The Afghanistan War Ends … On Paper

https://twitter.com/JamesRisen/status/549590818273914880

The American and allied combat mission in Afghanistan officially ended yesterday, but that doesn’t mean we’re getting out of there:

The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which peaked at about 100,000 in 2010, will fall to 10,800 in January, aimed at helping the Afghan government hold on to power, even as Taliban units occupy territory increasingly close to the capital. Nearly 1 million U.S. troops pulled at least one tour in Afghanistan. Yet during 2002 and 2003, the average number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan never topped 10,400. That means the U.S. forces left in country following the war will top the number fighting there during its first two years.

A total of 3,485 allied troops died in Afghanistan over the past 13 years, including 2,356 Americans. The war cost U.S. taxpayers, past, present and future, about $1 trillion.

Afghanistan’s new president Ashraf Ghani had agreed at the end of September to allow the 10,000-strong contingent of US troops to remain in the country past the end of 2014. Last month, President Obama quietly authorized that contingent to play a more expansive role than originally planned:

Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.

Meanwhile, 2014 is likely to be Afghanistan’s worst year since 2009 in terms of civilian casualties. So forget all that about the war being “over”. Still, the Taliban took the opportunity to boast that it had defeated the US-led coalition:

“ISAF rolled up its flag in an atmosphere of failure and disappointment without having achieved anything substantial or tangible,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an statement emailed on Monday. … Vowing to restore their former hard-line Islamist regime, Taliban spokesman Mujahid vowed that “the demoralized American-built forces will constantly be dealt defeats just like their masters”. The Taliban have launched increasingly deadly attacks this year. Nearly 3,200 Afghan civilians were killed in the conflict between the militant group and the army in 2014, and more than 4,600 Afghan army and police died in Taliban attacks.

Dorian de Wind finds the charade pretty rich:

If it is any consolation, the President and others appear to recognize the risks of our continued involvement in Afghanistan: “Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, and the Afghan people and their security forces continue to make tremendous sacrifices in defense of their country…Our personnel will continue to face risks, but this reflects the enduring commitment of the United States to the Afghan people and to a united, secure and sovereign Afghanistan that is never again used as a source of attacks against our nation,” Obama said.

But then, we should not call the beginning of an “operation” that leaves 11,000 U.S. troops in harm’s way “the end of the war.” It is almost as fallacious and cruel as the infamous “mission accomplished” was.

Amoral Allies In Afghanistan

British MP Rory Stewart reviews Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, which “demonstrates that the failures of the intervention were worse than even the most cynical believed”. In particular, Stewart praises the insight Gopal brings to just how ethically compromised our alliances with Afghan warlords really were:

His long interviews with warlords, his sympathetic accounts of their youth and sufferings, make their crimes only more convincing and more shocking.

Thus he interviews Jan Muhammed at length, tracing his rise from school janitor to major resistance commander in the fight against the Soviet Union. He describes his being imprisoned, the tortures he suffered, and his being marched out to face a Taliban firing squad. He describes how Jan Muhammed saved President Karzai from an ambush in the 1990s and then became his friend and adviser. All this, however, is the introduction to Jan Muhammed ordering death squads to shoot unarmed grandfathers in front of their families, to electrocute and maim, and to steal people’s last possessions, in pursuit of an ever more psychopathic crusade to eliminate anyone associated with the Taliban or indeed with a rival tribe. No one reading Gopal would be tempted to joke about these men again, or present them simply as “traditional power-brokers” and “necessary evils.”

