Thursday, July 2, 2009

US in Afghanistan: Disaster in the making

Remember that you read it here. Rarely is it possible to see almost certain disaster looming so clearly and brightly ahead. In a decade, the bit of news to be discussed here may be considered the most important foreign policy blunder of the Obama administration and perhaps the most important blunder of the United States in the first decade of the new century, outclassing the Iraq war in every way. it is reasonably US President Barack Obama is evidently in earnest about his campaign pledge to focus on Afghanistan. The US is probably going to be sending 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, bringing the US total to 55,000 and the grand total with non-US troops to 87,000.
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The United States is thereby committing itself to a war that is almost certainly unwinable, especially not on the terms set by the United States. Consider each of the points against this war.
The Soviet experience:The USSR sent over 115,000 troops to Afghanistan reinforcing what was originally an almost equal number of government troops. The USSR was defeated. A 1982 US intelligence report concluded that the Soviets would need to double their forces (apparently to 200,000) in order to win. A 50,000 troop increase would produce only a temporary improvement if they are concentrated in a given area. Once the troops moved on, the insurgents would return, concluded the report
The Soviet People are not known to be squeamish about casualties. In the Second World War they absorbed fatalities of close to 50% - nearly 11 million military deaths between 1941 and 1945. Nor was the Soviet Union a free society that welcomed debate about casualties. Nor was Russia or the Soviet Union ever limited in the numbers of men it would commit to a war. Yet public pressure in the USSR forced them to abandon their commitment in Afghanistan. .
Officially, there were about 14,000 or 15,000 Soviet dead. So get out the body bags folks. Oh yes. I forget to mention that the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan is credited as a major factor in the collapse of the USSR. Are you sure you want to be doing this?
US experience in Afghanistan : Ill considered US intervention in Afghanistan helped to bring about the end of the Soviet involvement there. It also helped to create the al-Qaeda extremists who perpetrated the bombings of 9-11 and the entire radical community in the Pakistan border areas, which now serves as a fanatic factory. Further American meddling in the region has not succeeded in containing the problem, which now has destabilized Pakistan, a nuclear power. A nuclear al-Qaeda state would hardly be a desirable development. Handling this situation requires regional expertise, deep local knowledge, superb human intelligence and covert operations capabilities, deft diplomacy and genius, No US administration has a good record for any of these qualities in east Asia or the Middle East.
The local regime - Afghan President Hamid Karzai was hailed as the U.S. installed leader who would bring democracy and good government to Afghanistan. It hasn't worked out like that. The principle industry of Afghanistan, if it isn't arms trade, is growing and exporting opium. Hamid's brother Ahmad is reportedly a prominent entrepreneur in this booming industry. The Karzai family has not delivered on good government or democracy. Conditions of economic well being and human rights in Afghanistan make the Gaza strip look like utopia. They aren't the Taleban, but they might be the next worst thing. In 2006, only insistent foreign intervention saved one Abdul Rahman from execution for the crime of conversion to Christianity. Amnesty international protested systematic persecution and murder of journalists by Afghan warlords:
Ms. Zakia Zaki, a radio station owner and critic, was the victim of an apparently politically motivated murder in June 2007; an investigation by authorities into her killing seems to have stalled. Ms. Nilofar Habibi, a Heart TV presenter, was stabbed in May 2008; several of her colleagues resigned out of fear, and Ms. Habibi was forced into hiding. Mr. Abdul Samad Rohani, was abducted on June 7, 2008, and subsequently killed in Lashkar Gah, possibly in response to his investigation of the narcotics trade; he had worked for the BBC. Mr. Mohammad Nasir Fayyaz, presenter of the TV program "The Truth," was detained repeatedly by National Directorate of Security personnel in June 2008 for "mispresenting" government officials.
Are you sure this regime could muster the solid support of the Afghan people? It might, if that's the way they do things there. But how long will the US public agree to send their sons and daughters to die in order to save that regime? And remember, changing the regime in Afghanistan, judging from past history, will only make things worse.
US Administration of the war - US administration of the war in Afghanistan seems to be about what you would expect. The US pours billions of dollar into armaments for the Afghan army, and can't figure out why that army can't fight anything. One reason might be that the chief supplier arms to the Afghan army is (or war?) a small company that supplied piles of defective and obsolete Soviet ammunition to the Afghans. The company is run by a 22 year old, and one of the vice presidents is a licensed masseur.
