1. Time for a New Strategy in Afghanistan

    Published: May 11th, 2012

    Pentagon officials and pundits enjoy telling us that if we stay the course we can still win the war in Afghanistan. This argument directly contradicts the facts. Ten years and over $500 billion later, the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan isn’t working. This strategy doesn’t require more patience – or more blood and treasure. It needs to be changed.

    However, Defense Department officials are sticking to the company line. Every year DOD reports to Congress on progress in Afghanistan. This year’s report, released last week, was largely overlooked, partly because of media flurry surrounding the US-Afghan Strategic Agreement, and partly because there’s really no news here – the new report sounds very similar to previous reports.

    “We continue to build on that progress [made since last year’s report]. Challenges remain.” said Assistant Secretary of Defense Captain John Kirby. In other words, DOD says that the strategy is working – if we keep funding the war, we just might win.

    Defense officials are backed up by analysts who argue that “with patience on all sides, we can still reach a tolerable outcome.” Of course, supporters of extending the war rarely mention that their policy recommendations will cost billions of dollars and the lives of U.S. soldiers.

    The current strategy isn’t just expensive; it’s also ineffective. IED attacks set a record high last year. Millions of dollars are being wasted on unsustainable reconstruction projects. Afghan soldiers are turning on NATO counterparts. Most disturbingly, the real news about the Afghanistan war doesn’t make it back to the American public.

    Despite efforts to hide the fact that there’s been no real progress, Americans know a failed strategy when they see one. The latest public opinion poll shows that two-thirds of respondents disapprove of the US-Afghan Strategic Agreement, which commits billions of aid dollars to Afghanistan and allows for a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan for the next ten years.

    Ten years is long enough. Rather than wasting another $500 billion on an unnecessary war, we should be investing in programs that really matter.

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  2. Time to Cut the Cord: It’s Time Afghanistan National Security Forces Were in Charge of Afghan Security

    Published: September 19th, 2011

    Mary Kaszynski
    Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

    The jury’s still out on whether the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) are completely ready to take on responsibility for enforcing security in Afghanistan. Regardless of the exact extent of their capabilities, however, it’s time to stop relying on US troops and let the local forces take on the role they were trained for.

    Fortunately, we have some good news recently on ANSF’s ability to do just that. They had a large role in ending the Taliban attacks on the US Embassy and NATO command center in Kabul, according to US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker. “Since Kabul is in the hands of Afghan security it’s a real credit to the Afghan National Security Forces,”  Crocker said. “They are the ones that took down the building and took down those attackers.”

    Recruitment measures also indicate success in developing ANSF, according to the Department of Defense. The force has grown steadily, meeting its recruiting targets in 2010, and growing from 266,000 to the current level of 305,000, an increase of 15%, in less than one year. According to Lieutenant General William Caldwell, the commander of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, ANSF is on track to meet the new goal of 352,000 by the end of next year.

    This is certainly encouraging, but it’s clear that the ANSF still has a long way to go. First and foremost there is the fundamental question of whether the ANSF can do what it’s supposed to: provide security. Beyond that, are accusations of brutality and abuse, documented in a recent report by the Human Rights Council. Finally, there’s the question of whether DOD’s facts and figures really mean what DOD says they mean. Critics argue that attrition rate is a better measure of success than recruitment rates,  and by this measure, ANSF doesn’t do so well. According to DOD’s own estimates, which are likely low, the attrition rate for the Afghan National Army is 25%, and 20% for the Police.

    The bottom line here is that there’s no clear-cut answer when it comes to evaluating ANSF. With so many unknowns, perhaps the best we can say is that their “performance..has been uneven.

    Acknowledging that whatever progress that has been made in developing a capable local security force is certainly fragile, we are left with two options. The first is to maintain or even increase our presence in Afghanistan, relying on US troops to make up for the unreliability of the Afghan forces. This way promises low risk to US goals, but very high costs, in terms of time as well as money.

    The “we’ll leave when the job is done” policy is not without advocates, from commanders in the field to policymakers and opinion leaders. General John R. Allen, commander of coalition and U.S. forces in Afghanistan articulated this school of thought in an interview with CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux. Asked why we’re still in Afghanistan, ten years after 9/11, Gen. Allen replied,

    “We’re here because Afghanistan must be left as a sovereign nation, a member of the international community, governed by a democratic government that ultimately dispenses human rights, dispenses the rule of law and is not a platform for foreign terrorism.”

