Afghanistan Study Group News Recap November 4, 2010

Edward Kenney
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

More Evidence that the War is Going Badly

Two stories this week exemplify some of the major obstacles the U.S. faces against the growing insurgency.  The New York Times on Monday ran a story on “reverse” reintegration:  A police force in Khogeyani abruptly switched sides to the Taliban:

“KABUL, Afghanistan — for months, American and Afghan officials have been promoting a plan to persuade masses of rank-and-file Taliban fighters to change sides and join the government. The tactic, known as “reintegration,” is one of the big hopes for turning the tide in the war.  But the Taliban, it appears, have reintegration plans of their own. On Monday morning, they claimed to have put them into effect.

In Khogeyani, a volatile area southwest of the capital, the entire police force on duty Monday morning appears to have defected to the Taliban side. A spokesman for the Taliban said the movement’s fighters made contact with the Khogeyani’s police force, cut a deal, and then sacked and burned the station. As many as 19 officers vanished, as did their guns, trucks, uniforms and food.”

Last post, I argued that two metrics that the Pentagon uses, territory controlled by ISAF and number of insurgents killed, may not give a very accurate picture of the state of the war since fallen insurgents are easily replaced and territory ceded temporarily to the coalition will not pressure the Taliban so long as there are sanctuaries in Pakistan.  One metric which should be used to judge success or failure of the strategy is the level of local cooperation with coalition forces.  If the police force in Khgeyani is any indication, this critical metric is not looking so good.

A major part of winning the hearts and minds in Afghanistan—ensuring that local groups do not support or defect to the Taliban—is establishing good governance.  For this reason, today’s report in the Washington Post is very disheartening.  Karen DeYoung and Joshua Partlow call the Afghan governance of Kandahar “ineffectual” and “incapable of functioning”.  Most of the governance in Kandahar has been run by the U.S. and coalition forces.  This situation poses two problems.  Firstly, as U.S. forces begin to pull out, there could be a significant erosion of public services; secondly the visible role of the United States in providing basic governance may well support the myth that the U.S. wants to permanently govern the country.  Both of these factors will likely lead to increased strength for the insurgency.

These two stories demonstrate two fatal flaws in the counter insurgency strategy:  no local support and no local governance.

What do the Midterms Mean for Afghanistan?

The effect of Tuesday’s Democratic drubbing on the Afghanistan War and U.S. foreign policy remains hard to predict.  As many people have pointed out, the economy and not the war in Afghanistan was the major issue of this mid-term election.   The new Republican members have no obvious unified position on Afghanistan.  Some, such as Rand Paul may even find themselves allying with the antiwar progressives.

Republicans generally have been more willing to support President Obama’s expansion of war.  During the war appropriations fight earlier this year, only 12 republicans opposed the bill compared to 102 democrats.  Although some of the more strident anti-war democrats were voted out of office, such as Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, many of the democratic congressmen skeptical about the war will return to congress.  Out of the seventeen progressive democratic congressmen that signed a strong antiwar letter during the appropriations process one, Alan Grayson, lost their election.

The predominant evidence at this point suggests that the election will have a minor impact on Afghanistan and foreign policy.  Stephen Walt argues that congress has very little control over U.S. foreign policy.  Neither party has shown the stomach to withhold defense spending, the one area where congress can influence foreign policy.  Yes, left wing democrats and the occasional libertarian will continue to oppose the war, blue dogs—now fewer in number—and republicans—now greater in number—will continue to support the war.  But the main driver of policy will be results on the ground and public opinion.  If the war continues to go badly and if U.S. support continues to erode, two increasingly likely outcomes; positions among the moderate members of congress may well shift.  By then, these midterm elections will have faded in memory.

Last Weeks’s Terror Plot and Afghanistan

There have been several excellent posts from members of the Afghanistan Study Group on last week’s terror plot.

Paul Pillar discusses the how thwarted terrorist attacks are “scored” in Washington and asks why the Christmas Day Bomber was portrayed as a great failure, whereas the package bombers a great success for the Obama administration.   In a previous post on the same subject Pillar suggests that the U.S.’s focus on Al Qaeda members in the Af-Pak region is misguided.  The next attack against the U.S. is as likely to be homegrown individuals with unknown ties to al Qaeda using basic technology (the Ted Kaczinski Model), as it is to be an elaborate plot orchestrated from Waziristan a la 9-11.

Stephen Walt largely agrees with Pillar’s analysis.  He argues that the attempted terrorist attack is yet another piece of evidence against the notion that the war in Afghanistan is an effective way to fight al Qaeda.  He concludes that solid police work and intelligence gathering, not war, is perhaps the best defense against global terrorism.

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