The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The U.S. “Surge” in Afghanistan:
A Deadly Poker Game

Nov 8, 2009

In early October came the news that the Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai was holding “high-level” talks with the Taliban. A week later came the report that the U.S. had “facilitated” the travel of “senior” Taliban leaders so they could attend peace talks with the Afghan government in Kabul, including by providing them air travel on NATO aircraft. Other reports surfaced about talks between the Afghan government and representatives of the Haqqani network, which is based on the Haqqani clan and supposedly is allied with parts of the Taliban. The press also recalled that, since March, the Karzai government had already been talking with representatives of Hizb-e-Islami, associated with the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who also styled himself as part of the “insurgency.”

At a NATO meeting in Brussels, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that while he didn’t know if the talks could lead anywhere, “we need to be open to opportunities that arise.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that although the “American public” might be “squeamish” at the thought of negotiations with the Taliban, the “public” might have to swallow the idea of reconciliation with the Taliban in order to achieve peace in Afghanistan. After all, scolded Clinton, “You don’t make peace with your friends!” Both cautioned that the U.S. was not nearly ready to enter formal negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgents. And the U.S. made a point to indicate that Mullah Mohammad Omar – who at the very least is a unifying symbol for all those who call themselves Taliban – had been excluded from the talks.

It’s obvious why the U.S. might want a negotiated deal. With the morale, effectiveness and officer corps of its army squeezed by repeated tours in the two wars; with the U.S. population opposed to the war, increasingly opposed, the U.S. is bogged down in another quagmire, from which – as the last three commanders in Afghanistan have all said – there is no military exit.

And the military situation is clearly deteriorating. The Safety Office set up to advise “non-governmental organizations” working in Afghanistan announced in September that by every available measure, Afghanistan is more dangerous now than at any time since the invasion of 2001.

Next month, Obama’s third Afghan commander, General David Petraeus, will make a scheduled report on the situation. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Petraeus and other top military and civilian advisers are to discuss with the president what comes next. Petraeus and the administration will undoubtedly issue statements about “progress.” But behind this smokescreen, the real discussion will be, as the New York Times put it in September: “At this point [after nine years of war], what can the United States really hope to achieve in Afghanistan?” Petraeus succinctly gave his answer in an August interview with NBC: “During the course of the process that President Obama and the new administration led, I think there was a refinement of objectives, a recognition of realities on the ground and that we need to be measured in what it is that we can actually achieve.”

So the question is: what are the “realities on the ground” that will define what the U.S. “can actually achieve”?

An Insurgency that Melts Away – Only to Come Back

Obviously the most important “reality” is the fact the insurgency occupies a large and growing part of Afghanistan – including some densely populated areas of the South. According to the United Nations, 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces now have districts where the existence of the insurgency makes them too dangerous to travel through. Those districts account for over 30% of the country’s area, and over half the country’s population.

The Taliban regime may have been eliminated as the result of the U.S. invasion in 2001. But that did not mean that U.S. military forces, or the Afghan army, which the U.S. created, or the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai, which the U.S. imposed on the country, has controlled the situation since then. The U.N. has issued maps every six months, which the New York Times put into an interactive internet archive, showing the areas of the country where Afghan government forces and so-called non-governmental organizations could not move except with great risk. Those areas have been steadily increasing since 2003, showing a real spreading out of the area in which the insurgents move around relatively freely.

By January 2010, that area included the largest part of the Southern and Eastern provinces – with the exception of a few cities, which nonetheless were surrounded. The U.N. has held back from releasing the most recent security maps from the summer of 2010, but, according to the Times, “those who have seen the maps say that the high and extreme risk areas have spread to the Northern provinces,” which had been relatively free of that designation until then.

The U.S. may have forced the Taliban out of Kandahar city in December 2001. It was able to capture some Taliban leaders by luring them to Kabul to take part in supposed “negotiations” with the new U.S.-established regime, sending them on to Guantanamo. By bringing in the militias of Northern Alliance warlords, the U.S. could impose a kind of order on the capital, Kabul, and on cities in the Taliban’s Southern base.

But the top layer of Taliban leaders were able to go into hiding, living deeply underground or in Pakistan. And Taliban forces simply went back to the Pashtun tribes they had come from, “melting” back into the population. It’s exactly this capacity to “melt” away that gave the Taliban its ability to reconstitute itself starting even before 2003, and to reestablish larger networks by about 2005.

The U.S. military estimates the number of insurgents today at between 25,000 and 30,000. But the Taliban itself has been able, when fighting in Pashtun areas, to enlist or forcibly conscript part-time fighters, whose potential numbers are several times that.

