Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Brian Downing's reflections on the future for Afghanistan

Asia Times today includes a highly reflective article by Brian M. Downing. What we feel confident about is that without Pakistan’s help there will be no solution of the problem in Afghanistan, but also without a major reconfiguration of responsibility in Afghanistan’s government there will be no resolution to the current problems. Downing is at least informed and opinionated. I wonder, though, if anybody in the American government is listening.
[Click on the title for a link to the source page.]

South Asia Jan 8, 2009

Surging towards stalemate in Afghanistan
By Brian M Downing

The United States will soon double the number of its troops in Afghanistan from about 30,000 to 60,000, and several other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries will also up their troop levels.

The move comes with little surprise and considerable bipartisan support in the US, but with little public discussion of the aims and likely outcomes. Evocative as the move is with similar events in Iraq that are generally (though perhaps uncritically) credited with bringing stability there, it is hoped that a similar outcome will come about in Afghanistan, where the situation has deteriorated badly while US attention has been focused on Iraq and Iran.

The troop surge in Afghanistan will strengthen defenses around major cities such as Kabul, Jalalabad, Gardez and Kandahar, countering the Taliban's infiltration and growing presence in city neighborhoods. (Though Afghan guerrilla movements are thought rural, during the war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the mujahideen were able to operate in many cities, especially Kandahar.)

Presently, the Taliban use their infiltration of cities to gather intelligence, send out bombing operations and make their presence otherwise felt through intimidation of officials and establishing an alternate government. Two years ago, Taliban bombings were remarkably ineffectual, killing only the bomber in about half of the attacks. In recent months, however, their campaign has demonstrated increased skill in the deadly trade. In time, they will seek to turn Afghan cities into Fallujahs and Baghdads.

The surge will allow for more sweep operations in rural areas where the Taliban have been spreading and consolidating. Such operations will halt and hopefully reverse the unfavorable momentum that has been underway for several years. Halting that momentum is critical, as many Pashtun and other tribes are beginning to see the Taliban as a likely victor with whom they must come to terms, sooner or later. Yet there is evidence that even a few non-Pashtun tribes in the geographic center, including Tajiks and Hazaras, are choosing to do so sooner rather than later.

It is crucial to stave off the drift toward reducing the US/NATO presence to a series of enclaves surrounded by a Taliban-controlled countryside - a state of affairs especially pronounced in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand and in several eastern provinces as well.

Anti-Taliban tribes along the supply routes from Pakistan will welcome sweeps as removing pressure on them, though the Taliban might simply move operations to the Pakistani side of the frontier and seek to isolate US/NATO forces from that side of the frontier. Sweeps will also provide the opportunity for greater village security on which counter-insurgency programs depend. This is essential if there is any hope of detaching the populace from the Taliban and engaging them with the Hamid Karzai government. At present, the Taliban are able to move freely in and out of many villages to impose their own form of security and justice, both of which are becoming acceptable to a war-weary people.

A doubling of US troop levels, however, will entail at least as many problems as advantages. More US troops will add to the growing perception that US/NATO forces are no longer there to help them, rather they are an occupying force like the Persians, British and Russians before them, and as such they are to be treated as the others were.

The same perception, regardless of Western forces' actual intentions, will resonate in much of the Islamic world, where hostility to the US is strong and attributing imperialist motives requires little evidence or promulgation. After the collapse of Iraq as the central theater of operations, many Islamist fighters now see Afghanistan as the setting for defeating the US. The various insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan have already drawn additional international fighters including Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs. Reports state that a number of al-Qaeda fighters have left Iraq for the more promising campaign to the east.

More US/NATO sweeps in contested areas may push the Taliban off balance, but they can cause troubles as well. Many village chieftains complain that such operations bring fighting and attendant ills to areas that had not endured serious warfare in years. In other words, they see US/North Atlantic Treaty Orginization (NATO) efforts to oust the Taliban - not the Taliban itself - as the cause of fighting, destruction, stray ordnance and death.

Thousands more US troops raises the question of their suitability for the intricate and frustrating nature of counter-insurgency warfare. Most if not all will be regular infantry units, which are neither trained for nor suited to counter-insurgency operations and as such are not as politically adroit as the Taliban, who have been conducting a form of such operations for many years now.

