3D in Afghanistan – Part Three: “A Future So Brilliant”

December 11, 2009

The third “D” in the West’s three “oughts” of counter-insurgency (to go along with “democracy” and “defence”) is development.  Western c-i strategists argue that a massive influx of aid to help build infrastructure will help wean Afghans away from the static, even destructive, program of the insurgents.    Given the chance to live a more modern and comfortable existence Afghans will eschew war and join the peaceful family of democratic nations.

An important question is whether such a program could be achieved given that Afghanistan has gone through 30 years of near continuous war, during which time the country has been bombed back to the stone age.  Even a plan along the magnitude of the Marshall Plan may not suffice as the same building blocks that existed in post-war Europe are absent in Afghanistan.  Keep in mind that this is a country where literacy hovers around 10 percent and there is almost no infrastructure outside of major urban centers.  Any attempt to bring Afghanistan up to a level comparable to a Western model would take a generation.

Ignoring the feasibility of the strategy it is worth evaluating whether the goal of “modernizing” Afghanistan is desirable at all.  Like the security issue, the fact that all of Afghanistan’s newfound infrastructure is essentially stamped “made in the USA (substitute any NATO ally as applicable)” raises doubts about the legitimacy of the central government.  Even if ordinary Afghans participate in the construction of schools and irrigation systems, it is clear who is directing each operation and who is footing the bill – and it isn’t Kabul.  Unless these projects are taken over by the central government, Afghan’s loyalty will be placed on outsiders rather than the central government.

That is of course if Western strategists are correct in assuming that Afghans are as malleable as they seem to believe.

These assumptions, the malleability of the citizenry and the allure of economic progress, form the basis of a political-economic model at the heart of Western counter-insurgency strategy since the end of the Second World War: Modernization theory.  This theory holds that economic and political development progresses along a universal set of progressive stages, and that the risk of social upheaval increases as a country moves from one stage to the next.  Adhering to this theory, the West has seen itself as having reached an end point after navigating the stages of development, therefore the West is well placed to guide traditional societies using lessons drawn from their own history. The implications of applying historical conclusions to analogous situations are staggering.  Generalizations, about Western history and Afghan history, are inevitably made when it is the intricacies that make all the difference.

The end result is that Western strategists tend to question how resources are distributed among the three “oughts” of counter-insurgency (good government, security, and development) rather than considering whether the model itself is flawed.  The c-i campaign then either fails because of this failure to reevaluate the situation, or succeeds because of extraneous factor and analysts attempt to reapply the same formula to the next unique insurgency.  The debates surrounding surrounding counter-insurgency strategy thus become cyclical.

I realize this all sounds incredibly pessimistic (not to mention derivative).  I do believe that there is some hope for an Afghanistan at peace for the first time in 30 years – the United States/NATO strategy might simply stall that eventuality because of its failure to accurately appraise the unique situation on the ground.


Tehran’s frightening reach

December 8, 2009

From Andrew Sullivan’s blog:

His first impulse was to dismiss the ominous email as a prank, says a young Iranian-American named Koosha. It warned the 29-year-old engineering student that his relatives in Tehran would be harmed if he didn’t stop criticizing Iran on Facebook. Two days later, his mom called. Security agents had arrested his father in his home in Tehran and threatened him by saying his son could no longer safely return to Iran. “When they arrested my father, I realized the email was no joke,” said Koosha, who asked that his full name not be used.

This is an epoch in the history of wireless communication. Previously, outside of probably rare efforts to entrap,  governments were limited to merely ceasing the transfer of undesirable information through filters or the complete severance of cellular communication.  Now it is possible to move from being reactive to proactive, as Tehran has demonstrated, by using social networking websites to accumulate information about “troublemakers” among the diaspora and silence them by threatening the safety of their friends and loved ones.  Rather than be jeopardized by the free flow of information, the IRI has begun to use it to spread their terror.  When it comes to suppressing criticism of its brutality the IRI will not accept any limitation – not even borders or a physical disconnect.

An important question is how the West will react to this?  If their citizens are being threatened, even indirectly, do they not have an obligation to speak against Tehran on their behalf?  The crimes of the IRI cannot be ignored when they reach into Washington, Ottawa, and London’s own backyard.  Additionally, waiting much longer to champion the rights of the Iranian people, as talks on Iran’s nuclear program stall,  may tarnish any later efforts, even if they are well-intentioned, as insincere.

