Counterinsurgency Down for the Count in Afghanistan
This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
President Obama's Afghanistan strategy isn't working. So said a parade of Afghanistan watchers during the flap over war commander General Stanley McChrystal's firing. But what does that phrase, so often in the media these days, really mean? And if the strategy really isn't working, just how can you tell?
The answers to these questions raise even more important ones, including: Why, when President Obama fires an insubordinate and failing general, does he cling to his failing war policy? And if our strategy isn't working, what about the enemy's? And if nothing much is working, why does it still go on nonstop this way? Let's take these one at a time.
1. What do you mean by "it's not working"?
"It" is counterinsurgency or COIN, which, in fact, is really less of a strategy than a set of tactics in pursuit of a strategy. Counterinsurgency doctrine, originally designed by empires intending to squat on their colonies forever, calls for elevating the principle of "protecting the population" above pursuing the bad guys at all cost. Implementing such a strategy quickly becomes a tricky, even schizophrenic, balancing act, as I recently was reminded.
I just spent some time embedded with the US Army at a forward operating base near the Pakistan border where, despite daily "sig acts"—significant activity of a hostile nature—virtually every "lethal" American soldier is matched by a "nonlethal" counterpart whose job it is, in one way or another, to soften up those civilians for "protection."
General McChrystal himself played both roles. As the US commander, he was responsible for killing what he termed, at one point, "an amazing number of people" who were not threats, but he also regularly showed up at Afghan President Hamid Karzai's palace to say, "Sorry." Karzai praised him publicly for his frequent apologies (each, of course, reflecting an American act or acts that killed civilians), though angry Afghans were less impressed.
The part of the lethal activity that often goes awry is supposed to be counterbalanced by the "sorry" part, which may be as simple as dispatching US officers to drink humble tea with local "key leaders." Often enough, though, it comes in the form of large, unsustainable gifts. The formula, which is basic COIN, goes something like this: kill some civilians in the hunt for the bad guys and you have to make up for it by building a road. This trade-off explains why, as you travel parts of the country, interminable (and often empty) strips of black asphalt now traverse Afghanistan's vast expanses of sand and rock, but it doesn't explain why Afghans, thus compensated, are angrier than ever.
Many Afghans, of course, are angry because they haven't been compensated at all, not even with a road to nowhere. Worse yet, more often than not, they've been promised things that never materialize. (If you were to summarize the history of the country as a whole in these last years, it might go like this: big men—both Afghan and American—make out like the Beltway Bandits many of them are, while ordinary Afghans in the countryside still wish their kids had shoes.)
And don't forget the majority of Afghans in the countryside who have scarcely been consulted at all: women. To protect Afghan women from foreign fighters, Afghan men lock them up—the women, that is. American military leaders slip easily into the all-male comfort zone, probably relieved perhaps to try to win the "hearts and minds" of something less than half "the population."
It's only in the last year or two that the Marines and the Army started pulling a few American women off their full-time non-combat jobs and sending them out as Female Engagement Teams (FETs) to meet and greet village women. As with so many innovative new plans in our counterinsurgency war, this one was cobbled together in a thoughtless way that risked lives and almost guaranteed failure.
Commanders have casually sent noncombatant American women soldiers—supply clerks and radio operators—outside the wire, usually with little training, no clear mission and no follow up. Predictably, like their male counterparts, they have left a trail of good intentions and broken promises behind. So when I went out to meet village women near the Pakistan border last week with a brand-new Army FET-in-training, we faced the fury of Pashto women still waiting for a promised delivery of vegetable seeds.
Our visit did, however, open a window into a world military and political policymakers have ignored for all too long. It turns out that the women of Afghanistan, whom George W. Bush claimed to have liberated so many years ago, are still mostly oppressed, impoverished, malnourished, uneducated, short of seeds and mad as hell.
Count them among a plentiful crew of angry Afghans who are living proof that "it's not working" at all. Afghans, it seems, know the difference between genuine apologies and bribes, true commitment and false promises, generosity and self-interest. And since the whole point of COIN is to gain the hearts and minds of "the population," those angry Afghans are a bad omen for the US military and President Obama.
Moreover, it's not working for a significant subgroup of Americans in Afghanistan either: combat soldiers. I've heard infantrymen place the blame for a buddy's combat injury or death on the strict rules of engagement ("courageous restraint," as it's called) imposed by General McChrystal's version of COIN strategy. Taking a page from Vietnam, they claim their hands are tied, while the enemy plays by its own rules. Rightly or wrongly, this opinion is spreading fast among grieving soldiers as casualties mount.
It's also clear that even the lethal part of counterinsurgency isn't working. Consider all those civilian deaths and injuries, so often the result of false information fed to Americans to entice them to settle local scores. To give just one example: American troops recently pitched hand grenades into a house in Logar Province which they'd been told was used by terrorists. Another case of false information. It held a young Afghan, a relative of an Afghan agricultural expert who happens to be an acquaintance of mine. The young man had just completed his religious education and returned to the village to become its sole maulawi, or religious teacher. The villagers, very upset, turned out to vouch for him, and the Army hospitalized him with profuse apologies. Luckily, he survived, but such routine mistakes regularly leave dead or wounded civilians and a thickening residue of rage behind.
Reports coming in from observers and colleagues in areas of the Pashtun south, once scheduled to be demonstration sites for McChrystal's cleared, held, built, and better-governed Afghanistan, are generally grim. Before his resignation, the general himself was already referring to Marja—the farming area (initially trumpeted as a "city of 80,000 people") where he launched his first offensive—as "a bleeding ulcer." He also delayed the highly publicized advance into Kandahar, the country's second largest city, supposedly to gain more time to bring around the opposing populace, which includes President Karzai. Meanwhile, humanitarian NGOs based in Kandahar complain that they can't do their routine work assisting the city's inhabitants while the area lies under threat of combat. Without assistance, Kandaharis grow—you guessed it—angrier.
From Kandahar province, where American soldiers mass for the well-advertised securing of Kandahar, come reports that the Afghan National Army (ANA) is stealing equipment—right down to bottled drinking water—from the US military and selling it to the Taliban. US commanders can't do much about it because the official American script calls for the ANA to take over responsibility for national defense.
NATO soldiers have complained all along about the ill-trained, uninterested troops of the ANA, but the animosity between them seems to have grown deadly in some quarters. American soldiers in Kandahar report that, for their own security, they don't tell their ANA colleagues when and where they're going on patrol. Back in the 1980s, in the anti-Soviet jihad we supported, we trained Afghan jihadists who have today become our worst enemies, and now we may be doing it again.
Factor in accounts of what General McChrystal did best: taking out bad guys. Reportedly, he was vigorously directing Special Forces' assassinations of high and mid-level Taliban leaders in preparation for "peeling off" the "good" Taliban—that is, those impoverished fighters only in it for the money. According to his thinking, they would later be won over to the government through internationally subsidized jobs. But assassinating the ideological leaders, the true believers and organizers—or those we call the bad Taliban—actually leaves behind leaderless, undisciplined gangs of armed rent-a-guns more interested in living off the population we're supposed to protect than being peeled off into abject Afghan poverty. From the point of view of ordinary Afghans in the countryside, our "good Taliban" are the worst of all.
I could go on. If you spend time in Afghanistan, evidence of failure is all around you, including those millions of American taxpayer dollars that are paid to Afghan security contractors (and Karzai relatives) and then handed over to insurgents to buy protection for US supply convoys traveling on US built, but Taliban-controlled, roads. Strategy doesn't get much worse than that: financing both sides, and every brigand in between, in hopes of a happier ending someday.