How to tell what’s what in Afghanistan

Five questions about the progress of the surge

Topics: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Taliban, U.S. Military

 Gen. David Petraeus, a straight shooter, admitted on “Meet the Press” Sunday that the Afghanistan war will take years and incur high casualties. His implicit defense of President Obama from Dick Cheney on the issues of torture and closing Guantanamo will make bigger headlines, but sooner or later the American public will notice the admission. The country is now evenly divided between those who think the U.S. can and should restore a modicum of stability before getting out, and those who want a quick withdrawal. The Marjah Campaign, the centerpiece of the new counter-insurgency strategy, is over a week old, and some assessment of this new, visible push by the U.S. military in violent Helmand Province is in order.

There was never any doubt that the U.S. and NATO would win militarily, fairly easily occupying Marjah and nearby Nad Ali. Marjah at 85,000 or so is a city smaller than Ann Arbor, Michigan. The campaign is only significant in a larger social and political context. The questions are:

1. Can the stategy of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, of taking, clearing, holding and building be extended deep into the Pashtun regions? Marjah is only a stepping stone to the key southern city of Qandahar, which has a population of a million, more the size of Detroit.

This outcome has yet to be seen. But for rural Pashtuns to come to love foreign occupiers is an unlikely proposition. Even the Wall Street Journal admits that in Marjah, the Marines are not exactly feeling the love from the civilians they have supposedly just liberated. Since the Taliban are typically not as corrupt as the warlords, in fact, to any extent that the US and NATO re-install corrupt warlord types in power, they may alienate the locals. And keeping civilian casualties low so as to win hearts and minds is key here. That task will become more difficult as the U.S. inserts itself more deeply into Pashtun territory, since insurgent villages will have to be defeated. The Soviet occupation produced 5 million externally displaced and 2 million internally displaced, along with hundreds of thousands dead. A campaign in Qandahar could easily displace half a million people, and they might mind. Meanwhile, on Monday, the governor of Dai Kundi asserted that a U.S. airstrike killed 27 persons, mostly civilians. There is also the question, raised by Tom Englehardt, of whether the U.S. is capable of good governance in Afghanistan when it is not in Washington, DC.



2. Can the demonstration of vitality and of a sense of progress mollify NATO publics long enough to fight a prolonged war and do intensive training of troops and police over several years?

No. Over the weekend, the center-right government of the Netherlands fell over whether to keep Dutch troops in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan war is universally unpopular in continental Europe, and governments have troops there mostly in the teeth of popular opposition, because NATO invoked article 5 of its charter, “an attack on one is an attack on all” with regard to the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks. It may take months after the next elections this spring for the Dutch to form a new government, in part because of the surging popularity of the far-right populist anti-Muslim “Freedom Party” of Islamophobe Geert Wilders — a smelly party the others will probably not want in their coalition. Holland’s 2000 troops are likely to be withdrawn by late summer. Canada’s military is also departing Afghanistan. Are these one-off situations, or are they the beginning of a NATO withdrawal over-all, which will leave Obama in the lurch? Australia is already refusing to take up the Dutch slack, and its government is under public pressure to get out, itself. While it is entirely possible that scandal-plagued rightwing billionaire Silvio Berlusconi will survive the next elections in Italy, it is also possible that he will not, and his successor may well want out of the unpopular Afghanistan quagmire. Moreover, the Pashtun insurgents may smell blood in the water with the Dutch withdrawal from Uruzgan (the home province of Mullah Omar), and target the smaller NATO contingents (the deaths of six Italian troops last fall raised public ire against the war).

There are about 45,000 NATO and other allied troops in Afghanistan, and 74,000 American. Obama wanted to increase the European contingent by 10,000, but NATO generally declined that offer, and now the NATO contingent may begin to shrink just when more trainers in particular are desperatedly needed. The Afghanistan National Army is supposedly nearly 100,000 strong, but many critics say the true number is half that, and that even that half is mostly illiterate, poorly trained, and often suffers from uncertain loyalties, drug use, or other debilitating considerations.

3. Can an Afghan army be stood up in short order that has the capacity to patrol independently and keep order after the U.S. and NATO troops withdraw?