    It’s not hard to see where this is leading. If the nation Gen. Allen described is our vision for Afghanistan, then, as TIME’s Mark Benjamin put it, “Guess we’ll be there a while.”

    The problem, of course, is that this path is simply not sustainable, even in the short term. That brings us to the other option, one we’ve recommended before: continue to invest in the Afghan National Security Forces, but bring US troops home.

    This option is not only more sensible, it also the more fiscally responsible. ANSF costs are a small fraction of the costs to support US troops in the field. In FY 2011, Congress appropriated $157.8 billion for overseas contingency operations totaled. Of that, $11.6 billion, or 7.4%, went to training and equipping the ANSF.

    Considering the crucial role ANSF plays in maintaining stability in Afghanistan, the relatively low cost of investing in ANSF, and current fiscal constraints, it might make sense to continue investing in ANSF while cutting other war costs.

    Rather than cutting war costs and maintaining funds for ANSF, policymakers seem to be doing the opposite. The White House recently announced plans to significantly reduce its request for ANSF funds from $12.8 billion in FY 2012 to below $6 billion in FY 2014. Even more indicative of the inclination/preference/proclivity to lean on US troops rather than transition to the ANSF is the Senate appropriations bill for FY 2012, which cuts $1.6 billion, almost 13%, from the administration’s request, but fully funds the overseas contingency operations request at $ 117.8 billion.

    ANSF may need a lot of things to become the capable security force that Afghanistan needs. What it does not need is 100,000 American troops doing the work it was trained to do.

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  3. Notes from Afghanistan Part III: The War is Going Badly

    Published: September 6th, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    For months groups like the Afghanistan Study Group, where I work, have argued that the claims of progress made repeatedly in the American media are not backed by facts and data. Casualty rates are increasing, and security incidents are on the upsurge. Defenders of the U.S. policy would claim violence and attacks are not a good measure of success or failure —an argument, which boiled down amounts to: insecurity is a bad measure of insecurity.

    But, whether or not, you believe that violent attacks are a good measure of insecurity, we can judge success or failure of the mission in Afghanistan based on DoD’s own metric—how much strategic territory is controlled by the insurgency. The Pentagon and White House claim that the insurgency has lost “freedom of movement” in the south, often (laughably in my opinion) citing increased IED and assassination attacks to support this claim. (No, this doesn’t make sense to me either).

    Now that I am in Kabul, the joke about freedom of movement is even clearer. Ex-pats in Kabul cannot leave their compounds without an escort for fear of kidnapping or terrorist attack. On a tangential note, one of the first lessons you learn here is never ask an Ex-Pat for directions in Kabul. They almost universally don’t know their way around the city at all, a result of the security requirements keeping them off the streets. Early on we asked directions to ISAF from the U.S. embassy and got a blank stare. (ISAF is across the street).

    One prominent “expert” in the U.S. claimed earlier this year that a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan would result in “fortress Kabul” with State Department officials unable to leave the embassy compound. My response: Have you been to Afghanistan lately? We already have fortress Kabul!

    Mobility in the provinces is even more stark. Consider Bamiyan—a stable province in central Afghanistan dominated by ethnic Hazara (and therefore historically fiercely anti-Taliban); also the province which once held the magnificent Bamiyan Buddhas. Aid workers tell me that five years ago there were two main routes from Kabul west to this province. One went through Wardak Province south-west of Kabul before bending North. This route has been off-limits to Westerners for at least two years due to Taliban resurgence.

    Wardak has gotten so bad, according to one Afghan reporter we talked to, the government officials in this province are afraid to move outside of Provincial Reconstruction Team safe-zones. When officials do travel, they are forced to hide any incriminating documents that would tie them to their work for the government. The Taliban have been known to seize cell phones and call a random number to see if the target is indeed a government official, in which case the victim is kidnapped or killed. Wardak Province, incidentally, was also the site of the downed Chinook helicopter earlier this month, which killed 30 Americans

    The second route to Bamiyan from Kabul goes north to the capital of Parwan Province (also the site of a recent Taliban attack), before bending west up the Ghorband Valley. In the Ghorband, insecurity has deteriorated markedly in the last couple months, highlighted by the assassination of the Chief of Bamiyan Provincial Council earlier this summer.

