December 31, 2009

Afghanistan 2009: Bang Then Whimper

Maybe President Obama just has bad timing, or maybe his “new” strategy for Afghanistan is still gasping for air. How are we supposed to interpret back to back civilian casualties - bad luck or bad policy?

You can blame the Taliban for luring US and ISAF forces into a trap, though this is what they’re supposed to do so falling for the trap is hardly an excuse. Yet no blame can be assigned to operational or technical failures by America or NATO. In their heads everything wrong in Afghanistan is the Taliban’s fault.

But not in reality.

Start with the bombing in Ghazi Khan village, in Narang District of the eastern province of Kunar, where Afghan and Western officials continue to squabble over both the event itself and blame for it. The UN, realizing the mess NATO is creating by denying children casualties, has tried to mitigate the outrage while sticking behind its Western brethren.

Kai Eide, in a statement on Thursday, cautioned that the facts were in dispute, but admitted the UN’s preliminary investigation corroborated some aspects of the version given by local people to the Afghan government’s investigation. “Based on our initial investigation, eight of those killed were students enrolled in local schools,” the statement read.

And yet Eide felt compelled to add, “There is also evidence to strongly indicate that there were insurgents in the area at the time.”

No words could be so revealing as to a lack of counterinsurgency understanding. Eide’s statement is nothing more than a whimper twisted out of him by guerrilla warfare. “Insurgents in the area” will never be a valid excuse for civilian casualties, for that is the point of an insurgency - to live among the people. Trading insurgent kills for civilian deaths is conventional warfare, not counterinsurgency where the population must be prioritized above all.

This is why General McChrystal states, to the apparent ignorance of Eide and other Western officials, that, “It is better to miss a target than to cause civilian casualties. We can always target enemy leaders later. We can't make up for the fact that we killed civilians."

McChrystal’s warning, issued during his August review, has yet to trickle down to the last foreign soldier and official like it should.

Now, the possibility remains for more Taliban deceit because the crime is so heinous that it seems impossible. A statement from Karzai’s office gave the following account: “The delegation concluded that a unit of international forces descended from a plane Sunday night into Ghazi Khan village, in Narang District of the eastern province of Kunar, and took 10 people from 3 homes, 8 of them school students in grades 6, 9 and 10, one of them a guest, the rest from the same family, and shot them dead.”

A statement issued Thursday by the Afghan National Security Directorate reaffirmed, "international forces from an unknown address came to the area and without facing any armed resistance, put 10 youth in two rooms and killed them."

Again factoring in Taliban disinformation, those “international forces” might be Taliban guerrillas. Thus the NATO account could be true, that nine militants were killed, and the Afghan version partially accurate as well - that eight children were executed by the Taliban during the chaos. Such a killing could turn the perception of the war and has the potential for mass exploitation, but again, this action would be just as suicidal as in the West’s case.

The possibility also opens of Karzai covering up the Taliban’s plot so to exploit the casualties internationally.

Nevertheless, foreign officials would still be wise to lay low until they can prove their account. Eide’s excuse that militants were in the area is no less foolish even if the Taliban executed these children. Leading with foreign forces during a nighttime raid is also contradictory to counterinsurgency and supposed to be McChrystal’s law.

International forces, "conducted this operation on their own without informing any security or local authorities of Afghanistan,'' said the Afghan National Security Directorate."

Nor is another mistake at this time excusable.

Yesterday a NATO cruise missile allegedly killed five to seven civilians, including three children, in a village in the Babajid district of Helmand province, near the capital Lashkar Gah. Again opposing accounts emerged. NATO spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Vician told reporters, “A single missile was launched against individuals whom we believed were engaged in an attack... Every precaution was made to ensure there were no civilians in the vicinity at the time of the strike.”

Maybe not. Dawood Almady, spokesman for governor Mohammad Golab Mangal, said a convoy of British troops was passing a village about five miles from the capital and was attacked by insurgents from two buildings.

“The troops responded and called in an air-strike and caused the death of some civilians and the wounding of others,” Mr. Almady said.

Sounds like a point and click air-strike without every precaution for civilians. The following account could certainly be tainted, but Agha Jan, a resident of the village, claimed, “People were in the gardens to water their plantings. The plane without a pilot targeted them and they were killed.”

Furthermore, Col. Vician commits the same error as Eide and NATO in Kunar, saying, “There has been persistent insurgent activity in that area over the last couple of days, including laying I.E.D.’s close to the base.”

Again Western officials are attempting to justify civilian casualties because of insurgent activity when the point of insurgent activity is drawing said fire. Saying “but insurgents were in the area” is a disturbing sign of counterinsurgency illiteracy because insurgents in the area is an invalid excuse. General McChrystal seems to understand this on the surface, though how much deeper remains to be seen.

Unfortunately for Obama his surge is off to a whimper.

Quote of the Day

"I explicitly and clearly state that an order to execute, murder and imprison (opposition leaders) ... won't resolve the problem. I'm not afraid to be one of the martyrs people have offered in the struggle for their just demands."

- Iran opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, posting on his website Kaleme

Obama's Enemy List

Maybe President Obama won’t ring in New Years with fireworks, but the notion that he would never retaliate just for its own sake is utterly false. The US government, military, and media is egging Obama to strike.

The London Times reports
“The Pentagon is drawing up urgent plans for increased military cooperation with Yemen, including possible retaliatory strikes against al-Qaeda targets, according to US officials engaged in a high-stakes bid to neutralize Islamist militants without enraging the Arab world.

The Obama Administration, caught out by the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines aircraft, is reviewing every possible response and has not ruled out military strikes if targets linked directly to the failed attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab can be identified. Future strikes could involve the use of US drones, fighter jets and ship-launched cruise missiles.

“We are going to work with allies and partners to seek out terrorist activity [and] al-Qaeda,” Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said. The US military has formidable firepower on permanent standby in the form of carrier battle groups stationed in Bahrain, and unimpeded access to Yemen from bases in Djibouti and the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.”
The Guardian reports a similar process:
"First we have to find out who put Abdulmutallab on the plane with the bomb," said a US official working alongside intelligence organizations. "He's providing some leads and we're not dealing with an unknown quantity here. We've been watching and listening to what goes on in Yemen and we may have pieces of the puzzle already and just need to fit it together.
"If and when we identify them then we plan how to deal with them. Who they are is one thing, where they are is another. If they're still in Yemen and we can get a lock on them then it won't be too difficult to know what to do. But they know who they are and won't be standing out. After that we can move with the president's authorization. I don't think there's much doubt that authorization will be forthcoming, but no one should think all of this is going to happen overnight."
We won’t waste time explaining why pure retaliation is a political and military error in Yemen, having done that enough for the time being. Maybe we’ll ring in Chinese New Years with those fireworks, but sadly no social progress.

COIN 101

An Associated Press tally finds 304 US soldiers killed in Afghanistan in 2009, doubled from 151 in 2008. Will 2010 bring 600 deaths? 300? 100? It doesn't seem possible that next year will be better than this year for American troops.

Britain also took 107 deaths in the chin. Another two years like that and Gordon Brown's successor will be bringing the troops home.

December 30, 2009

The Taliban's Record Crop

As President Obama wanders into the Yemen desert, one can’t forget the totality of America’s global war against Islamic militants. Keeping a top view is essential. As al-Qaeda uses Yemen to distract from Afghanistan, so too does Obama.

Maybe this is part of al-Qaeda’s plan - to draw attention elsewhere and let the Taliban go to work. Yesterday foreign forces felt the full potency of their insurgency. Four Canadian soldiers suffered the effects, along with one journalist, when their convey struck an IED.

But a larger shock-wave blew out Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost Province, near Pakistan’s border.

Reporters sniffed from the beginning that something was amiss. First-wave accounts claimed US soldiers had been killed, soon revised to undetermined by US officials, then to eight civilians. Reporters started to ask whether they were contractors, government officials, or something else. A later revision revealed eight “CIA employees” were killed. Clearly the truth was being hidden.

