Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This article, by Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt, was published in The New York Times, October 7, 2009
WASHINGTON — President Obama’s national security team is moving to reframe its war strategy by emphasizing the campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan while arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan do not pose a direct threat to the United States, officials said Wednesday.
As Mr. Obama met with advisers for three hours to discuss Pakistan, the White House said he had not decided whether to approve a proposed troop buildup in Afghanistan. But the shift in thinking, outlined by senior administration officials on Wednesday, suggests that the president has been presented with an approach that would not require all of the additional troops that his commanding general in the region has requested.
It remains unclear whether everyone in Mr. Obama’s war cabinet fully accepts this view. While Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has argued for months against increasing troops in Afghanistan because Pakistan was the greater priority, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have both warned that the Taliban remain linked to Al Qaeda and would give their fighters havens again if the Taliban regained control of all or large parts of Afghanistan, making it a mistake to think of them as separate problems.
Moreover, Mr. Obama’s commander there, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has argued that success demands a substantial expansion of the American presence, up to 40,000 more troops. Any decision that provides less will expose the president to criticism, especially from Republicans, that his policy is a prescription for failure.
The White House appears to be trying to prepare the ground to counter that by focusing attention on recent successes against Qaeda cells in Pakistan. The approach described by administration officials on Wednesday amounted to an alternative to the analysis presented by General McChrystal. If, as the White House has asserted in recent weeks, it has improved the ability of the United States to reduce the threat from Al Qaeda, then the war in Afghanistan is less central to American security.
In reviewing General McChrystal’s request, the White House is rethinking what was, just six months ago, a strategy that viewed Pakistan and Afghanistan as a single integrated problem. Now the discussions in the White House Situation Room, according to several administration officials and outsiders who have spoken with them, are focusing on related but separate strategies for fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
“Clearly, Al Qaeda is a threat not only to the U.S. homeland and American interests abroad, but it has a murderous agenda,” one senior administration official said in an interview initiated by the White House on Wednesday on the condition of anonymity because the strategy review has not been finished. “We want to destroy its leadership, its infrastructure and its capability.”
The official contrasted that with the Afghan Taliban, which the administration has begun to define as an indigenous group that aspires to reclaim territory and rule the country but does not express ambitions of attacking the United States. “When the two are aligned, it’s mainly on the tactical front,” the official said, noting that Al Qaeda has fewer than 100 fighters in Afghanistan.Another official, who also was authorized to speak but not to be identified, said the different views of Al Qaeda and the Taliban were driving the president’s review. “To the extent that Al Qaeda has been degraded, and it has, and to the extent you believe you need to focus on destroying it going forward, what is required going forward?” the official asked. “And to prevent it from having a safe haven?”
The officials argued that while Al Qaeda was a foreign body, the Taliban could not be wholly removed from Afghanistan because they were too ingrained in the country. Moreover, the forces often described as Taliban are actually an amalgamation of militants that includes local warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network or others driven by local grievances rather than jihadist ideology.
Mr. Obama has defined his mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan as trying “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and other extremist networks around the world.” But he made it clear during a visit to the National Counterterrorism Center on Tuesday that the larger goal behind the mission was to protect the United States. “That’s the principal threat to the American people,” he said.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Wednesday that Mr. Obama’s “primary focus is on groups and their allies that can strike our homeland, strike our allies, or groups who would provide safe haven for those that wish to do that.”
The discussion about whether the Taliban pose a threat to the United States has been at the heart of the administration’s debate about what to do in Afghanistan. Some in the Biden camp say that the Taliban can be contained with current troop levels and eventually by Afghan forces trained by the United States.
Moreover, they suggest that the Taliban have no interest in letting Al Qaeda back into Afghanistan because that was what cost them power when they were toppled by American-backed Afghan rebels in 2001.
“The policy people and the intelligence people inside are having a big argument over this,” said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised Mr. Biden. “Is the Taliban a loose collection of people we can split up? Can we split the Taliban from Al Qaeda? If the Taliban comes back to power in parts of Afghanistan, are they going to bring Al Qaeda back with them?”
Some analysts say that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have actually grown closer since the first American bombs fell on the Shomali Plain north of Kabul eight years ago Tuesday.
“The kind of separation that existed between the Taliban and Al Qaeda in 2001 really doesn’t exist anymore,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has advised General McChrystal. “You have much more ideological elements in the Taliban. In the east, they’re really mixed in with Al Qaeda.”
Frances Fragos Townsend, who was President George W. Bush’s homeland security adviser, said the two groups remained linked.
