Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Afghanistan Enters Another Summer

One of the few generals who can actually command combat troops in the field is General David McKiernan. The US Army actually has precious few of these men left--many left in disgust during the Rumsfeld era. McKiernan ran the show in Iraq in 2003--carrying out the plans handed to him. Of all the things that can be said about the Iraq War, there is no disputing the success of the US military's smashing of the Iraqi military in record time. It was a deep strike that left the follow on support troops vulnerable, but with what he had, McKiernan carried out his orders and succeeded where many would have failed. He was one of the generals who had to watch General David Petraeus pass him by--McKiernan went to be Deputy Commanding General/Chief of Staff for United States Army Forces Command while Petraeus went from being a Division Commander to CENTCOM Commander in a few short years.

McKiernan is an ROTC soldier, not a West Point man--a distinction that might not mean a great deal, but nevertheless. His rise through the ranks was not a foregone conclusion. He has recently been chosen to command all forces in Afghanistan:

The American general who led the ground invasion of Iraq took command of the 40-nation NATO-led campaign in Afghanistan on Tuesday.

Army Gen. David D. McKiernan took charge of the 51,000-member International Security Assistance Force from Gen. Dan McNeill, who will retire from the U.S. Army after 40 years.

Addressing a change of command ceremony Tuesday, McKiernan said he was "honored to walk alongside our Afghan brothers."

General McKiernan faces many new challenges--not the least of which is the fact that his new boss, General Petraeus, has, shall we say, an entirely different problem with Afghanistan:

If the problem in Iraq was introducing political suppleness, the problem in Afghanistan is the opposite: It is reducing the political suppleness. The way to do that is to introduce military force, to change the psychology of the region by convincing it that the United States is prepared to remain indefinitely and to bring overwhelming force to bear. That was the point of the U.S. announcement that it would take over the burden dropped by NATO.

The problem is that this is a bluff. The United States doesn’t have overwhelming force to bring to bear. The Soviets had 300,000 troops in Afghanistan. They held the cities, but the countryside was as treacherous for them as it is for the Americans. The force the United States can bring to bear is insufficient to overawe the tribes and cause them to break with the Taliban. And therefore, the United States is in a holding pattern, hoping that something will turn up.

That something is Pakistan. If Petraeus follows true to his Iraqi form — where he engaged the Iranians based on their own self-interest, inducing Tehran to rein in al-Sadr — then his key move must be to engage the Pakistanis in the fight against the Taliban. The problem is that it is not clearly in Pakistan’s self-interest to create a civil war in Pakistan with the Taliban, and the new government in Islamabad does not appear to have the appetite for such a struggle. And the Pakistani army continues to have elements sympathetic to the Taliban. If the army is not prepared to put up much of a fight in Pakistan’s northern tribal areas, it certainly is not looking for armed conflict with the Taliban — many of whose members are in fact Pakistani guerrillas — in Pakistan’s nontribal areas.

In sum, Petraeus improved the situation in Iraq, but he hasn’t won the war there. And applying those lessons to Afghanistan is simply repeating what has happened since 2001. Petraeus is a good general, so it is unlikely he will continue that same course. But it is also unlikely that he will be in a position to force the Pakistanis to deny Taliban sanctuary. We therefore don’t know what he will do in Afghanistan. But, as we have said before, it is a deteriorating situation, and he will be forced to act on it. That’s why he was placed at the helm of CENTCOM.

If Petraeus had Moqtada al Sadr to contend with, McKiernan has Baitullah Mehsud as his main concern:

While the Pakistani army goes for show, flying journalists in for a brief visit to demonstrate how the Taliban is in retreat, the Taliban goes for a far different tactic.

Baitullah Mehsud, the head of Pakistani Taliban, called a news conference in the same area, drove up in a new Toyota SUV full of security carrying new AK-47 assault rifles, and holds court, unmolested, for an extended period of time.

Mehsud was not bashful about acknowledging his role in combating U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and promised to intensify those attacks. Articulating the standard jihadi-Islamist view, he stated that “Islam does not recognize boundaries. There can be no deal with the United States.”


It is time to stop pretending Pakistan can or will be an ally against the Taliban, either in Pakistan or Afghanistan. The group grew and was nurtured under the wings of the [Inter-services Intelligence] ISI, and are broadly supported, both by officials in Pakistan, and, in many places, by the population.

Without being able to rely on the Pakistani authorities to deny the Taliban sanctuary and without being able to take direct action in those areas itself, the NATO forces are hamstrung in an effort that at best can hold the line for a few years. Victory, or any semblance thereof, is simply out of the question as long as these sanctuaries remain.

