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The Emerging Afghanistan Strategy

In a long piece for the NYT, Dexter Filkins writes that the US is done propping up the mayor of Kabul:

The world has changed for Mr. Karzai, and for Afghanistan, too. A White House favorite — a celebrity in flowing cape and dark gray fez — in each of the seven years that he has led this country since the fall of the Taliban, Mr. Karzai now finds himself not so favored at all. Not by Washington, and not by his own.

In the White House, President Obama said he regarded Mr. Karzai as unreliable and ineffective. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said he presided over a “narco-state.” The Americans making Afghan policy, worried that the war is being lost, are vowing to bypass Mr. Karzai and deal directly with the governors in the countryside.

At the same time as Karzai finds himself out of favour, NATO is facing a difficult situation over its high commander, General Bantz John Craddock. The German weekly SPIEGEL has reported on an order of his to kill drug traffickers, which was refused by German general Egon Ramms, head of the Afghanistan command centre, and the American Afghanistan command general David McKiernan.

The Afghan drug problem has always produced a split in NATO, with the Americans advocating more aggression than their partners would support. The solution advocated by John Pike, to buy up the poppy crop and turn it into morphine to be donated to poor countries, may prove to be workable. However, even to do that you would need to be able to protect the farmers from, say, being killed for doing so by the Taliban, or other drug lords. Which is where the 'surge' in Afghanistan could come in.

 In Iraq, the success of additional troops relied upon the improvements in local security they offered, the funding and coopting of previously insurgent Sunni militias, and perhaps to some extent the increased homogeneity of neighbourhoods following ethnic cleansing. In Afghanistan, additional troops could be used to push the Taliban out of a few provinces, but at the same time more serious attempts to split off and coopt elements of the Taliban will have to be undertaken. This includes offering them a significant amount of autonomy in their area. A shift away from supporting the ineffective central government of Afghanistan is a first step in this process.

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GM Roper on :

"...offering them a significant amount of autonomy in their area. A shift away from supporting the ineffective central government of Afghanistan is a first step in this process." Perhaps before offering them any autonomy at all, one should consider the story of the scorpion and the frog. In which the scorpion asked the frog for a ride on his back across the pond. The frog said "No you will sing me and then I will die." The scorpion promised not to do so and of course, being what he was did so halfway across the pond. Dying, the frog asked "Why?" To which the scorpion said, just before drowning himself "You knew what I was before you let me on your back." I don't think we can expect any more from the Taliban. Maybe we need to help Karzai develop an effective central government. That is the basis of the surge in Iraq after all.

Zyme on :

You know there was a time (at least here in Germany) when humans where not allowed to be compared to animals in a negative association. I am starting to sympathize with that age again. As fanatic as their leaders may be, I am sure the ordinary members of the Taliban can be convinced by profane tools as much as they were convinced by the Taliban in the first place - earn more money and have a living.

Joerg - Atlantic Review on :

Hi GM, "develop an effective central government" Before that will ever happen in Afghanistan, evolution will lead to scorpions and frogs with wings. ;-)

Pat Patterson on :

At the outset of the Mexican-American War when it had become obvious that a key part of American strategy was to attempt a sea borne invasion, via Vera Cruz, the Duke of Wellington advised his government to provide no aid to the US. His reasoning was that the US didn't have an effective central government and was merely a collection of squabbling states and that the war would result in the Union breaking up and the UK needed to be ready to take advantage of the situtation and invade from Quebec. And not antagonize the much stronger and more cohesive central government of Mexico. Plus at some time the same could have been said about Germany and lately Iraq or if really nasty Iceland.

GM Roper on :

Joerg, that comment presupposes you don't think they can change. Shame on you. Don't you know that Hope and Change are the new buzz words? :) Actually, a solid surge would be just what the Afghani Government needs.

Joerg - Atlantic Review on :

A "solid surge" would require at least 50,000 additional troops. Good luck with that.

