Afghanistan: What Happens When Our Allies “Do More”

As the US campaign in Helmand and Kandahar, blame has increasingly shifted toward allies like NATO, Karzai, and Pakistan. The US wants them to "do more." But they are doing more. The problem is not our allies, but the war itself.

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

If you’ve been following the recent military operations in Helmand and Kandahar, you’ve likely noticed that it’s been something of an unmitigated disaster. And not just a disaster in the sense that most of our military efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been disasters, this is the make-or-break moment for the US counterinsurgency strategy. My colleague Derrick Crowe writes:

No reporter should let Secretary Gates, General McChrystal, or President Obama off the hook in the coming months regarding the make-or-break nature of the Kandahar operation for their (poorly) chosen COIN strategy in Afghanistan. As described in the report to Congress, Kandahar/Helmand is the main effort, and everything else is either a “shaping,” “supporting,” or “economy of force (read: leftovers)” operation. Kandahar/Helmand is the COIN strategy. If ISAF fails there, it fails, period.

Fail there, fail everywhere. Couldn’t be any more clear than that. And that’s not his characterization, he’s citing the people in charge. Derrick then offers us some advice:

Members of Congress considering funding the ongoing Kandahar/Helmand/escalation strategy should read these comments from Secretary Gates with alarm. He’s hedging and trying to set expectations because he knows the COIN effort is in serious, “bleeding ulcer” trouble. Congress should save us all a whole lot of trouble and vote against the $33 billion war spending supplemental under consideration.

Right, when you pressure your representative to block the funding, they need to be made fully aware that our strategy is broken and ruinous. But the problem is, it won’t be that easy. Politicians can be very slippery, even the ones we like, and they’ll try to shift the blame on to someone else. “No, it’s not the strategy,” they’ll say, “it’s our allies. Our allies need to do more.” The folks on Capitol Hill are big believers in Counterinsurgency doctrine, and as we’ve seen, COIN is not a doctrine, but an ideology that can never be proven or dis-proven. Communism isn’t the problem, it’s “human nature” that fails. Conservatism can’t fail, only you can fail to be conservative. And our COIN strategy can’t fail, it has to be the fault of our allies.

But that’s wrong. Our allies have been doing more, a lot more. NATO, Karzai, and Pakistan have all been participating in President Obama’s escalation strategy, and that is only making the problem worse. If we see what it is our allies are actually doing, we’ll find that the COIN defenders are wrong. Our counterinsurgency strategy, the idea that occupation and war have anything remotely to do with stabilizing and developing a nation, is the problem. The US will try to shift the blame onto our allies, but as we’ll see, Derrick is right, it’s our war that is the problem.

We’ll start with our friends in NATO, Canada. We’ve talked about the new Canadian strategy before, but their “signature project” is especially important to note. They’re working on a huge water distribution system in Kandahar province, and if completed, could provide a sustainable development for Afghans to maintain and operate on their own without Western assistance, that supposedly being the overarching goal of our mission in Afghanistan. However, the project has hit a bit of snag [emphasis mine]:

The $50-million Dahla Dam irrigation project, touted as Canada’s best chance for a lasting legacy in Afghanistan, has all but stalled as its lead contractor, a partnership involving the Canadian engineering giant SNC Lavalin, battles for control against a sometimes violent Afghan security firm widely believed to be loyal to Afghanistan’s ruling Karzai family, insiders close to the project say.[…]

Foremost among the setbacks, insiders say, was a dramatic confrontation on Feb. 20, when rising tensions between Canadian security officials hired to oversee the project and members of Watan Risk Management, a group of Afghan mercenaries with close ties to the Karzai family, culminated in a “Mexican standoff” — the guns hired to protect the project actually turned on each other in a hair-trigger confrontation.[…]

“Ever since, the project has been basically held hostage by the Karzai mafia, who are using ‘security concerns’ to stall the work. They are able to put fear in the heart of the Canadian contractors, telling them ‘There is evil outside the gates that will eat you.’ The longer they delay, the more money the Afghan security teams make. The Canadians have good intentions but that is the reality.”

