Commentary Magazine


Topic: Helmand

Bringing Afghans Over to the Coalition Side, One Tribe at a Time

There has been much loose talk about the possibility of reaching a high-level peace deal with the Taliban. No such effort is likely to succeed, at least not in the short run, because the Taliban do not yet feel defeated. In any case, high-level Taliban leaders, safely ensconced in Pakistan, have no incentive to give up a fight in which their foot soldiers are suffering while they enjoy shelter and subsidies from the Pakistani regime. But lower-level deals to bring tribes over to the side of the coalition are likely to prove more fruitful — just as they did in Iraq.

The Marines have just announced one such deal in Sangin, the most kinetic district in all of Afghanistan. The Marines have lost 29 men since taking over this district in Helmand Province this past summer; Britain lost some 100 troops there in prior years. Now the governor of Helmand has reached an agreement with the Alikozai, one of the main tribes in the area, to stop attacking the coalition forces and the government of Afghanistan in return for development assistance, permission to form their own security forces, and the release of an Alikozai prisoner.

As this Washington Post account by ace war correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran makes clear, this deal is the result of the Marines’ aggressive actions and also their willingness to seize political opportunities. A prior attempt by the Alikozai to reach out to the British in 2007 was rebuffed, and the Alikozai went back to fighting with the Taliban.

The dynamics changed [Chandrasekaran writes] when the Marines replaced British forces in summer 2010. They increased the tempo of offensive operations and struck back harder at the all of the insurgents, including the Alikozai. In mid-October, a Marine reconnaissance battalion swooped into the Alikozai area and conducted a blistering barrage of attacks that commanders estimate killed more than 250 insurgents.

“That convinced the elders,” said one senior Marine officer involved in the operation. “They began to see the handwriting on the wall.”

This is how counterinsurgency is supposed to work. By applying pressure on the insurgents and safeguarding the local population, a security force can change the dynamics on the ground and convince opportunists — who always make up the majority of any population — that their long-term interests lay in allying with, rather than resisting, the government. Economic aid can sweeten the deal, but what is going to make the most difference is a change in the security situation, which is what the Marines have been accomplishing by dint of hard and costly combat.

One should not make too much out of this arrangement, which may yet collapse — as have other tribal deals in Afghanistan. It may also be the case that the tribes in Afghanistan are now so weak, after decades of warfare and migration, that they do not have the power to effectively resist the Taliban. But this could also be the start of something big, possibly even a “Helmand Awakening” that will wrest this province out of insurgent hands, just as Anbar Province was wrested out of insurgent hands in 2006-2007.

There has been much loose talk about the possibility of reaching a high-level peace deal with the Taliban. No such effort is likely to succeed, at least not in the short run, because the Taliban do not yet feel defeated. In any case, high-level Taliban leaders, safely ensconced in Pakistan, have no incentive to give up a fight in which their foot soldiers are suffering while they enjoy shelter and subsidies from the Pakistani regime. But lower-level deals to bring tribes over to the side of the coalition are likely to prove more fruitful — just as they did in Iraq.

The Marines have just announced one such deal in Sangin, the most kinetic district in all of Afghanistan. The Marines have lost 29 men since taking over this district in Helmand Province this past summer; Britain lost some 100 troops there in prior years. Now the governor of Helmand has reached an agreement with the Alikozai, one of the main tribes in the area, to stop attacking the coalition forces and the government of Afghanistan in return for development assistance, permission to form their own security forces, and the release of an Alikozai prisoner.

As this Washington Post account by ace war correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran makes clear, this deal is the result of the Marines’ aggressive actions and also their willingness to seize political opportunities. A prior attempt by the Alikozai to reach out to the British in 2007 was rebuffed, and the Alikozai went back to fighting with the Taliban.

The dynamics changed [Chandrasekaran writes] when the Marines replaced British forces in summer 2010. They increased the tempo of offensive operations and struck back harder at the all of the insurgents, including the Alikozai. In mid-October, a Marine reconnaissance battalion swooped into the Alikozai area and conducted a blistering barrage of attacks that commanders estimate killed more than 250 insurgents.

“That convinced the elders,” said one senior Marine officer involved in the operation. “They began to see the handwriting on the wall.”

This is how counterinsurgency is supposed to work. By applying pressure on the insurgents and safeguarding the local population, a security force can change the dynamics on the ground and convince opportunists — who always make up the majority of any population — that their long-term interests lay in allying with, rather than resisting, the government. Economic aid can sweeten the deal, but what is going to make the most difference is a change in the security situation, which is what the Marines have been accomplishing by dint of hard and costly combat.

One should not make too much out of this arrangement, which may yet collapse — as have other tribal deals in Afghanistan. It may also be the case that the tribes in Afghanistan are now so weak, after decades of warfare and migration, that they do not have the power to effectively resist the Taliban. But this could also be the start of something big, possibly even a “Helmand Awakening” that will wrest this province out of insurgent hands, just as Anbar Province was wrested out of insurgent hands in 2006-2007.

Read Less

More Progress in Afghanistan

The New York Times yesterday highlighted one of the more unsung good-news stories out of Afghanistan: the success that U.S. troops have been having in preventing catastrophic terrorist attacks in Kabul by the Haqqani Network. As reporter Eric Schmitt notes, the Haqqanis have been linked to the 2008 attacks against the Serena Hotel (which killed six) and Indian Embassy (which killed 58), but they “have not conducted a complicated attack in Kabul since a suicide bomber steered his explosives-laden Toyota minibus into an American convoy on May 18.”

U.S. commanders are naturally reluctant to publicly claim any kind of victory because they know that an attack could occur tomorrow but this is a testament to how effective the Joint Special Operations Command has been in targeting the Haqqani network with assistance of conventional American units. We should also not underestimate the contribution being made by Afghan security forces which police Kabul largely on their own. It has not gotten much attention but Gen. Petraeus has emphasized the need to secure the capital, where the largest concentration of the country’s population may be found, and then to expand the security zone outward. So far that plan is meeting with considerable success.

Which stands at odds with the UN findings, reported by the Wall Street Journal, which “show a marked deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan during this year’s fighting season.” I am at a loss to explain how the UN can claim that things are getting worse when not only is Kabul much safer but so also are most of the key districts in Kandahar and Helmand provinces targeted by coalition forces. Yes, there has been some deterioration in the north but it is nowhere as bad as the south had become–and it will never get as bad because the Taliban appeal only to Pashtuns and there are precious few in the north.

One partial explanation may be that the UN findings were made in October, thus ignoring at least two months of solid progress in the south. Another partial explanation may be that the UN is focusing on the uptick in fighting as coalition troops go into insurgent strong havens–rather than the result, which is less Taliban control. The early stages of any offensive always look messy; they certainly did in Iraq. And no doubt the UN was reporting in 2007 that the security situation was deteriorating in Iraq. But that was the price of breaking the insurgent grip. Something similar is happening now in Afghanistan. We can only hope the results will be as positive as they were in Iraq.

