if this had been released after the Afghanistan report instead of before.

In addition to his whirlwind speaking schedule, Secdef Gates published an article in the May/June Foreign Affairs, Helping Others Defend Themselves (PDF). It effectively articulates what Gates (and presumably Clinton) would like to see change in the duration of their time with the Obama administration, perhaps in part from the conclusion of the QDR and QDDR.

The United States now recognizes that the security sectors of at-risk countries are really systems of systems tying together the military, the police, the justice system, and other governance and oversight mechanisms. As such, building a partner’s overall governance and security capacity is a shared responsibility across multiple agencies and departments of the U.S. national security apparatus — and one that requires flexible, responsive tools that provide incentives for cooperation. Operations against extremist groups in the Philippines and, more recently, Yemen have shown how well-integrated training and assistance efforts can achieve real success.

But for all the improvements of recent years, the United States’ interagency tool kit is still
a hodgepodge of jury-rigged arrangements constrained by a dated and complex patchwork of authorities, persistent shortfalls in resources, and unwieldy processes. The National Security Act that created most of the current interagency structure was passed in 1947, the last major legislation structuring how Washington dispenses foreign assistance was signed by President John F. Kennedy, and the law governing U.S. exports of military equipment was passed in 1976. All the while, other countries that do not suffer from such encumbrances have been more quickly funding projects, selling weapons, and building relationships.

Yemen, Yemen, Yemen. The Martha Brady of insurgency-riddled nations. Anyway, I’m curious to see what Gates says in his next speech–he seems to be on something of a campaign. Also, let me point out this rebuttal of Gates’ Navy League speech from Brian McGrath at Information Dissemination; it’s a point by point response, and really gets into the meat of what Gates is proposing.

I don’t have the brain for post titles today.

Posted in afghanistan, pakistan, united states, us military, us politics by Karaka on 28 October 2009

I’m still pretty shattered, so I apologise for not blogging in my usual form, but right now I’m pretty happy that I can read again instead of staring blankly at the wall, so please forgive my brevity. Two things of note:

I don’t think anyone is shocked to learn that Pres. Karzai’s brother is likely on the CIA’s payroll:

Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade, gets regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has for much of the past eight years, according to current and former American officials.

The agency pays Mr. Karzai for a variety of services, including helping to recruit an Afghan paramilitary force that operates at the C.I.A.’s direction in and around the southern city of Kandahar, Mr. Karzai’s home.

The financial ties and close working relationship between the intelligence agency and Mr. Karzai raise significant questions about America’s war strategy, which is currently under review at the White House.

But I do wonder at the timing of the story. It breaks just as the processes for the 7 November runoff began, illuminating the ties between the US and the Karzai family, and seems to undermine those relationships in odd ways. Food for thought, anyway.

Drew Brown at S&S published an article on Stryker colours Monday that I had noted because the framing of it interested me: More than six years after sending the first Stryker armored vehicles into desert combat, the Army has decided that it’s probably a good idea to start painting them tan so they will blend in with the environments in Afghanistan and Iraq. And then also: But with the war in Afghanistan heating up, soldiers with a Stryker unit there welcomed the news — even if it has taken more than five years for the Army to make the change.

It’s kind of an odd way to criticize the decision, and Michael Yon seems to agree:

The story is datelined to Zabul Province, Afghanistan, and true enough, the color out there should be desert brown. (Or perhaps, in some places at some times, white.) But elsewhere in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, civilians mostly live near water, so colors around their homes generally are green during the green months. In Afghanistan, the “Green Zone” (GZ) is the area around the rivers and lakes, and much or possibly most of the fighting occurs in these green areas. The enemy fights more when the GZ is green than during the winter brown.

Just as important, predicting camouflage needs for Strykers can be incredibly difficult. Stryker units tend to get moved around more than other combat units because Stryker units can project so much force quickly. Afghanistan’s geography doesn’t help: Down in the Helmand River valley where Brits, Danes, Yanks, and others are fighting, you can go from strict GZ to 100 percent desert-brown conditions in just a few seconds. The border between verdant and seemingly endless cardboard brown is usually only the width of an unpaved road — literally, a line in the sand and rocks. One side of the road can be dry as bone, while just meters away on the other side of the road, the mud tries to suck the boots off your feet. (The Brits have the opposite problem; they have very good desert-brown camouflage, but do most of their fighting in the GZ.)

Also, even if brown is a better overall camouflage for Afghanistan — though this is unclear even to many experienced soldiers and me — it is unfair to imply (by datelining the story to Zabul Province and referring to more than six years of Strykers in desert combat) that the Army has had Strykers there during the entire war. The first rotation of Strykers to Afghanistan arrived only some months ago; before that, they were in use only in Iraq.

