I've been traveling in Pakistan and Afghanistan for a couple of weeks and have accumulated a backlog of themes to blog about. While traveling I often lacked electricity and internet access; the latter, when available, was usually too slow for blogging. I'll catch up as I can.
First, this update on the debate about counter-insurgency success in Afghanistan's Regional Command/East (RC/E). The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has five regional commands: East (led by the US), West (Italy), South (Canada), North (Germany), and Capital (Italy). The U.S. uses RC/E as a showpiece of counter-insurgency success to outsiders taken on short embeds. I appeared on the NewsHour with the Washington Post's David Ignatius, who had just returned from such a trip, and I took issue with his rosy prognostications based on his brief guided tour. I followed this up with some data on weekly insurgent attacks in RC/E, comparing 2007 and 2008. I also announced the death of a friend and colleague, Michael Bhatia, who was killed by an IED in Khost province, RC/E, on May 7. Michael's work as a social scientist contributed to the successes of the counter-insurgency effort in the province.
I have now received the complete data for RC/E through week 20:
The level of attacks initiated by Taliban and other anti-government forces continues to exceed last year's, despite the vaunted successes of US COIN efforts.
One of the main explanations for the level of violence is a significant increase in infiltration from Pakistan's Tribal Areas, which are directly adjacent to RC/E. The Pakistan army has used the election of a new civilian government as a blame-shifting cover for its decision to withdraw from FATA and conclude a truce with the Pakistani Taliban. This truce has enabled the militants to focus their energy on Afghanistan.
This may be true, but it does not show that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is in fact succeeding, when all factors are taken into account. During my visit to Kabul I found that several officials of the U.S. government there interpreted my challenge to Ignatius' assertions as criticisms or denigration of their efforts in RC/E. That is not at all my intention. I was not able to take up the Embassy's offer of a repeat of the Ignatius tour on this visit, and I last visited RC/E in August 2006, when I went to Gardez, Paktia, to visit Governor Hakim Taniwal, an old friend and academic colleague (Taniwal was a sociologist) . Taniwal was killed by a suicide bomber a few weeks later. I have no reason to doubt the positive accounts of US counter-insurgency work, mostly in Khost, one of the smallest of the 12 provinces in RC/E. The failures of U.S. policy do not result from poor implementation by people in the field. On the contrary, from what I have seen, whatever successes there have been have largely been led from the field, not from Washington. Those working on the ground have worked hard in many cases to reverse or evade policies imposed by the Bush administration.
Nonetheless, no amount of success in Khost amounts to success in Afghanistan. If counter-insurgency success in Khost does not reduce the strength of an insurgency whose leadership and logistical bases are in Pakistan, it shows the failure of the Bush administration to address the challenge of Pakistan. President Karzai (and nearly all Afghans I have spoken to) have argued for years that the factors that turn Afghanistan's innumerable internal problems into a violent insurgency that is increasingly using suicide bombs lie mainly in Pakistan.
In a discussion after we went off the air, Ignatius asked me if the success in Khost could be spread nation-wide if the US took over the entire effort, with its greater COIN expertise. I said, first, I doubt it, because Khost was such a small place with a relatively high level of education (it was called "Little Moscow" under the communists), and, second, the forces for such an expansion are not available, because the U.S. is stuck in a disastrous war in Iraq. It is not the fault of the Americans working in RC/E that the U.S. is in Iraq, but it is the responsibility of the administration, which undermined the chances of success in Afghanistan and Pakistan with an illegal war based on propaganda and ideology, a war that should never have been waged and should never have been authorized.
The same week that Ignatius and I appeared on NewsHour, al-Qaida and some Taliban disrupted an important national celebration in Kabul, killing three people and barely missing President Hamid Karzai. Subsequent investigations showed that this operation was carried out with the complicity of high officials of the ministries of defense and interior who were either complicit with the attackers or corrupt. The attack was planned and financed in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
No amount of road building and police mentoring in Khost will compensate for a failed regional policy and unreliable security forces. The successes in Khost are not so much fake as irrelevant to the larger picture. No amount of mini-successes in isolated show pieces will compensate for the overall strategic failure of this administration.