More useful in this regard are special forces, which are trained in negotiating with chieftains, attending to village needs and otherwise garnering local support. Regular infantry troops rely on extensive use of massive firepower - a way of war that has been with the US military for generations and has become a veritable instinct in non-commissioned officers and officers. It has led to considerable success over the years, but also to notable failures where it alienated civilian populaces.

Though developments in Iraq have somewhat disabused the US of relying on massive firepower, US forces in Afghanistan, when under heavy sustained fire, revert to form and call in artillery and air strikes - and do so far more readily than would British, French, Canadian and other NATO troops. The consequences are reduced US casualties and a number of guerrilla casualties, but often a great deal of civilian casualties and damage to villages.

Recent Taliban tactics indicate awareness of this, as guerrillas now attack a position in a populated area, such as a police station, wait for US firepower to rain down, then withdraw to sanctuaries, confident that the damage will turn villagers against the US - a confidence that has not led to general disappointment. Furthermore, US battlefield intelligence is poor, leading to high casualties as misdirected ordnance falls on hapless civilians, not canny guerrillas.

Despite the tightest discipline and the inculcation of respect for local nationals among US infantry, many of whom are on their fifth or sixth combat tour, it is likely that a small but significant percentage of soldiers have become hostile to the people of the region - Islamist or not, pro-Taliban or not, armed or not.

More troops will require more supplies to be delivered into the remote, landlocked country, most of which come through Pakistan. Aside from the increase in US troops, there are plans to vastly increase the size of the Afghan army, which of course will be mainly supplied from outside.

The US army excels at logistics; it is their greatest strength. However, Pakistan is deteriorating badly, endangering supply lines from the port of Karachi. The Pakistani Taliban have recently inflicted a great deal of damage on convoys and depots near Peshawar and moved into the Khyber Agency where local (Afridi) tribesmen have thus far not been hostile to the West, though perhaps because they benefit from the traffic.

To the west, in Balochistan province of Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban and Baloch insurgents have increased their power and may soon endanger supplies from Karachi that flow into southern Afghanistan through Quetta. (Oddly, the US is supporting kindred Baloch insurgents a few hundred kilometers away in Iran.)

Another source of concern is the large Pashtun refugee population in Karachi, which could strike at supplies even before they are brought to the choke points near Peshawar and Quetta. The US is preparing alternate land routes into Afghanistan stretching from the Caucasus across much of Central Asia. These routes are lengthy to say the least, but secure at present.

The lines of communication from Pakistan are not yet lost. The Pakistani military and civilian government might come to realize that if they lose control of supply routes, their usefulness to the long-time American benefactor becomes negligible. Pakistan will become a chaotic, isolated, failing state offering little support and presenting great danger.

The Pakistani Taliban have recently allowed convoys to pass into Afghanistan in exchange for tribute. So for the US/NATO to receive supplies, they must pay the forces that the supplies are designated to be used against - a Catch-22 situation that perhaps only Joseph Heller could have foreseen or appreciated.

Iran is unlikely to feel comfortable with 30,000 more US troops to its east, though it might be somewhat mollified by their leaving its west. Atmospherics and confusion in Washington notwithstanding, Iran has been helpful in stabilizing post-Saddam Hussein Iraq by restraining the fractious Shi'ite parties and reining in the murderous militias. Iran also aided in ousting the Taliban in 2001, supports the Karzai government and contributes to development and security programs in western Afghanistan. Their continued help in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be taken for granted.

It is impossible to place the advantages and disadvantages of increasing the number of US troops onto scales and then determine the outcome. However, a rapid, fundamental change in the situation along the lines of the one that took place in Iraq is unlikely. The surge, at least in the next year or so, more likely aims to stave off defeat and bring a measure of security on which counter-insurgency and tribal diplomacy can be pursued.

The surge in Afghanistan may set the stage for a form of conflict whose name will never be officially uttered but which might be coming - a war of attrition. The US and NATO will seek to inflict high casualties on the Taliban and their allies in the expectation of bringing about greater tribal allegiance to the US/NATO side, and eventually also bringing about a political settlement with less ideologically driven Taliban lieutenants. Such a settlement would likely entail autonomy in southern and parts of eastern Afghanistan, despite the social order that would be imposed there.

Brian M Downing is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at

(Copyright 2009 Brian M Downing.)

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