    According to a representative from development NGO Aga Khan, the insecurity in Ghorband is partly due to criminal gangs feeding off of the money which has poured into the valley for road construction. Criminal gangs may indeed be a factor, but Martine van Bijlert from the Afghan Analysts Network sees a more sinister explanation. The Taliban, she says, are attempting to encircle Kabul. Indeed the pattern of attacks seems to fit this explanation with broad areas North West South West and South East of Kabul now off-limits to Westerners and even most Afghans. Whatever the explanation, the result has been that overland movement for Westerners and even many Afghans to Bamiyan has been sharply curtailed in the last couple of years.

    Bottom line: If “freedom of movement” is a good metric to determine success of the counter insurgency, we are the ones who are losing.

    Things aren’t going well, granted, but do the Taliban have a realistic shot at taking a major Afghan city? Could they come back to power? Before coming to Afghanistan, I would have dismissed this possibility. Today, I am less certain. If the U.S. pulls out too quickly, more than one person has told me, the Taliban could retake Kabul. Given how emboldened the insurgency appears, this seems possible if still unlikely. Moving forward, the fear of such a massive military setback will guide U.S. policy making and will likely lengthen the timeline for drawdown. This need not be such a terrible outcome, if crucially bold steps are taken to address the governance and international components of the conflict. More on that later.

    Edward Kenney
    Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

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  4. U.S. Adventures in Afghanistan and Pakistan: “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time”

    Published: July 14th, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    Sometimes what seems like good policy at first can turn out to be a bad idea with the benefit of hindsight.  The support for Mujahidin leaders such as Hekmatyar and Haqqani seemed like a great idea in the 1980s when they were fighting the Soviets.  Now that these figures make up key parts of the Afghan insurgency…not so much.

    Or to take another example: the death of Osama bin Laden.  There is no question that this raid was worth it.  It eliminated the founder and leader of al Qaeda and potentially dealt a crippling blow to the international terrorist group, but few could have predicted the extent or speed to which U.S.-Pakistani relations have deteriorated in the wake of the operation. Mere days after the bin Laden raid, Pakistan had leaked the name of the CIA station chief and had arrested the Pakistani citizens who assisted the CIA in scouting the Abbottabad compound. Now even the doctor who helped collect bin Laden’s DNA samples has been arrested.

    The U.S. had hoped that the embarrassment of bin Laden hiding out in the same vicinity as a major military academy would prod Pakistan into taking greater action against militant strongholds in the FATA region.  Well…it hasn’t quite turned out that way.  A week after a “joke” (Pulitzer worthy?) article published in the satirical Onion quoted ISI Chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha telling insurgents the exact place and time for a joint U.S. operation, a Karen DeYoung report, (in the no-joke Washington Post), strongly suggested that Islamic militants had been tipped off about a IED factory raid by elements in the Pakistani military.

    Meanwhile Pakistani army chief Ashfak Parvez Kayani has had to fend off an insurgency from within his own ranks due to his “cozy relationship with the United States.”  Kayani is easily the most pro-American soldier in the Pakistani high command and the only one with training in the United States.

    So far the Pakistanis have resisted U.S. demands that it move into North Waziristan; but this doesn’t mean Pakistan is laying low.  In an ironic twist, Islamic militants are now using Eastern Afghanistan (particularly Kunar and Nangarhar) to stage attacks against Pakistan, and the Pakistani military has retaliated with over 700 rockets into Afghanistan.  The U.S. had no problem pushing Pakistan to go after militants in the FATA, but as soon as the army launched an attack into Afghan territory, the U.S. had to deal with the political repercussions.  Guess what?  Afghan civilians really don’t like the Pakistanis shooting at them, particularly when civilians are accidentally killed.   Is there a lesson here? Hint: The Pakistanis may have similar feelings about some of our missile strikes in Pakistan.

    Now the U.S. is going to try a different approach; we are going to cut off $800 million in military aid to Pakistan [1].  The Pakistani response has been both quick and predictable.  A hefty chunk of these funds ($300 million or so) went to forces on the Af-Pak border conducting counterterrorism operations.  The Pakistani Defense Minister has now threatened to remove these critical troops.  Beyond these foreseeable consequences, the future of Pakistani-U.S. relations remains very much uncertain and their implications for vital U.S. national interests remain in doubt.

