July 13, 2009

COIN 101

While commanders claim the Taliban is running and on the defensive, it really knows how to reverse the tables. Political backlash in Britain quickly followed the deaths of 8 British soldiers in Helmand in 24 hours, a lesson in how easily guerrillas can demoralize an occupying army's homeland.

The debate has become so heated in London, and public opinion so precarious, that President Obama felt the need to back the British army. Good thing he's so popular in Britain, but Afghanistan could quickly weigh him down.

And how effective has Britain really been? Afghans in Helmand, where its forces are concentrated, complain that British soldiers are heavy handed. At a numerical disadvantage throughout their deployment, operations have been reduced to clearing without holding. The result is endless battle without success, and an unhappy Afghan population. British soldiers are angry too for being left under-equipped and outmanned in one of Afghanistan's most dangerous provinces.

The lack of security and oversight naturally extended to the corrupt Afghan police force (ANP). To what degree Pankela, a village in Lashkar Gah in Helmand, is a trend remains unknown, but it's not an isolated event. The story in Pankela is interesting enough, but Major Al Steele's statements are most disturbing.

The commander of Bravo Company of 3 SCOTS, the Black Watch, met elders in Pankela during Operation Khanjar and pleaded, "We have heard a lot of complaints about the ANP, but the Coalition Forces and the ANA are working together well, and the ANP are getting better."

Gul Mohammad, a village elder, listened halfheartedly. Of all the things Afghans don't need to told by an Army official, it's that the situation is improving when it's really not.

"Every time we heard that new ANP would come," sighed Mohammad. "But the old ANP would come back and it would be just like in the past. The people here trust the Taliban. If the police come back and behave the same way, we will support the Taliban to drive them out."

Meanwhile the propaganda mill is still working out the bugs. Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, like Senator Feinstein, appears to have missed the memo of staying silent on drones. Levin claims America wouldn't have authorized the project if Pakistan didn't privately agree.

"For them to look the other way or to give us the green light privately and then to attack us publicly leaves us, it seems to me, at a very severe disadvantage and loss with the Pakistani people," he said.

He would have made this statement a year or two ago if he was sincere.

Senator Levin might be laying another web, the deceit is already so deep that it's hard to tell. Wasn't part of the agreement that Islamabad, already sweating under a new civilian government, would publicly condemn the drones to maintain face? If this was the strategy it failed to foresee the public outcry, or maybe they thought American popularity couldn't go lower.

The possibility remains that there was no formal agreement on drones, only an ad hoc strategy that inevitably produced instability. But if Levin is setting a trap, the next stage could be a Pakistani statement denying Levin's testimony. Both sides subtly paint the other as the liar to please their populaces and the show goes on.

Few will be fooled.

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