Unlikely. The answer to the question about Afghan military preparedness– after nearly a decade of training and an investment of $1 billion that Afghan troops are not ready for prime time. In the Marjah campaign, they showed no initiative, no ability to fight independently. They are poorly served by their junior field officers, and they are 90% illiterate. (The Times’ reporter expected to see them with maps out planning approaches!) The ethnic make-up of the particular Afghanistan National Army units sent into Marjah is also not clear. Almost no ANA troops hail from Helmand Province, and Tajiks (native speakers of Dari Persian, often from towns and cities) are vastly over-represented in the army. There is often bad blood between Tajiks and Pashtuns, the group that predominates in Marjah. The same skill set of the ANA most prized by the U.S. Marines during the assault– the ability to sniff out which households are Taliban — may be a liability in the holding and building phase, since it stems from a decade and a half of Tajik Northern Alliance battles against the Taliban.

4. Can the Afghan public, which includes many groups (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks) deeply harmed by Taliban rule, accept reconciliation, as well?

Unlikely. Former Northern Alliance leader popular among Tajiks, Abdullah Abdullah, warned Karzai against reconciling with the Taliban this weekend. Abdullah dropped out of last fall’s presidential contest in protest against alleged ballot fraud in Karzai’s favor. There is general hostility toward reconciliation with the Taliban among the parties representing northern, non-Pashtun ethnic groups.

5. Can so much pressure be put on the Taliban that at least their middle and lower ranks will accept reconciliation with the Karzai government?

So far, there is no sign that the Taliban leadership still at large is interested in negotiations. A Taliban spokesman replied to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s call for reconciliation with Kabul over the weekend with a resounding “No!” Qari Muhammad Yusuf Ahmadi told the Afghan Islamic Press in Pashto that the Taliban would cease fighting when there were not further foreign troops in his country. He said, according to the translation in The News:

The entire world knows that foreign forces have invaded Afghanistan and occupied this country. They have also started the fighting. Taliban will neither lay down weapons nor will hold talks with Karzai administration even in the presence of a single foreign soldier in Afghanistan. . .

The ongoing war in Afghanistan is between Afghans and foreigners. The responsibility of the war lies on the foreigners and their slaves. They continue fighting in the populated areas and have sent 15000 troops to small area like Marja; and are killing civilians and trying to impose infidels on Afghans.

Karzai himself has no power. The foreigners control everything and the nation is fighting against them.

Commenting on the deaths of 12 civilians in Marjah, Qari Muhammad said: “Karzai should have said who martyred the people. In fact neither Taliban kill the people and nor destroy their houses. These are foreigners who are bombing the houses and killing civilians everywhere as they have brought miseries to the people of Marja.”

On the other hand, those members of the Taliban shadow government now in Pakistani custody may be less categorical. A third Taliban commander, Maulvi Kabir (the shadow governor of Nangarhar Province) has been captured by the Pakistani military, allegedly based on information provided by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Baradar, the military chief of staff for the Old Taliban of Mullah Omar, was picked up recently in Karachi in a joint operation of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence and U.S. intelligence, which picked up signals from Baradar. Serious inroads are being made by these arrests into the Taliban ‘shadow government’ of officials who plan out roadside bombings and other attacks in specific provinces of Afghanistan while hiding out in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Riza Yusuf Gilani, and the military chief of state, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, appear to believe that capturing these high Afghan Taliban leaders will give Islamabad leverage in a negotiated settlement of the contest between the Karzai government and the Pashtun religious far right, which is in insurgency.

Obama’s Afghanistan escalation among the sullen Pashtuns is a desperate policy, as dangerous as attempting to build a series of sand castles on the beach at high tide.

Ironically, his bigger success has come in Pakistan, where he appears to have convinced the Pakistani elite to intervene decisively against their own, Pakistani Taliban, and also now to begin arresting the Old Taliban shadow government that is hiding out on Pakistani soil. If he can go further and convince Islamabad that its support of the Afghan Taliban was all a long a key strategic error that has blown back on Pakistan proper, he will thereby come closer to victory than he could by any military measures inside Afghanistan itself.

Salon contributor Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and the author of "Engaging the Muslim World."

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