Archive for May, 2010

Dying for the Karzai Cartel

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Our strategy and tactics in Afghanistan, both of which make sense in theory, no longer apply.

The classic defense of our involvement in Afghanistan is that we need to make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a sanctuary for al-Qaeda or other enemies of the United States. Ungoverned spaces attract terrorists, especially when they’re in bad neighborhoods. (See: Pakistan.)

That is strategy. The classic defense of our tactics is that we are fighting a counterinsurgency according to best practices, providing security to the people of Afghanistan so that they can choose to support their elected government rather than the insurgency. Everything our military does in Afghanistan is aimed at that goal. We are trying to train the Afghan security forces to the point where they can take over from us, just as the Iraqi security forces mainly have, and we can go home.

I agree with both the strategy and the tactics, in theory. And I’ve long argued that our military is doing as superb job of ground-level counterinsurgency, and that the Afghans, at least in the north and west, are doing an impressive job at building civil society through the same capitalist methods that have worked in the West.

But what I’ve seen in my last three trips to Afghanistan, and what I’ve read in the Pentagon’s own “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stabilization in Afghanistan” makes me believe that neither our strategy nor our tactics apply any longer.

First, and most important, our strategy makes no sense. We are supporting a criminal state in Kabul that is likely involved with the insurgency itself. There is almost nothing to distinguish the Taliban from the Karzai mafias, whose tentacles reach down to the most obscure rural districts.

American commanders will tell you of governors, police chiefs, district governors, and district police chiefs so corrupt, abusive, and vicious that the Taliban are a desirable alternative. We are talking about Afghan government officials who sell famine aid for their own profit, rape boys and women, run drugs in police cars — and often conspire with insurgents to kill Afghan civilians and security forces, and even American troops.

Ahmad Wali Karzai is running a mafia out of Kandahar, and his brother Hamid Karzai is protecting him. This mafia is worth over a billion a year to him, if the Times of London is to be believed.

One senior coalition figure calculated that the “Karzai cartel” was making a turnover of a billion dollars a year from the coalition involvement in Afghanistan, through lucrative contracts and sub-contracting spin-offs in convoy protection, construction, fuel, food, and security.

In fact, it may no longer be the case that AWK does what he does in order to strengthen the hand of his brother: It may be that Hamid does what he does to strengthen the hand of AWK. The Afghan state is being hollowed out from the inside and becoming a branch of a lucrative criminal enterprise. Why would the Karzais have any interest in defeating the insurgency? They are profiting from it.

Our so-called allies, Karzai, Inc., may no longer differ much from the terrorists who would likely govern southern and eastern Afghanistan if we leave. If al-Qaeda stays on the Pakistani side of the border, where, after all, living conditions and infrastructure are better, what’s the difference? Once we leave, the cause of expelling the foreign troops vanishes; al-Qaeda has much more of an interest in nuclear Pakistan; and the Karzais would likely meet the same end as Najibullah, strung up in the streets, once they lose our support.

Descending to the level of tactics, ours aren’t leading to a situation where we can leave. It’s impossible for us to go until we can stand up the Afghan National Police (ANP or AUP), but it’s impossible to do that when the local governance they are meant to support undermines the rule of law. The generals in Kabul are very quiet about this, but the two-year-old training program for the ANP is being phased out, because it was a massive waste of money that produced poor results. As the Pentagon report acknowledged, “the lack of other rule of law improvement in districts also limits the effectiveness of the police. Even when well-trained, AUP units have regressed when a mentoring team has been reassigned.”

As one American captain, Michael Tumlin, who partners with the Zabul police chief, told me, “We are basically enacting local governance here.” And what kind of counterinsurgency is it when you can never leave?

The new focus is on standing up the Afghan gendarmerie, or ANCOP, and hoping that the problems with the ANP will go away or the media will stop noticing. But the ANCOP attrition rate has been as high as 82 percent and is still way above 50 percent. The only way to get from their current number of 4,000 to the end goal of 15,000 by March 2011 is by what the International Crisis Group report on the Afghan National Army (ANA) — quoting a retired American lieutenant general — called a “catch and release policy,” where new recruits and AWOL soldiers are jiggered until “the numbers caught and released reach the predetermined goal . . . and [U.S.] forces can go home.” Of course, a couple of months after the goal is “achieved,” the numbers are likely to be back down to what they were before.