    Unforeseen consequences are also playing a role in the other big news item of the day: the death of Ahmad Wali Karzai (AWK), the controversial provincial council chief and half brother to President Hamid Karzai.  AWK was called the “most powerful in Kandahar” and likely candidate to replace Tooryalai Wesa the current governor. Ahmad Wali was also considered one of the largest drug runners in Afghanistan and allegedly helped stuff the ballot boxes in the tumultuous 2009 presidential elections.  Indeed, he epitomized everything that’s wrong with Afghan governance-corruption, criminality and political exclusion.  Will things improve now that he has been eliminated?   As controversial a figure as AWK was, he was also strong enough to at least attempt to rule the province.  It’s not as if representative democracy will magically appear in Kandahar with his passing.  More likely a smaller weaker AWK type will replace him, and the violence will continue.  However, the true consequences of Ahmad Wali Karzai’s death will not be known for some time to come.

    [1] The final straw apparently was Pakistan’s decision to expel 100 trainers and other military personnel last week.

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  5. Afghan Financial Death Match: IMF versus Central Bank

    Published: June 30th, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    Last Fall I attended a conference by the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce with keynote speaker Dr Abdul Qadeer Fitrat, the Afghan Central Bank Governor.  The purpose of the conference was to reinvigorate foreign investment in Afghanistan in the wake of serious scandal involving Kabul Bank, one of largest Afghan financial institutions.

    Few at the conference admitted what was already widely recognized at the time: promoting business development and investment in a country with spiraling violence, inadequate property rights, and rampant corruption is a massive challenge.  Over six months have passed, but not much has changed.  These obstacles to growth are still obscured by the moneymaking war machine, which spurs the Afghan economy forward.  Afghan growth rates have totaled 8.2% in 2010 and 20.9% in 2009, but these impressive numbers are likely the result of foreign aid and war spending representing up to 97% of the economy.  Crucially, other macroeconomic factors have been far less promising.  Unemployment is possibly as high as 35%, meanwhile inflation, thanks in part to a massive influx of foreign cash, was at 13.3% in 2009, one of the highest rates in the world.

    When I asked the Central Banker at the Afghan American Chamber of Commerce Conference about these key Macroeconomic indicators, he pointedly denied the numbers, which incidentally were compiled for the CIA World Factbook.  In Afghanistan, it seems, you can wish bad data away.

    You can’t always wish away a juicy scandal.

    Flash forward to these last few weeks and Afghanistan macro-stability seems even further in doubt, thanks to a highly public standoff with the International Monetary Fund and the Afghan Government.  The controversy involves, what else? Kabul Bank—the same bank which famously lost $850 million last October. As part of the fallout from this scandal, the IMF suspended its $120 million aid program through the Extended Credit Facility.  This is not a lot of money, but as Martine Van Bijlert from the Afghan Analysts Network noted last week, other development funds have followed suit, so the impact of this impasse may be greater than it appears on the surface.

    Van Bijlert explained that the main sticking point for the IMF is an audit of two Afghan banks, and the “recapitalization” of the Afghan Central Bank.  Last fall, the Central Bank was forced to take over the floundering Kabul Bank.  Because this financial transaction was marked as essentially a loss, the IMF required that the Afghan Government infuse the central bank with cash.  Thus far, the Karzai administration has refused to budge.

    This week, the standoff took another weird turn.  Dr Abdul Qadeer Fitrat, yes the same Fitrat from the Afghan American Chamber of Commerce Conference, suddenly quit his post over the weekend and has fled to Arlington, VA.  He has accused key members of the Karzai administration of corruption; now he himself is implicated in the Kabul bank heist from an indictment issued by the Attorney General.

    I have no idea how this is going to turn out.  Suffice to say, untangling these financial shenanigans may take years and will likely remain major obstacles to Afghan growth moving forward.

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  6. Center for a New American Security: New Paper—Same Old Ideas

    Published: June 2nd, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    Thinking long-term about South Asian security issues often requires choosing between conventional/uninspiring and unrealistic/contradictory policy recommendations.   Amazingly, the Center for a New American Security has a new paper entitled “Beyond Afghanistan:  A Regional Strategy for South and Central Asia” that manages to be both uninspiring/conventional and unrealistic/contradictory at the same time.

