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January 06, 2010

Afghanistan Cluster&%$! Watch
Posted by Michael Cohen

Now that everyone and their brother is fixated on Yemen, Afghanistan has pretty much fallen off the map. After all the President announced his new policy in December - so clearly nothing to see here; let's move on to the next crisis du jour.

But here's the problem - things aren't going well in Afghanistan. With the help of Juan Cole's exhaustive list from a few days ago, let me count the ways.

First on the Pakistani front. In the days after the President's speech, the Administration got tough - leaking to the NYT and WP that the Pakistanis were going to have to go after Afghan Taliban safe havens in the Quetta Shura and that the US might even consider sending drones and snatch teams into the area if they didn't. How did that Pakistanis respond - they got all Killing In the Name Of (check out the final chorus) . . . on the United States. Bottom line; they're interested in killing Pakistan Taliban; Afghan Taliban . . not so much.

Second, how about the Afghan government? Things aren't going so well there either. First came word back in December that Kabul's reconciliation programs are going nowhere quickly and actually putting Taliban deserters in harm's way; then this week the Afghan Parliament rejected 17 of 24 Cabinet officers named by the Karzai government, demonstrating how politically weakened Karzai has become - and how ineffectual the Afghan government will remain. And as I've mentioned several times; without host country support from the Afghan government a robust counter-insurgency effort is going to have a very hard time succeeding.

Third, according to a new Pentagon report, the Afghan Army is staggeringly dysfunctional and simply unprepared to support the US military effort there. Here is a brief synopsis from NBC News:

The 25-page study obtained by NBC News says senior Afghan commanders are, quote, "not at war. Many ANA leaders work short days, are often absent and place personal gain above national survival." The report says Afghan troops simply aren’t leading the fight, but remain dependent on US forces, and show few signs of wanting to take off the training wheels.

The report’s section on the Afghan army’s personnel says, "Corruption, nepotism and untrained, unmotivated personnel make success all but impossible . . .  the assessment said it will take time to expand and rehabilitate Afghan forces. The report said it "cannot take a year to fix this problem."

Lest we forget, building up the Afghan Army as a reputable fighting force is the crux of the military strategy in Afghanistan. Yet, amazingly Admiral Mullen actually told Congress that there would be 170,000 Afghan Army troops by July 2011 - and Gates wants to have 130,000 by December 2010. These numbers not only seem insane, but if this Pentagon report is any indication what kind of troops do we think we're going to be getting?

Fourth, the problems are not restricted to the Afghans and Pakistanis. According to Rajiv Chandrasekaren, "Nearly a month after Obama unveiled his revised Afghanistan strategy, military and civilian leaders have come away with differing views of several fundamental aspects of the President's new approach."

Of course, this is basically the same problem we were dealing with in April of last year - the civilian and military decision-makers not being on the same page. And yet amazingly it is continuing. Indeed, these two quotes in the story tell us all we need to know about the inherent disconnect that has defined US-Afghan policy in the Obama Administration from day one:

"This is not a COIN strategy," Vice President Biden said on MSNBC last week, using the military's shorthand for counterinsurgency. "This is not 'go out and occupy the whole country.' "

McChrystal's plan, the senior Pentagon official said, "is still counterinsurgency, regardless of the various agendas people are trying to spin." 

How reassuring!

Fifth, it seems that problems aren't restricted to civ-mil relations; how about mil-intel relations. The top military intelligence official in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn has put out a new paper basically arguing that intelligence gathering Afghanistan . . . ain't too good. He says of intel officials in Afghanistan," are ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced ... and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers"

Flynn basically argues that the intel community is spending too much time worrying about the enemy and not enough about the population. Considering the incorporation of COIN thinking into all elements of the military this is hardly surprising. It did however, seem in bad taste, that the report was released days after 7 CIA operatives were killed in Khost by an al Qaeda double agent. But here's the best part, this wasn't some leaked report - Flynn published it under his own name via CNAS an outside think-tank. And guess what the Pentagon is pissed:

"I think it struck everybody as a little bit curious, yes ... My sense is that this was an anomaly and that we probably won't see that (in the future)," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman."”It was an unusual and irregular way to publish a document of this nature."

What the hell is going on here? How does a report like this get released without going through the chain of command and blindsiding civilian leaders? It's almost like leaking a major strategic review in order to force the President's hand on military decision-making . . . But the ever astute Judah Grunstein gets to the heart of the issue; namely that Flynn's suggestions could risk further militarizing development efforts.

Oh and also the anti-narcotics effort is not going well because the State Department is doing a poor job overseeing contractors and working with the military; the President's assertion/hope that the US surge would be in Afghanistan by the middle of 2010 is going to be off by several months; and the Afghan people are really pissed because even though protecting civilians is the number one priority of the US military in Afghanistan . . . the US military in Afghanistan keeps killing civilians. In fact there were two incidents in one week; first in Kunar and then in Helmand. And now there are public rallies of Afghans condemning the foreign forces.

On a possibly positive note; the military seems to be upping its attention to counter-terrorism efforts against Taliban leaders and operatives. Of course in a vacuum this isn't a long-term recipe for success - and I'm really not clear how to square this news with the supposedly population-centric focus of our efforts in Afghanistan. 

And I haven't really mentioned the strategically incoherent offensive in Helmand back in early December, which seems to run even more counter to the approach outlined in the President's West Point speech.

Here's the most important point: these aren't these isolated incidents - they are actually connected in the sense that they are indicative of how disconnected our war plans are for Afghanistan (as outlined in the President's speech) and the reality on the ground.

We don't have buy-in from the Pakistanis to go after Afghan Taliban safe havens; we don't have support or even capacity in the Afghan government to support our efforts; the Afghan Army is nowhere close to being up to speed; our own military appears to have different tactical objectives than the civilian side; military intelligence is not serving the mission appropriately and top military intel officials are going outside the chain of command to make their concerns known; our enemy appears far more formidable than we seem willing to acknowledge; our additional troops are a long way from being on the ground in Afghanistan; our military is being asked to wage pointless battles in sparsely populated areas where we have no hope of holding territory in the near-term and it's not even clear that we're actually doing population centric counter-insurgency - and if we are doing it; we're not doing a great job of it.

Oh and the latest terrorist attack against the United States came from Yemen - even though we will have, by next year, 100,000 troops fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Keep in mind, all of what I describe here has happened - or been revealed - in the mere 5 weeks since the President's speech! I hate to keep being the proverbial you know what in the punch bowl on Afghanistan, but there is a lot of reason for concern about our policy and the war effort.  Juan Cole calls them a series of catastrophes; and I'm not so sure he's wrong. For anyone who believes that Afghanistan will be anywhere near stable by 2011 so that American troops can start being withdrawn . . . think again.

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