Shifting Sands

With most of the world’s attention focused unfolding events in the Mideast now is a good time to shed some light on the current ground-truth in Afghanistan. Sami the Finn is always a good place to start and he provides interesting perspective on the suicide bombing at the Finest supermarket in Kabul this past Friday (the original article can be found here).

In any case, Sami Kovanen, a senior analyst with Indicium Consulting in Kabul, which provides security information, warns that the assumption had to be that “this kind of attack will happen again.” Says Kovanen: “It’s a new kind of attack – in many ways the first direct attack against the whole international community, against civilians.” He adds, “There have been really specific reasons behind previous attacks. The attack on the Bektar guesthouse [in October 2009] targeted the U.N. during elections; the attack against the Indian guesthouse [in February 2010] targeted Indians. But [this one targeted] foreign civilians known to go shopping on Friday at this time. It was against us – regardless of who you are, which organization you’re working for or what your nationality is. So in that way it is really concerning.”

Sami is spot on – this is the first time suicide bombers have targeted outside the wire westerners. What is worse is that the Karzai government continues to make it hard for internationals working independent from the FOB’s and embassies to operate. Look at this latest decree:

Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
Office of the Presidential Spokesperson
January 27, 2011

The National Security Council Meeting was held in Presidential Palace led by Hamid Karzai, the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Participants included the authorities of the security branches of the government.

At the beginning of the meeting, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzi, Chief of the Transition Commission spoke in detail regarding the assessment of the Minister of Defence and ANA. After the extensive discussion, they decided the authorities of Afghan Security Forces should include the following topics in discussions with the United States and international organizations in order to expedite the transition process:

First, currently, the Ministry of Defence and all its equipment, supplies and total expenses are being furnished by the international community without any participation by the Ministry of Defence. From now on the Ministry of Defense will take the lead on these activities.

Second, in order to expedite the transition responsibilities, the Ministry of Defence needs to increase its technical, engineering, equipment, vehicles, aircraft, and heavy weapons. These needs should be furnished as possible.

Third, the ANA needs a large armory and logistics warehouse for each corps. All ANA corps should establish these facilities and the necessary long-term goods should be stocked there.

Fourth, the government of Afghanistan agrees with the increase of ANA and ANP personnel, but that these increases should be implemented with the condition that the expenses and equipment should be paid for by the international community.

Fifth, Director of National Security, Chief of the Transition Commission, and the Minister of Defence has the presidential directive to begin talks with the authorities of the international community and the United States and submit the result of their work in the next National Security Council meeting.

Sixth, National Security Advisor and Minister of the Interior discussed the dissolution of private security companies. Their report says that 16 private companies in charge of security of embassies, diplomatic locations and international companies committed serious violations of the law including without proper armor vehicle licenses, employment of foreign personnel without registering with the government, and using diplomatic vehicles.

The tone of this decree is typical – Dari doesn’t translate well into English so the wording is awkward but notice what is being said. At the same time he is demanding an expansion of his security forces and the money with which to do this he is also finalizing laws which will drive out the vast majority of internationals currently working outside the wire.

Helping a child out of the Finest after the attack
Helping a child out of the Finest supermarket after the attack

There is nothing we can about the Karzai Government because we need him just as much as he needs us. The entire military mission is predicated upon “providing support to GoIRA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan)” and words in mission statements have meanings. When the military is told to support the host nation government it supports the host nation government. But the Karzai government is so dysfunctional that it has turned our counterinsurgency strategy into a cruel farce. Dexter Filkins filed an excellent story on this last week showing to all who read this blog why he gets paid big bucks to explain things and I don’t.  From the Flikins piece:

The larger fear, at least among some American officials, is that the Obama Administration will decide to do nothing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was briefed on the investigation in January. But the findings are considered so sensitive that almost no one; generals, diplomats, the investigators themselves are willing to talk about it publicly. After months of sparring with the Karzai administration, the Obama Administration, in its public rhetoric, appears to be relegating the issue of corruption to a lower tier of concern, despite the widespread belief that the corruption in Karzai’s government degrades its reputation and helps fuel recruitment for the Taliban insurgency. We have to work with these people, the senior NATO officer told me.