The New York Times yesterday highlighted one of the more unsung good-news stories out of Afghanistan: the success that U.S. troops have been having in preventing catastrophic terrorist attacks in Kabul by the Haqqani Network. As reporter Eric Schmitt notes, the Haqqanis have been linked to the 2008 attacks against the Serena Hotel (which killed six) and Indian Embassy (which killed 58), but they “have not conducted a complicated attack in Kabul since a suicide bomber steered his explosives-laden Toyota minibus into an American convoy on May 18.”

U.S. commanders are naturally reluctant to publicly claim any kind of victory because they know that an attack could occur tomorrow but this is a testament to how effective the Joint Special Operations Command has been in targeting the Haqqani network with assistance of conventional American units. We should also not underestimate the contribution being made by Afghan security forces which police Kabul largely on their own. It has not gotten much attention but Gen. Petraeus has emphasized the need to secure the capital, where the largest concentration of the country’s population may be found, and then to expand the security zone outward. So far that plan is meeting with considerable success.

Which stands at odds with the UN findings, reported by the Wall Street Journal, which “show a marked deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan during this year’s fighting season.” I am at a loss to explain how the UN can claim that things are getting worse when not only is Kabul much safer but so also are most of the key districts in Kandahar and Helmand provinces targeted by coalition forces. Yes, there has been some deterioration in the north but it is nowhere as bad as the south had become–and it will never get as bad because the Taliban appeal only to Pashtuns and there are precious few in the north.

One partial explanation may be that the UN findings were made in October, thus ignoring at least two months of solid progress in the south. Another partial explanation may be that the UN is focusing on the uptick in fighting as coalition troops go into insurgent strong havens–rather than the result, which is less Taliban control. The early stages of any offensive always look messy; they certainly did in Iraq. And no doubt the UN was reporting in 2007 that the security situation was deteriorating in Iraq. But that was the price of breaking the insurgent grip. Something similar is happening now in Afghanistan. We can only hope the results will be as positive as they were in Iraq.

Read Less

We Are Winning in Afghanistan, Though Work Remains to Be Done

In the L.A. Times today, Pete Mansoor and I have an op-ed reporting on our recently completed trip to Afghanistan. (Mansoor is a retired army colonel who served two combat tours in Iraq and now teaches history at Ohio State). In brief, our message is that we are now winning in Afghanistan, at least in Helmand and Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban, where we have focused most of our resources. But don’t take our word for it. The New York Times runs a fantastic article by Carlotta Gall and Ruhullah Khapalwak that quotes an unnamed mid-level Taliban commander conceding that “the government has the upper hand now” in and around Kandahar — a message confirmed by local residents they spoke with. The article explains:

“The people are not happy with us,” the Taliban fighter said. “People gave us a place to stay for several years, but we did not provide them with anything except fighting. The situation is different now: the local people are not willingly cooperating with us. They are not giving us a place to stay or giving us food.”

NATO’s announcement that it would remain until a transfer to Afghan forces in 2014 has also convinced people that it will not withdraw quickly, he said.

“The Americans are more serious, and another thing that made people hopeful was when they said they would stay until 2014,” the Taliban commander said. “That has made people change their minds.”

Naturally, the article reports that the Taliban will plan to return to their old stomping grounds in the spring, but “in a dozen interviews, Afghan landowners, tribal elders and villagers said they believed that the Taliban could find it hard to return if American troops remained.”

That was exactly what Mansoor and I found. But isn’t there a danger that the insurgency, after setbacks in the south, will simply move to the north or east? That’s what another New York Times article claims.

Alissa Rubin reports from Kunduz in the north — an area garrisoned primarily by Germans — where she finds security conditions have deteriorated. No doubt that’s true, but there is scant chance that the Taliban could re-create strongholds in other parts of the country after being chased out of the south. That’s because the Taliban have essentially no appeal outside the Pashtun community, and there are few Pashtuns in the north or west. True, the Taliban have made some inroads among Pashtun pockets in those areas, but let’s not exaggerate. Most days, there are no reported attacks at all in the north or west. The Taliban may be spreading some fear and intimidation, but there is a natural limit on their appeal. The odds of their gaining support in the Tajik or Hazara communities are about as great as the odds of Hamas winning supporters in Jewish neighborhoods of Israel.

I do not, by any means, suggest that all the news from Afghanistan is great. As Mansoor and I note, governance and Pakistan sanctuaries remain difficult challenges, and the eastern part of the country — where there are a lot of Pashtuns — has not yet seen the kind of concerted counterinsurgency campaign that has taken place in the south. (There simply aren’t enough troops even now to pacify both south and east at the same time.) But overall, we are making great progress with the surge, which, after all, has only just been completed.

In the L.A. Times today, Pete Mansoor and I have an op-ed reporting on our recently completed trip to Afghanistan. (Mansoor is a retired army colonel who served two combat tours in Iraq and now teaches history at Ohio State). In brief, our message is that we are now winning in Afghanistan, at least in Helmand and Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban, where we have focused most of our resources. But don’t take our word for it. The New York Times runs a fantastic article by Carlotta Gall and Ruhullah Khapalwak that quotes an unnamed mid-level Taliban commander conceding that “the government has the upper hand now” in and around Kandahar — a message confirmed by local residents they spoke with. The article explains:

“The people are not happy with us,” the Taliban fighter said. “People gave us a place to stay for several years, but we did not provide them with anything except fighting. The situation is different now: the local people are not willingly cooperating with us. They are not giving us a place to stay or giving us food.”

NATO’s announcement that it would remain until a transfer to Afghan forces in 2014 has also convinced people that it will not withdraw quickly, he said.

“The Americans are more serious, and another thing that made people hopeful was when they said they would stay until 2014,” the Taliban commander said. “That has made people change their minds.”

Naturally, the article reports that the Taliban will plan to return to their old stomping grounds in the spring, but “in a dozen interviews, Afghan landowners, tribal elders and villagers said they believed that the Taliban could find it hard to return if American troops remained.”

That was exactly what Mansoor and I found. But isn’t there a danger that the insurgency, after setbacks in the south, will simply move to the north or east? That’s what another New York Times article claims.

Alissa Rubin reports from Kunduz in the north — an area garrisoned primarily by Germans — where she finds security conditions have deteriorated. No doubt that’s true, but there is scant chance that the Taliban could re-create strongholds in other parts of the country after being chased out of the south. That’s because the Taliban have essentially no appeal outside the Pashtun community, and there are few Pashtuns in the north or west. True, the Taliban have made some inroads among Pashtun pockets in those areas, but let’s not exaggerate. Most days, there are no reported attacks at all in the north or west. The Taliban may be spreading some fear and intimidation, but there is a natural limit on their appeal. The odds of their gaining support in the Tajik or Hazara communities are about as great as the odds of Hamas winning supporters in Jewish neighborhoods of Israel.