We’ve been waiting for an answer since June…

December 7, 2009

“They are asking us to forget about the election results as though people are concerned only about the elections. How can we make them understand that this is not the issue? It is not about who the president is or is not; the issue is that they have sold out a great nation.” – Mir Hossein Mousavi

This question should be directed to the Western  mainstream media as well…

3D in Afghanistan – Part Two: The “Security Ought”

December 4, 2009

The primary focus of Obama’s speech Tuesday evening was on the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.  The President hopes to counter the gains made by the insurgents since 2002 with the addition of 30,000 American troops, a plan that on the surface seems sensible enough.

However, there are three fundamental problems:

1.  The 100 in 80 factor.

Old counter-insurgency wisdom states that it is better to provide 100 percent security in 80 percent of a country than 80 percent security in 100 percent of the country.  Since most insurgencies are transnational in character, let’s change the word “country” to “affected area”, because while the United States and its allies may have to respect international borders (well, to the degree that they can’t outright occupy countries they are not at war with ie. Pakistan) the insurgents don’t as they freely and regularly cross between the long and porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border.  That insecurity in the Afghan-Pakistan border region (the 20%), stands to destabilize whatever level of security the new influx of American and NATO troops bring to the remainder of Afghanistan.  As has been proven in insurgencies in Vietnam (see Laos and Cambodia), Communist Afghanistan (Pakistan again), and more recently in Iraq (Fallujah), pockets of insecurity can be the source arms and attacks of a devastatingly effective insurgency.  Unless the Afghan-Pakistan border can be closed by this surge of Western forces, a task that a roughly equal number of Soviet troops and an exponentially greater number of Afghan troops could not accomplish in the 80s, the insurgency will not be defeated.

2.  Stalling the growth of national institutions.

No matter how positively Afghans may view Western troops (whether they view them positively at all is debatable)  there is a fundamental problem with regard to the legitimacy of the central government (wait, they do that well enough on their own with rampant corruption) when the security (or insecurity depending on your perspective) of the country is in the hands of outsiders.  This is not a racial issue, its a common sense issue.  When the survival of the current regime is dependent solely on the protection afforded to it by non-Afghans it cannot achieve legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary citizens no matter how secure they are.  More attention must be paid to the development of an Afghan National Army that follows the will of responsible civilian leadership and protects rather than harasses the Afghan people, an issue Obama made scant reference to.  Approaching the security issue with tunnel vision  will stall the growth of domestic security forces, prolong the occupation and/or result in failure.

3.  Too much security?

A fundamental assumption in Western counter-insurgency doctrine is that the presence of the central government must be felt in all corners of the country in order for an insurgency to be defeated.  I believe that this is a false assumption, especially in a place like Afghanistan, where in much of the country less might be more.  This whole issue comes down to understanding what the disaffected (those that are violent and those that aren’t) want.  Western governments too often (as in always) paint the enemy with a very broad brush.  Not everyone opposed to a Western presence in Afghanistan and the Karzai regime is Taliban.  True, some are equally bad, namely the warlords and drug dealers seeking to carve out their own fiefdom or establish their own dictatorship (the immortal Gulbuddin Hekmatyar comes to mind).  But many Afghans are merely interested in preserving their own traditionally independent way of life.  They are not necessarily al Qaeda sympathizers or looking for a government that will throw acid in the faces of immoral women, they merely oppose  any strong central government (whether it be under Karzai or Mullah Omar) and desire the ability to maintain an autonomous existence based on local social institutions, tribes or clans.  Cowing these people through brute military force would be immoral, and the presence of Western or even Afghan National Army troops would merely create more insecurity.  The President and his mandarins  must understand the nuances of Afghan’s disaffections and not look at the civilian population with a manichean “with us or against” us disposition.  A greater understanding of the insurgency and the nature of the security dilemma that the United States and its NATO allies face is instrumental in creating the proper military-political policy prescription to weaken and defeat this insurgency.

