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.

Friday Miscellany (Think long, think hard.)

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

My Afghanistan in 2050 post has been cross-posted to Feminist Philosophers, which pleases me to no end. There’s been some interesting discussion in the comments of the Chicago Boyz post as well that I’m working on parsing.

Also from that discussion, see Afghanistan 2050: A Chronic Low-Grade Sameness. Or, Each Life, A Story. by Madhu.

Ours was not a typical refugee or disaster victim virtopsy. Those we had done in Africa, in Asia, in Europe, on international hospital ships in rough and calm seas both. We only needed the scans to do those. The bodies were not ours and were disposed of as the locals or families saw fit. (Presuming the families would let us scan them. This was sometimes difficult to arrange.) From the scanned images, however, we could compile data and enter it into the open database that our physician-NGO group provided to the public. We shared our conclusions with a world-wide audience of academics, the curious, the bored, the skeptics, war proponents, human rights activists, nationalists, speculators, terrorists, cranks, freaks, perverts, politicians – whoever felt like “tuning in.”

In the “things I never expected” file, Murfreesboro, TN on The Daily Show this week. I would embed, but WordPress apparently hates anything but Youtube. Murfreesboro–where we used to shop for back-to-school clothes, and maybe hit the Red Lobster. Weird.

Andrew Bacevich’s personal missive in Salon this week about the “unmaking of a company man” seems to shed some light on his point of view, light that helps to understand something of his recent pieces, I think.

These visits to Jena and Berlin offered glimpses of a reality radically at odds with my most fundamental assumptions. Uninvited and unexpected, subversive forces had begun to infiltrate my consciousness. Bit by bit, my worldview started to crumble.

That worldview had derived from this conviction: that American power manifested a commitment to global leadership, and that both together expressed and affirmed the nation’s enduring devotion to its founding ideals. That American power, policies, and purpose were bound together in a neat, internally consistent package, each element drawing strength from and reinforcing the others, was something I took as a given. That, during my adult life, a penchant for interventionism had become a signature of U.S. policy did not — to me, at least — in any way contradict America’s aspirations for peace. Instead, a willingness to expend lives and treasure in distant places testified to the seriousness of those aspirations.

Interesting. I missed an opportunity to see Bacevich speak earlier this month, which I regret.

David Wood sort of cheerleads General Conway, or at least doesn’t criticize:

But it took the Marine Corps’ blunt-spoken commandant, Gen. James Conway, who retires this fall, to name the rhetorical fig leaf that emerges from all the comments officials have made about July 2011: the White House could order an inconsequentially small withdrawal of, say, three dozen troops — and claim it had fulfilled Obama’s promise.

“I certainly believe some American unit, somewhere in Afghanistan, will turn over responsibilities to Afghan security forces in 2011,” he told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday. But not Marines in southern Afghanistan, he said, where “it will be a few years” before any withdrawals are possible.

Seeming to call for some forthright talk from the Oval Office, the outgoing commandant added: “I sense our country is increasingly growing tired of the war, but I would remind [them] that the last of the 30,000 troops only arrived this month. I would also quote the analysis of one of my regimental commanders when asked about the pace of the war. He said, ‘We can either lose fast or win slow.’ ” The upshot of all this hedging and backtracking, together with the steady drumbeat of sobering news from Afghanistan, is that a general understanding is emerging in Washington that July 2011 may come and go without any significant troop reductions, and perhaps without any troop reductions at all.

Conway spent the last week and a half going off without a filter, for which one might rightly be wary of engaging in his claims, but I do think there’s a fair assessment here of where ISAF will actually be in July 2011. In addition, Karzai has stated that the withdrawal deadline has boosted Taliban morale, for whatever that is worth.

In the amusing-and-truthful file, this post by @laurenist on celebrity aid appeals has both edgy humor and pointed assessment. Good for a Friday afternoon read.

At least when it was Sean Penn, I didn’t care. But with Misha, I care. Misha, I want you to succeed! You seem like a smart guy, I figure maybe there’s hope.

Let’s start with the orphanages. They tug at heartstrings, the stories about Haitian orphans were all over the news cycle, I get why there is a natural desire to support and fund orphanages. One of the things Misha says in the Random Acts’ introductory video is he wants to “cut out the middleman” in aid delivery. (That was the sound of a thousand heads hitting their desks in aid agencies across the land.) That means sending funds not to an Oxfam America, Mercy Corps, or even Save the Children, but instead sending funds directly to three orphanages in Haiti.

