Sunday, May 16, 2010

Is America Losing the Afghan War?

"We're not going to win this (Afghan) war", Brig Mark Carleton-Smith, the former British commander in Afghanistan's Helmand province, told London's Sunday Times in 2008.

Almost two years later, the NATO and US commander General Stanley McChrystal appears to be reaching essentially the same conclusion as his British predecessor.

Here are a few excerpts from a report about Gen McChrystal's latest admission that "nobody 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."

Many an empires have walked into Afghanistan before the US, which gave them a false sense of invincibility to try and maintain domination. Each has been ejected by the ferocious Pashtuns.

"They should get out as soon as possible. Or they'll be picked off like clay pigeons in target practice."

The above words of warning to America are attributed by the NPR radio to former Soviet Afghan war veteran, Lt. Sergei Maximov, on the 20th anniversary of the humiliating defeat of the Soviet empire twenty years ago.

Because of America's overwhelming economic strength (27% of global GDP, US dollar as reserve and trade currency, etc), unquestioned technological superiority (most innovative people, top universities, etc.), ingrained political power (as architect of the biggest international institutions) and unparalleled military power, the US does have a much bigger margin of error than other previous empires did or currently competing nations or ideologies do.

But the margin of error currently enjoyed by the US is not infinite, however large it may be. It's gradually eroding with out-of-control war spending, mounting debt and deficits, and the emergence of other powerful nations around the globe. A recent book "The Godfather Doctrine" paints the United States as a power in relative decline, and it forecasts the emergence of a new, multi-polar world, with US being one of many power centers. In all likelihood, America will still be quite strong and powerful for a while, but its writ will no longer be unchallenged. It will have to rely on support from other powers to deal with the Solozzos (Iran, North Korea, al Qaeda etc.) of the world, as the authors Hulsman and Mitchell explain in their book.

Related Links:

US Afghan Exit: Trigger for India to Talk to Pakistan?

Facts and Myths about Afghanistan and Pakistan

Obama's New Regional Strategy

Webchat On Obama's New Regional Strategy

Stephen Cohen on India-Pakistan Relations

Obama's Afghan Exit Strategy

Obama's New Regional Strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan

US Escalating Covert War in Pakistan?

Can India "Do a Lebanon in Pakistan?

20th Anniversary of Soviet Defeat in Afghanistan

Growing Insurgency in Swat

Afghan War and Collapse of the Soviet Union

US, NATO Fighting to Stalemate in Afghanistan?

FATA Faceoff Fears

FATA Raid Charades


Anonymous said...

Honest, frank and professional approach to a problem usually leads to better decision making, can we say the same for Pakistan where TTP and other sectarian, Jihadi parties roam around freely? I am guessing, no. This is the crux of the problem, we continue to find excuses by building imaginary foreign enemies thus denying reality that we Sir do have a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

Riaz Haq said...

anon: "Honest, frank and professional approach to a problem usually leads to better decision making, can we say the same for Pakistan where TTP..."

Americans have had been exposed to plenty of Afghan history of foreign interventions. And our British buddies have had real experience of dealing with the Afghans.

And yet, the US has been bogged down in Afghanistan for more than 9 years...making it the longest war for the Americans.

Brig Mark Carleton-Smith, the former British commander in Afghanistan's Helmand province, told London's Sunday Times in 2008 that "we're not going to win this (Afghan) war".

Almost two years later, the NATO and US commander General Stanley McChrystal appears to be reaching essentially the same conclusion as his British predecessor did a while back.

Anonymous said...


America does not want the war to end. It just wants war in some part of the world preferbly not near their house.

This will keep their arm industry working over night. You can provide arms to the nationalist movement free of cost and sell arms at higher margin to the governemnt.

If i am not wrong that is the reason there is always violence in some part of the world including india and pakistan.

Anonymous said...


India has it own swot and it is developing on the same. Twenty year back nobody would have dreamt that china will be a economic power to threaten usa.

So it is too early either discount india or to prop up china.

Further if china is ready dish out freebies to neighbour of india to use against india, it is good for the people of the country as it leads to transfer of wealth and development. And india is instrumental for it. That is great.

Riaz Haq said...

Here are excerpts from an Op Ed by Huma Yousuf today in Pakistan's Dawn newspaper:

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has announced that his country is not ‘pushing’ Pakistan to make this move, while Nato has declared that the timing and strategy of the operation are to be fully of the Pakistan Army’s choosing.