Pakistan - The Pakistani government faithfully followed the will and requests of the US for many years in many ways. It helped set up the al-Qaeda enclave that the US needed to supply Afghani insurgents, and in consequence it finds itself on the brink of disintegration and ruin, to which its own officials have no doubt contributed. The situation took a great turn for the worse some time in 2006, when Osama Bin Laden reportedly mapped out a plan for turning Northern Pakistan in an Al-Qaeda - Taleban basing area. Pakistan, complains one critic, has no coherent policy toward the Taleban. It fights them, makes peace with them, supports them and tries to buy them out, sometimes all at the same time. In consequence, all of northeast Pakistan is now in danger of falling to the Taleban. US raids on the Pakistani border area further destabilized the government, which is now trying to negotiate a truce with the terrorists, in which they give up their arms in return for freedom to run their region as an Islamist state within a state. The new U.S. administration, which is so enthusiastic about negotiating with Iran, and favors a truce between Israel and the Hamas is not quite as happy about this deal. but it is more or less helpless to do anything about it.
The Afghan war may make the Vietnam and Iraq wars look good.
The US Public - We can anticipate the reaction of the US public to casualty rates that stopped the Soviets. There is no way to win such a war or even to come close without committing troops to the field, and as the body bags mount up in Arlington cemetery there is sure to be a reaction. "Black Hawk Down" will be happening every day and CNN will be there to report it live. The biggest achievement of Barack Obama in his presidency may be to make Americans adore the memory of George W. Bush and laud his judgment in avoiding a war that can't be won.
Proven Failure History has shown that one of the best ways to lose a military campaign is to gradually build up forces against a determined enemy, allowing that enemy to marshal its own forces, improve its defense and learn your tactics and weaknesses. The secret is to always add just enough troops to lose the next battle, so that at each confrontation you have enough troops to win the battle you just lost. Especially when fighting an insurgent war, always be fair and leave the enemy enough time to recover while your forces undergo attrition and demoralization and the war loses political support at home. This method was used with brilliant success by Great Britain to lose the Gallipoli campaign, and it was proven again by the United States in Vietnam.
It works every time, it seems. Now the US is doing the same thing in Afghanistan. On the other hand, there is no point in committing large numbers of troops when the plan of action is uncertain, there are not enough military and political staff who know the local territory and speak the language, there are no combat troops available and the US has no money and no political backing for yet another war.
The US doesn't have a lot of wonderful options in Afghanistan. Doing nothing is one option. While it might be better in the immediate future than the prospect of losing a long and expensive war and incurring thousands of casualties, in the longer term the consequences might be disastrous. doing nothing, or doing the wrong thing, as the US is doing, will probably result in loss of both Pakistan and Afghanistan to al-Qaeda Islamists and possibly an India-Pakistan war, as well as further attacks on US cities by al-Qaeda, on a larger scale.
Getting help would be a good idea. The Russians have a lot of experience in Afghanistan, and while they are probably not stupid enough to contribute troops, they might be willing to supply a lot of advice based on hard-earned experience, linguists, intelligence assets and other aid, beyond allowing transport of military materiel through their territory. The Iranians are, or were, discreet and passive allies of the US in Afghanistan, but they are there to serve their own agenda. Admittedly, the situation may become so bad that an Iranian takeover of Afghanistan and Pakistan, with all that it implies, may be the least bad alternative. The US must evaluate the option of Iranian cooperation very carefully.
The most important help however, may be help in a concerted effort to choke off the sources of money and arms that enable the Taleban to keep up the fight in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. So little work has been done in this direction that it is not even certain what those sources are - Wahhabi donors in the Arabian peninsula, drug money, corrupt or sympathetic Pakistani officials, charity donations from Europe. Pakistanis contemplate the probability of Taleban takeover either with apathy or frustration, blaming all of the above as well as what they claim are duplicitous US officials. One warlord, who heads a group of 20,000 terrorists, spends $45 million on arms and supplies each year, and he is only one of about half a dozen or more in Northeast Pakistan.
But these are matters of tactics. The essentials to success in Afghanistan are all commonsense precautions and preparations needed for any undertaking by any government or organization:
* To understand the situation and the possible consequences of different actions.
* To understand what it is possible to achieve, what it is essential to achieve and to realistically assess the resources needed to achieve it.
* To gather the needed resources - not only money, troops and materiel, but also information and local knowledge.
* To ensure you can remain committed to a course of action and see it through, rather than finding that the public is tired of the whole affair and more interested in the Super Bowl.
* To have a rational decision making process, that responds to emergencies and unexpected setbacks by making constructive changes, a process that is not marred by inter-agency rivalry and bureaucratic games or subject to the "state of denial" and inertia that characterized the decision making of the Vietnam war and much of the Iraq war, as well as the Afghanistan war.
Every one of the above seems, by every indication, to be completely absent from USA policy-making in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 1979. It is true that the situation could have deteriorated to this extent without US intervention, but the US seems to had a big hand in creating its own nightmare. The Obama administration seems to be dooming itself to play the final act in an epic disaster that has been in the making for 30 years.
Ami Isseroff

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