The insurgency is not at all monolithic. The Taliban, itself, often seems more like a movement, with highly decentralized military forces based in local areas.

But in addition to the Taliban, there are other forces: most are the personal militias of the chiefs of local clans, many of them warlords who exact a traditional tribute from the population. Some of those warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar were clients of the U.S. during the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, on a kind of retainer to the CIA, when the goal of the U.S. was to create problems for the Soviet Union. Some of them were the warlords the U.S. rested on in its sweep to drive the Taliban regime from power in 2001. And others were warlords whose aim has been simply to control their own fiefdom, allying themselves with whatever side seems to be winning.

The fact that such people today are styling themselves “insurgents” testifies to their conclusion that the U.S. will be forced, in one way or another, to leave relatively soon and, if that were to happen, the Karzai government could not stand. They don’t want to be left aside while others are picking over the spoils.

The Afghan Government: A Stew of Corruption

The second “reality” the U.S. today confronts is a shaky Afghan government, which the U.S. itself installed and has maintained in power up to this very day. In July, just after Petraeus took over command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, one of his advisers, David Kilcullen, described the government problem this way to a Los Angeles Times reporter: “The absolutely critical thing we haven’t done very well is come up with a political strategy to take an illegitimate government and turn it into a legitimate one.”

Hamid Karzai, who heads that “illegitimate government,” has a long, checkered past. During Afghanistan’s 1979-89 war with the Soviet Union, he was probably on CIA retainer, living in Pakistan, serving as a conduit for money to various warlords fighting in that war. Subsequently, he was reported to be a “representative” for the oil company Unocal, which was negotiating with the Taliban to build a pipeline. After the U.S. invasion, he made a pretense for the cameras of coming in with a militia, only to be cornered by the Taliban. The U.S. had to rescue him by air and fly him out of Afghanistan, returning him in 2002 when he was installed as the head of the “interim authority.” An ethnic Pashtun, he was supposed to represent the Pashtuns, balancing the fact that most of the other high positions were held by Tajik and some Uzbek warlords coming out of the Northern Alliance, which had solidified its military control over the North and came down to Kabul when the U.S. invaded.

Submitted to a popular vote in 2004 and again in 2009, Karzai retained his position at the head of the government, but his victories were not testimonies to his popularity but to rampant fraud, especially in the presidential election of 2009. In the most recent parliamentary elections, held in September, about one-tenth of the candidates were disqualified and almost one-quarter of the votes disqualified by the independent election commission for the same reason. Of the 25 parties that attempted to register, 20 were disallowed because the Afghan Ministry of Justice “didn’t get to” their paperwork in time.

In addition to fraud, Karzai’s regime has been characterized by the corruption that is blatantly obvious in Kabul, what the Washington Post called, “a crony capitalism that enriches politically connected insiders and dismays the Afghan populace.” That, too, was produced by the U.S., by the flood of money sent into Kabul to bring in the military, build its bases, set up Karzai’s government, keep it afloat, buy support for it.

In October of this year, when the U.S. press fanned a little scandal about Iranian money going to the Karzai regime, Karzai petulantly explained that it had been used to pay for “presidential expenses.” Somewhat pissed at the U.S. media, which had broken the story, he added that the United States also gives him cash: “They [U.S. officials] do give us bags of money. Yes, yes, they do. Bags of it!”

Yes, bags and bags of U.S. dollars, which – as one Congressional committee after another complains – have not been accounted for!

In explaining the corruption that has ended up providing a kind of steady flow of funds from the U.S. to the Afghan army or to private security contractors, and from them on to the Taliban as protection money for letting U.S. supplies pass, a U.S. intelligence officer recently told Global Post, “It’s the perfect war, everybody makes money.”

The well-guarded areas in Kabul inhabited by government officials, their brothers, sons, cousins, brothers-in-law, etc. are opulent – as is “embassy row” and the government center. Businesses, established with U.S. money flooding into Afghan government coffers, are little more than conduits for squirreling away millions in personal accounts outside the country.

Relatives close to Karzai and other figures in his government have drained the resources of the Kabul Bank and of the Afghan government to build multi-million dollar villas for themselves in Dubai – apparently preparing for a quick escape. (As Kilcullen commented about Karzai, “he’s a guy who will be hanging from a lamppost a month after we leave.”) The Kabul Bank is largely owned by a former restaurant owner in Baltimore Maryland, Mahmoud Karzai, who is also one of the president’s brothers, and by Mohammad Haseen, brother of the first vice-president. The bank was effectively bankrupted by a steady flow of “loans” to the inner circle of the Karzai government – loans that no one expects to be paid back.