We can’t fix the Karazai  problem because of one decision made years ago in a manner nobody understands but one in which the US Department of State played the key role. That decision was the adoption of the SNTV electoral system. SNTV stands for single non-transferable vote and it is one way to ensure that opposition political parties cannot be formed or sustained.  Afghanistan went to the SNTV system after some sort of back room deal was cut between Karzai and our ambassador at that time Zalimay Khalizad.  Khalizad is an Afghan-American, fluent in the local languages who served here as Ambassador before being sent to Iraq to be the ambassador in 2005.  He did not last long in Baghdad and is now heading his own consulting agency at a time when an Arabic/Pashto/Dari speaking US Ambassador would be of great use to the administration. I don’t know why he is on the outs but his part in creating the SNTV system, which Karzai will be using to stay in power for years to come, is reason enough to banish him from the halls of power.

What happens when you live on an international border and the guys on the other side stop all fuel shipments? In America this could cause significant problems in time costing the economy billions in losses while leaving thousands out of work. In Afghanistan it causes smugglers to focus on fuel. These two are unloading petrol from a truck which has just crossed the Iranian border and is turning into the Afghan customs lot.
What happens when you live on an international border and the guys on the other side stop all fuel shipments? In America this could cause significant problems costing the economy billions in losses while leaving thousands out of work. In Afghanistan it causes smugglers to focus on fuel. These two kids are unloading smuggled petrol from a truck which has just crossed the Iranian border and is turning into the Afghan customs lot in Zaranj.

The SNTV system makes every election a lottery with so many candidates running for each available office that winning can only be due to luck or electoral fixing. Guess which is  the more popular option here?  The story behind SNTV is fascinating but not well known or understood.  One of the best journalist working the AFPAK beat today, Matthieu Aikins  spent months uncovering it; his piece was published in Harpers last December.  You can download a PDF copy of the article here and this too is worth reading in order to understand just how screwed up the political system in Afghanistan is, how it got that way, why we can’t change it and who is to blame. And here it is; the money quote:

In May of 2004, at a meeting held in the residence of Jean Arnault, who was then the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, and attended by most of the senior members of the diplomatic community in Kabul, Khalilzad arrived late and declared, simply, I’ve spoken with the president, and it’s going to be SNTV.

Just like that our efforts to “fix what we broke” (paraphrasing a vastly overrated Colin Powell) were doomed to failure.  Holding shura’s with village elders where you promise them security while  improving their lives through the vehicle of GiROA is a joke nobody laughs at.

When the flow of petrol is cut every street corner has a kid selling it by the liter.
When the flow of petrol is cut every street corner has a kid selling it by the liter. This won’t happen in the west when the flow of petrol is unexpectedly interrupted and we will find ourselves in a dire emergency where in this land the people work around market disruptions because they never had functioning markets to start with.

Fixing the government and improving its ability to service the population is not going to happen and that failure is not a military failure. The military has been tasked to do much more then it is designed, equipped and trained to do but being the military they are making progress with a minimal amount of pissing and moaning about it. Its not fair, not right, not smart, but it is the way it is.  That doesn’t mean we still can’t find an acceptable end-state. We can do that easily by focusing on the army and the army only. A strong army will create a governing coalition between army officers and government bureaucrats because that, my friends, is the model used in most of this part of the world. Bureaucratic Authoritarianism may not be the best model but I see no other way out.

We can bond with members of the Afghan military because we have years of fighting side by side with each other and that kind bond is hard to break. We cannot “bond” with Afghan government bureaucrats because there is no daily or habitual close contact between the Americans locked down in their embassy and their Afghan counterparts.

Small groups of troops working directly with regional governments should be used to make rapid progress at improving critical infrastructure
Small groups of troops working directly with regional governments should be used to make rapid progress at improving critical infrastructure

In the big scheme of things running the Taliban out of their southern hunting grounds is not going to solve that many problems. But if we concentrate on the military while continuing to fund and lavish attention on the Major Crimes Task Force while never deviating from our anti corruption message we could end up finding an acceptable end-state. Doing that requires solid  vision, leadership, and planning from on high but that is currently a bridge too far for our President or his Department of State.

I’ve said for years the only question worth asking is if we (the international community) will learn one damn thing from this folly.  Just one thing would be better than nothing but years of observation of our government at work leads me to believe we cannot expect even one positive, no bullshit lesson to be learned from our time in this forgotten land. That will cost us downstream.