Anyway, thought it was interesting.

Finally, from Nightwatch yesterday, this analysis of Pakistani politics is well worth reading:

In 2008, as part of the election compact with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Zardari agreed to repeal Musharraf’s measures to re-engineer the government. Zardari apparently has enjoyed the power, but not the accountability. In addition his abuses of patronage have eroded respect for the elected government, whose chief executive is Prime Minister Gilani, not the president, who is head of state. Zardari has promised to honor his promises on this issue in the past, but this is the first time his Information Minister has spoken as his agent to a national audience. Still, seeing is believing in the case of Zardari.

The move would have implications on many levels, assuming Zardari executes this undertaking. For example, it would restore the National Assembly to its Westminster roots in which the legislative and executive powers of the government reside in the National Assembly.

The Presidency would revert to its British model, of a ceremonial figurehead. That would pretty much nullify an enormous amount of diplomatic energy during the past two years devoted to persuading Zardari, instead of trying to persuade Prime Minister Gilani.

Military hostility to Zardari – for example, for having misstated in public in 2008 Pakistan’s strategic nuclear weapons use policy — would become pointless and misdirected. Reversion to a ceremonial presidency would relieve military pressure for political change. In other words, it would reduce the threat of a military coup or other action against the President.

It would complicate foreign diplomatic initiatives which would need to be redirected to the parliament (National Assembly). The Presidential system is convenient as a one stop shop, compared to the parliamentary system.

Finally, it would give direction to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s political ambitions. In a strong presidential system, Nawaz must court the provincial legislators as well as the national assembly because in combination they make up the electoral college for the president. In a restored parliamentary system, Nawaz only needs to get elected to the National Assembly. From there he can do all that would be necessary to become prime minister, including changing constitutional term limits on holding the office of the prime minister.

And now I crawl back into bed.

Rights, civil and federal

Posted in afghanistan, kuwait, us military by Karaka on 21 October 2009

In all the fuss about Senator Kerry’s work to get Karzai to accept a runoff, it’s been interesting to note that Special Rep. Holbrooke hasn’t really been present:

Mr. Holbrooke’s absence on the world stage in recent weeks has raised questions about his role going forward.

His staff offers a simple answer: The famed 68-year-old diplomat who helped broker the Dayton accords that ended the Bosnian conflict in 1995 has been in Washington helping to preside over the president’s monthlong Afghanistan strategy review.

He has provided the White House with much of the information reviewed at a series of war council meetings, according to those involved.

“His job is [in Washington] right now,” said Ashley Bommer, Mr. Holbrooke’s spokeswoman at the State Department.

The article is a little hyperbolic, but it’s one of the few I’ve seen mentioning Holbrooke on this issue at all. With all five of President Obama’s internal war-room reviews concluded (enough to send Secdef Gates off in search of other assurances), one wonders if Holbrooke is going to make in back in time for the 7 November runoff, and when the White House will announce the results of this policy confab.

Elsewhere, Paula Broadwell’s op-ed in the NYT yesterday (crossposted to KOW, h/t akinoluna for the link, who also has a practical, clear-eyed assessment of Broadwell’s suggestions) is predictably making…no waves, as far as I can tell. Which is a shame, because I think she makes some well-thought points:

However, the persistent threat of counterinsurgencies combined with evidence of women’s proven effectiveness in such situations serve as powerful reasons for updating the law.

The U.S. military’s Central Command recently published a “Memorandum of Law Concerning Women in Combat Support Operations.” It explicitly condones the use of the F.E.T.’s. The Defense Department’s general counsel is scheduled to consider the matter in the near future.

For now, these F.E.T. initiatives are confined to the Marines and there are relatively few women available for these jobs — only 6 percent of Marine Corps personnel are women. Moreover, given the ad hoc nature of the teams — F.E.T. members have “day jobs,” serving as logisticians or intelligence officers or in other vital positions — their commanders are often understandably reticent to give up an individual for an additional duty.

To quote akinoluna:

She never actually says it, but all the talk about how female Marines in FETs have “day jobs” and have to “find time” for the extra training and how their commanders are reluctant to release them to join a FET, it seems like she could be implying that it’s time to train female Marines specifically for FET-like jobs.

It makes sense. It’s not good to pull Marines from one important job to work at another important job: you might be causing them to work abnormally long hours and you’re definitely forcing someone else to pick up the slack at their original job when they aren’t around.

