Spinning progress on RC East

A piece by Michael Hirsh in National Journal details “the Coming Upheaval in US Afghanistan Strategy,” asserting that “some US officials have begun talk about speeding up” withdrawal after the uptick in fraggings of Western personnel by their Afghan partners. For the purposes of this post, my thoughts on accelerated withdrawal are complicated enough to be tabled. But Hirsh includes some incredible lines from unnamed “Obama administration officials” justifying the change in policy [emphasis mine]:

Some Obama administration officials are also convinced that the Obama “surge” of 30,000 additional troops, scheduled to be wound down by September, has left just enough stability on the ground, or what Petraeus has called “Afghan good enough” in the crucial part of the country called “regional command east.” As National Journal senior correspondent James Kitfield wrote in a perceptive assessment from Afghanistan in December: “Although they remain dependent on coalition ‘enablers’ such as airpower and logistics, Afghan security forces have increasingly shouldered the burden in RC East and kept the insurgents on the defensive.” But it is a fragile standoff: the 14 provinces of the east constitute more than half of Afghanistan’s total population of 30 million.

To assert that some degree of stabilization in Afghanistan has occurred due to the Obama administration’s “surge” is arguable. But to posit that the boost in troops has had an especially game-changing impact on RC East (vs. RC South and RC SW, which were the beneficiary of most of the expanded troop presence) beggars belief. It is true that incessant raids by Special Operations Forces have put a great deal of pressure on groups like the Haqqani Network and the Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin. And yes, some Afghan units (notably tribal forces and commandos training with Special Operations Forces) receive good marks from American military officers. But to argue that the Afghan Security Forces overall are capable and have the insurgents on the defensive in RC East, and to further imply that the situation will stay that way after US withdrawal, is optimistic, to put it gently.

Beyond the insurgent safe havens in Pakistan mentioned in the article, there are several other grim indicators specifically plaguing the east: continuing infiltrations of the Kabul Attack Network through RC East (even with enthusiastic US engagement); the tacit or direct support of some insurgent groups like the Haqqani Network by elements of the Pakistani military; the concern that insurgent groups are merely waiting to fully reassert themselves after American withdrawal; and the widely-held belief that some Afghan security units and local government officials, and many more tribal elders, have secret agreements with portions of the insurgency.

If anything, the Obama administration’s surge has had much more of an impact on RCs South and Southwest, degrading the Taliban’s traditional authority on their home turf in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. RC East, from what I’ve read and witnessed, has remained something of an underresourced muddle; despite the addition of troops, forces still lacked the manpower to project into villages and make sustainable headway against the insurgency. My more detailed November assessment published in Small Wars Journal can be found here. Also recommended is Jeffrey Dressler’s take (also in November) on the ascendant threat from the Haqqani Network, which is of course based in both Pakistan’s tribal agency of North Waziristan and in eastern Afghanistan:

Since the summer of 2009, NATO’s battle against the Quetta Shura in the south of Afghanistan has reduced the Taliban to a shell of its former self, a fact that alters Jones’ estimation of the group’s relative strength. The Haqqani network, by contrast, is on the rise, perhaps at its most capable and lethal level since its reconstitution in 2002. Although the Haqqanis are nominally part of the Quetta Shura, they are poised, with the help of the Pakistani intelligence services, to become the most significant long-term strategic threat to stability in Afghanistan.

Hirsh’s National Journal article swings back around to a reasonable conclusion [emphasis mine] …

The harsh fact is that with a corrupt and weak civilian government in Kabul, meager Western forces, and a resurgent Taliban, the prospects are not much better than they were back in 2006, when I quoted a U.S. general saying, in an article called “The Rise of Jihadistan” that documented the resurgence of the Taliban, that the standoff between Afghan forces and the Taliban “could go on for 40 or 50 years …. this is going to be like the triborder region of South America, or like Kashmir, a long, drawn-out stalemate where everyone carves out spheres of influence.”

… but the inclusion of assertions by officials that RC East is “good enough,” and that the situation there was dramatically improved by a “surge” centered on the South, is spin by the unnamed officials.

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  • Villiger says:

    Incisive article Bill and good timing.

    “this is going to be like the triborder region of South America, or like Kashmir, a long, drawn-out stalemate where everyone carves out spheres of influence.”
    With the vital difference of Pakistan’s (loose?) nukes added to the mix, which means it is the world’s greatest tinderbox. We should be so lucky if all it is, is indeed ” a long, drawn-out stalemate “.

