The failure that keeps on failing

May 19, 2011

The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy has killed civilians, endangered aid workers and failed miserably in its goal of "winning hearts and minds," says Helen Redmond.

IN A 2009 speech at West Point to announce the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama stated, "We must reverse the Taliban's momentum...And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government." The troop surge, he argued, would "bring this war to a successful close."

Despite the hype surrounding the assassination of Osama bin Laden, it's now clear that Obama's surge strategy isn't working. If anything, what Osama's death reveals is not how well the war is going, but how badly.

But no major U.S. military or political leaders have stepped forward to argue for an end to the war because they have yet to achieve their goals of installing a stable, pro-U.S. regime in Afghanistan. A survey of what the U.S. war effort looks like on the ground reveals the bankruptcy of the American strategy.

The Taliban is undefeated, Afghan security forces are still weak, and the corrupt Karzai government that stole the election in 2009 is hated by most Afghans. As a consequence, the decade-long war in Afghanistan has trapped the Democrats in a dilemma.

A U.S. soldier patrols a village bazaar in Northern Balkh Province in Afghanistan
A U.S. soldier patrols a village bazaar in Northern Balkh Province in Afghanistan

On the one hand, Obama wants to make good on his promise to withdraw troops to appease critics in both parties and show that he has an exit strategy. On the other, a significant withdrawal of troops could enable the Taliban to extend its control of the country further.

The assassination of Osama bin Laden has triggered a debate and reassessment of the war in Congress and increased the pressure on Obama to begin a drawdown of troops. As Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) told the New York Times:

We should be working toward the smallest footprint necessary, a presence that puts Afghans in charge and presses them to step up to that task...Make no mistake, it is fundamentally unsustainable to continue spending $10 billion a month on a massive military operation with no end in sight.

Kerry was quick to add, though, that he is opposed to a "precipitous" withdrawal of troops, and that's because it's widely acknowledged that Afghan security forces are not "up to the task" of containing the insurgency.

U.S. military commanders have announced a preliminary proposal to withdraw 5,000 troops in July and 5,000 more by the year's end. There are 100,000 American troops currently stationed in Afghanistan in addition to 40,000 troops from other NATO countries. The strategy is to preserve combat power by sending home troops whose rotations are coming to an end and withdrawing nonessential personnel, while keeping front-line troops in country. The proposal has yet to be presented for approval to outgoing Gen. David Petraeus or President Obama.

Obama's killing of bin Laden is being used to vindicate the so-called "war on terror," but bin Laden's death isn't likely to hasten an end to the war. Instead, the Obama administration is looking to renew the credibility of the strategy and conduct of the U.S. military, which has been bogged down in an unpopular and expensive war that two-thirds of Americans no longer believe is worth fighting.

The Pentagon war machine, strutting the success of the Navy SEAL commandos who murdered bin Laden, may now seek to step up its counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Afghanistan and increase aggression against Pakistan, triggering yet more conflict between the three countries and increasing the region's volatility.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the assassination of Osama bin Laden could be a "game-changer" in Afghanistan. But the "game" was never about bin Laden. The relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban was always conflated to sell the "war on terror" after September 11--after all, there were no Afghans among the 9/11 hijackers, and the Taliban even offered to hand over bin Laden before the U.S. bombing began in October 2001.

"The Afghan Taliban organizationally kept their distance from al-Qaeda, both before and after 9/11," explains Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. "In jihadist terms: al Qaeda concentrates on the 'far enemy,' i.e. the U.S. and its allies on their own soil, while the Taliban fight the 'near enemy,' the 'occupiers' of Afghan ('Muslim') land."

OBAMA WANTS the U.S. military to transition security responsibilities to the Afghan National Army (ANA) "based on conditions on the ground." But what is on the ground is not good: There is more violence and instability in Afghanistan, not less, than 10 years ago.

The Taliban, using the tactics of "asymmetric warfare"--improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide bombings, kidnappings and targeted assassinations--have fought the U.S. military to an impasse. Despite the U.S. troop surge, Taliban forces control large areas of the country and have set up shadow governments that deliver basic services to the population.

April was one of the bloodiest months in the decade-long war. A series of grisly attacks across the country killed dozens of Afghan civilians, soldiers, UN workers and civilian contractors.

