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.
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This article, by Nancy A. Youssef and Jonathan S. Landay, was posted to Common Dreams, August 26, 2009
WASHINGTON - With the deaths of four U.S. soldiers Tuesday, the U.S.-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan now has lost more troops this year than in all of 2008, and August is on track to be the deadliest month for American troops there since U.S. operations began nearly eight years ago.
The numbers reflect the rising pace of combat in Afghanistan and come at a difficult time, just as Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is considering asking for more U.S. troops even as opinion polls show that a majority of Americans think the war in Afghanistan isn't worth the cost.
Underscoring the deteriorating situation, a massive explosion late Tuesday shook the southern city of Kandahar, leveling dozens of businesses as people were breaking the daylong fast of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Local officials said at least 37 civilians were killed and another 100 were injured.
Afghans also are awaiting results from the Aug. 20 presidential election as the top candidates claim the lead. A runoff will be held if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the nationwide vote; the protracted uncertainty could lead to more violence. Partial results released Tuesday showed President Hamid Karzai running slightly ahead of his nearest competitor, with 40 percent of the counted votes.
In July, 45 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan, the highest monthly toll this year. So far in August, 40 Americans have died, many in the south, and Pentagon officials say privately that with nearly a week left in the month, they expect August to exceed July's number. Americans make up the majority of the 63 coalition troops killed so far this month; 75 coalition soldiers died in July.
In 2008, total coalition deaths were 294, 155 of whom were Americans; the 2009 total through Tuesday was 295, of whom 172 were Americans.
There are currently 63,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The four Americans who died Tuesday were killed when an explosion hit a convoy in Kandahar province. U.S. officials didn't disclose the identities of the soldiers or of their unit and did not say where the convoy was precisely when it was struck.
Senior U.S. military leaders have warned that troop deaths were likely to rise as the Obama administration sent an additional 17,500 troops and 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan. Those forces began arriving in Afghanistan earlier this summer, including thousands of Marines who launched a major offensive in southern Helmand province. Roughly 6,000 of those forces are still en route.
Under McChrystal, the U.S. is expanding its presence into parts of southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where coalition forces have never had enough troops to displace the Taliban.
Kandahar city is the country's second-largest and the spiritual capital of the Pashtuns, the ethnic group that comprises virtually all of the Taliban. And more than 90 percent of Afghanistan poppy production comes out of Helmand.
"We are not surprised," said a senior Pentagon officer who asked for anonymity so that he could discuss the casualty figures candidly. "We knew this would happen."
The increase in casualties comes at a time that public support for the war appears to be eroding. A Washington Post-ABC News polls released last week found that for the first time, a majority of Americans don't think the war is worth fighting.
Members of Congress are expressing concerns about U.S. progress in a country known as the graveyard of empires.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a proponent of sending more troops to Afghanistan on Sunday called the trends in Afghanistan "very alarming and disturbing" on ABC News, while Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a member on the Foreign Relations Committee, told his home state's Appleton Post-Crescent newspaper that he wants a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
"I think it is time we ought to start discussing a flexible timetable when people in America and Afghanistan and around the world can see where we intend and when we intend to bring our troops out," Feingold said, according to the paper.
Interviews with Afghans show that they are fed up as well. Many say they don't want help from the U.S., the Taliban or their central government; they just want to be left alone.
Haji Agha Lalai, the head of the provincial peace and reconciliation commission and a Kandahar provincial council member, visited the scene shortly after Tuesday night's bombing. In a telephone interview, he said he was told by a police officer that a large tanker truck was moving through the neighborhood when the explosion occurred.
"The houses along a 20-meter (66 foot) section of roadway were completely destroyed," he said.
The bombing happened as there are growing charges of massive fraud in the presidential election, which the U.S. and its allies had hoped would produce a stable government that would cooperate closely on the Obama administration's new strategy for defeating the Taliban-led insurgency.
Preliminary results released Tuesday by the Independent Election Commission showed that with 10 percent of polling stations counted, President Hamid Karzai was running slightly ahead of his closest challenger and former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, 40.6 percent to 38.7 percent.
Just before the IEC announced the results, Abdullah intensified his charges that Karzai had used his control over the government to orchestrate a campaign of "wide-scale fraud."
