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Archive for February, 2012

Posted by The Agonist on February 5th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

It just goes on and on my friends.

The United States’ plan to wind down its combat role in Afghanistan a year earlier than expected relies on shifting responsibility to Special Operations forces that hunt insurgent leaders and train local troops, according to senior Pentagon officials and military officers. These forces could remain in the country well after the NATO mission ends in late 2014.

…Under the emerging plan, American conventional forces, focused on policing large parts of Afghanistan, will be the first to leave, while thousands of American Special Operations forces remain, making up an increasing percentage of the troops on the ground; their number may even grow.

Three things.

1) You just knew this whole new “combat mission ends in 2013, troops out by 2014″ was election-year spin, didn’t you?

2) This is yet another example of how special forces are becoming the mover-and-shaker of the military, with consequently rising budgetary and bureaucratic clout (as well as ever closer ties to the CIA, now run by SOF-fan General Petraeus.)

3) The Green Beret’s real mission, no matter what is being said now, is going to turn into refereeing the next Afghan civil war.

With Afghanistan’s three major political blocs and three major insurgent groups moving in opposite directions, the country is facing the prospect of total fragmentation. Here’s the worst-case scenario: The U.S. military reaches a settlement with the Afghan Taliban that does not address the country’s political future, Karzai holds on to power illegitimately while pressing for his own peace deal with the Taliban, non-Pashtuns rise in opposition to both Karzai and the Taliban, and the national security forces fracture along ethnic lines. At the same time, the three insurgent factions turn against one another as the Haqqani network exploits the chaos and maintains a rear defensive position in Pakistani safe havens. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s own domestic Taliban resurges and Islamabad faces yet another wave of terrorism and Afghan refugees.

Arif Rafiq’s plan to avoid this catastrophic scenario for Afghanistan involves “improving the quality, not the quantity, of the Afghan national army and police” and “the army professionalized to serve as a bulwark against fragmentation”. He doesn’t explicitly say so in his piece, but it’s pretty obvious from there who could form the most stable government. Rafiq’s course for Afghanistan most likely leads to a military junta running a U.S.-friendly dictatorship. We’ve plenty of experience at dealing with those.

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Posted by The Agonist on February 5th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Rod Norland | Kabul | Feb 5

NYT – The following children froze to death in Kabul over the past three weeks after their families had fled war zones in Afghanistan for refugee camps here:

Mirwais, son of Hayatullah Haideri. He was 1 ½ years old and had just started to learn how to walk, holding unsteadily to the poles of the family tent before flopping onto the frozen ridges of the muddy floor.

Abdul Hadi, son of Abdul Ghani. He was not even a year old and was already trying to stand, although his father said that during those last few days he seemed more shaky than normal.

Naghma and Nazia, the twin daughters of Musa Jan. They were only 3 months old and just starting to roll over.

Ismail, the son of Juma Gul. “He was never warm in his entire life,” Mr. Gul said. “Not once.”

It was a short life, 30 days long.

These children are among at least 22 who have died in the past month, a time of unseasonably fierce cold and snowstorms. The latest two victims died on Thursday.

The deaths, which government officials have sought to suppress or play down, have prompted some soul-searching among aid workers here.

After 10 years of a large international presence, comprising about 2,000 aid groups, at least $3.5 billion of humanitarian aid and $58 billion of development assistance, how could children be dying of something as predictable — and manageable — as the cold?

“The fact that every year there’s winter shouldn’t come as a surprise,” said Federico Motka, whose German aid group, Welthungerhilfe, is one of the few at work in these camps, which aid workers call the Kabul informal settlements — since describing what they actually are, camps for displaced persons or war refugees, is politically sensitive. The Afghan government insists that the residents should and could return to their original homes; the residents say it is too dangerous for them to do so.

The deaths occurred at two of the largest camps, Charahi Qambar (8 cold-related deaths), and Nasaji Bagrami (14 such deaths). Both camps are populated largely with refugees who fled the fighting in areas like Helmand Province in the south. Some people have been in the camps for as long as seven years; others arrived in the past year.

“There are 35,000 people in those camps in the middle of Kabul, with no heat or electricity in the middle of winter; that’s a humanitarian crisis,” said Michael Keating, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan. “I just don’t think the humanitarian story is sufficiently understood here. You’ve got a lot of people who really are in dire straits.”

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Posted by The Agonist on February 4th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

From the NYT:

A record number of Afghan civilians were killed in the conflict here last year, the majority at the hands of the Taliban and other insurgent groups whose use of homemade bombs became more prevalent and whose suicide bombers killed more people each time, according to the annual United Nations report on civilian casualties.

Although the number killed — 3,021 civilians — represented a relatively small 8 percent increase in casualties over 2010, it was the fifth straight year in which civilian casualties rose. The overall trend suggested that the fighting was worsening and that, for all the talk about peace efforts and a drastic increase in the number of insurgents that NATO had killed and captured, day-to-day dangers for Afghan civilians were rising.

