Sunday, October 5, 2008

US, NATO Fighting to Stalemate in Afghanistan?

"We're not going to win this war", Brig Mark Carleton-Smith, the UK's commander in Afghanistan's Helmand province, told London's Sunday Times this week.

"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.

"If the Taleban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that's precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this."

To appreciate this latest dose of ground reality from Brig Carelton-Smith, let us try and put it in historical perspective. The Brigadier represents a nation that has had a very long experience of running an empire and dealing with the Afghans as well as frequent encounters with the Pushtoons on the Pakistani side of the border. The British almost certainly understand the Pushtoons better than America and its NATO allies. They played the Great Game with the Russians for supremacy in Afghanistan and Central Asia for most of the 19th century. "The Great Game" as an accepted term was introduced into mainstream consciousness by British novelist Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim (1901). It ended just prior to WW I when the British made an alliance with Russia and reached an accommodation with Amir Abdur Rahman Khan in Afghanistan.

After reaching a virtual stalemate in two wars against the Afghans, the British got Amir Abdur Rahman Khan of Afghanistan in 1893 to come to an agreement to demarcate the border between Afghanistan and what was then British India (now North-West Frontier Province (N.W.F.P.), Federally Administered Tribal Areas (F.A.T.A.) and Balochistan provinces of Pakistan).

After concluding agreements with Russia and Afghanistan, the British repeatedly tried and failed to establish control of the tribal belt (known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA) now inside Pakistan. In the face of this reality, a new system of governance was codified by the British in Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) in 1901 and it remains in force today. It relies on Political Agents (PAs) appointed by the governor of NWFP (North West Frontier Province) on behalf of Pakistan's president. The PAs are the highest officials of the state of Pakistan in tribal agencies. They do not directly rule or administer, but they work with the tribal chiefs (maliks) using carrots and sticks to influence the tribes' behavior. The PAs provide money, infrastructure support and other incentives to the maliks in exchange for cooperation. When such cooperation is not forthcoming, the PAs withhold funds, levy fines and, in rare circumstances, threaten the use of military force to bring them in line. The bottom line is that the system relies on the PAs cooperation with the maliks. Without it, the governance model falls apart. Like the colonial British rulers of the past, no government in Pakistan has managed to take full control of FATA since the country's independence in 1947.

The words of the British commander clearly hint at the fact that, at best, the US and its allies can hope to reach a stalemate with the insurgents in Afghanistan in the absence of a political strategy. The political strategy necessary in a situation like this requires an understanding of the other side's position to negotiate a mutually acceptable settlement. Brute, raw military force and a corrupt Quisling government of Hamid Karzai will not suffice.

As fighting words come out of the mouths of US presidential candidates (particularly Barack Obama) about Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is time for the American people to listen to the voices of reason, such as the British brigadier's voice. Let us not be swayed by the political rhetoric of the moment. We need to start thinking about the end game in Afghanistan.


Anonymous said...

Its a shame for a Brigadier rank officer to say they cannot win the war.That is the job of politicians.The Europeans have turned soft because of prosperity and peace in the region while US does the dirty job.The Germans hide in Southern Afghanistan and very touchy about causalities.Why are they wasting large amount of money on military. They should go ahead and disband the military and raise poultry farm instead.The Americans says they are NOT WINNING but THEY CAN. And that is the attitude of a soldier. Peace deal with Taliban - Give me a break.And negotiate what length of beard or hijab or abaya? A Chamberlain policy will lead to history repeating itself. What the hell were they doing brinkmanship with Soviet Union when they cannot even tackle a rag-tag Taliban guerrilla warfare.India is battling 35 or so insurgencies all at the same time and crushed Punjab,Tripura and Kashmiri terrorism without hifi network centric warfare or night vision.They cannot handle a stupid illiterate force with walkie-talkies and automatic.Another 7/11 type attack will hopefully get the attention of the chattering Europeans.

Riaz Haq said...

Your comments are quite predictably hawkish and highly laudatory of India's "successes". The fact is that the only insurgency India has successfully put down is the one in Punjab. The rest of them are still raging with no end in sight.

Please understand: Afghanistan and FATA are not Punjab. Just look at the history of invasions and interventions and you'll know that no one, I emphasize "NO ONE" has been able to defeat them with bombs and bullets. The Brits and the Russians know it better than any one else.