“It’s a dangerous argument to assume that the Taliban won’t revert to where they were pre-9/11 and provide Al Qaeda sanctuary,” she said. Referring to General McChrystal, she added, “If you don’t give him the troops he asked for and continue with the Predator strikes, you can kill them one at a time, but you’re not going to drain the swamp.”
Officials said Wednesday that General McChrystal’s official request for additional forces was forwarded to Mr. Obama last week. Mr. Gates’s spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said Mr. Gates had given Mr. Obama “an informal copy” at the president’s request.
The meeting on Wednesday was Mr. Obama’s third with his full national security team. Another is scheduled for Friday to talk about Afghanistan and then a fifth is planned, possibly for next week. Mr. Gibbs said the president was still several weeks away from a decision.
This documentary was released in six parts, between February and August 2009, by Robert Greenwald. As the President considers his options, following a blatantly fraudulent Presidential election and an ever increasing US/NATO/Afghan death toll, the same group of chicken hawks (the Project for a New American Century and their Coterie of neo-conservative war-mongering fools and high ranking brass who were responsible for the Iraq war are now calling for a massive increase in US troops beyond the 17,000 mentioned in the film, the questions and issues raised in this film are brought into sharp focus.
Part One: Afghanistan + More Troops = Catastrophe
President Obama has committed 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. This decision raises serious questions about troops, costs, overall mission, and exit strategy. Historically, it has been Congress' duty to ask questions in the form of oversight hearings that challenge policymakers, examine military spending, and educate the public. After witnessing the absence of oversight regarding the Iraq war, we must insist Congress hold hearings on Afghanistan.
Part Two: Pakistan: "The Most Dangerous Country"
The war in Afghanistan and its potentially catastrophic impact on Pakistan are complex and dangerous issues, which further make the case why our country needs a national debate on this now starting with congressional oversight hearings.
Part Three: "Cost of War"
As we pay our tax bills, it seems an appropriate time to urge everyone to Rethink Afghanistan, a war that currently costs over $2 billion a month but hasn't made us any safer. Everyone has a friend or relative who just lost a job. Do we really want to spend over $1 trillion on another war? Everyone knows someone who has lost their home. Do we really want spend our tax dollars on a war that could last a decade or more? The Obama administration has taken some smart steps to counter this economic crisis with its budget request. Do we really want to see that effort wasted by expanding military demands?
Part Four: "Civilian Casualties"
When foreign policy is well-reasoned, we see attention given to humanitarian issues like housing, jobs, health care and education. When that policy consists of applying a military solution to a political problem, however, we see death, destruction, and suffering. Director Robert Greenwald witnessed the latter during his recent trip to Afghanistan--the devastating consequences of U.S. airstrikes on thousands of innocent civilians.
The footage you are about to see is poignant, heart-wrenching, and often a direct result of U.S. foreign policy.
We must help the refugees whose lives have been shattered by U.S. foreign policy and military attacks. Support the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, an organization dedicated to helping women and children, human rights issues, and social justice. Then, become a Peacemaker. Receive up-to-the-minute information through our new mobile alert system whenever there are Afghan civilian casualties from this war, and take immediate action by calling Congress.
Part Five: "Women of Afghanistan"
Eight years have passed since Laura Bush declared that "because of our recent military gains, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes" in Afghanistan. For eight years, that claim has been a lie.
The truth is that American military escalation will not liberate the women of Afghanistan. Instead, the hardships of war take a disproportionate toll on women and their families. There are 1,000 displaced families in a Kabul refugee camp, and they're suffering for lack of food and blankets. A few weeks ago, you generously gave $6,000 to help and $9,000 more is needed to take care of all 1,000 families. Thats a donation of $15 per family to provide the relief necessary for their survival.
Here's what your money will buy:
Part Six: "How much security did $1 trillion buy?"
The war in Afghanistan is increasing the likelihood that American civilians will be killed in a future terrorist attack.
Part 6 of Rethink Afghanistan, Security, brings you three former high-ranking CIA agents to explain why.
There is no "victory" to be won in Afghanistan. It is the most important video about U.S. Security today.
This article, by Kay Johnson, was posted to antiwar.com, September 18, 2009
A U.S. service member and a Canadian soldier died in separate roadside bomb explosions in southern Afghanistan, officials said Friday, announcing new deaths from a day that claimed the lives of a total of nine international troops.
The American and Canadian died Thursday, the same day a car bomber killed six Italian troops in a brazen attack in the heavily guarded capital of Kabul. A NATO soldier also died Thursday of wounds from an earlier attack.