3D in Afghanistan – Part One: Good Government and The Question of Leverage

December 3, 2009

In his speech last night outlining America’s strategy for the now eight year-old counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan, US president Barack Obama boldly stated: “The days of providing a blank cheque are over.”  Ensuring there was no ambiguity regarding the precise subject of America’s new no nonsense attitude the President asserted that America would have higher standards of Afghanistan’s national institutions:  “We expect those who are ineffective and corrupt to be held accountable.”

Obama then, unilaterally and without condition, authorized the deployment of 30,000 additional American troops to rescue that very same “ineffective” and “corrupt” regime from a growing insurgent force, seeking its curtailment if not dissolution.

This absurd position represents a fundamental problem in every counter-insurgency campaign conducted in a foreign land: the reversal of leverage.  While the government of president Hamid Karzai faces the most real and immediate threat it is America and its allies in NATO that feel compelled to adjust to the challenges presented by the insurgency.  This inverse relationship persists despite the glaring facts that i) development is bankrolled by Western treasure and ii) security is provided almost solely by NATO troops – two items whose expense Kabul has no incentive to assume responsibility (meaning the bill) for.

In addition as the President mentioned, and even the casual observer will notice, many within all levels of the Afghan government have profited from misappropriation of finances, corruption and in some cases involvement in the drug trade, all of which Hamid Karzai has, at best (and this is being generous) willfully turned a blind eye towards.  Ordinary Afghans are not blind to this corruption (they are often pilfered by those that are meant to serve and protect them) nor the fact that what little security and prosperity they have is provided by non-Afghans.  Hence, loyalty to the central government is weak and often does not extend far beyond major urban centers where it exists at all.

The Karzai government’s unpopularity should conceivably give NATO greater leverage, however, the reality of the situation is the exact inverse.  The Afghan government strengthens  its leverage in its relations with the West as its base of support weakens and, in turn, the threat of compromise with or capitulation to the enemy  rises.  Thus, the West have become and will remain accomplices to the Karzai regime’s crimes maintaining a facade of confidence in its continued existence (the reluctant support shown by Western governments following his outright theft of this year’s election being the most telling example).  With no disincentive graft will remain commonplace and the development of effective political institutions (meaning agencies that serve rather than rob and extort Afghans) will continue to be curtailed.

In order for an effective change in leverage to come about the West must reevaluate its goals in Afghanistan and look beyond the narrow self-interest of their own immediate security concerns. Threatening Kabul with a fuzzy withdrawal date, as Obama did in last night’s speech, will not suffice.  Should good  government be a worthwhile attribute for a stable Afghanistan (I believe it is though its powers may need to be limited), real and responsible alternatives to the existing regime must be encouraged (not installed) and change not feared.

Hillier and the Afghan Prison Transfer Controversy

December 2, 2009

My apologies, I wanted to address this issue sooner but my computer was on the fritz.  I also wanted to give this a longer treatment but decided to wait for Obama’s speech regarding his Afghan strategy.

Last week’s testimony by Richard Colvin’s alleging that Canadian Forces in Afghanistan continued to transfer detainees into Afghan custody despite repeated warnings that they would be subjected to torture has been met with a flurry of criticism in recent days.

Chief among Colvin’s critics is former Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier who referred to allegations that Canadian Forces acted inappropriately as “bullshit”, suggesting Colvin’s allegations to a Taliban propaganda campaign, while at the same time suggesting that any Afghans tortured while in captivity had what was coming to them:  “We detained under violent actions people trying to kill our sons and daughters.”

Let’s assume that Colvin’s statements were far too sweeping and that there is no evidence to support his claim that torture was a widespread practice within Afghan prisons (true or not his statement that “the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured” was easy for detractors to pounce on).  Hillier still fails to address the dozens of first-hand reports of abuse of prisoners at the hands of Afghan guards and the fact that the Canadian government received a tacit warning from its Dutch and British allies  when they revamped their monitoring programs in 2006 to keep a closer eye on the well-being of their detainees.  If prisoner abuse was not systematic it was far from rare, hence Ottawa’s decision to more closely monitor Afghans captured by Canadian Forces beginning in 2007.  So Hillier is wrong on his this account.
Hillier’s second claim, that Canadians only detained violent insurgents associated with the Taliban, deserves more serious consideration something that will be dealt with in the days ahead.