Never Fight a Land War in Asia

March 3, 2011

By George Friedman

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speaking at West Point, said last week that “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” In saying this, Gates was repeating a dictum laid down by Douglas MacArthur after the Korean War, who urged the United States to avoid land wars in Asia. Given that the United States has fought four major land wars in Asia since World War II – Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – none of which had ideal outcomes, it is useful to ask three questions: First, why is fighting a land war in Asia a bad idea? Second, why does the United States seem compelled to fight these wars? And third, what is the alternative that protects U.S. interests in Asia without large-scale military land wars?

The Hindrances of Overseas Wars

Let’s begin with the first question, the answer to which is rooted in demographics and space. The population of Iraq is currently about 32 million. Afghanistan has a population of less than 30 million. The U.S. military, all told, consists of about 1.5 million active-duty personnel (plus 980,000 in the reserves), of whom more than 550,000 belong to the Army and about 200,000 are part of the Marine Corps. Given this, it is important to note that the United States strains to deploy about 200,000 troops at any one time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that many of these troops are in support rather than combat roles. The same was true in Vietnam, where the United States was challenged to field a maximum of about 550,000 troops (in a country much more populous than Iraq or Afghanistan) despite conscription and a larger standing army. Indeed, the same problem existed in World War II.

When the United States fights in the Eastern Hemisphere, it fights at great distances, and the greater the distance, the greater the logistical cost. More ships are needed to deliver the same amount of material, for example. That absorbs many troops. The logistical cost of fighting at a distance is that it diverts numbers of troops (or requires numbers of civilian personnel) disproportionate to the size of the combat force.

Regardless of the number of troops deployed, the U.S. military is always vastly outnumbered by the populations of the countries to which it is deployed. If parts of these populations resist as light-infantry guerrilla forces or employ terrorist tactics, the enemy rapidly swells to a size that can outnumber U.S. forces, as in Vietnam and Korea. At the same time, the enemy adopts strategies to take advantage of the core weakness of the United States – tactical intelligence. The resistance is fighting at home. It understands the terrain and the culture. The United States is fighting in an alien environment. It is constantly at an intelligence disadvantage. That means that the effectiveness of the native forces is multiplied by excellent intelligence, while the effectiveness of U.S. forces is divided by lack of intelligence.

The United States compensates with technology, from space-based reconnaissance and air power to counter-battery systems and advanced communications. This can make up the deficit but only by massive diversions of manpower from ground-combat operations. Maintaining a helicopter requires dozens of ground-crew personnel. Where the enemy operates with minimal technology multiplied by intelligence, the United States compensates for lack of intelligence with massive technology that further reduces available combat personnel. Between logistics and technological force multipliers, the U.S. “point of the spear” shrinks. If you add the need to train, relieve, rest and recuperate the ground-combat forces, you are left with a small percentage available to fight.

The paradox of this is that American forces will win the engagements but may still lose the war. Having identified the enemy, the United States can overwhelm it with firepower. The problem the United States has is finding the enemy and distinguishing it from the general population. As a result, the United States is well-suited for the initial phases of combat, when the task is to defeat a conventional force. But after the conventional force has been defeated, the resistance can switch to methods difficult for American intelligence to deal with. The enemy can then control the tempo of operations by declining combat where it is at a disadvantage and initiating combat when it chooses.

The example of the capitulation of Germany and Japan in World War II is frequently cited as a model of U.S. forces defeating and pacifying an opposing nation. But the Germans were not defeated primarily by U.S. ground troops. The back of the Wehrmacht was broken by the Soviets on their own soil with the logistical advantages of short supply lines. And, of course, Britain and numerous other countries were involved. It is doubtful that the Germans would have capitulated to the Americans alone. The force the United States deployed was insufficient to defeat Germany. The Germans had no appetite for continuing a resistance against the Russians and saw surrendering to the Americans and British as sanctuary from the Russians. They weren’t going to resist them. As for Japan, it was not ground forces but air power, submarine warfare and atomic bombs that finished them – and the emperor’s willingness to order a surrender. It was not land power that prevented resistance but air and sea power, plus a political compromise by MacArthur in retaining and using the emperor. Had the Japanese emperor been removed, I suspect that the occupation of Japan would have been much more costly. Neither Germany nor Japan are examples in which U.S. land forces compelled capitulation and suppressed resistance.

The problem the United States has in the Eastern Hemisphere is that the size of the force needed to occupy a country initially is much smaller than the force needed to pacify the country. The force available for pacification is much smaller than needed because the force the United States can deploy demographically without committing to total war is simply too small to do the job – and the size needed to do the job is unknown.

