Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan

John A. Nagl wrote the counterinsurgency field manual used by General David Petraeus in Iraq in during 2008. Though the jury is still out on the long-term prospects of peace and stability in Iraq, so far the Nagl strategy appears to be succeeding as demonstrated by last week's peaceful elections that went quite smoothly with a fairly good turn-out in most Iraqi provinces. In a piece he has co-written with Nathaniel C. Fick for Foreign Policy magazine, Nagl offers his thoughts to General Patraeus on how to fight the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Flick and Nagl argue that the American strategy in Afghanistan must deal with the following five paradoxes:

Paradox 1: Some of the best weapons do not shoot.

Paradox 2: Sometimes the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.

Paradox 3: The hosts doing something tolerably is often better than foreigners doing it well.

Paradox 4: Sometimes the more force is used, the less effective it is.

Paradox 5: Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.

The fifth paradox in particular talks about Pakistan in the context of the US strategy in Afghanistan.

The authors oppose the current US raids into Pakistan in pursuit of insurgents. They say, "Cross-border raids into Pakistan to pursue insurgents have strained U.S. relations with Pakistan at this critical juncture in the Afghan campaign. Pakistan is, of course, inextricably connected to the Afghan insurgency. The Pashtun belt, as the border area between the two countries is known, constitutes the real battleground in this war. Counterinsurgency operations in Pakistan, therefore, are a necessary component of any strategy in Afghanistan. Without Pakistani support, however, unilateral cross-border raids will create more blowback than they are worth".

The authors argue that "a better strategy for persuading Pakistan to act as an ally—and not a spoiler—in Afghanistan involves giving up the short-term tactical gains of such raids in favor of the regional diplomacy necessary to broaden and deepen the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Even after Islamist extremists bombed the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September in an attempt to assassinate the new civilian leadership of Pakistan, the Pakistani Army remains more focused on the perceived threat from India than on the actual threat from inside its own country’s borders. U.S. and international efforts to broker confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan (translation: resolve Kashmir) are likely to have a far greater impact on Pakistani counterinsurgency efforts than any number of unilateral U.S. raids".

The authors agree that more U.S. troops are absolutely necessary to turn the tide in Afghanistan, but American troops are a short-term answer to a lasting set of problems. Supporting Afghan and Pakistani governments that can meet the needs of their own people—including security—must be the long-term solution. The paradoxes of counterinsurgency detailed here, counterintuitive though they may be, provide the best guideposts on the rocky trail toward success. It will not be the death or capture of every last enemy fighter that wins this war, but creating a position of strength from which to negotiate a lasting political solution to a cycle of conflict with no other end in sight.

To read the full text of the article by Fick and Nagl, please visit Foreign Policy magazine website.

The ideas offered by Flick and Nagl appear to be a break from the US strategy pursued by the Bush administration and so far continuing under the new Obama administration. However, it's not clear if the time for such ideas to be effective has already passed. "Of all the lands of the earth, Afghanistan has been among the least hospitable to foreigners who come to rule, or to teach them how they should rule themselves", wrote Patrick Buchanan in his opinion on

As the conservative American columnist further wrote: "America and NATO have never been nearer to strategic defeat". In this latest assessment, Buchanan joined Brig Mark Carleton-Smith, the UK's commander in Afghanistan's Helmand province in Afghanistan who declared in October that the Afghan war can not be won. "We're not going to win this war", he told London's Sunday Times in October.

"It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army." he added. Later, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has retained his job in the Obama administration, basically agreed with the British brigadier's assessment without admitting that "the war can not be won". Instead, Gates said, "despite challenges, there was no reason to think success could not be achieved in the long run".

Before arriving in Kandahar recently, Gates spoke grimly of a "sustained commitment for some protracted period of time. How many years that is, and how many troops that is ... nobody knows."

