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War Gone Wild in Afghanistan
Posted by Derrick Crowe on September 7th, 2009

When the people of an occupied country want foreign troops out while the people of the occupying country want their troops to come home, and the troops remain, something is wrong. Both the American people and the Afghan people want a troop decrease in Afghanistan. Yet this weekend, the President is reviewing a strategic assessment prepared by General Stanley McChrystal widely portrayed as a prelude to a request for an escalation. Should the president approve such a request, he’d be saying, in effect, that to protect democracy in America and to build it in Afghanistan, we must trample it.

Source: Afghan public opinion poll, ABC News/BBC/ARD 1/09; U.S. public opinion poll, CBS News, 8/09

On September 4, I went on al-Jazeera English to debate the future of U.S. foreign policy versus Abe Greenwald. When I insisted that we don’t have indications that the Pashtuns are flipping their support to the Afghan national government, Abe asserted that polling shows that American forces and the Afghan national government get higher marks than the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Based on the most recent polling I can find on Afghanistan public opinion, he is roughly correct. His assertion is also irrelevant.

I am assuming that Greenwald refers to a 1/12/09 ABC News/BBC/ARD poll, versus the more-recent IRI polling (If he wasn’t, then he should have, as it asks more relevant questions about Afghan desires on U.S. troop levels.). According to that poll, the Taliban presence is supported by only 8 percent of those surveyed. The Afghan government gets 49 percent job approval. The United States gets a 47 percent favorable rating. So yes, according to this poll, attitudes among all Afghans toward the United States compare favorably with the Afghan government and the Taliban. Again, this warm feeling is irrelevant.

The problem for Abe’s argument is that the 47 percent approval rating for the U.S. is accompanied by a 52 percent disapproval rating among Afghans, That unfavorable rating has spiked 20 points since the end of 2007. The pace with which the unfavorable rating grows is accelerating. The number of Afghans who say attacks on the U.S. and allies can be justified doubled since 2006. Only 32 percent say the U.S. has performed well in Afghanistan. Only 37 percent say that the local population supports Western forces. And–here’s the most important question regarding the decision before President Obama–when asked about coalition troop levels, only 18 percent of Afghans wanted troop levels increased. Twenty-nine percent wanted the same number of troops, and 44 percent wanted troops decreased.

This situation is even more dire when you consider Anthony Cordesman’s (an escalation supporter, mind you) statement that “all insurgency is local.” In the Kandahar region, 84 percent of Afghans surveyed held an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. and 55 percent of those surveyed said attacks against U.S./NATO forces were justified. In Nangarhar, 90 percent held an unfavorable view, and 63 percent justified attacks against U.S./NATO troops. This is the Pashtun “sea” for the Taliban-led insurgency; the dismal 5-10 percent turnout for the August election in the Pashtun areas and the numbers above show that U.S. counterinsurgency strategy has totally failed.

Keep in mind, this poll was taken in January 2009. The intervening eight months have been a public-relations disaster for the United States. A May 4, 2009 airstrike killed as many as 86 civilians, an outrage compounded by NATO’s inability to admit the error for more than a month. This past week, on September 4, at least 40 civilians died when a U.S. pilot dropped ordinance on two fuel tankers surrounded by non-combatants. In the first six months of this year, coalition forces caused more civilian deaths than the same period last year (310 vs 276, respectively), and they did so during an escalation initiated over the objections of Afghan public opinion. That last point is worth emphasizing, especially considering that the presence of foreign forces fighting a war in Afghanistan is the prime driver of the resurgence of the Taliban. Needless to say, these factors likely did not arrest the precipitous loss of support for our policies in Afghanistan.

U.S. public opinion very closely mirrors that of the Afghan people. A CBS News poll taken 8/27-31/09 found that 25 percent of Americans favor a troop increase; 23 want to maintain troop levels; and 41 percent want to reduce troop levels. Opposition to troop increases and support for troop withdrawals are especially intense among the President’s base, as shown in this graphic from The Washington Post:

Source: ABC News/WAPO

These results also come before the latest catastrophe for U.S. counterinsurgency policy: the catastrophically corrupted August elections.Again, we find ourselves looking at polling data taken before events that are likely to drive down support for an already-unpopular policy of ever-deepening military involvement.