The car bomb in Kabul killed 10 Afghan civilians as well as the Italians, leaving a crater 3 feet (one meter) deep and nearly twice as wide. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi called Friday for a "transition strategy" to allow the Afghan government to do more for its own security — and decrease the number of international troops in Afghanistan.
The Italian deaths were the country's greatest single loss in the war, but Berlusconi said his government remained committed to defending democracy in Afghanistan, "which is still very far from being a modern and civilized country."
Italy's chief military officer in Afghanistan — who also serves as NATO's chief of staff — said the deaths do not diminish his country's commitment, insisting the government and military "share together the strong will to accomplish our mission" and that no NATO forces are threatening to withdraw.
"It's normal that the political parties, that the population, wonders if it's worth staying here" after an event like Thursday's car bombing, said Maj. Gen. Marco Bertolini. But he said the reason for staying in Afghanistan hasn't changed: strengthening the country so that it is not a breeding ground for insurgents.
At the bomb site in Kabul on Friday, Afghan men in traditional tunics peered into the blackened pit in the road — a major thoroughfare connecting the airport to the capital — and mourned the deaths of neighbors and relatives.
Ghulam Sakhi said the two storekeepers on each side of his carpentry workshop were among those killed in the fourth major attack in the capital in five weeks.
The resurgent Taliban has increased attacks sharply this year — the deadliest yet for the international forces in Afghanistan. The Islamist extremists run a shadow government in the south and their attacks have increased ahead of last month's presidential election and with the arrival of 21,000 more American troops.
U.S. military spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias said the American died when his patrol struck a bomb planted in the road. She did not provide his name.
Canadian Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance said Pvt. Jonathan Couturier, 23, was killed as he returned from a mission to root out Taliban weapons caches in the southern province of Kandahar.
Bombs planted in and around roads are one of the main weapons used by the insurgents, now accounting for the majority of U.S. and NATO casualties.
This year has been the deadliest for American and NATO troops since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban for sheltering al-Qaida leaders who plotted the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Violence has been particularly harsh in the south, where thousands of U.S. troops have deployed to bolster the Canadian and British-led operations in the Taliban heartland.
The U.S. and NATO have a record number of troops in Afghanistan — nearly 100,000 in total — and the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is likely to soon request thousands more.
This article, by Conn Hallinan, was posted to Foreign Policy in Focus, September 10, 2009
One of the oddest — indeed, surreal — encounters around the war in Afghanistan has to be a telephone call this past July 27. On one end of the line was historian Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History. On the other, State Department special envoy Richard Holbrooke and the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. The question: How can Washington avoid the kind of defeat it suffered in Southeast Asia 40 years ago?
Karnow did not divulge what he said to the two men, but he told Associated Press that the "lesson" of Vietnam "was that we shouldn't have been there," and that, while "Obama and everybody else seems to want to be in Afghanistan," he, Karnow, was opposed to the war.
It is hardly surprising that Washington should see parallels to the Vietnam debacle. The enemy is elusive enemy. The local population is neutral, if not hostile. And the governing regime is corrupt with virtually no support outside of the nation's capital.
But in many ways Afghanistan is worse than Vietnam. So, it is increasingly hard to fathom why a seemingly intelligent American administration seems determined to hitch itself to this disaster in the making. It is almost as if there is something about that hard-edged Central Asian country that deranges its occupiers. Delusion #1 In his address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Obama characterized Afghanistan as "a war of necessity" against international terrorism. But the reality is that the Taliban is a polyglot collection of conflicting political currents whose goals are local, not universal jihad.
"The insurgency is far from monolithic," says Anand Gopal, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor based in Afghanistan. "There are shadowy, kohl-eyed mullahs and head-bobbing religious students, of course, but there are also erudite university students, poor illiterate farmers, and veteran anti-Soviet commanders. The movement is a mélange of nationalists, Islamists, and bandits...made up of competing commanders and differing ideologies and strategies who nonetheless agree on one essential goal: kicking out the foreigners."
Taliban spokesman Yousef Ahmadi told Gopal, "We are fighting to free our country from foreign domination," adding, "Even the Americans once waged an insurgency to free their country."
Besides the Taliban, there are at least two other insurgent groups. Hizb-I-Islam is led by former U.S. ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyer. The Haqqani group, meanwhile, has close ties to al-Qaeda.
The White House's rationale of "international terrorism" parallels the Southeast Asian tragedy. The U.S. characterized Vietnam as part of an international Communist conspiracy, while the conflict was essentially a homegrown war of national liberation. Delusion #2
One casualty of Vietnam was the doctrine of counterinsurgency, the theory that an asymmetrical war against guerrillas can be won by capturing the "hearts and minds" of the people. Of course "hearts and minds" was a pipe dream, obliterated by massive civilian casualties, the widespread use of defoliants, and the creation of "strategic hamlets" that had more in common with concentration camps than villages.