Here’s the rub: the fact that most civilian casualties are caused by the insurgency doesn’t matter. NATO and its allies are supposedly still there because they are protecting the Afghan populace so they get the blame from Afghans for failing to do so. That means they become ever more disenchanted with the coalition and ever more likely to aid the Taliban and other groups, enabling them to make more attacks that kill more civilians and thus driving the cycle ever further down. It’s been that way for several years now.

That’s just one of the reasons why “Hastening the day Americans stop dying for a lost cause is the right call”.

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Posted by Peace Action West on February 4th, 2012

From our partners at Peace Action West

In a pleasant departure from his hyperbolic defense of high levels of military spending. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced this week that the US and NATO are hoping to end “combat operations” in Afghanistan in mid-2013, rather than sometime in 2014 as they had implied earlier.

There has been much discussion about the political nature of this decision:

The Obama administration is betting that Americans are tired of the financial and human cost of the war and would welcome an exit strategy so long as they believed it ensured U.S. national security. Obama has asserted that the completion of the phased Iraq withdrawal, promised during his 2008 campaign, is evidence of U.S. strength and his own resolve.

Opposing the war in Afghanistan should be a no-brainer in this election. A solid majority of voters, including people of all political persuasions, support a military withdrawal. The main reason we’ve seen such an increase in congressional opposition to the war is that it is a foregone conclusion that the war is terribly unpopular; the phones in Congress are not ringing off the hook with people calling to urge a “stay the course” approach in Afghanistan.

But the decision the administration is making is not just smart from a political angle; it also makes the most sense for our security. A large ground force in Afghanistan is not going to protect us from a small group of potential terrorists dispersed around the globe.  As the National Security Network points out, many security experts recognize it is time to shift to a new strategy in Afghanistan:

Defense experts: shifting the focus of the mission in Afghanistan from combat to training Afghan security forces is the best way to protect long-term U.S. interests. As Lieutenant General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.), Andrew Exum and Matthew Irvine of the Center for a New American Security wrote last December: “It is time for a change of mission in Afghanistan. U.S. and coalition forces must shift away from directly conducting counterinsurgency operations and toward a new mission of ‘security force assistance’: advising and enabling Afghan forces to take the lead in the counterinsurgency fight. This shift is more than rhetorical. With a 2014 transition looming in Afghanistan, U.S. and allied military leaders must recognize that U.S. and coalition forces will not defeat the Taliban and its allies in the next three years. Instead, they must direct the military effort toward working by, with and through the Afghans. This effort will protect long-term U.S. security interests without a never-ending commitment of immense U.S. resources.” This idea has currency inside the Pentagon as well. General John Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said last December he would accelerate the role played by Afghan security forces. [CNAS, 12/11. John Allen via NY Times, 12/13/11]

Despite the fact that this decision is both smart and necessary, leading Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has decided to attack it as naïve. As Alex Roarty points out in National Journal, it’s a bit puzzling that Romney would be “tethering himself to an unpopular agenda.” Though why not add squandering lives and dollars on an unnecessary and unpopular war to dismissing the plight of the poor and making awkward and inappropriate jokes? He still has to compete with ditching child labor laws and building moon colonies.

Of course Romney’s misguided support is based on specious policy grounds:

Conservatives immediately responded to Panetta’s announcement by criticizing the decision to further align U.S. commitment with our interests there. But they have criticized tactics – setting a date certain, specific withdrawal numbers – without offering an alternative policy that meets both realities on the ground and the war-weariness of Americans.  As the Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel wrote last month, “How do you win? Well, by beating your opponent, of course. And how do you beat your opponent? By winning. That tautology was essentially former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s answer when he was asked about how, as commander in chief, he would end the war in Afghanistan without talking to the Taliban.”

Romney complained that the US shouldn’t tell the people they’re fighting when they are going to pull out troops. Apparently Romney either thinks he is going to come up with a plan to eradicate the Taliban militarily, something that has eluded the US and NATO for more than ten years, or he is going to pull a fast one on the Taliban with a surprise withdrawal, leaving them so stunned and confused that they can’t retake power.

While this recent development is encouraging, this is hardly a time to take our foot off the gas in pushing for an end to the war. The White House downplayed Panetta’s announcement, saying only that it “could happen,” perhaps trying to have it both ways. During the announcement about shifting in 2013, Panetta also said there would be some kind of military presence in Afghanistan indefinitely. Despite the administration’s talking point that the “tide of war is receding,” there is still no clear end date for when all US troops will come home.

Also, as Mark Thompson explains on the Battleland blog, the distinction between combat and non-combat troops is a fuzzy one:

Yet shifting from a combat role to a training and assist role – what Panetta wants to happen sometime next year – is a fuzzy line that commanders can blur for certain units and in certain provinces. “A shift in mission statement has been talked about for several months, and that not much may change on the ground,” says an officer heading into the fight shortly. “The mission statement can say partnering/mentoring instead of combat, but if a Afghan-U.S. patrol gets in a fight, those U.S. troops will still fight the same way they were doing before. A lot of that is already going on.”