I do not, by any means, suggest that all the news from Afghanistan is great. As Mansoor and I note, governance and Pakistan sanctuaries remain difficult challenges, and the eastern part of the country — where there are a lot of Pashtuns — has not yet seen the kind of concerted counterinsurgency campaign that has taken place in the south. (There simply aren’t enough troops even now to pacify both south and east at the same time.) But overall, we are making great progress with the surge, which, after all, has only just been completed.

Read Less

Two Views on Afghanistan: Intel Agencies vs. the Military

Just a day ahead of the official release of the administration’s Afghanistan review, someone has leaked the intelligence community’s assessment of the situation — which apparently is less optimistic than the military’s view. As the New York Times notes, part of the discrepancy is due to “the longstanding cultural differences between intelligence analysts, whose job is to warn of potential bad news, and military commanders, who are trained to promote ‘can do’ optimism.”

There is also the highly significant fact that apparently the intelligence assessment is based on information received as of October 1 — i.e., 10 weeks ago. A lot has happened in that time, with U.S. forces continuing to solidify their hold in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, as I saw for myself last week. Judging Afghanistan based on what it looked like on October 1 hardly provides an accurate picture of where it is today — or where it is going.

According to the Times, the chief reason for gloom in the intel community assessment is the presence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan — “there is a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its Afghan border,” the spooks claim. The military command — which I just visited — hardly disputes the problems created by Pakistan sanctuaries. The question is whether we can succeed even with Pakistan playing an unhelpful role. I believe we can, because  most insurgents come from the areas where they stage attacks; if we can do a better job of spreading security and addressing local grievances, the insurgents will find it hard to gain traction, notwithstanding all the support they may continue to get in Pakistan.

Just a day ahead of the official release of the administration’s Afghanistan review, someone has leaked the intelligence community’s assessment of the situation — which apparently is less optimistic than the military’s view. As the New York Times notes, part of the discrepancy is due to “the longstanding cultural differences between intelligence analysts, whose job is to warn of potential bad news, and military commanders, who are trained to promote ‘can do’ optimism.”

There is also the highly significant fact that apparently the intelligence assessment is based on information received as of October 1 — i.e., 10 weeks ago. A lot has happened in that time, with U.S. forces continuing to solidify their hold in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, as I saw for myself last week. Judging Afghanistan based on what it looked like on October 1 hardly provides an accurate picture of where it is today — or where it is going.

According to the Times, the chief reason for gloom in the intel community assessment is the presence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan — “there is a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its Afghan border,” the spooks claim. The military command — which I just visited — hardly disputes the problems created by Pakistan sanctuaries. The question is whether we can succeed even with Pakistan playing an unhelpful role. I believe we can, because  most insurgents come from the areas where they stage attacks; if we can do a better job of spreading security and addressing local grievances, the insurgents will find it hard to gain traction, notwithstanding all the support they may continue to get in Pakistan.

Read Less

The President Shouldn’t Listen to Counsels of Despair on Afghanistan

The best indication that things are going pretty well in Afghanistan: a sundry collection of “experts” is ready to raise the white flag. A motley crew of academics and journalists (including my frequent sparring partner Nir Rosen) has just released an open letter to President Obama claiming that “the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago” and that “operations in the south of Afghanistan, in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, are not going well.” Yet a few paragraphs later, the authors switch gears, writing, “The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure.” So which is it: is the campaign failing, or is it suppressing the Taliban?

Having just visited Afghanistan, where I had the opportunity to visit Helmand and Kandahar provinces, among others, I return convinced that the campaign is, in fact, going well and that it is suppressing the Taliban. Obviously, the Taliban have not given up the struggle, as witness, for example, the terrible suicide bombing of a new Afghan-American patrol base in Kandahar’s Zhare district — an attack that killed six American servicemen. But keep in mind that Zhare has for years been one of the Taliban’s strongholds. The fact that the Taliban are still able to carry out an occasional suicide bombing there is much less significant than the fact that the area is now dotted with American patrol bases. U.S. troops have in fact had considerable, though still incomplete, success in pushing the Taliban out of many of their southern redoubts.

Once progress on the ground is further along, it is likely that elements of the Taliban will be eager to stop fighting. At that point, peace talks may produce some results. But that time is not now. Which is why the authors of the open letter are so far off base when they call on President Obama “to sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan.” The open letter claims that the “Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate,” which is true in the sense that the Taliban are happy to negotiate the exit of international forces in the expectation that they will then take over the whole country and reimpose their fundamentalist dictatorship. But they have so far shown little willingness to negotiate on terms acceptable to most Afghans or to the international community, which has sponsored Afghanistan’s post-2001 experiment in democracy. In fact, when some elements of the Taliban leadership showed a willingness to make concessions, they were promptly locked up by the Pakistanis, who don’t want to see their proxies surrendering without their say-so.

The notion “that mediation can help achieve a settlement which brings peace to Afghanistan” is simply delusional — at least for now. For talks to have any success, General Petraeus needs more time to pursue his comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Thankfully, it appears as if he will get that time from the Obama administration — which is far too sensible to listen to the counsels of despair from this open letter.

The best indication that things are going pretty well in Afghanistan: a sundry collection of “experts” is ready to raise the white flag. A motley crew of academics and journalists (including my frequent sparring partner Nir Rosen) has just released an open letter to President Obama claiming that “the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago” and that “operations in the south of Afghanistan, in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, are not going well.” Yet a few paragraphs later, the authors switch gears, writing, “The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure.” So which is it: is the campaign failing, or is it suppressing the Taliban?

Having just visited Afghanistan, where I had the opportunity to visit Helmand and Kandahar provinces, among others, I return convinced that the campaign is, in fact, going well and that it is suppressing the Taliban. Obviously, the Taliban have not given up the struggle, as witness, for example, the terrible suicide bombing of a new Afghan-American patrol base in Kandahar’s Zhare district — an attack that killed six American servicemen. But keep in mind that Zhare has for years been one of the Taliban’s strongholds. The fact that the Taliban are still able to carry out an occasional suicide bombing there is much less significant than the fact that the area is now dotted with American patrol bases. U.S. troops have in fact had considerable, though still incomplete, success in pushing the Taliban out of many of their southern redoubts.

Once progress on the ground is further along, it is likely that elements of the Taliban will be eager to stop fighting. At that point, peace talks may produce some results. But that time is not now. Which is why the authors of the open letter are so far off base when they call on President Obama “to sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan.” The open letter claims that the “Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate,” which is true in the sense that the Taliban are happy to negotiate the exit of international forces in the expectation that they will then take over the whole country and reimpose their fundamentalist dictatorship. But they have so far shown little willingness to negotiate on terms acceptable to most Afghans or to the international community, which has sponsored Afghanistan’s post-2001 experiment in democracy. In fact, when some elements of the Taliban leadership showed a willingness to make concessions, they were promptly locked up by the Pakistanis, who don’t want to see their proxies surrendering without their say-so.

