A must read post on the state of Afghanistan in the Australian. Not the kind of media coverage you would see in the US sadly.
Does this sound familiar?:
“Coalition forces are winning every battle but losing the war,” a private security consultant told me. “You can go out and kill Taliban all day long. You kill 20,000 – and there’s another 20,000 that will follow them.”
The senior ISAF commander who briefed me there last week was forthright. The conflict, as it’s being fought, cannot be won. He cites two reasons: the safe haven enjoyed by the militants and their al-Qa’ida sponsors in neighbouring Pakistan; and the rampant corruption in Afghanistan itself. “We can reduce the physical insurgency and hand over to Afghanistan,” the commander says. “It is containable, but while those two things remain, it’s not solvable. The insurgents will never beat us. We can contain it, but we can’t solve it.”
He says the best they can hope for is to “reduce it to a stalemate favourable to our side”.
And the Iraq parallels get even more destructively eerie.
1)There is not one insurgency in Afghanistan:
Another factor in the war’s intransigence is the complex nature of the insurgency. This is neither a foreign-based terrorist movement as the Afghan Government likes to claim – “garbage”, says the commander – nor a simple “Taliban insurgency”. Instead, it is “a number of parallel insurgencies”.
The players include the so-called “southern Taliban” led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, who ruled the country from 1996 to 2001; and the “northern Taliban”, led by Beitullah Mahsud, suspected of masterminding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Mehsud is reported to have an army of 20,000 men, including countless would-be suicide bombers, at his disposal in South Waziristan, in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (a misnomer, as they are clearly out of Islamabad’s control.)
This group is closely affiliated with the network of warlord Jalalludin Haqqani, based in the eastern city of Khowst. Another player is the wily mujahed, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a 30-year veteran of the jihad, whose shelling of Kabul during the civil war of the early 1990s left the city in ruins. Hekmatyar has aligned himself with the Taliban, in an example of the murky and ever-shifting alliances that dominate the country’s political landscape.
Supporting all of them is al-Qa’ida, which, thanks to the sanctuary provided in Pakistan, has been able to successfully re-locate its headquarters after the destruction of its bases in Afghanistan. As the ISAF commander explains it, al-Qa’ida now operates as a “facilitating network”, providing money, ideology, training, recruits and weaponry to its allies.
2)Suicide bombings and road side IEDs/guerrilla insurgency is the tactic of choice rather than straight up fighting (those techniques actually learned via the guerrilla laboratory of Iraq).
3)The NATO forces are even more bunkered down than the US in Iraq pre the surge. They have therefore relied on aerial bombings, which has killed scores of Afghan innocent civilians, turning the popular street level view of NATO as going from liberator to occupier.
Now the outlines of a President Obama (as looks much more likely each day, my best guess now is 60% odds and rising) are becoming clearer. With even the PM of Iraq (h/t Newshoggers) sounding like Barack, here’s a prediction.
In a strange twist of fate, Obama has his own surge in Afghanistan (which he has long said he wants to do). Guess who is now CENTCOM Commander with emphasis on Afghanistan? You guessed it David Petraeus. Obama has Petraeus unleash his vaunted COIN counter-insurgency strategy, teaching it to NATO, to similar effect to Iraq. Who knows what happens with Pakistan as Obama seems wise enough to realize the Pakistanis are full of s–t and always have been and no “democratic” government or Dictator-lite like Musharraf is going to go after the Taliban, the tribal regions. Do we? I have no clue.
[I assume in this prediction that if the US goes in, NATO is going to follow (or at least not get in the way).]
However, bracketing the Pakistan question for a sec, as in Iraq, the central fundamental issue remains: no government. Hopefully as in Iraq, NATO can break the code on IEDs (now killing 80% of NATO troops in Afghanistan, higher casualty figures total and much higher per soldier than in Iraq) and like in post-surge Iraq reduce the number killed/wounded through these style of attacks.
But as in Iraq this will only further fragment the insurgencies (evidence here) which will work at cross-purposes to the stated goal of a unified central government. The primary difference I see however is that the Pashtun (unlike al-Qaeda in Iraq) have become the standard bearers of Pashtun resistance. The Sunni Flip/Pay off only worked in Iraq because AQI had started slaying tribal leaders and their families. Not sure this will work quite the same with the Taliban–unless they overplay their hand which is always possible I suppose.
The political issue–i.e. the only issue–will remain outstanding and then Obama may be forced with his own John McCain like moment (circa his second run for the president in 2012) of whether he pivots to a withdraw position from Afghanistan or doubles down on his own surge. If he does the latter (doubles down), BO could then have someone run to his left in 2012 (now I’m on a roll) and run the Obama script from ’08 on the Obama cum McCain 2012 version.
Obama, however, has let it be known that his primary purpose in Afghanistan and Iraq has been to eliminate al-Qaeda and leave secondarily about as best a situation as can be expected in the countries. So he’s not locked himself into the “victory” delusion mindset of the current Bushian McCainian Republicans.
Right now Obama has the center and left (and sane right) with the idea that Iraq was a failure strategically (however well fought militarily). As Iraq pull down begins and is mostly finished about halfway or 2/3 into his first term, I wonder if a new chorus will begin applying the same logic to Afghanistan?
The wild card of course in all this is the country nestled between Iraq and Afghanistan, i.e. Iran. Obama realizes that you can’t be fighting 3 wars (or 2 1/2 I guess as Iran wouldn’t be a land invasion) simultaneously. As Thomas Barnett has always said, Iran has always had a veto in Iraq. And they as well as Sistani now appear to be cashing that in.
If things with Iran get “kinetic” then all bets are off as the board is completely re-altered and then we might be headed for a political terrorist singularity beyond anyone’s ken.