At a different level, the population confronts corruption in the form of daily demands for bribes by every petty official. According to a U.N. report on corruption, “it is almost impossible to obtain a public service in Afghanistan without greasing a palm.” The study found that half of Afghans had to pay a bribe to a public official in the previous 12 months, usually multiple times. The average amount of a bribe – discounting the very large ones – was $158, in a country whose GDP was $425 per capita!

Looking for a bright spot in this whole stew of corruption, Petraeus’s adviser Kilcullen added: “The strategy says the aim is to extend the reach of the Afghan government. Thank God we haven’t been very successful.... We would have extended the reach of a government people don’t like.”

The Afghan Army – Fiefdoms and Patronage, with a Little Opium Production on the Side

Finally, the big problem for the U.S. is that there is no credible national Afghan military force able to impose order in the country if the U.S. and other NATO forces begin to leave.

The Afghan National Army, which the U.S. cobbled together, lacks not only numbers, but also the capacity and discipline to confront the insurgency. And that goes back to the way it was formed.

With the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the only military forces, other than those of the U.S. and certain NATO countries, were the nearly 100,000 organized into the militias of the warlords of the Northern Alliance. In the early months after the fall of the Taliban, 60,000 of those militia forces were supposedly dissolved – only to be reformed into the backbone of the new Afghan Military Forces. Some of those forces became the core of the newly created Afghan National Army, which the U.S. was training; some of those forces went into the Afghan National Police, some went into drug interdiction, etc.

In fact, it was under this new arrangement that the spread of opium production skyrocketed, in general protected by the new forces set up to interdict its production. The police themselves took over parts of the drug trade.

They may have been sporting Afghan National Army uniforms, but the various militias continued to owe their allegiance to their own warlords, not to the Afghan regime in Kabul. The armed forces were little more than a vast field for patronage, providing officer commissions to relatives or allies of the various warlords, especially those coming out of the Northern Alliance. Ninety of the first 100 generals in the new army came from the Tajik-dominated Panjshir Valley, helping to reinforce ethnic, regional and political factionalism within the armed forces.

When an ethnic Pashtun, Abdul Rahim Wardak, was brought in as Defense Minister in 2004, in an attempt to broaden the army, it set off a series of open struggles between him and General Bismillah Khan, a Tajik and head of the army general staff. This supposedly led to an attempt by part of the army to assassinate Karzai, who had appointed Wardak.

Starting in 2008, as the U.S. began to increase its own troops, it also stepped up funding for a large increase in Afghan military forces – army and police. And that reignited internal struggles, with various allies and enemies contesting over control of a much bigger pot of money.

One of the reasons the authority of the Karzai government has never extended much beyond Kabul is that this army, with its divided loyalties, has had little interest in helping Karzai impose himself. In fact, the government and the army have several times squared off against each other. In 2004, for example, Mahmoud Karzai was given a 10,000 acre property in Kandahar city by Ahmed Wali Karzai, another of the president’s brothers, who was running the show in Kandahar province. That set off a bitter fight with the Afghan army. When Mahmoud started construction on a massive real estate project, the quarrel escalated. In 2005, Afghan troops stormed the construction site. The whole dispute seems to have ended in a kind of stalemate, but it embittered an already corrosive relationship between the Afghan government and the Afghan army.

The Afghan army’s disorganization was exacerbated when the U.S. moved to increase the number of military contractors. By 2009, the number of forces commanded by military contractor companies far outnumbered the forces of the U.S. army, as well as of the Afghan army. Most of the contractor forces were used to carry out non-combat functions – not only menial kitchen or latrine duty, but also to handle logistics, providing supplies, driving trucks, clearing roads, often through insurgent territory. But an important part of these forces – currently reported by the U.S. Department of Defense to be 16,700 men – have been used as “special forces” combat units, engaging the insurgents in battles, tracking them down, combing villages looking for them, etc.

By contrast to Iraq, where most of the combat forces serving under private contract came out of the U.S. army itself, or from armies in countries like Israel or those headed by military regimes, almost all the Afghan contractor armed forces have come from Afghanistan itself. And from where in Afghanistan? From the warlords, first of all. Whole militias of some of the warlords were simply transformed into combat units working for American, or British, or Israeli or some other private military contractor.