  • Gitmo-Joe says:

    The analysis is correct. Of course its spin. Would you feel better if they said “the mission failed”? This is politics, truth has nothing to do with it no matter who is running the show.
    Does anybody really believe we can stay and “fix” this place? In the past 2,000 years how many forces have gone into Afghanistan and come looking good? If you do the statistics out you find the number ranges somewhere between zero at the low end and zero at the high end. Extrapolating out . . .

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    Gitmo Joe –
    You said: “Would you feel better if they said “the mission failed”? This is politics, truth has nothing to do with it no matter who is running the show.”
    Agreed on politics. But well-crafted political statements are based in some truth. Associating a surge focused in the south with especially crucial progress in the east is exceptional spin, and fundamentally inaccurate.
    A somewhat more plausible line to justify departure might sound like this: “We’ve made progress against the Taliban on their home turf of Kandahar and Helmand provinces due to the surge in those areas, and we believe the degradation in Taliban capability, along with the increasing competence of Afghan security forces, will force political accomodation that could help stabilize the rest of Afghanistan.”

  • Bill Baar says:

    Re: In the past 2,000 years how many forces have gone into Afghanistan and come looking good?
    The Red Army left in good order. The fall of the Soviet Union may have undermined the Afghanistan regime more than the Afghanistan experience undermined the Soviet Union.

  • gitmo-joe says:

    Bill Ardolino – A well reasoned and accurate statement but I do have two problems with it;
    1 – Its too complex for general consumption, we need a simple bullet for a pull out.
    2 – When we do leave I do not expect the stabilized areas to remain so – there are too many external players with bad intent. I think to a large degree Afghanistan is a leaf in the wind.
    If we were in and out in 3 years or so I think things could have been different. But at this point we are experiencing repeated breakdowns in discipline that have undermined the brilliant missions, hard work and painful sacrifices of a lot of good men. In all probability it will happen again. I think our counter insurgency program has been so severly damaged by a few of our own troops that the continued sacrifices of our brave men is no longer warranted.

  • mike merlo says:

    Gee Bill if I didn’t know any better I’d be tempted to ‘cite’ this piece as propaganda.

  • Neo says:

    Oh Glory Be! A Michael Hirsh article. One of my favorite journalists, for all the wrong reasons. I am a masochist, you know.
    I haven’t read anything by him since back when he was following Rumsfeld’s aids around with a pooper scooper. Usually an MH article is a sign administration officials are up to their armpits in agricultural byproduct, and have taken to phoning in anonymous unsourced shop talk. At least MH is sticking to the opinion column this time out. (Anyone remember when the Bush administration was weeks from attacking Iran?)
    The sad part is there is probably a grain of truth in the article, if one skirts around the large chunks of prefabricated narrative. The problem is so much of the sourcing is so questionable, it’s hard to gage precisely what people are thinking. (That MH is such a post modernist, with all that heavy narrative. Michael Foucault would be proud of all those nice big chunks of juicy narrative MH always dumps into his journalism.)
    Part of the problem is with this administration, is the mantra of “the end game” they seem to determined to stamp on the end of this conflict. This administration wants a clean ending to this war, where there is none to be had. They worry way too much about meeting the requirements of an end game. It’s like they are trying to write a nice narrative for a story with a fuggly ending. The ultimate Achilles heal of the whole operation always was the long supply lines through marginally friendly countries, or shall we say largely hostile territory. We can’t maintain those supply lines indefinitely. The door though Pakistan may close after the next Pakistani election cycle if it hasn’t already closed. Russia isn’t going to tolerate us indefinitely, even though we are effectively protecting their southern flank. We can’t afford to sustain this operation at its current level either, not to mention waning political support for the longest war in US history.
    The Taliban will have to retake Afghanistan by force. One would think they have a decisive advantage with Pakistan’s backing, at least in the southern half of Afghanistan.
    They aren’t going to waltz their way into Kabul though. They didn’t exactly have an easy time of it when the Soviets pulled out either, despite claims to the contrary. With NATO leaving in 2014 a lot will depend on how hard the Obama administration shuts the door. Too much haste, may well pull things down prematurely. Part of the game still is to keep Al Qaeda and the Taliban preoccupied and off of our backs elsewhere. I doubt that an Obama administration would cut of Afghan government funding in 2015 or 2016. Too much1975 déjà vu, that might politically stick to the Democratic political party. The situation back in 1975 was special. Nixon had undermined his power and a Democrat controlled congress could wash its hands of the whole Vietnam affair without politically taking blame. It won’t happen that fast. After the Soviet pullout in Afghanistan in 1989 it took the mujahideen three years to overthrow the Najibullah government. Unless the United States precipitates a sudden fall it will be at least 2018 before the Taliban makes it into Kabul, effectively winning the southern half of the Afghanistan. By than much of the Northern half of the country will be devoid of Pashtoons. The other ethnicities will find it too risky to live next to them. If it comes to that, another civil war would be likely.
    There is some question how far Pakistan will go to support the Taliban once the United States leaves. I actually doubt the Pakistani army will directly back the war with their own troops. They still remember the debacle at the battle of Jalalabad in 1989 where the mujahideen directly backed by Pakistan were thwarted, if only temporarily by Afghan government forces. After that the mujahideen largely avoided large scale engagements and Pakistani army elements largely stayed out. The Najibullah government unraveled on its own to a large extent, helped of course by the mujahideen insurgency, and economic collapse. The point I am trying to make is it’s probably going to be messy for the Taliban and its Pakistani backers. If the Pakistani government end up giveing them mostly lip service, the Taliban may even fail. Pakistan’s political scene has many factions who are at crossed purposes, so a high level of sustained support coming from Pakistan isn’t quite as obvious as many think. There are plenty of Pakistani’s who would love to see the Taliban fail, or at least slow down. They just don’t want a US win. Than there is al Qaeda and its objectives, if al Qaeda had its way the Taliban’s ultimate goal is Islamabad not just Kabul. They took there shot at overthrowing the Pakistani government a few years back and until Pakistan destabilizes they won’t get another shot. PML-N and Newaz Sharif, should they come to power, would likely lock the United States out of re-supply routes, but would be loath to give the Taliban too much rope, lest they come back and hang him.
    The irony is we could well be twenty years into this, and not too far from where we started. The quick collapse of the west that al Qaeda predicted isn’t going to happen. That’s a pipe dream. The political split within the United States was already there. This war, while its effect cannot be marginalized, will not be a primary factor in any downfall either. Overall fiscal policy will have much more to say about that. If we can keep al Qaeda from doing another mass casualty bombing twenty years after 9/11 we will have achieved something. Political Islam is going to be a challenge for many years to come. One day the conservative tide in Islam will change. Probably around the time the Saudi’s start running out of oil. Yes, there have been significant periods of accommodation in Islam too. Not anytime soon though.
    Well that is the opinion from this end of the peanut gallery. At least I know enough to stay in the cheap seats.