I’ve seen big improvements in the ANA over the course of six embeds with the American forces who oversee their training. But attrition is in the 50–60 percent range despite a generous pay raise effective this January. And the increases in capacity are terribly slow. Between May 2009 and March 2010, the number of units at the highest level, capability milestone 1 (a rating of 85 percent), remained unchanged at 22. The number at CM2 (70–84 percent) increased from 14 to 35. And the number at CM3 (51–69 percent) went from 14 to 28. The remaining 20 units were at CM4 (under 50 percent capability). So, despite billions in U.S. funds, the number of units deemed at “full operational capability” did not increase in ten months.

We can look forward to a long-term financial drain from the ANA. A recent International Crisis Group report noted that the annual cost of maintaining the ANA is likely to be around $2.2 billion, of which the Afghan government in 2008 contributed a mere $320 million.

In the 2010 fiscal year, Congress appropriated $6.6 billion for the Afghan Security Forces Fund, a trust that also receives contributions from other nations. And this February, the DOD requested an additional $2.6 billion for the 2010 fiscal year and $11.6 billion for the 2011 fiscal year. This trend line is in the wrong direction.

So is just about every trend line in southern and eastern Afghanistan. After six embeds, I am tired of hearing American commanders tell me that the reason SIGACTs (violent acts) are up is that “we are pushing out into areas we’ve never been in before” and “we have more troops here.” The logical conclusion of this is that we could bring our entire Army to Afghanistan and violence would continue to edge up.

The Pentagon’s report is less than candid when it comes to security. Of 121 “key” (i.e., dangerous) districts (out of about 365 districts in the country), the Pentagon assessed only 35 “favorably,” at the “occasional threats” level or better. I would venture to say that there isn’t one of those 35 districts where Afghans — much less foreigners — can take a drive without fear.

The list of 121 districts does not include all dangerous or insurgent-controlled districts, either. It omits many that aren’t “key,” such as the districts in Zabul that American officers have described to me as so dangerous that it would take a company-level operation to move 20 kilometers. This is also true of parts of Khost, which has deteriorated in the last two years. Most of the province, which I visited extensively in 2007–8, is now marked “neutral” or “sympathetic to the insurgency” on the Pentagon map.

“Neutral” areas seem to mean areas where you may or may not be killed, depending on your luck. I took a road trip with an Afghan to Khost from Kabul on April 9, in a Toyota Corolla, with no security. It was fine, even between Gardez, the capital of Paktia, and Khost’s capital — the most dangerous stretch of road that USAID is building. (Later, I was told by USAID that IEDs are routinely found there.) But the next day, insurgents destroyed 17 road-building machines on that stretch. Twelve days later, two ANA were killed there by IEDs.

The Pentagon report admits that

IED events increased markedly in 2009. . . . This increase led to an increase in the total number of casualties by 55%, with a 123% increase in international partner casualties. January to March 2010 saw a 16% increase in IED use, mainly caused by central Helmand operations where insurgents prepared an IED-based defense.

Neither our strategy nor our tactics are working in Afghanistan. We shouldn’t be surprised: There’s never been a counterinsurgency that worked when the people didn’t support the government. The Pentagon’s map of Afghanistan’s 80 most key districts shows only five “sympathetic” to the Afghan government — and none supporting it. Only 24 percent of Afghans in the broader group of all 121 key districts support the Karzai government.

We are caught in a trap of our own making, supporting an Afghan president who stole an election and who has no more legitimacy than the Taliban we replaced. We are apparently supporting him under the false hypothesis that his mafia provides “security,” even as it demonstrably fails to do so, even as citizens are rightly turning against it. Effectively, we are in Afghanistan so that the Karzai cartel can steal even more money. Is that worth losing our soldiers for?

Karzai’s Bad Boy Brother Selling Material to Kill U.S. Troops

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Propping up Afghan evildoers isn’t only a disgrace to American values– it’s a recipe for defeat in counterinsurgency.

Qalat, Zabul Province, Afghanistan

On May 7, General David Petraeus held a meeting with the owner of a Kandahar company that legally sells ammonium nitrate. This fertilizer is a key ingredient of home made explosives (HME) used in the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or vehicle-borne explosive devices (VBIEDs) that are the main killers of our troops in Afghanistan. Major General Flynn’s CNAS report estimated that 80 to 90% of IEDs use ammonium nitrate. HME are also responsible for the majority of violent deaths of members of the Afghan National Army, Police and civilians.