15 Replies to “Shifting Sands”

  1. 1. Thanks for spelling out the SNTV business.
    2. The GoIRA demands for support are identical to others I have read or heard other places.
    3. Not all from third world hellholes, either.
    4. Reflects a “Lets see what we can get out of those fools now” mentality, created just about everywhere we operate.
    5. Lots of ramifications: the familiar dynamics lead one to expect familiar outcomes.
    6. Read Filkins. Your stuff is better -big bucks and style be damned.
    V/R JWest

  2. When our community organizer cic comes before the American people via tv and tells us in so many words that within Egypt he would expect the Muslim Brotherhood to play an active role in any new government formed within Egypt…well, let me see: Isn’t the number two guy after Bin Laden, our dear Dr. from the same group in Egypt?

    As every worthwhile community organizer–advocate knows(this was one of the “buzz” words used in the late 60’s to justify such people working on behalf of those who had no voice in our urban zones of poverty, etc.), one must elevate those groups who demand their rights for whatever reasons (go to room number 2 where local college students will help you form proper arguments, etc.cause they got government grants to do just such things!) into leadership positions.

    Don’t need to take a flight to Cuba to save one’s ass in this group’s world, no no.

    Karzai will be labeled a whore along with his government internally; while externally Hillary, after leaving the buffet line will say “peace with honor” has come to Afghanistan.

    Our troops might slink back home in the dead of night. Patreaus will be dazed but again his Princeton education will provide “amazing” words to cover his tracks.

    Somewhere a Kennedy kid will call for a new Peace Corps creation claiming all military efforts are useless, pointing you know where as proof.

    Many Americans will learn these realities while standing in lines waiting for electronic food stamp cards, having walked there due to gas prices.

    Tyrants all over this globe ponder if Americans will ever elect a leader who truly loves his country and sees the good of its citizens while they go about preaching how wonderful they are for others…much like our own Obama-Mao does every time he comes before us!

    Heroin will be plentiful again in our urban areas…helping to ease our social pains of this unjust world “the man” has created!

    Allah is both merciful and good, don’t you know!

  3. Great reporting, as usual!

    I think you nailed it when you wrote that Karzai needs us as much as we need him. That may be the perception, but is it the truth, insofar as perception can be differentiated from the truth? That is not the way it should be. Karzai should need us a lot more than we need him. Are you sure he doesn’t? What would happen if, somehow, Karzai were eliminated? I’m sure there are many Taliban who would like to see that happen. Why are we so wedded to the s.o.b. if everyone agrees he and his government are corrupt? That might be one issue the U.S. and Taliban could agree on.

    His arrogance in demanding that the “international community” (meaning the U.S.)pay for the increases in the army and police, even while we are being shoved out of the “country” is outrageous and offensive.

    Here’s a straightforward question: with this situation, why are you working there?

    1. I have three kids in college and am an adrenaline junkie which is better then being a drunk but not by much. When I get up in the morning I feel as good as I’m going to feel for the rest of the day; drunks at least know that the longer they’re awake the better they are going to feel. Another unfortunate truth is this whole thing fascinates me and I know exactly how rare it is in history to be able to observe a conflict like this given my ability to embed with the military or strike out on my own whenever I feel like it.

  4. Good post Tim, but more importantly relevant to the current ground situation.

    In reference to Charles’ statement “His arrogance in demanding that the international community (meaning the U.S.) pay for the increases in the army and police, even while we are being shoved out of the country is outrageous and offensive.” I couldn’t agree more.
    Recently, Karzai made an announcement that the ANA needs to build up its stockpiles of equipment (weapons in particular) in order to prepare for the ISAF end of mandate, and this will be handled by the MoD.” Fair call, however, “the ANP numbers and level of proficiency must be increased”, and that I quote “the international community should pay for this.” That is an absurd remark to say the least! The ANP training program is coming up to it’s 10th year since commencement, and NO progress has been witnessed. On the contrary, the ANP is now too busy jointly colluding with criminal syndicates, and believe it or not, there actually is “ground-proof” to substantiate this claim!
    This will not be rectified, because some task-force commanders are paving their red carpets for the next tab on their shoulder/collar – and political correctness is the key.