A challenge though when the base had been described as "not regular," implying it was a center of CIA operations in Khost province, according to the BBC's Peter Greste in Kabul. A anonymous US official said the CIA had a major presence at the base. Apparently the agency was deploying spies, analysts, and paramilitary operatives (JSOC) in a buildup ranked among the largest in CIA history.

Finally, unnamed US officials were quoted as saying most, if not all of the dead Americans were CIA agents. One former intelligence official knowledgeable about the bombing leaked, "They were all career CIA officials."

The official could hardly believe the attack took place, saying, "It's a forward operating base in a dicey area, but to get a suicide bomber inside the wires - it's hard to understand how that could happen.”

Simple. A sleeper cell in the Afghan army.

"This deadly attack was carried out by a valorous Afghan army member when the officials [Americans] were busy gaining information about the mujahideen," Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, posted on a main jihad website.

al-Qaeda spreading its virus outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, leading America on a chase throughout the world’s hotspots, is a central threat to Obama’s strategy. However, an equal threat is infiltration into the Afghan army and police force. America is putting all its money on Afghan security forces and the Taliban is going to respond.

The eight deaths at FOB Chapman exceed the four CIA agents killed in the last nine years of war in Afghanistan. More internal explosions will follow.

With the Taliban already in high spirits tonight, they picked up a bonus round after NATO took the fall for the Kunar operation that allegedly killed 10 children and decided to argue Afghan civilian casualties. A statement concluded, "No direct evidence to substantiate this claim.”

According to NATO’s version, "On 26 December, a joint coalition and Afghan security force entered the village of Ghazi Khan in the Narang district of Kunar province, in order to locate a known insurgent group responsible for a series of violent attacks in the area. As the joint assault force entered the village, they came under fire from several buildings and in returning fire killed nine individuals. Several assault rifles, ammunition and ammonium nitrate used in bomb-making were discovered.”

Yet several US soldiers said only militants had been killed, implying they were involved in the operation. "They were shot at, and they shot back. It was self-defense, there was a shoot-out," he told AFP, speaking on condition that he wouldn't be identified.

Captian Joe Sanfilippo said from Asadabad, Kunar's capital, that none of the dead were "innocents," but were insurgents that began shooting as the ISAF and Afghan forces approached the small village.

"These people were shooting back at us and we had to shoot back otherwise... we would have been injured," he told reporters.

As the matter stands, local and national Afghan officials claim 10 children were killed; US and NATO officials say nine insurgents were killed. Something, somewhere has to give. The Taliban purportedly provided false intelligence, but it could have also triggered a fire-fight onto the children. The balance would then reverse against them again.

At the same time, the West stills has a problem if the dead are children because protocol was broken. America and NATO must assume some responsibility for intelligence failures; Afghan operatives weren't leading the assault either like they should be. Most importantly, as General McChrustal still isn't getting across, get the militants the next day. Dead children aren't coming back.

And if the end story is more towards the Afghan side, America and NATO are going to look extremely foolish for making up their version.

Why argue with Afghans during a civilian casualty investigation? Why make an even bigger deal? Why draw attention? Why not resolve the matter as quickly as possible? The West possessed the advantage but is giving it back to the Taliban. This could become a military and political failure, exactly what Omar was hoping for.

Looks like a 3 for 3 day. No matter how deep President Obama steps outside Afghanistan, he can never distract from inside Afghanistan.

Tie Goes to the Guerrilla

No one wins when 10 civilians are killed. America and the Taliban will point fingers at each other in their efforts to paint a victory, but only war itself is victorious. Too bad President Obama can’t settle for a tie because a guerrilla will take one any day, any year.

No sooner had reports surfaced that US forces killed at least eight children in a raid did US officials begin providing political cover.

One anonymous official told CNN, “The operation was against a network of folks, who had been tracked for a while, involved in producing IEDs as well as some criminal activity. As a result of the action, the best info that we have is that nine of those militants in that network were killed. That's based on weapons and IED components at the scene.”

But all local reports disputed this claim. Said Fazelayallah, governor of Kunar province, told CNN on Monday that 10 civilians were killed. US military officials pledged to cooperate fully during the investigation ordered by Fazelayallah, in conjunction with Kabul, to assess the situation.

Asadullah Wafa, a senior adviser to President Hamid Karzai, reported his findings: eight schoolchildren between the ages of 12 and 14, and two young males were killed by US forces.

"I have talked to the principal of the school in the village and he gave us details about the killed children," Wafa said. "The schoolchildren cannot be al-Qaida. I confirm they are innocent people killed by mistake. I talked to Karzai about the findings."

Luckily for America, this crime isn’t so heinous as it could be. The Taliban employed a ruse, a spy to provide false information; a lesser possibility remains of clan warfare. The Taliban deliberately provoked an attack on children to exploit in the media and on the ground. This doesn't make much sense if the world becomes aware of its trickery.

Col. Wayne Shanks, spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, said at a news conference Wednesday, “In fact, you can see that our enemy, the insurgents, have very little regard for the Afghan people. We have noticed a very dramatic increase in civilian casualties caused by roadside bombs by attacks that insurgents have on the Afghan people."

Wafa said the villagers demanded from the 10-member delegation of government officials and lawmakers that the informants, "who gave the wrong target to the Americans must be found and punished by a court." US and Afghan officials should place that request at the top of its stack, before the Taliban “capture” said informants and hold them to “justice.”

The Taliban’s strategy is clear: generate singular events to multiply in various dimensions. Civilian casualties are a strike against General McChrystal and by extension President Obama’s military strategy. The Taliban also seek to provoke local resentment and friction between Kabul and Washington.

Even orchestrate street protests and burning effigies of Obama. Marching through the main street of Jalalabad - Haqqani land - students chanted "death to Obama" and "death to foreign forces.”

"The demonstration is to show our hatred, anger and sorrow about the current situation," said Sayed Khalid Rashid.

Yet the Taliban is likely to feel some pain despite its array of diversions; the locals know they fell victim to a trap so the Taliban won’t be able to fully exploit their carnage. But America is unable to counter effectively because of its own malfunctions.

If US officials realized the Taliban lured them into a trap, why did they maintain insurgents were killed? Why not own up immediately and reverse the blame? Why didn’t the US military verify its information and why did US forces lead a raid into a house filled with children? Will civilian casualties ever end, or are they inevitable while warring against the Taliban?

President Obama’s strategy is still working out the bugs. The Taliban is responsible for most civilian deaths in 2009, but frankly, they’re supposed to kill civilians to achieve a political aim - disrupting the national election for instance. America should never kill civilians for any reason.

General McChrystal seems to understand this truth, telling CNN's Christiane Amanpour earlier this month, "It is better to miss a target than to cause civilian casualties. We can always target enemy leaders later. We can't make up for the fact that we killed civilians."

The Taliban will happily take their tie and go home. America has to stay in Afghanistan.

December 29, 2009

Worse than Terrorism?

Denial and propaganda are useful tools but they only achieve so much manipulation over reality. Israel spent a year running from Gaza and squabbling with America. Its international image eroded to the point where many Israelis are upset with their government too.

And yet 700 new settlement units in Jerusalem celebrate the end of Hanukkah.

Israel always finds a way to maneuver, but some things you can't run from. Total Racism, Total War is far from anti-Semitic. The viewpoints in Saleh Al-Naami's report are anti-Semitic because of the reality in Gaza.

According to the Adala Human Rights Center, the Gaza Strip is home to the highest number of disabled people in the world. Suffering from the wars and blockade is compounded by a lack of medical care and sanitation. Roughly 4% of Palestinians, about 70,000 people, have some form of disability.

This is impossible because disabled people make up almost 10% of both America and Israel's population, but there's a caveat. America and Israel's disabled population is rising because of wars, notably Vietnam, and a cluster of wars against Muslim peoples, Gaza being one of the worst cases. 70,000 sounds like a low estimate too, but this isn't the point either.

No, you really have to dig for this reality.

Italian researchers claim to have found carcinogens and toxins in Gaza's soil as a result of Israel's use of internationally prohibited weapons - white phosphorus, Dense Inert Metal Explosives, and radioactive shells.

