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Archive for May, 2010

Posted by alexthurston on May 17th, 2010

This article originally appeared at

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: In early June, a new book of mine on all the subjects (or, if you prefer, obsessions) you know me best for -- The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s -- is due to be published.  The cover image is now up on the main screen of TomDispatch and embedded in this piece.  You can check out advanced comments on the book by clicking here.  I hope many of you will consider preordering it now or buying it in the future.  I’m sure I’ll be mentioning it to you (too) many times.  Meanwhile, let this be your second reminder of the week that any book, including mine, or anything else you purchase at after arriving via a TomDispatch link means a small, cost-free contribution to this site.  The dollars add up, help us to grow, and are truly appreciated.  Tom]

Obama’s Flailing Wars
A Study in BP-Style “Pragmatism”

By Tom Engelhardt

On stage, it would be farce.  In Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s bound to play out as tragedy.

Less than two months ago, Barack Obama flew into Afghanistan for six hours — essentially to read the riot act to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whom his ambassador had only months before termed “not an adequate strategic partner.”  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen followed within a day to deliver his own “stern message.”

While still on Air Force One, National Security Adviser James Jones offered reporters a version of the tough talk Obama was bringing with him.  Karzai would later see one of Jones’s comments and find it insulting.  Brought to his attention as well would be a newspaper article that quoted an anonymous senior U.S. military official as saying of his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a reputedly corrupt powerbroker in the southern city of Kandahar: “I’d like him out of there… But there’s nothing that we can do unless we can link him to the insurgency, then we can put him on the [target list] and capture and kill him.”  This was tough talk indeed.

At the time, the media repeatedly pointed out that President Obama, unlike his predecessor, had consciously developed a standoffish relationship with Karzai.  Meanwhile, both named and anonymous officials regularly castigated the Afghan president in the press for stealing an election and running a hopelessly corrupt, inefficient government that had little power outside Kabul, the capital.  A previously planned Karzai visit to Washington was soon put on hold to emphasize the toughness of the new approach.

The administration was clearly intent on fighting a better version of the Afghan war with a new commander, a new plan of action, and a well-tamed Afghan president, a client head of state who would finally accept his lesser place in the greater scheme of things.  A little blunt talk, some necessary threats, and the big stick of American power and money were sure to do the trick.

Meanwhile, across the border in Pakistan, the administration was in an all-carrots mood when it came to the local military and civilian leadership — billions of dollars of carrots, in fact.  Our top military and civilian officials had all but taken up residence in Islamabad.  By March, for instance, Admiral Mullen had already visited the country 15 times and U.S. dollars (and promises of more) were flowing in.  Meanwhile, U.S. Special Operations Forces were arriving in the country’s wild borderlands to train the Pakistani Frontier Corps and the skies were filling with CIA-directed unmanned aerial vehicles pounding those same borderlands, where the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other insurgent groups involved in the Afghan War were located.

In Pakistan, it was said, a crucial “strategic relationship” was being carefully cultivated.  As the New York Times reported, “In March, [the Obama administration] held a high-level strategic dialogue with Pakistan’s government, which officials said went a long way toward building up trust between the two sides.”  Trust indeed.

Skip ahead to mid-May and somehow, like so many stealthy insurgents, the carrots and sticks had crossed the poorly marked, porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan heading in opposite directions.  Last week, Karzai was in Washington being given “the red carpet treatment” as part of what was termed an Obama administration “charm offensive” and a “four-day love fest.”

The president set aside a rare stretch of hours to entertain Karzai and the planeload of ministers he brought with him.  At a joint news conference, Obama insisted that “perceived tensions” between the two men had been “overstated.”  Specific orders went out from the White House to curb public criticism of the Afghan president and give him “more public respect” as “the chief U.S. partner in the war effort.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured Karzai of Washington’s long-term “commitment” to his country, as did Obama and Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal.  Praise was the order of the day.

John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, interrupted a financial reform debate to invite Karzai onto the Senate floor where he was mobbed by senators eager to shake his hand (an honor not bestowed on a head of state since 1967).  He was once again our man in Kabul.  It was a stunning turnaround: a president almost without power in his own country had somehow tamed the commander-in-chief of the globe’s lone superpower.

