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Tag: "afghanistan"

Careless Warfare or Lawfare? A Pointless Debate

[ 0 ] May 7, 2009 |

Enough civilian body parts to fill two tractor-trailers remained after an incident in Farah province of Afghanistan Monday, according to the NY Times today. Afghan civilians blame US airstrikes for 100+ civilian dead; the United States is investigating the possibility that the Taliban executed the civilians with grenades in order to blame US forces.

Either scenario is pretty plausible; but either way the PR fiasco falls in the lap of the international forces, so the bottom line is the US needs to rethink its counterinsurgency strategy.

The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict released a report last month entitled Losing the People: The costs and Consequences of Civilian Suffering in Afghanistan. Based on interviews with 143 civilians harmed by conflict operations in the country since 2001, the report (p. 11) details both “lawfare” deployed by the Taliban, in which civilians are intentionally used as shields, and massive casualties from US “collateral damage.”

In November 2008, villagers attending an Afghan wedding party in Kandahar provice said insurgents entered the area, fired on international forces, and then forcibly prevented the villagers form fleeing the area before IMF retaliated with an air-strike that left 37 members of the wedding party dead.

Haji Nasaib lost nine family members and suffered significant property loss due to an IMF air-strike in Wardak province. “I could see all the dead and injured bodies. My daughter was baking bread inside the house when the bomb hit. Due to the blast, she was thrown into the oven. Her body was totally burned. She was taken to the hospital, but she died… My son had injuries on his feet and the force of the blast had thrown him over a tree. Another daughter – she was blasted into so many pieces that we still have not been able to find her body.”

The first example is a war crime; the latter, unless the result of intentional targeting of civilians, is not. But the difference is lost on the civilian population of Afghanistan, and ultimately it is the US who pays the political price. The popularity of the international troops in the country has been plummeting since last year, and there is a resurgence of anger since this week’s incident.

In fact, given the regularity of such incidents, one wonders why the Afghani people have not risen up more forcefully already to kick out the occupiers – who on the one hand are seen as cowards who fight from the skies, and on the other hand have been ineffective at protecting them from militias?

Currently, international forces maintain the moral high ground in three ways. First, they kill fewer civilians than insurgents and pro-government forces in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International data suggest the number of casualties from IMF mistakes has been around 25% of the overall total for the past three years; the Afghan NGO Security Office numbers are slightly lower for 2006. Second, they often apologize when they make mistakes, unlike the Taliban who sometimes target civilians directly. And third, they often compensate the families of civilians who are killed or maimed through carelessness.

But international forces also fight an uphill battle in other respects: they are outsiders, their disproportionate power is resented, and they are seen as out of touch with the needs of the Afghan people. It is clear that the US and other ISAF countries will need to take greater steps to reduce the “collateral damage” associated with Operation Enduring Freedom, and to streamline the programs in place to mitigate the unavoidable effects on civilians.

CIVIC’s report outlines a variety of such measures, including quicker apologies (not “regrets,” not “excuses,” but apologies); better coordination of existing compensation policies so that families don’t fall through the cracks; quicker public acknowledgement of errors, and more transparent investigations; and “the establishment of a Pentagon position to strategically address potential and actual civilian casualties.”

In my view, an important item should be added to this list: the ISAF, led by the US, should rethink the use of airpower and strafing as a legitimate means of waging a counterinsurgency war within areas populated by civilians. Even with the most discriminate means available – precision targeting by unmanned drones – the civilian/combatant death ratios we are seeing in Afghanistan and Pakistan are ridiculously disproportionate. It’s time to put our money where our mouths are and fight insurgents on the ground.


Slouching Towards Talibanism

[ 0 ] April 1, 2009 |

Karzai seems to be backing a law containing a number of spectactularly egregious violations of women’s rights.

The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan

[ 0 ] March 11, 2009 |

Alex Harrowell has a couple of interesting posts on the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, one at Fistful of Euros and the other at Yorkshire Ranter. The point is essentially this; the Soviets executed the withdrawal more competently that just about any other aspect of the war, and it worked out really well for them. The government that they left in place survived for another three years, and only collapsed when Soviet support ended in 1992.