In Vietnam's aftermath, "counterinsurgency" fell out of favor, to be replaced by the "Powell Doctrine" of relying on massive firepower to win wars. With that strategy the United States crushed the Iraqi army in the first Gulf War. Even though the doctrine was downsized for the invasion of Iraq a decade later, it was still at the heart of the attack.
However, within weeks of taking Baghdad, U.S. soldiers were besieged by an insurgency that wasn't in the lesson plan. Ambushes and roadside bombs took a steady toll on U.S. and British troops, and aggressive countermeasures predictably turned the population against the occupation.
After four years of getting hammered by insurgents, the Pentagon rediscovered counterinsurgency, and its prophet was General David Petraeus, now commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia. "Hearts and minds" was dusted off, and the watchwords became "clear, hold, and build." Troops were to hang out with the locals, dig wells, construct schools, and measure success not by body counts of the enemy, but by the "security" of the civilian population.
This theory impelled the Obama administration to "surge" 21,000 troops into Afghanistan, and to consider adding another 20,000 in the near future. The idea is that a surge will reduce the violence, as a similar surge of 30,000 troops had done in Iraq. Delusion #3 But as Patrick Cockburn of The Independent discovered, the surge didn't work in Iraq.
With the possible exception of Baghdad, it wasn't U.S. troops that reduced the violence in Iraq, but the decision by Sunni insurgents that they could no longer fight a two-front war against the Iraqi government and the United States. The ceasefire by Shi'ite cleric and Madhi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr also helped calm things down. In any case, as recent events have demonstrated, the "peace" was largely illusory.
Not only is a similar "surge" in Afghanistan unlikely to be successful, the formula behind counterinsurgency doctrine predicts that the Obama administration is headed for a train wreck.
According to investigative journalist Jordan Michael Smith, the "U.S/ Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual" — co-authored by Petraeus — recommends "a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents. In Afghanistan, with its population estimated at 33 million, that would mean at least 660,000 troops." And this requires not just any soldiers, but soldiers trained in counterinsurgency doctrine. The numbers don't add up. The United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies currently have about 64,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that figure would rise to almost 100,000 when the present surge is completed. Some 68,000 of those will be American. There is also a possibility that Obama will add another 20,000, bringing the total to 120,000, larger than the Soviet Army that occupied Afghanistan. That's still only a fifth of what the counterinsurgency manual recommends.
Meanwhile, the American public is increasingly disillusioned with the war. According to a recent CNN poll, 57% of Americans oppose the war, a jump of 9% since May. Among Obama supporters the opposition is overwhelming: Nearly two-thirds of "committed" Democrats feel "strongly" the war is not worth fighting. Delusion #4 Afghanistan isn't like Iraq because NATO is behind us. Way behind us.
The British — whose troops actually fight, as opposed to doing "reconstruction" like most of the other 16 NATO nations — have lost the home crowd. Polls show deep opposition to the war, a sentiment that is echoed all over Europe. Indeed, the German Defense Minister Franz-Joseph Jung has yet to use the word "war" in relation to Afghanistan.
That little piece of fiction went a-glimmering in June, when three Bundeswehr soldiers were killed near Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. Indeed, as U.S. Marines go on the offensive in the country's south, the Taliban are pulling up stakes and moving east and north to target the Germans. The tactic is as old as guerrilla warfare: "Where the enemy is strong, disperse. Where the enemy is weak, concentrate."
While Berlin's current ruling coalition of Social Democrats and conservatives quietly back the war, the Free Democrats — who are likely to join Chancellor Angela Merkel's government after the next election — are calling for bringing Germany's 4,500 troops home.
The opposition Left Party has long opposed the war, and that opposition gave it a boost in recent state elections.
The United States and NATO can't — or won't — supply the necessary troops, and the Afghan army is small, corrupt and incompetent. No matter how one adds up the numbers, the task is impossible. So why is the administration following an unsupportable course of action? Why We Fight There is that oil pipeline from the Caspian that no one wants to talk about. Strategic control of energy is certainly a major factor in Central Asia. Then, too, there is the fear that a defeat for NATO in its first "out of area" war might fatally damage the alliance.
But when all is said and done, there also seems to be is a certain studied derangement about the whole matter, a derangement that was on display July 12 when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told parliament that the war was showing "signs of success."