Peter Tomsen compares Gopal’s work to two other recent books on Afghanistan by Carter Malkasian and Carlotta Gall, which focus more on how Pakistan—”the true enemy”, in Gall’s words—was playing a double game all along:

Unlike Malkasian and Gall, Gopal does not depict Pakistan as the primary spoiler in Afghanistan. And he rejects the conventional wisdom that the Afghan war went astray only because Washington took its eye off the ball by shifting its attention to Iraq. He puts forward a different hypothesis: “Following the Taliban’s collapse, al-Qaeda had fled the country. . . . By April 2002, the group could no longer be found in Kandahar — or anywhere else in Afghanistan. The Taliban, meanwhile, had ceased to exist. . . .  The terrorists had all decamped or abandoned the cause, yet U.S. special forces were on Afghan soil with a clear political mandate: defeat terrorism.” This, Gopal claims, presented Washington with a puzzle: “How do you fight a war without an adversary?” The answer, he writes, was supplied by Afghan warlords who saw an opportunity to consolidate their power with the unwitting assistance of the Americans — and to get rich in the process.

But Tomsen finds Gopal’s conclusion only halfway convincing:

There is merit to Gopal’s thesis that the U.S. partnership with unpopular warlords helped open the way for the Taliban’s return. But Gopal errs in concluding that the Taliban had “ceased to exist” in Afghanistan after the group’s leaders fled back to their former Pakistani sanctuaries following the U.S.-led invasion. Thousands of Taliban foot soldiers, along with scores of midlevel leaders and commanders, had merely gravitated back to the protection of clans and tribes in Afghan villages and mountains, ready to fight another day. And although Washington’s embrace of warlords helped the Taliban win public support after regrouping, the militants would not have been able to return to Afghanistan in force without Pakistan’s assistance.

Losing The Opium War

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A new report (pdf) from the office of John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, reveals that poppy production in Afghanistan hit a record high of 209,000 hectares last year, despite a $7.6 billion eradication effort:

“In past years, surges in opium poppy cultivation have been met by a coordinated response from the U.S. government and coalition partners, which has led to a temporary decline in levels of opium production,” Sopko said in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other top U.S. officials. “The recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts,” he said.

No shit, Sherlock. Keating notes that poppy production “actually fell dramatically from 2007 to 2009, and has been climbing steadily ever since”:

The drop in cultivation prior to 2009 probably had less to do with military efforts than with economic factors. Thanks to drought and a global spike in food prices during that period, the gross income ratio of poppies relative to wheat fell from 10-to-1 in 2007 to 3-to-1 in 2008. Since then, global wheat prices have eased—they’re pretty low at the moment—and the price of poppies has increased, and farmers have gone back to the harder stuff. Eastern Nangahar province, which was declared opium-free and touted as a counternarcotics success story in 2008, saw a fourfold increase in cultivation last year.

Farmers may also be hedging their bets in anticipation of the departure of NATO forces—the majority are pulling out at the end of this year, leaving behind a smaller contingent of U.S. troops to train Afghan security forces. The majority of Afghanistan’s poppies are still grown in the Taliban-dominated Kandahar and Helmand provinces, but cultivation has been increasing around government-controlled Kabul as well.

Jason Koebler compares Afghanistan to South America:

Though the situation is a little different because the US has been engaged in an all out war-war in Afghanistan and not just a war-on-drugs war as it has been in South America with cocaine, the failures and patterns appear to be very similar to what has happened there. In South America, for instance, when Colombia or Peru (backed with US money) has tried to curb coca cultivation by applying aerial herbicide, farmers have simply gone to more remote areas or started growing coca plants in between other crops in order to disguise what they were doing.

In the short term, prices go up when supply temporarily falls, then stabilize once the already skilled farmers relocate and get supply back up to normal or record levels. The overall profits flowing into potentially dangerous coffers (in South America, drug cartels; in Afghanistan, the Taliban or local warlords) don’t really change all that much.

So where did all that money go? Ryan Devereaux answers:

While U.S. efforts have failed to effectively diminish drug trafficking in Afghanistan, they have succeeded in making a handful of private security companies increasingly rich, a point that is not addressed in the inspector general’s report. In 2009, official responsibility for training Afghan police forces was shifted from the State Department to an obscure branch of the Pentagon known as Counter Narco-Terrorism Program Office (CNTPO), which took over the roughly $1 billion contract. In waging the privatized war on drugs, CNTPO has partnered with such corporate security giants as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, ARINC, DynCorp and U.S. Training Center, a subsidiary of the firm formerly known as Blackwater.

