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Can We Call It A Quagmire Yet?

Posted by on May 18th, 2010

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By Steve Hynd

As Gareth Porter pointed out yesterday in his inaugural post as part of the Newshoggers team, there are compelling reasons to believe that the ground in Afghanistan is far like a quagmire than the Obama administration and the military want to admit.

The coin cost of what even the COINdinistas are complaining isn't real COIN in Afghanistan may now soar above the$1.2 trillion overall I predicted last March to as high as $2 trillion. But still, best of luck getting an estimate out of the White House – they just keep coming back for more money.

A recent survey by the ICOS group (PDF) showed that the Marjah offensive was abortive at best, with locals saying clearly that they don't like NATO/ISAF, and think the NATO/ISAF presence will increase Taliban recruitment in the area. What was meant to be an easy propaganda win on the domestic front has turned into an extremely offensive game of whack-a-mole (again) which is killing and alienating Afghan civilians (again). And McChrystal's "government in a box"? Well…

In Kandahar, the UK's Stephen Grey has done some first class reporting on NATO's growing reliance on militais accused of assassinations and civilian deaths. Grey also reports that US special forces are intimately connected to these rogue militias:

An Afghan prosecutor has issued an arrest warrant for an American special forces commander over allegations that a police chief was murdered by a US-trained militia.

Brigadier General Ghulam Ranjbar, the chief military prosecutor in Kabul, has accused the US of creating an outlaw militia which allegedly shot dead Matiullah Qateh, the chief of police in the city of Kandahar.

The militia, which Ranjbar claimed is armed and trained by US special forces, also allegedly killed Kandahar's head of criminal investigations and two other officers, when they attempted to free one of their members from a courthouse.

…He accused American officials of refusing to hand over evidence or to permit his investigators to interview the special forces commander, known to Afghans only as "John or Johnny", who he alleges sanctioned the raid.

The arrest warrant, which has been circulated to border posts and airports, is an embarrassment for the US military, which is facing growing criticism for links to militias controlled by warlords. In Kandahar, the militias have been accused of murder, rape and extortion.

Ranjbar said an investigation found that the force that killed Qateh operated from Camp Gecko, in the hills outside Kandahar, a base for both US special forces and the CIA.

The militia in question is supposedly funded by Petraeus' pal Ahmed Walid Karzai, the "proverbial 800lb gorilla and he’s in the middle of a lot of rooms" of Kandahar. There's absolutely no sign that Karzai intends to rein in his warlord brother, nor any leverage the US could apply to make him even were it inclined to do so. A.W. Karzai is the box, the "Nancy Pelosi of Kandahar".

Unsurprisingly, McChrystal's "gesture" – we can't call it an offensive – in Kandahar has now been put off to fall because of local opposition.

Key military operations have been delayed until the fall, efforts to improve local government are having little impact, and a Taliban assassination campaign has brought a sense of dread to Kandahar's dusty streets.

NATO officials once spoke of demonstrating major progress by mid-August, but U.S. commanders now say the turning point may not be reached until November, and perhaps later.

At the urging of Afghan leaders, U.S. officials have stopped describing the plan as a military operation. Instead, they've dubbed it "Cooperation for Kandahar," a moniker meant to focus attention on efforts to build up local governance while reducing fears of street battles.

A fall start date will put the Kandahar offensive, campaign, process, gesture outwith the original 12 month window that McChrystal claimed was crucial when he was bulldozering Obama for more troops. That window has now been pushed out, apparently, to 18 months or even 2 years, despite there being no progress to show good cause for extending McChrystal's timeline.

Even so, I see no signs that there'll be congressional hearings to discover whether McChrystal was simply incompetent in his original estimate, or whether he deliberately lied to the President. Nor, by the way, do I see any signs of McChrystal – who was granted authority over all special forces in Afghanistan by Petreaus not too long ago – being held accountable for the crazy goings-on of special forces backed militias.