A U.S.-led missile strike in Logar province killed at least three children and wounded one woman and a seven-year-old boy. At a NATO military base at Kabul airport, an Afghan air force pilot killed eight U.S. service members and an American civilian contractor. There were four separate attacks inside NATO or Afghan military outposts by Afghan soldiers or insurgents dressed like them.

In Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghans attacked a UN compound, killing 20 and setting fire to several buildings. The attack was in response to Florida Pastor Terry Jones burning the Koran.

And a daring prison break carried out by the Taliban freed more than 400 prisoners from the Sarposa prison in the city of Kandahar. In the middle of the night, the men crawled to freedom through a small tunnel estimated to be three football fields long. This wasn't the first time that prisoners escaped from Sarposa. Three years ago, the Taliban mounted an above-ground assault and freed 1,200 prisoners.

Pentagon and right-wing political pundits were quick to downplay Taliban attacks and blame the security failure on corrupt prison authorities and the poor training of the ANA and Afghan National Police (ANP).

Typical of the stay-the-course-no-matter-what view is Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institute. In a New York Times op-ed article, she asserted that the ANA "has been making major strides." But in virtually no region of Afghanistan are Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) leading or in control without the active intervention of the U.S. military or NATO. Despite her assertions to the contrary, Felbab-Brown admits:

[T]he only way for the Afghan National Army to learn is to allow it to take the lead, even if the Afghan population may be afraid of such a transfer. Such learning by doing is necessary even though areas that will be transferred to Afghan security will become major magnets for Taliban attacks.

THE EPICENTER of U.S. counterinsurgency operations has shifted to Kandahar, the spiritual capital and traditional stronghold of the Taliban.

Last year, 35,000 US and NATO troops were deployed to the province and more or less routed the Taliban. But Gen. Petraeus was less than sanguine about the gains, telling Congress in March, "While the security progress achieved over the past year is significant, it is also fragile and reversible."

COIN doctrine was designed to eliminate the enemy and at the same time protect the population and win their "hearts and minds." But COIN hasn't done either. It is a contradictory and incompatible twinning of construction and combat, bread and bombs. Ann Jones, an author and journalist, described it this way:

The formula, which is basic COIN, goes something like this: kill some civilians in the hunt for the bad guys, and you have to make up for it by building a road. Virtually every "lethal" American soldier is matched by a "non-lethal" counterpart, whose job in one way or another is to soften up those civilians for "protection."

COIN strategy deliberately blurs the lines between humanitarian aid projects and military operations through the deployment of provincial reconstruction teams (PRT). The end result is the killing of civilians, aid workers and attacks on the offices of nongovernmental organizations.

Oxfam and 28 other aid organizations working in Afghanistan oppose the PRT and say explicitly in a report called "Nowhere to turn: The failure to protect civilians in Afghanistan" that humanitarian assistance "must not be used for the purpose of political gain, relationship building or 'winning hearts and minds.'"

Afghans continue to pay for the war with their lives. Since 2007, civilian casualties have increased by 64 percent, the bulk of them in the southern provinces where COIN is raging. The deaths of children have increased by 55 percent.

And when COIN isn't killing Afghans, it is incarcerating them in ever-greater numbers. A UN Security Council report found that the Afghan prison population has increased from 600 prisoners in 2001 to 18,970 in January 2011.

The mainstream media is quick to claim that the majority of deaths in Afghanistan are caused by the Taliban and other insurgent groups. But it is the U.S. military that unleashed a war and occupation in Afghanistan, killed thousands of civilians, blurred the distinction between military and aid operations, and ultimately created the conditions that gave rise to an insurgent movement to expel the "occupiers."

Thus, it is the U.S. that bears full responsibility for Afghanistan's killing fields--and now it's the Obama administration that is adding to the death toll. If Obama brings a couple thousand troops home, it doesn't signal a "successful close to the war." As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained at a recent conference of NATO foreign ministers, the real strategy isn't to withdraw from Afghanistan, but to stay. "We need to underscore that we are transitioning, not leaving," said Clinton.

Unless and until there is a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, Afghans will get no closer to the right to determine their future.

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