This announcement is an important sign that all of our work over the last couple of years is bearing fruit—the administration sees the writing on the wall and is looking for a way to end the war. Now we must be vigilant and make sure they don’t cave to the pressure of the Romneys and McCains of the world and instead listen to the clear voice of the majority of Americans and put Afghans in control of their own future.

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Posted by The Agonist on February 2nd, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Romney charges that the Obama administration’s announcement of a 2013 end to combat missions in Afghanistan and 2014 pull-out date “makes absolutely no sense.”

One of the few moderate, sane Republicans left, James Joyner, responds:

Critics who worry that this announcement of a withdrawal severely undercuts our negotiating position with the Taliban are surely correct. They can easily bide their time now that they have a date certain.

So how can a decision that undermines our allies and our own negotiating power nonetheless be the right one? Because the alternative is to continue getting people killed — not to mention inadvertently killing innocents — in a fight we can’t win.

…As with many other Obama foreign policy decisions, one might have wished for a better rollout. Consultation with our NATO allies and partners on the matter would have been good form. And, after a more than a decade of fighting, a presidential speech rather than a casual announcement by the defense secretary would have been more fitting.

Ultimately, though, hastening the day Americans stop dying for a lost cause is the right call.

The Taliban always could “bide their time” in Afghanistan. They live there. Announce the timetable or not, it’s meaningless.

I’m highly skeptical that this announced transition will actually mean the end to Americans fighting and dying in Afghanistan, and even more so that 2014 will see the end to a US military presence there, but I cannot help but concur with James’ sentiments about “dying for a lost cause”.

Alas, I’m fairly sure that Simon Jenkins is right when he writes that nothing has been learned from Afghanistan.

More alarming about the Afghan war has been its psychology. It has generated some two dozen books on my shelf, and every one of them warns, cautions, criticises, condemns. The Pashtun Taliban should not be underestimated. Defeating them by main force flew in the face of all experience. Pakistani intelligence would offer them sanctuary and support. Nato should not drive al-Qaida, a tiny Arabist cell in 2001, into alliance with the Taliban. The idea that force of western arms could turn a corrupt Muslim statelet into a sanitised, pro-western democracy was arrogant and unreal.

Every warning was disregarded in a classic of “cognitive dissonance”.

…Unlike most European countries, sucked into the Afghan vortex by Nato blackmail, Britain and the US were willing warriors, with belligerence in their cultural genes. Discussing “what must be done” to order the rest of the world is second nature to their political class…Which is why this is not the endgame. Britain is even now rattling sabres and dicing with disaster alongside the US against Iran. Such a war would be as catastrophic as could be imagined, and against a country that poses no conceivable threat to western security. The sole reason for going to war against Iran is to go to war against Iran. That is how we went to war against Afghanistan and Iraq. Clearly, nothing has been learned.

If not Iran, then Syria. If not Syria, then somewhere else. It certainly seems correct to say that the US and Britain share some subtextual notion of “manifest destiny” that means they can keep on blithely assuming they have the right and wherewithall to “order the rest of the world” at gunpoint. To truly “hasten the day Americans stop dying for a lost cause” we’re going to have to deal with that notion. I confess, I’ve no blessed clue how.

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Posted by The Agonist on February 2nd, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

From A.P.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laid out the administration’s most explicit portrayal of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, saying Wednesday that U.S. and other international forces in Afghanistan expect to end their combat role in 2013 and continue a training and advisory role with Afghan forces through 2014.

Excuse me if I’m skeptical about the sudden cessation of combat duties, the ability of Afghan security forces to guard a henhouse or indeed about all of Panetta’s statement in this election year.

Update: the NYT is calling this “a major milestone toward ending a decade of war in Afghanistan”. Hmmm.

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Posted by Newshoggers.com on February 1st, 2012

From our partners at Newshoggers.com

By Steve Hynd

This is breaking news, apparently:

The Taliban in Afghanistan are being directly assisted by Pakistani security services, according to a secret Nato report seen by the BBC.

The leaked report, derived from thousands of interrogations, claims the Taliban remain defiant and have wide support among the Afghan people.

It alleges that Pakistan knows the locations of senior Taliban leaders.

Seriously, this hasn't been "breaking" news since about 2005. More interesting would be a breaking confession from some D.C. insider as to why U.S. foreign policy makers has bi-partisanly looked the other way for so many years.

But let's talk Saint-General and DCI David Petraeus' favorite subject: momentum.

In a damning conclusion, the document says that in the last year there has been unprecedented interest, even from members of the Afghan government, in joining the Taliban cause.

It adds: "Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over the Afghan government, usually as a result of government corruption."

The report has evidence that the Taliban are purposely hastening Nato's withdrawal by deliberately reducing their attacks in some areas and then initiating a comprehensive hearts-and-minds campaign.

It says that in areas where Isaf has withdrawn, Taliban influence has increased, often with little or no resistance from government security forces. And in many cases, with the active help of the Afghan police and army.

Time's John Wendle doesn't believe that "The Taliban's momentum has been broken" either, even if Obama takes Petraues' word for it.

Still, two more years until the combat troops get relabelled as non-combat advisors and the war officially ends.

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