Long story short: bad idea. Disaster relief, especially after an earthquake like the one that hit Haiti, takes years, not just months. Long-term development projects for rebuilding livelihoods, schools, and public services are essential.

Here’s the gentleman in question, give you his best brooding, smoldering stare:

People, you do not understand how much effort it takes to resist photoshopping Starbuck’s head onto this image. (It would make such a good profile picture, man!)

Monday Errata

Posted in afghanistan, kyrgyzstan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 14 June 2010

If you haven’t yet read it, zen’s interview with Steven Pressfield is a worthy read. It’s also nice to see Mark talk a little about himself, which we don’t see much in his blog! For good reason, of course, but it’s also nice to know the person behind the mind.

Thunder Run has an interview up with Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger on Restrepo.

The film is very balanced and doesn’t lead you, but rather just shows you how it is. Could you describe whether you had any guiding principles about how/what you shot as well as how you edited, how you shaped the film ultimately?

Sebastian: We were not interested in the political dimensions of the war, only the experience of the soldiers, so we limited ourselves to the things soldiers had access to. We did not ask any generals why they were in the Korengal, for example, because soldiers don’t have that opportunity, either. Our guiding principle was that we would only have people in the movie who were fighting in the Korengal. It was that principle that excluded Tim and me from the movie as well… and prevented us from using an outside narrator.

Tim: It was a conscious choice. We are journalists, and as such, we are not supposed to “lead” people to a certain opinion. That is called “advocacy,” and it certainly has its special place in the media world, but as journalists, it’s not something we wanted to engage in.

Also, here’s a counter review on War that speaks very negatively of the book–I called it “delightfully scathing” in the comments to my review at SWJ (hey, give them money, won’t you?), which I still think is true on the re-read. I mean, I think the author of the review, Lewis Manalo, is generally barking up the wrong tree, but he makes some strong points. Points I disagree with, but strong nonetheless.

I’m following Registan’s thorough coverage of the situation in Kyrgyzstan; it remains one of the best english-language sites for updated information. If only I read Cyrillic. The Post this morning picks up the story, noting:

Kyrgyzstan’s own security forces have failed to contain a rising tide of ethnic violence in the south, where more than 100 people have been killed since fighting began Thursday night, according to the country’s health ministry. The officials say the death toll could be considerably higher, as the current count includes only the dead at hospitals and morgues.

Around 75,000 people have now fled fighting into neighboring Uzbekistan, Russia’s official news agency said, citing the Uzbek government.

Kyrgyzstan has contacted Russia, asking for military assistance, but so far Russia has only provided minimal aid. As Christian and Michael at Registan note, what we know is what we don’t know, and conspiracy theories are worming their way outward at a rapid pace.

More pictures of FETs in action (h/t Akinoluna as per usual).

Must read article I haven’t had time to read yet: Dexter Filkin’s portrait of a wavering Karzai.

And–this one is just for you, Chris Albon–the New York Times suddenly discovers there are lucrative minerals in Afghanistan! Which have been a known property for at least thirty years! Shocking. Film at eight.

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.

When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away

Posted in afghanistan, india, pakistan by Karaka on 26 April 2010

I have to admit, my first thought when seeing Hamid Karzai set for talks with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh while surreptitiously reading my news feeds at a work event on Saturday was “Man, this is going to piss off Pakistan.”

See, last week I’d read this report from the Defense Studies blog, India’s Afghan Endgame, and it was foremost in my mind. I read the blog fairly cautiously, but I thought this was a fairly compelling read.

Delhi is pursuing what amounts to a “soft power” campaign in Afghanistan — one which, according to Ahmed Rashid’s Descent Into Chaos, is “designed to win over every sector of Afghan society, give India a high profile with the Afghans, gain the maximum political advantage, and of course undercut Pakistani influence.” And although India’s efforts have without a doubt unnerved the Pakistanis, Delhi has managed avoid the perception among the other states engaged in Afghanistan that it is actively seeking to antagonize Islamabad — perhaps because of the extent of the services it has provided to the Afghan population. Assuming Rashid is right about India’s desire to cultivate influence among the Afghan citizens, its strategy has been success: an ABC News/BBC poll released in early 2009 indicated that 71% of Afghans viewed India favorably. Only 8% said the same of Pakistan.