The notion “that mediation can help achieve a settlement which brings peace to Afghanistan” is simply delusional — at least for now. For talks to have any success, General Petraeus needs more time to pursue his comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Thankfully, it appears as if he will get that time from the Obama administration — which is far too sensible to listen to the counsels of despair from this open letter.

Read Less

Step 1 in Negotiating with Taliban: Proof of “Taliban-ness”

How can you not laugh at the news that the Taliban “leader” who was negotiating with Afghan officials in Kabul was an imposter? Foreign Policy’s website runs a list of “Top 10 ways to tell  your new Taliban friend is an imposter” — e.g., “Eyepatch switches sides from meeting to meeting,” and “Runs up a large minibar tab at the Four Seasons Kabul.”

Beyond the yucks, this merely confirms what I (and many others) have been saying all along: the time is not yet ripe for real negotiations. Before they will make a deal, the Taliban will have to be convinced they cannot win a military victory. The process of convincing them has just started. True, U.S. troops are making significant gains in Kandahar and Helmand, but it will not be obvious until next summer whether they can hold the ground they have just won. It is doubtful that many Taliban will decide to defect before then. By all means, the Afghan government and its foreign allies should keep an open door to talk about a political settlement — but we shouldn’t expect any results anytime soon. And in the future, if genuine negotiations do start, it might be wise to demand some proof of “Taliban-ness” from our interlocutors. Maybe we can demand that they behead someone?

How can you not laugh at the news that the Taliban “leader” who was negotiating with Afghan officials in Kabul was an imposter? Foreign Policy’s website runs a list of “Top 10 ways to tell  your new Taliban friend is an imposter” — e.g., “Eyepatch switches sides from meeting to meeting,” and “Runs up a large minibar tab at the Four Seasons Kabul.”

Beyond the yucks, this merely confirms what I (and many others) have been saying all along: the time is not yet ripe for real negotiations. Before they will make a deal, the Taliban will have to be convinced they cannot win a military victory. The process of convincing them has just started. True, U.S. troops are making significant gains in Kandahar and Helmand, but it will not be obvious until next summer whether they can hold the ground they have just won. It is doubtful that many Taliban will decide to defect before then. By all means, the Afghan government and its foreign allies should keep an open door to talk about a political settlement — but we shouldn’t expect any results anytime soon. And in the future, if genuine negotiations do start, it might be wise to demand some proof of “Taliban-ness” from our interlocutors. Maybe we can demand that they behead someone?

Read Less

Petraeus on Afghanistan

This past weekend, General David Petraeus, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, granted interviews to the Washington Post, New York Times, and Meet the Press [here and here].

Acknowledging that the mission is at a stage in which “what you have to do is to start turning inputs into outputs,” Petraeus said that the new U.S. war strategy is “fundamentally sound.” He sees incipient signs of progress in parts of the south, in new initiatives to create community defense forces, and in nascent steps to reintegrate low-level insurgents who want to stop fighting. According to the Post:

Petraeus contends that the counterinsurgency strategy is showing momentum in Helmand province, where about 20,000 U.S. Marines and 10,000 British troops have sought to create inkblots of security in six key districts. Some areas, such as Marja, a former Taliban stronghold, have proved to be tougher to pacify … but other places, such as the districts of Nawa and Garmsir, are becoming more stable and may feature prominently in his year-end presentation to the White House.

He also said he is encouraged by developments in Arghandab district on Kandahar’s northern fringe, where two U.S. Army battalions have been engaged in an arduous mission to clear insurgents from pomegranate orchards and vineyards seeded with makeshift but lethal anti-personnel mines.

Petraeus points out that what we face is not a monolithic Taliban enemy; he describes it more like a crime syndicate. In the southern part of the country we face the Afghan Taliban; in the eastern part, the Haqqani network linked to the Taliban but not subservient to it. There are small elements of al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and some Pakistani Taliban as well.

Petraeus, who appears intent on taking a harder line against corruption in the Karzai government than we’ve seen in the past, says his most significant accomplishment since arriving in Kabul has been to get President Karzai to endorse the creation of armed neighborhood-watch groups. He also argues against any precipitous withdrawal of forces in July 2011. When asked by NBC’s David Gregory how stifling the deadline is, Petraeus said this:

I don’t find it that stifling. I’m not bowed over by, you know, the knowledge that July 2011 is out there. In fact, the president has been very clear, Vice President Biden’s been very clear as well, more recently, that this is a date when a process begins that is conditions based. And as the conditions permit, we transition tasks to our Afghan counterparts and to security forces and, and in various governmental institutions, and that enables a responsible drawdown of our forces. … I think the president’s been quite clear in explaining that it’s a process, not an event, and that it’s conditions based. … I think that we will have an enduring commitment here in some fashion, the character of which may change over time as our Afghan partners can do more and we’re able to do less in certain areas, certainly.

Articulating traditional counterinsurgency doctrine, Petraeus went on to say, “At the end of the day, it’s not about [the Afghan people’s] embrace of us, it’s not about us winning hearts and minds. It’s about the Afghan government winning hearts and minds.” And when asked if the outcome is like Iraq, whether that constitutes achieving the mission, Petraeus said this:

Well, the outcome in Iraq is still to be written, but if you could reduce the level of violence by some 90 to 95 percent, as was the case in Iraq, to below a threshold which allows commerce and business and outside investment to take place, where there is an election that’s certainly at least elected representatives, and now you have to see if they can come together and form a government that is still representative of and responsive to the people, as was the previous one. If that can all be achieved there, that would be a reasonable solution here as well.

“It’s a gradual effort,” Petraeus told the Post. “It’s a deliberate effort. There’s no hill to take and flag to plant and proclamations of victory. Rather, it’s just hard work.”

It is indeed. But America is fortunate to have one of the greatest military commanders in its history now in the lead. If we give him the tools and the time, he and the American military can finish the job.

This past weekend, General David Petraeus, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, granted interviews to the Washington Post, New York Times, and Meet the Press [here and here].

Acknowledging that the mission is at a stage in which “what you have to do is to start turning inputs into outputs,” Petraeus said that the new U.S. war strategy is “fundamentally sound.” He sees incipient signs of progress in parts of the south, in new initiatives to create community defense forces, and in nascent steps to reintegrate low-level insurgents who want to stop fighting. According to the Post:

Petraeus contends that the counterinsurgency strategy is showing momentum in Helmand province, where about 20,000 U.S. Marines and 10,000 British troops have sought to create inkblots of security in six key districts. Some areas, such as Marja, a former Taliban stronghold, have proved to be tougher to pacify … but other places, such as the districts of Nawa and Garmsir, are becoming more stable and may feature prominently in his year-end presentation to the White House.