There’s also no reason why the Marine Corps can’t do it.

Indeed.

In Afghanistan, thirty-one certified midwives graduated from an 18-month programme [Pajhwok]:

One midwife named Fahima said she would use her knowledge in serving mothers and children in rural areas. “I have a huge responsibility on my shoulders, because most of the treatment in rural areas is traditional and unhygienic.”

There is no way to understate the difference modern medical knowledge can make to rural ob/gyn needs. Even rudimentary knowledge can be the difference between a successful pregnancy/birth and an unsuccessful one.

And in Kuwait, women were granted the right to pursue a passport of their own volition [BBC]:

The country’s first female MPs were elected in May 2009.

The article abolished by the court dated back to Kuwait’s 1962 passport law which required a husband’s signature on a woman’s passport application.

Aseel al-Awadhi, one of the new MPs, welcomed the passport law ruling as a “victory for constitutional principles that puts an end to this injustice against Kuwaiti women”.

Meanwhile, it looks like the pope might have a place for me if I ever give up my lapsed Anglican ways and wish to return to the fold. Unlikely, but it’s nice to have options.

Monday Reading

Posted in afghanistan, american media, iran, united nations, united states, us politics by Karaka on 19 October 2009

Things I’m reading this morning:

Steve Coll’s piece in this week’s New Yorker:

A second round of voting now looks probable; it could help calm the country, or it could make things worse. In any event, the election is not yet an utter catastrophe. Two years ago, in Kenya, Mwai Kibaki allegedly stole his reëlection to the Presidency, and the country erupted in mass riots and militia killings. In June, Iran’s fraud-riddled vote ignited a protest movement with revolutionary ambitions. In Afghanistan, despite possibly decisive fraud, the opposition has barely thrown a rock. Abdullah Abdullah, the aggrieved second-place finisher, just holds press conferences in his garden.

It goes without saying that Afghans have had enough of violence. Abdullah’s restraint signals a broader, resilient desire among many political and tribal leaders to avoid having their country descend into chaos again. This is the opening that American policy has repeatedly failed to grasp since the Taliban’s fall in late 2001: an opportunity to reject the false expediency of warlords and indispensable men, in favor of deepening participatory, Afghan-led political reform and national reconciliation.

Christopher Hitchens on Iran:

So backward has the theocracy made its wretched country that it is even vulnerable to sanctions on refined petroleum, for heaven’s sake. Unlike neighboring secular Turkey, which has almost no oil but is almost qualified—at least economically—to join the European Union, Iran is as much a pistachio-and-rug-exporting country as it was when the sadistic medievalists first seized power. So it wouldn’t be surprising in the least if a regime that has no genuine respect for science and no internal self-critical feedback had screwed up its rogue acquisition of modern weaponry. A system in which nothing really works except the military and the police will, like North Korea, end up producing somewhat spastic missiles and low-yield nukes, as well.

But spastic missiles and low-yield nukes can still ruin the whole day of a neighboring state, as well as make a travesty of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and such international laws and treaties as are left to us. Thus, if it is true that Iran is not as close to “break-out” as we have sometimes feared, should that not make our deliberations more urgent rather than less? Might it not mean, in effect, that now is a better time to disarm the mullahs than later?

Juan Cole on Pakistan:

In other words, this military campaign is not just a matter of troops versus guerrillas. It is becoming a rallying point for Muslim radicals, with volunteers coming in from Afghanistan and others from madrasahs from all over Pakistan — and with Pakistan’s own security hanging in the balance.

Tariq took responsibility for the recent horrific bombings in the Punjabi city of Lahore, which targeted Pakistani security forces, thus claiming that South Waziristan had a very long reach into the rest of the country.

Pakistani security forces also arrested some 300 Afghans on Sunday.

David Rohde’s account of being held by the Afghan Taliban:

Eight days earlier, a Taliban faction had kidnapped me along with an Afghan journalist, Tahir Luddin, and our driver, Asad Mangal, during a reporting trip just outside Kabul. The faction’s commander, a man who called himself Atiqullah, had lied to us. He had said we were being moved to southern Afghanistan and would be freed.

Instead, on Nov. 18, we arrived in Pakistan’s tribal areas, an isolated belt of Taliban-controlled territory. We were now in “the Islamic emirate” — the fundamentalist state that existed in Afghanistan before the 2001 American-led invasion. The loss of thousands of Afghan, Pakistani and American lives and billions in American aid had merely moved it a few miles east, not eliminated it.

Through seven years of reporting in the region, I had pitied captives imprisoned here. It was arguably the worst place on earth to be an American hostage. The United States government had virtually no influence and was utterly despised.