Israel denied using the latter weapons in Gaza as they're believed to cause long-term harm to the environment. But UN envoy Richard Goldstone suspected DIME's were used during his investigation and now 12 toxins are found in the researcher's sample areas, who warned that many Gazan residents could suffer from chronic gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses.

They also said unborn children are at high risk. If there's any conspiracy that Israel wants Arabs to stop having children, this is it:
"In a report marking the first anniversary of the war, the Dameer Centre for Human Rights reported "high levels of deformed births and miscarriages", and that the use of radioactive and toxic ammunition by the Israeli army on Gaza resulted in significant deterioration in the health of Palestinians. The report was based on a survey that found that health and environmental conditions in the Gaza Strip are worsening by the day as a result of Israel's aggression and border closure by occupying forces for the third consecutive year."
The researchers called on the Palestinian Health Ministry to test all Palestinians in areas that were bombed during the war, meaning they might find radiation and toxins across the whole Strip. And there will be no hiding from this discovery.

War is simple but not monolithic. It seems easy but is always hard, seems the same but always varies. There's a different between military aggression, terrorism, and oppression. Destruction when rebirth is allowed is its own class. Terrorism sits in the middle, never bringing ruin but always a nuisance.

Oppression is destruction followed by suppression. Hamas terrorizes Israel, it doesn't oppress Israel. Israel oppresses Gaza, and to a lesser degree the West Bank. It seeks to destroy hope in Gaza through a siege, chemical weapons, and potentially radioactive - nuclear - material.

The Muslim world knows where Israel stands, but it's finally realizing where President Obama stands too. There's no place to hide for either of them. Oppression is worse than terrorism and it's happening right in front of him.

Quote of the Day

"When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted upon as it should have been… a systemic failure has occurred and I consider that totally unacceptable."

- President Obama

Textbook Terrorism

The “Nigerian Terrorist,” as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is now known to the world, left a jumble of clues and mystery behind his attempt to blow a US airplane on Christmas Night. At least before al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, but everyone still wants to know how, why, and where.

Though Abdulmutallab’s narrative is important in itself, he serves as the tip of al-Qaeda’s spear, fusing the full spectrum of terror for maximum effect.

How Abdulmutallab managed to sneak his explosive device remains unknown, to the public at least, but our focus is on the aftereffects; a mystery device that permanently changes airport security will be discussed as details permit. For now, since US and airport officials lack a clear definition of the threat, they were forced to expand security measures beyond the desired level.

And it is better to be safe than sorry.

Still, a balancing act is gauging how much security is too much and too little, how much to let terrorism effect every day life in America. How much to let the terrorists win. The how of Abdulmutallab is as much a question of how much he costs the US taxpayer and economy.

TSA’s new security rules drew immediate scrutiny for their severity. Multiple hour delays resulted from planeloads of passengers being patted down. Passengers weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom an hour before landing or have items on their lap. TSA quickly relaxed its orders and only minor delays are being reported, though international travel to and from America is said to be slow.

Business Week ran an article
suggesting no revenue will be lost during the Christmas travel season, a staple in the US economic cycle. But economic statistics are different from the total slush of money rippled by Abdulmatallab, and especially those before him.

In the near term, delays cost dollars that add up quick in America. Canadians carryon is being restricted, possibly shortening vacation plans. Ultimately millions, or billions if the system is overhauled, will be spent or wasted because of one man with $5,000 in plane tickets and a $100 bomb.

Long-term, as the NYT reports of the ongoing investigation, “A review of government audits and interviews with experts inside and outside the government also shows that the system has been slow to make even bigger changes because of a balky bureaucracy, fickle politics and, at times, airline industry opposition. It has also squandered tens of millions of dollars on faulty technology, like high-tech “puffer” machines that repeatedly broke down and flunked the most basic test: they failed to detect some explosives.”

This is textbook al-Qaeda economic warfare.

How leads to why. A lone wolf theory is being ruled out in favor of a direct al-Qaeda attack, though both options would extremely dangerous and prove how lethal al-Qaeda remains. But assuming al-Qaeda just plotted an attack from Yemen, President Obama’s Afghan strategy just dropped five points.

Obama interrupted his Hawaiian luau to assure Americans they were safe, but his main task was to appear tough on “terrorism.” He needed to explain himself. For starters, “terrorism” is back in use in the White House. Tough stuff.

But Obama has a problem. States like Yemen and Somalia poison his “necessary” war theory. Maybe Afghanistan isn’t so necessary, because every conflict is “necessary” exterminate al-Qaeda. His rational for Afghanistan is dying unless he can contain the spillover, but maybe 2% of America and Europe would support military operations in every state that al-Qaeda operates in.

It’s all becoming too much.

Obama’s grand strategy to defeat al-Qaeda remains a work in progress. Exposed to media scrutiny and doubt among his supporters on Afghanistan, his homeland defense is now under fire. Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano admitted on NBC’s today show of a total security failure one day after taking fire for saying “the system worked.”

But Napolitano doesn’t look as bad as who appointed her, and uou can tell when Obama’s embarrassed because he gets mad. Denis McDonough, chief of staff of the White House National Security Council, sent the White House scattering: “The president is looking for answers on this.”

Security investigations, political investigations, public embarrassment, a possibly unemployed Napolitano- all from one Nigerian college student. This is textbook al-Qaeda political warfare.

Here’s where it gets scary though. Obama began his Yemen air-strikes on December 14th. This may be enough time to activate a cell, but the plot was likely in the works beforehand. Nevertheless, plotting an attack from Yemen suggests al-Qaeda is trying to draw America to Yemen. So is Obama going to play al-Qaeda’s game?

Initial evidence points towards yes.

The NYT reports, “A direct attempt by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to stage an attack on American soil raises the question of whether the United States would have to take broader and more clearly visible retaliatory military action. One government official said the topic was likely to come up before the National Security Council.”

Because of a security lapse and political embarrassment, Obama is being tempted to respond with overwhelming military force. This would be a huge mistake. Force is necessary in counterinsurgency, but not to look tough. The world knows America is tough. Obama needs to act tough while the US military doesn’t - that’s the problem.

The US military needs to stay quiet, partner with whatever local authorities it can on the ground, and pressure Yemen’s government to initiate political and economic reform. Bombs make food distribution and hospital building possible when paired with full spectrum counterinsurgency.

Alone they’re counterinsurgency steroids, a quick fix now with long-term consequences. Provoking “more clearly visible retaliatory military action” is textbook al-Qaeda military strategy. Anger locals, draw in US forces, put up temporary resistance, move on to next conflict zone. Obama would be wise to retaliate with small covert units and an emphasis on regional peace.

But Obama appears fatally close to the trap. Take a look at his brief address and this notorious statement:
"I've directed my national security team to keep up the pressure on those who would attack our country. We do not yet have all the answers about this latest attempt, but those who would slaughter innocent men, women and children must know that the United States will more -- do more than simply strengthen our defenses. We will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us, whether they are from Afghanistan or Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or anywhere where they are plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland."
Nothing about the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, or Nigeria, a collective group pushing 70% unemployment. No diplomacy, no economic aid, no reference to their people’s plight. “Keep up the pressure” is code for drones and $100 million in US arms. Obama is papering over grimy counterinsurgency with glamorous counter-terrorism.

Exactly the response al-Qaeda is hoping for.

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.

The Terminator's Wisdom

Humanity tends to consider itself the apex of the global food chain. We’ve become accustomed to the top, so it stands to reason that we’ve lost the feeling of being hunted. Our worst enemy is now ourselves, a threat not so readily met by those outside conflict zones and random crime.

Humans walk their streets freely, unlike the mouse crossing a field who’s swooped before it can blink. But in Pakistan’s mountains, a volley of Hellfire missiles strikes with the same unexpectedness.

Yes, it’s time to talk drones again. As long as they keep falling we must keep talking. Pakistan, though, is only a fragment of technological warfare. The Pentagon is shipping Reapers to Afghanistan right off the assembly line and the world is, like it or not, headed towards a military technological revolution.