This magnanimity does not signal a shift in policy, nor does it indicate that the US has truly come to trust Pakistan as an equal partner in its prolonged war against terror. No, western security forces are backing off from plans to launch the offensive because it’s going to be messy, very messy.

North Waziristan has long been home to Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s militant group, which has struck two peace accords with the Pakistan government (in 2006 and 2008) and therefore refrains from launching attacks against government and army personnel and property in Fata or elsewhere. Previously, Bahadur has prevented other militants, including Baitullah Mehsud, from launching attacks against Pakistan from his territory, and is responsible for expelling many Arab and Central Asian militants from the agencies.

In return for this cooperation, the Bahadur group has been allowed to flourish and is now well-entrenched in North Waziristan: it runs a parallel administration boasting recruiting offices for militants, training camps, madressahs, separate courts and jails and its own taxation policy. If an offensive in the tribal agency disrupts the Bahadur group, the army will face a well-armed and well-organised force that will no longer have any reason to keep foreign fighters at bay.

North Waziristan also serves as a base for the Jalaluddin Haqqani network, which primarily targets coalition forces in Afghanistan. The Haqqanis are old friends of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, and continue to be cultivated as contacts that could prove useful as political allies in a post-US Afghanistan. This network, too, has not attacked the Pakistani state, but may change its modus operandi if a military operation were to be directed against its fighters.

As practically the only one of Fata’s seven agencies that has not been the site of a military operation, North Waziristan has recently seen an influx of TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) militants fleeing army action elsewhere. Indeed, a list of all the groups whose activities have been traced to the tribal agency reads like a who’s who of regional militancy. The agency is also believed to be the hiding place of Al Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri.


A limited operation will also rule out the need to bring more troops into the vicinity (there are currently about 140,000 troops in the agency, mostly stationed in Miramshah). This is important because military action in Fata since 2005 has earned the ire of non-combatant agency residents who complain they have lost more lives and property because of army action rather than the militant presence.

This perception has fuelled the rate of militant recruitment in the area, and the last thing the North Waziristan operation should do is win more youngsters over to the militant cause. To this end, the army should work with the civilian government to raise enough funds beforehand to accommodate the IDPs who will escape the operation, and to compensate civilians for property damage.

More importantly, the army should also limit US involvement in the form of sustained drone attacks in any operation. This must be Pakistan’s fight, fought on Pakistan’s terms, with Pakistan’s best interests in mind.

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 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 are some excerpts from a CBS interview with Pak UN ambassador Haroon:

U.S.-Pakistan relations are at an all-time low. Pakistan's U.N. Ambassador Abdullah Hussein Haroon, speaking to CBS News about the allegations of Pakistani-ISI links to insurgents, said that Pakistan wants to end terrorism in his country and that Washington and Afghanistan are blaming Pakistan, making it the scapegoat for a conflict which victimizes Pakistan more than it hurts the U.S. or Afghanistan.

"For the past few months it's been the U.S. who keeps trying to put pressure by saying Pakistan this or Pakistan that," Haroon said. "That policy needs reappraisal. You need to talk as allies, don't talk down to us. This is not going to succeed. Politics should be transactional, not coercive. We want success. We don't want this mess on our doorstep for the next 100 years. It's not of our making, not of our choosing, not of our doing. We've paid the highest price for this war."

As the U.S. assesses the projected dates for the drawdown of U.S. troops and the recent spike in some types of violent incidents, a CBS News poll found that, although most Americans support the military, the American public thinks the United States should not be fighting in Afghanistan and the war has not been worth it.

Pakistan's U.N. Ambassador, who has been in his country's foreign service all his adult life, said bluntly that the U.S. had ignored the lessons of history in deciding to, and how to, invade Afghanistan.

"The Soviets lost Afghanistan by not learning the lessons of history... History is again repeating itself because the Americans have repeated the mistakes made by the Soviets and everyone else."

Haroon said U.S. leaders "overestimated their own capabilities and underestimated those of the Afghan guerillas."

The ambassador accuses the U.S. of underestimating the Taliban.

"I believe this needs to be reassessed because misappreciation of the enemy has always led to military setbacks."

Adding to his list of alleged U.S. failures, Haroon said American military commanders failed to assess the physical terrain on which they were planning to fight.