He also said he is encouraged by developments in Arghandab district on Kandahar’s northern fringe, where two U.S. Army battalions have been engaged in an arduous mission to clear insurgents from pomegranate orchards and vineyards seeded with makeshift but lethal anti-personnel mines.

Petraeus points out that what we face is not a monolithic Taliban enemy; he describes it more like a crime syndicate. In the southern part of the country we face the Afghan Taliban; in the eastern part, the Haqqani network linked to the Taliban but not subservient to it. There are small elements of al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and some Pakistani Taliban as well.

Petraeus, who appears intent on taking a harder line against corruption in the Karzai government than we’ve seen in the past, says his most significant accomplishment since arriving in Kabul has been to get President Karzai to endorse the creation of armed neighborhood-watch groups. He also argues against any precipitous withdrawal of forces in July 2011. When asked by NBC’s David Gregory how stifling the deadline is, Petraeus said this:

I don’t find it that stifling. I’m not bowed over by, you know, the knowledge that July 2011 is out there. In fact, the president has been very clear, Vice President Biden’s been very clear as well, more recently, that this is a date when a process begins that is conditions based. And as the conditions permit, we transition tasks to our Afghan counterparts and to security forces and, and in various governmental institutions, and that enables a responsible drawdown of our forces. … I think the president’s been quite clear in explaining that it’s a process, not an event, and that it’s conditions based. … I think that we will have an enduring commitment here in some fashion, the character of which may change over time as our Afghan partners can do more and we’re able to do less in certain areas, certainly.

Articulating traditional counterinsurgency doctrine, Petraeus went on to say, “At the end of the day, it’s not about [the Afghan people’s] embrace of us, it’s not about us winning hearts and minds. It’s about the Afghan government winning hearts and minds.” And when asked if the outcome is like Iraq, whether that constitutes achieving the mission, Petraeus said this:

Well, the outcome in Iraq is still to be written, but if you could reduce the level of violence by some 90 to 95 percent, as was the case in Iraq, to below a threshold which allows commerce and business and outside investment to take place, where there is an election that’s certainly at least elected representatives, and now you have to see if they can come together and form a government that is still representative of and responsive to the people, as was the previous one. If that can all be achieved there, that would be a reasonable solution here as well.

“It’s a gradual effort,” Petraeus told the Post. “It’s a deliberate effort. There’s no hill to take and flag to plant and proclamations of victory. Rather, it’s just hard work.”

It is indeed. But America is fortunate to have one of the greatest military commanders in its history now in the lead. If we give him the tools and the time, he and the American military can finish the job.

Read Less

The War in Afghanistan: Where We Are Now

We have reached a key juncture in the Afghanistan war. Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal have spent the last year getting the right “inputs” in place, meaning getting the structures right, putting the best leaders in charge, developing the right concepts, providing the authority and resources necessary, and so forth. We are now at the very early stages of the “output” phase, with a counterinsurgency (COIN) offensive in Helmand province that began in February and a forthcoming offensive in Kandahar. This campaign will unfold over the next 18 months or so and will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the war.

As we enter this new phase of the war — with, for the first time, a properly resourced counterinsurgency strategy in place — it’s important to understand the situation on the ground, including public sentiment, which is a crucial component of a successful COIN strategy.

A new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Shaping the War in Afghanistan: The Situation in the Spring of 2010,” provides useful information, much of it culled from other recent reports and surveys (like the Department of Defense’s April report on progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan and an analysis of public opinion in Afghanistan conducted by ABC News, the BBC, and ARD).

Among the encouraging data points:

  • After steep declines in recent years there’s been a 30-point advance in views that the country is headed in the right direction; 70 percent now say so, the most since 2005. Afghans’ expectations that their own lives will be better a year from now have jumped by 20 points, to 71 percent, a new high. And there’s been a 14-point rise in expectations that the next generation will have a better life, to 61 percent.
  • Seventy (70) percent say living conditions are better now than they were under the Taliban.
  • Sixty-eight (68) percent of Afghans continue to support the presence of U.S. forces in their country – and nearly as many, 61 percent, favor the coming surge of Western troops initiated by President Obama.
  • There’s been a 14-point gain from last year, to 83 percent, in the view among Afghans that it was right for the United States to invade and overthrow the Taliban just more than eight years ago. And the number of Afghans who say attacking Western forces can be justified has dropped sharply, from 25 percent a year ago to 8 percent, a new low. (It jumps to 22 percent in the South – but that’s half of what it was there a year ago.)
  • President Karzai’s performance rating is only 40 percent in Helmand but 72 percent in the rest of the country – making him, by my count, more popular in Afghanistan than President Obama is in America.
  • Afghans confidence in their government reached a new high (since polling started in September 2008). Between September and March of 2009, Afghan confidence in the national administration increased by six percentage points to 45 percent, confidence in the provincial governor increased by five percentage points to 47 percent, and confidence in the district governors increased by six percentage points to 44 percent. When asked if the government was heading in the right direction, 59 percent of Afghans responded “yes.” This represents an increase of eight percent over the previous September 2009.
  • In March 2010, 30 percent of Afghans believed that the government was less corrupt than one year prior while 24 percent believed that it was more corrupt.

On the other side of the ledger:

  • Just 38 percent rate the work of the United States in Afghanistan positively – up 6 points in the past year, but far below its peak, 68 percent, in 2005. (NATO’s ratings are as low, and flat.) Fifty-one (51) percent have a favorable view of the United States overall – vastly below its high point, 83 percent, in 2005. And U.S. favorability drops to 35 percent in the East and 29 percent in the South (vs. 59 percent in the rest of the country) – again, plummeting where the United States is most actively engaged in combat.
  • Just 42 percent in the South and East support the presence of U.S. forces in their area, compared with 78 percent in the rest of the country.
  • More Afghans say the United States and NATO are doing worse, not better, in avoiding civilian casualties, by 43-24 percent. (This may reflect dismay over widely publicized individual incidents, such as the bombing of a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in September that killed scores of civilians in Kunduz province.
  • Nearly all Afghans – 95 percent – say official corruption is a problem in their area, up 23 points since 2007. Seventy-six (76) percent say it’s a big problem; both are new highs.
  • Only 29 percent of Afghans had a very good or good opinion of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), with an additional 34 percent reporting a neutral rating.
  • We are focusing on 121 districts that have been deemed as critical to success. Of those 121, there are just 29 (24 percent) in which the population sympathizes with the Afghan government. While doubts about Afghan governance, writ large, doesn’t translate directly into support for the Taliban, which is still much-hated, it certainly doesn’t help matters. (In addition, the data for the 121 districts are not necessarily indicative of all of Afghanistan, especially given that they are the focus of the COIN campaign precisely because of the level of threats within them.)
  • Just 38 percent rate the work of the United States in Afghanistan positively – up 6 points in the past year, but far below its peak, 68 percent, in 2005. (NATO’s ratings are as low, and flat.) Fifty-one (51) percent have a favorable view of the United States overall – vastly below its high point, 83 percent, in 2005. And U.S. favorability drops to 35 percent in the East and 29 percent in the South (vs. 59 percent in the rest of the country) – again, plummeting where the United States is most actively engaged in combat.
  • Just 42 percent in the South and East support the presence of U.S. forces in their area, compared with 78 percent in the rest of the country.
  • More Afghans say the United States and NATO are doing worse, not better, in avoiding civilian casualties, by 43-24 percent. (This may reflect dismay over widely publicized individual incidents, such as the bombing of a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in September that killed scores of civilians in Kunduz province.)
  • Nearly all Afghans – 95 percent – say official corruption is a problem in their area, up 23 points since 2007. Seventy-six (76) percent say it’s a big problem; both are new highs.
  • Only 29 percent of Afghans had a very good or good opinion of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), with an additional 34 percent reporting a neutral rating.
  • We are focusing on 121 districts that have been deemed as critical to success. Of those 121, there are just 29 (24 percent) in which the population sympathizes with the Afghan government. While doubts about Afghan governance, writ large, doesn’t translate directly into support for the Taliban, which is still much-hated, it certainly doesn’t help matters. (In addition, the data for the 121 districts are not necessarily indicative of all of Afghanistan, especially given that they are the focus of the COIN campaign precisely because of the level of threats within them.)

