Permissible Arms

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

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

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

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


FP has several more images available here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

I might call this “Sharks vs Jets.”

Posted in afghanistan, american media, us military by Karaka on 16 October 2009

You know, Michael Yon may be a controversial figure in embed journalism, but the man sure can take a picture.

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These photos were from his dispatch on the Afghan election back in August, still relevant now given that rumours of a runoff have resurfaced. From the Post:

“We’ve got to figure out a way to give legitimacy to whoever wins,” an official said. A second round, “if clean, and if done properly, basically washes away the sins of the first,” he said.

But officials agreed that a new vote would also be fraught with peril. It “definitely cuts both ways,” said J. Alexander Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace, who hosted Jawad at the think tank Thursday. “On the one hand, holding the runoff could clear away some of the problems and allegations of the first round that have tainted the process and rightly made the administration, if this is truly a work of partnership, want to hold off until they knew who the government was going to be.”

“But at the same time,” Thier said, “there is obviously no guarantee” that a legitimate election could be organized in a few weeks or could avoid another cascade of allegations of abuse.

“There are costs to it, no question,” he added, including the possibility that the Obama administration “would have to go ahead with a [strategy] decision without knowing” who the winner is.

Kate Brooks from Behind the Lens, has some remarkable photographs as well from Abdullah Abdullah’s presidential campaign.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

With the continued fuss about new restrictions on journalist embeds, I think it’s worth the reminder that allowing access for photographers and videographers is the only real counter to the apathy of the general public mentioned frequently by servicemembers.

And speaking personally, photographs are a method of connection, and a method of understanding. I can read all the articles in the world, but a single photograph from this presentation and the Frontline documentary tell me more about the situation on the ground than a dozen articles. Mandating that embeds can or cannot run something has the net effect of further distancing their audience from the war, something I don’t think any of us want.

I think this counts as a slow news day.

Posted in afghanistan, american media, intelligence, terrorism by Karaka on 17 September 2009

Stratfor put out a concise overview of the challenges in aviation-focused terrorism prevention this week, but I think the most useful part is its succinct breakdown of current terrorist threats:

Currently there are three different actors in the jihadist realm. The first is the core al Qaeda group headed by bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The core al Qaeda organization has been hit hard over the past several years, and its operational ability has been greatly diminished. It has been several years since the core group has conducted a spectacular terror attack, and it has focused much of its effort on waging the ideological battle as opposed to the physical battle.

The second group of actors in the jihadist realm is the regional al Qaeda franchise groups or allies, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Jemaah Islamiyah and Lashkar-e-Taiba. These regional jihadist groups have conducted many of the most spectacular terrorist attacks in recent years, such as the November 2008 Mumbai attacks and the July 2009 Jakarta bombings.

The third group of actors is the grassroots jihadist militants, who are essentially do-it-yourself terrorist operatives. Grassroots jihadists have been involved in several plots in recent years, including suicide bomb plots in the United States and Europe.

It’s kind of like a cheat sheet by which to understand the current news-scape. The rest of the article is well worth reading as well, but I find it interesting to see this summarized so neatly.

In “news heard ’round the world” today, the Obama administration has stepped away from the Eastern European missile defence system [The Guardian], in a move that has strongly displeased the Czech Republic and will likely make significant strategic strides in the US relationship with Russia. I think it’s pretty clear that this has been announced just as the US is going into talks with Iran, and needs Russia at least amenable to US goals; and to be honest, I was never really convinced of the necessity or prudence of the shield anyway. But I bet this will piss Bill Kristol off. (Yay.)

The NYT covers Biden’s continuing trip in Afghanistan, noting that there was more artillery fire in Baghdad, but Biden and al-Maliki both ignored it. That’s kind of classy. Of course, one of the main reasons for Biden’s trip is to push through political reconciliation before the elections early next year.

“I think the threat is that the political process will not give the country sufficient cohesion to work on its economic issues and otherwise become a strong and stable factor in the region,” the American ambassador, Christopher R. Hill, told reporters Tuesday night.

Not an easy task, especially when the Iraqi parliament is currently at a stalemate.

Also in Iraq, AP via Stars and Stripes has news of the largest US military detention camp being shut down.

The U.S. military on Wednesday closed Camp Bucca, an isolated desert prison that was once its largest lockup in Iraq, as it moves to release thousands of detainees or transfer them to Iraqi custody before the end of the year.

While it is likely a result of the plan for withdrawal, it also speaks to a confidence in Iraqi security that this camp is closing down; reverting the custody of over eight thousand prisoners is no small task for any security force. I’ll be waiting to see whether Iraq can in fact keep those prisoners secure.

In Afghanistan today, the main news (other than Karzai vacuously insisting the election was legitimate) was of six Italian troops and ten Afghani citizens dead from a car bomb in Kabul. (AP covers as well.) This is notably the worst hit Italian forces have taken, and the Taliban have taken responsibility.

David Ignatius at the Washington Post takes up recent calls for a reconfigured intelligence direction. I could make some claims about the misuse of intelligence operatives post 9/11, but I suspect we all kind of know this already. Either way, this seems to be a good start:

Hayden drew a Venn diagram to explain where the CIA needs to operate. First, he drew three circles that represent the traditional parameters: An activity must be technically feasible, operationally relevant and lawful. Then he added a fourth requirement. The activity must also be “politically sustainable,” through more transparency with Congress and the public. “We need a program that does not have an on-off switch every two years,” he said.

I particularly like “lawful.”

I’m still digesting the Stephen Farrell story, but Forbes.com’s Tunku Varadarajan has some in-depth analysis of the matter. There is a difficult imbalance in Western reporting: Afghanistan is not safe enough for journalists to investigate without security, but because of that security, journalism has a very particular and limited lens. So on the one hand I sympathize with Stephen Farrell’s choice to investigate further despite clear directives from his military embed that it was not secure enough for him to do it; on the other, it was foolish and dangerous to do so.

Speaking of embeds, I’m still working my way through Michael Yon’s latest files; it’s always fascinating, if somewhat militarily biased.

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