December 28, 2009

COIN 101

Today's Afghan civilian casualties aren’t a decisive blow to General McChrystal's new strategy. Foreign forces will tick away at his blueprint for at least a few years, here and there blowing apart some Afghan children, each event as bad but not necessarily worse than the last.

That being said, the true danger of civilian deaths was on display today.

Tentative reports claim 10 Afghans were killed by ISAF forces during a series of battles in Kunar province; eight are said to be children. Reports can't be verified because, as the governor Sayed Fazlullah Wahedi, explained, "It is a very rugged area, we cannot go there because of the presence of the Taliban.

For America’s part, a military spokesman assured reporters that a full investigation is already underway despite local hostilities; such a statement should be automatic at this point. But the reaction of Afghan politicians was crystal clear.

"Initial reports indicate that in a series of operations by international forces in Kunar province... 10 civilians, eight of them school students, have been killed," read a statement from the president's office. "President Karzai strongly condemns the operation which caused civilian deaths and has appointed a delegation to investigate the incident."

Politicians representing Kunar walked out of an important parliamentary session debating appointments to Karzai's new cabinet to protest. Thus an military error in the field reverberates up the local, regional, and national political chain, and spills over into the propaganda arena for a complete Taliban victory.

Civilian casualties also give Karzai a strong card to play. He's already showing no signs of changing - what if America and NATO keep killing Afghans? He'll surely say, "if you don't change, I don't have to change."

Now we don't want to jump to conclusions. Taliban territory equals Taliban tricks. If these children were used as shields, bait, or transport then the situation automatically reverses. Local resentment towards foreign forces will remain, but the Taliban's present victory could be tomorrow's defeat.

However, Mohammed Hussain said he was in the village where and when the fighting took place. The head of administration of the Chawkay district in Kunar province said coalition forces surrounded the village in the early morning hours on Sunday before they attacked a house in which "only innocent civilians lived," killing seven of his relatives and several others.

"It is clear there was no insurgency and that they were students who were not carrying weapons," he told the AP. "They were in three rooms. One of the victims was a 17-year-old who was killed together with his three brothers in one of the rooms."

A more days of reporting should tell the real story on the ground. Or should we say, that particular patch of ground. Much of Kunar is hot, as it serves as a border cross for both Taliban and US forces. A senior Western military official told AFP that US Special Forces have been conducting extensive operations along the border.

"They have been killing a lot of Taliban and capturing a lot of Taliban," he said.

Octopus Mountain can’t help but cringe. He probably didn’t mean to, but the official reinforces the impression and excuse that civilian casualties are inevitable in Taliban territory. A “we regret these deaths but we’re killing Taliban” sort of attitude is the antithesis of population protection in counterinsurgency.

The official also seems to have no doubt that America is at war with the Taliban first, al-Qaeda second in Afghanistan. This is an unsustainable order. A direct war with the Taliban is a strategic mistake; General McChrystal said so himself. He may be attempted to roll it back in order to expose al-Qaeda, but its operators are already scattering.

al-Qaeda could empty its presence in Afghanistan and Obama’s surge will crash into the southern provinces and border regions. Yet the Taliban would gladly lose 50 of its own if America kills 10 civilians in the process. America must assign a higher value to civilians than Taliban if Obama hopes to achieve lasting counterinsurgency progress.

Because the fact is, according to his own intel, that the Taliban is stocked with cannon fodder and bait.

US intelligence officials claim “time is running out” to stop the Taliban’s momentum, McClatchy reported Monday. The group is thriving militarily, reporting pushing its numbers above 25,000 in total; tens of thousands more make up its auxiliary and local forces. Supported by a diverse fundraising network, the Taliban has stretched into norther provinces like Baghlan, Kunduz and Taqhar, threatening supply routes.

As the political usually outweighs the military, so too is the Taliban’s expanding shadow government a greater concern than its army. The army is so effective largely because the Taliban has developed a sophisticated political platform, complete with slogans, positions, and alternative solutions. And its political body is well organized.

The Taliban have created a "government-in-waiting," and is waging “a full-fledged insurgency” complete with Cabinet ministers, that could assume power if America pulls the plug on Karzai’s government. The Taliban also has installed sleeper governors in 33 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, who’s job is to develop local connections and prepare a smooth transition in the event of a Taliban takeover.

In the meantime these shadow governors roam around applying themselves wherever the government is absent, providing security to friendly areas and attempting to settle disputes.

The cycle is completely illuminated. Taliban soldiers dare death to draw fire from Western forces onto civilians, culminating in political dissent and diplomatic headaches. Attacks on ANA forces spread suspicion within the ranks and US deaths erode public support in America. Meanwhile the Taliban spreads its own shadow, chipping away at the relationship between Washington and Kabul while building up its own government.

Defeating this strategy will require a long, hard counterinsurgency.

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