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American officials want to sell you Afghan progress

(U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Mark Ray, Flickr)

(U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Mark Ray, Flickr)

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots

It seems to be almost a historical inevitably: American military leaders and government officials cannot help themselves when it comes to optimistic statements about “progress” in a war zone. We saw it in Vietnam and in Iraq; and we’re witness to it time and again concerning Afghanistan.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General John Allen are currently tasked with selling progress in a shitty situation. The Independent:

“There is pretty clear evidence that the surge has accomplished a great deal,” Gen Allen told The Independent during a visit to Uruzgan province.

“It has not been just a surge of military, but a surge of capacity building. The Afghan security forces have made tremendous progress and they are moving into the lead very effectively. They are having tremendous success in the battlefield and this will continue.”

Gen Allen held that many in the insurgent ranks are seeking peace.

“They see their leaders safe in Pakistan while they are doing the fighting. We have seen how the process of reintegration is progressing,” he said. “This time last year we had 600 to 700 going home, now this is more than 4,000.”

Gen. Allen’s rosy comments seem to directly contradict other official reports. Back in February a classified US military report leaked to the press found that Afghan Taliban fighters are rather optimistic about their prospects, seeing victory as an inevitability once NATO forces withdraw. Additionally, divisions within the Taliban may not necessarily affect the overall insurgency, given the peculiarities of the AfPak region. According to The New York Times:

Secure across the border, and tightly controlled by Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies, the top Taliban leadership remains uncompromising. At the urging of their protectors in Pakistan, Taliban members say, they continue to push midlevel Taliban commanders back across the border to carry on the insurgency, which extends Pakistan’s influence in southern Afghanistan.

The midlevel commanders have little choice but to comply, as they also depend on sanctuaries in Pakistan, where they maintain their families, say residents in Kandahar who know the Taliban well. The Taliban commander said in his interview that the field commanders would obey their orders to resume the fight, however reluctant they might be.

In a meeting across the border in Pakistan this month, Taliban leaders ordered each commander to send four or five men back into their home areas to resume operations by planting bombs, he said. “While commanders are worried for their lives, they have to go, or at least send some people,” he said.

Internal cleavages don’t necessarily mean the end of violence. In fact, a divided insurgency often produces the conditions for the escalation of violence, as competitors within guerrilla armies use violence to attract supporters and undercut leaders. Centralized guerilla movements with secure executives are better able to control violence. This may be occurring as the “neo-Taliban” – younger, more radical militants – rise within the ranks replacing slain commanders, as the Times article relates.

We should also treat this “neo-Taliban” thesis – which has been bandied about since the middle of the last decade – with some degree of skepticism as well. The internal circumstances of the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and Hizb-i-Islami are likely far more complex than the simplistic depictions created by war boosters and opponents alike for public consumption.

Gen. Allen’s comments on the success of the reintegration program are also highly problematic. Past reports have indicated that the much-vaunted program has produced uneven results and have been exploited by corrupt officials and warlords. According to theTelegraph:

New figures have now shown that over the last 18 months the “reintegration” scheme which Britain has funded with £7 million has attracted only 19 militants in Helmand province, where British troops are fighting.

And in at least one Afghan province, the insurgents pledging to change their ways and uphold the Afghan constitution were not what they seemed, officials have disclosed.

Some 200 insurgents in the northern province of Sar-e Pol have recently been struck off the programme, officials told The Sunday Telegraph, because checks subsequently found they were not genuine fighters but instead imposters seeking cash handouts.

The news will not surprise the scheme’s sceptics who allege that Western tax-payers are being duped by criminals, the unemployed and corrupt local officials while the real fighters stay in the conflict, or only join the government temporarily.

Around 3,000 men have joined nationwide in the past 18 months, but figures show the take-up in the southern and eastern strongholds of Taliban support, including in Helmand were Britain has been fighting for six years, has been negligible compared to that in the relatively peaceful north.

Though the program may be worthwhile in theory – Taliban soldiers must be offered an alternative to fighting if peace is to be achieved – in practice it mainly provides Western officials with convenient narrative of a breakthrough. The could produce a feedback cycle wherein officials, now believing their own bullshit, propagate ineffective measures on a broader scale until finally realizing that there’s been no actual progress and we’re back to square one. And still at war.

The general rosy picture painted by Allen and Crocker is further contradicted by a Defense Department report, which takes into account not simply military metrics, but the social and political factors that will determine the possibilities for a peace settlement in Afghanistan:

“The insurgency remains a resilient and determined enemy and will likely attempt to regain lost ground and influence this spring and summer,” the department wrote in a semi-annual report sent to Congress yesterday and planned for release in Washington today. “Additionally, the Afghan government continues to face widespread corruption that limits its effectiveness and legitimacy”

The report cited “pervasive mistrust” as hindering U.S.- Pakistan relations and said that the Pakistan-based Haqqani network threatens a “stable political solution” in Afghanistan.

The report, covering the six months ended March 31, recounted “significant shocks” to relations between the NATO- led coalition and the Afghan government. They included video of U.S. Marines urinating on Taliban fighters’ corpses, news that American troops inadvertently burned copies of the Koran, attacks by Afghan security personnel on coalition forces and the March killing of 17 Afghan civilians allegedly committed by a U.S. soldier.

In yet another example of war-spin, it seems that the American military is underreporting “green-on-blue” violence in Afghanistan: the military only reports incidents when NATO soldiers are killed by their purported Afghan allies. If NATO troops are merely wounded, if attacks fail to cause injuries, or if plots by Afghan soldiers and police are uncovered prior to their execution, the information is withheld from the public.

UPDATE: Michael Cohen makes two important points related to this post. First, he argues that the American focus on killing Taliban may only be serving to radicalize insurgents. Second, and in contrast to Gen. Allen’s argument, Cohen points out that it is the Taliban leadership, and not the rank-and-file, that seems to be pushing for peace.

The “moderate base” is a common fallacy of research on insurgent movements which sees leaders as inherently more radical than the rank-and-file. But this “radicalism” usually applies only to ideology, as leaders tend to be more well-versed and have the time to ponder matters of political theory. However, leaders are often more “moderate” than followers when it comes to violent. Often, the rank-and-file push for action, especially when the leadership argues for nonviolent politics in pursuit of strategic goals.

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Philippe Duhart

Philippe Duhart