AJ Vicens reminds us why this matters:

Drug addiction is a major problem in Afghanistan, with as many 1 million people addicted to opium, heroin, and other drugs—including children as young as four. In a joint statement that prefaced the release of the 2013 data, Din Mohammad Mobariz Rashidi, Afghanistan’s acting minister of counternarcotics, and Yury Fedotov, the executive director of the UNODC, said that Afghan and American officials are making progress, and that authorities seize roughly 10 percent of Afghan poppy production. But, they continued, not enough “powerful figures” are being prosecuted. That could be a reference to former Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s brother, who was accused of having strong connections to the Afghan heroin trade.

Also, as James Weir and Hekmatullah Azamy’s research indicates, access to the lucrative drug trade and other illicit activities is the main draw for Afghans who join up with the Taliban:

In early 2014 we conducted research that examined violent extremism and Taliban networks with the hope of bridging differences between insurgent groups, community elders, and the Afghan government. In interviews with active, former, and imprisoned Taliban, tribal leaders, and government officials in Helmand and Herat provinces of Afghanistan a consensus emerged: joining the insurgency pays well, especially in a countryside marked by insecurity and economic stagnation. And more important than an insurgent salary, — Taliban rarely mentioned, and most emphatically denied, ideological or political inspiration — being associated with the Taliban enables quasi-independent profiteering from a diverse array of illegal activities.

Doubling Down On Afghanistan

Today, Afghanistan and the US signed an agreement allowing nearly 10,000 American soldiers to remain there past the end of this year, fulfilling a campaign pledge from the new president, Ashraf Ghani:

Under the agreement, 12,000 foreign military personnel are expected to stay after 2014, when the combat mission of Afghanistan’s U.S.-led NATO force ends. The force is expected to be made up of 9,800 U.S. troops with the rest from other NATO members. They will train and assist Afghan security forces in the war against the Taliban and its radical Islamist allies. The U.S. has the right to keep bases in Afghanistan as long as the security pact is in force, and in return it promises to raise funds to train and equip the Afghan security forces, which now number 350,000.

Ghani was inaugurated on Monday and called on the Taliban to join peace talks. He formed a unity government with election rival Abdullah Abdullah after a prolonged standoff over vote results that ended in a deal to make Ghani president and Abdullah a chief executive in the government with broad powers.

“Like it or not,” Ioannis Koskinas argues, “Afghanistan remains a key battlefront in the fight against extremists, terrorists, and fanatics hiding behind the veil of religious fundamentalism”:

The uncertainty that surrounded the prolonged election process, in many ways, emboldened the insurgents and strengthened their narrative. Additionally, while the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan is due to end at the end of this year, al Qaeda fighters, while diminished in number, remain strong in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although unsavory in Washington political circles, al Qaeda’s presence and the introduction of groups who pledge allegiance to the Islamic State make an enduring U.S. counter-terrorism task force in Afghanistan long past 2015 necessary. Complicated by the Taliban’s significant gains in parts of Afghanistan in past months, at times aided by foreign fighters, Obama would be smart to reconsider his earlier arbitrary timeline to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan in 2015. It is imperative that Ghani and Abdullah have the necessary time to combat the insurgency physically, but also counter their narrative through reform initiatives.