Why is any Afghan company legally selling ammonium nitrate? Since last summer, coalition troops have been confiscating caches of ammonium nitrate and instructing the Afghan security forces to do the same.

Under pressure from General Stanley McChrystal, Afghan President Karzai banned sales of ammonium nitrate in Afghanistan in late January. Robert Helmerick of USAID in Kabul says that USAID contractors’ difficulty in obtaining ammonium nitrate has been one factor delaying construction of the K-G Pass Road in eastern Afghanistan. But some legal outlets still exist, if you know the right people.

When a Zabul IED cell was apprehended by coalition forces in late April, they gave up the name of their perfectly legal supplier. That Zabul company not only sold ammonium nitrate but also fuses to the insurgents, who have killed two Romanian police trainers who were just blown up two days ago. That means HMEs have killed 8 young men since July 2009. And in 2010 to date, HMEs have killed 11 Afghans and wounded 25 in Zabul.

This cleared up a puzzle for American troops, who wondered why they weren’t coming across stockpiles of ammonium nitrate in this HME-prone province. The “ban” on sales of the chemical had been circumvented by vendors supplying the Zabul construction industry (virtually non-existent). Legal companies are laundering ammonium nitrate for insurgent IED cells.
“Fariba Nawa” , , “Steven Mains” , ,According to Zabul’s maneuver commander, LTC David Oclander of the 82nd Airborne Division, the local company in turn pointed upstream to its supplier in Kandahar, a day’s travel south. That company’s name is Kandahar Crush (a local term for a gravel provider) and it’s owned by the man General Petraeus met. His name is Ahmad Wali Karzai, and he’s a brother of Afghanistan’s president.

It isn’t clear if Petraeus knew that AWK, as he’s known locally, owned the company that sold chemicals used to kill his troops downrange.

Petraeus was meeting with AWK to get him on board for the upcoming Kandahar offensive. AWK is the head of Kandahar ’s provincial council, an elected body with no official powers.

But AWK’s real juice stems from his role as the mafia don of southern Afghanistan. A recent news report in the Times of London estimated his cartel earned a billion dollars a year from contracts with coalition forces. This is not to mention his huge earnings as a heroin dealer. The New York Times recently reported that AWK’s been on the CIA’s payroll as well.

Propping up Afghan evildoers isn’t only a disgrace to American values– it’s a recipe for defeat in counterinsurgency. A government without popular support can’t be stabilized by even the best counterinsurgency. The Karzai regime is close to having no support in southern Afghanistan, as evidenced by the Pentagon’s April 26 Report on Progress Toward Security and Stabilization in Afghanistan. A map of 80 key Afghan districts shows only five “sympathetic” to the Afghan government – and none supporting it. (p. 38) Only 24% of Afghans in a broader group of 121 key districts – about a third of the Afghan total – support the Karzai government. These figures may be optimistic, as a substantial number of southern and eastern districts are marked as “not assessed”. Most of Zabul, for example, is in that category, but in reality these areas support the insurgency actively or passively. And many areas marked “neutral” are districts where IEDs are frequent. (Editor’s note: the actual report is downloadable here.) The same Pentagon report admits that “violence is sharply above the seasonal average for the previous year – an 87% increase from February 2009 to March 2010.”

The theory is that we need to work through men like AWK to pacify Afghanistan. This is as stupid as it is wrong. What foreign-policy “realism” requires us to pay thugs who are killing our own troops? On February 12, General Petraeus attended the West Point funeral for a young officer killed by HME in Zabul, Captain Daniel Whitten,28, a member of the West Point class of 2004. And on April 29th, Lieutenant Sal Corma, 24, a 2008 West Point graduate, became the tenth young man and eighth young American to die in Zabul from HME. The odds are good that the ammonium nitrate in the bombs that killed these men came from Kandahar Crush.

Our military risk and give their lives to provide a better life for Afghans and to connect them to the Karzai government. The two are incompatible, and Afghans know it. They see us supporting men who are as despicable as the Taliban — and refuse to sign on. The “realists” in our State Department and the Pentagon undo what our military accomplishes here. Unless the Karzais and their cartels go, our defeat in Afghanistan is nearly inevitable.

Shura To Fail?

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Shura to Fail?

Why U.S. officials taking tea with local Afghan elders seem to be wasting their time.

