May 13, 2010

Cheering Afghanistan

US General Richard Mills, among his many functions, is a cheerleader. This is normal behavior for a general, being responsible for the morale of his troops.

Generalship isn’t easy either, requiring a delicate balance of secrecy and transparency. Generals must keep their troops relatively in the dark until the moments before an operation. They must stretch the truth, sometimes break the truth, and embody a position that can get away with it.

Generals are considered savvy if they motivate their troops to victory with false expectations or promises. Win and all means to the end are forgiven - but what if the army is ultimately defeated? Generals often fall in defeat.

General Mills is in an unenviable position. As commander of all Marines in southern Afghanistan, his daily duties include convincing his troops that the war is moving in the right direction. This task differs from day to day activity, where many US troops see positive signs like open schools and markets, and happy Afghan children.

A soldier can personally feel good in his own little circle even as the wider political circle spirals towards collapse.

Few problems would exist were Mills simply motivating his troops in a grueling reality, but the advent of new media begins to wreck havoc. In ancient times the general’s manipulation was mainly confined to his troops and his enemy when in the field, but the 20th century brought the battlefield into the civilian world.

So when Mills encourages his troops he’s also aiming for the American people - which aren’t his troops - ensnaring us in his fabrications. And at times we sound like his only target.

Mills is a key cheerleader in Marjah, where he told NPR in late April, “If you go to Marjah today, you will find a city that is free of the Taliban, that has schools that are open, a marketplace, a bazaar.”

Ask him now and he’ll say the same thing: “People are beginning to feel secure enough to stand up on two feet" and resist Taliban intimidation.

Granted, no outsider knows the full reality of Marjah, but it speaks volumes that only US officials and the US media remain upbeat. Even then, elements of both have admitted to slow progress, backfiring expectations, and a box half empty.

The San Francisco Examiner summed up the opposing position that, “The drive this summer to secure Kandahar was supposed to build on the success of the much smaller Marjah operations. However if Marjah is any indicator then Kandahar will be more of a problem.”

“The Afghan government has been slow to provide services and villagers have not rallied in large numbers to the Kabul-based government,” reports the Examiner. “The Marines who provide much of the security in the district are not getting enough tips from the villagers. People are hanging back, afraid to throw their lot with the government even if they hate the Taliban.”

Most importantly, the acting district governor of Marjah directly contradicts Mills’ version of reality.

“The local residents don’t trust we will provide security,” Naimatullah told The London Times in a late-night interview. “They are taking a wait-and-see attitude to the government. The people are worried that the Taliban will return and punish them for supporting the government.”

Mills is resigned to continue plowing through the storm clouds and preach his message. After all it’s his duty. This could be heartening, except the sentiment is quickly lost if he’s merely delusional. We’ve picked on Mills before in Marjah, but that isn’t his only lie.

In his recent interview with USA Today, Mills touts America’s new anti-narcotic strategy that targets traffickers and chemical smugglers over farmers. He claims a significant amount of components necessary for opium production have been interdicted at the border, and that the effects will hit the Taliban hard.

"We're putting a hurt on them," Mills said, expecting a reduction in Taliban pay that could push fighters towards Kabul’s reintegration program. "This is not going to be a good year for them money wise. I think what we have been able to interdict will have a significant impact long-range on the financial support the insurgency receives over the next eight, 10 months.”

This may be true if opium were a “significant” source of Taliban funding. We don’t want to underestimate the poppy harvest, but the Pentagon revised its theory last year after discovering how diversified the Taliban’s financial machine really is.

“In the past there was a kind of a feeling that the money all came from drugs in Afghanistan,” Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in June. “That is simply not true.”

In his Aug. 30 strategic assessment, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, “voiced skepticism that clamping down on the opium trade would crimp the Taliban’s overall finances.” Turns out the Taliban receive about 25% of their funding from opium, with equal amounts coming from foreign donors, extortion, taxes, and legitimate businesses.

“Eliminating insurgent access to narco-profits - even if possible, and while disruptive - would not destroy their ability to operate so long as other funding sources remained intact,” McChrystal warned, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would echo him.

Now, almost a year later, Mills tells us, “clamping down on the opium trade will cripple the Taliban’s overall finances.” Not only will the effects be less than advertised, the Taliban’s supply isn’t likely to deplete either. Poppy yields and prices are up, with stockpiles measuring in the hundreds of tons.

When does a general become a danger to his country? Possibly at the moment a well-intentioned soldier turns into a pathological liar, cheering America towards defeat in Afghanistan. A general must think for himself too.

Yet Mills told USA Today of his Marines in Helmand province, "They've taken on the Taliban, the insurgency, right in the heartland, and they've defeated them.”

This was back in January, with only a fraction of President Obama’s surge on the ground. At this pace we expect him to declare victory in Kandahar at any moment!

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