Application of computerized, mechanized warfare stands to grow into a prime branch of ethical studies. Moral awareness of drone warfare is a necessary counterweight to their use, and the Terminator series is sure to be regularly-shown class films.

Terminator Salvation may have been the least favorite in the series, but it shows what the others didn’t - a continual war between humans and machines. Drones in the sky, camera bugs in the windows, assassin droids roaming the streets are just the first assault level. Machines control large portions of the earth at all times, hunting the surviving humans of Judgment Day.

2018 is realistically impossible, but in the US military’s ever evolving quest to reduce the workload on and danger to its fighting force, machines will assume the place of private military contractors just as PMC’s replaced US soldiers in mundane and covert tasks. The rest of the world’s militaries will follow, creating a war not between humans and machines, but humans and their machines versus each other.

We aren’t paranoid about a post-apocalyptic, machine ruled, Matrix/Terminator environment, which may never exist on Earth. Rather, this environment already exists to a mild degree in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, where drones are over 10,000 and counting. The 100,000's aren't far away.
RQ-170 Sentinel (Kandahar Beast)
Terminator Salvation does one thing perfectly - humble. It allows an American, or any nationality, to experience what the US military is bringing to every future battlefield. Killing militants is one thing, but drones are eroding the privacy of Afghanistan. They watch everyone, not just the bad guys, not just in public but as much in private as possible.

We could argue all day whether drones help or hurt the conflict zones they stalk, but no lesson is more visceral than direct experience - being hunted by machines is terrifying, and being monitored non-stop is small consolation. A Terminator world ranks among humanity’s worst nightmare, yet we’re working to make it happen.

And it's all going to happen: robot tanks, warplanes, ships, bombs, even guns will be computerized, possibly automated.

This process, however, won’t occur overnight; the 21st century may not be enough time. But the next 90 years will bring stunning advances in military technology, and the majority of humans residing outside the global military complex must pay attention, educate and raise awareness, and generate political pressure to create government oversights.

Lest we believe putting up a resistance won’t make any difference.

Movies like Terminator Salvation are healthy for Americans. They allow us to experience the future we’re bringing to present lands, to feel a similar sensation and be provoked by philosophical questions of our own actions. Because the fact is, Americans will need this experience some day.

US drone dominance, like most military advances, won’t last forever. Other nations are following close behind in research and development - give the global market 50 years to develop. Some time in the distant future, Americans could find themselves in the same position Afghans and Pakistanis do today.

And we might find ourselves wishing we could go back in time.

December 27, 2009

Oppression is a Universal Language

Political incorrectness can be synonymous with realism, like the similarity between Jerusalem and Tehran. The violent turn in Iran’s opposition protests is more direct that Israel killing three Fatah members in the dead of night, but both sparked international outrage, a critical factor in the 21st century.

Both events give the impression of oppression, broadcast around the world for all to compare.

The current scene in Iran will accompany any momentous event going forward. Any vote, any death, any opportunity. Pressure is built up, still building, always seeking places to blow off. The government’s response is incomprehensible, to be succinct. Though a few bullets may appear cheaper than real reform, the cost is magnified by the media to a degree often unexpected by Iranian officials.

Whoever its enemies are - real political opposition, regional elements, US, Israel - aren’t going to stop exploiting their plight. Iran's opposition know it has something going, but the Ayatollah's power circle is likely to keep beating down dissidents until it’s life is truly threatened. Days like today will become more common.

The theme of the week, it seems, is hypocrisy. Washington has Iran fever, but take a glance at Palestine.

Israel and US officials, primarily Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are hanging onto the false dilemma of economic improvement or political sovereignty. While the West Bank is economically improving, that advantage belong to the Palestinians. Developing its economy will provide leverage in a two-state solution.

Like Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is thinking, once the West Bank can walk it will declare independence, preferably with Gaza but possibly on its own.

Unilateral actions are tempted by a political situation near rock bottom. Israeli-Palestinian relations are frozen with both government’s experiencing a crisis. President Obama is away, probably not thinking about the matter, but will probably have to develop a completely new strategy for the next few years unless he wants to end up like George Bush.

Israeli-Hamas prisoner swap is a whole other monster, one that could effect the entire Middle East. Marwan Barghouti is likely to cause a disturbance whether he’s released or not. 10,000 Palestinian prisoners remain in Israeli jails, so Hamas won’t stop trying to kidnap Israeli soldiers either.

The ground itself is hot, despite what some media reports may suggest about a relatively calm West Bank. Sporadic air-strikes on the Gaza border, Israeli-Palestinian settlers clashing with frequency, a death here and there, now three Fatah soldiers are killed - add the political deadlock and the landscape is ready for upheaval.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the incidents along with another, and warned of the tempting violence.

"The Israeli escalation in the West Bank and Gaza and the return to the policy of assassinations and random killings in virtual excuses shows that the the Israeli government decided to destroy the independence and security of the Palestinian people and is pulling our people into a bloody circle of violence," Rudeineh told CNN.

The IDF claims all three men were suspected of murdering Rabbi Meir Hai last week in Nablus. Even if true, what good is derived from Fatah members killing an Israeli? This back and forth on the battlefield translates directly to the political arena, where final-status negotiations barely flicker in the storm.

Obviously if the Fatah members were innocent then hell could break loose. Around 10,000 people took part in funeral services for these “criminals,” meaning a lot more will turn out if they're innocent. Fatah's armed wing promised to respond in a statement: “This is another heinous crime on the long list of crimes of the occupation.”

And Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who attended one of the funerals, swore, “This attack was a clear assassination, and I believe it is targeting our security and stability.”

If this is what the Palestinian prime minister is thinking, what about Fatah, Hamas, and all the sub-groups who are even more radical? So remember that while "evil" Iran chases nukes and shoots its people, the "good" Israel has set a collision course with Palestine's future.

One Way World

A North Korean arms shipment is never simple, even though the Russian-made Ilyushin Il-76 transporter that landed at Don Mueang Airport in Thailand appeared to be so at first. Thai security forces raided the plane as it refueled after US intelligence tipped off the cargo: 35 tons of arms and ammunition concealed in 12 crates.

Thai spokesman Panithan Wattanayakorn said an investigation found "missiles, explosives and tubes,” while Lt Gen Thangai Prasajaksattru, commander of the Central Investigation Bureau, listed the cargo as “rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and other war weapons.”

Apparently they weren’t carefully hidden. The Bangkok Post reported, “customs and immigration authorities found suspicious packages in tightly-sealed wood and metal crates.”

Rapid reaction pointed to an arms deal between North Korea and Iran, unsurprising but disturbing as the international community is trying to isolate the two states. According to the initial flight plan, “the aircraft was chartered by Hong Kong-based Union Top Management Ltd. to fly oil industry spare parts from Pyongyang to Tehran, Iran, with over nine other stops including Bangkok, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.”

Iran protested immediately and pleaded ignorance, saying its industry is capable of producing all arms in question. That Iran could pass these weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas is more plausible, but again, why not use its own arms? Maybe Tehran is short a shipment to, if the rumors are true, Houthi rebels in Yemen, or maybe Kim Jong II cooked up something new.

Then another flight plan surfaced during Thailand’s investigation alleging that the plane was destined for Colombo, Sri Lanka, not stopping to refuel there. The five jailed crew members verified that final destination and insisted they had no idea of their cargo. They then claimed Ukraine was their destination.

Denial is a standard tactic, but considering the shady underbelly of private contracting. especially private-contracted arms smuggling, it would be unwise to write them off entirely. The plane does has murky ties to Victor Bout, an international arms smuggler.

Sri Lanka denied any knowledge of the weapons, and while militarily inferior to Iran, it probably doesn’t need them either. China is a better supplier. Yet Colombo as a destination provokes a valid hypothetical if only because it's likely to be hushed.

UN Resolution 1874, signed in June to further restrict North Korea arms dealing, was meant to embarrass other rogue states too. Iran, Myanmar, or even Eastern Europe - but not Sri Lanka, a US trade and arms partner already under fire for human rights abuses during its military victory over the Tamil Tigers.