Shamalzai District, Zabul Province, Afghanistan—The village of Sher Khan Khel sits at 7,221 feet, a few miles from where Zabul Province borders Pakistan. Stone and mudbrick houses dot the barren slopes (there is little that will grow at this altitude). Women wear dresses trimmed with coins and ink tribal tattoos on their faces, while the men are clad in traditional shalwar kameez and turbans. There is no electricity, no cell phone reception, no TV service. When I visited this spring, I asked a few men how far a nearby village was from another. “Two to three hours walking,” was the answer. Distances here are often measured by walking.

On the morning of April 21, a group of U.S. Chinook helicopters broke the village’s calm. They landed near Sher Khan Khel, bringing dozens of U.S. and Afghan officials for a shura, or meeting, with village elders. Among the visitors were U.S. Lieutenant Colonel David Oclander, Zabul’s maneuver commander; Ashraf Naseri, Zabul’s governor; and General Jamaladeen Sayeed, the provincial army chief. Dozens more U.S. and Afghan police officers, soldiers, and doctors lugged medical supplies, prayer rugs, and a catered Afghan lunch. Their goal? To connect Sher Khan Khel’s residents with the Afghan government, in hopes of building peace and order.

In Sher Khan Khel, the Afghan government is a largely conceptual notion. The village is a two-day road trip from Kabul, and, while it is only 70 miles from Qalat, Zabul’s capital, but the terrain is so rugged that only donkeys or motorcycles can handle the painful eight to ten hours the trip takes. There are no schools or clinics here, and there is no way to call the Shamalzai District authorities, who are hours away and embarrassingly inept. Recently, Shamalzai District’s governor, called Wazir, was removed for corruption, as was the entire police force—twice in 90 days.

Sher Khan Khel’s isolation and lack of governance has led to lawlessness. The Taliban use the dirt path running by the village to move their forces into more populated parts of southern Afghanistan, and also to traffic heroin. The area around the village is home to at least one IED-making cell. (The Taliban killed eight American soldiers with explosives in Zabul between last summer and April 21, and, just a few miles from Sher Khan Khel, an IED killed two paratroopers on February 2.) And, in the vacuum left by Shamalzai’s weak governing authorities, the Taliban have either coerced or gained the support of many local residents. As Lieutenant Colonel Oclander told me, “If I lived in Shamalzai, and my choice were Wazir or the Taliban, I’d support the Taliban, too.”

There are thousands of Sher Khan Khels in Afghanistan—remote, traditional villages with little connection to the country’s authorities, where militant groups find shelter, plot attacks, and funnel their arms, fighters, and drugs. These villages are the center of gravity for U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, which focuses heavily on shuras (and has since at least early 2007, just after the publication of the counterinsurgency field manual, FM 3-24). Every lieutenant and captain knows the drill: Sit down with village or town elders, drink tea, listen to their complaints, and enlist their cooperation in the fight against the insurgency, in return for government services, U.S. aid, or protection from the Taliban or a rival tribe.

But, in Zabul, as in other southern provinces, the U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) effort appears to be faltering. A recent Pentagon report revealed that, out of 121 districts critical to stabilizing Afghanistan, only 29 are sympathetic to the Afghan government. Forty-four are neutral and another 48 are sympathetic to the insurgency, including three of Zabul’s eleven districts (Shamulzai and the province’s other districts were listed as “not assessed”). Indeed, many people here have ties—sometimes blood—to Taliban fighters. With the administration of President Hamid Karzai (who is in Washington this week for talks about U.S.-Afghan relations) widely viewed as a kleptocracy, there is little reason for Zabulis to risk defying the Taliban to stand with the far-off government.

No amount of shuras seems likely to change this reality. As one military expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me, “The shuras they [the Afghans] have with the American colonels are for show. The real shuras take place at night, in the mosque, with the Taliban.”

The immediate aim of the Sher Khan Khel shura, organized by U.S. commanders in Zabul, was to persuade the villagers to stop giving sanctuary to insurgents coming from Pakistan, helping them on their way to Kandahar and Helmand provinces. The U.S. and Afghan officials also hoped to enlist men in the village to join the Afghan National Police to help in the effort against the Taliban. The longer range and more elusive goal of the meeting was to put the village on the Afghan government’s radar, and vice versa: Invite authorities to the village, and show residents that the administration wants to help them have a better life.

The visitors climbed terraced, stony slopes to a large clearing surrounded by trees, shivering in the mountain chill. Blankets and rugs had been laid down on the ground, and, standing in a single-file line on one side of the clearing, village elders waited for the new arrivals to take their seats. Gaunt from a lifetime of subsistence farming, the elders looked to be in their seventies or eighties, though they were probably decades younger.