    The CNAS report spent the first twenty-five pages pointing out the obvious: In the future, the U.S. goals of combating terrorism and promoting stability will increasingly face fiscal and geopolitical constraints.  True but also readily apparent to anyone with the slightest knowledge of foreign policy.

    But the real problems are in CNAS’s “recommendations”.  First, they suggest that the U.S. needs to work out a strategic agreement with the Afghanistan government.  Why not?  The Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq allowed us to disengage from that quagmire relatively successfully.  But CNAS wants the U.S. to agree to an open-ended commitment, very different from the one Maliki negotiated in 2008.

    “Such an agreement must contain the broad outlines of continued U.S. defense, diplomatic and development commitments to Afghanistan…” There’s no mention of our limited interests in Afghanistan, or even an understanding that Afghanistan will have to govern itself someday.

    Furthermore, they base this recommendation on the assumption that “the U.S. has sent mixed messages about its long term commitment to the region”.   As Kandahar based researcher Felix Kuehn pointed out two weeks ago, if you asked almost any local in Afghanistan, the worry is not that we are about to cut and run, but rather that that we won’t leave when we say we will.  In other words CNAS has it completely backwards[i].

    CNAS then offers a series of contradictory and generally ill-thought out recommendations regarding Pakistan.  They suggest that the U.S. can pressure Pakistan into acting on U.S.’s interest by conditioning U.S. aid.

    “Continued covert Pakistani support for terrorist groups of any dispensation should be a U.S. “red line”, triggering suspension of military and intelligence funding.”

    The notion that the U.S. can pressure Pakistan to do our bidding with the threat of reduced military aid is utterly preposterous.  Did CNAS sleep through the 1990s?  To refresh the memory, U.S.  canceled most military and economic aid under the Pressler amendment starting in 1990 in order to dissuade Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions.  Not only did these sanctions fail at slowing Islamabad’s nuclear program—Pakistan detonated a nuclear weapon in 1998—this “sanction period” was marked by increased support for insurgent radicals, a war with India in the Kargil region of the Kashmir, the continued development of AQ Khan’s nuclear proliferation network, and of course the rise of the Taliban with ISI’s support in Afghanistan.  (See Dennis Kux for a good synopsis of this history).  Put simply, CNAS’s belief in the efficacy of economic coercion is at odds with our sixty-year history with Islamabad.

    The covert aspect of Pakistani support for Islamic radicals makes a reduction of military assistance even more difficult. Pakistan strives to maintain plausible deniability in its dealings with the Islamic radicals, and as the authors of the CNAS report like to point out, Pakistan is not a unitary actor, so reducing aid may serve to further isolate moderate members of the military whose interests are more aligned to our own.  All of these facts suggest that coercing Pakistan on the Islamic militancy front will be more difficult than our failed efforts in the 90s regarding Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions.

    Lastly, note that Pakistan has another major power backer in China, who could potentially step in if the U.S. actually followed through with our threat to cut back aid.  As Afghanistan Study Group member Anatol Lieven argued in a New York Times op-ed last week any long run solution to the power politics in South Asia has to include the Chinese.  CNAS barely mentions China in its recommendations, a glaring omission if the idea is to threaten to isolate the Pakistani military.

    In short this report is deeply problematic, and this post only scratches the surface:  For instance they recommend focusing on public diplomacy, which suggests that anti-Americanism in Pakistan is mainly a “messaging problem”, a dubious assertion if you ask me.  The challenges facing South and Central Asia are incredibly complex and CNAS deserves some credit for putting their ideas out there; however, in this case they should probably go back to the drawing board.

    [i] The only reason to maintain a residual force long-term in Afghanistan is to bolster the bargaining position of the Karzai government in the event that there is some sort of negotiation to end the war.

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  7. Afghanistan’s Road to Ruin: Paved with Good Intentions, Soldiers’ Lives, and Taxpayer Dollars

    Published: May 20th, 2011
    Author: Will Keola Thomas

    Will Keola Thomas – Afghanistan Study Group

    On May 1st, the New York Times published an article describing the construction of a 64-mile-long highway through two of the most volatile provinces in Afghanistan. The story, “Costly Afghanistan Road Project Is Marred by Unsavory Alliances,” had almost no chance to register in the national consciousness before it was lost in the news cycle wake of Osama bin Laden’s death the following day. But the tale it told, one of organized crime, political violence, corruption, and waste, all underwritten by the American taxpayer, reveals much more about the war in Afghanistan as it is fought today than anything that will be found in bin Laden’s diary.