  • Neo says:

    Gitmo-Joe said:
    “In the past 2,000 years how many forces have gone into Afghanistan and come looking good? If you do the statistics out you find the number ranges somewhere between zero at the low end and zero at the high end. Extrapolating out . . .”
    Quite a few have invaded into and through Afghanistan. Historically, it is a major invasion route, from many directions. People keep saying that no one successfully invades, but I doubt they have even remotely familiarized themselves with the areas history. A fairly large area of mountainous north Pakistan was Buddhist up until four century’s ago. The Muslims were themselves invaders first controlling the area around Kandahar and moving through to the lowlands centuries before they conquered many highland areas. The Nurestani’s were brutally converted in the late nineteenth century. Afghanistan is a major crossroads along the silk route. It’s been invaded so many times it’s history is difficult to sort out.
    The British political experiences in Afghanistan get bandied about as a prime example of Colonial folly and arrogance. Accounts tend to be a cherry picked versions of history that are as much legend as fact. The British never did conquer Afghanistan and many areas along the border were only nominally controlled, but that was pretty much adequate for the British. The British found it far easier to pay Afghan royalty to keep the Russians out, and keep the Waziris in check. Afghanistan had absolutely nothing to do with why the British left India. The British were broke and broken at the end of World War II. They didn’t have the army to occupy an empire any longer and the time had passed when it was even feasible. We can all be thankful Churchill was voted out of office at the end of World War II.

  • Vyom says:

    Neo you said that ‘Pakistan’s political scene has many factions who are at crossed purposes’ you are right but most most powerful faction is still ISI and the army don’t forget that.

  • Neo says:

    I was talking about internal factions in the Pakistani ISI and army. Some of the Taliban complain that they are only so much cannon fodder to the ISI. There are true believers but there are plenty of others whose support is predicated on the Pashtoons remembering their place. There are plenty within the Pakistani military establishment who have little use for the Taliban but aren’t going to take sides against their fellow countrymen. The US also has plenty of contacts who are either secretly supporting CIA operations or playing both sides. Official and unofficial agenda’s don’t always match up, and frequently it is difficult to figure out what is the official agenda.


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