Meanwhile, Clinton, who had shepherded the Afghan president on a walk through a “private enclave” in Georgetown and hosted a “glittering reception” for him, appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” to flay Pakistan.  In the wake of an inept failed car bombing in Times Square, she had this stern message to send to the Pakistani leadership: “We want more, we expect more… We’ve made it very clear that if, heaven forbid, an attack like this that we can trace back to Pakistan were to have been successful, there would be very severe consequences.”  Such consequences would evidently include a halt to the flow of U.S. aid to a country in economically disastrous shape.  She also accused at least some Pakistani officials of “practically harboring” Osama bin Laden.  So much for the carrots.

According to the Washington Post, General McChrystal delivered a “similar message” to the chief of staff of the Pakistani Army.  To back up Clinton’s public threats and McChrystal’s private ones, hordes of anonymous American military and civilian officials were ready to pepper reporters with leaks about the tough love that might now be in store for Pakistan.  The same Post story, for instance, spoke of “some officials… weighing in favor of a far more muscular and unilateral U.S. policy. It would include a geographically expanded use of drone missile attacks in Pakistan and pressure for a stronger U.S. military presence there.”

According to similar accounts, “more pointed” messages were heading for key Pakistanis and “new and stiff warnings” were being issued. Americans were said to be pushing for expanded Special Operations training programs in the Pakistani tribal areas and insisting that the Pakistani military launch a major campaign in North Waziristan, the heartland of various resistance groups including, possibly, al-Qaeda.  “The element of threat” was now in the air, according to Tariq Fatemi, a former Pakistani ambassador, while in press reports you could hear rumblings about an “internal debate” in Washington that might result in more American “boots on the ground.”

Helpless Escalation

In other words, in the space of two months the Obama administration had flip-flopped when it came to who exactly was to be pressured and who reassured.  A typically anonymous “former U.S. official who advises the administration on Afghan policy” caught the moment well in a comment to the Wall Street Journal.  “This whole bending over backwards to show Karzai the red carpet,” he told journalist Peter Spiegel, “is a result of not having had a concerted strategy for how to grapple with him.”

On a larger scale, the flip-flop seemed to reflect tactical and strategic incoherence — and not just in relation to Karzai.  To all appearances, when it comes to the administration’s two South Asian wars, one open, one more hidden, Obama and his top officials are flailing around.  They are evidently trying whatever comes to mind in much the manner of the oil company BP as it repeatedly fails to cap a demolished oil well 5,000 feet under the waves in the Gulf of Mexico.  In a sense, when it comes to Washington’s ability to control the situation, Pakistan and Afghanistan might as well be 5,000 feet underwater.  Like BP, Obama’s officials, military and civilian, seem to be operating in the dark, using unmanned robotic vehicles.  And as in the Gulf, after each new failure, the destruction only spreads.

For all the policy reviews and shuttling officials, the surging troops, extra private contractors, and new bases, Obama’s wars are worsening.  Lacking is any coherent regional policy or semblance of real strategy — counterinsurgency being only a method of fighting and a set of tactics for doing so.  In place of strategic coherence there is just one knee-jerk response: escalation.  As unexpected events grip the Obama administration by the throat, its officials increasingly act as if further escalation were their only choice, their fated choice.

This response is eerily familiar.  It permeated Washington’s mentality in the Vietnam War years.  In fact, one of the strangest aspects of that war was the way America’s leaders — including President Lyndon Johnson — felt increasingly helpless and hopeless even as they committed themselves to further steps up the ladder of escalation.

We don’t know what the main actors in Obama’s war are feeling.  We don’t have their private documents or their secret taped conversations.  Nonetheless, it should ring a bell when, as wars devolve, the only response Washington can imagine is further escalation.

Washington Boxed In

By just about every recent account, including new reports from the independent Government Accountability Office and the Pentagon, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is going dreadfully, even as the Taliban insurgency gains potency and expands.  This spring, preparing for his first relatively minor U.S. offensive in Marja, a Taliban-controlled area of Helmand Province, General McChrystal confidently announced that, after the insurgents were dislodged, an Afghan “government in a box” would be rolled out. From a governing point of view, however, the offensive seems to have been a fiasco.  The Taliban is now reportedly re-infiltrating the area, while the governmental apparatus in that nation-building “box” has proven next to nonexistent, corrupt, and thoroughly incompetent.

Today, according to a report by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), the local population is far more hostile to the American effort.  According to the ICOS, “61% of Afghans interviewed feel more negative about NATO forces after Operation Moshtarak than they did before the February military offensive in Marja.”