Using stronger language than in previous days, Abdullah warned that he'd "not allow a big fraud to determine the outcome of the election" and would "not make deals" in return for dropping his charges, like accepting a top post in the new government.
Six other candidates issued a joint statement warning that the volume of rigging complaints had many people "seriously questioning the legitimacy and credibility of the results."
This article, by Kimberly Kagan, was posted to the Af-Pak Channel, August 10, 2009
The war in Afghanistan has not been going well, and it is no surprise that Americans are frustrated. Many observers can rightly point to signs of progress: the functionality of specific Afghan government ministries and programs, the slow growth of the Afghan National Army, the building of major infrastructure such as roads and dams, and agricultural improvements. These accomplishments, however, have not created the conditions that the United States has aimed to achieve: an Afghan state with a competent government considered legitimate by its people and capable of defending them, such that Afghanistan can no longer function as a safe haven for Islamist terrorist groups. Indeed, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of coalition forces, recently suggested, the situation shows signs of deteriorating: Afghan enemy groups remain highly capable, have gained momentum, and have expanded their areas of operations. Violence against coalition forces is rising. So the question is: Why haven't we been winning in Afghanistan?
Although I served on McChrystal's assessment team, I do not know how he would answer this question, nor could I speculate about his recommendations for the strategy going forward. But after much research, as well as two visits to Afghanistan this year, I personally think that the military operations themselves are failing because there has been no coherent theaterwide counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Despite U.S. President Barack Obama's newly announced "Af-Pak" strategy, the U.S. and coalition campaign this summer is a continuation of the poorly designed operations from 2008. And the sheer inertia of military operations means that it will be hard to turn this supertanker around for the better part of this year. But turn it around we must, starting with correcting the following flaws in the strategy that McChrystal and his team inherited from their predecessors. 1. Fighting in the wrong places NATO forces are widely dispersed throughout Afghanistan, even in the Pashtun areas in the south and east, rather than concentrated on one or two priorities. A possible exception is Helmand, the only province in which two brigades are deployed -- the British force and the recently arrived U.S. Marine expeditionary brigade. In contrast, during the surge in Iraq, the United States concentrated about half of its forces in Baghdad and its suburbs. Baghdad was the center of gravity of the fight. If we controlled it, we'd win; if the enemy controlled it, we'd lose. So five brigade combat teams -- roughly 25,000 troops with their enablers -- protected the city of 8 million people. Four more teams protected Baghdad's southern approaches, and at least one, sometimes two, additional teams protected the city's northern suburbs.
There is no simple equivalent to Baghdad in Afghanistan. Instead, most of the population -- and the insurgency -- is dispersed in rural areas. Nevertheless, some areas, such as Kandahar city and the districts around it, are more important -- to the enemy, to the Afghan government, and to us -- than others. And yet, there are almost no counterinsurgents whatsoever in all but two of the districts around Kandahar, and none in the city itself, just a scant footprint from the Afghanistan national security forces. Worse still, the ratio of counterinsurgents to the population in those two districts is approximately 1 to 44, close to the minimum requirement. A good evaluation of our priorities in Afghanistan would yield a significantly different, and more effective, distribution of coalition forces. This is undoubtedly why McChrystal recently told reporters that he will be concentrating forces around Kandahar city. 2. Fighting in the wrong ways Another problem is that NATO forces have briefed counterinsurgency doctrine better than they have practiced it. Almost all NATO units in Pashtun areas claim that they are protecting the population by engaging in a sequence of military operations known as "shape-clear-hold-build." But these forces move through the sequence too rapidly. Based on recent experiences in Iraq, shaping an area requires 30 to 45 days, clearing it requires three to six months, and holding it takes longer than that. With very few exceptions, NATO forces in Afghanistan have never operated on such timelines. They condense shaping and clearing operations into a few weeks, and then they transition prematurely into what they perceive as a hold phase. As a result, NATO forces rarely gain permanent control over areas -- or if they do, those areas are so small as to have little effect on the insurgency or the population. The enemy simply dissipates and then returns.