Forget where the weapons were going, that's what they want us to focus on away from the crack in Resolution 1874.

North Korea is a convicted felon who’s lost its privileges, which makes perfect sense. But what if the parole officer, prison, and justice system are guilty of similar offenses? America, Canada, France, Russia, and China have proliferated nuclear technology in the past, a core dispute shared by those outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

UN Security Council members are also guilty, directly or indirectly, of past and present human rights abuses. Western (US, UK, France, Germany) and Asian (Russia, China, India) states legally deal weapons into Lebanon, Gaza, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Zimbabwe, and Sri Lanka, just to name a few, where the victims are often civilian. Many consider the Iraq war illegal, private military contractors and services are set to dominate this century.

What's so out of the ordinary about North Korea's arms trading again?

Power is simply a one way street, so too is the flow of arms. Western and Asian pipelines won't be closing anytime soon, but only North Korea is punished. A fall guy more like it. Leaving the West's hypocrisy aside, how long before America, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea develop a real solution to disarm North Korea’s nuclear program, resurrect its people, and restore regional confidence?

Arms embargoes are quick fixes and America can't keep playing cops and robbers forever. US diplomats should be working harder than US intelligence agents to crack the code. Antagonizing as Kim Jong II is, a political/economic accord is the only viable long-term solution for the region.

Unless you count nuclear war as an option. We're sure US officials do.

December 26, 2009

Is Nigeria the Next Iraq?

Up until now America could care less about the Niger Oil Conflict. In August Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined to comment on Nigeria's failed military operations during a visit to Lagos, and America continues buying oil at a record pace with full knowledge that the Nigerian people don't see much benefit.

Octopus Mountain has expressed disapproval of this silent treatment. If only human suffering could create such a rise, but unfortunately nothing lights a fire under Washington like a terrorist attack.

Hours ago a Nigerian man attempted to blow up a US airplane as it approached Detroit. The man, identified as Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, had “some kind of incendiary device he tried to ignite” in a bag strapped to his body, U.S. officials told NBC News.

Representative Peter King of New York called the device "fairly sophisticated" and said it, "appears to be different from what we've encountered before." Apparently it did go off too. King said, "He himself was seriously injured. He has third-degree burns."

Sources told CNN that Abdulmutallab flew into Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam on a KLM flight from Lagos, Nigeria, then bought a one way ticket to Detroit. He also claims to be affiliated with al-Qaeda and device, according to a federal security bulletin, "was acquired in Yemen along with instructions as to when it should be used."

Even if the bomb turns out to be a firecracker, the US media may still focus its fleeting gaze on Nigeria and hype it as the next front in the "War on Terror."

They'll be late again if so, just like Yemen is the "new spot" despite it being an old conflict. The fact is Nigerian guerrillas have expressed admiration for the Taliban and al-Qaeda for years; MEND claims to have sent fighters to train in Afghanistan.

Yet only now does Nigeria stand a chance of receiving the attention it deserves because America would be "the victim," because the words Nigeria and al-Qaeda appear together in the papers.

Forget decades of resource exploitation and human rights abuses at the hands of the government and Western oil companies, and that military victory has eluded the Nigerian government to this day. Forget that new human rights abuses surfaced as Clinton visited in summer, that the actual victim is Nigeria's delta population, an estimated 30 million people.

Washington tuned out as President Alhaji Umaru Yar'Adua's health failed and MEND, flushed with weapons, boats, and cash, resumed its long-standing war and has Shell on the ropes. But America is too deep in Nigeria's corrupt oil game not to become a potential target for retaliation - it has to pay attention now even if Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab joined al-Qaeda only in his mind.

This would make him more dangerous in fact, an al-Qaeda lone wolf. That's what bin Laden is really going for, inspiring others to do his actions.

The question is will America's response be constructive or destructive? Only radical political and economic reform can bring stability to the Niger river delta, but considering President Obama's actions in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, MEND should start preparing defenses and contingencies for Hellfire and cruise missiles.

And Americans should keep a sharp eye on Obama's militarizing foreign policy. Oil, over 40 ethnic tribes in the delta alone, several extensively armed groups, a potential jump-off point for al-Qaeda - Nigeria has the ingredients of a distant-future Iraq.

December 25, 2009

One Delay Leads to Another

Good thing most Afghans aren’t Christians because this story would make a terrible Christmas gift. A handful of anonymous Western diplomats and more than a few concerned Afghan lawmakers revealed that America and Britain are having doubts on parliamentary elections, scheduled for May.

Melanie Scarlett, a press officer at the British Embassy in Kabul, certainly contributed to this impression by saying, “Before committing further funding and putting our troops and those of our international partners at risk, we need to be sure that the lessons learned have been implemented and that the elections will make a contribution to improving Afghan governance.”

But she’s only a mask. The AP reports, “While the international community has not publicly threatened to hold back funds, some Western diplomats are quietly hoping Afghan officials decide to delay the election, according to two international officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.”

The White House believed since day one that it could lead Karzai with promises and punishments of  troops and cash, with underwhelming results. Apparently the West still believes he can still be led through a maze despite all evidence to the contrary, but this latest wish is unlikely to come true.

"We are ready to carry out our duties,” Noor Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission. “The only problem for us is money. That is up to the donor countries who are providing us the funds. We are waiting for a response from them next month."

A few lawmakers thought postponing the election until security improves would be a good idea. Indeed, delaying has its advantages, though this tactic assumes that security will be reestablished, a dangerous risk to begin with. But security would bring out the vote, a potentially enormous payoff.

President Hamid Karzai could fall through Afghanistan's ethnic fault lines, but the goal is not what he or America wants. A robust turnout and fair vote would outline the truest representation of Afghanistan to date. Whoever Afghans want for their country will be thrust into power, whatever they want will be set in motion.

Again assuming that local leaders make national leaders, not the other way around, this raw expression would generate local political will to combine with a US-led full spectrum counterinsurgency. And America won't be to blame if the politicians Afghans actually voted into power end up failing to improve the country.

Sounds wonderful, because missing the payoff will be unforgiving. At the heart of President Obama’s strategy, old and new, lie fatal contradictions.

Local politics, perceived as critical to US military success, are often elevated above the national level, perhaps explaining why parliamentary elections are causing so much concern. But Obama's target audience already lost confidence after the presidential election and postponing an election is not the way to win back local Afghans. Local players will jostle for positioning, and if many educated Afghans tuned out in August, what about a postponement? To them Afghan democracy is a joke.

Here’s another little inconvenience  - the Afghan constitution. Mohammad Aqbal Safi, a parliamentarian from Kapisa province in eastern Afghanistan, warned, “If there is no election, or it is delayed, the current parliament will be criticized as illegal.”

US officials succumbed to the constitution during the runoff only to install Karzai by claiming a withdrawn challenger is constitutionally eliminated. Now it's a burden again. The constitution calls for elections in May, thus it would be unconstitutional to postpone unless the law was amended. America would be held solely responsible.

This isn’t a rational political strategy; India for one appears to believe so. J.P. Singh, a spokesman for the Indian Embassy in Kabul, told reporters in response to the story "There is no question of India's views on this. The constitution should be respected and the aspirations of Afghan people should be guarded.”

Considering that rumors are already circulating Kabul, America’s perception as a meddler shows no signs of improving. Postponing one election after overseeing a fraudulent one, protecting Karzai on both occasions, solidifies the impression that they pick and choose power like aristocrats and kings.

Shakeba Hashimi, a parliamentarian from Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan who campaigned for Dr. Abdullah, “They don't want election, they want selection. Karzai's brother thinks he is the king of Kandahar and can do whatever he wants."

Low and behold, Ahmed Wali proclaimed soon after his brother’s re-election, “I am powerful because I am the President’s brother. This is a country ruled by kings. The king’s brothers, cousins, sons, are all powerful. This is Afghanistan. It will change, but it will not change overnight.”

To be fair Obama did drop the whole democracy act, but the Taliban will have a field day. At the minimum Obama will cede even more short-term momentum when he's trying to reverse it, and open-ended commitment plays into Mullah Omar's hands.