As Alissa Rubin of the New York Times summed up the situation in Afghanistan more generally:

“Even as American troops clear areas of militants, they find either no government to fill the vacuum, as in Marja, or entrenched power brokers, like President Karzai’s brother in Kandahar, who monopolize NATO contracts and other development projects and are resented by large portions of the population. In still other places, government officials rarely show up at work and do little to help local people, and in most places the Afghan police are incapable of providing security. Corruption, big and small, remains an overwhelming complaint.”

In other words, the U.S. really doesn’t have an “adequate partner,” and this is all the more striking since the Taliban is by no stretch of the imagination a particularly popular movement of national resistance.  As in Vietnam, a counterinsurgency war lacking a genuine governmental partner is an oxymoron, not to speak of a recipe for disaster.

Not surprisingly, doubts about General McChrystal’s war plan are reportedly spreading inside the Pentagon and in Washington, even before it’s been fully launched.  The major U.S. summer “operation” — it’s no longer being labeled an “offensive” — in the Kandahar region already shows signs of “faltering” and its unpopularity is rising among an increasingly resistant local population.  In addition, civilian deaths from U.S. and NATO actions are distinctly on the rise and widely unsettling to Afghans.  Meanwhile, military and police forces being trained in U.S./NATO mentoring programs considered crucial to Obama’s war plans are proving remarkably hapless.

McClatchy News, for example, recently reported that the new Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP), a specially trained elite force brought into the Marja area and “touted as the country’s best and brightest” is, according to “U.S. military strategists[,] plagued by the same problems as Afghanistan’s conventional police, who are widely considered corrupt, ineffective and inept.”  Drug use and desertions in ANCOP have been rife.

And yet, it seems as if all that American officials can come up with, in response to the failed Times Square car bombing and the “news” that the bomber was supposedly trained in Waziristan by the Pakistani Taliban, is the demand that Pakistan allow “more of a boots-on-the-ground strategy” and more American trainers into the country.  Such additional U.S. forces would serve only “as advisers and trainers, not as combat forces.”  So the mantra now goes reassuringly, but given the history of the Vietnam War, it’s a cringe-worthy demand.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has officially widened its targeting in the CIA drone war in the Pakistani borderlands to include low-level, no-name militants.  It is also ratcheting up such attacks, deeply unpopular in a country where 64% of the inhabitants, according to a recent poll, already view the United States as an “enemy” and only 9% as a “partner.”

Since the Times Square incident, the CIA has specifically been striking North Waziristan, where the Pakistani army has as yet refrained from launching operations.  The U.S., as the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill reports, has also increased its support for the Pakistani Air Force, which will only add to the wars in the skies of that country.

All of this represents escalation of the “covert” U.S. war in Pakistan.  None of it offers particular hope of success.  All of it stokes enmity and undoubtedly encourages more “lone wolf” jihadis to lash out at the U.S.  It’s a formula for blowback, but not for victory.

BP-Style Pragmatism Goes to War

One thing can be said about the Bush administration: it had a grand strategic vision to go with its wars.  Its top officials were convinced that the American military, a force they saw as unparalleled on planet Earth, would be capable of unilaterally shock-and-awing America’s enemies in what they liked to call “the arc of instability” or “the Greater Middle East” (that is, the oil heartlands of the planet).  Its two wars would bring not just Afghanistan and Iraq, but Iran and Syria to their knees, leaving Washington to impose a Pax Americana on the Middle East and Central Asia (in the process of which groups like Hamas and Hezbollah would be subdued and anti-American jihadism ended).

They couldn’t, of course, have been more wrong, something quite apparent to the Obama team.  Now, however, we have a crew in Washington who seem to have no vision, great or small, when it comes to American foreign or imperial policy, and who seem, in fact, to lack any sense of strategy at all.  What they have is a set of increasingly discredited tactics and an approach that might pass for good old American see-what-works “pragmatism,” but these days might more aptly be labeled “BP-style pragmatism.”

The vision may be long gone, but the wars live on with their own inexorable momentum.  Add into the mix American domestic politics, which could discourage any president from changing course and de-escalating a war, and you have what looks like a fatal — and fatally expensive — brew.

We’ve moved from Bush’s visionary disasters to Obama’s flailing wars, while the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq continue to pay the price.  If only we could close the curtain on this strange mix of farce and tragedy, but evidently we’re still stuck in act four of a five-act nightmare.