The Obama administration since May had been pushing for the troop extension, and the main obstacle to the BSA was former Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s implacable opposition. But Morrissey spins the agreement as a policy shift by Obama, inspired by the disaster that befell Iraq after the US withdrawal:

Of course, the war isn’t coming to an end in Afghanistan any more than it came to an end in Iraq. The Taliban have picked up their efforts as the US prepared to leave, and will no doubt continue to pressure Kabul politically as well as militarily for years to come. The best that the US can do in Afghanistan is attempt to keep the Afghan security forces from collapsing while all sides tire of the fight and find a way to settle the tribal wars that have been ongoing since the Soviet withdrawal. … The residual-force arrangement may not prove successful in keeping Afghanistan from collapse, but at least they show that someone’s learned a lesson from the American withdrawal from Iraq.

Drawing on an interview with Ghani from last month, Sune Engel Rasmussen underscores the challenges faced by the new Afghan president, especially given the roundabout (and possibly fraudulent) way he came into office:

Corruption is only one of the ills plaguing the Afghan economy.Dependent on foreign imports and with little domestic industry to speak of, the economy was left close to comatose as financial activity stopped during the recent election impasse. According to the country’s finance minister, the stuck ballot cost Afghanistan $5 billion in lost revenue and investment, and threatened to leave the government unable to pay salaries for civil servants.

Making Afghanistan self-sufficient is at the top of Ghani’s agenda. “We want to generate one of the biggest construction industries in the region,” he said. “We have enough marble to last the region for 100 years, but we are importing marble from neighboring countries.” Many of Afghanistan’s problems come down to poor infrastructure. “Urban and rural Afghanistan are totally disconnected. Go to the market. 70 percent of the food is foreign imported, while 40-60 percent of our food rots between the field and the market because we don’t have the system,” Ghani noted.

Gender-Bending Kids In Afghanistan

In an essay adapted from her forthcoming book, Jenny Nordberg explains why some Afghan families raise their daughters as boys:

Officially, girls like Mehran do not exist in Afghanistan, where the system of gender segregation is among the strictest in the world. But many other Afghans, too, can recall a former neighbor, a relative, a colleague, or someone in their extended family raising a daughter as a son. These children even have their own colloquialism, bacha posh, which literally translates from Dari to “dressed like a boy.”

Midwives, doctors, and nurses I’ve met from all over the provinces are more familiar with the practice than most; they have all known bacha posh to appear at clinics, escorting a mother or a sister, or as a patient who has proven to be of another birth sex than first presumed.

The health workers say that families who disguise their daughters in this way can be rich, poor, educated, or uneducated, or belong to any of Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups. The only thing that binds the bacha posh girls together is their families’ need for a son in a society that undervalues daughters and demands sons at almost any cost. They disguised their girls as boys because the family needed another income through a child who worked and girls aren’t allowed to, because the road to school was dangerous and a boy’s disguise provided some safety, or because the family lacked sons and needed to present as a complete family to the village. Often, as in Kabul, it is a combination of factors. A poor family may need a son for different reasons than a rich family, but no ethnic or geographical reasons set them apart.

Inconsolable In Islamabad

by Dish Staff

Pakistan may be on the brink of a political crisis after opposition leader Imran Khan suspended talks with the government in response to the appointment of a new police chief in Islamabad:

Khan, a famed cricketer-turned-politician, and fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have led massive protests from the eastern city of Lahore to the gates of parliament in Islamabad to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, accusing him of rigging the vote that brought him to power last year. The protests have raised fears of unrest in the nuclear-armed US ally with a history of political turmoil, and after a request from the country’s powerful military the government convened talks with Khan and Qadri’s representatives early Thursday. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a senior leader of Khan’s party, told reporters that the opposition presented six demands, including Sharif’s resignation. …

Later on Thursday, Khan told his supporters that the government had removed the Islamabad police chief for not using force against him, and warned that the new police chief, Khalid Khattak, would follow orders to disperse the protests, which have thus far been peaceful.

