Counterinsurgency Down for the Count in Afghanistan…

But the war machine grinds on and on and on.

By Ann Jones

US Army photo by Staff Sgt. William Tremblay

President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy isn’t working. So said a parade
of Afghanistan watchers during the flap over war commander General
Stanley McChrystal’s firing. But what does that phrase, so often in
the media these days, really mean? And if the strategy really isn’t
working, just how can you tell?

The answers to these questions raise even more important ones,
including: Why, when President Obama fires an insubordinate and
failing general, does he cling to his failing war policy? And if our
strategy isn’t working, what about the enemy’s? And if nothing much is
working, why does it still go on nonstop this way? Let’s take these
one at a time.

1. What do you mean by “it’s not working”?

“It” is counterinsurgency or COIN, which, in fact, is really less of a
strategy than a set of tactics in pursuit of a strategy.
Counterinsurgency doctrine, originally designed by empires intending
to squat on their colonies forever, calls for elevating the principle
of “protecting the population” above pursuing the bad guys at all
cost. Implementing such a strategy quickly becomes a tricky, even
schizophrenic, balancing act, as I recently was reminded.

I just spent some time embedded with the US Army at a forward
operating base near the Pakistan border where, despite daily “sig
acts”-significant activity of a hostile nature-virtually every
“lethal” American soldier is matched by a “nonlethal” counterpart
whose job it is, in one way or another, to soften up those civilians
for “protection.”

General McChrystal himself played both roles. As the US commander, he
was responsible for killing what he termed, at one point, “an amazing
number of people” who were not threats, but he also regularly showed
up at Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s palace to say, “Sorry.” Karzai
praised him publicly for his frequent apologies (each, of course,
reflecting an American act or acts that killed civilians), though
angry Afghans were less impressed.

The part of the lethal activity that often goes awry is supposed to be
counterbalanced by the “sorry” part, which may be as simple as
dispatching US officers to drink humble tea with local “key leaders.”
Often enough, though, it comes in the form of large, unsustainable
gifts. The formula, which is basic COIN, goes something like this:
kill some civilians in the hunt for the bad guys and you have to make
up for it by building a road. This trade-off explains why, as you
travel parts of the country, interminable (and often empty) strips of
black asphalt now traverse Afghanistan’s vast expanses of sand and
rock, but it doesn’t explain why Afghans, thus compensated, are
angrier than ever.

Many Afghans, of course, are angry because they haven’t been
compensated at all, not even with a road to nowhere. Worse yet, more
often than not, they’ve been promised things that never materialize.
(If you were to summarize the history of the country as a whole in
these last years, it might go like this: big men-both Afghan and
American-make out like the Beltway Bandits many of them are, while
ordinary Afghans in the countryside still wish their kids had shoes.)

And don’t forget the majority of Afghans in the countryside who have
scarcely been consulted at all: women. To protect Afghan women from
foreign fighters, Afghan men lock them up-the women, that is. American
military leaders slip easily into the all-male comfort zone, probably
relieved perhaps to try to win the “hearts and minds” of something
less than half “the population.”

It’s only in the last year or two that the Marines and the Army
started pulling a few American women off their full-time non-combat
jobs and sending them out as Female Engagement Teams (FETs) to meet
and greet village women. As with so many innovative new plans in our
counterinsurgency war, this one was cobbled together in a thoughtless
way that risked lives and almost guaranteed failure.

Commanders have casually sent noncombatant American women soldiers-
supply clerks and radio operators-outside the wire, usually with
little training, no clear mission, and no follow up. Predictably, like
their male counterparts, they have left a trail of good intentions and
broken promises behind. So when I went out to meet village women near
the Pakistan border last week with a brand-new Army FET-in-training,
we faced the fury of Pashto women still waiting for a promised
delivery of vegetable seeds.

Imagine. This is hardly a big item like the “government in a box” that
General McChrystal promised and failed to deliver in Marja. It’s just
seeds. How hard could that be?

Our visit did, however, open a window into a world military and
political policymakers have ignored for all too long. It turns out
that the women of Afghanistan, whom George W. Bush claimed to have
liberated so many years ago, are still mostly oppressed, impoverished,
malnourished, uneducated, short of seeds, and mad as hell.