Eventually, the much higher pay offered by the private contractor armies attracted soldiers from the Afghan National Army, who disappeared from the army soon after they’d been trained. In other words, not only did the U.S. reinforce the ethnic and tribal divisions, it also helped to disperse the new forces the Afghan army attracted.

Karzai’s threats to disband all the private contractors may stem in part from the desire to put his hands on the money currently going to them, but it undoubtedly reflects his unease that the contractor forces simply add to all those forces already loyal to someone other than his government.

There is no hard and fast line between the militias of the warlords and the army. Forces slide back and forth, depending on who and where the army is supposedly fighting. Nor is there an absolute barrier between the army and the forces of the insurgency, including the Taliban. Recently, there have been a few reports in the press about small units of the army or the police that deserted to go over to the Taliban. And the Taliban certainly has been able to infiltrate some numbers into the army – which may account for several recent stories about Afghan soldiers shooting the U.S. troops they were “embedded with.”

In any case, the army has been beset, from the beginning, with high levels of desertion. According to an Afghan general, Zahir Azimi, formal desertion rates, which were over 50% in 2003 when the Afghan National Army was set up have decreased to only (!) 10% in early 2010. This 10% figure is skewed, however, by the fact that absences as long as six-months are not recorded as AWOL. Moreover, desertions are two and three times that high in areas the U.S. describes as “volatile.” Apparently, the Afghan troops also know how to “melt away.”

Finally, an ironic postscript: training of the Afghan police was to be taken away from Dyncorps, which had a contract with the U.S. State Department to oversee the police, and handed over to another contractor chosen by the U.S. Defense Department. This last decision had to be put on hold for over a year because Dyncorps was able to get a court order in the U.S., forbidding the U.S. military from dumping its contract. In the U.S. military, it seems, there are also struggles between fiefdoms.

“Oil Spots”

It’s obvious that the U.S. is focusing its forces now in the areas where the Taliban is strongest, especially Helmand and Kandahar, trying to make a big push with extra forces to weaken the Taliban’s hold. In the August 2010 interview with NBC, General Petraeus talked about the next few months, which he said would be critical in deciding what the U.S. would be able to “achieve” in Afghanistan. Using the term “oil-spots” – military jargon for an area “liberated” from the insurgents, which then spreads out like oil spreads – he explained: “Down in Helmand Province what we sought to do was to build an oil spot that would encompass the six central districts of Helmand Province, including Marjah and then others, and then to just keep pushing that out, ultimately to connect it over with the oil spot that is being developed around Kandahar City.”

Last February, U.S. forces attacked areas in Helmand with selected Afghan units embedded with them. According to reports attributed to U.S. intelligence, the city of Marjah was supposed to be the “last large Taliban enclave” in Helmand province. In reporting on the fall of Marjah, the New York Times declared on February 19 that “the Western presence is now firmly established. The next phase of the operation – establishing at least the appearance of Afghan government presence and services in an area long out of government reach – will begin.” This was the famous “government in a box,” which the U.S. was to fly into the area after clearing it.

There were several problems, however. The Taliban hadn’t really gone very far away. There were few functionaries of the Karzai government who wished to be put in a box in Marjah. And, as the Taliban reappeared, troops of the Afghan army began to disappear.

Eight months later, the reports coming out of Marjah are much less sanguine. The following comes from an October 7, 2010 AP report: “The end of Taliban control in Marjah has sown seeds of an entrenched guerrilla war that has tied down at least two U.S. Marine battalions and hordes of Afghan police and army.... The coalition has succeeded in setting up a nascent government in the town’s district center. But local officials’ connection to the people they govern is thin. The most visible signs of authority today are sandbagged police checkpoints that frequently come under attack.” In fact, the area in which U.S. forces are “entrenched” – with sandbags, it seems – is little more than a spot on the map of the province.

Then in August, tens of thousands of U.S. troops, contractors and Afghan army forces moved into Kandahar province, with similar headlines in the American press. The New York Times of October 20, declared: “Coalition Forces Routing Taliban in Key Afghan Region.” The British commander in charge of the operation declared, “We now have the initiative. We have created momentum.” An Afghan police chief went further, saying, “We broke their neck.” But, as the press also reported, few if any Taliban were captured or killed. They simply “slipped away or hid their weapons.”

In fact, more and more of them were “slipping” into Kandahar city, Afghanistan’s second biggest city, with about 400,000 people. The Wall Street Journal reported that “insurgent intimidation is stalling efforts to build credible government institutions – a buildup without which battleground advances can’t hold,” and went on to explain that two-thirds of government official posts in the city remain unfilled, despite “generous” U.S.-funded salaries.