Oops, it looks like the Canadians tried to do more and accidentally bumped into another one of our allies, President Hamid Karzai. He’s got militia in Kandahar busily working on another part of our COIN strategy, extending the control of the central Kabul government, the “Host Nation” as it’s called. Only Karzai is a criminal with no legitimacy, so he has to extend central government control the only way you can expand an illegitimate, criminal enterprise; Violence, intimidation, coercion, all of them are at play here. Karzai is also desperately dependent on western welfare, so if he expects to remain in power, he’ll need to drag out western development projects as long as he possibly can. If “security concerns” will delay a project, then you make your own if you have to. Our strategy requires him to expand his mafia empire, what else is he supposed to do?

And what about the Pakistani military? Our politicians are constantly whining for them to do more for our awful strategy. Well, they are doing more. Here’s what that looks like:

“I lost my sense when I reached the door of my house and saw and heard the crying of my close neighbors and relatives–as if hell fell on me. When I saw people putting the dead bodies of my children, parents, and other relatives in bed I couldn’t bear it anymore and fell on the ground…”

– A 25-year-old man who lost nine family members when two shells fired by security forces hit his house during the battle of Loi Sam (FATA).

Nice job “protecting the civilian population” there by the Pakistani army, those innocent women and children will never again be threatened by the Taliban. And the army’s “doing more” has the same results as the US “population-centric” strategy of killing civilians by the houseful across the border in Afghanistan. The military assaults legitimize the insurgency and turn the population against the government. That works out great for the other part of our strategy, showering Pakistan’s military dictatorship with money and weapons.

Pakistan’s army supports the Taliban as “strategic depth” in its war with India. As long as the Taliban are empowered by US and Pakistani military assaults, they survive to be used against India in proxy wars spanning Afghanistan, Balochistan, Kashmir, and really most of the sub-continent. And as long as those extremist militants are there to threaten, the US has an excuse to give Pakistan…tada! Money and weapons to use in military assaults in the tribal regions. See how this works? Our allies in the Pakistani military are working our COIN strategy with everything they’ve got, and it’s going great for them. Want Pakistan to do more? Gladly.

Our allies are working hard. Canada, one of our last friends in NATO, took our notion of development seriously and are replacing their military with aid projects. But Karzai is also working hard to extend the authority of the host nation, and that requires him to derail development in favor if violence, insecurity, and criminality. Pakistan’s army is also working hard to clear its tribal area sanctuaries, so the Taliban can be safe elsewhere to engage in proxy war with India, and that includes in Afghanistan. And then we’re back at the beginning, with the US then escalating its occupation to fight the Taliban.

The problem is not NATO, Karzai, or Pakistan, they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. You might reason that Karzai and Pakistan’s military despots aren’t good choices for allies, but that misses the point. They are the strategy. And that strategy is the problem, not action or lack of action from our allies.

You’re going to see this meme more and more in the coming weeks and months. As we see from Derrick’s reporting, the military is well aware that it’s failing big time in Afghanistan. So rather than admitting our COIN strategy is a flaming wreck, look for the blame to fall on our allies. Folks who talk about the relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan will be elevated, so look forward to [re-]learning old factoids like Pakistan’s ISI helped create the Taliban and so forth. The White House will continue to pretend to be outraged and confused with Karzai, even though they know full well he’s corrupt and illegitimate. And of course, the US will continue to gripe that NATO allies won’t send more troops, even though it’s the non-military development projects that work.

Don’t fall for it. You can demand that congress block any more funding for the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Cut off the COIN strategy at its source, the money. You can demand that congress abandon Karzai and push for free and fair elections in Afghanistan, so that the central government has legitimacy. You can demand that the US engage with and empower the elected civilian government of Pakistan, rather than military despots like General Kayani. And you can demand they support non-military projects like our allies, Canada. Don’t let them get away with pushing the blame off, the problem lies squarely with the US war.

And you can end it. Join us on Rethink Afghanistan’s Facebook page and collaborate with the tens of thousands of others around the country working to bring this war to an end.

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