While the US and NATO forces struggle in Afghanistan, their growing frustration is finding an outlet in frequent US strikes inside Pakistani territory further fueling Pakistan's anti-American public opinion. With the country's ongoing crises, and the growing US demands on Pakistan, the future of US-Pakistan relations and the chances of success in Afghanistan do not look particularly bright. The solution to this darkening mood in both nations is a serious and sincere effort by each to improve their bilateral relationship based on a recognition of mutual interests and genuine needs, as recommended by Nagl and Flick. The Obama administration has an opportunity to change the US tone with Pakistan to make the friendship genuine and useful to both partners in the war on terror. Barack Obama's oft-repeated position that Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations can not be isolated from the "war on terror" in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in the world offers a good starting point for discussion.

The sooner the Obama administration and the US allies accept the futility of a military solution in Afghanistan, the easier and less costly it will be in terms of loss of life for all parties involved. Rather than desperately widening the Afghan war into a dangerous regional conflict, a comprehensive political solution with a timetable for withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan seems the only way to bring this long, deadly war to an end.

Polls show very strong support for removing all US military forces from the region. In a 2007 (WPO) poll, conducted in conjunction with the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START) Center at the University of Maryland, large majorities supported the goal of getting "the US to remove its bases and its military forces from all Islamic countries" in Morocco (72 percent), Egypt (92 percent), and Pakistan (71 percent). Winding down the twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will go a long way toward restoring a positive US image in the world, particularly the Islamic countries.

Let's hope Obama, Gates and Petraeus are persuaded by the sound advice offered by Fick and Nagl to try and find a way out of Afghanistan at some point in not too distant a future.

Here's a video clip of Fick and Nagl talking about Patraeus:

Related Links:

Rand Report: US Strategy in Muslim World Counterproductive

Nagl Talks With NPR Radio

Obama's Kashmir Focus

Can Obama Win the Afghan War?

Can India "Do a Lebanon" in Pakistan?


Riaz Haq said...

Received via email:

Pakistanis are destroying themselves by commiting the four great errors that Nietzsche had pointed out in his work "Twilight of the idols", all of which we're commiting with a lot of zeal and vigor. The errors are:

a) mistaking the effect for the cause, which is what I was trying to explain in

b) false causality. No need to elaborate as we're always assigning wrong causes to explain the happenings. It is very rare that a real cause is ever pointed out and that's true for any sphere of life be it political, religious, personal, family or social issues. For example take the bad performance of Pakistani cricket team. No one is pointing out that the reason we were once a world class team was that we had world class players in the team at that time. These days our players are not upto the level of the winning teams, so we're not performing well. Very understandable as this happens in all sports everywhere, but this reason is never cited and focus is on all other factors like inefficiency of PCB, government politics, bad domestic cricket format, security situation, match fixing and even war on terror. However, the situation will only change when world class cricketers in enough numbers are in the team; the real cause addressed to get the desired results.

c) assigning imaginary causes. The increasing tendency of generating conspiracy theories is a classic example. Here I would digress a little to emphasize on this point. One thing to note is that all of these conspiracy theories depend on the perpetrators being endlessly clever, but the theories equally work assuming others are endlessly stupid. The following quotes say it all:
- Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the former. Albert Einstein
- Genius may have its limitations but stupidity is not thus handicapped. Elbert Hubbard
- To forget one's purpose is the commonest form of stupidity. Friedrich Nietzsche

d) the error of free will. This means that the course of events cannot be changed by a person solely by exercizing his will, a pretty common human perception. Propagating militancy to achieve political power is a classic example of this. However, here it is to be understood that this does not mean that all sorts of aggression, wars, revolutionary struggles are useless and be done away for good; best explained by the dialectic principle of quantitative and qualitative change. Any society is always in the process of an evolutionary change which is not very visible. Then comes a time where no further evolution is possible and a revolutionary change has to occur to move things further. At this stage aggressive means to effect the change are awaited by the society collectively and whoever does that succeeds. This supports rather than contradict the error of free will.

If we keep treading the same paths, the results are obvious.

Suhail Hamid

Riaz Haq said...

Here are excerpts from a report about Gen McChrystal's latest admission that "No one is winning in Afghanistan":

"The US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, who was boasting of military progress only three months ago, confessed last week that "nobody is winning". His only claim now is that the Taliban have lost momentum compared with last year."

