Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Rubin: Insurgent Attacks Still Up in Afghanistan's East

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.

20 comments:

Bob Spencer said...

While you were there did you have a chance to find out the nature of the Taliban attacks? Also, what kinds of people make-up their guerilla forces? Do they appear to have a popular base that provides support and food, etc? Do armed guerillas live among the people and continually surround and guard villages?

I saw a couple reports that say that the Taliban have lots of foreign fighters. How many of the attacks are foreign fighters swooping in and attacking police stations and military outposts, etc?

As you know, we have to be very aware of “outside agitators”, but is it possible to increase the number of ambushes and use scouts for artillery attacks upon them because they can not live among the people?

I guess that I am wondering how much of this conflict is a cat and mouse fight between military forces, and how much of it is a competition between weak government institutions and a social and cultural network that does not like the government and their warlords?

Bob Spencer

Anonymous said...

Hello Barnett,
Now that you have some idea of the insurgency in NWFP/Fata & Afghanistan, do you really feel that it can be won?
While governments clain success, the countryside is being rapidly lost in this Orwellian war; more than the combatants truth is the biggest casuality. Given this situation will talks not help in reaching a settlement of sorts?

Peter Attwood said...

The Taliban are not nice people, but unlike the imperial overlord, they stop at mass murder. The only good news in this affair is that it seems to be failing through imperial overreach.

I'm sorry that your friend got blown up there. It seems that he was a decent person, and it's an awful waste that he died in such a despicable cause.

profmarcus said...

i have been working here in kabul for several months and have had the opportunity to learn quite a bit from my afghan colleagues... while i don't have barnett rubin's connections or the higher level view that such a vantage point provides, nor have i had - thankfully - much exposure to the military side of things, i've nonetheless been able to make some interesting observations...

the billions in development aid that have poured into afghanistan since late 2001, while not as sizeable as those that pour daily into iraq, are still nothing to sneeze at, yet i see little evidence of their impact... roads are crap, electricity is a sometime thing, water and sewer is a joke, health care is abominable, food prices are rising exponentially and food supplies are increasingly unreliable, unemployment is in the stratosphere, dire poverty is epidemic, and basic education is spotty to non-existent... where did the money go...?

i will hazard a guess as to the answer to that question... the lion's share of it goes right back to the u.s. in the pockets of those companies that consistently win the big bids - kbr, dyncorp, louis berger, etc., etc... the rest ends up in the numbered bank accounts of the returned afghan exiles who came swooping back from the u.s. and germany like vultures following the fall of the taliban to jump on the gravy train...

why hasn't an expose been done of the karzai brothers who, among them, control most of the larger contracts with coalition forces as well as a sizeable chunk of the drug business...? it's no secret here that that's the case...

in my humble opinion, security problems and associated violence would disappear practically overnight if those things that i listed above were taken care of... the irony is that the amount of money that's already been spent would have fixed those simple things several times over...

http://takeitpersonally.blogspot.com/

Tim Foxley said...

t may be to state the obvious, but it is worth injecting a note of caution against reading victory or defeat of the Taliban into sets of statistics. At best, stats can serve as very crude and loose indicators. At worst they can be misleading, distorting and something to get distracted by – all too easy to get hung up on them if they are proving the thing you want to believe in. Definitions of what an incident is, who was involved and who initiated the incident are all part of the statistics minefield, if you will pardon the poor choice of expression, and have been interpreted and reinterpreted over the years. The data you refer to shows incidents by “Taliban and Anti-Government Elements”, so I guess we may be looking at figures that include local warlords who have fired a rocket because they are fed up with counter-narcotics activities in their neighbourhood.

In addition, when an incident occurs it is often more revealing to examine how the nature of the attacks are evolving, particularly the effectiveness of the attacks. Are the attacks being conducted at long range by haphazard firing of inaccurate long-range rockets, or are they increasingly becoming “complex” ambushes with the insurgents developing the confidence to get up close for longer and press home the attack?

It is also about how the information is presented, or “spun” that is crucial - and where the most damage, certainly politically, can be done. If, by the end of the summer, attack levels (however defined), are declared to have been less than last year, we will immediately hear the claims from NATO thus: “that's it, we've won, the Taliban are now beaten”. If attack levels (however defined) stay about the same, the message will be the same “we have now got the Taliban contained and on the run”. If the attack levels (however defined) go up by about 10-20% on last year (which seems to be the “standard” increase rate for insurgent activity) the message will be: “everything is fine, we have them contained”.

I just have the nagging feeling that I have heard declarations of victory against the Taliban before...

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