Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Can NATO make peace in Afghanistan?

The call by the Manley Report on the Future Role of Canada in Afghanistan for NATO to provide 1000 more troops in aid of Canadian Forces in the south, and Peter MacKay's follow-up in Vilnius, Lithuania made headlines around the world.

Lieutenant General Dan McNeill, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that same week (Stout and Shanker NYT Feb 6 08) that the military mission in Afghanistan is “under-resourced.”

The surprise came when he added that a counterinsurgency campaign, in line with official US military doctrine, would require more than 400,000 NATO and Afghan troops. NATO troops currently total about 40,000. The Afghan national army has roughly another 60,000.

McNeill is the same General who got American commanders talking last August about "hot pursuit of al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants into Pakistani territory." Since then, Barak Obama (Aug 1 07) and Stephane Dion (Jan 16 08) have both said that under the right circumstances they would support sending coalition troops into Pakistan.

I don't know how McNeill arrived at his figure for the number of troops required, but it was the same number that I calculatged a year ago using the Rand Corporation's rule of thumb that the size of a stabilization force must be about 3% of the size of the population to be stabilized. That would make the size of the army required to stabilize Pakistan about 2.5 million. Stabilizing Iran would require another 2 million.

It seems to me that there should be a debate about whether the mission in Afghanistan is “too little, too late” or was “the wrong stuff” from the beginning.

For example, William S Lind argues that the counterinsurgency should really be undertaken by police forces doing something like community policing, which has nearly disappeared from our own streets in Canada. That is one version of the “wrong stuff” position. Lind's version is more of a political or diplomatic option with police support.

“Too little, too late” is a position described by Col Chet Richards, USAF (ret), in his monograph, Neither Shall The Sword. He presents the position that Fourth Generation Warfare (sort of like counterinsurgency - hearts and minds, etc) must follow “on the shadow” of the the maneuver warfare operation (Third Generation War, military option, initial attack.)

That opportunity was blown during the period following the rout of the Taliban (and bin Laden’s escape) in November 2001 and the summer of 2006 when it became clear that the Taliban was “back.” That’s the too late part. That shadow had long past; now we are living under another one. General McNeill adds too little to too late.

Musharraf made it clear in 06 when he visited Canada that there were too few troops, that the Soviets had lost with nearly three times as many including a large contingent of neighboring Islamic troops, and that it was time to step up the diplomacy. He and the British made some deals with village leaders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The US and NATO chose to violate the terms of those agreements, paving the way for the current instability in Pakistan and some of the worst fighting the British have encountered since WWII (according to a British General in charge of operations in Helemand).

It has been argued that with an effective ceasefire between the Pakistan government and Taliban forces in Waziristan as was negotiated last week, Pakistan once again became a safe haven for these forces to intensify their operations in Afghanistan.

Actually, the ceasefire works for both sides. Both want breathing space. Mehsud, the Taliban commander with whom the ceasefire was negotiated, probably does want to regroup for a spring offensive. On the government side, their troops were reported to be demoralized by winter weather and rougher terrain than they are used to. Also, the government was hoping to have elections on the 18th. Those have now taken place with less violence than was anticipated.

On the plus side, the ceasefire means that the two sides are talking. According to Asia Times Online, tribal elders persuaded Mehsud to withdraw rather than suffer aerial attacks. Several Taliban commanders brokered the deal. So the next time Peter Mackay throws up his hands and says, “Who shall we talk to,” mention the Taliban go-betweens: Sirajuddin Haqqani and Maulvi Bakhta. If he can’t get their contact information, he should resign.

Between here and a lasting settlement, only one thing is certain–there will be talks with the enemy. Meanwhile, there may be a lot of deaths or very few. We (Canada) may spend vastly more than we are spending now–or not much. A long time may pass or not. And the talks themselves may take a long time or not.

The coalition holds many decisive cards. The main card that we do not hold is the one that would give us the Absolute Faerie Tale Victory with liberal democracy and human rights as good as white people get in Canada.

The ceasefires of 2006 failed for several different reasons. On the Pakistani side of the border, there were partial ceasefires that began in April followed by the Waziristan ceasefire of September 2006. They finally collapsed on October 30 after an attack on a madrassa that killed 80 or so students in Bajaur Agency (FATA). The government of Pakistan took responsibility for the strike, but locals blamed it on the US. The ceasefire wasn’t in Bajaur, but the air strike carried a potent message. See

In Musa Qala, Helemand province, tribal elders promised the British they would keep the Taliban out if the British would leave. The deal, which lasted from October 06 to February 07, ended when NATO forces killed Mullah Ibrahim in an airstrike. Shortly after, his brother, the Taliban leader in the Musa Qala district led his men back into the town.

There is always an ambiguity about the making and breaking of ceasefires that each side uses to serve its own purposes–both militarily and in their propaganda.

Back in November, a British commander publicly expressed understandable frustration with the lack of a coherent coalition strategy at this late date. It is conceivable that the mish mosh of commands and expectations will simply prove incapable of delivering and maintaining the conditions for a peace.

On the Pakistan side of the border, casualty levels have been reported to average about 50 a day on the government side.

I don’t normally compare this conflict to Vietnam. But in that war, the US precipitated one of the worst genocides in the modern era by deluding itself about its role in local politics once it had decided to expand the war into Cambodia and Laos. What could such incompetent management of diplomatic resources accomplish in Pakistan?

If Musharraf is right, the military achievements are now several years past their best-before date. It’s all over but the bleeding. When we reckon we’ve bled enough, then we’ll talk.

An interesting detail jumps out at me as I go back over my notes. The border, which is so important to this whole business, has never been recognized by the Afghan government, and the Pashtuns (Pathans) from which most Taliban come have their tribal lands in Pakistan, Afghanistan right across to Iran. It is, if anything, even more meaningless to them than to the Afghan government.

Another Afghanistan item worthy of note is the report from the Integrated Research and Information Network of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"Schools built and/or reconstructed by international forces are more vulnerable to attack by Taliban insurgents and other radical elements than those built by civilians.

Mat Waldman, policy and advocacy adviser for Oxfam International in Kabul, told IRIN 'Oxfam is aware of research which suggests that in some areas schools built by international military forces are twice as likely to be targeted by militants as those built by civilian agencies.'

According to the Afghanistan Ministry of Education (MoE), "At least 230 students and teachers have been killed and about 250 schools attacked by militants in the past three years. Owing to these attacks, over 400 schools remain closed, mostly in volatile southern provinces, denying education to thousands of students. Almost 70 percent of school-age children are not attending schools because of insecurity in Helmand, Zabul and Uruzgan provinces, Haneef Atmar, the Afghan minister of education, told a meeting in Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand, on 9 December."

It should also be mentioned that attacks on schools were a frequent tactic used by the CIA-supported mujahedin during the Soviet occupation.

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