Count them among a plentiful crew of angry Afghans who are living
proof that “it’s not working” at all. Afghans, it seems, know the
difference between genuine apologies and bribes, true commitment and
false promises, generosity and self-interest. And since the whole
point of COIN is to gain the hearts and minds of “the population,”
those angry Afghans are a bad omen for the US military and President

Moreover, it’s not working for a significant subgroup of Americans in
Afghanistan either: combat soldiers. I’ve heard infantrymen place the
blame for a buddy’s combat injury or death on the strict rules of
engagement (“courageous restraint,” as it’s called) imposed by General
McChrystal’s version of COIN strategy. Taking a page from Vietnam,
they claim their hands are tied, while the enemy plays by its own
rules. Rightly or wrongly, this opinion is spreading fast among
grieving soldiers as casualties mount.

It’s also clear that even the lethal part of counterinsurgency isn’t
working. Consider all those civilian deaths and injuries, so often the
result of false information fed to Americans to entice them to settle
local scores. To give just one example: American troops recently
pitched hand grenades into a house in Logar Province which they’d been
told was used by terrorists. Another case of false information. It
held a young Afghan, a relative of an Afghan agricultural expert who
happens to be an acquaintance of mine. The young man had just
completed his religious education and returned to the village to
become its sole maulawi, or religious teacher. The villagers, very
upset, turned out to vouch for him, and the Army hospitalized him with
profuse apologies. Luckily, he survived, but such routine mistakes
regularly leave dead or wounded civilians and a thickening residue of
rage behind.

Reports coming in from observers and colleagues in areas of the
Pashtun south, once scheduled to be demonstration sites for
McChrystal’s cleared, held, built, and better-governed Afghanistan,
are generally grim. Before his resignation, the general himself was
already referring to Marja-the farming area (initially trumpeted as a
“city of 80,000 people”) where he launched his first offensive-as “a
bleeding ulcer.” He also delayed the highly publicized advance into
Kandahar, the country’s second largest city, supposedly to gain more
time to bring around the opposing populace, which includes President
Karzai. Meanwhile, humanitarian NGOs based in Kandahar complain that
they can’t do their routine work assisting the city’s inhabitants
while the area lies under threat of combat. Without assistance,
Kandaharis grow-you guessed it-angrier.

From Kandahar province, where American soldiers mass for the well-
advertised securing of Kandahar, come reports that the Afghan National
Army (ANA) is stealing equipment-right down to bottled drinking water-
from the US military and selling it to the Taliban. US commanders
can’t do much about it because the official American script calls for
the ANA to take over responsibility for national defense.

NATO soldiers have complained all along about the ill-trained,
uninterested troops of the ANA, but the animosity between them seems
to have grown deadly in some quarters. American soldiers in Kandahar
report that, for their own security, they don’t tell their ANA
colleagues when and where they’re going on patrol. Back in the 1980s,
in the anti-Soviet jihad we supported, we trained Afghan jihadists who
have today become our worst enemies, and now we may be doing it again.

Factor in accounts of what General McChrystal did best: taking out bad
guys. Reportedly, he was vigorously directing Special Forces’
assassinations of high and mid-level Taliban leaders in preparation
for “peeling off” the “good” Taliban-that is, those impoverished
fighters only in it for the money. According to his thinking, they
would later be won over to the government through internationally
subsidized jobs. But assassinating the ideological leaders, the true
believers and organizers-or those we call the bad Taliban-actually
leaves behind leaderless, undisciplined gangs of armed rent-a-guns
more interested in living off the population we’re supposed to protect
than being peeled off into abject Afghan poverty. From the point of
view of ordinary Afghans in the countryside, our “good Taliban” are
the worst of all.

I could go on. If you spend time in Afghanistan, evidence of failure
is all around you, including those millions of American taxpayer
dollars that are paid to Afghan security contractors (and Karzai
relatives) and then handed over to insurgents to buy protection for US
supply convoys traveling on US built, but Taliban-controlled, roads.
Strategy doesn’t get much worse than that: financing both sides, and
every brigand in between, in hopes of a happier ending someday.