Even as our Afghan and Pakistani wars are being sucked dry of whatever meaning might remain, the momentum is in only one direction — toward escalation.  A thousand repetitions of an al-Qaeda-must-be-destroyed mantra won’t change that one bit.  More escalation, unfortunately, is yet to come.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books), will be published in June.

[Note on Sources: Let me offer one of my periodic appreciative bows to several websites I rely on for crucial information and interpretation when it comes to America’s wars: Juan Cole’s invaluable, often incandescent, Informed Comment blog, (especially Jason Ditz’s remarkable daily war news summaries), the thoughtful framing and good eye of Paul Woodward at the War in Context website, and Katherine Tiedemann’s concise, useful daily briefs of the most interesting mainstream reportage on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the AfPak Channel website.  A special bow to historian Marilyn Young, author of the classic book The Vietnam Wars, who keeps me abreast of the latest thinking on all sorts of war-related subjects via her own informal information service for friends and fellow historians.]

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt

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Posted by on May 14th, 2010

From our partners at

By Derrick Crowe

President Obama told reporters on May 12, 2010, that “we’re beginning to reverse the momentum of the insurgency” in Afghanistan.

According to his administration’s own report given to Congress last week, that’s not true. The insurgency is growing in size and capabilities. Simply put, the president’s continued troop increases aren’t working.

It’s time to change course. Tell your Member of Congress that you want an exit timetable for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The president’s assertion was more fully fleshed out by Undersecretary for Defense Michelle Flournoy before the House Armed Services Committee last week:

“We’ve seen other positive indicators in the last year, as well. Of the 121 key terrain districts identified by ISAF in December 2009, 60 were assessed as sympathetic or neutral to the Afghan Government. By March, 2010, that number had climbed to 73 districts. Of the 121 key terrain districts identified by ISAF in December 2009, 60 were assessed as sympathetic or neutral to the Afghan Government. By March, 2010, that number had climbed to 73 districts.”

That’s a statistic in the sense of a “lies, damn lies, and statistics” statistic from the Defense Department’s “Progress Towards Security and Stability in Afghanistan (PDF),” delivered last week to Congress. First, note that they surveyed an additional 28 districts in March compared to December. But here’s the real meat: between December 2009 and March 2010:

  • No district at all shifted to being “supportive” of the government. In fact, no district was classified as “population supports the government.” The number of districts where the population “supported the insurgency” did increase from 7 to 8, however.
  • The number of districts classified as “sympathetic” to the government increased by 10. What Flournoy didn’t point out, however, was that the number of districts classified as “sympathetic” to the insurgency increased by 14 over the same period.

By my count, that puts the administration in the hole by 1 additional district “supporting” the insurgency and 4 additional districts “sympathetic” to the insurgency.

Twenty-nine districts are sympathetic to or support the Afghan government. Forty-eight are sympathetic to or supportive of the insurgency. Forty-four are neutral. Violence is up 87 percent.

That’s called failure.

Had enough? Join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook.

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Posted by The Agonist on May 14th, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

I must say that I was truly honored–humbled if you will–to have the former demi-term Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, contact me and ask me to write her speech for today’s family-friendly event–the NRA annual convention in Charlotte, North Carolina [it must be all the nice things I've said about her. She even agreed to allow me to share with you an early copy. So here you go:

Palin Speech

Thanks you! Thank you!! I am proud to be here today in the Palmetto State! And I'm so honored to be speaking to you, the real Americans who make up the Natural Rifle Association!

There are some scary things going on here out there in this country of ours. The liberal elites, you know, and their allies in the lamestream media, they'll tell you that guns are dangerous. Ya know, its guns, and not their liberal ideas, like preparation of church and state, abortion and laws against drunk snowmobiling that've really caused inrest in our streets.

More after the jump.

Well, I'm here to tell you they're wrong. Guns don't kill people. People kill guns. So I am so proud to be delivering this massage in front of an organization that predicted what the liberals would try and do, an organization that had the foreskin to warn us about how they'd destroy our great country.[wink]

Now I am not going to take too much of your time, because I have two more events tonight that will each pay me a cool 100K for winking and offering folksy platitudes about things I don’t really understand–but let me single out a few examples of what I’m talkin ’bout.

Lately there have been attempts to take guns away from those the big government liberals call “suspected terrorists.” That’s right. Some of them have even called the NRA terrorists, which makes no sense–most NRA members are white!