And then, as Fred Kaplan reports today, there's the unclassified, 150-page Defense Department document called "Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan."

Here's how the report summarizes the situation in straight prose: "Some individual islands of security exist in the sea of instability or insecurity." The authors muster only two islands: the town of Mazur-i-Sharif in the north and "small contiguous areas" near the Ring Road in the south. The level of security, they add, is "significantly related to the presence of well-led and non-corrupt" units of Afghan soldiers or police.

The problem is that "well-led and non-corrupt" Afghan security forces are, as yet, rare commodities. The Afghan army and national police force are making "slow progress" toward its manpower targets because of "high attrition and low retention." Between 60 percent and 70 percent of uniformed police are "hired and deployed with no formal training." By this August, NATO troops will be mentoring Afghan police in 45 of the 80 most important districts. Yet the report notes that even well-trained police units "have regressed" after a mentoring team is reassigned elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the training of the Afghan security forces is going slowly as well. Of the 5,111 Western personnel authorized for NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, as the command is called, just 2,673—barely half—have been assigned to an Afghan security unit. The United States is contributing its share of trainers, but the NATO allies are falling short. And since some of those allies have announced they're pulling out of Afghanistan altogether, these "credibility gaps," (the report's words) in training will only widen. The U.S. armed forces have to fill the gap, and they're having a hard enough time meeting the schedule to deploy troops for combat.

By the way, the Afghan people aren't so thrilled with our armed forces, either. In a poll taken in March, 29 percent of Afghans said they have a "good" or "very good" impression of U.S. and NATO troops, while 38 percent have a "bad" or "very bad" impression—the worst score since polling began on this question in September 2008. (NATO is so sensitive on this matter—our strategy, after all, is to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people—that this survey is taken each quarter.)

The report's authors figure, reasonably, that the decline in popularity is due to the increased fighting—and, with it, the unavoidable rise in civilian casualties. They note that 80 percent of these casualties are still caused by the insurgents and that the number caused by U.S. and NATO troops has gone down "in relation to the size of the force and despite an increase in [operational tempo]." But nobody is likely to be assuaged by an argument that we're killing fewer civilians per Western soldier on the ground. That only suggests that as the ranks of these Westerners swells, civilian casualties will rise along with them.

And finally the big question: How's Karzai doing? As every U.S. military commander has emphasized, a counterinsurgency campaign can succeed only if the host government is regarded as legitimate. Outside military allies can kill insurgents and protect the civilian population, but the Afghan government has to follow through with basic services and good governance.

Basic services? Just 47 percent of Afghans polled are satisfied with the electricity in their area, 28 percent are satisfied with the level of clean water, and 27 percent are satisfied with the roads.

The report notes that U.S. forces achieved "some success" in clearing Helmand Province of insurgents. But, it adds, "progress in introducing governance and development" to that area "has been slow" because the "national infrastructure" is unable to "provide tangible benefits for the populace"—a weakness that "has been exploited by the insurgents."

For this reason, the report states, "The insurgents perceive 2009 as their most successful year."

As noted above, the reaction of the COIN crowd to all this has been to complain that what's going on in Afghanistan isn't real COIN, as if that creature can exist outwith think-tank fever dreams, but they've also shown willing to get their knives out for the Cassandar of McChrystal's surge, Karl Eikenberry. For it's part, the White House has brought the truthiness by talking up illusory progress while also encouraging stenographic reports of how Obama actually bamboozled the military, rather than the reverse.

So we have a military strategy that's going backwards and alienating the locals, a political strategy that's non-existant and would be too late if it were formulated now, and careerist infighting on the domestic front. 1,000 Americans and untold numbers of Afghans have died while the generals and politicians play silly buggers. The only thing that would make Afghanistan more of a Vietnam-style quagmire would be if people were calling for ignoring promises to begin withdrawal in 2011.

Oh wait…

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