All the errors, he said, "contributed to the impasse which has resulted in Afghanistan."

As U.S.-Pakistan relations sour and anti-U.S. troop sentiment in Pakistan rises, Haroon offered some advice: "You cannot solve Afghanistan without Pakistan and Pakistan cannot be free of its own troubles without Afghanistan first being free of all its troubles. That is the conundrum."

"Whenever anyone has set a date for withdrawal in Afghanistan, before the army has effectively left their borders, their imposed government falls and runs with them towards the border. You have undermined yourselves completely... by setting an exit date."
"We're getting treated like we're a pariah," complained Haroon. "Very, very sad shape, and it is not what we expect of a great country like America."

"Do you know why in New York, why nothing happened (this year) on September 11? You gave us a list of three people, 'help us find them,' you said. We went out of our way and did find them. The White House said fantastic, we have the people that could have harmed us and, by God's grace, nothing happened. Three key people were handed over on the 5th of September. Were people told in America that the reason that New York is safe is because Pakistan helped us capture these people?"

Riaz Haq said...

A recent book "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan" by Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrashekharan argues that it's failures primarily in Washington rather than Islamabad and Kabul that have hurt US goals in Afghanistan.

Chandrashekaran writes on page 329 of his book: "The reason was not be found in Kabul or Islamabad. It was in Washington: America's bureaucracy had become America's worst enemy."

Here's another excerpt as published in Washington Post:

To Holbrooke, a towering man with an irrepressible personality, brokering a deal with the Taliban was the only viable strategy to end the war.

He was convinced that the military’s goal of defeating the Taliban would be too costly and time-consuming, and the chances of success were almost nil, given the safe havens in Pakistan, the corruption of Karzai’s government and the sorry state of the Afghan army.

Obama told his aides that he was interested in a peace deal, and less than two months after he took office, the president said publicly that he was open to seeking reconciliation with the Taliban, comparing such an effort to a U.S. initiative to work with former Sunni militants in Iraq who were willing to break with al-Qaeda.

His comments alarmed top military and intelligence officials. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, chief of U.S. Central Command, thought it was too soon even to talk about talking. They wanted to commit more troops first and then talk, but only to Taliban leaders who agreed to surrender. CIA officials argued that the United States could not negotiate with the Taliban until its leadership denounced al-Qaeda.

There was no clear path for Holbrooke to achieve peace talks. The Taliban had no office, mailing address, or formal structure. It was not clear that its leader, the reclusive Mullah Mohammed Omar, wanted to talk — in 2009, the Taliban appeared to be winning — or whether he and his fellow mullahs would accept the United States’ conditions for negotiations: that they renounce violence, break with al-Qaeda and embrace the Afghan constitution.

Even if they did, would the terms be acceptable to the Karzai government? What about Pakistan and other neighboring powers? If Holbrooke was going to have any chance of success, he needed the backing of others in the administration, starting with the president.

But the White House never issued a clear policy on reconciliation during the administration’s first two years. Instead of finding common purpose with Holbrooke, White House officials were consumed with fighting him. Jones and Lute hated the thought of Holbrooke basking in the spotlight as he did after peace in the Balkans. They wanted him out of the way, and then they would chart a path to peace.

Riaz Haq said...

Zalmay Khalilzad: "#US fell far short of its aspirations in #Afghanistan, #Iraq—a reality that weighs deeply on me"

In his postings to Kabul and Baghdad, Mr. Khalilzad served on the diplomatic front lines of U.S. efforts to replace terror-spawning Islamic tyrannies with benign, democratic governments. In both countries, he wrestled hands-on with some of the toughest foreign-policy questions of our time. What follows regime change? How can a functional and free polity be built out of the ruins of an overthrown tyranny? What part should America play?

These are the main themes of Mr. Khalilzad’s memoir, “The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World.” In practice, Mr. Khalilzad was more than an envoy. He was a kind of backroom power broker who was trying to help engender the new governments to which he was the ambassador. It was a complex business, and out of it Mr. Khalilzad provides a richly argued case for such lessons as: “Do not assume that local politics will take care of themselves in the aftermath of regime change.”