In fact, the withdrawal was about the best idea the Soviets had in Afghanistan. Having decided to go, they pursued a policy of building up the Afghan government, changing the military strategy to one based on defending the bulk of the population and leaving the mountain wilds to the enemy, pouring in aid of all kinds, negotiation with those who were willing, and leaving a strong advisory mission in place.

I recall at the time that predictions of the survival of the Soviet-sponsored Afghan government were measured in weeks or in months, but it turned out that the opposition split, foreign support for the rebels vanished, and the regime was able to win several crucial military victories. Nobody talked much about this after 1989, because nobody really cared much about Afghanistan. I’m thinking that the United States and Europe could do much, much worse than what the Soviets managed; Harrowell thinks (perhaps only half-jokingly) that the Soviet general who managed the post-withdrawal advisory mission should be tracked down and consulted on the future of the NATO mission. A Soviet style operation would concede certain facts about Afghanistan; the central government will never have much control over the hinterland, and a liberal democratic regime is unlikely to exist in any thing but name, but it may be past time to think about such concessions.

Cross-posted to TAPPED.

A Bunch of Stuff Happened…

[ 0 ] February 18, 2009 |

So, lot’s of interesting defense news; read Spencer on the Afghanistan buildup and David Axe on the F-22. If you read the latter, please compare and contrast Axe’s case for purchasing more F-22s with Bowden’s; the former dispenses with myths, while the latter reinforces them; the former has a handle on the economic and strategic tradeoffs, while the latter ignores them; and the former rejects panicky arguments about the dwindling air superiority “gap” while the latter uncritically accepts them. In short, the former knows what he’s talking about and the latter is content to write agitprop for Lockheed.

Off to the ISA conference for the day; will blog more on both of these questions later.

Plausible Lies, Mr. Karzai…

[ 0 ] February 8, 2009 |

The key to diplomacy is to tell lies plausible enough that the listener isn’t embarrassed:

A foretaste of what would be in store for President Hamid Karzai after the election of a new American administration came last February, when Joseph R. Biden Jr., then a senator, sat down to a formal dinner at the palace during a visit here.

Between platters of lamb and rice, Mr. Biden and two other American senators questioned Mr. Karzai about corruption in his government, which, by many estimates, is among the worst in the world. Mr. Karzai assured Mr. Biden and the other senators that there was no corruption at all and that, in any case, it was not his fault.

The senators gaped in astonishment. After 45 minutes, Mr. Biden threw down his napkin and stood up.

“This dinner is over,” Mr. Biden announced, according to one of the people in the room at the time. And the three senators walked out, long before the appointed time.

Although, frankly, Karzai may have learned from eight years of experience with the Bush administration that Americans will believe anything. Via SWJ.


[ 0 ] December 27, 2008 |

Hadn’t seen this before… I wonder how many people have survived after throwing themselves onto grenades? There’s not even a category on wikipedia:

A Royal Marine who threw himself on to an exploding grenade to save the lives of his comrades is to receive the George Cross. Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher stepped on a trip-wire which triggered the device during a night raid on a Taliban compound in Afghanistan.

Realising that three other members of his patrol would be killed if he did not act, he launched himself forward to smother the explosion, managing to twist on to his back to let his rucksack take the full force of the blast. Having stepped on a trip-wire he threw himself on to the device allowing the rucksack to bear the brunt of the explosion and thereby save the lives of three colleagues

The explosion hurled him across the compound leaving him stunned, bleeding profusely from the nose and almost deaf. His rucksack was shredded and burning shrapnel from the kit he had been carrying was scattered around the area, with pieces found embedded in his helmet and body armour.

Miraculously the 24-year-old Marine survived and within minutes was on his feet, refusing evacuation and demanding to be allowed to stay with the patrol. He helped set an ambush and shot dead a Taliban insurgent in the ensuing gunfight.