U.S. Global Interests

The deeper problem is this: The United States has global interests. While the Soviet Union was the primary focus of the United States during the Cold War, no power threatens to dominate Eurasia now, and therefore no threat justifies the singular focus of the United States. In time of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States must still retain a strategic reserve for other unanticipated contingencies. This further reduces the available force for combat.

Some people argue that the United States is insufficiently ruthless in prosecuting war, as if it would be more successful without political restraints at home. The Soviets and the Nazis, neither noted for gentleness, were unable to destroy the partisans behind German lines or the Yugoslav resistance, in spite of brutal tactics. The guerrilla has built-in advantages in warfare for which brutality cannot compensate.

Given all this, the question is why the United States has gotten involved in wars in Eurasia four times since World War II. In each case it is obvious: for political reasons. In Korea and Vietnam, it was to demonstrate to doubting allies that the United States had the will to resist the Soviets. In Afghanistan, it was to uproot al Qaeda. In Iraq, the reasons are murkier, more complex and less convincing, but the United States ultimately went in, in my opinion, to convince the Islamic world of American will.

The United States has tried to shape events in the Eastern Hemisphere by the direct application of land power. In Korea and Vietnam, it was trying to demonstrate resolve against Soviet and Chinese power. In Afghanistan and Iraq, it was trying to shape the politics of the Muslim world. The goal was understandable but the amount of ground force available was not. In Korea, it resulted in stalemate; in Vietnam, defeat. We await the outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan, but given Gates’ statement, the situation for the United States is not necessarily hopeful.

In each case, the military was given an ambiguous mission. This was because a clear outcome – defeating the enemy – was unattainable. At the same time, there were political interests in each. Having engaged, simply leaving did not seem an option. Therefore, Korea turned into an extended presence in a near-combat posture, Vietnam ended in defeat for the American side, and Iraq and Afghanistan have turned, for the time being, into an uncertain muddle that no reasonable person expects to end with the declared goals of a freed and democratic pair of countries.

Problems of Strategy

There are two problems with American strategy. The first is using the appropriate force for the political mission. This is not a question so much of the force as it is of the mission. The use of military force requires clarity of purpose; otherwise, a coherent strategy cannot emerge. Moreover, it requires an offensive mission. Defensive missions (such as Vietnam and Korea) by definition have no terminal point or any criteria for victory. Given the limited availability of ground combat forces, defensive missions allow the enemy’s level of effort to determine the size of the force inserted, and if the force is insufficient to achieve the mission, the result is indefinite deployment of scarce forces.

Then there are missions with clear goals initially but without an understanding of how to deal with Act II. Iraq suffered from an offensive intention ill suited to the enemy’s response. Having destroyed the conventional forces of Iraq, the United States was unprepared for the Iraqi response, which was guerrilla resistance on a wide scale. The same was true in Afghanistan. Counterinsurgency is occupation warfare. It is the need to render a population – rather than an army – unwilling and incapable of resisting. It requires vast resources and large numbers of troops that outstrip the interest. Low-cost counter-insurgency with insufficient forces will always fail. Since the United States uses limited forces because it has to, counterinsurgency is the most dangerous kind of war for the United States. The idea has always been that the people prefer the U.S. occupation to the threats posed by their fellow countrymen and that the United States can protect those who genuinely do prefer the former. That may be the idea, but there is never enough U.S. force available.

Another model for dealing with the problem of shaping political realities can be seen in the Iran-Iraq war. In that war, the United States allowed the mutual distrust of the two countries to eliminate the threats posed by both. When the Iraqis responded by invading Kuwait, the United States responded with a massive counter with very limited ends – the reconquest of Kuwait and the withdrawal of forces. It was a land war in Asia designed to defeat a known and finite enemy army without any attempt at occupation.

The problem with all four wars is that they were not wars in a conventional sense and did not use the military as militaries are supposed to be used. The purpose of a military is to defeat enemy conventional forces. As an army of occupation against a hostile population, military forces are relatively weak. The problem for the United States is that such an army must occupy a country for a long time, and the U.S. military simply lacks the ground forces needed to occupy countries and still be available to deal with other threats.

By having an unclear mission, you have an uncertain terminal point. When does it end? You then wind up with a political problem internationally – having engaged in the war, you have allies inside and outside of the country that have fought with you and taken risks with you. Withdrawal leaves them exposed, and potential allies will be cautious in joining with you in another war. The political costs spiral and the decision to disengage is postponed. The United States winds up in the worst of all worlds. It terminates not on its own but when its position becomes untenable, as in Vietnam. This pyramids the political costs dramatically.