John in Michigan, USA on :

Obama has just announced a doubling of US forces in Afghanistan from 30,000 to 60,000. We're more than half way to that additional 50,000. How about Germany coughing up a mere 1% (300 soldiers)?

Zyme on :

Might be too many ;) Seriously, we have an election year. So don't expect any impulses from Berlin until late autumn.

GM Roper on :

Well, Germany could contribute 25,000 Combat Troops.

Don S on :

Dream on..... Wht will really happen: Obama will reinforce the US contingent in Afghanistan by 30,000 combat troops. The Brits will dig deep and send another 4,000 troops, though they have little left to give. Canada will send another 500. Sarkozy will announce with fanfare an additional French committment of 600 French troops and claim credit for any successes (of course). But the French troops will at least be real troops, trained for and equipped for combat. Germany won't even notice the issue until after the national elections, the building of a new coalition government, and handling urgent national priorities like a 2% raise in pension benefits and enhanced animal rights for chickens. They will then launch a angst-ridden national debate about the meaning of life and the abhorrent nature of war, and everything (lasting a minimum of 6 months) before decisively reinforcing the noncombatant Kabul contingent with 30 arthritic Landeswehr veterans. This showing Germany's profound committment to it's allies - yet again.

GM Roper on :

Don, my comment was with tongue firmly embedded in cheek. Joerg is fairly liberal and he and I have had comments from time to time regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While he may think Germany ought to do more, I think they won't do anyting related to combat.

John in Michigan, USA on :

USMC Capt. [b]Nathaniel Fick[/b], who was featured in the excellent book and HBO series [i]Generation Kill[/i], and [b]John Nagl[/b], who is one of the godfathers of US counter-insurgency doctrine, have written an article on counterinsurgency in the newest edition of Foreign Policy, which I highly recommend: “[url=http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4587]Counterinsurgency Field Manual: Afghanistan Edition[/url]” At the end of the article is an interview with Gen. David Petraeus about how to win this loosing war. Hat tip: [url=http://easterncampaign.wordpress.com/2009/01/14/ficknagl-on-counterinsurgency-in-afghanistan/]Ghosts of Alexander[/url] blog. I am reading Dexter Filkins' NY Times piece and will comment on it shortly.

Pat Patterson on :

Excellent article and excellent recommendation by John in Michigan. Nagl wrote Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife a few years ago which Gen. Patraeus mentioned in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual as well as Nagl writing a foreword for the new guide. Most of these lessons are not knew but came into disfavor during the late 30's when American politicians noticed that many of the new caudillos of South America were men who rose through the ranks of the security and constabulary services created by the USMC. And there was a fairly large war that demanded big unit action though still based on the small squad tactics of the banana republic wars of the 1930's. O/T-The last printing of the USMC's Small Wars Manual in 1940, which the Army wouldn't admit to relying on, was a compilation of small war tactics learned over the previous 50-60 years, even including references to the Indian wars. But most copies were never shipped as the USMC faced another round of threats to its existence and then World War II. As a teenager I found some 50 or 60 unopened copies of the manual in a army/navy store and bought them for about a dime each. Unlike the baseball cards my mom threw away I found the books, still in the original shopping bag and plastic wrapping in 2000. Soon after 9/11 I contacted the public affairs office of the 1st MEU at Camp Pendleton to see if they could use the old manuals. I got a call back from the senior non-com on the base asking if I was joking because the only copy they had was a hand typed carbon copy dated 1945 and that they were definitely looking for copes. So I know that in the initial wave of some of the Marines into Afghanistan and then Iraq were carrying my copies. I just hope they were read and not treated as a source of emergency tp.