Little Blue Pills…

[ 0 ] December 26, 2008 |

Creative COIN:

U.S intelligence officials use “novel incentives,” but this is not limited to Viagra. Sometimes, “notoriously fickle warlords and chieftains” can be won over with tools, school equipment, and surgical assistance. But it appears the “pharmaceutical enhancements for aging patriarchs with slumping libidos” can be effective with older tribal officials.

Why not just hand out cash? It doesn’t work as well — Afghan leaders with U.S. dollars are recognized for having cooperated with the unpopular Americans. And with Taliban commanders, drug dealers, and even Iranian agents offering enticements, too, U.S. officials have had to get creative.

The key, one American said, is to “find a way to meet the informant’s personal needs in a way that keeps him firmly on your side but leaves little or no visible trace.” Viagra obviously fits the bill.

It’s all about the patriarchy, I guess. Via NB.

…I was also wondering about this.

From the Mouths of Wingnuts

[ 0 ] November 15, 2008 |

The Astute Bloggers make a claim:

I have believed from the start that Bush should have nuked Tora Bora in 2001. The GWOT would have ended right then and there. It would have sent the right message: Don’t Tread On Me!

Instead Bush has has the USA wage a war with one hand behind our back, a war of halfassery. That’s why I have long said that “Dubya stands for wimp ” and that I would have never voted for him again except if he ran against any Democrat.

Nuking Tora Bora with a few small tactical nukes would have killed the entire al Qaeda leadership and warned everyone – terrorists and the nations which aid or harbor them – that they shouldn’t fuck with us. Had Dubya done this the Bush Doctrine (“you’re either with us or against us”) would’ve has some teeth – and some positive effect. Now it’s too late; what we could’ve done then in righteous reprisal can not be done now. Not until we are attacked here in the USA again.

Heh; indeed.

I’m kind of curious; what do you think would have happened if Bush had ordered the use of tactical nuclear weapons when we thought we knew the location of Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora? I really haven’t the faintest idea; I suspect that it would have led to any number of horrible things, but I find myself unable to pick between them. Thoughts? What if Bin Laden and his top lieutenants had been killed? What if they had survived? Would the military have obeyed the order? What would it have meant for Iraq? For US foreign policy more generally? For proliferation?

Nir Rosen: The Worst American Journalist Since Jane Fonda

[ 42 ] October 30, 2008 |

Lots of commentary on Bing West’s attack on Nir Rosen today; see especially Ackerman and Abu M.

A couple points of my own:

It’s obviously different in a lot of ways, but if we didn’t have war correspondents embedding in the forces of the enemy, we wouldn’t have History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides was an Athenian general before he was a historian. While it’s fair enough to note that Nir Rosen has yet to be exiled for his failure to prevent the seizure of Amphipolis, it’s also true that Thucydides believed that his ability to observe both Spartan and Athenian forces was critical to the History:

It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs somewhat particularly.

This isn’t terribly surprising; perspective requires knowledge. If History of the Peloponnesian War read as a patriotic account of stalwart Athenians defeating tyrannical Spartans (or vice versa) then no one but classicists would read it today. It’s strength comes from Thucydides ability to observe the motives, behavior, and self-justifications of both sides; his analysis of why the war happened and how it was conducted depends on a degree of empathy with both Athenian and Spartan interests.

Second, this point by West is simply nonsensical:

Rosen described how he and two Taliban fighters deceived the guards at a government checkpoint. Suppose during World War II an American reporter had sneaked through the lines with two German officers wearing civilian clothes. “When we caught enemy combatants out of uniform in the 1940s,” a veteran wrote in The American Heritage, “we sometimes simply executed them.” The Greatest Generation had a direct way of dealing with moral ambiguity.

Yeah… and what if a Nazi functionary had allowed an American journalist to visit Auschwitz in early 1942? It’s equally absurd, but as long as we’re making things up let’s consider a scenario that weighs rather heavily in favor of allowing journalists to embed with the enemy. It doesn’t even occur to West that reporting on the enemy doesn’t imply approval of enemy activities; that he compares the behavior of Rosen (a journalist) to Jane Fonda (not a journalist) indicates that he really doesn’t understand what journalism is.