It’s quite likely that the Taliban is today “intimidating” officials in Kandahar, but that is not the whole story. Government institutions in this city, which is the part of the vastly corrupt fiefdom of Ahmed Wali Karzai, haven’t been credible for years.

The story has yet to be written about Kandahar. But it seems highly unlikely that the U.S. military could sweep the Taliban away in the next few months or even that it believes it can.

“Surging” in Afghanistan: Not So Gentlemanly Poker

So these are the “realities on the ground” that Petraeus will discuss with Obama: a growing and well implanted insurgency; a despised and corrupt central government, which in fact rules little more than Kabul; and a splintered Afghan army. These are the “realities” that will face the Obama administration and the military chiefs when they gather this December to discuss exactly what is it that the U.S. can “actually achieve.”

There is also this “reality”: nine years of indiscriminate bombing, of raids on homes and villages to root out the insurgents have turned the population’s anger against the U.S. invaders. As the U.S. war on Afghanistan continued, as the corruption and drug trade added to the disastrous situation confronting the population – all this seems in some areas at least to have effaced some of the bitter memories the Afghan population carried over from the severe restrictions and even brutality of the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan once before. This is especially true in the Pashtun areas, but even in some others, by the U.S. military’s own admission.

So this is the situation in which the U.S. found itself, when it began to signal, through its Karzai surrogate, that it might be open to negotiations – at least with some of the insurgents, and sometime in the future.

But while the U.S. might well be interested in negotiating a way out of this war, including by attaching various countries in the region to that agreement, it has to have a few cards in its hand to bring the others to the table – or at least to appear to have them.

And this explains the Afghan “surge” – with U.S. troops increased from 30,000 in 2008, when Bush began the build-up, to 105,000 today, after Obama added to it.

In Iraq, a “surge” of extra forces may have played some role because the population was exhausted, and the various political forces battered by a terrible civil war – although the importance of the “surge” has certainly been exaggerated. Important Sunni forces, marginalized by the Shiites, proved ready to join with the U.S. – for a period. But this alliance already seems on shaky ground. And in any case, the U.S. occupation of Iraq is far from over.

In Afghanistan, the so-called surge of American troops has even fewer prospects. The country is one and a half times as large as Iraq, with a slightly bigger population. But Iraq is a highly urban country, with about 2/3 of the population living in cities, while Afghanistan is rural, with a little less than a quarter of the people living in cities. The U.S. would need many times the number of forces it has already put into Afghanistan before it could think about “defeating” the insurgency – a point that has been made numerous times by all three generals: Petraeus, McChrystal and McKiernan.

In a sense, this “surge” is a little bit like the infamous “shock and awe” – creating a lot of noise, concentrated in a few places.

Put another way, the U.S. is engaging itself in a high-stakes poker game. Holding two jacks, it’s trying to bluff its opponent by throwing a lot of money on the table, daring anyone to call the bluff.

The joker in its hand, which the U.S. even now has begun to play is what Petraeus called “Afghanistan good enough” last August. Concluding that “we are not trying to turn Afghanistan into a Western industrialized democracy,” Petraeus in effect made a pitch to rest on the networks of the warlords: “Afghan good enough is good enough, and that means having traditional social organizing structures as part of the ultimate solution, if you will where tribal shura councils and so forth – which are quite democratic by the way – they then connect at the district or province level with what goes up to Kabul and comes out as well.”

“Quite democratic”? No, Petraeus is calculating on the possibility of reinforcing the tribal warlords, while setting them against each other, pushing the population back into the Middle Ages.

Perhaps the U.S. is calculating that the “surge” may let it exclude the Taliban from the process; more likely the “surge” is aimed at lessening the area of the country the Taliban will control. But we can be sure that the U.S. is ready to deal with the Taliban, if it comes to that, in order that there be a force able to impose order on the country as the U.S. “begins” to leave.

The U.S. war on Afghanistan, now in its tenth year, is officially the longest U.S. war on record. While the war has claimed the lives of over 1,900 U.S. and other “coalition” troops, there is no way to have any idea of how many tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been killed. There has been no attempt to carry out even the appearance of a full survey.

The war has destroyed the livelihood of Afghans living in important parts of the countryside; replaced agricultural production with opium production; created an enormous influx of refugees, doubled the size of Kabul in five years; and it has thrown out, according to Reuters, 600,000 street children, dependent on crime, prostitution and begging to survive.

These are the real, vital “realities on the ground.”

There can be only one answer to them, just as there has been only one answer to this vile U.S. war since its beginning: U.S. Out of Afghanistan NOW!