What's more, coalition and Afghan forces are excessively focused on securing supply lines and reducing the threat of improvised explosive devices through tactical efforts rather than by countering the insurgency. Consequently, many forces -- especially Afghan forces -- are distributed along the ring road, the main corridor that circles the country. Static positions such as these waste troops. Of course, our forces must be able to maneuver along strategic corridors, but the best way to do that is by securing populated areas and maneuvering off the ring road to defeat the enemy in its sanctuaries and support zones.
In other areas, combat forces are trying to do the right things but, again, in the wrong places. As the Iraq experience demonstrated, successful counterinsurgency often entails distributing forces from larger to smaller bases in order to live among the population. But in some remote areas of Afghanistan's eastern theater, such as Nuristan, where the enemy has little operational or strategic effect, combat forces have overextended themselves. They have moved off large forward operating bases, pushed into strategically insignificant areas, and established small combat outposts that can barely sustain themselves: The units there are too tiny to do anything but protect their outpost. A better approach is to concentrate forces for counterinsurgency operations and run greater risks in places of lesser importance. 3. Fighting with the wrong assumptions
What too often determines where coalition forces conduct their shape-clear-hold-build operations is the prospect for conducting development projects -- not population security. This tends to favor the important over the urgent, the possible over the necessary. For example, major combat operations in the British area of Helmand have been conducted in order to permit development. The Kajaki dam and the agricultural development zone near Lashkar Gah have driven the concentration of forces within the province and, indeed, within the southern region generally. In eastern Afghanistan, U.S. forces have conducted operations to build roads, such as the Khost-Gardez Pass road. These projects are important for long-term development, but they are only sometimes important for achieving our military objectives and should not be allowed to dictate the disposition of scarce military resources.
Moreover, military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan make the wrong assumptions about development. Too often they emphasize the value of a development project as a model -- as a demonstration of Afghan government competence and Western goodwill. Completing a specific dam, for example, shows the population that the Afghan government can provide services in general; clearing a specific village shows that the Afghan national security forces can secure the population in principle. But if the model is not replicated widely and rapidly, it's simply a demonstration of what might be accomplished. Demonstration effects will not defeat the insurgency. Either a venue is secure and has an operating government, or it does not. A good counterinsurgency plan succeeds by generating synergies among good, localized projects -- not by identifying a thousand points of light and hoping that they constitute an electrical grid. 4. Fighting successfully -- or failing? Metrics are important in any war, and based on recent reports, the Obama administration is preparing a new set of indicators to measure whether the fight in Afghanistan is succeeding. As important as identifying good metrics is rejecting bad ones. Violence against coalition forces, for example, is an unreliable indicator of success or failure. For one thing, as we saw in Iraq, violence against friendly forces can increase at the start of a counteroffensive to regain control of areas that the enemy holds. No violence, in turn, might mean that an area is completely controlled by the enemy. The metrics of success are not simply statistics, and they cannot be determined independently of a campaign plan, which sets out a hierarchy of tasks and objectives. 5. Can we win?
Some answer simply and sharply in the negative: They claim that Afghanistan has never been centrally ruled (which is wrong) and that it has been the "graveyard of empires" (which is true in only a specific handful of cases). Failure is not at all inevitable. The war in Afghanistan has suffered almost from the start from a lack of resources, especially the time and attention of senior policymakers. The United States prioritized the war in Iraq from 2007 until 2009, for strategically sound reasons. Some of this parsimony also comes from flawed theories of counterinsurgency: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for example, misreads the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, which has consistently led him to argue incorrectly against expanding the size of the force there, claiming that it increases the risks of failure.
We can win in Afghanistan, but only if we restructure the campaign and resource it properly. Adding more resources to the military effort as it has been conducted over the past few years, without fundamentally changing its conception, design, and execution, would achieve little. This was also the case in Iraq before the surge, and the change in strategy and campaign plan that followed was as important to success as the additional resources. This explains why McChrystal might adopt a different campaign design -- perhaps requiring additional military resources -- when he submits his formal assessment to the U.S. secretary of defense and NATO secretary-general sometime after the Afghan elections.
The fact that we have not been doing the right things for the past few years in Afghanistan is actually good news at this moment. A sound, properly resourced counterinsurgency has not failed in Afghanistan; it has never even been tried. So there is good reason to think that such a new strategy can succeed now. But we have to hurry, for as is often the case in these kinds of war, if you aren't winning, you're losing.