"Pentagon officials increasingly agree with the Afghan villagers that the Marjah operation failed to end Taliban control and put the Afghan government in charge. This puts in doubt General McChrystal's whole strategy which also governs the way in which 10,000 British troops are deployed. He is being held to account for earlier optimism such as his claim at the height of Marjah offensive that "we've got a government in a box ready to roll in". Three months later, people in Marjah say they have yet to see much sign of the Afghan government."

"The one development over the past year which has hit the Taliban hardest happened not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan. Prodded by the US, the Pakistan army has been taking over the federally administered tribal areas along the border where the Afghan Taliban once had safe havens. Soon the army may assault North Waziristan, one of the last Afghan insurgent enclaves and one which is already under repeated attack by US Predator drones. These find their targets because Pakistani military intelligence provides detailed information.

But loss of these safe havens in Pakistan may not be such a blow to the Afghan Taliban as it would have been three years ago when they controlled less of Afghanistan. It is impossible to seal the 2,600km frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, supposing the Pakistan army wants to do so.

The semi-official Pakistani view is that the US, Britain and Nato forces have become entangled in a civil war in Afghanistan between the Pashtun community, represented by the Taliban, and their Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara opponents who dominate the Kabul government. They expect the Pashtun to go on fighting until they get a real share in power. One Pashtun, a former colonel in the Pakistani army, said: "It will be difficult for the Americans and British to win the hearts and minds of the people in southern Afghanistan since at the centre of Pashtun culture is a hatred of all foreigners."

Riaz Haq said...

Taliban see a "windfall" from opposition to mosque near ground zero in NY, according to the following story in Newsweek:

Taliban officials know it’s sacrilegious to hope a mosque will not be built, but that’s exactly what they’re wishing for: the success of the fiery campaign to block the proposed Islamic cultural center and prayer room near the site of the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan. “By preventing this mosque from being built, America is doing us a big favor,” Taliban operative Zabihullah tells NEWSWEEK. (Like many Afghans, he uses a single name.) “It’s providing us with more recruits, donations, and popular support.”

America’s enemies in Afghanistan are delighted by the vehement public opposition to the proposed “Ground Zero mosque.” The backlash against the project has drawn the heaviest e-mail response ever on jihadi Web sites, Zabihullah claims—far bigger even than France’s ban on burqas earlier this year. (That was big, he recalls: “We received many e-mails asking for advice on how Muslims should react to the hijab ban, and how they can punish France.”) This time the target is America itself. “We are getting even more messages of support and solidarity on the mosque issue and questions about how to fight back against this outrage.”

Zabihullah also claims that the issue is such a propaganda windfall—so tailor-made to show how “anti-Islamic” America is—that it now heads the list of talking points in Taliban meetings with fighters, villagers, and potential recruits. “We talk about how America tortures with waterboarding, about the cruel confinement of Muslims in wire cages in Guantánamo, about the killing of innocent women and children in air attacks—and now America gives us another gift with its street protests to prevent a mosque from being built in New York,” Zabihullah says. “Showing reality always makes the best propaganda.”.

Riaz Haq said...

Australian Army is being trained by Afghan fighters, according to Australia's Sydney Morning Herald:

The Herald can also reveal that the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, discussed their relationship with the warlords at a meeting in Kabul on October 2. A leaked summary of their meeting reveals that Mr Karzai told Ms Gillard tribal leaders had praised Australia's co-operation with ''warlordy types''.

The fighters met Australian officers they will work alongside and were shown combat training displays at the Cultana base in South Australia and at Holsworthy Barracks in outer Sydney.

The militia is Oruzgan's most effective fighting force but moving closer to it risks undermining the Afghan institutions that need to be reinforced before Australian Defence Force troops can leave.

One Australian special forces officer said the militia was respected and had ''saved many Australian lives''.

Defence said that in the exercise, Leadership Look, the Afghans were ''intimately involved in the planning and execution of training objectives'' for the special forces soldiers as they prepared to go to Afghanistan.

But Martine van Bijlert, an analyst on Afghanistan, speaking from Kabul, said: ''We're shaping [Afghanistan] to our short-term needs rather than what the country needs in the long term. Does the country really need commanders with what are in essence private armies?''

The Dutch refused to work with Matiullah and blocked his appointment as the local police chief. He holds no formal government position but is allied with Mr Karzai and is considered the most powerful man in Oruzgan. He denies allegations of corruption and human rights abuse.