John in Michigan, USA on :

That's amazing! Europeans, take note: the US was totally unprepared to act as an occupation force. Tell all your friends, next time they spout conspiracy theories about how the US has secret plans to occupy the whole world.

nanne on :

One idea forwarded by Petraeus is that there will be talks with elements of the Taliban that are 'reconcilable'. This will likely be taken up soon, if it hasn't been already. It will still need to be seen whether it will be a significant departure from the stance the US took under Bush, which amounted to 'we're willing to negotiate the terms of your unconditional surrender' - e.g. we will have talks with people conditional upon them laying down their arms and recognising the central government. Source for the Petraeus statement is decent [url=http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100279589]report[/url] for NPR by Tom Bowman. There are more elements to the Afghanistan strategy that's being pieced together, which is stuff for another post. Thanks to John for the pointer to the Flick/Nagl story.

John in Michigan, USA on :

Well I've read the NY Times article. I don't know enough to have any opinion if Karzai is better or worse than the alternatives. Nanne are you sure you linked to the right article? You describe it as "long" but it is only 1 1/2 pages in my browser. Meanwhile, I'm really enjoying the Ghosts of Alexander blog. This post, "[url=http://easterncampaign.wordpress.com/2009/01/20/afghanistans-new-president/]Afghanistan’s New President?[/url]", seems to scoop the NY Times, since it mentions possible Karzai replacements in considerable detail. To put it in perspective, the author feels that none of this has gone beyond the "palace intrigue" stage of rumor-mongering. Note the photo of Presidents Obama and Karzai. Obama is sitting with his legs crossed, with the shoe nearest Karzai off of the ground. This is insulting in Afghanistan, although it is not as insulting as having the sole of your shoe directly facing the other person. With Bush, stereotypically one sort of expected this, and one doesn't read such into it except for some who would take it as another chance to insult Bush. Obama, on the other hand, was supposed to have special knowledge or at least sympathy for the way people act in the rest of the world. Oh well...I doubt it is intentional... You just never know when little theatrical elements like this end up making a difference. Consider Daniel Pipes' account of the [url=http://www.danielpipes.org/214/dealing-with-middle-eastern-conspiracy-theories]horrible, unintended symbolism[/url] when the Shah visited the Carter White House. A simple faux pas like Obama's could combine with legitimate reports questioning Karzai's future to lead to an unexpected, premature end to the Karzai regime. If Karzai must go, hopefully it will be an orderly process.

nanne on :

It appeared longer to me than it was... It might make a difference who is in charge of the central government. But what I think is important is focusing more on building local governance rather than giving the central government a military it can never pay for and a police force that is the principal face of its corruption to the Afghan people. Instead of focusing on building central government capacities, we should be working directly with the tribes.

John in Michigan, USA on :

That is the big question -- what would the ideal government of Afghanistan look like? One of the things I am currently learning about Afghanistan is that even calling it "tribal" is probably incorrect or at least an over-simplification. I am learning about the [url=http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0IBS/is_1_28/ai_82351490]qawm[/url] (sometimes spelled [url=http://countrystudies.us/afghanistan/37.htm]qaum[/url]). IPA [url=http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=438418]pronunciation[/url] /kəʊm/. This is often translated as tribe, but apparently, shouldn't be understood in the traditional meaning of tribe (a group of people related by kinship, real or imagined). A qawm can apparently be based on residence in a village, or a religious sect, or many other things besides kinship. So it looks as though Afghanistan will be very complicated. For example, a regional or federalist model, as was debated for Iraq, might not make sense, since the various qawms occupying a region have little in common with each other. One model that sort of makes sense to me is the practice of the British Empire in Afghanistan: The empire controls the capital, the main border crossings with other countries, the main roads, and the 50 or so meters on either side of the roads, and that's it. So if a crime is committed on the roads, the central government gets involved. Otherwise, it is qawm justice. The central government would even stay clear of qawm vs. qawm disputes, unless invited by both sides to intervene, or unless the dispute threatens the roads or other central government competencies. Or at least, that is my understanding of how the Empire worked there... Of course, the role of the Empire in this would be played by the elected Afghanistan central government, not by NATO or whoever.

Marie Claude on :

I have read many "conservative" opinions that say Afghanistan is a "lost" cause !!! OKKAY, then, let's fcuse on our direct borders, the Balkans !!!!!

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