I applaud Brig Gen Carleton-Smith for his insightful analysis and candor. Privately, I am almost certain that the American generals are saying the same thing to their politicians (particularly Obama) who are full of bluster and bravado. It'll take some more time and more losses before they all agree with Carleton-Smith and start dealing with the political side of the conflict, just like they had to in Iraq.

Anonymous said...

Jaydev, i bet you sit comfortably home and get most of your news from cnn and listen to bush and now obama. regardless of what they want or should want. Have you ever thought that you can never win against people who are more courages then you are. The u.s soldiers and the n.a.t.o soldiers spend millions on safety and in sure the soldiers don,t die even though poor soldiers can,t even walk cause they are so heavy carrying all the safety guard. On the other hand the taliban as much as i hate them, go out there to die and you can,t win against people who are willing to sacrifice.Talking is the only solution wheather you like it or not and i am glad sombody has sense, rather then same old rethoric. sooner or lar they will have to talk
p.s obama is just using the same thechnique bush used in 04 scare the american public and it will work.

Anonymous said...

Courage actually comes from necessity and direness of threat perception. What did Nazis blabbered about Jews' fighting capability.6-day multi-front war pronouncedly answered that question. Europeans think that winning Taliban is an option.The way Spain folded up when a ceasefire was proposed by Al-Qaeda vindicates my rant about Europeans (with exception of french & russians).Taliban/warlords can be defeated if "the source" is taken out. You might have heard about latest Spanish intel leaks taking about Pak army-intelligence double game. This is precisely the reason for phoenix type rise of Taliban from ashes.As Afghan RAM chief puts it, the situation in NWFP-FATA is "controlled chaos" to confuse the US into thinking that Pak Army is on the same side of counter-terrorism and border areas are out of control. Its for no reason that Western intelligence have stopped sharing intelligence with ISI.


Riaz Haq said...

There are differences in the language used, but there is a broad consensus emerging among US, UK, NATO and UN that the Afghan war can not be won by military means alone. That political negotiations are necessary. Here's an excerpt from a BBC report on this subject:

Mr Gates said despite challenges, there was no reason to think success could not be achieved in the long run.

But he endorsed the recommendation by Brig Mark Carleton-Smith that a resolution to the conflict would require negotiations with the Taleban.

Earlier, Nato-led forces said they also supported opening talks with militants.

Brig Richard Blanchette, the spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said there could be no military solution.

The UN Special Representative in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, made similar comments.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a comment I received via email on this post:

Dear Riaz,
Beautifully composed; hits the nail on the head. The saying in Pakistan is: you cannot kill the Pathan with a bullet.
Yesterday I saw on the TV that an Afghan delegation, has met one from Taliban in Saudi Arabia under the patronage of the Kingdom; may be it us the beginning of the "end game".
Let us hope better sense prevails.

Riaz Haq said...

As Obama ponders US policy and more US troops in Afghanistan, there are echoes of Soviet defeat, according to BBC:

By the late 1980s, Moscow's exit strategy was basically the same as Nato's today - to build up an allied government in Kabul with sufficient trained army and police forces to defend itself, thereby allowing foreign troops to leave.

But even with the backing of a 100,000-strong Soviet army and billions of rubles in aid, the Afghan government struggled to establish its legitimacy and authority much beyond the capital - much like President Hamid Karzai's Western-backed administration today.

This bleak assessment of the situation in late 1986 by the Soviet armed forces commander, Marshal Sergei Akhromeev, sounds eerily familiar.

"Military actions in Afghanistan will soon be seven years old," Mr Akhromeev told Mr Gorbachev at a November 1986 Politburo session.

"There is no single piece of land in this country which has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier. Nonetheless, the majority of the territory remains in the hands of rebels.

"The whole problem is that military results are not followed up by political actions. At the centre there is authority; in the provinces there is not.

"We control Kabul and the provincial centers, but on occupied territory we cannot establish authority. We have lost the battle for the Afghan people".

By that point, Soviet trainers had created an Afghan army 160,000-strong - double the size of the force Nato has trained so far - together with thousands of much-feared secret policemen.

Yet once Soviet forces had left, they could do little more than defend Kabul and a few other cities.

Only massive military aid, coupled with incompetence and in-fighting among the US-backed mujahideen opposition, allowed the Afghan government Moscow left behind to cling on in Kabul for a few more years before finally collapsing.

