Kabul diary: The blind leading the blind
One decade later and the US is still trying to figure out its objectives in Afghanistan.
In late January 2009, General Petraeus approached one of his team members for an update on the ongoing Afghanistan strategy review and received the unexpected analysis: “It is the blind leading the blind,” said Derek Harvey, from the Defence Intelligence Agency.
He further told Petraeus that “we know too little about the enemy to craft a winning strategy.”
It is baffling that even after 10 years of engaging in the world’s longest war, involving 43 countries with about 140,000 troops, losing soldiers each day and squandering huge resources, the US is still finding answers to the basic questions: What is the war about? Who is the enemy?
If al Qaeda is the enemy, why are we clueless about the whereabouts of its leadership? Why are 140,000 troops required to kill less than 100 al Qaeda members present in Afghanistan? Why are we killing the Taliban? Are the Taliban a threat to the US? If they are a threat, then what is the ‘reintegration and reconciliation’ with Taliban about? If the enemy is the Taliban, do we share a common enemy with the Afghan population? What makes them ‘bad guys’ now that they are fighting against us as they did against the Russians? Why did we support the Taliban financially and morally (along with other groups) some 30 years back?
The hubris of a super-power
It is naïve for people to believe or even think along the lines that the US, a leading country, one of the oldest democracies and the only superpower, could be so stupid to wage a war without even weighing the pros and cons. Michael Scheuer, a former CIA officer, characterised the war on terror as "imperial hubris." An arrogant superpower, caught in its preconceived notions and dilemma of using military force, while denying the ground realities.
The obscure understanding of the Afghan war is reflected in the US strategy on Afghanistan. Everyone – the US administration, commanding general of Nato, US forces in Afghanistan, soldiers on the ground – has different answers to the fundamental questions and objective of being in Afghanistan. No one seem to be on the same page.
For Bush, al Qaeda was the reason for the Americans to be in Afghanistan, whereas his commanding general shared a different reason. General David McKiernan, the last Nato and US commander from Bush’s era, described his mission in an interview in July 2008: “to assist the government of Afghanistan to become a viable government with institutions, with the right security, so that the people of Afghanistan can have a better future.”
The mission for soldiers
To each US soldier, the mission and definition of the enemy is different. According to Bob Woodward’s recent book, ‘Obama’s Wars,’ when the vice president, Joe Biden, visited the troops in eastern Afghanistan (eight days before the inauguration), he asked them a simple question and received a strange response.
Everyone – colonels, lieutenants, sergeants – gave a different answer to Biden's question: What are we doing here?
“Basically, we are trying to build this country, so that it can stand on its feet," was one answer. Another one was, "We are trying to get al Qaeda."
The most common answer from the front-line troops was: "I don’t know.”
A strategy without McChrystal
Following in Bush’s footsteps, President Obama also trumpeted taking on the al Qaeda leadership “where it actually exists (Afghanistan).” But again, for his commanding general, the focus was different. The strategy GenMcchrystal gave, which is still being followed, is population centric and focuses on defeating the Taliban.
Mcchrystal’s strategy to defeat the insurgency and achieve this end state is based on four ‘crumbling’ pillars: protect the population from the Taliban, reverse the momentum of insurgency, support accountable governance and build the capacity of Afghan security forces.
According to the strategy, the key to winning the war is winning the hearts and minds of the people. To execute the strategy successfully, additional 30,000 troops were deployed, while ignoring the fundamental questions once again.
With the escalation in the number of troops, the insurgency increased, instead of reversing its momentum and the anti-American sentiment even grew with more civilian deaths and night raids. The troops which according to the strategy are meant to protect the population from Taliban, instead bring trouble and insecurity along. The northern and western provinces, which were once peaceful, now see a growing insurgency with the increasing presence of foreign troops.
Afghanistan: No man's land
The reality is that the Taliban still hold sway and run a parallel government in almost 32 of 34 provinces. Afghans might not accept Taliban’s rule, but neither do they share a common enemy with the US.
According to a ‘strategic assessment report’ in 2010, published by an Afghanistan-based international NGO, the poor intelligence led military operations “have served to polarise communities with the Taliban capitalising on the grievances.”
The report further reveals contradictory facts to Gen Petraeus’s claims who has been a great advocate of McChrystal’s strategy.
“The Taliban’s counter-offensive is increasingly mature, complex and effective. Countrywide attacks have grown by 59%.”
General Petraeus last week claimed to have reversed the Taliban momentum “in many areas.” Contrary to his claims, the year 2010 has been the most violent year, for the foreign troops as well as the local population. The civilian casualty figure recorded by Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, of the first seven months of the ongoing year, is highest than the previous years. It is 1325, 5.5 per cent higher than the recorded figure of first seven months of year 2009.
Caught in the fire
The civilian casualty figure by the end of the year will break the record of past nine years as General Petraeus’s desperation to prove his success has led to number of civilian killings.
For the US troops, it has been the deadliest year. It has seen the highest number of US fatalities, so far 405. Since 2001, 1352 US soldiers have lost their lives to the war they cannot give meaning to, the war US nation greatly opposes. UK is second on the fatalities graph, followed by Canada.
The US’s successful exit from Afghanistan rests on four ‘unattainable’ steps – clear, hold, build and transfer. Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls it “the essence of our civil-military plan.” Acknowledging ground realities should rather be the essence. And one of the realities is that US forces can temporarily clear off the area but cannot hold on to it without the support of the local population.
Here in Kabul, the Helmand operation is seen as the epitome of the drastically flawed US strategy and a failed exit plan. There is not even a single area in Afghanistan which is over the clearing phase and eventually can be transferred over to the Afghan security forces, as the last phase of the exit plan.
But the question remains: does the US share a common enemy (Taliban) with the Afghan security forces to be able to sustain the acquired success (if it happens)? Moreover, are the Taliban also terrorists to Afghan forces, or ‘disenchanted brothers’ as President Karzai calls them?