It’s certainly possible to develop scenarios in which the professional identity of “journalist”– to say nothing of “scholar”, “lawyer”, or even “soldier”– runs counter to the other commitments that we have. Such conflicts are part of life, and can’t be wished away. I don’t find Rosen’s behavior, however, even close to troubling; his work opened a window into how the Taliban functions, how its warriors think, and why they’re willing to die for what they believe in. To the extent that West believes that the destruction of the Taliban is a desirable goal, he should be thankful that Rosen has provided this window, and should devote his efforts to using the information as effectively as possible.

Either that, or he can engage in rambling, pointless bluster about how in the old days, we earned our moral clarity by shootin’ folks. Your call, Bing.

Ackerman from Afghanistan

[ 5 ] September 30, 2008 |

Last week, Spencer Ackerman and I diavlogged about Afghanistan. Spencer was in Kabul at the time; I was merely in Cincinnati…

Also check out Spencer’s Afghanistan coverage at the Washington Independent.

700 Cell Phones?

[ 0 ] June 28, 2008 |

While recognizing the general principle that prisoners, even in Afghanistan, ought to have some contact with the outside world, I have to question the wisdom of allowing this:

This month’s spectacular prison escape in Kandahar began with a jailed guerrilla’s phone conversation with the No. 2 leader of the Afghan insurgency, according to one of the roughly 350 Taliban fighters who broke out. Speaking to NEWSWEEK by phone from his home in eastern Afghanistan late last week, Taliban subcommander Mullah Khan Muhammad Akhund, 36, said more than 700 of the prison’s approximately 1,000 inmates were allowed to have their own mobile phones. It was one of the few comforts at the antiquated and squalid Sarposa Prison, where 15 to 20 men were crammed into each tiny cell, he says. Counting on prisoners’ families to pay, prison authorities charged each inmate $100 a month for the privilege of keeping a phone, according to Akhund, who was serving an eight-year sentence in Sarposa before the escape.

Right… in a place where an active insurgency can move about more or less freely, someone thought it was a good idea to allow inmates of a prison holding over 350 members of that insurgency to use cell phones without supervision. I suppose that to make it even easier, they could have faxed prison blueprints and guard shift schedules…

Canada’s Contribution

[ 0 ] May 5, 2008 |

Back in 2005 I sat on a panel at the University of Kentucky library on the future of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At one point the conversation became heated, with an interlocutor from the audience suggesting that those who opposed the wars should move to Canada, where (and I paraphrase) the people seemed to have little inclination for fighting in defense of liberty and freedom. I was forced to remind the questioner that Canada had entered the fight against Kaiserine Germany nearly three years prior to the United States, and Nazi Germany more than two years prior. In both conflicts, Canada suffered casualties proportionately far greater than the United States. Nevertheless, in the right-wing imagination Canada seems to exist as a Great Pacifist North, the area to which hippies flee to avoid the draft and which demurred from joining the crusade to liberate Iraq.

It’s in this context that articles like Samantha Power’s recent Time magazine piece are particularly important. Canada has borne a disproportionate share of the fighting in Afghanistan, and has suffered dreadful casualties. Eighty-two Canadians have thus far been killed in Afghanistan, as compared with ninety-five from the much larger UK contingent. The death rate has taken its toll on Canadian public opinion, but one lesson of the Power article is that Iraq continues to poison everything; to the extent that the Afghan operation is conceived of as part of greater US foreign policy, it becomes less popular.

Power suggests that NATO rules be altered such that members that contribute less in terms of fighting forces should be required to contribute more to the funding and reconstruction side. To be fair, much of this already goes on, but the interaction could nevertheless be further institutionalized. Given that the non-American percentage of casualties in Afghanistan has steadily increased since 2001 (this year, they outpace American 34 to 21), tensions that strain the NATO alliance seem likely to increase.

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