It’s quite a mixed picture, then — but since the beginning of 2009, a low-water mark, we’ve seen an increase in the performance ratings of the Afghan army, the Afghan government, Hamid Karzai, and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

The CSIS report also documents the rising intensity of the fighting, the increase in IED attacks, opium-poppy-cultivation trends, the growth in the (licit) GDP, and the growing strength of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police (the ANA has largely exceeded its recruiting goals between 2009 and 2010 and now includes more than 112,000 Afghans; the ANP now counts more than 102,000 Afghans in its ranks). And according to the most recent Department of Defense report, 52 percent of Afghans believe insurgents are the greatest source of insecurity, while only 1 percent believes the National Army/Police are primarily to blame. In the words of the DoD report: “This perception provides an opportunity for the Afghan Government, with the support of the international community, to improve its legitimacy and enhance popular perception of the government.”

In the end, increasing the legitimacy of the government will be key as to whether the war has a successful outcome. Nobody understands this better than David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.

Stay tuned.

We have reached a key juncture in the Afghanistan war. Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal have spent the last year getting the right “inputs” in place, meaning getting the structures right, putting the best leaders in charge, developing the right concepts, providing the authority and resources necessary, and so forth. We are now at the very early stages of the “output” phase, with a counterinsurgency (COIN) offensive in Helmand province that began in February and a forthcoming offensive in Kandahar. This campaign will unfold over the next 18 months or so and will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the war.

As we enter this new phase of the war — with, for the first time, a properly resourced counterinsurgency strategy in place — it’s important to understand the situation on the ground, including public sentiment, which is a crucial component of a successful COIN strategy.

A new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Shaping the War in Afghanistan: The Situation in the Spring of 2010,” provides useful information, much of it culled from other recent reports and surveys (like the Department of Defense’s April report on progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan and an analysis of public opinion in Afghanistan conducted by ABC News, the BBC, and ARD).

Among the encouraging data points:

  • After steep declines in recent years there’s been a 30-point advance in views that the country is headed in the right direction; 70 percent now say so, the most since 2005. Afghans’ expectations that their own lives will be better a year from now have jumped by 20 points, to 71 percent, a new high. And there’s been a 14-point rise in expectations that the next generation will have a better life, to 61 percent.
  • Seventy (70) percent say living conditions are better now than they were under the Taliban.
  • Sixty-eight (68) percent of Afghans continue to support the presence of U.S. forces in their country – and nearly as many, 61 percent, favor the coming surge of Western troops initiated by President Obama.
  • There’s been a 14-point gain from last year, to 83 percent, in the view among Afghans that it was right for the United States to invade and overthrow the Taliban just more than eight years ago. And the number of Afghans who say attacking Western forces can be justified has dropped sharply, from 25 percent a year ago to 8 percent, a new low. (It jumps to 22 percent in the South – but that’s half of what it was there a year ago.)
  • President Karzai’s performance rating is only 40 percent in Helmand but 72 percent in the rest of the country – making him, by my count, more popular in Afghanistan than President Obama is in America.
  • Afghans confidence in their government reached a new high (since polling started in September 2008). Between September and March of 2009, Afghan confidence in the national administration increased by six percentage points to 45 percent, confidence in the provincial governor increased by five percentage points to 47 percent, and confidence in the district governors increased by six percentage points to 44 percent. When asked if the government was heading in the right direction, 59 percent of Afghans responded “yes.” This represents an increase of eight percent over the previous September 2009.
  • In March 2010, 30 percent of Afghans believed that the government was less corrupt than one year prior while 24 percent believed that it was more corrupt.

On the other side of the ledger:

  • Just 38 percent rate the work of the United States in Afghanistan positively – up 6 points in the past year, but far below its peak, 68 percent, in 2005. (NATO’s ratings are as low, and flat.) Fifty-one (51) percent have a favorable view of the United States overall – vastly below its high point, 83 percent, in 2005. And U.S. favorability drops to 35 percent in the East and 29 percent in the South (vs. 59 percent in the rest of the country) – again, plummeting where the United States is most actively engaged in combat.
  • Just 42 percent in the South and East support the presence of U.S. forces in their area, compared with 78 percent in the rest of the country.
  • More Afghans say the United States and NATO are doing worse, not better, in avoiding civilian casualties, by 43-24 percent. (This may reflect dismay over widely publicized individual incidents, such as the bombing of a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in September that killed scores of civilians in Kunduz province.
  • Nearly all Afghans – 95 percent – say official corruption is a problem in their area, up 23 points since 2007. Seventy-six (76) percent say it’s a big problem; both are new highs.
  • Only 29 percent of Afghans had a very good or good opinion of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), with an additional 34 percent reporting a neutral rating.
  • We are focusing on 121 districts that have been deemed as critical to success. Of those 121, there are just 29 (24 percent) in which the population sympathizes with the Afghan government. While doubts about Afghan governance, writ large, doesn’t translate directly into support for the Taliban, which is still much-hated, it certainly doesn’t help matters. (In addition, the data for the 121 districts are not necessarily indicative of all of Afghanistan, especially given that they are the focus of the COIN campaign precisely because of the level of threats within them.)
  • Just 38 percent rate the work of the United States in Afghanistan positively – up 6 points in the past year, but far below its peak, 68 percent, in 2005. (NATO’s ratings are as low, and flat.) Fifty-one (51) percent have a favorable view of the United States overall – vastly below its high point, 83 percent, in 2005. And U.S. favorability drops to 35 percent in the East and 29 percent in the South (vs. 59 percent in the rest of the country) – again, plummeting where the United States is most actively engaged in combat.
  • Just 42 percent in the South and East support the presence of U.S. forces in their area, compared with 78 percent in the rest of the country.
  • More Afghans say the United States and NATO are doing worse, not better, in avoiding civilian casualties, by 43-24 percent. (This may reflect dismay over widely publicized individual incidents, such as the bombing of a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in September that killed scores of civilians in Kunduz province.)
  • Nearly all Afghans – 95 percent – say official corruption is a problem in their area, up 23 points since 2007. Seventy-six (76) percent say it’s a big problem; both are new highs.
  • Only 29 percent of Afghans had a very good or good opinion of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), with an additional 34 percent reporting a neutral rating.
  • We are focusing on 121 districts that have been deemed as critical to success. Of those 121, there are just 29 (24 percent) in which the population sympathizes with the Afghan government. While doubts about Afghan governance, writ large, doesn’t translate directly into support for the Taliban, which is still much-hated, it certainly doesn’t help matters. (In addition, the data for the 121 districts are not necessarily indicative of all of Afghanistan, especially given that they are the focus of the COIN campaign precisely because of the level of threats within them.)