2. So why does Obama stick to this failed policy?

Go figure. Maybe he’s been persuaded by Pentagon hype. Replacing
General McChrystal with Centcom commander General David Petraeus
brought a media golden-oldies replay of Petraeus’s greatest hits: his
authorship of the Army’s counterinsurgency manual, updated (some say
plagiarized) from a Vietnam-era edition, and of Bush’s 2007 “surge” in
Iraq, an exercise in sectarian cleansing now routinely called a
“success.” If you can apply the word “success” to any operation in
Iraq, you’re surely capable of clinging to the hope that Petreus can
find it again in Afghanistan.

But like David McKiernan, the general he ousted, McChrystal has
already misapplied the “lessons” of Iraq to the decidedly different
circumstances of Afghanistan and so producing a striking set of
failures. A deal to buy off the Shinwari Pashtuns, for instance, a
tribe mistakenly thought to be the equivalent of the Anbar Sunnis in
Iraq, ended in an uproar when they pocketed the money without firing a
shot at a single Talib. Not so surprising, considering that the people
they were paid to fight are not foreign invaders-that would be us-but
their Pashtun cousins.

Moreover, the surge into the Afghan south seems only to have further
alienated the folks who live there, while increasing violence against
local residents. It has also come at the expense of American troops in
the east, the ones I was recently embedded with, who face an onslaught
of hostile fighters moving across the border from Pakistan.

3. What about the enemy strategy? How’s that working?

It seems the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and various hostile fighters in
Afghanistan drew their own lessons from Petraeus’s surge in Iraq: they
learned to deal with a surge not by fading away before it, but by
meeting it with a surge of their own. An American commander defending
the eastern front told me that hostile forces recently wiped out five
border posts. “They opened the gate,” he said, but with the American
high command focused on a future surge into Kandahar, who’s paying
attention? In fact, as the battle heats up in the east, another
official told me, they are running short of helicopters to medevac out
American casualties. In this way, so-called strategy easily morphs
into a shell game played largely for an American audience at the
expense of American soldiers.

And all the while America’s “partner” in this strategy, the dubious
President Karzai, consolidates his power, which is thoroughly grounded
in the Pashtun south, the domain of his even more suspect half-
brother, Ahmed Wali. In the process, he studiously ignores the
parliament, which lately has been staging a silent stop-work protest,
occasionally banging on the desks for emphasis. He now evidently bets
his money (which used to be ours) on the failure of American forces,
and extends feelers of reconciliation to Pakistan and the Taliban, the
folks he now fondly calls his “angry brothers.” As for the Afghan
people, even the most resilient citizens of Kabul who, like Obama,
remain hopeful, say: “This is our big problem.” They’re talking, of
course, about Karzai and his government that the Americans put in
place, pay for, prop up, and pretend to be “partners” with.

In fact, America’s silent acceptance of President Karzai’s flagrantly
fraudulent election last summer-all those stuffed ballot boxes-seems
to have exploded whatever illusions many Afghans still had about an
American commitment to democracy. They know now that matters will not
be resolved at polling places or in jirga council tents. They
probably won’t be resolved in Afghanistan at all, but in secret
locations in Washington, Riyadh, Islamabad, and elsewhere. The
American people, by the way, will have little more to say about the
resolution of the war-though it consumes our wealth and our soldiers,
too-than the Afghans.

Think of what’s happening in Afghanistan more generally as a creeping
Talibanization, which Afghans say is working all too well. In Marja,
in Kandahar, in the east, everywhere, the Taliban do what we can’t and
roll out their own (shadow) governments-in-a-box, ready to solve
disputes, administer rough justice, collect taxes, and enforce
“virtue.” In Herat, the Ulema of the West issue a fatwa restricting
the freedom of women to work and move about without a mahram, or male
relative as escort. In Kabul, the police raid restaurants that serve
alcohol, and the government shuts down reputable, secular
international NGOs, charging them with proselytizing. Taliban
influence creeps into parliament, into legislation restricting
constitutional freedoms, into ministries and governmental contracts
where corruption flourishes, and into the provisional peace jirga tent
where delegates called for freedom for all imprisoned Taliban. Out of
the jails, into the government, to sit side by side with warlords and
war criminals, mujahideen brothers under the skin. Embraced by
President Karzai. Perhaps even welcomed one day by American
strategists and President Obama himself as a way out.