Wars need to be fought with ends that can be achieved by the forces available. Donald Rumsfeld once said, “You go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” I think that is a fundamental misunderstanding of war. You do not engage in war if the army you have is insufficient. When you understand the foundations of American military capability and its limits in Eurasia, Gates’ view on war in the Eastern Hemisphere is far more sound than Rumsfeld’s.

The Diplomatic Alternative

The alternative is diplomacy, not understood as an alternative to war but as another tool in statecraft alongside war. Diplomacy can find the common ground between nations. It can also be used to identify the hostility of nations and use that hostility to insulate the United States by diverting the attention of other nations from challenging the United States. That is what happened during the Iran-Iraq war. It wasn’t pretty, but neither was the alternative.

Diplomacy for the United States is about maintaining the balance of power and using and diverting conflict to manage the international system. Force is the last resort, and when it is used, it must be devastating. The argument I have made, and which I think Gates is asserting, is that at a distance, the United States cannot be devastating in wars dependent on land power. That is the weakest aspect of American international power and the one the United States has resorted to all too often since World War II, with unacceptable results. Using U.S. land power as part of a combined arms strategy is occasionally effective in defeating conventional forces, as it was with North Korea (and not China) but is inadequate to the demands of occupation warfare. It makes too few troops available for success, and it does not know how many troops might be needed.

This is not a policy failure of any particular U.S. president. George W. Bush and Barack Obama have encountered precisely the same problem, which is that the forces that have existed in Eurasia, from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in Korea to the Taliban in Afghanistan, have either been too numerous or too agile (or both) for U.S. ground forces to deal with. In any war, the primary goal is not to be defeated. An elective war in which the criteria for success are unclear and for which the amount of land force is insufficient must be avoided. That is Gates’ message. It is the same one MacArthur delivered, and the one Dwight Eisenhower exercised when he refused to intervene in Vietnam on France’s behalf. As with the Monroe Doctrine, it should be elevated to a principle of U.S. foreign policy, not because it is a moral principle but because it is a very practical one.

Military probes plume off coast of California

November 10, 2010

By Bill Gertz

A mysterious smoke plume that looked like a missile firing off the California coast on Monday may have been an aircraft, U.S. military officials said late Tuesday.

This video frame grab shows what could be a missile launched off the California coast on Monday. The Defense Department said Tuesday it was trying to determine if a missile was launched. (Associated Press)

The vapor trail captured on videotape, however, has stumped U.S. military and intelligence agencies, who have not ruled out a missile launch. The video shows what appears to be a flame at the top of the ascending plume, lending credence to the missile-launch theory.

The event triggered widespread speculation in government circles and on the Internet that the plume was an errant U.S. military missile fired from a ship, submarine or aircraft, or even a Chinese submarine-launched ballistic-missile test

“While there is nothing at this time that leads the Department of Defense to believe this is a missile launch, the department and other US government agencies with expertise in aviation and space continue to look into the condensation trail seen and reported off the coast of Southern California on Monday evening,” said Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan.

Col. Lapan said all Pentagon agencies with rocket and missile programs reported no launches, scheduled or inadvertent, during the time period in the area of the reported contrail.

Among the other possibilities is that the plume was the result of a top-secret, or “unacknowledged,” intelligence or military program that conducted a test flight or missile firing.

The Federal Aviation Administration had some indications that there were commercial or private jets in the area of the smoke plume, which has led to early conclusions the event was a jet contrail.

A U.S. defense official confirmed that military and intelligence agencies think the plume captured in a video was made by an aircraft that appeared to be flying straight up. The contrail is created when hot jet-exhaust gas condenses in cold air and creates a cloudlike trail.

Early assessments were based on the relatively slow speed of the object and movement within the plume’s path.

A jet contrail photographed near Los Angeles on Dec. 31 looked very similar to the plume in the videotape on Monday, the official said.

A traffic helicopter in Los Angeles first captured video of the suspected missile launch around sunset Monday, some 35 miles off the coast of Los Angeles and north of Catalina Island.

The Navy’s base in San Diego is located south of the sighting, and naval warships routinely conduct exercises in the area, including occasional missile firings.

Vandenberg Air Force Base, located north of Los Angeles, is also home to missile defense interceptors, and the base on Friday also launched a Delta II rocket with a communications satellite on board, but did not launch any rockets around the time the plume was spotted.