The army’s growing role in containing this crisis makes Michael Kugelman very nervous:

With Islamabad increasingly on the defensive, the military is gaining an upper hand. Consider Sharif’s decision last week to make the armed forces responsible for security of sensitive facilities in Islamabad during the protests. This can be interpreted either as a sop to the military or as an acknowledgment that the government can’t protect its own people — or itself. Additionally, Sharif’s Independence Day speech on Aug. 14, the first official day of the protests, was rife with praise for Pakistan’s military. That such praise came from a civilian leader as combative as Sharif is quite telling. Most significantly, on Aug. 19, as marchers entered the Red Zone, the government ceded full security of the area to the military. The government gave the military carte blanche to do what it so relishes: serve as the nation’s protector and savior.

Furthermore, with many Pakistanis cheering on a countermilitancy offensive underway in North Waziristan, the military’s star could continue to rise in the coming weeks. Possible retaliatory terrorist attacks in Pakistani cities could prompt more calls for the military to provide security, which would further embolden Pakistan’s most powerful institution.

A Breakdown In Kabul?

by Dish Staff

The agreement John Kerry brokered to resolve the Afghan presidential election crisis is looking shaky today after Ashraf Ghani announced that he would not necessarily agree to share power with his rival Abdullah Abdullah if an ongoing audit of the vote showed that Ghani had won:

Ghani said the winner will appoint the loser “by decree” as a chief executive to serve “at the discretion of the president.” Abdullah has demanded more authority if he loses. Ghani also said Tuesday that although he “hoped” the audit of 8.1 million votes could be done in time to have the new president attend a NATO summit in early September, no inauguration date has been set because of “technical uncertainties” with the slow-going ballot review. He said both he and Abdullah will attend the summit, considered key to winning new foreign aid for the ailing Afghan economy. …

Ghani was careful Tuesday not to claim victory. But he spoke in a distinctly presidential tone as he laid out a wide-ranging policy agenda for the next government, including banking and anti-corruption initiatives as well as the rights of women and Taliban prisoners.

Representatives of the Ghani and Abdullah camps were scheduled to start a round of meetings today to hash out the technical details of the agreement. Omar Samad examines the potential pitfalls and what it will take to overcome them:

The contentious issues that are outstanding and still need to be ironed out are: 1. Planning for the upcoming transfer of power and identifying the new government’s priority challenges and collaborative frameworks. 2. Agreeing on a national governance agenda, drawing from the two sides’ respective electoral platforms and programs in sectors such as security, economy, foreign affairs, and social services. Figuring out unresolved issues should be left to professional advisory groups that could also involve non-partisan figures.

3. Defining the parameters of power sharing as part of a unity government structure. The two sides will need to step away from a zero-sum option, show flexibility and use creative methods to clearly define the authority of the president and the newly proposed post of chief executive. Models from other countries can used if applicable to the Afghan context.

But Jim White rolls his eyes:

With 15 negotiators on each side, I would expect that the first week or two of the negotiations will resolve such crucial issues as the shape of the table and the length of the breaks between sessions. They might also want to make a “no punching” rule, as there appears to have been another fight today while ballots were being reviewed.  It’s hard to see how Kerry could make a third trip to put the power sharing back on course since the first two have been such spectacular failures.

Thomas Scherer isn’t optimistic that the two men, each of whom believes himself to be the elected president of Afghanistan, will work things out in the end:

Why have the candidates continued to fight? There was almost certainly fraud on both sides as supporters took advantage of Afghanistan’s insecurity and institutional deficits and found varying ways to “rock the vote.” However, the mere presence of fraud rarely matters; the fraud must be great enough to change the results. The preliminary results of the June 14 run-off show Ghani ahead with 4.5 million votes to Abdullah’s 3.5 million, about 56 percent to 44 percent. Does Abdullah really believe that he can overcome a million-vote difference?

I argue, with a couple assumptions, that Abdullah can reasonably believe that he can still win. As such, the parties will continue to fight over every vote and escalate when necessary, further threatening the stability of Afghanistan. This high-stakes game of electoral chicken will likely continue until the two sides collide or until the United States, desperate for some semblance of stability, can persuade a candidate to accept defeat.