4. If it’s so bad, why can’t it be stopped?

The threatening gloom of American policy is never the whole story.
There are young progressive men and women running for Parliament in
the coming September elections. There are women organizing to keep
hold of the modest gains they’ve made, though how they will do that
when the men seem so intent on negotiating them away remains a
mystery. There are the valiant efforts of thoroughly devout Muslims
who wish to live in the twenty-first century. When they look outward
to more developed Islamic countries, however, they see that their
homeland is a Muslim country like no other-and if the Taliban return,
it will only be worse.

American development was supposed to have made it all so much better.
But tales abound of small, successful projects in education or health
care, funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID)
and then dropped without a single visit from USAID monitors afraid to
leave their Embassy fortress in Kabul. Regularly, USAID now hands over
huge hunks of “aid” money to big, impossibly ambitious, quick-fix
projects run by the usual no-bid Beltway Bandit contractors whose
incompetence, wastefulness, unconscionable profits, and outright fraud
should be a national scandal.

This, too, is a process everyone knows but can’t speak about because
it’s not part of the official script in which the US must be seen as
developing backward Afghanistan, instead of sending it reeling into
the darkest of ages. Despairing humanitarians recall that Hillary
Clinton promised as secretary of state to clean house at USAID, which,
she said, had become nothing but “a contracting shop.” Well, here’s a
flash from Afghanistan: it’s still a contracting shop, and the
contracts are going to the same set of contractors who have been
exposed again and again as venal, fraudulent, and criminal.

Just as Obama sends more troops and a new commander to fight a
fraudulent war for a purpose that makes no sense to anyone-except
perhaps the so-called defense intellectuals who live in an alternative
Washington-based Afghanaland of their own creation-Clinton presides
over a fraudulent aid program that functions chiefly to transfer
American tax dollars from the national treasury to the pockets of
already rich contractors and their congressional cronies. If you still
believe, as I would like to, that Obama and Clinton actually meant to
make change, then you have to ask: How does this state of affairs
continue, and why do the members of the international community-the
U.N., all those international NGOs, and our fast-fading coalition
allies-sign off on it?

You have only to look around in Kabul and elsewhere, as I did this
month, to see that the more American military there is, the more
insurgents there are; the more insurgent attacks, the more private
security contractors; the more barriers and razor wire, the more
restrictions on freedom of movement in the capital for Afghans and
internationals alike; and the more security, the higher the danger pay
for members of the international community who choose to stay and
spend their time complaining about the way security prevents them from
doing their useful work.

And so it goes round and round, this ill-oiled war machine, generating
ever more incentives for almost everyone involved-except ordinary
Afghans, of course-to keep on keeping on. There’s a little something
for quite a few: government officials in the US, Afghanistan, and
Pakistan, for-profit contractors, defense intellectuals, generals,
spies, soldiers behind the lines, international aid workers and their
Afghan employees, diplomats, members of the Afghan National Army, and
the police, and the Taliban, and their various pals, and the whole
array of camp followers that service warfare everywhere.

It goes round and round, this inexorable machine, this elaborate
construction of corporate capitalism at war, generating immense sums
of money for relatively small numbers of people, immense debt for our
nation, immense sacrifice from our combat soldiers, and for ordinary
Afghans and those who have befriended them or been befriended by them,
moments of promise and hope, moments of clarity and rage, and moments
of dark laughter that sometimes cannot forestall the onset of despair.

Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Kabul in Winter.
Her new book, War Is Not Over When It’s Over: Women Speak Out from the
Ruins of War, about her work with women in post-conflict countries, is
to be published by Metropolitan Books in September. She is at work on
her next book about what happens when America’s wars come home. To
visit her website, click here.