British forces had just suffered 15 deaths in a little more than a week, eight of them in a 24-hour period. It has now lost more soldiers that it did in Iraq. This is Britain's fourth war in Afghanistan.
The Karzai government has stolen the election. The war has spilled over to help destabilize and impoverish nuclear-armed Pakistan. The American and European public is increasingly opposed to the war. July was the deadliest month ever for the United States, and the Obama administration is looking at a $9 trillion deficit.
What are these people thinking?
This article, by Mike Corder, was posted to the Guffington Post, September 11, 2009
THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The top commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan said Friday he sees no signs of a major al-Qaida presence in the country, but says the terror group still maintains close links to insurgents.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal spoke on the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al-Qaida that prompted the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
The invasion quickly toppled the Taliban regime that had sheltered al-Qaida leaders who plotted the 9/11 attacks, but has since bogged down amid a deadly insurgency.
"I do not see indications of a large al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan now," McChrystal told reporters at the Dutch Defense Ministry, where he met military officials.
But he warned that Osama bin Laden's network still maintains contact with insurgents and seeks to use areas of Afghanistan they control as bases.
"I do believe that al-Qaida intends to retain those relationships because they believe it is symbiotic ... where the Taliban has success, that provides a sanctuary from which al-Qaida can operate transnationally," he added.
The specter of al-Qaida terrorists being harbored by insurgents in lawless areas of Afghanistan serves as a reminder to America and its allies of why the increasingly unpopular war started.
Last month, McChrystal sent a "strategic assessment" of the war to U.S. and NATO leaders. He has not revealed its contents publicly, but said at the time that success in Afghanistan "is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort."
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama ordered 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, which will bring the total number of U.S. forces there to 68,000 by the end of the year.
McChrystal is expected to ask for more troops soon, but would not elaborate on numbers Friday.
"My position here is a little bit like a mechanic. We've got a situation with a vehicle and I've been asked to look at it and tell the owner what the situation is and what it will cost to make the vehicle run correctly and I will provide that," he said.
"Now I understand that the vehicle owner then has to make a decision on what the car is worth, how much longer he intends to drive it," he added. "Whether he wants it to look good or just run."
McChrystal can expect the U.S. Congress to take a long look at any cost estimate he sends them.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking Democrat in Congress, said this week she did not think "there's a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or in the Congress."
But while skepticism about the war in Afghanistan grows, McChrystal said allied troops there likely prevented other terror attacks since 9/11.
"We have not been struck again in the United States, and I think the strikes that would have hit across the world – not just in Europe or the United States but I think also in much of the Muslim world – I think have been prevented," he told The Associated Press. "I can't prove that because you can't prove a negative, but I certainly strongly believe that is the case."
This article, by Victor Sebestyen, was posted to the Times Online, July 19, 2009
“There is barely an important piece of land in Afghanistan that has not been occupied by one of our soldiers at some time or another,” the commander said. “Nevertheless, much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the provincial centres, but we cannot maintain political control over the territory that we seize.”
He added: “Our soldiers are not to blame. They’ve fought incredibly bravely in adverse conditions. But to occupy towns and villages temporarily has little value in such a vast land, where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills.”
They could have been the words of a Nato general in the past few days. In fact they were spoken by Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, commander of Soviet armed forces, to the USSR’s politburo in the Kremlin on November 13, 1986.
The Soviet forces were in the seventh year of their nine-year war in Afghanistan and had lost about 12,000 men. Akhromeyev, a hero of the siege of Leningrad in the second world war, had been summoned to explain why a force of 109,000 troops from the world’s second superpower appeared to be humiliated, year after year, by a band of terrorists.
Akhromeyev explained about the rough terrain, insisted the army needed more resources – including additional helicopters – and warned that without more men and equipment “this war will continue for a very long time”.
He concluded with words that sound uncannily resonant today, in the eighth year of Nato’s war: “About 99% of the battles and skirmishes that we fought in Afghanistan were won by our side. The problem is that the next morning there is the same situation as if there had been no battle. The terrorists are again in the village where they were – or we thought they were – destroyed a day or so before.”
The Soviet campaign in Afghanistan is a largely forgotten war. Few strategists from Russia or the West seem to think anything can be learnt from it. But study Soviet archives and many lessons become clear.
As the world was not watching, the Soviet troops could be brutal, yet massive air raids and the destruction of villages, which killed 800,000 Afghans, did not work. Tactics changed over the years, each time accompanied by a “surge” of new troops that temporarily improved security for the Russian-backed communist government in Kabul.