There were familiar problems too with the financial assistance Moscow gave.

It hoped the funds would bolster the capacity of the Afghan government and pay for projects that would benefit people, winning hearts and minds.

However corruption rendered much of its useless.

As the Politburo discussed a new aid request from Kabul in January 1987, Marshal Sergei Sokolov said: "In 1981, we gave them 100m roubles of free assistance. And all of that went to the elite. And there was nothing in the hamlets - no kerosene, no matches."

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...

A recent Ruters' blog post asks the provocative question: "Is Baluchistan more strategically significant than Afghanistan?"

Here's the text of the post:

Baluchistan, Pakistan’s biggest province, rarely gets much attention from the international media, and what little it does is dwarfed by that showered on Afghanistan. So it is with a certain amount of deliberate provocation that I ask the question posed in the headline: Is Baluchistan more strategically significant than Afghanistan?

Before everyone answers with a resounding “no”, do pause to consider that China – renowned for its long-term planning – has invested heavily in Baluchistan, including building a deep water port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea to give it access to Gulf oil supplies. The region is rich in gas and minerals; attracting strong international interest in spite of a low-level insurgency by Baluch separatists.

Bordering both Iran and Afghanistan, it lies along the sectarian and geopolitical faultlines that have fissured the region since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan later that year. Its capital, Quetta, is often cited by Washington as a haven for the Afghan Taliban in the so-called Quetta shura, who operate independently of the more secular Baluch separatists.

The province is also a source of friction with India, with Pakistan accusing it of using its presence in Afghanistan to fund the Baluch separatists, a charge Delhi denies. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that argument, you can be fairly sure that anywhere lying on the intersection of Indian, Chinese and Pakistani interests will be strategically far more important than it might appear on the surface.

In that context, Forbes Magazine has a must-read take-out on China’s drive to develop its presence in Baluchistan.

“In the Pakistani province of Balochistan, South Asia and central Asia bleed into the Middle East. Bordered by Afghanistan, Iran and the Persian Gulf, and well endowed with oil, gas, copper, gold and coal reserves, Balochistan is a rich prize that should have foreign investors battering at the gates,” it says. “But for a half-century it has been the exclusive playground of the Pakistani government and its state-owned Chinese partners. China would prefer it to stay that way.”

For an entirely different view, Informed Comment has a guest contribution up by Berkeley academic Kiren Aziz Chaudhry. The arguments can be a bit distracting if you don’t buy into conspiracy theories about the reasons for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. But do persevere until you get to the point where the writer identifies Baluchistan as the main centre of interest for the many rivalries across Afghanistan and Pakistan: “The fulcrum is the province of Balochistan. And within Balochistan, the pivot is the dusty, obscure coastal town of Gwadar. Gwadar has a spanking new deep water port. Wheels within wheels. Devices within devices.” It’s worth reading through to the end, if nothing else but because this little known part of the world deserves as many different voices as possible.

At the very least, both articles should leave you with a doubt in your mind about the original question as to whether Baluchistan is strategically more important than Afghanistan.

And then revisit another question I asked a year ago. Who will win the peace in Afghanistan?

Riaz Haq said...

The US is seeking to expand CIA's presence for large scale covert war in Pakistan, according to Wall Street Journal:

WASHINGTON—The U.S. is pushing to expand a secret CIA effort to help Pakistan target militants in their havens near the Afghan border, according to senior officials, as the White House seeks new ways to prod Islamabad into more aggressive action against groups allied with al Qaeda,

The push comes as relations between Washington and Islamabad have soured over U.S. impatience with the slow pace of Pakistani strikes against militants who routinely attack U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama has said he will begin to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in July, increasing the urgency to show progress in the nine-year war against the Taliban.

The U.S. asked Pakistan in recent weeks to allow additional Central Intelligence Agency officers and special operations military trainers to enter the country as part of Washington's efforts to intensify pressure on militants.

The requests have so far been rebuffed by Islamabad, which remains extremely wary of allowing a larger U.S. ground presence in Pakistan, illustrating the precarious nature of relations between Washington and its wartime ally.

The number of CIA personnel in Pakistan has grown substantially in recent years. The exact number is highly classified. The push for more forces reflects, in part, the increased need for intelligence to support the CIA drone program that has killed hundreds of militants with missile strikes. The additional officers could help Pakistani forces reach targets drones can't.