Peter Galbraith, the former UN official foretold, "This will undermine the fading confidence of Afghans in democracy and will further diminish the already low credibility of Karzai's government. Unless the problems that led to massive fraud in 2009 are fixed, the only sure winner of next year's parliamentary elections will be the Taliban.”

America needs everything to go exactly right to pull off such a stunt - and nothing goes as planned in Afghanistan. Security could worsen, fraud could reoccur, national leaders and warlords could disrupt parliamentary voting results. And Karzai only turned a few leaves as the NYT vividly demonstrates through its dwindling hope.

Obama might have six months to postpone the election, but he better make the right long-term decision because he has no margin for error. A year would force Obama to rescind his 18 month phrase entirely, regardless of its meaning. No US troops would leave by July 2011.

But will they stay 50 or 60 years like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implied to the Senate Armed Forces Committee on December 2nd? Sooner or later Obama will have to decide whether to forget a quick exit and plan for the long haul, or admit he misjudged Afghanistan and plan a true withdrawal.

Expect him to postpone that decision as long as possible.

December 24, 2009

Afghan Arms Race

McClatchy is reporting the debut of the US Army's new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All Terrain Vehicle, or M-ATV, which included Afghanistan in its design. The armored carrier is larger and lighter than its predecessor, the MRAP used in Iraq, and allegedly climbs 45 degree angles with ease.

They should for up to a million dollars a piece. 5,000 M-ATV's are headed for Afghanistan, another 5$ billion off to counter homemade explosives made from sodium nitrate, and RPG's that go for 200$ on the black arms market. They're a good morale boost though, and that's hard to buy.

But Obama must be careful not to shut US soldiers back into their spaceships à la Iraq, removing them from the population they must befriend, especially if the Taliban evolves its own offensive tactics.

A propaganda attack, albeit coincidental, has already been launched in the form of a two dollar video tape. A caption below a man reads, "War prisoner: Bowe Robert Bergdahl," and in turn the man identifies himself as Bergdahl, his date of birth, blood type, and mother's maiden name.

Most likely staring down AK's off screen, the man says, "I was continuously treated as a human being with dignity. I had nobody deprive me of my clothes and take pictures of me naked. I had no dogs barking at me and biting me, as my country has done to Muslim prisoners in the jails that I mentioned."

He then blames the US government, "for leading us to the same holes that America keeps falling into over and over and over again, be it Vietnam, Japan, Germany, Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq. And now it's simply, now it's Afghanistan. It's the next hole for us to fall into... This is just going to be the next Vietnam unless the American people stand up and stop all this nonsense."

One thing is for sure - the Taliban is making its message to Americans an integral part of its psy-ops.

10,000 Miles Apart

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley must have been humoring the crowd when he claimed, "we have no direct role in what's happening along the border," denying US involvement in Yemen's internal war.

As President Obama triumphantly spirits away to Hawaii, health bill in hand, a less certain strategy is playing out in Yemen. Officials once again claim over 30 al-Qaeda members have been killed in an air-strike, this time in Shabwa province east of the capital, Sanaa.

Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim preacher linked to Major Nidal Malik Hasan, is said to be among the dead. Hasan killed 13 people at Fort Hood army base in Texas.

AFP news agency quoted the security official as saying Saudis and Iranians had been at the meeting and that, "We are still unsure if two of the top leaders have been killed or not... One of them is the Saudi al-Qaeda member Nasser al-Wahayshi."

al-Wahayshi is reportedly Yemen commander in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). His Saudi deputy, Saeed al-Shehr, is also suspected of being present during the strike.

A short while later an unnamed Yemeni official told Reuters, "Anwar al-Awlaki is suspected to be dead.” Several other al-Qaeda operatives are thought to be have killed too. Of course this is what they told us last time.

Already, “Local sources have said that the casualties from this strike was seven people only," Mohammed al-Qadhi, a correspondent in Yemen for Abu Dhabi's The National newspaper, told Al Jazeera. "All of those are from al-Qaeda, according to local sources, but the government reports say there are more than 30.”

If al-Awlaki is actually dead then Obama just made himself a bunch of new Republican friends. The cost may be civil disturbances, but that won’t be initially visible, just like his Navy SEAL rescue off the Somali coast. If al-Shabab hadn't committed a strategic blunder it would be taking over even more territory now. Yemen is a dangerous place for al-Qaeda and America to be.

Obama better get something for its dollar, to be real. He injected over 70$ million in military aid into Yemen during 2009, two and a half times US AID's economic assistance, and the figure stands to inflate. The American press is predictably wild for Obama's newest front in the "War on Terror," but even a mildly competent counterinsurgent would keep economic aid in pace, possibly help rebuild any collateral damage.

If Obama expects to kill as many leaders and cells as he can, get out before the heat is too high, and watch Yemen sail on its merry way, he should consider keeping the bombers at Diego Garcia on standby. He’ll need them and the JSOC in a few years.

As for al-Awlaki’s fate and tales of new civilian casualties, time will tell soon enough. From a strategic position though, al-Qaeda committed a strategic, not just a tactical failure, by gathering in large groups at a time of red alert. Now al-Qaeda's Yemen head might be cut off.

But the question remains, will it grow back?

[Apparently al-Awlaki doesn't need to be replaced just yet. His relatives say he's alive, though propaganda could be at work. Naser Abdel-Karim al-Wahishi and his deputy Saeed al-Shihri's fates remain unknown, as Yemen security forces are having a difficult time entering the area. Nevertheless, these strikes are rarely precise as advertised.]

December 23, 2009

Obama's Poppy Clock

President Obama has already got a taste of what it’s like to issue one policy in Afghanistan and watch the ground yield another. According the New York Times, Obama angrily met his staff one morning in September after staying up to read the strategy he issued in March.

Parts unmentioned failed to be implemented, which Obama attributed to the war’s downward trajectory. By the look of the State Department’s counter-narcotics study, drugs must have been an issue. Hillary Clinton might be as well.

The top finding: “The Department of State lacks a long-term strategy and a clear end state for its counter-narcotics programs in Afghanistan, which hinders planning and prevents an accurate assessment of effectiveness.”

Disunity is in vogue.

The report found, “Despite the number of agencies and players involved in counter-narcotics activities, interagency coordination within Embassy Kabul is generally ad hoc and informal, with each agency focused mainly on its own efforts. This situation can result in a lack of synchronization of activities.”

Completing the trifecta, “Cooperation between Embassy Kabul and Embassy Islamabad is not well-developed and is limited mostly to information sharing. Coordination is lacking on key issues, such as increasing security along the lightly controlled, porous
border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

These absurd findings provide the perfect counterinsurgency lesson: even with top DEA officials hunting down opium traffickers and advanced surveillance technology recording every action in Afghanistan, Obama’s Titanic is sunk without a coherent political strategy and honest cooperation.

“Coordination among various agencies conducting counter-narcotics programs under chief of mission authority in Afghanistan is largely informal, unstructured, and personality dependent.”

It’s even worse with Pakistan: “Collaboration and coordination between Embassies Islamabad and Kabul on counter-narcotics matters are limited. Overall OIG found little evidence of coordination in such critical areas as the smuggling of precursor chemicals into Afghanistan from Pakistan, and the smuggling of opium contraband out of Afghanistan to Pakistani ports cities on the Arabian Sea.”

Pakistan simply doesn’t view the Afghan drug trade as a threat - or doesn’t want to stop it. Senior Embassy Islamabad officials told the OIG team, “there is no perceived connection between the narcotics industry and the insurgency in Pakistan.”

The OIG scoffed at this notion, adding, “While this may be true of the insurgencies in Pakistani areas bordering on Afghanistan, the drug industry is a transnational phenomenon. Insurgent interaction with the narcotics industry in Afghanistan, especially financially, certainly affects Pakistan, as does the cross-border flow of money, weapons, and fighters.”

Maybe Pakistan would be more helpful if America wasn’t breathing on its neck.

