Saturday, April 9, 2011

Ode to grunts

Review of Bing Wests's "The Wrong War", on Afghanistan.

First off, the book's title is incorrect. West never claims that Afghanistan is, on the whole, the wrong war, as the case has been made that, say, Iraq was the wrong war. After a blizzard of gripes, complaints, and second-guessing, he wants us to finish the war successfully, not turn tail and leave the Afghans (and Pakistanis, and Al Qaeda-ists from who knows where ...) to their own devices.

But West's analysis of the war takes a distinct back seat to his breathless narration of heroism at arms by America's (and Britain's) finest fighting forces. Most of the book derives from a few embedding trips he took, to Kunar province in the Northeast, and to Helmand province in the South of Afghanistan. The story is similar- that the marines in the field (with grudging mention of other services, as long as they are infantry "grunts") inevitably carry the day if they have a clear mission, resources, and are given free reign to kill the enemy.

His story-telling is detailed and gripping, taking the reader through several intense firefights. His grunts are noble, no-nonsense, exquisitely sensitive to each other and to the locals, as ready to smell a rat among the lying villagers as to give their last drop of water to a needy comrade or administer medical aid to a local child. And, reluctantly, they "drink lots of tea" with the elders, feeling out their sympathies and seeking reciprocity ... aid and public projects in return for intelligence and political support. But typically, that reciprocity never comes. The US is left fighting alone against a murky enemy, with the sullen villagers either looking dumbly on, or helping their Taliban frenemies from the shadows.

His strategic point is that the COIN (counter-insurgency) policy that puts treating regular Afghans well over killing the enemy has failed. The people of Afghanistan are .. take your pick ... too jaded, too greedy, too traumatized, too distrustful of the US, too disorganized ... to respond to our "hearts and minds" blandishments. They know that the Taliban aren't going away, while the infidel US surely is going away, eventually. This doesn't mean that we should disregard or brutalize Afghan civilians, only that we can't expect to win by ministering to them directly.

In Iraq, the rural tribes swung decisively towards the Western coalition and away from the insurgency at some point (when the US Marines proved we were serious, or when we paid them off ...). In Afghanistan, there is no similar movement away from the Taliban, especially in the remote rural areas that provide the Taliban such vast territory and effective staging areas. Not to mention their sanctuary across the border, which has been so carefully tended by our allies, the Pakistanis. Quite the opposite- the coalition has continued to cede territory to the Taliban, under the guise of dismantling indefensible outposts.

The Afghan people follow power and know power- they smell which way the wind blows. And if we prove ourselves weak-willed in our attempt to please them, rather than strong willed in ridding them of the Taliban, (which is more our enemy than theirs, at least in many Afghan's eyes), then they would be fools to side with us prematurely, especially when the West is introducing so many unsettling, unIslamic, and corrupting new ideas and practices.

West's solution is to man up- both ourselves by focussing relentlessly on the enemy, and the Afghans, by beefing up the Afghan armed forces, which according to West perform decently well when under direct US supervision. A few more years of advising and support, and they should be well on their way to keeping the country in decent shape, given political support. Unfortunately, West skims over the hard work of figuring out how to get from here to there.
"This war will be decided by grit."
The Afghan army and police are riddled with corruption, poor pay, and incompetence. So we have to supplement West's advice with some more particulars. The basic issue is- who is in charge? Is the corrupt and ineffective Hamid Karzai in charge? If so, we are doomed, since his government is the source of our long-drawn out (ten years, so far) exercise in futility. He demands that we not kill any civilians while we desperately fight his war for him, while at the same time not lifting a finger to recruit effective administrators, police, and army leaders. Graft and corruption rule the day, leaving the Afghan people little hope whoever wins this war. For an effective army, a great deal of stable-cleaning would be needed, as well as rational promotion system. The army may need to be bigger, but quality is far, far more important than quantity.

Unfortunately, the days of staging coups to get rid of inconvenient leaders (see Vietnam) are (thankfully) over, so something more sophisticated needs to be devised. What I would propose would be our very own public Afghan anticorruption campaign. The US in Afghanistan knows where the bodies are buried, as documented by Dexter Filkins in a recent New Yorker piece. So why don't the Afghan people know what we know? The reason is that we are behaving like a battered wife, trying to keep the family secrets and prop up the confidence of an abusive spouse who can't and won't ever change. If Karzai wants us to fight for his hide, (and he certainly does), then he will have to take some heat in the form of transparency about what is going on in his government, broadcast loud and proud across Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, the expectations of the Afghan people are so low at this point that it is hard to see what could generate the kind of outrage that would be needed to get Karzai to, say, resign- the ultimate goal of such a campaign. Even the complete dissolution of Afghanistan's largest bank, after blatant control fraud by Karzai's brother and friends, doesn't seem to have generated much outrage. Something more sinister, perhaps like Karzai looking askance at a koran ... something is sure to turn up. For example, Karzai keeps releasing the most serious criminals from Kabul's jails. Where is the outrage? The US should sponsor a thorough, if perhaps indirect, media campaign to hold the government accountable for this elemental lapse in governance.

Then a better person like the recent challenger Abdulla Abdulla might take office instead. Karzai chose a first vice president more disliked than himself (the Tajik commander Mohammad Qasim Fahim) seemingly insuring against this turn of events, not to mention assassination, etc. So it would be a rather long slog in the information warfare space to get to an Afghan government that serves the interests of its own people, not to mention ours as well. But we need to develop some sticks to improve the government of Afghanistan. We desperately need it to not just exist, but to be functional.

Afghans are evidently capable of outstanding bravery and heroic feats of logistics and strategy. Why the official government can not avail itself of this kind of spirit is the fundamental question of the day. If continues to fail, as the South Vietnamese government failed 40 years ago in a mire of corruption, then nothing we can do can make up the difference.

"The EU has given Iceland bad advice: “Pay the Icesave debts, guarantee the bad bank loans, it really won’t cost too much. It will be fairly easy for your government to take it on.” One now can see that this is the same bad advice given to Ireland, Greece and other countries. “Fairly easy” is a euphemism for decades of economic shrinkage and emigration."
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week:
"It was such a lark. Capitalists found that they could sustain sales and receive an additional bonus in the form of interest payments – while also suppressing real wage growth. Households, enticed by lower interest rates and the relentless marketing strategies of the financial sector, embarked on a credit binge.
The increasing share of real output (income) pocketed by capital became the gambling chips for a rapidly expanding and deregulated financial sector. Governments claimed this would create wealth for all. And for a while, nominal wealth did grow—though its distribution did not become fairer. However, greed got the better of the bankers, as they pushed increasingly riskier debt onto people who were clearly susceptible to default. This was the origin of the sub-prime housing crisis of 2007–08.
Yesterday the US Federal Reserve were forced by the courts to finally release which banks etc received benefits from the US government. It is a fancy list of the high flyers who said they could self-regulate and produce optimal outcomes. They were supported by the same economists who now are claiming deficits are bad and the government should engage in fiscal austerity. Hypocrites, liars and parasites – the lot of them."

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