The liberal elites whine about a “terrorist gap,” which allowed the shootings to occur at Fort Hood, Fort Dix and allowed the Times Square attempted bomber to get a gun. They think that good Americans shotgunning beers at bars in Georgia and Virginia shouldnt be allowed to carry assault weapons, they empathize with polls that make it clear that a majority of Americans don’t want TEC-9s in their faces when they drink their lattes at Starbucks, even though we all know that numbers are Communist. I mean listen to these liberal lies:

A majority of Americans oppose people carrying loaded guns openly in public. More feel unsafe than feel safer – and a third feel much less safe with that knowledge, according to a poll conducted for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence by respected polling firm Lake Research Partners.

The last thing I’ll say on this is that, I mean seriously folks, how could an event where Oliver North is speaking after me be held by a group that supports arming terrorists? [wink, extend leg so calf is fully visible]

Then there’s the oil-hating left. I mean, while we hear all this jibber-jabbering about the Gulf of Texaco spill, I’d like to ask, has anyone in the Obama Administration even tried threatening the oil with an ole six-shooter yet? Didn’t think so.

I mean c’mon folks, it’s not like our addiction to oil is endangering our national security, economy, health or environment here. Sure, I know former Vice President Al Gore pointed this out:

…both the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the CO2 spill into the global atmosphere are causing profound and harmful changes–directly and indirectly. The oil is having a direct impact on fish, shellfish, turtles, seabirds, coral reefs, marshes, and the entire web of life in the Gulf Coast. The indirect effects include the loss of jobs in the fishing and tourism industries; the destruction of the health, vitality, and rich culture of communities in the region; imminent bankruptcies; vast environmental damage expected to persist for decades; and the disruption of seafood markets nationwide.

And, of course, the consequences of our ravenous consumption of oil are even larger. Starting 40 years ago, when America’s domestic oil production peaked, our dependence on foreign oil has steadily grown. We are now draining our economy of several hundred billion dollars a year in order to purchase foreign oil in a global market dominated by the huge reserves owned by sovereign states in the Persian Gulf. This enormous and increasing transfer of wealth contributes heavily to our trade and current-account deficits, and enriches regimes in the most unstable region of the world, helping to finance both terrorism and Iran’s relentless effort to build a nuclear arsenal.

The profound risk to our national and economic security posed by the prospect of the world’s sudden loss of access to Persian Gulf oil contributed greatly to the strategic miscalculations and public deceptions that led to our costly invasion of Iraq, including the reckless diversion of military and intelligence assets from Afghanistan before our mission there was accomplished.

I am far from the only one who believes that it is not too much of a stretch to link the ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and northwestern Pakistan–and even last week’s attempted bombing in Times Square–to a long chain of events triggered in part by our decision to allow ourselves to become so dependent on foreign oil.

But you know how I know that the liberals are wrong on this once again? Because I saw where they said that pollution could even lead to cases of angina. And I may just be a humble woman from Wasilla, but I know the environment has nothing to do with a woman’s lady parts.

Ok, I am about half-way done with my speech. Which means I’m finished. As Rush Limbaugh would say satirically, you know, see ya later retards. [wash notes of hand; put new ones on; leave]

*Not following Cliff Schecter on Twitter could likely lead to the 7th sign of the apocalypse

**Full Disclosure: Cliff Schecter works on issues surrounding gun safety and protecting the environment for organizations such as Mayors Against Illegal Guns, The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence & The Alliance for Climate Protection.

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Posted by Josh Mull on May 14th, 2010

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

There’s been a lot of public debate lately about our counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Derrick Crowe looked through the government’s own reports and discovered it’s a giant failure. Steve Hynd wonders if it isn’t stratagem at all, but an ideology. I asked if we even had any idea what’s going on with the strategy. Gareth Porter finds that Pentagon leaders don’t like the Afghan strategy, and Nancy Youssef piles on that the military itself is turning against COIN. And it was in Youssef’s piece that one of the Grand Dragons of the COIN blogosphere, Andrew Exum (Abu Muqawama to the cool kids), appeared to distance himself from the strategy. “I can’t imagine anyone would opt for this option,” he said.

Exum later clarified his statement, sort of, but he had a good point here:

If you continue to have a problem with the fact that we are now pursuing a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, by the way, you should spend less time whining about the generals and think tank researchers and take the issue up with the president. As the secretary of state said today at USIP, while holding forth on the strategy reviews that took place in the spring and fall, “the president reached a conclusion [after the reviews of 2009] that should be respected by Americans.”