The report cautions against making judgments of success or failure. Opium production is down overall and in the number of provinces with no production, now at 20. Conversely, total opium production is only down to 125,000 tons from 160,000 + in peak years. So much is stashed away that prices are down. Even still, the average per capita income in Afghanistan is $600-700 a year. The UN estimates the average Afghan family involved in poppy earns around $6,500.

Without a responsible government and an alternate livelihood, no amount of security operations or crop eradication will reduce the number of growers to zero. Not new crops, but a brand new economy.

The report also found that private contractors working on counternarcotics programs, an increasing trend in Afghanistan, are "generally meeting the terms and conditions" of their contracts. Sounds like Haliburton/KBR in early Iraq. Some of these contracts were also, "poorly written, with overly optimistic goals, vague performance measures, and inadequate or non-specific deliverables."

Sounds like Haliburton/KBR.

“While there is adequate contract management in Washington, DC,” the report alerted, “there is a lack of in-country personnel and capacity to effectively monitor the performance of contractors and determine overall program success. As a result, contract and program management is primarily conducted from Washington DC, nearly 7,000 miles and 8.5 time zones from Kabul."

A recipe for success for Afghanistan, no doubt. How long did Obama say again? He definitely didn’t give a price, we only a trillion dollar tag shocked him during a private meeting.

The State Department says a new counternarcotics strategy and action plans are being prepared both in Washington DC and Afghanistan. After submitting its findings to Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, he responded by agreeing to every single point, but also that many of the errors were being corrected.

Ideally all of these workings would’ve been sorted out years ago, preferably right when Obama took office. Lack of effort does appear to be a problem. Complex problems they face, but White House officials have precious time to deliberate what the end game is. Obama's confidence is looking artificial.

“Based upon numerous interviews with officials from the Department, U.S. military, other U.S. Government agencies, the Afghan Government, and other donor governments, and a review of strategic planning documents, OIG concludes there is a lack of agreement on the overall desired end state for the counternarcotics program.”

So much so that the State Department has suspended funding for the counter-narcotics problem until further notice. Again Obama’s problem is the lack of political will he tacitly reinstalled in November.

Many officials interviewed, “stated that the lack of commitment and ambivalence on counternarcotics issues by Afghan Government leaders to take strong measures against the narcotics industry is a significant impediment to the overall success of the counternarcotics program.”

The mess lands on both Afghanistan and America: “While a larger role by the military in Afghanistan’s counternarcotics effort appears certain, the capabilities and resources military forces will provide are less certain. Furthermore, it is unclear how the myriad of embassy-led counternarcotics activities and programs will fit in with a new military-led strategy.”

"Finally, the long term operation of the Afghan counternarcotics effort – averaging a $550 million annual U.S. Government contribution since FY 2005 - is a matter of concern. This level of effort may not be sustainable in the long-term.”

Especially if the Taliban doesn’t depend so much on opium money as the Bush administration believed, as a US report earlier this year forced several officials to admit, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Special envoy Richard Holbrooke. No counter plan seems to have developed since.

President Obama is acting like he’s got time to kill in Afghanistan, or else knows he’s already running out of time.

COIN 101

It takes guts to find yourself in Mir Ali awaiting a Taliban escort. Ishtiaq Mahsud, the credited AP writer and presumed reporter, soon found himself bumping out of North and into South Waziristan during a 6 hour car ride through the mountains.

The prize, however, is worth it - exclusivity. His Taliban handlers were sent by Waliur Rehman, TTP deputy to Hakimullah Mehsud, who Mahsud found sitting “relaxed” on a carpet. Claiming to be the first interview since Pakistan’s operation started, perhaps making him talkative, Rehman discharged jewel after jewel of information.

A propaganda maze has been erected around military operations. COIN 101: what’s real and what’s not?

For starters he claims Osama bin Laden is alive and still directing al-Qaeda operations, most likely preparing for after his death. “I know he is in touch with his people and he is communicating with them to convey his instructions," Rehman said.

We will only say this: if bin Laden is dead it’s one of the best kept secrets in history, by either side, US or al-Qaeda. US and Pakistani officials will forever disagree because they’re both right - if bin Laden isn’t dead then he’s moving between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Rumors also say he lives comfortably, not in a cave.

Rehman also said Hakimullah was "not far away" and safe. There’s simply no way to verify this statement, but he seems to be alive which matters most. Rehman also claimed he's lost only 20 fighters, which makes sense since Islamabad cut a ceasefire with him.

The headline leads with his claim that the TTP is reinforcing the Afghan Taliban while Pakistan occupies South Waziristan. In what amounts to a war declaration, Rehman said, "Since (President Barack) Obama is also sending additional forces to Afghanistan, we sent thousands of our men there to fight NATO and American forces. Taliban needed our help at this stage, and we are helping them."

Col. Wayne Shanks, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, headed off Rehman’s statements in what Octopus Mountain deems a good response time. Now what about a response. Shanks called Rehman's comments "rhetoric,” obviously, that were not to be believed.

"We have not noticed any significant movement of insurgents in the border area," he said.

A qualifier - “significant movement.” Why would the TTP move in large numbers to cross the border? This could have been part of the plan, and if so it would have started three months ago. The border is notoriously porous and General McChrystal was forced to abandoned some outposts, which Pakistan interpreted as shady.

How could a thousand fighters be noticed over a 75 day period along a 500 mile border? But the question is whether the TTP actually did or not. Naturally Rehman is attempting to spin the retreat from 30,000 Pakistani troops. Guerrillas don't dwell on those who speak of running and retreating. So what if they're running?

They're being chased by warplanes and gunships!

Some hundreds of fighters, maybe a few good commanders, have probably infiltrated Afghanistan as reinforcements; they can’t all hide in the cities. Afghanistan is more dangerous so the leadership won’t be going, but it stands to reason that, at least in their minds, the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban believe they can interchange.

Success is another matter, one that we’ll leave to the battlefield. Here’s two certainties: “We would again become Pakistan's brother if Pakistan ends its support for America.” Clearly meant to rattle the cage, but 100% true.

Rehman coupled this statement with a hand to the American people, something becoming common among al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, possibly an attempt isolate the US government as the enemy. He urged Obama to focus on repairing the U.S. economy and health care system.

"He should know that Americans don't want war," Rehman said. "He should use this money for the welfare of his own people." How ironic, the hundred million Americans who agree with him. They should get used to more war and more money for war.

A Guardian report
outlines America’s pressure on Pakistan to either move into Balochistan itself or stand to the side.

"Afghanistan's insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan,” General McChrystal wrote in his August review. “The Quetta shura conducts a formal campaign review each winter, after which Mullah Omar announces his guidance and intent for the following year."

Pentagon officials probably started lobbying White House officials as soon as the wire came in. Unfortunately there’s no good way into Balochistan, not even planted terrorism. And again, why Balochistan if the “Quetta shura” moved to Karachi? America just wants in - regardless of the political and social consequences.

A former US official involved with Pakistan relations said the Obama administration was aware of a possible backlash, should drones start hitting Balochistan. And yet, the source added, “if we are serious about going after targets in Balochistan, particularly Quetta, then we'll have to do it ourselves.”

"We've already established that precedent with the Pakistanis," he said. "We told them: 'We want you to do this. But if you won't, we will. So get out of our way'."

Another Guardian report revealed that US Special Forces conducted black-ops unknown even to Pakistan from 2003 to 2008. Why not now? Octopus Mountain won’t be surprised if the TTP is in Afghanistan or when the first Reaper strikes, nor when the local backlash severely damages US-Pakistani relations.

Propaganda can only paper over so many leaks. This conflict won't cooled down in time for Obama's reelection campaign in summer 2011.

December 22, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Islamabad will neither allow expansion of drone attacks to Balochistan nor permit 'hot pursuit’ by foreign troops."

- Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Qureshi

Turning Somalia's Tide

Sun Tzu says that defending lies with yourself and attacking lies with your enemy.

“Being unconquerable lies with yourself; being conquerable lies with your enemy. Thus one who excels in warfare is able to make himself unconquerable, but cannot necessarily cause the enemy to be conquered. Thus it is said a strategy for conquering the enemy can be known but yet not possible to implement.”