Much of the fighting was in places that have become familiar to us. Soviet troops were sent on sweeps in the most troublesome areas on the border with Pakistan, through which most of the guerrillas’ weapons flowed, and the southern provinces of the country, such as Helmand. As soon as they left their fortified bases, the troops were in danger of ambush from bands of mujaheddin – the army of God.
That war, like today’s, was characterised by disputes between soldiers and politicians. As newly revealed Russian documents show, the Communist party bosses ordered the invasion against the advice of senior commanders. This caused continual friction in Moscow for many years.
Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, the chief of the Soviet defence staff, and Akhromeyev, his number two, raised doubts shortly before Soviet forces were dispatched on Christmas Day 1979. They suggested to Dmitri Ustinov, the defence minister, that the experiences of the British and tsarist armies in the 19th century should encourage caution.
Ustinov told them to “shut up and obey orders”, according to politburo minutes.
Ogarkov went further up the chain of command to Leonid Brezhnev, the party boss. He warned that an invasion “could mire us in unfamiliar, difficult conditions and would align the entire Islamic East against us”. He was cut off in mid-sentence.
“Focus on military matters,” he was told. “Leave the policy making to us and to the party.” Not long afterwards the marshal was fired.
The Soviet troops realised soon after they entered Afghanistan that they had blundered, but Kremlin officials felt trapped. When Mikhail Gorbachev became leader in March 1985 he declared privately that ending the war – “our bleeding wound” – was his priority. But he could not do so for fear of losing too much face. Withdrawing the troops took a further four years as they searched for that difficult prize for armies on the run: peace with honour.
It was an agonising process that marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire and eventually the USSR itself. “How to get out of this racks one’s brains,” Gorbachev despaired to his fellow Soviet magnates in the spring of 1986. He told his generals later that year: “After all this time we have not learnt how to wage war there.”
When the last troops left on February 15, 1989, about 15,000 of their comrades had been killed. It was the only war the USSR lost. To Gorbachev, one vital issue was how to “spin” it correctly. As he wrote to his key aides during the last phase of the retreat, presentation was key: “We must say that our people have not given their lives in vain,” he said.
This article, by M. Ashraf Haidari, was originally published in Journal of International Peace Operations, September 4, 2009
The study of the political landscape of a country used to involve looking for the existence of certain state and security institutions; it has changed in the recent decades to examining whether these institutions perform as they should. In the case of Afghanistan , however, the metric is slightly different. Here, human capital has remained underdeveloped, courtesy of the decades of war that preceded the current state-building efforts. As a result, the question here is not whether institutions exist, but how well institutions are run and how meritorious those running them are.
Capacity, or lack thereof, in the police, the judicial system, the bureaucracy, education and other fields is a thread that weaves through the successes and failures of our efforts to build a state essentially from ground up. In what follows, I will outline some of the key lessons learned over the past eight years. Indeed, whether or not we proactively work together to build upon these vital lessons learned will determine our collective success or failure in the few critical years following the 2009 presidential and 2010 parliamentary elections in Afghanistan .
Afghanistan’s battle against the Taliban and other extremist elements is unique in that it is the national police, not the army or the international forces, who constitute the first line of defense. Our sincere efforts to fight drug-trafficking and production, defeat the insurgency, and create an enabling environment for the civilian institutions also hinge on this key area.
However, law enforcement institutions have been neglected from the beginning in Afghanistan . The implementation of judicial and police reforms—reforms that should have been the foundation on which other state institutions were built--was shelved indefinitely due to a lack of resources. This paucity of resources has contributed to a significantly higher number of police casualties. Between 2007 and 2009 alone, more than 1500 Afghan National Police (ANP) officers were killed. Close to 600 Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers have lost their lives in the same period. The total International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) casualties since 2001 are at about 1300. Thus, given the substantially higher risk environment the ANP faces and the seminal role it plays in maintaining day-to-day law and order across Afghanistan , it is very important that long-term attention and resources be focused on police training and equipment. These enable them to counter threats from the Taliban and other militant elements, who are often better trained, paid, and equipped.
Another related and equally neglected institution has been the Afghan justice sector. Although the effectiveness of the justice sector determines the legitimacy of any government in public eyes, the reform of this critical sector in Afghanistan has unfortunately received the least amount of international attention and aid resources. Afghanistan has fewer than 1500 judges and 400 defense lawyers for a population of approximately 33 million. Most of these judges and attorneys lack modern legal training, as well as office resources and protection to execute their duties effectively. This is one of the main reasons why 62% of Afghans believe the government does not provide timely justice, and only half believe the government’s justice system is fair; compare this to 70% favorability for traditional methods, according to an Asia Foundation survey.