How is it possible that when the populations of both countries and the Commander-in-Chief’s political base agree on a policy direction we find ourselves moving in the opposite direction?

A partial answer might be that the president has surrounded himself with advisers who counsel escalation when they ought to know better. These advisers know full well all of the information described above. They’ve also engaged in severe intellectual dishonesty to avoid reckoning with the failure of strategies they helped construct.

Foremost among these advisers is Bruce Riedel, who chaired the last policy review that resulted in the prior escalation. Riedel co-wrote a recent article in which he claimed that the results of an Afghan public opinion poll conducted July 16-26, 2009, prior to the Afghan elections, indicated “a fresh burst of hopefulness among Afghans.” On that basis, Riedel claimed we had one last “fresh start” in Afghanistan, tied by the pollsters and by Riedel to the success of the vote.

Just a few days before the election, Riedel wrote an articled titled “Obama’s Afghan Test,” in which he said that “Thursday’s election in Afghanistan is a critical early test of America’s new strategy in the war,” and that “[t]he ‘metrics’ to measure Obama’s war—which many are calling for—will be in Thursday’s votes.”

The election was a disaster, marked by pervasive vote fraud, intimidation and violence. Thousands of fraud accusations surfaced, hundreds serious enough to flip the election results. Officials in the Shobarak district assert that some 23,900 votes were stuffed on President Hamid Karzai’s behalf. Up to 70,000 fraudulent votes may have been cast in a cluster of polling stations east of Kabul. Officials responsible for ensuring vote integrity sold voter cards for cash. Political alliances made to swing large voting blocs will likely increase the power of Afghanistan’s narcotics-fueled warlords. According to The Washington Post’s Pamela Constable, the elections left Afghans “confused, jittery and bracing for street violence — or at least a protracted period of political polarization and drift.”

So much for the fresh start.

Despite this failure of the test Riedel set up for the Afghanistan strategy and the obliteration of the hypothetical opening offered by a legitimate election, he continues to assert the existence of a new start. Five days after the election, when reports already indicated massive election fraud, he told a panel audience, “[T]his really is the last chance.” Riedel now says we need another 12-18 months before we can assess the President’s new strategy. He has not acknowledged the failure of a strategy he helped to craft nor explained how the supposed “fresh start” persists after the collapse of the legitimacy of the election.

Sitting next to Riedel on that Brookings panel was Anthony Cordesman, who in April of this year gave a dire presentation in which he noted all of the above warning signs in Afghan public opinion. Yet Cordesman is among the most fire-breathing supporters for another escalation. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Cordesman very helpfully hinted at the need for anywhere between 6,900 and 40,000 additional troops to bring the U.S. “victory” in Afghanistan, ignoring the massive Afghan public opposition on which he reported just a few month earlier and the potential for a further inflamed Pashtun population.

Cordesman also neglected to define “victory,” and that’s not surprising, given that the administration can’t get it’s story straight on what victory would look like. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry says we’re nation-building, Secretary Gates says we’re not, and Ambassador Holbrooke just gives up and says he’ll know victory when he sees it. Lacking any clear endpoint, a possible range of recommended troop increases 33,100-wide, and thus lacking any solid measures against which to measure the costs and benefits, Cordesman’s “advice” recedes into chest-thumping nonsense, completely useless other than as an exhortation to President Obama to not be a wuss. And don’t forget–he’s only able to offer this drivel because he’s ignored the will/rage of the Afghan people on which he reported a few months earlier.

After more than 800 U.S. military casualties, tens of thousands of Afghan civilian deaths and $228 billion allocated so far, we have zero indications that Pashtuns in Afghanistan are any closer to giving their support to the Kabul government, the essential criteria for “victory” according to U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine. If that’s not enough to convince the president to abandon this bloody adventure, then let’s hope that, as the chief instrument of the people’s control over the executive branch, President Obama can be swayed by a basic respect for the strong desires of his people and the people whose land we’re occupying. The American and Afghan peoples want fewer, not more U.S. troops in Afghanistan. If, in the face of this pairing, the president decides to escalate again, he will confirm what many of us already fear: that this awful war has taken on a terrible independence from the will of the people.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the awful human costs of the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Four): Civilian Casualties.

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