While the last twenty months or so have seen Western political and policy movement away from a sole focus on Afghan to the more encompassing view of Afghanistan-Pakistan, it would be foolish to ignore the impact India does have–or more importantly, could grow to have–in the region.

I’m not one to give credence to the general paranoia India and Pakistan harbour towards one another; for one thing, it’s pretty far out of my wheelhouse in terms of political knowledge, and secondly most of what I encounter about the subject can tend towards the hyperbolic. (The only thing I’m willing to get loud and impassioned about is whether Han shot first. Or the virtue of Pacific Northwest IPAs over just about any other American beer.) But even so I find myself agreeing with Tim Sullivan, who wrote the piece I’m referencing, when he concluded:

In the end, United States can’t expect that India will simply remain on the sidelines as the endgame in Afghanistan takes shape; we have been lucky that India has played such a benign, if not ameliorative role in Afghanistan to date. Pakistan, for its part, must be disabused of the notion that the United States will continue to indulge its insecurities, or allow it to so easily manipulate U.S. relations with a vital partner.

That sentiment has been quietly echoed in several of the documents I’ve read pertaining to ISAF’s role as arbiter between the three nations, and I think the most notable part will be not how it’s reflected in defence posture or humanitarian assistance adjacent to or part of COIN operation, but how it’s reflected in the diplomatic ring. The US, and the Western world at large, have a lot to gain by investing in India; and equally as much to lose in Pakistan.

I’m reminded of an interview Christiane Amanpour conducted with three ambassadors from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India–no small feat getting them all at the same desk!–that is worth the rewatch, even as a primer for interaction between the three closely-linked nations.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

You can watch the full video here because CNN’s video playback sucks like beer made east of the Mississippi.

There are no easy answers. But the relationship between India and Afghanistan is worth keeping a bead on.

Not so conventional

Posted in afghanistan, japan, united states by Karaka on 4 November 2009

Nightwatch fronts Japan’s new aid package:

A draft of a foreign aid package indicates that Japan might give Afghanistan about $4 billion in civilian aid over five years beginning in 2010, Kyodo reported 3 November. The aid package, which would be implemented through the Japan International Cooperation Agency and international organizations such as the U.N. Development Program, would include assistance in vocational training for former Taliban fighters, development of Afghanistan’s farmland and a project to construct a new city north of Kabul. Japan would also help build schools, train teachers and pay for police officers.

Japanese Cabinet members are expected to decide on the outline of the aid package soon, perhaps by 5 November, according to Yomiuri Shimbun. The Democratic Party coalition government is willing to provide non-lethal assistance to Afghanistan, but will not extend the naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean when it expires on 15 January 2010.

During this Watch, Kyodo reported Defense Minister Kitazawa said the government is considering sending Self Defense Force liaison officers to Kabul to work with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The new government is comfortable with this arrangement because (ISAF) was approved by a UN resolution. The Self Defense Force officers also will have an opportunity to work with NATO which leads the ISAF.

It’s a shift within the nation consonant with the party-politic shift earlier this year, and acts as a soft-power way to assert separation from the previous administration’s policies while still providing support and ally with NATO in Afghanistan. Actually, despite not being a military or military support action, this could prove to be generally more beneficial to Afghanistan (if not necessarily NATO & the ANA) given the gaping need for international civilian assistance in development projects. Interesting, will keep watching.

I’ll admit I was surprised that Abdullah Abdullah withdrew from the runoff election set for this month. It seemed somewhat abrupt after the eight-week long deliberation that lead to the announcement of the runoff. There’s a lot of commentary flying about Abdullah being Tajik, Karzai being Pushtun, calls of corruption and questions about international credibility (not to mention a couple pointed asides at the Obama administration for taking too much time to deliberate).

TNR has probably my pick for best analysis of what the f*ck just happened, saying:

Abdullah’s candidacy was always a long shot. The prospect of an Abdullah presidency may have seemed attractive to some Western observers, impressed by his soft Italian leather jackets, sharp suits, fluent English, and polished manners. But to many Afghans, he is anathema, still the face and the voice of the Northern Alliance. Even during the recent election campaign, Abdullah traded heavily on his mujaheddin past: Election posters showed a young Abdullah side-by-side with Massoud in the Panjshir Valley, brave soldiers repelling the Soviet invader. An Abdullah victory would very likely have provoked a major backlash in the Pashtun south, where Massoud and his cohorts are almost universally reviled.