The popular sense of justice is still percipient—Afghans expect the government to provide them timely and effective justice. Indeed, failure to do so will undermine popular confidence in the government, as well as in the state-building efforts of the international community.
Work on the justice sector must be complemented by an increased emphasis on aid effectiveness. In the past, many donor-related contractors have undermined the Afghan government’s efforts by working parallel to it, instead of working with it or through it. Over the last eight years, this parallel method of operation has resulted in very little transfer of knowledge and skills to Afghans. Donor-related firms continue to receive highly profitable contracts, which they frequently subcontract to smaller companies for implementation. Indeed, each layer of subcontracting skims some 20% of the taxpayers’ aid monies, consequently robbing the beneficiaries of the “billions of dollars” in officially announced aid to Afghanistan .
Moreover, most of the contractors and their affiliated business partners neither have the necessary work experience in Afghanistan nor the right expertise to operate successfully in Afghanistan . Yet, so far, only about 10% of all aid money given to Afghanistan has been spent through the government; the rest has been channeled through private contractors and other means. And because of a lack of consultation and coordination with the Afghan government and people, these agencies have concentrated most of the aid activity in insecure areas, apparently hoping to help defeat the insurgency by winning the people over. Not only has this tactic not worked, but the absence of enough aid in the peaceful provinces has caused disillusionment among the masses and given insurgency a foothold there.
Coupled with aid effectiveness is aid coordination. So far, donor countries have failed to effectively coordinate their efforts in various sectors. This has hampered aid effectiveness and slowed down the process of state-building. Case in point is the education sector. In many instances, the building of a school is constructed by one country, the chairs and desks are provided by another, and other equipment is financed by a third donor—if donors notice the shortages in the school that was just “built.” The overall aid effort in the country is characterized by this same lack of coordination.
Common to each of the above lessons is the importance of human development and institutional capacity building in Afghanistan . Past experience is instructive in this regard, as the first point of contact between the Afghan people and the governing entity used to be the army, the police or other militia groups. These institutions mostly kept people in check rather than protecting them. As a result, Afghans are not used to—but have shown great demand for— a government whose main function is to protect them and maintain conditions for peaceful life.
Unlike established democracies, therefore, the source of legitimacy and support for the government in Afghanistan does not overwhelmingly come from electoral majority. It rather comes from the nature of people’s first experiences with the government, the bureaucracy, the police and the justice system. The more positive these experiences, the greater respect and legitimacy the government and the democratic system garner in the eyes of the Afghan people.
In order to ensure that these popular experiences are positive, building institutions that are staffed by qualified professionals is necessary. In case of Afghanistan , that has to happen from scratch. As stated earlier, with less than a third of the Afghan population being literate, the pool of competent people for professional careers and leadership capacities is already small. Unfortunately, decades of war have significantly hampered human development in Afghanistan , and the absence of effective state institutions in these periods—such as the police, the army and a civil bureaucracy—has certainly contributed to the deceleration of the development and transfer of knowledge and skills to successive generations.
Therefore, human development and institutional capacity building must top the agenda of international peace operations in Afghanistan . Without enough knowledge and skill, Afghans could hardly achieve self-sustainability to help drive the rebuilding and development of Afghanistan on their own. The road leading up to this level of competence is long and hard, but a serious emphasis on education and training is imperative.
Improving the infrastructure for, and quality of, both secondary and higher education coupled with ensuring greater inclusion of women in education are cornerstones of this policy. To complement that, helping Afghanistan establish a culture of meritocracy in all hiring and firing, and emphasizing accountability in all institutions of the government is critical to improving governance and curbing corruption.
Finally, it is important to note that international peace-building efforts so far enjoy tremendous popular support in Afghanistan . Some of the most recent public opinion polls indicate that more than two-thirds of the Afghan people believe our country is headed in the right direction. A July poll by Glevum Associates found that an overwhelming majority of the Afghan people—more than 80 percent—believe the August elections will be inclusive and representative. Such overwhelming popular trust in the democratic process is a signal to the international community that the Afghan people are still optimistic about the future, support human rights and the rule of law, denounce extremist elements, and demand a future with democracy rather than militant extremism.
But perhaps the most important lesson is that even after being neglected twice—first after the defeat of the Soviet Union and then after the ouster of the Taliban—the Afghan people still want to be part of the global community of nations. They are ready to give the international community another chance.
Indeed, international peace operations have hardly been cheap, and it takes time, patience, and commitment. However, the alternative— neglecting Afghanistan again—in a world where security has rapidly globalized, is far more costly, as we vividly remember from the tragedy of September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
To this extent, failure in Afghanistan is not an option, and peace can hardly take hold in Pakistan and the rest of the region without stability in Afghanistan . Nor can global security be ensured without a consolidation of Afghanistan 's democratic achievements of the past eight years.