Since 2004, dozens of missiles fired by American drones had killed hundreds of militants and civilians. The Taliban had held Afghan, Pakistani and foreign hostages in the area for years, trading lives for ransom and executions for publicity.

“We’re in Pakistan,” I said out loud in the car, venting my anger.

Elisabeth Bumiller’s presentation/reporting on Afghanistan, thirty years ago:

Afghans and Americans alike describe the country in those days as a poor nation, but one that built national roads, stood up an army and defended its borders. As a monarchy and then a constitutional monarchy, there was relative stability and by the 1960s a brief era of modernity and democratic reform. Afghan women not only attended Kabul University, they did so in miniskirts. Visitors — tourists, hippies, Indians, Pakistanis, adventurers — were stunned by the beauty of the city’s gardens and the snow-capped mountains that surround the capital.

“I lived in Afghanistan when it was very governable, from 1964 to 1974,” said Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who met recently in Kabul with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan. Mr. Gouttierre, who spent his decade in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer, a Fulbright scholar and the national basketball team’s coach, said, “I’ve always thought it was one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Kabul, 1977 (William Borders/NYT)

Kabul, 1977 (William Borders/NYT)

Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn’s report of living in Kandahar from Foreign Policy:

This is our life, and as the only two Westerners living permanently in Kandahar without blast walls and intrusive security restrictions to protect us, it has been a mix of isolation, boredom, disarmingly potent realizations, and outright depression in the face of what is happening. In our 18 months here, we have witnessed up close the ruinous consequences of a conflict in which no party has clean hands. We have spent countless hours talking with people of all persuasions in Kandahar, from mujahedeen who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s, to guerrillas who fought alongside the Taliban in the 1990s, to Afghans who fight against the Kabul government and foreign forces today. And we have learned that Kandahar defies simple categorization; far more understanding is necessary before we can appreciate how (and how many) mistakes have been made by the Western countries waging war here, let alone begin crafting a vision for the future.

Our Kandahar has many faces, though, not all branded by conflict. Life here is also about swimming in the nearby Arghandab River, enjoying the cool caramel taste of sheer yakh, and sitting among the branches of a friend’s pomegranate orchard. It’s listening to tales of the past 30 years told by those who directly influenced the course of history, and it’s watching the traditional atan dance at wedding celebrations.

Stalemate In Perpetua

Posted in afghanistan, isaf by Karaka on 14 October 2009

Yesterday–and it’s still technically yesterday!–Spencer Ackerman posted about AJ Rossmiller’s new column in TNR. I said this in reply to Spencer’s post:

You know, I read this post over my morning coffee, Rossmiller’s over my bagel, and this guest post over at Ricks on the second cup of coffee; and after a couple hours digesting it, I’m still on the damn fence.

I agree in principle with what you’re saying here, but I guess I’m just not entirely convinced that reconciliation will actually, necessarily work in the interests of US national security or in the interests of the Afghan citizenry. It’s a way to get out faster; but I’m not sure it’s the best way to leave.

And Spencer asked me to pull it apart a little more, so I took the thought to my pub and over a pint of Open Bridge Brown I sorted it out a bit.

So, we’re talking about the political reconciliation of the Afghan Taliban with the current established Afghan government. My inclination is to think that such a reconciliation is not the best course of action. I came up with four reasons why.

ONE. ISAF is already present in Afghanistan. If McCrystal’s Assessment is adopted to reaching US/NATO goals in AFG, forces will probably be present in country for at least four to five years more. It seems credible that civilian forces working to reduce corruption in the established government would be a better alternative to inviting our declared enemy into a legitimate role in the government it purports to hate and rebel against; reconciliation only works if there is power-sharing, and there is no indication that the AFG Taliban are interested in sharing power at all.

TWO. Prior to 2009, ISAF was fighting (to the best of my knowledge) a counterterrorism campaign in AFG. I don’t think we can accurately predict the martial outcome of COIN in country, since it hasn’t been practiced to full effect yet; and if COIN proves more effective at fighting the Taliban, political reconciliation becomes less attractive and perhaps less necessary. I don’t see an effective argument suing for reconciliation before COIN has taken a stab at reducing the insurgent threat. Though, I have seen the argument for reconciliation made as a pretext to withdrawing sooner rather than later, and that reaffirms my original statement that it’s a way to get out faster, but not necessarily better.

Further to that, I also think that COIN’s effectiveness could take more than one aspect, namely the reintegration of insurgents into Afghan citizenry, eroding the influence and existing political power of the Taliban, and/or a wide swathe of insurgent deaths. Even one of those things would have the effect of lessening Taliban presence and control and strengthening the central government’s legitimacy.