A Missile Defense Agency official said no flight tests of its interceptors were carried out around the time the plume was seen.

Col. Lapan said “we are also checking with other departments [and] agencies of the U.S. [government]” to determine if the test was part of a secret program.

6 NATO troops killed in Afghanistan

June 24, 2010

By Ernesto Londoño
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; 10:55 AM

KABUL — NATO announced the death of six troops on Wednesday, underscoring the severity of the challenges here as the fate of the top U.S. commander of the military effort hung in the balance.

Two American troops were killed Tuesday in bombings in southern Afghanistan, a U.S. military spokesman said.

Four other service members, including at least one American, were killed Wednesday.

One was killed in a bombing in western Afghanistan, and the other three died in a roadside bombing and a shooting in southern Afghanistan, military officials said.

The nationalities of three of the troops were not immediately disclosed.

The latest casualties raised the death toll for NATO troops to 73 this month, suggesting that June is likely to be the deadliest month of the nearly nine-year war for the U.S.-led international force.

The troops were killed as President Obama was considering whether to fire Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal for remarks published in a Rolling Stone magazine article that were derisive of civilian administration officials.

McChrystal likely to resign over magazine comments

June 23, 2010

By the CNN Wire Staff

America’s top military commander in Afghanistan is unlikely to survive the fallout from remarks he made about colleagues in a magazine profile to be published Friday, according to a Pentagon source who has ongoing contacts with the general.

McChrystal article author speaks out

Gen. Stanley McChrystal will likely resign Wednesday, the source said. McChrystal’s fate is expected to hinge on a meeting scheduled Wednesday with President Obama, who was “angry” after reading the general’s remarks in Rolling Stone.

The “magnitude and graveness” of McChrystal’s mistake in conducting the interview for the article were “profound,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said McChrystal had “made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment.”

McChrystal apologized Tuesday for the profile, in which he and his staff appear to mock top civilian officials, including the vice president. Two defense officials said the general fired a press aide over the article, set to appear in Friday’s edition of Rolling Stone.

“I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened,” McChrystal said in a Pentagon statement. “Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.”

McChrystal has been recalled to Washington to explain his actions to the president. He is expected to meet with Obama in the Oval Office on Wednesday, Gibbs said. Gibbs refused to speculate about McChrystal’s fate, but told reporters “all options are on the table.”

Obama, questioned about McChrystal before a Cabinet meeting Tuesday afternoon, said he had not made a decision.

“I think it’s clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed poor judgment, but I also want to make sure that I talk to him directly before I make that final decision,” he said.

McChrystal is prepared to resign if the president has lost confidence in him, a national security official told CNN. Most of the Pentagon brass, the official said, hopes he will be upbraided by the commander-in-chief but sent back to continue the mission.

The White House will have more to say after Wednesday’s meeting, Gibbs said. He noted, however, that McChrystal did not take part in a teleconference Obama had with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other top officials on Tuesday.

Several elected officials have strongly criticized McChrystal but deferred to the president on the politically sensitive question of whether the general should keep his position. A couple of key congressmen, however, have openly called for McChrystal’s removal.

In the profile, writer Michael Hastings writes that McChrystal and his staff had imagined ways of dismissing Vice President Joe Biden with a one-liner as they prepared for a question-and-answer session in Paris, France, in April. The general had grown tired of questions about Biden since earlier dismissing a counterterrorism strategy the vice president had offered.

“‘Are you asking about Vice President Biden,’ McChrystal says with a laugh. ‘Who’s that?'”

“‘Biden?’ suggests a top adviser. ‘Did you say: Bite Me?'”

McChrystal does not directly criticize Obama in the article, but Hastings writes that the general and Obama “failed to connect” from the outset. Sources familiar with the meeting said McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the room full of top military officials, according to the article.

Later, McChrystal’s first one-on-one meeting with Obama “was a 10-minute photo op,” Hastings writes, quoting an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his f—ing war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss (McChrystal) was disappointed.”

The article goes on to paint McChrystal as a man who “has managed to piss off almost everyone with a stake in the conflict,” including U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, special representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke and national security adviser Jim Jones.

Of Eikenberry, who railed against McChrystal’s strategy in Afghanistan in a cable leaked to The New York Times in January, the general is quoted as saying, “‘Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, “I told you so.'”

Hastings writes in the profile that McChrystal has a “special skepticism” for Holbrooke, the official in charge of reintegrating Taliban members into Afghan society and the administration’s point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“At one point on his trip to Paris, McChrystal checks his BlackBerry, according to the article. ‘Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke,’ he groans. ‘I don’t even want to open it.’ He clicks on the message and reads the salutation out loud, then stuffs the BlackBerry back in his pocket, not bothering to conceal his annoyance.