    The Gardez-Khost Highway was presented as a counterinsurgency panacea. Construction of a paved road across the Paktia and Khost provinces of southeastern Afghanistan would facilitate the movement of U.S. forces in a mountainous region that had long been a key supply route for insurgents bringing weapons and fighters over the border from Pakistan. Planners believed the highway would strengthen the central government’s links with the border region and encourage commerce that would promote local buy-in, increase government legitimacy, and improve stability as markets flourished. All for the (low?) price of $69 million dollars.

    But things didn’t work out that way.

    First, the law of contracting entropy kicked in. Americans paid their taxes and financed the project. On behalf of those taxpayers, the U.S. Agency for International Development drew up the proposal and then gave the contract to a joint venture of the Louis Berger Group, a New Jersey consulting and construction services firm, and Black & Veatch a construction company based in Kansas.

    (Sidenote: In November, the Louis Berger Group was ordered to pay $69 million in fines for overbillling the federal government. This is one of the highest wartime contracting fraud penalties in history. Yet the Group’s grip on the federal teat remains firm. Louis Berger currently oversees $1.4 billion in reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan.)

    The Berger Group and Black and Veatch then hired Indian construction subcontractors and a South African private security firm who, in turn, hired a variety of Afghan subcontractors for security and construction services, who hired still more subcontractors…and so on, and so forth…until, according to a civilian interviewed by the NY Times who worked with the U.S. military on the project, “…we had a problem that with the final subcontractors, they didn’t have enough money to get the work done.”

    Four years later the highway still isn’t complete. The final bill for the project is expected to come in at $176 million with cost overruns of more than 100%. The NY Times reports that a section of the road finished six months ago is already falling apart.

    Unfortunately, the story gets worse.

    It has cost $43.5 million so far to provide security for the construction of the highway that was meant to bring stability to the region. Among those receiving funds for protecting the road project was one Mr. Arafat, a local strongman who was paid at least $1 million a  year for his security services. But, as the NY Times reports:

    “Some American officials and contractors involved in the project suspect that at least some of the money funneled through Mr. Arafat made its way to the Haqqani group, a particularly brutal offshoot of the Taliban.”

    And if you think that Khost and Paktia are the only provinces where this is happening there’s a bank in Kabul I’d like to sell you:

    “Critics say that payoffs to insurgent groups, either directly or indirectly, by contractors working on highways and other large projects in Afghanistan are routine. Some officials say they are widely accepted in the field  as a cost of doing business…As a result, contracting companies and the American officials who supervise them often look the other way.

    ‘Does it keep the peace?’ asked one United States military officer with experience in volatile eastern Afghanistan. ‘Definitely. If the bad guys have a stake in the project, attacks go way down.’”

    If the United States is putting soldiers in harm’s way to defeat the Taliban while at the same time filling the Taliban’s coffers with protection money it more than begs the question of what we are doing in “volatile eastern Afghanistan” in the first place.

    Especially when one considers the extraordinary price paid in blood and treasure to implement infrastructure projects in areas where, according to a former U.S.A.I.D. worker interviewed by the Times, “…the local population is as likely to sabotage a project as to protect it.”

    And particularly when one ponders the desperate need for infrastructure investment in the United States.

    Hundreds of miles of paved roads are being removed and returned to gravel in states where officials can’t find the money to maintain them. As the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune reports:

    “The paved roads that finally brought rural America in to the 20th century are starting to disappear across the Midwest in the 21st. Local officials, facing rising pavement prices, shrinking budgets and fewer residents, are making tough decisions to regress. In some places, they have even eliminated small stretches of gravel road altogether.”

    And then there’s the crumbling bridges and levees across the country whose decrepit state puts thousands of lives at risk. Increasingly, building highways at the point of a gun in Afghanistan means playing budget roulette at home.

    (Update: The BBC reports that the Taliban ambushed construction workers camped by the Gardez-Khost Highway on Wednesday night. At least 35 workers were killed making this the deadliest single attack in Afghanistan since February. According to the New York Times, “there have been 364 attacks on the Gardez-Khost Highway, including 108 roadside bombs, resulting in the deaths of 19 people, almost all of them local Afghan workers.”)