    From a personal perspective, I couldn’t care less for private security companies, most of them are filled with knuckle-dragging morons, who could barely figure out what day of the week it is. However, their expulsion will hamper the functions of international community greatly, of particular a good share of implementing partners, that are staffed by former post-graduate scholars.

    But that’s what you get when Karzai’s aim is to monopolize the market. So in the end, do we really need Karzai? He has very little support in his place of origin and surrounding areas, let alone throughout the country.

  5. The warlords are still out there and a lot of their weaponry is still available to them and/or the government. Who are they going to attack? Light armor is the most usable resource, except against armor. Has anyone noticed how rarely Afghan armored vehicles or even trucks are blown up? The Taliban consider these to eventually be theirs anyway, so they lay off.

    The IED’s target dismounted personnel these days, it seems, so it would seem that the ban on ammonium nitrate has some effect.

    The corruption and ever more confrontational attitude of the Karzai government is remarkably similar to what is happening in Iraq. They are basically telling us to F off while stealing our own money twice and three times over.

    We need to starve the Afghan government of funding and push out the resources we are expending to the people. Maybe identify and cultivate regional leaders who don’t smell too bad and who can develop regional power bases. It’s a tribal society and strong but rational provincial leaders might be a counterbalance to the loons, crooks, and drug lords.

    1. Matt,

      Violent attacks and casualties among the ANA have surged to new all time highs, including attacks against ANA vehicles. Notice the large number of ANA vehicles being attacked in Kandahar.

      In fact the large increase in attacks against the ANA, wounded ANA, and ANA KIA have increased conspiracy theories among the ANA that ISAF/internationals might secretly be backing the Taliban against them. The perception that ISAF might be backing the Taliban against the ANSF/GIroA/Afghans might be the biggest strategic threat against ISAF in Afghanistan today. This is the largest reason “They are basically telling us to F off.”

      The Taliban and ANA will likely fight each other long after ISAF draws down. Maybe not in large pockets of the South and East, but the rest of the country is another matter.

      By far the most popular and respected institution among Afghans is the ANA. If you are suggesting starving the Afghan MoD and MoI of money, this is likely to lead to a large surge in anti ISAF anger among Afghan civilians.

      Karzai cannot be sidelined. He is the commander in chief of the ANA and ANP. Karzai’s office micromanages ANA and ANP senior officer promotions and transfers. Either we [meaning US, NATO, ISAF, UNAMA, internationals] help ANSF/GIRoA fight the Taliban or we get out.

      You mentioned that Karzai/GIRoA/ANSF are corrupt. In the last couple centuries has any government in the greater south asian and central asian region not been extremely corrupt?

      India and China grow 8%-11% a year in real terms despite massive systematic corruption.

  6. gentlemen;

    I stand corrected. thanks for the good info. hard to get sometimes as the sources are limited.

    When everyone knows that both neighbors are hosting the terrorists infrastructure, and ISAF does little, is it any wonder the people are suspicious? So how do we ensure the funds don’t get diverted, then?

    One of the fundamental problems is that there are no consistent interlocutors. How does one find the facts?

    example; there was some kind of dustup in, I believe, Khost Province between the ANA and Pakistani Army with PAF planes involved in the past couple of days. There was a brief, cryptic article about it on Long War Journal, which when I went back to it this morning was gone.

    I had already e mailed a buddy in country in a position to confirm, and he confirmed the incident and that there was a very close hold on any related information.

    A tremendous amount of information seems to not be seeing the light of day for a wide range of reasons.

  7. For what its worth Matt.. I had to check on that LWJ claim.. Ive never known them to pull stuff… they are the real deal… and Roggio Rocks.. tho get your larger point….

    Here’s what LWJ said when i inquired..

    “Absolutely no truth to that at all. I did not write about this, I did link to an article in a Today In entry on Afghanistan, which you can see here:

    Fifteen Taliban fighters and three Pakistani soldiers were killed in fighting in Mohmand. The Taliban killed nine people in a bombing in Peshawar. A Pakistani soldier was killed in an exchange of fire with Afghan troops in Khost province.

    The Today In entries are daily roundups, they go off the front page every 24 hours

    Here is the original AFP/Dawn article on the incident:

  8. I could have sworn it was there. I did see it somewhere and had it confirmed by incontrovertible sources.Kept very much under wraps.

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