Karzai was the overwhelming favorite from the beginning. Given the ethnic and political realities of Afghanistan, Karzai the Pashtun was destined to triumph over Abdullah the Panjsheri Tajik, regardless of the latter’s claim to a Pashtun father with roots in Kandahar. But by depriving Karzai of a chance to redeem himself with a strong showing in a second round, Abdullah has ensured that the stigma of the August elections will shadow Karzai for the length of his presidency.

Steve Coll also offers insight:

Many lesser politicians would have handled themselves less responsibly than Abdullah in such circumstances. He has ample reason to resent Karzai; he was forced from Karzai’s cabinet a few years back in less than happy circumstances, only to have Karzai or his team try to steal the presidential election—unnecessarily, and thuggishly. No doubt this personal history had some influence on Abdullah’s decision to foil the satisfaction of an outright Karzai election victory by employing complaints about fraud to withdraw from participation. But a better explanation lies in an analysis of Abdullah’s interests and current negotiating position. He has long sought constitutional reforms to strengthen parliament over the presidency. He is almost certainly interested in rejoining the government, with some of his allies, if the deal is attractive enough. He retains ambitions and wishes to remain a viable national figure in a post-Karzai Afghanistan. He will be in a stronger position to negotiate toward all of these goals by adopting the posture he announced yesterday than he would have been if he had participated in the runoff and been defeated.

As the sense of a decision made starts to settle in Afghanistan, it seems imperative that Obama must announce the conclusions of his month-long tactical review. If he offers a deviation from the strategy he laid out in March, that too changes the game, at least on the ISAF side. Whether he announces his conclusions before his trip to Japan is still up in the air, but it is not some taunt of “dithering” that concerns me. It is that the result of his review will have an immediate effect, on our goals, on our morale, and on quelling this level of uncertainty inherent in our presence in Afghanistan right now.

Also, I am very impatient, and I want to know already.

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.

Only going forward

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, us defense, us politics by Karaka on 6 October 2009

Richard HolbrookeGeorge Packer’s recent profile of Richard Holbrooke that appeared in the New Yorker last week has conveniently been made available in its entirety online, just in time to make all the grafs I transcribed on Friday a waste of effort. Oh well.

It was a long, thorough, and clear-eyed picture of Richard Holbrooke, a man who has been in and out of politics for years and is now the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan; that is, the civilian co-ordinator for US efforts in those two countries. Appointed by President Obama, he’s close with Secretary Clinton and is someone to keep a close eye on as the Obama administration [eventually] concludes its review of the Afghan war. Read the article yourself, but here’s the bits that stuck out to me.

Afghanistan and Pakistan now constituted a single theatre of war, Holbrooke wrote, where America would have an unavoidable interest long after the war in Iraq was history. “The conflict in Afghanistan will be far more costly and much, much longer than Americans realize,” he wrote in March, 2008. “This war, already in its seventh year, will eventually become the longest in American history.”

That’s a little more than a year and a half ago, and as much as its proving to be true now, many folks don’t seem inclined to hear it.

Shortly after the Inauguration, Obama went to the Pentagon, where the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave a slide briefing; instead of delineating a clear goal, the briefing listed more than a dozen goals. Obama called [Bruce] Riedel and asked him to lead a two-month strategic review of the war. Holbrooke would work closely with him.

I guess that’s mostly a “If you think it’s bad now, imagine what it was like nine months ago!” anecdote.

A pure counterterror approach had, in fact, been the Bush Administration’s policy for yeas: kill or capture terrorist leaders, with minimal support for political institutions in Kabul and Islamabad. It had created the mess that Obama inherited, with two countries under threat from insurgents and Al Qaeda’s strength increasing. “Al Qaeda does not exist in a vacuum,” Riedel said. “They’re part of a syndicate of terrorist groups. Selective counterterrorism won’t get you anywhere, because they bad guys don’t stay in their lanes.” And without an extensive military presence and connections to the Pakistani and Afghan governments the US would likely lose the intelligence networks that have been built up since 9-11. Obama would have to accept the risk that Al Qaeda might pull off another catastrophic attack. The abandonment of Afghanistan would also be a dire prospect for Afghans, especially women, but in war-weary America this argument no longer had force. The basis for a policy had to be American self-interest.

Emphasis mine. It’s hard to convey sarcasm effectively on the internet, but allow me to denote it thusly: [!]Well, of course American self-interest is the only argument that works effectively for a policy change![!] Anyway. Basis for policy shifted, from counterterrorism to a more holistic counterinsurgency.