There are currently about 900 U.S. military personnel in Pakistan, 600 of which are providing flood relief and 150 of which are assigned to the training mission.

A senior Pakistani official said relations with the CIA remain strong but Islamabad continues to oppose a large increase in the number of American personnel on the ground.

The Obama administration has been ramping up pressure on Islamabad in recent weeks to attack militants after months of publicly praising Pakistani efforts. The CIA has intensified drone strikes in Pakistan, and the military in Afghanistan has carried out cross-border helicopter raids, underlining U.S. doubts Islamabad can be relied upon to be more aggressive. Officials have even said they were going to stop asking for Pakistani help with the U.S.'s most difficult adversary in the region, the North Waziristan-based Haqqani network, because it was unproductive.

The various moves reflect a growing belief that the Pakistani safe havens are a bigger threat to Afghan stability than previously thought.

When senior Pakistani officials visited Washington this week, Obama administration officials signaled they are willing to push for a long-term military aid package. But they also have made clear to Pakistani officials they expect tangible results, and they threatened that current cash payments to Pakistan could be reduced if things don't improve in tribal areas such as North Waziristan.

The current efforts to expand CIA presence are meant to expand intelligence collection and facilitate more aggressive Pakistani-led actions on the ground. Some U.S. officials, however, remain hopeful that Islamabad will allow a greater covert presence that could include CIA paramilitary forces.
Much of the on-ground intelligence in Pakistan is gathered by the country's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Some U.S. officials believe Pakistan wants the U.S. to remain dependent on the ISI for that intelligence.

Riaz Haq said...

Here are excerpts from a BBC report today about the British Army Chief Gen Richards' pessimistic assessment of Afghanistan:

The West can only contain, not defeat, militant groups such as al-Qaeda, the head of the UK's armed forces has said.

General Sir David Richards, a former Nato commander in Afghanistan, said Islamist militancy would pose a threat to the UK for at least 30 years.

But he told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show a clear-cut victory over militants was not achievable.

The BBC's Frank Gardner said the comments reflect a "new realism" in UK and US counter-terrorism circles.

Our security correspondent said such an admission five years ago might have been considered outrageous and defeatist....
Britain has lost 343 soldiers in Afghanistan since 2001.

But Gen Richards told the BBC it was not possible to defeat the Taliban or al-Qaeda militarily.

"You can't. We've all said this. David Petraeus has said it, I've said it.

"The trick is the balance of things that you're doing and I say that the military are just about, you know, there.

"The biggest problem's been ensuring that the governance and all the development side can keep up with it within a time frame and these things take generations sometimes within a time frame that is acceptable to domestic, public and political opinion," he said.

He said extremist Islamism could not be eradicated as an idea.

"I don't think you can probably defeat an idea, it's something we need to battle back against as necessary, but in its milder forms why shouldn't they be allowed to have that sort of philosophy underpinning their lives.

"It's how it manifests itself that is the key and can we contain that manifestation - and quite clearly al-Qaeda is an unacceptable manifestation of it," he said.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's an excerpt from the NY Times analysis of the Obama speech on US troop reductions in Afghanistan:

... “What the Abbottabad raid demonstrated more vividly than ever is that we need a base to strike targets in Pakistan, and the geography is simple: You need to do that from Afghanistan,” said Bruce Reidel, a retired C.I.A. officer who conducted Mr. Obama’s first review of strategy in the region.
Their first is to assure that Afghanistan never again becomes a launching pad for attacks on the United States. But the more urgent reason is Pakistan. In his speech, Mr. Obama invited Pakistan to expand its peaceful cooperation in the region, but also noted that Pakistan must live up to its commitments and that “the U.S. will never tolerate a tolerate a safe haven for those who would destroy us.”

Pakistan has already made it clear, however, that it will never allow American forces to be based there. As relations have turned more hostile with the United States in recent months, it has refused to issue visas to large numbers of C.I.A. officers, and seems to be moving quickly to close the American drone base in Shamsi, Pakistan.

For their part, administration officials make it clearer than ever that they view Pakistan’s harboring of terrorist groups as the more urgent problem. “We don’t see a transnational threat coming out of Afghanistan,” a senior administration official briefing reporters before the president’s speech said Wednesday. Later he added, “The threat has come from Pakistan.”