It’s quite a mixed picture, then — but since the beginning of 2009, a low-water mark, we’ve seen an increase in the performance ratings of the Afghan army, the Afghan government, Hamid Karzai, and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

The CSIS report also documents the rising intensity of the fighting, the increase in IED attacks, opium-poppy-cultivation trends, the growth in the (licit) GDP, and the growing strength of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police (the ANA has largely exceeded its recruiting goals between 2009 and 2010 and now includes more than 112,000 Afghans; the ANP now counts more than 102,000 Afghans in its ranks). And according to the most recent Department of Defense report, 52 percent of Afghans believe insurgents are the greatest source of insecurity, while only 1 percent believes the National Army/Police are primarily to blame. In the words of the DoD report: “This perception provides an opportunity for the Afghan Government, with the support of the international community, to improve its legitimacy and enhance popular perception of the government.”

In the end, increasing the legitimacy of the government will be key as to whether the war has a successful outcome. Nobody understands this better than David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.

Stay tuned.

Read Less

Progress in Marjah

The news from Marjah is pretty positive. The best overview I’ve seen was provided in this transcript of a briefing given a few days ago by Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in the Helmand province. He noted:

On day three we had 36 TICs, or troops in contact.  Seemingly, everywhere in Marja, we had Marines in direct- fire contact.  We have now not had direct fire in Marja in the last eight days.  So I think we’re — while we still continue to find IEDs, I think we’re very pleased with how things have settled down…. I can tell you, though, that I went to a school this morning in Marja.  There hadn’t been schools open in Marja in many years, so the fact that we now had 107 kids at the class I attended in — near city center, was pretty significant.

As for the Afghan army’s performance, he said they are “grading out here pretty well,” even if they are hardly “in the lead” as some overeager spinners in Kabul have claimed:

Some units are veteran units that we brought in from outside the AO and have done exceptionally well.  We have an Afghan battalion that for all intensive purposes has operated independently since the very beginning of the op.

We have some newer Afghan units that we have to partner with very closely.  Really they’re just out of recruit training.  So I think there’s a wide variety of the Afghan army experience here in Marja, but I can tell you that I am exceptionally proud of their great service.  These guys run to the sound of gunfire….You know, Marines don’t search any of the homes.  In an area this large, when you decide you’ve got to search a home, the guys going in are going to be Afghan soldiers.  And they’ve done that very well; they’ve earned the trust and confidence of the Marines.

The best news of all, though, is that Hamid Karzai has now visited Marjah to meet with local residents — something that had not happened after previous combat operations. Granted, he was accompanied by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who no doubt had to drag Karzai onto the helicopter, kicking and screaming, but still, this is a vast improvement. It shows some progress in McChrystal’s campaign to turn Karzai into a wartime leader who takes responsibility for security operations, even those conducted primarily by NATO forces, such as the Marjah offensive was.

None of this is to deny the obvious — that major challenges remain. Those include figuring out whether the district governor of Marjah can be effective despite reports of his having a criminal record in Germany. But overall Marjah has not proved to be nearly as tough as Fallujah. There is more hard fighting to come, especially in the summer, but it appears as though NATO forces are finally gaining all-critical momentum on the ground.

The news from Marjah is pretty positive. The best overview I’ve seen was provided in this transcript of a briefing given a few days ago by Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in the Helmand province. He noted:

On day three we had 36 TICs, or troops in contact.  Seemingly, everywhere in Marja, we had Marines in direct- fire contact.  We have now not had direct fire in Marja in the last eight days.  So I think we’re — while we still continue to find IEDs, I think we’re very pleased with how things have settled down…. I can tell you, though, that I went to a school this morning in Marja.  There hadn’t been schools open in Marja in many years, so the fact that we now had 107 kids at the class I attended in — near city center, was pretty significant.

As for the Afghan army’s performance, he said they are “grading out here pretty well,” even if they are hardly “in the lead” as some overeager spinners in Kabul have claimed:

Some units are veteran units that we brought in from outside the AO and have done exceptionally well.  We have an Afghan battalion that for all intensive purposes has operated independently since the very beginning of the op.

We have some newer Afghan units that we have to partner with very closely.  Really they’re just out of recruit training.  So I think there’s a wide variety of the Afghan army experience here in Marja, but I can tell you that I am exceptionally proud of their great service.  These guys run to the sound of gunfire….You know, Marines don’t search any of the homes.  In an area this large, when you decide you’ve got to search a home, the guys going in are going to be Afghan soldiers.  And they’ve done that very well; they’ve earned the trust and confidence of the Marines.

The best news of all, though, is that Hamid Karzai has now visited Marjah to meet with local residents — something that had not happened after previous combat operations. Granted, he was accompanied by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who no doubt had to drag Karzai onto the helicopter, kicking and screaming, but still, this is a vast improvement. It shows some progress in McChrystal’s campaign to turn Karzai into a wartime leader who takes responsibility for security operations, even those conducted primarily by NATO forces, such as the Marjah offensive was.

None of this is to deny the obvious — that major challenges remain. Those include figuring out whether the district governor of Marjah can be effective despite reports of his having a criminal record in Germany. But overall Marjah has not proved to be nearly as tough as Fallujah. There is more hard fighting to come, especially in the summer, but it appears as though NATO forces are finally gaining all-critical momentum on the ground.