Obviously it’s a bit of stretch for Exum to throw all the blame on the politicians, seeing as how he and a host of other COINdinistas built their Beltway careers on aggressively proselytizing counterinsurgency religion to those very same politicians. But our leaders are primarily responsible for the policy failure. For instance, Afghan president Karzai visits Washington with a peace plan, and we just take it as normal that he has to “persuade a sceptical Barack Obama that it is time to negotiate with the Taliban.” Skeptical about negotiating? Obama has a Nobel Peace Prize, and he’s skeptical? And Exum’s quote from Secretary Clinton is equally outrageous. We’ve so completely lost sight of our peaceful capabilities, so misunderstood the point of our civilian foreign policy agencies, that even our diplomats demand our military occupations be “respected.” Our problem is not picking the right military strategy, but picking any military strategy at all. (more…)

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Posted by The Agonist on May 14th, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

May 14

Aljazeera -
Afghan and foreign forces are reported to have crossed into Pakistan in pursuit of undisclosed targets as a military offensive appears to be spilling across the border.

The military operation started on Thursday in the Datta Khel region of Pakistan’s Waziristan province, Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder said.

“Some kind of military operation is under way on the Afghan side of the border and local tribal sources have said that there is intense fighting happening close to the Pakistan side of the border,” Hyder reporting from Islamabad, said.

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Posted by on May 13th, 2010

From our partners at

By Dave Anderson:

The LA Times reports that the Obama Administration is backing plans to face reality.  The Karzai government has been talking with significant senior elements of the Quetta Shura Taliban and other allied anti-government factions for over a year now.  The US will now stick its toe into the waters.  Previously, the US had been willing to accept the need to reconcile the foot soldiers of the Taliban, whomwe called the $10 a day Taliban, with offers of amnesty, vocational training and cash, but not to look for a political solution acceptable to mid-level and senior Taliban elites. 

But Karzai also is looking for Obama to endorse a peace plan that carries a politically risky element: Reconciling with some of the Taliban's leaders. To date, the administration has been cool to the idea. With the Afghanistan war is already unpopular at home, many Americans are likely to be further dismayed at the thought of making amends with figures who killed hundreds of U.S. troops….

At an international conference on Afghanistan in London in January, U.S. officials said they favored assimilation of enemy foot soldiers who've disarmed and renounced violence. But they refused to publicly discuss the notion of reconciliation with top Taliban leaders.

Nonetheless, at the news conference, Obama showed he was open to the plan — a significant step for an administration that has been divided internally over the issue…

Obama argues that the US surge into Afghanistan is a necessary component of any negotiations as a means of halting the Taliban's military success and thus change the bargaining positions of all parties.  This statement is aimed at the domestic US audience as there is a large proportion of the population that will quickly seek a Dolschtass argument or insist on a Byzantine explanation of how Adrianople was truly a Roman victory. 

However, the US knows it is leaving at some point.  The US also knows that the surge troops are not creating the dramatic gains needed for a strong but temporary hand at the table as the Marjah offensivelooked great on TV but the government in the box got lost somewhere by FedEx.  The Khandahar offensive is being downgraded to a shaping operation because none of the local elites really want 20,000 US or ANA troops in their neighborhood to solve a problem that they don't see as a problem.  US COIN doctrine is in shambles and its advocates incoherently insisting that we have not used True COIN

The level of violence is increasing.  The pace of violence resembles post-Fallujah Iraq before the Iraqi civil war went into full swing and US forces turned a blind eye to the majoritarian ethnic cleansing of Baghdad and other disputed belts by nominally friendly militias.  There are no such internal splits among Afghanistan's Pashtun populations that could produce such a useful and plausibly deniable militia movement that could go after Taliban and other Pashtun tribal fighters on their own ground.  From Juan Cole:

The military situation is getting worse. There were 400 attacks in the past week in Afghanistan, 60 percent of them by roadside bomb There were over 1,000 roadside bomb attacks in April 2010, twice as many as in April 2009.

This number of attacks per day, some 57, about 34 of them roadside bombs, is breathtaking. That level of violence is what characterized Iraq in March, 2005, before the Sunni-Shiite civil war. The year 2005 was a bloody year in Iraq, and nobody but then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld doubted we were mired in a vicious guerrilla war.