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  8. Jackson Diehl’s Afghanistan and the State of Journalism Today

    Published: April 26th, 2011

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    Jackson Diehl’s Op-Ed Sunday morning deserves a comprehensive critique, but for now let us focus on his opening statement:

    “As warmer weather brings back both the war and the debate over policy in Washington, the starting point could be summarized this way: Thanks to the U.S. military, the Taliban has been driven out of most of its southern strongholds since last summer.”

    It is absolutely astonishing that the media continues to trumpet this Defense Department sound bite.  The reality is that the security situation in Afghanistan has continued to deteriorate over the last 12 months.  This April is on pace to be the most violent in terms of coalition fatalities since the war began.  Civilian casualties—what many experts consider the most important metric for counter-insurgency—were highest in 2010, and increasingly Taliban are able to attack government and civilians with impunity.

    What’s going on here?  Partly, the pro-surge “Coinistas” have done a good job hoodwinking members of the media with selective data points.  A village in Helmand that used to be controlled the Taliban and is now controlled by international forces.  Naturally these are the places where the military takes members of the media who then extrapolate the security situation for Afghanistan from this one data point.  Basically, the equivalent would be to claim global warming is a myth by pointing to below average temperatures last winter in Duluth.  Does this make sense?  No.  Does it happen?  All the time.

    The second problem with coverage on Afghanistan has to do with journalistic bias.  By this, I don’t mean the media has a liberal or conservative bent.  The entire profession has a bias towards sexy sources (usually unnamed Military, Pakistani or Afghan officials) over working with tedious data points or laboriously analyzing publicly available documents.  This approach produces more exciting stories, but human sources have their own agenda and can’t be easily fact checked.  Data and analysis on the other hand doesn’t lie, and can be easily verifiable by independent sources.

    Taking this analysis a step deeper, take a look at the New York Times article that Diehl cites.  First, the article doesn’t say what Mr. Diehl claims it does; that the “Taliban has been driven out of most of its southern strongholds”.  The article contends that insurgents have been forced “underground” due to sustained casualties in the past year. The focus of the article is on body-counts not territory controlled.   In fact, if anything the news article suggests the opposite:  “[The Taliban] still control a number a remote districts  and in those areas the insurgents can still muster forces to storm government positions”. Very bad, Mr. Diehl!

    Second, notice how the “experts” reconcile the apparent security gains with increased violence:

    “Insurgents have already switched tactics to suicide attacks on soft targets – such as recent attacks on a bank, an army recruitment center and a construction company that all caused high casualties – because they are not capable of confronting American and NATO  forces in conventional battles, said Samina Ahmed, director of the International Crisis Group”

    So Counter-Insurgency, whose principal aim is to protect populations, is succeeding based on evidence that it has failed to protect civilians? To be fair to Samina Ahmed, this same argument was used in the White House Progress Report published two weeks ago:  “With more limited influence and freedom of movement[1], the Taliban increased the use of IED attacks and high profile attack such as suicide bombings”.  Maybe there is some logic here that I just don’t get, but at the very least it is incumbent on our press corps including opinion writers like Diehl to ask these seemingly obvious questions.  The failure of the press corps to do its basic job, in my opinion, says a lot about the sorry state of journalism today.

    [1] We clearly have not stopped the Taliban’s freedom of movement from even inside Kandahar prison.  Who are we kidding here?

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  9. Governing Challenges in Afghanistan

    Published: February 10th, 2011

    The Century Foundation produces some of the most progressive research on Afghanistan.  Recently, the Center for American Progress held a round table to discuss a Century Report with the authors Marika Theros and Mary Kaldor.  Their paper entitled Building Afghan Peace from the Ground Up describes three obstacles, which the international community must surmount in Afghanistan: chronic insecurity, lack of rule of law, and a failure to engage civil society.

    The Good:  Theros and Kaldor have an excellent explanation of governing challenges.  Their depiction of how average Afghans view the conflict is a helpful addition to other research on the topic:

    Many Afghans perceive the current insecurity less as a conflict between the government and international allies on the one side and Taliban and al Qaeda on the other, and more as a mutual enterprise in which various actors collude in predatory and criminal behavior.”