America should dwell deeply on his words. Just because someone is unconquerable doesn’t mean they can conquer all, and just because a strategy is known doesn’t mean it can be implemented. America has fallen for that trap numerous times.

US policy in Somalia is halting the bleeding of a fatal wound at best, completely failing at worst, because of Sun Tzu’s forecast. America has mainly attempted to open holes and create weaknesses instead of waiting for them to open.

Mixing Special-Ops, weapons shipments, and diplomatic cash to support Somalia’s transitional government and counter al-Shabab, the primary insurgent group, achieved deceptively poor results. Several al-Qaeda leaders have been killed, but the insurgency responded by gaining more territory. Piracy remains rampant.

The ghosts of Black Hawk Down, which conjure up anti-Americanism sentiments too strong to be tested, still obstruct US policy. Whether the alternative is billions in aid, US military/civil engineers, or combat troops, risk is always calculated as too high and too hazardous.

al-Shabab is, in effect, unconquerable, rendering any attempt to militarily destroy it futile. America couldn't implement the right strategy if one existed and Somalia is rightfully perceived as a death trap. Yet for all the reasons why a limited policy fails and US officials fear expansion, the tide may have finally turned on land.

“A civilian uprising against Al-Shabab seems to be under way,” reported IRIN, a news agency that specializes in humanitarian issues, last week. Correspondents covered street demonstrations in Mogadishu on December 7th, and in camps for the internally displaced (IDPs) on December 8th. On both occasions the group's black flag was burned.

Four days earlier a suicide bomber infamously detonated himself during a medical school's graduation ceremony, killing three Somali ministers and 23 people in total. Though al-Shabab denied responsibility and blamed the attack on foreigners, people might be tuning out for good.

Abdi Mahad, a civil society activist who organized an anti-Al-Shabab demonstration on 7 December, told IRIN the attack was, “a wake-up call for all. Up to that point, everybody assumed they were fighting foreigners and the government, but we realized on Thursday [3 December] that they are at war with us; it was the last straw.”

"They are killing our best and brightest,” he said. “They are the enemy.”

And just like that, bricks shook loose from al-Shabab’s wall without America firing a hellfire missile. No US attack could ever match the damage al-Shabab inflicted upon itself, no strategy could cause the enemy to be conquered. al-Shabab overreached - not knowing itself - thus allowing itself to become conquerable.

Naturally events must be allowed to play themselves out in order to let a trend to develop, or not. One observer at an al-Shabab protest wondered whether this is, “the beginning of the end for them [al-Shabab] or just a small hiccup.”

But he added, “if I was them I would really be worried. The people seem to be ready; it is now up to the government to show leadership and take the initiative.”

The same goes for America. If ever there were a time to re-engage Somalia in earnest, now is that time. Still going slowly, President Obama should put feelers on the ground to monitor US and al-Shabab public perception, maybe front a public poll. Watch for whether Somalis remain against al-Shabab, whether al-Shabab lies low and attempts to mend its image.

Watch for a noticeable improvement in American popularity and decrease in al-Shabab’s.

If the tide really is turning, America might be able to lift its platform in Somalia. Fear of being seen as occupiers inhibits the urge to speak out publicly and mobilize an international, militarily-humanitarian operation. If this perception reverses and turns al-Shabab into the outsider, America should be able to assume a more visible public position.

A true counterinsurgency/reconstruction plan could then be developed in partnership with Somalia and, ideally, Somaliland and Puntland.

Massive increases in US/international aid could begin to flow into the government, provided an accountable system be put in place from the start, which would be used to mobilize the entire population. Roads must be built, mosques restored, jobs developed, and all by local Somalis, not foreign contract laborers. US troops could be needed to secure surviving pockets of the insurgency.

All options are high-stakes, but Somalia has never seemed readier for foreigners, and because of al-Shabab’s mistake, not American supremacy. Cheaper, easier, riper - Sun Tzu remains a master of war.

December 21, 2009

Top 10 Crises of 2009 (and 2010, 2011...)

Not a hard task for Doctors Without Borders, only hard to watch. The usual suspects, in no particular order:

Sri Lanka
Democratic Republic of Congo

Our labs for the indefinite future, along with the conspicuously absent Gaza Strip.

December 20, 2009

COIN 101

A recent Washington Post outlined a problem military officials are encountering in the aftermath of Pakistan’s incursion into South Waziristan. While they insist the militants are “on the run,” where they’re running to seems to damper this tactical victory.

Officials say a militant exodus into Pakistan’s major cities - Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad - has forced US intelligence to track a diaspora of extremism. A Pakistani intelligence official who said the militants were "on the run,” added, “Now they're all over - Afghanistan, North Waziristan and inside Pakistan."

That’s a heavy caveat.

To be clear, we’re unsure of whether the Post or its sources are speaking when it states, “The spread of fighters is an unintended consequence of a relatively successful effort by the United States and Pakistan to disrupt the insurgents' operations.”

Either way, preparing for neither possibility is inexcusable. We doubt US military officials were surprised and wonder if they intended for the TTP to relocate inside Pakistan’s urban environment. Chatter over the last year affirmed that they had already initiated the process, preparing the ground for a withdrawal from South Waziristan.

Rather than being caught off guard, America and Pakistan lacked the ability to disrupt militant migration on a significant scale. They must focus on high-value targets allowing the bulk of the TTP’s foot soldiers to act with impunity and grow cells in Pakistan’s major and minor cities, along with their suburbs.

The TTP’s level of activity exceeds law enforcement capabilities.

Does this strategy constitute victory, defeat, or stalemate for the TTP? Octopus Mountain wrote before Pakistan’s incursion into South Waziristan that the TTP must mount formidable resistance to counter Pakistan’s expected tactical success, but not to the point of overexposure.

Everyone expected the TTP to melt away, which is why putting up a fight in their own area of operations would have boosted their reputation.

The TTP’s reputation took a small beating after putting up minimal resistance on the actual battlefield, just enough to maintain a constant presence. The Pakistani army mocked it for succumbing to its own tactics - mountain warfare, scaling ridges and ambushing TTP positions directly over peaks.

Yet the TTP delivered as expected in the unconventional battlefield, turning all of Pakistan into a war zone and demonstrating national reach. Islamabad was embarrassed when its officials admitted they were unprepared for the TTP's sophisticated attacks on generals and military installations.

These parallel operational levels suggest an overall stalemate in the war, where the government and TTP demonstrate superiority in particular areas of the battlefield, conventional and unconventional respectively.

Add nose-diving approval for the TTP and Pakistan seems back on top, as another round of operations should launch in early spring. But this advantage is countered by the TTP’s resilience, who outlasted Pakistan’s army and deflect a crushing blow. Abandoning South Waziristan is offset by new territory in the cities and the TTP remains in control of other FATA agencies.

TTP chief Hakimullah isn't even from South Waziristan. He might not see as much value in it, but he could also be planning to mass in another province in order to lure Pakistan’s army out of South Waziristan, then re-infiltrate and restart its cycle.

The problem with stalemate is that tie goes to the guerrillas. Pakistan's economy is not in verge of collapse, but not in a position to fight a long-term counterinsurgency. US aid sits on glass though, waiting to be broken if ever Islamabad were to stop taking orders from Obama.

In a way they're playing the TTP's game - a war of exhaustion - but perversely the real winner could be America.

US officials would rather empty the FATA into Pakistan’s cities than plot against a US city in the mountains, counterproductive as this strategy is. The TTP and its allies then focus on disrupting Pakistan internally, part of America’s objective to increase military support. Under heavy fire, Islamabad might grudgingly accept US support in Balochistan, Peshawar, and Karachi.

With the FATA relatively empty of local militants, al-Qaeda might become exposed to Reapers if they stay or move. Most US officials would also say nuclear weapons at this point of the speech. Too bad American interests aren't actually served by destabilizing Pakistan, because only a stabilized Pakistan benefits America.

Organized chaos appears easier than it truly is, and less-destructive than it ultimately becomes. This conflict shows no signs of letting down, a tragic but magnificent insurgency specimen.