The United States will not achieve its maximalist goals.  It will not achieve the intermediate goal set announced by President Obama when he authorized a troop surge.  It is time to identify critical American interests in Afghanistan, secure those interests through talks with the relevant local power centers, and not care about secondary interests or losing the next two weeks in the news cycles to reactionary shriekers. 

There is only one red-line from the American perspective from talking with anyone in Afghanistan.  That red line is active, material support for "far enemy" terrorist groups.  Preventing long-distance support and planning cells for operations against US and allied civilians in their home territory is the only significant interest that we have in the region.  Everything else is a local concern that does not impact US security all that much. 

We can achieve minimal goals if we accept that we as a nation can not control everything nor is everything worth controlling.  Trying for anything else is a recipe for a long slow bleed and the continued militarization of society and a drain on the treasury for a national priapic dose. 

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Posted by Josh Mull on May 13th, 2010

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Yesterday we talked about HR 5015, the McGovern bill requiring an exit strategy from Afghanistan. Remember, an exit strategy is easy to do because our strategy is basically a flaming pile of junk anyway, so why not wrap it up? And it’s free because it costs nothing. A phone call, what is that? Five minutes? Four? You’re just asking your rep to co-sponsor a bill (they give them numbers like 5015 to make it easy). And it’s not like you have to explain quantum mechanics, the war in Afghanistan is so obviously awful, you’re pretty much talking in short hand (they’re familiar with the issue). Just requiring a timeline seems like the simplest, least offensive policy ever, right? Actually, David Swanson disagrees:

It’s not that we need 20 more cosponsors of the nonbinding timetable for Afghanistan. The lesson [of Iraq] is that we must tell members of the House of Representatives that they can vote against war funding or we will vote against them.

No way. Now I realize this is probably frustration, I’m as pissed off as anyone about the Iraq extension, but it’s no reason to drop everything and go all extremist. Cutting off funding is important, no doubt there, but there are still lots of other opportunities to accomplish something in Afghanistan besides furiously threatening your member of congress over one issue, the funding. And there’s certainly a lot more to do than just that one, single act of voting. This timeline is not only easy to support, but it’s also a very important step toward ending the war. Missing this opportunity would just be foolish. (more…)

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Posted by The Agonist on May 13th, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

Richard A. Oppel, Jr. | New York | May 12

Afghan farmers have started blaming the U.S. and NATO for spreading the mystery disease.

NYT – Up to one-third of Afghanistan’s poppy harvest this spring has been destroyed by a mysterious disease, according to estimates revealed Wednesday by United Nations officials, potentially complicating the American and NATO military offensives this summer in the country’s opium-producing heartland.

The Taliban’s public relations strategy against the offensives includes trying to convince local residents that Western troops will destroy their poppy crops, and in recent weeks Afghan farmers have started blaming the American and NATO militaries for spreading the disease, United Nations officials say. In many places, the blight has wiped out more than half of individual poppy fields.

The American military — which has decided that widespread eradication can be counterproductive to winning over Afghans — emphatically denies any involvement, and United Nations officials say the disease is naturally occurring.

Besides fueling the propaganda war, the blight might also help the insurgency by giving prices a boost. Reduced production is causing prices for fresh opium to soar as much as 60 percent, after years of declining prices, according to the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa.

While there is no evidence that the disease will return next year, the rising prices may make it harder to persuade farmers to give up the crop, he said.

The price increase is also raising by hundreds of millions of dollars the value of opium stockpiles held by traffickers and insurgents. The opium trade is believed to provide the Taliban with a large portion of their budget.

The disease is expected to wipe out as much as 2,500 tons of opium production, mostly in Helmand, Kandahar and Oruzgan Provinces, Mr. Costa said in an interview in New York.

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Posted by Just Foreign Policy on May 12th, 2010

From our partners at Just Foreign Policy

When President Obama visited Afghanistan in March, he assured U.S. troops that "the United States of America does not quit once it starts on something."

But according to Sunday’s New York Times, it ain’t necessarily so. When it comes to combating AIDS in the world’s poorest countries, the greatest nation on earth has apparently decided to cry "Uncle."

Clinics in Uganda are turning people away, on orders from the U.S. government. A U.S.-run program in Mozambique has been told to stop opening clinics.

Why? According to lying U.S. officials, we don’t have the money to maintain our commitment. Budgets are tight. We had to bail out Wall Street.