Read Less

A Big Fish Caught in Afghanistan

No one should be fooled into thinking that the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s No. 2 commander, will end the insurgency in Afghanistan — any more than the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 ended al-Qaeda in Iraq’s reign of terror. In fact (a sobering thought!), violence in Iraq only intensified after Zarqawi’s death, which occurred at the hands of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, containing America’s top commando units. Nevertheless, Baradar’s capture, which was apparently carried out in Karachi by the CIA in cooperation with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, will deal a major blow to the Taliban, at least over the short term. His importance is summed up in this Newsweek article:

Baradar appoints and fires the Taliban’s commanders and governors; presides over its top military council and central ruling Shura in Quetta, the city in southwestern Pakistan where most of the group’s senior leaders are based; and issues the group’s most important policy statements in his own name. It is key that he controls the Taliban’s treasury — hundreds of millions of dollars in narcotics protection money, ransom payments, highway tolls, and “charitable donations,” largely from the Gulf. “He commands all military, political, religious, and financial power,” says Mullah Shah Wali Akhund, a guerrilla subcommander from Helmand province.

No doubt Baradar will be replaced but that will take a while and, in the meantime, Taliban operations will be disrupted just as the U.S. troop surge is getting underway and the offensive aimed at Marjah, a major Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province, is nearing the completion of its initial stages. The timing couldn’t be better. We can only hope that his interrogators make Baradar talk, which is probably more likely given that the ISI is not bound by the sort of restrictions on interrogation that the Obama administration has imposed on our own spooks. Nor, it should be added, will Baradar be read his Miranda rights — a sign of how differently we treat terrorists captured abroad compared with those who manage to make it to American soil.

Perhaps the most hopeful thing about Baradar’s capture is what it portends not about the future of Afghanistan but rather of Pakistan. Until now, Pakistani officials have been willing to go after the Pakistani Taliban, who pose a direct threat to their rule, while ignoring, or even subsiding, their Afghan brethren, who are seen as a tool of Pakistani foreign policy. Thus the Afghan Taliban have been allowed to operate with impunity in Quetta and other Pakistani cities. Let us hope that this operation signals a lasting change of attitude on the part of Islamabad. If it does, that will make the threat in Afghanistan much more manageable while also increasing the long-term prospects of defeating the Islamist insurgency in Pakistan.

No one should be fooled into thinking that the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s No. 2 commander, will end the insurgency in Afghanistan — any more than the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 ended al-Qaeda in Iraq’s reign of terror. In fact (a sobering thought!), violence in Iraq only intensified after Zarqawi’s death, which occurred at the hands of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, containing America’s top commando units. Nevertheless, Baradar’s capture, which was apparently carried out in Karachi by the CIA in cooperation with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, will deal a major blow to the Taliban, at least over the short term. His importance is summed up in this Newsweek article:

Baradar appoints and fires the Taliban’s commanders and governors; presides over its top military council and central ruling Shura in Quetta, the city in southwestern Pakistan where most of the group’s senior leaders are based; and issues the group’s most important policy statements in his own name. It is key that he controls the Taliban’s treasury — hundreds of millions of dollars in narcotics protection money, ransom payments, highway tolls, and “charitable donations,” largely from the Gulf. “He commands all military, political, religious, and financial power,” says Mullah Shah Wali Akhund, a guerrilla subcommander from Helmand province.

No doubt Baradar will be replaced but that will take a while and, in the meantime, Taliban operations will be disrupted just as the U.S. troop surge is getting underway and the offensive aimed at Marjah, a major Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province, is nearing the completion of its initial stages. The timing couldn’t be better. We can only hope that his interrogators make Baradar talk, which is probably more likely given that the ISI is not bound by the sort of restrictions on interrogation that the Obama administration has imposed on our own spooks. Nor, it should be added, will Baradar be read his Miranda rights — a sign of how differently we treat terrorists captured abroad compared with those who manage to make it to American soil.

Perhaps the most hopeful thing about Baradar’s capture is what it portends not about the future of Afghanistan but rather of Pakistan. Until now, Pakistani officials have been willing to go after the Pakistani Taliban, who pose a direct threat to their rule, while ignoring, or even subsiding, their Afghan brethren, who are seen as a tool of Pakistani foreign policy. Thus the Afghan Taliban have been allowed to operate with impunity in Quetta and other Pakistani cities. Let us hope that this operation signals a lasting change of attitude on the part of Islamabad. If it does, that will make the threat in Afghanistan much more manageable while also increasing the long-term prospects of defeating the Islamist insurgency in Pakistan.

Read Less

Shedding Light on Iran

As everybody’s favorite Holocaust denier, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, arrives in New York, two recent articles about Iranian activities deserve more attention than they’ve been getting.

This article reports on a convoy captured by NATO forces on September 6 in the western Afghan province of Farah, which borders Iran. The convoy was full of bombs of the kind that Iran has also been supplying to insurgents in Iraq. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. As the Washington Post account notes: “International forces captured two smaller shipments of sophisticated roadside bombs believed to be from Iran in April and May in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, a stronghold of the Taliban insurgency and one of the most violent areas in the country.”

Read More

As everybody’s favorite Holocaust denier, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, arrives in New York, two recent articles about Iranian activities deserve more attention than they’ve been getting.

This article reports on a convoy captured by NATO forces on September 6 in the western Afghan province of Farah, which borders Iran. The convoy was full of bombs of the kind that Iran has also been supplying to insurgents in Iraq. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. As the Washington Post account notes: “International forces captured two smaller shipments of sophisticated roadside bombs believed to be from Iran in April and May in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, a stronghold of the Taliban insurgency and one of the most violent areas in the country.”

Then there’s this more recent article, which quotes an American military spokesman in Baghdad, Admiral Mark Fox, saying that U.S. troops are finding that Iran is smuggling into Iraq not only explosively formed projectiles (the potent land mines that can punch a hole in any armor in the U.S. arsenal), but also the advanced RPG-29 (much more potent than the RPG-7, or rocket propelled grenade, which is already available to the insurgents), 240 mm. rockets (which have been landing on the Green Zone), and, most ominously of all, man-portable surface-to-air missiles such as the infrared-guided Misagh 1.

The Misagh 1 is said by the CIA to be modeled on the Chinese-made QW-1, which was unveiled in 1994, and which was “claimed to surpass the US Stinger in maximum effective range, target seeker tracking capability, warhead power and other indicators.”

Thus the Iranian action in supplying these weapons to Iraqi insurgents is reminiscent of what the U.S. did in the 1980′s when the Reagan administration decided to escalate our proxy war with the Soviet Union by supplying Stinger missiles to the mujahideen guerrillas in Afghanistan. This was widely seen as a turning point in the conflict, since, to some extent, it negated the Russian advantage in airpower.

Put together, these reports suggest that Iran is now escalating its war against the U.S. and our democratic allies. And the Bush administration approach—of combining loud threats with economic sanctions—isn’t doing much to dissuade the Iranians from their warlike course. But perhaps Columbia University’s students and faculty can convince Ahmadinejad of the error of his ways when he shows up to speak at their campus.

Read Less