All stakeholders—Afghans and non-Afghans alike—should understand the gravity of committing to success by building upon the above lessons learned until the Afghan people can stand on their own and secure the future of Afghanistan.
This article, by Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason, was published in Foreign Policy, August 20, 2009
For those who say that comparing the current war in Afghanistan to the Vietnam War is taking things too far, here's a reality check: It's not taking things far enough. From the origins of these North-South conflicts to the role of insurgents and the pointlessness of this week's Afghan presidential elections, it's impossible to ignore the similarities between these wars. The places and faces may have changed but the enemy is old and familiar. The sooner the United States recognizes this, the sooner it can stop making the same mistakes in Afghanistan.
Even at first glance the structural parallels alone are sobering. Both Vietnam and Afghanistan (prior to the U.S. engagement there) had surprisingly defeated a European power in a guerrilla war that lasted a decade, followed by a largely north-south civil war which lasted another decade. Insurgents in both countries enjoyed the advantage of a long, trackless, and uncloseable border and sanctuary beyond it, where they maintained absolute political control. Both were land wars in Asia with logistics lines more than 9,000 miles long and extremely harsh terrain with few roads, which nullified U.S. advantages in ground mobility and artillery. Other key contributing factors bear a striking resemblance: Almost exactly 80 percent of the population of both countries was rural, and literacy hovered around 10 percent.
In both countries, the United States sought to create an indigenous army modeled in its own image, based on U.S. army organization charts. With the ARVN in South Vietnam and the ANA in today's Afghanistan, assignment of personnel as combat advisors and mentors was the absolute lowest priority. And in both wars, the U.S. military grossly misled the American people about the size of the indigenous force over a protracted period. In Afghanistan, for example, the U.S. military touts 91,000 ANA soldiers as "trained and equipped," knowing full well that barely 39,000 are still in the ranks and present for duty.
The United States consistently and profoundly misunderstood the nature of the enemy it was fighting in each circumstance. In Vietnam, the United States insisted on fighting a war against communism, while the enemy was fighting a war of national reunification. In Afghanistan, the United States still insists on fighting a secular counterinsurgency, while the enemy is fighting a jihad. The intersection of how insurgencies end and how jihads end is nil. It's hard to defeat an enemy you don't understand, and in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, this fight is being played out in a different war.
This is but the tip of the iceberg of a long list of remarkable parallels. What's really startling are the deeper strategic connections. The United States lost the war in Vietnam, historical revisionism notwithstanding, because of a fatal nexus of political and military failure, and the exact same thing is happening in Afghanistan. As Andrew Krepinevich noted many years ago, the army failed in Vietnam because it insisted on fighting a war of maneuver to "find, fix, and destroy" the enemy (with what became known as "search and destroy missions") instead of protecting the people in the villages. Today these tactics are called "sweep and clear missions," but they are in essence the same thing -- clearing tiny patches of ground for short periods in a big country in hopes of killing enough enemy to make him quit. But its manpower pool was not North Vietnam's Achilles heel and neither is it the Taliban's. Almost exactly the same percentage of personnel in Afghanistan has rural reconstruction as its primary mission (the Provincial Reconstruction Teams) as had "pacification" (today's "nation-building") as their primary mission in Vietnam, about 4 percent. The other 96 percent is engaged in chasing illiterate teenage boys with guns around the countryside, exactly what the enemy wants us to do.
Meanwhile the political failure in Kabul is Saigon déjà vu. A government that is seen as legitimate by 85 or 90 percent of the population is considered the sine qua non of success by counterinsurgency experts. After the Diem coup, this was never possible in Vietnam, as one incompetent and utterly corrupt government succeeded another. None was legitimate in the eyes of the people. Contemporary descriptions of the various Saigon governments read almost exactly like descriptions of the Karzai government today. Notwithstanding all the fanfare over this week's presidential voting in Afghanistan, the Kabul government will never be legitimate either, because democracy is not a source of legitimacy of governance in Afghanistan and it never has been. Legitimacy in Afghanistan over the last thousand years has come exclusively from dynastic and religious sources. The fatal blunder of the United States in eliminating a ceremonial Afghan monarchy was Afghanistan's Diem Coup: afterwards, there was little possibility of establishing a legitimate, secular national government.
It doesn't matter who wins the August elections for president in Afghanistan: he will be illegitimate because he is elected. We have apparently learned nothing from Vietnam.