There were only 19 elders present—far fewer than anticipated. As the visitors would soon learn, the 19 weren’t all from Sher Khan Khel; a few were from a neighboring district. Naseri, Zabul’s governor and a man of considerable ego, was annoyed. He complained to those gathered that he’d expected 300 to 400 elders. (Both Naseri and the Americans knew that the lack of attendance didn’t bode well; most likely, the Taliban have a hold on the village, and it’s possible elders didn’t show up for fear of bloody reprisals.)

One elder, the stoutest by far, sat on a raised cushion in front of the others. He was the village headman, Haji Abdul Salam, large, florid and about 50 years old. He opened the shura by explaining that most of the men in the village are economic migrants who go into Pakistan. There isn’t enough water in Sher Khan Khel to do much farming, so they have to go elsewhere to make money. The small number of men who remain the village, Salam said, cannot defend it from the Taliban—so they do not try.

The Taliban regularly come through on motorcycles—anywhere from five to 30 bikes in a pack, carrying two fighters each. Masked, they extort food from the villagers. “But what are our alternatives?” Salam complained. “If we don’t give them food, they will humiliate us and beat us.” But Naseri wasn’t buying the argument. “In the time of the jihad, we got rid of the Soviets in their sophisticated tanks. You can get rid of these guys on their motorcycles.”

Naseri asked the villagers who among their sons would join the provincial police to protect the village. “This is our country. Everyone has an equal responsibility to protect it,” he said. At the time, there were no Sher Khan Khel men in the district police. The pay (roughly $250 a month is good, but the turnover rate is high. “Every month 100 men are coming and 100 men are going,” the recruitment officer at Zabul’s provincial police headquarters told me.

None of the elders spoke, or showed any sign of a reaction.

Naseri continued, arguing that the region needs security so it can have schools. Then he added, perhaps with an eye toward the elders who likely have family ties to the insurgency, that any Taliban fighter is welcome to put away his weapons and reconcile with the government. At this point, three or four younger men, who had joined the outer edge of the elders’ line, smirked and talked among themselves. One turned his back on Naseri—an insult—and, one by one, they drifted away.

Salam spoke again, complaining about corruption among Zabul’s authorities. He suggested that that Naseri ask President Karzai to organize the public execution of thieving officials. It is a not uncommon suggestion in rural Afghanistan that harks back to the Taliban practice of public executions. (Naseri is fighting corruption charges stemming from his last job as governor of Badghis Province in the northwest. It’s unclear whether Salam knew that.) General Jamaladeen, the provincial army chief, reminded Salam and the other elders that the Taliban are the real problem. In addition to demanding that villagers not go out at night or attend the local bazaar, the Taliban had killed 15 Afghan civilians, including two children, in the previous month alone. “The Taliban just use the cover of Islam,” Jamaladeen said. “We accept that there are issues with the government, but the Taliban are cruel.”

The elders listened impassively. Only one villager besides Salam spoke. When noon came, lunch was served, but the villagers stayed on their side of the clearing, the visitors on theirs. And then, slowly, with little goodwill or fanfare, the gathering broke up. No agreements had been made, no aid promised, no allegiances pledged.

As the American and Afghan officials made their way back to the helicopter landing zone, it was hard not to wonder when the Taliban would arrive in Sher Khan Khel again. Perhaps it would be that night. They’d make offers (or threats), and maybe, or even likely, elicit a more supportive response.

Eight days after the shura at Sher Khan Khel, one of the young American officers in attendance, Lieutenant Sal Corma, a recent West Point graduate, was killed by an IED on a foot patrol in the Shajoy district of Zabul. “[He'd] give you the shirt off his back,” Oclander told me. “Brought a light to any room he was in.”

Despite numerous shuras held in recent months, soldiers like Corma keep dying. (There had even been a shura in Shajoy earlier in April, where Oclander announced an initiative to pay locals to guard their own bazaar and roads, plus a $1,200 bonus if they serve a full twelve months.) The United States is offering all the carrots it can, but, in places like Sher Khan Khel, too many locals seem comfortable with the familiar—that is, the Taliban. Rather than disrupt the balance of things, they listen skeptically (if at all) to what the American and Afghan authorities have to say, then continue to support the insurgency, whether passively or actively.

U.S. officials would like to say that the local shura strategy is working, that Corma and other young Americans have not died in vain—but, as the Afghans like to say, “it is not clear.”