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Khalilzad midwifed constitutions—each controversial for enshrining Islam as the state religion but each leaving room, he hoped, for liberally enlightened interpretation. In both countries, he made countless rounds as a local go-between, trying to reconcile leaders of contending factions. He describes how he cajoled, bargained, strong-armed and, at one point—while dickering with an Afghan official over the role of the Kabul defense ministry—“tried a Socratic dialogue of sorts.”

For anyone desiring a detailed chronicle of America’s nation-building efforts after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Khalilzad’s book should be required reading—though without such a yearning it may be difficult for the general reader to get through it. Mr. Khalilzad brings to the table a wealth of anecdotes, opinions and prescriptions, but he embeds many of them in the mannerisms of a bureaucratic memo, arriving at such pithy but unreadable summaries as: “To succeed, the United States must retain its capacities as a reactive mobilizer but also develop a greater ability to serve as a proactive shaper of regional political order.”

Jargon aside, there are plenty of instructive stories here. In Afghanistan, Mr. Khalilzad felt that he had helped assemble the foundations of decent rule and tried to follow Mr. Bush’s instructions to turn the country’s first elected president, Hamid Karzai, “into a great politician.” But he found Pakistan to be a huge spoiler, harboring Taliban insurgents (and, as it later turned out, al Qaeda boss Osama bin Laden). He writes: “I wanted additional pressure on Pakistan—but was unsuccessful in convincing the president and the principals.”

In Iraq, there was also a spoiler: Iran. With money and bombs, Tehran’s Shia Muslim regime was fueling frictions between Iraq’s Shia majority and its Sunni minority, pushing the country into civil war. Mr. Khalilzad reports that the Quds Force, the elite overseas arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, “had an enormous number of Iraqis on its payroll, sometimes at low levels and other times at much higher levels.”

He writes that in his efforts to thwart Iran’s pernicious reach, “I sometimes told Shia Islamist leaders, who were close to Iran, that I believed Tehran wanted to turn Iraq into a smoldering ruin that the Iranians could then control with ease.” Some Shia leaders quietly agreed, including, on at least one occasion, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who told Mr. Khalilzad that he believed Iran had been behind the 2006 terrorist bombing of a major Shia shrine in Iraq, the Golden Mosque.

Mr. Khalilzad concludes on the grim note that “the United States fell far short of its aspirations in Afghanistan and Iraq—a reality that weighs deeply on me.” He assigns some blame to his own missteps and more to what he saw as the broader mistakes of the Bush administration, especially the failure to devise an effective strategy for “the Iran problem.”

Riaz Haq said...

BBC News - #Taliban threaten 70% of #Afghanistan, BBC finds. #UnitedStates, #UK, #Pakistan

Taliban fighters, whom US-led forces spent billions of dollars trying to defeat, are now openly active in 70% of Afghanistan, a BBC study has found.

Months of research across the country shows that the Taliban now control or threaten much more territory than when foreign combat troops left in 2014.

The Afghan government played down the report, saying it controls most areas.

But recent attacks claimed by Taliban and Islamic State group militants have killed scores in Kabul and elsewhere.

Afghan officials and US President Donald Trump have responded by ruling out any talks with the Taliban. Last year Mr Trump announced the US military would stay in the country indefinitely.

The BBC research also suggests that IS is more active in Afghanistan than ever before, although it remains far less powerful than the Taliban.

How much territory do the Taliban control?
The BBC study shows the Taliban are now in full control of 14 districts (that's 4% of the country) and have an active and open physical presence in a further 263 (66%), significantly higher than previous estimates of Taliban strength.

About 15 million people - half the population - are living in areas that are either controlled by the Taliban or where the Taliban are openly present and regularly mount attacks.

"When I leave home, I'm uncertain whether I will come back alive," said one man, Sardar, in Shindand, a western district that suffers weekly attacks. "Explosions, terror and the Taliban are part of our daily life."

The extent to which the Taliban have pushed beyond their traditional southern stronghold into eastern, western and northern parts of the country is clearly visible from the BBC study.

Areas that have fallen to the Taliban since 2014 include places in Helmand province like Sangin, Musa Qala and Nad-e Ali, which foreign forces fought and died to bring under government control after US-led troops had driven the Taliban from power in 2001. More than 450 British troops died in Helmand between 2001 and 2014.

In the areas defined as having an active and open Taliban presence, the militants conduct frequent attacks against Afghan government positions. These range from large organised group strikes on military bases to sporadic single attacks and ambushes against military convoys and police checkpoints.