Those realities have placed increasing pressure on Obama administration officials to secure some long-term success from the long war in Afghanistan. That is by no means guaranteed. As the bulk of international forces leave, the country may yet descend into civil war and chaos.

Indeed, several senior administration officials acknowledged in recent days that the announcement by Mr. Obama merely put the best face possible on three-year plan to retreat from what was once a expansive experiment in nation-building.

The key goal now will be a diminished one — a counterterrorism mission to finish off Al Qaeda — that is far closer to the mission that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and some political aides at the White House argued for 18 months ago. With Wednesday’s announcement, President Obama indicated that he has slowly inched toward that view as well.

“The hard part over the next few years will be proving to the Afghans that there is something in this for them,” Mr. Reidel said.

That is particularly difficult because what the Afghans may well draw from Mr. Obama’s prime-time speech is that the Americans are leaving again — just as they did after the Soviet Union gave up its war in 1989 — but this time more slowly.

Over the past decade, the Afghans heard many promises from Washington. Months after ordering the invasion that drove out the Taliban government, President George W. Bush declared that the United States would initiate a new Marshall Plan for Afghanistan; it never fully materialized.

In 2009 Mr. Obama spoke of a “civilian surge” of “agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers” who would train Afghans how to create a modern country. The results have been limited, and in Wednesday night’s speech, Mr. Obama never mentioned those goals.

Administration officials insist that those efforts will continue, despite the drawdown. Even after all the “surge” forces return home, there will still be 68,000 American troops on the ground next year — more than twice the number that were in Afghanistan the day Mr. Obama took office.

But over time, the counterterrorism mission will require fewer troops in the region, administration officials said.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's an interesting LA Times Op Ed on Obama's Afghan troop-reduction speech before it was delivered:

Here's some important new information that President Obama should certainly leave out of his big Afghanistan speech Wednesday evening:

Only 12% of people in our most important regional ally, Pakistan, now have a positive view of the United States. And only 8% express confidence in the American leader to do the right thing, according to a new Pew Research Center poll.

This could have something to do with deadly U.S. drone raids on Pakistan and the assassination of Osama bin Laden there in a commando incursion; a whopping 14% of Pakistanis think the latter was a good thing.
Obama's latest speech will be directed solely at Americans, who have begun registering impatience with the war, especially since Obama joined another one in Libya in March that he said would last days, not weeks, and has now gone on for months.

The president is in a mess of his own making. He built his initial national political persona on opposition to Bush's Iraq war because, the former U.S. senator argued, it distracted America from the far more important conflict against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and terrorism in Afghanistan, which was the haven for Al Qaeda's 9/11 training.

Bush's Iraq surge worked, however, enabling Obama to proclaim victory and transfer those troops. This, in turn, enabled Vice President Joe Biden, the candidate who wanted to slice Iraq into three parts, to go on cable TV and with no sense of irony call Iraq one of Obama's "great achievements."

That left the Afghanistan war, 10 years old this fall, where Al Qaeda forces were making gains against the invisible central government. When Obama became commander-in-chief, the United States had 32,000 troops there. Today it has 100,000.

Since 2001, 1,632 Americans have died there, 696 of them (43%) during the 882 days of Obama's presidency.

At West Point in his Afghanistan surge speech, sending in 30,000 more pairs of U.S. boots, Obama spoke 4,582 words. He said "Al Qaeda" 22 times and "Taliban" 12 times. He said the word "victory" zero times.
Wow, is it almost July 2011 already? So, Wednesday night Obama will announce how many American troops will start leaving in 10 days. Key word there: Start. Technically, one planeload would be a start.

Initial word was 5,000, possibly in the first month. Sinking poll numbers for both Obama and the war, however, suggest the president will go higher, much higher. Strategic leaks by aides this week say the drawdown could be as large as 33,000 by election day next year. Something that size would likely disconcert allies.

But that is a politically tidy total exactly equal to the last inbound surge. It's also larger than some military experts believe is wise, if you don't want to discard a developing win given what Gen. David Petraeus has called the "fragile" progress there.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Tuesday the president had to factor growing public and congressional war fatigue into his drawdown decision. Speaking of war, Gates reportedly opposed the attack on Libya. Perhaps now the tight-lipped loyalist to a Republican and a Democratic president also thinks the size of withdrawal is excessive. His retirement takes effect the day before the drawdown starts. Maybe coincidence.