But the numbers on offer don’t make any sense. Michel Sidibe, executive director of Unaids, says there is a global shortfall of about $17 billion for controlling the epidemic. The expected U.S. share of such a shortfall would be about a third, or $5.6 billion. Meanwhile, Congress is about to be asked to fork over $33 billion in our tax dollars for more war in Afghanistan. This $33 billion would only pay for four months of the war, until the end of the fiscal year, when next year’s appropriation will become available.

So on an annual basis, we’re being asked to spend almost 20 times more on killing in Afghanistan than it is claimed that we don’t have to help stop Africa and Haiti from being decimated by AIDS.

Or, to put it another way: if we could end the war in Afghanistan, then every year we’d save $99 billion compared to the world in which the war continues. We could use $5.6 billion to pay what we owe on controlling the AIDS epidemic, and have $93.4 billion left for domestic job creation, tax cuts, going to the beach, whatever ya want.

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Posted by on May 12th, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

Spencer Ackerman has received a paper from a source living in Kandahar, Afghanistan, entitled "A Counterproductive Counterinsurgency". Although the anonymous author is supportive of COIN theory (emphasis mine):

An effective counterinsurgency can only be waged by an organization that is capable of committing to support only those it empowers, remains quiet until it strikes, and effectively owns the world of information. Once it is capable of identifying the vulnerabilities in core infrastructure before the enemy is able to exploit them—and strikes with precision to seal them up, the enemy will dissolve and we will find the war is won.

He's also scathing about the yawning gap between theory and practise (emphasis mine).

The counterinsurgency methodology which is currently being employed in Afghanistan is not going to lead coalition forces to victory in this war.

The idea of “counterinsurgency” appears to be a viable way for success on paper. Military units, along with NGO’s [non-governmental organizations], the Department of State, GIRoA [the Afghanistan government], and other government agencies work together to emplace the clear, hold, build strategy in key areas of the battlefield. Like communism, however, counterinsurgency methods are not proving to be effective in practice.

Perhaps, in another fifty years, COINdinistas will be lamenting that counterinsurgency has never worked but "real COIN has never been tried", just as wannabe Marxists lament that real communism has never been tried and thus communism has never worked. Both ignore a key factor – human nature. The reason "real" COIN has never been tried to date and never will be is that whether we talk about "enemy centric" COIN or "population centric" COIN, the actual truth on the ground is that it is all and always "force protection" COIN.

That is, the notion that its "better them than us" when push comes to shove. Troops will use airstrikes or spray bullets at pregnant women when they themselves are stressed, scared or under fire – and in places like Afghanistan that is always. Officers who buck this, and lose soldiers in the process, know their careers will be gloriously COIN-approved and very, very short. Because of this, there can be no "kinder, gentler war". The negative pressure of the force protection paradigm on the ground will always outweigh any fine words on paper about "hearts and minds".

The only possible answer to this dynamic is to erase it from the record and replace it with the opposite spin, if you can. Thus the COINdinistas' constant exhortations to "own the world of information". But, again like the Soviet communists attempting to cover up their failure to practise "real" communism, that means propaganda aimed at your own citizenry as well as those beyond your own borders. We've seen this again and again as the military and White House roll out happy talk about "slow progress" when all the evidence points the other way; as the military denies atrocities causing civilian deaths or even blames them on the enemy (only to have contrary evidence emerge followed by their trying to buy off the victims' families); as the White House tries to bolster falling popularity for its war at home by false and fearmongering narratives about the threat to Americans.

However, as the Soviets also discovered, the truth tends to get out. COIN advocates like Ackerman's source respond by calling for even more information totalitarianism, both in Afghanistan and on the home front, It's a vicious cycle of spin that ultimately will fail to deliver their wished-for information control, the world is simply too big and too connected, but in the meantime it works to erode the credibility of the government and military and erode the freedom (of access to information) Americans are told the war in Afghanistan is fighting for.

Unable to work in the real world because it ignores human nature and covering for that failure through increased propaganda. Yet still, we're told that COIN is really for our own good, even for the good of those Afghans being killed by the gap between theory and reality. The truth is that it's colonialism by another name – just like the Soviet doctrine of the inevitable march of communism – and colonialism is always about totalitarianism even if it wears a "kinder, gentler" mask.

Yes, there certainly seem to be some worrying similiarities, don't there?

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