McKiernan has to move quickly and effectively to effectively deal with Mehsud:

He and his main ally, Qari Hussain, whom officials and associates have described as a highly trained and vicious militant, have methodically built up strongholds in North and South Waziristan — killing uncooperative tribal leaders, recruiting unemployed young men to their jihad and filling the vacuum left by a lack of government services. Now, they also have lieutenants and allies across the tribal region.

In South Waziristan, they run training camps for suicide bombers, some of them children, according to the former Taliban member. Their realm is so secure that in April Mehsud's umbrella group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, held a conference of thousands of fighters that culminated in a public execution, according to a local resident.

Local Pakistani authorities say they are helpless to deal with Mehsud's group. In a measure of their despair, on Wednesday the authorities in the Mohmand district, where the conference and public execution were held, announced a truce with the Taliban.

Mehsud was once a minor figure in the small Shabikhel branch of the fierce Mehsud tribe that lives in South Waziristan, whose inhospitable territory remained a sliver of imperial India left unconquered by the British.

But he managed to enhance his stature through the ambivalence — or protection, according to some officials — of the Pakistani authorities, say former Pakistani military officials and tribal leaders. His strength grew quickly after February 2005, when the military, then under the control of President Pervez Musharraf, signed a peace deal with him.

"That was when I knew the army was not serious," said a tribal leader who has dealt with Mehsud and would not be named for safety reasons. "If the army took firm action they could crush him in two months."

Instead, the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence, the overarching Pakistani intelligence agency, wanted to keep Mehsud "in reserve," said the tribal leader, who is also a former military officer.

It should come as no surprise that as McKiernan takes over in Afghanistan, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrives in Pakistan for an official two-day visit.

While Mullen lays the groundwork to deal with the Taliban, the US media does its best job of hiding its head in the sand. Barnett R. Rubin at Informed Comment recently debated David Ignatius of the Washington Post after Rubin spent some time getting a decidedly "different" picture of what is going on in Afghanistan:

One of the main explanations for the level of violence is a significant increase in infiltration from Pakistan's Tribal Areas, which are directly adjacent to RC/E. The Pakistan army has used the election of a new civilian government as a blame-shifting cover for its decision to withdraw from FATA and conclude a truce with the Pakistani Taliban. This truce has enabled the militants to focus their energy on Afghanistan.

This may be true, but it does not show that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is in fact succeeding, when all factors are taken into account. During my visit to Kabul I found that several officials of the U.S. government there interpreted my challenge to Ignatius' assertions as criticisms or denigration of their efforts in RC/E. That is not at all my intention. I was not able to take up the Embassy's offer of a repeat of the Ignatius tour on this visit, and I last visited RC/E in August 2006, when I went to Gardez, Paktia, to visit Governor Hakim Taniwal, an old friend and academic colleague (Taniwal was a sociologist) . Taniwal was killed by a suicide bomber a few weeks later. I have no reason to doubt the positive accounts of US counter-insurgency work, mostly in Khost, one of the smallest of the 12 provinces in RC/E. The failures of U.S. policy do not result from poor implementation by people in the field. On the contrary, from what I have seen, whatever successes there have been have largely been led from the field, not from Washington. Those working on the ground have worked hard in many cases to reverse or evade policies imposed by the Bush administration.

As good as McKiernan might be as a General, he has to understand that the best way to solve the problems that he faces are to use diplomacy--as in, a diplomatic effort to pacify the Pakistanis who support the Taliban just enough to allow for some "accommodation" between Karzai and the militants. Karzai is going to have to make peace with the Taliban, or at least reach some sort of arrangement with them. He might even--gasp--have to share power with them. Remember--Karzai has asked for just that in the past.

The Taliban's former chief spokesman has revealed that top-level talks are being held between the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai and key lieutenants of the former Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

His disclosure that the Taliban "cabinet in exile" is engaged in negotiations appeared to contradict the statement to Parliament yesterday by Gordon Brown that hardline Taliban leaders would be isolated from talks over the future of Afghanistan.

The fact that Karzai has long advocated negotiations and power sharing with the Taliban is a new wrinkle for the US to contend with. This means that diplomacy is the only way to get ourselves extricated from Afghanistan, which should be our ultimate goal. Without a functioning State Department and with a CENTCOM commander who is more focused on Iraq, this might have to wait until a new Administration takes over. The encouraging thing is this--Petraeus was instrumental in bringing in Sunni militiamen. The idea of bringing the Taliban into the mix in Afghanistan isn't too far off the mark. Whether or not the Taliban will abandon their assistance of al Qaeda is something for the diplomats to work out, of course.

McKiernan will need diplomats more than he'll need airstrikes.

*Yes, the best thing to do would have been to NOT invade Afghanistan. We get that. This post deals with the reality as it is today. Making the point that "we never should have gone there in the first place" is simply stating the obvious.

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