But Defence said: ''It is important the ADF works within the cultural norms of Afghanistan. Therefore in some areas where influential local Afghan leaders still operate, their co-operation can be crucial to maintaining security and stability.''

Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston was at the Kabul meeting and was recorded telling Mr Karzai the partnership between Australian special forces and Matiullah's militia was ''a proud one''.

The Defence chief admitted that when Australian troops arrived in Oruzgan they did not understand the complex ''tribal dynamics'' but now had a more ''enlightened'' view.

The militia wears the uniform of the Provincial Response Company but is not controlled from Kabul and answers to Matiullah.

''They fight for their own group. They fight for very different reasons than, for instance, the Afghan army,'' said Ms van Bijlert.

The militia command group has been brought to Australia for improved training in a safe environment.

The visit came after negotiations between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Defence. Agreements were made about travel documents and warnings were given to the government that, as one source said, ''issues could arise'' if the Afghans claimed asylum in Australia in future years.

Riaz Haq said...

Here are some impressions of the Waziri tribes described by retired Pakistani Brigadier Marghoob Qadir as published in Daily Times:

The people belonging to the tribal belt that girdles Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the west live with an inexplicable mix of chivalry, banditry, personal liberty and tribal customs. It was 1985, I was commanding a unit in Kohat and we were travelling from Thal to Miranshah. I had ordered the regulation armed escort to stay put in Thal Fort. I knew it was irregular and quite risky also, but I had always regarded that such escorts, being cumbersome, normally impede speed and are at risk themselves. We were travelling through wild Waziristan practically bare handed. However, I had quietly slipped a service revolver into the jeep’s dashboard just in case. A few miles out of Thal, we saw a man sitting under a distant tree pointing his Kalashnikov at something directly above. As we got closer, he fired and whatever was left of a poor sparrow floated lifelessly to the ground below. Satisfied with his marksmanship he rolled his sheet, placed it under his head and lay down for a leisurely catnap.
We were negotiating a narrow and hilly tract of road short of Miranshah, when a rifle shot rang out from very close range. Then the second shot and a piece of rock scattered into bits as the bullet hit the rock face inches above the jeep bonnet. I told the driver to stop, climbed out of the jeep and looked straight into the barrel of a rifle pointed at me by a young Waziri a few yards up the opposite slope. There was a short verbal exchange in Pashto between the two of us and then we resumed our journey to Miranshah. It transpired that by firing those ‘near miss’ shots, the Wiziri youngster wanted to find out if we were afraid or not. Admittedly, I countered him by saying that he would also be scared if the same weapon were aimed at him without a fair chance. The boy understood and gave up further confirmation of my valour or fear.

En route, we had stopped for a cup of tea in a sprawling fort manned by scouts. It was a treat in old style hospitality and was altogether overwhelming. The scouts in that fort observed a strange water collection ritual every day at a given time. They had shared the only water spring some distance outside the fort with a neighbouring Waziri village ever since the fort was built in British times. The water filled up in a large but open ground level cemented water tank. Under a treaty concluded between the Waziri villagers and the British, the Waziris were conceded the right to collect water in the early part of the day. The scouts would do so in the afternoon. Fearing treachery, the British thought of a brilliantly inexpensive and simple test. A pair of white swans is officially kept and trained by the fort scouts. As the fort door opens for the water collection party, this pair of swans marches out towards the water tank, leading. Dipping their beaks in the water tank they drink till their pouches fill. The scouts’ party commander would observe them keenly for a few minutes for any signs of poisoning. If found in good health, the party would collect water in their containers and march back into the fort with the swans leading. Proper funds were allocated for the maintenance of this pair of swans, we were told.
They hold their privacy, which has to be understood in the broadest possible terms as being very dear to them. An actual or perceived trespass can have grave consequences. Their concept of privacy roughly corresponds to the modern day notion of sovereignty. For example, to pass through a Waziri village in a high-strung military truck is to trespass. To chance upon a female water-filling point is a serious infringement and so on. It may be understood that the Waziri concept of privacy is actually a function of perception more than the action.