THREE. I don’t take the Taliban’s public claims seriously. Propaganda always means something other than what is being stated. To take the Taliban at its public word could be foolish–given last week’s bogus claim of harmlessness, it seems apparent that the Taliban’s greatest hope is getting the foreigners to leave what they consider to be their territory. They have every reason to lie or obfuscate to reach that goal.

Taking CNAS intern Kyle Flynn’s comments on Peter Bergen’s senate testimony into account (primarily because it is very recent and also something I touched on in my original response) and the Oral History of the Taliban (also recent), there is no factual reason to believe that the AFG Taliban wouldn’t re-establish their regime if given the opportunity and use that power to provide al-Qaeda with another launching pad.

The argument that al-Qaeda does not necessarily need Afghanistan to accomplish its goals is both accurate and well-heeded; but it sure does make it easier on them. Furthermore, if the US continues to have a presence in South/Central Asia–which the events of the last 18 years indicates it will–it is a matter of US influence and security to have in place a government in line with whatever democratic views we attempted to import there.

The Taliban don’t exactly fit that bill, and should they be reconciled with the current AFG government, it seems probable that they would exploit the control of the 200 districts they currently hold into a grab for political power. It would likely introduce another government, one sourced by Islamic extremism. And that’s not good for US interests even without al-Qaeda’s involvement, given the proximity of AFG to Pakistan, Iran, and India (all nuclear states).

FOUR. Probably the point most important to me, personally, is the relationship of the Taliban to the people it professes to represent and govern. The following is copied from Women Against Shariah, at the most cursory level. (That is a heartbreaking blog to read.)

* Shariah: an all-encompassing and in-transmutable system of Islamic jurisprudence, found in the Koran and the Sunnah, that covers all aspect of life, including daily routines, hygiene, familial roles and responsibilities, social order and conduct, directives on relationships with Muslims and non-Muslims, religious obligations, financial dealings and many other facets of living.

* Ird: the sexual purity of a woman that confers honor to her husband, family and community. Ird is based on the traditional standards of behavior set forth in the shariah code and includes subservience to male relatives, modest dress which could include veiling and the covering of the body, and restricted movement outside of the home. The loss of a woman’s ird confers shame upon her family and can result in ostracism by the community, economic damage, political consequences and the loss of self esteem.

* Zina: the Koranic word for sexual relations outside of marriage. Under shariah law, Zina is punished by lashings, imprisonment or stoning to death.

* Honor Killing: a murder, usually of a female, committed to restore the social and political standing of a family or community when it is believed that the victim has violated traditional behavioral expectations. Such violations can include improper covering of the body, appearing in public without a male relative chaperone, talking to an unrelated male, or exhibiting independence in thought and action. An honor killing can also be based on hearsay or gossip that is perceived as damaging to a woman’s relatives.

* Forced Marriage: a marriage that is conducted without the consent of one or both parties in which duress is a factor. Such duress can include violence or physical intimidation, psychological abuse, blackmailing, kidnapping, or threats of imprisonment or institutional confinement.

Now, there are several stripes of what WAS refers to as militant islam, but I think it’s common knowledge that the Taliban have a fairly strict interpretation of Shariah. To me, turning political power over to men who will use their power to oppress half the population is sufficient reason in and of itself to remain until the population is secured. I don’t want my heart to bleed all over this post, but it is a fundamental problem for me to consider political reconciliation with a group of people who will clearly and unabashedly utilize that power to enact and further systemic oppression of women. And given the Taliban’s grave presence in Afghanistan currently, it would arguably be a lot of political power.

That oppression, too, has the trickle down effect on Afghan children, and the various other minorities within Afghanistan.

One of the recurring arguments I have about political-ethnic divides within Afghanistan relates to the notion that because Pashtuns are the great majority in country they should be taken seriously and, I interpret, be a large political power because of their numbers–about 42% of the population. But what I find troubling about the argument from majority is that the proposed majority almost inevitably uses that power to oppress or eradicate the minorities which (seem to) threaten that power.

I find it hard to distinguish a compelling argument that suggests political reconciliation with the Taliban would not be a problem for the overall security of the Afghan people.

So, I stand by my original, more tenuous claim–political reconciliation may be the fastest way for ISAF to get out of Afghanistan, but I don’t think it’s the best. Not when it leaves several problems both in terms of US security, Afghan security, and problems both immediately and in the long-term.

That was more hawkish than I’d anticipated it being.

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