“There’s a long-term problem,” Abramowitz told him. “It’s going to take a lot of money, a lot of effort. And the Administration, in order to get the money, has to convey there’s a short-term fix. But there is no short-term fix.” John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, told me, “Everyone’s on a relatively short fuse here to see that the strategy is being defined correctly.” He expressed concern that the Administration’s strategy “demands greater nation-building resources than people may be aware and certainly than we have thus far committed.” James Dobbins, now with the RAND Corporation, couches the problem this way: “There is a gap between the reason we’re there and what we’re doing. The rationale is counterterrorism. The strategy is counterinsurgency.”

A gap which is playing itself out pretty clearly in the administration right now. Timely article.

Eventually, the Americans would leave Afghanistan, allowing Pakistan to pursue its own interest in the region. “Countries don’t change their strategic vision overnight,” [Vali] Nasr told me. “It’s not as simple as Bush saying ‘I hate terrorism, you hate terrorism, we’re all on the same page.’ This is a long, hard battle. We need to turn the Pakistani military, but we can’t do that without getting it to see its interests differently, which means building relations.”

Continuing to build relationship not only with Pakistan, but as a further bolster to Afghanistan, one presumes.

There was no deal to strike with the Pakistanis, only trust to build, and Holbrooke’s outsized personality seemed to be under wraps. In moments when I overheard him talking to Pakistani leaders, he took the solicitous tone of someone reassuring an unstable friend. “It’s like dealing with psychologically abused children,” a member of his staff said. “You don’t focus on the screaming and violence–you just hug them tighter.” …Beneath Pakistan’s dysfunctional government lies a social system that, in rural areas, remains feudal.

You know, Rory Stewart suddenly comes to mind: And that you can invest 20-30 years in Afghanistan. And if you were lucky, you would make it look a bit like Pakistan. I mean, unless you understand that Pakistan is 20-30 years ahead of Afghanistan, you don’t understand where we’re starting from. And Pakistan is still not an ideal state.

“Why do people join the Taliban?” Holbrooke asked [Helmand Governor Gulab] Mangal. (It was a question that he asked wherever he went.)

“Lack of knowledge, religious inspiration, lack of jobs, poverty,” the Governor said. “Others, because of our wrong practices. And a large number because of pressure–because they will be killed.”

“Do you have a program for those who want to leave the Taliban and come back to the government?”

The Governor said he had discussed the subject that morning with elders in one of the districts. “But will they get jobs?” Holbrooke pressed. “The last programs didn’t work very well.”

He never got an answer to his question. But I’d be real interested in all the responses he got from asking.

Sarah Chayes, a former reporter who founded a sustainable-development cooperative in Kandahar, and who is now an adviser to General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, told me, “What the Afghans expected of us was to help create a decent government. Instead, we gave them warlords, because we were focused on counterterrorism.”

Controversial figure, valid point.

The NATO official worried that Holbrooke, instead of leaning hard on the Karzai government, might see Karzai as a necessary conduit for cutting a deal with the Taliban that would allow the Americans to leave. “Holbrooke is fundamentally not a nation-builder, he’s a dealmaker,” the official said. “But this is not something you can bargain your way out of.”

Yeah, that pull quote pretty much stands on its own.

Burt Field, an Ar Force major general and Holbrooke’s military adviser, was beginning to question the military’s model of how to fight the Taliban. He said that the Americans were telling the Afghans, “We’re going to keep the Taliban off your back and connect you to your government–and that’s counterinsurgency.” But, Field went on, “it’s premised on the fact that the government wants to be able to provide those key services. What if that premise is false?”

A question even more vital given the recent elections.

When I repeated Hill’s remark to Holbrooke on the plane, he took out a pen, and on a napkin he wrote down, “INSTITUTION BUILDING.” He drew a line under it, and below the line he wrote “DIP PHASE.” “Things are not sequential,” Holbrooke said. “They have to be parallel processes.” He acknowledged that no Dayton would come at the end of the diplomatic phase.

And that pretty much sums up the situation Holbrooke is in with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Reading this profile didn’t give me a whole lot of confidence that we (as a nation) actually know where we’re going with this thing, but it’s interesting to get such a close profile of someone with significant influence on the Obama administration’s strategy and policy. I think it does give some insight on where Holbrooke is going with this ship he’s steering, and a better understanding of our current diplo relationship with Pakistan. Anyway, read the article.

%d bloggers like this: