June 8, 2010

The Afghan War and the Meaning of Insanity


In his “Initial Assessment” last August, General Stanley McChrystal warned that “the overall situation [in Afghanistan] is deteriorating. We face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans—in both their government and the international community—that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents” (“COMISAF Initial Assessment,” Washington Post, 21 September 2009).

This dire diagnosis notwithstanding, McChrystal contended that the situation could be reversed and the war still won. In order to accomplish this, he argued that the US needed to win over the Afghan people. As he wrote:

The people of Afghanistan represent many things in this conflict—an audience, an actor, and a source of leverage—but above all, they are the objective. The population can also be a source of strength and intelligence and provide resistance to the insurgency. Alternatively, they can often change sides and provide tacit or real support to the insurgents.

Noting that a “foreign army alone cannot beat an insurgency,” McChrystal went on to argue that coalition forces needed to help the Afghan government “win the support of the people.”

Well here we are now, nine months later, and I think it’s safe to say that McChrystal’s “new approach” isn’t working. The main reason is that coalition forces continue killing large numbers of Afghan civilians, something that’s inevitable in this type of war. According to NATO’s own numbers, “[d]eaths of Afghan civilians by NATO troops have more than doubled this year” (Paul Wiseman, “NATO strikes killing more Afghan civilians,” USA Today, 16 April 2010) (h/t Antiwar.com). Needless to say, such killings serve to inflame large segments of the population, giving many an incentive to “change sides and provide tacit or real support to the insurgents.” As Richard A. Oppel reports:

Many of the detainees at the military prison at Bagram Air Base joined the insurgency after the shootings of people they knew, said the senior NATO enlisted man in Afghanistan, Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hall.

“There are stories after stories about how these people are turned into insurgents,” Sergeant Major Hall told troops during the videoconference. “Every time there is an escalation of force we are finding that innocents are being killed.” (“Tighter Rules Fail to Stem Deaths of Innocent Afghans at Checkpoints,” New York Times, 26 March 2010)

Although the Taliban has been responsible for the majority of civilian deaths, a recent Pentagon report concluded that “insurgents can exploit and manipulate” civilian casualties “to their advantage, while U.S. and international forces are held accountable by the Afghan population for all incidents” (Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, April 2010). As US Army Col. Wayne Shanks noted earlier in the year: “When the Taliban blow up a bunch of people, you don’t see a lot of protest. But when we screw up and accidentally kill somebody, you get riots in the streets” (David Wood, “Taliban Cause Most Civilian Deaths, but U.S. Gets the Blame,” Politics Daily, 15 January 2010).

Given all this, it should come as no surprise that, according to the above Pentagon report, in March, only “29% of Afghans had a ‘very good’ or ‘good’ opinion of ISAF [NATO’s International Security Assistance Force] with an additional 34% reporting a ‘neutral’ rating.” And I wouldn’t be surprised if the real numbers here are actually lower. As Juan Cole said about a December 2009 poll, the tenor of which likely applies here:

This poll seems to me likely to represent the views of the 58 percent of the population who are not Pashtuns, and maybe half of the Pashtuns. You can’t really do scientific polling in a war zone, and these results would not hold for Helmad, Qandahar, and Nangarhar, I’m betting. Some 20 percent of Afghanistan is under the rule of insurgent groups, including the Taliban, and the poll was certainly not carried out in those districts. (6 Allied Troops Killed in Afghanistan; Poll Shows Afghans Upbeat,” Informed Comment, 12 January 2010)

The Afghan government has also done little to win over the people. According to Transparency International, which annually “measures the perceived level of public-sector corruption in 180 countries and territories around the world,” Afghanistan is currently the second most corrupt government on earth, behind only Somalia (“Corruption Perceptions Index 2009,” Transparency International). Of course, none of this should be shocking to those who follow the news, as headlines such as the following can be found on a weekly basis:


According to the above Pentagon report, “more than 83% [of Afghans] reported that corruption affects their daily life.” It’s no surprise then that “the population” doesn’t support the Afghan government in any of the country’s 121 “Key Terrain and Area of Interest districts.” Meanwhile, the population supports the Taliban in 8 key districts. While the population “sympathizes with” the Afghan government in 29 key districts (that is, in 24% of these districts), the population sympathizes with the Taliban in 40 districts (33%).

And yet the United States, with its sights now on Kandahar, marches forward. Reminds me of that oft-repeated definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

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