September 7, 2009

Razor's Edge

The air-strike in Kunduz province has mushroomed from a basic counterinsurgency error to an international display of fragility. With anti-war pressure already mounting in Europe, Germany is headed into an uproar because of a single attack and is pulling down the rest of NATO. Undermanned in Afghanistan, America and its allies have no margin of error. One mistake can blow any war open, but those waging counterinsurgencies walk a particularly thin line.

Germany has gone on the offensive to defend its commander. After previously denying civilian casualties, a COIN no-no, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung claimed the two tankers "posed an acute threat to our soldiers." German officials suspected the tankers were to be used as suicide bombs. "If there were civilian casualties or injuries, of course we deeply regret that. At the same time, it was clear that our soldiers were in danger. Therefore I regard the decision of the German commander's on location as correct. The air strike was absolutely necessary."

Jung added. "I can not comprehend how some can so quickly criticize the military action without knowing what the situation was or the background information."

Jung is in an unenviable spot, the position foreign officials often find themselves locked in by guerrillas. He is correct of course, the fuel tanks have suicide explosion written all over them. From a self-interest perspective, German deaths are more politically threatening than Afghan deaths. Watching the tankers being stolen and not acting, knowing how they'll likely be used, is incredibly difficult, but guerrilla war is a realm of paradoxes. Jung bluntly admits that he deems the protection of German soldiers above the local population, contrary to the laws of COIN. Afghans are unlikely to ever hear his explanations.

The press is reporting a US-German rift. German officials are evoking self defense and criticizing what they believe is a rush to judgment in the American media. American officials responded that German troops took too long to investigate the site, but they had come under fire when they did arrive and would likely have been shot had they arrived sooner. Even General McChrystal was kept from the site due to the threat of violence. US-German relations are surface waves, unlikely to suffer damage, but the individual issues have deeper meaning.

General McChrystal has come off the worst in this incident, causing the protective American media slant. His new directive calls for an investigation of the site within hours, but German troops didn't show up until noon the next day. When McChystal asked Col. Georg Klein, the commander of the German base in Kunduz, "Why didn't RC-North come here quicker?" Klein replied, "I can honestly say it was a mistake." While his admission is noble, it does nothing to correct the situation and undercuts McChrystal's range of influence.

The Washington Post then reported only one informant was used in the strike, a violation of General McChystal's new directive. "Col. Klein said his intelligence chief had spoken to an Afghan source who insisted that everyone at the site was an insurgent," read the report. "The description of the scene the source provided was similar to what Klein was seeing beamed from the F-15. 'The whole story matched 100 percent,' Klein said. But there was no way to tell whether the dots on the screen were insurgents, as the source maintained."

This news is especially disturbing. Intelligence is one of America's main problems. Not only is it susceptible to the politics of feuding tribes, America hasn't built a strong enough network within the local population. Technology will always be a cheap substitute for true relations with the people. That Kunduz, until lately a stable province, is in question bodes even worse. US officials reported an unexpected warmth from local leaders; if America cannot find reliable intelligence in Kunduz then how much less Kandahar?

The debate over troop levels must come to an end once and for all. Mistakes will continue without the proper resources. Octopus Mountain doesn't necessarily favor escalation, but as the situation stands President Obama will not achieve his goal to destroy al-Qaeda without more US troops. The defeat of al-Qaeda, says Obama, necessitates the destruction of the Taliban, which requires more troops. To secure and develop the country requires more troops. A lack of good intelligence is a cry for more troops. When the choice is letting the Taliban steal two time bombs or killing civilians to prevent their getaway, more troops are needed. Minimalism is idealism, a light foot print won’t work any better than a heavy footprint.

Octopus Mountain will go no lower than 110,000 total US troops.

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