    They point out that this problem is exacerbated by the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) reliance of local strong men and networks of “power-holders” who lack legitimacy in communities and are part of an ingrained kleptocracy in many cases.  A similar conclusion was reached by Michael Hastings, in his latest profile of General Petreaus in Rolling Stone magazine and by a recent article for by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker.  The New Yorker article, in particular, depicted a government system best described as a pyramid scheme.  Karzai’s closest associates are at the top of the pyramid, collecting cash from individuals below them on the totem-pole such as the midlevel bureaucrats and bribes from the country’s major financial institutions.  At the bottom of the pyramid are the majority of the Afghan people, who are victimized by their government.  It is no wonder the national police force, a symbol of the state’s corruption, is almost as unpopular in Pashtun belt as the Taliban.

    The problems the Century Foundations identifies are real, and their willingness to make bold recommendations, including calling for the arrest of fifty of the most predatory political leaders in Afghanistan should be commended.

    The Bad

    Some of their recommendations have repercussions that are not explored in this document.   At the risk of an oversimplification, the Century Foundation recommends removing the bad leaders and predatory government networks (possibly by having leaders arrested) and replacing them with good leaders and positive civil-society networks.  This sounds good, but the governance problem is complex and there are at least half a dozen potential pit-falls.

    1.        Removing the bad leaders might impact the U.S.’s military objectives.  We rely on these networks for various services including intelligence and security.  Furthermore, they’re armed and may not take kindly to having their leaders arrested.  This policy could lead to more local “leaders” turning to or into the insurgents.

    2.       How do you remove the bad leaders?  The U.S. does not have the authority to arrest the most corrupt Afghans.  Meanwhile, Karzai has every incentive to keep these predatory networks around as they help him remain in power.

    3.       Arresting a leader may not impact how these networks operate.  A leader can, after all, be replaced.  Why would the current government put in place institutions which would undermine their ability to profit from the local population?

    4.       How do you identify the “good leaders” and civil society networks and empower them?  Village politics is as complex and divisive as national politics.  This policy may end up empowering one group at the expense of others, despite our good intentions.

    5.       Keeping forces in sensitive southern regions, but ending “offensive operations” may simply allow the insurgents to regain the offensive.  It also presumes that troop behavior and not foreign occupation is the cause of the violence.

    6.       Creating space for civil society is difficult in a conflict when civil society is often unarmed and at the mercy of armed groups on both sides.  This dynamic needs to be reversed, and probably the only solution is a broad reconciliation with both local Talibs and the leaders of the Quetta Shura and Haqqani networks.

    The Century Foundation recommendations are not necessarily bad, but more work needs to be done to address these and other issues.

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  10. The Afghanistan Weekly Reader – Week of January 24th, 2011

    Published: January 28th, 2011

    This is a new feature we are introducing to give you the must reads from the week.  Its purpose is to create a quick and easy way to obtain this weeks vital Afghanistan news from a variety of mainstream news sources, analysts and experts.

    Petraeus Skips Drawdown Talk in New Letter to Troops
    Wired by Spencer Ackerman
    Need another indication that July 2011 is going to come and go without substantial troop reductions? Take a look at Gen. David Petraeus’ brand new letter to his troops and civilians in Afghanistan about the state of the war. There’s a lot of talk about the “hard work” to expect in 2011, and absolutely none about troop withdrawals.

    GOP Lawmakers Planning Meeting to Explore Alternatives in Afghan War
    Huffington Post by Amanda Terkel
    WASHINGTON — Three Republican lawmakers who have been outspoken on the war in Afghanistan are trying to push their party to start debating alternative policies and will be convening a meeting next month to start the debate

    The Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds by Kelley B. Vlahos
    News that a clear majority of conservatives want to reduce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, plus reports of an emerging right-left coalition against the war, have served as hopeful signs in the heretofore quixotic pursuit to arrest the giant gears of the American war machine.

    Why Military Spending Remains Untouchable
    Salon by Andrew Becevich
    In defense circles, “cutting” the Pentagon budget has once again become a topic of conversation. Americans should not confuse that talk with reality. Any cuts exacted will at most reduce the rate of growth. The essential facts remain: U.S. military outlays today equal that of every other nation on the planet combined, a situation without precedent in modern history.

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