“‘Make sure you don’t get any of that on your leg,’ an aide jokes, referring to the e-mail.”

Both Democrats and Republicans have been strongly critical of McChrystal in the wake of the story. House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey, D-Wisconsin, called McChrystal the latest in a “long list of reckless, renegade generals who haven’t seemed to understand that their role is to implement policy, not design it.”

McChrystal is “contemptuous” of civilian authority and has demonstrated “a bullheaded refusal to take other people’s judgments into consideration.”

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, became the first member of the Senate Democratic leadership to call for McChrystal to step down, saying that the remarks were “unbelievably inappropriate and just can’t be allowed to stand.”

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, deferred to Obama on the question of a possible McChrystal resignation. He said the controversy was sending a message of “confusion” to troops in the field. I think it has “a negative effect” on the war effort, he said.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, urged a cooling off period before a final decision is rendered on the general. My “impression is that all of us would be best served by just backing off and staying cool and calm and not sort of succumbing to the normal Washington twitter about this for the next 24 hours.”

Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Jim Webb of Virginia — also key senators on defense and foreign policy issues — were each strongly critical of McChrystal’s remarks, but noted that the general’s future is a decision for Obama to make.

Karzai weighed in from abroad,urging Obama to keep McChrystal as the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The government in Kabul believes McChrystal is a man of strong integrity who has a strong understanding of the Afghan people and their culture, Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said.

A U.S. military official said Tuesday that McChrystal has spoken to Biden, Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and other officials referenced in the story, including Holbrooke, Eikenberry and Jones.

An official at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said Eikenberry and McChrystal “are both fully committed” to Obama’s Afghan strategy and are working together to implement the plan. “We have seen the article and General McChrystal has already spoken to it,” according to a statement from an embassy official, making reference to McChrystal’s apology.

“I have enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team, and for the civilian leaders and troops fighting this war, and I remain committed to ensuring its successful outcome,” McChrystal said in the closing to his apology.

Rolling Stone executive editor Eric Bates, however, struck a less optimistic tone during an interview with CNN on Tuesday.

The comments made by McChrystal and other top military aides during the interview were “not off-the-cuff remarks,” he said. They “knew what they were doing when they granted the access.” The story shows “a deep division” and “war within the administration” over strategy in Afghanistan, he contended.

McChrystal and his staff “became aware” that the Rolling Stone article would be controversial before it was published, Hastings said Tuesday. He said he “got word from (McChrystal’s) staff … that there was some concern” about possible fallout from the story.

Obama tapped McChrystal to head the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan in the spring of 2009 shortly after dismissing Gen. David McKiernan.

CNN’s John King, Suzanne Malveaux, Barbara Starr, Dana Bash and Alan Silverleib contributed to this report.

Afghanistan Mineral Riches: Beware the Hype

June 16, 2010

By James Joyner

June 14, 2010 “Atlantic Council” — News that “United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself” should be taken with several doses of salt.

James Risen of the in Afghanistan”>NYT broke the story, which has the security blogosphere buzzing. It gushes,

The previously unknown deposits – including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium – are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

While it could take many years to develop a mining industry, the potential is so great that officials and executives in the industry believe it could attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war.

“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

The value of the newly discovered mineral deposits dwarfs the size of Afghanistan’s existing war-bedraggled economy, which is based largely on opium production and narcotics trafficking as well as aid from the United States and other industrialized countries. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is only about $12 billion.

“This will become the backbone of the Afghan economy,” said Jalil Jumriany, an adviser to the Afghan minister of mines.

But, as Foreign Policy managing editor Afghanistan has $1 trillion in untapped mineral resources?”>Blake Hounshell points out, the discovery in question dates to 2007, has been widely documented on US government websites for years, and the $1 trillion figure seems to have been conjured from thin air. The Atlantic‘s Marc Ambinder points to evidence that the Soviets had documented this trove way back in 1985!

Katie Drummond of Wired‘s Danger Room adds, “it might be prudent to be wary of any data coming out of Afghanistan’s own Mines Minestry,” citing a Wall Street Journalreport noting it “has long been considered one of the country’s most corrupt government departments.”

That this story has gotten front page placement in the country’s top newspaper has Mother Jones Rich”>Kevin Drum, OTB’s Propaganda ?”>Doug Mataconis, and others questioning the timing. Ambinder, noting the on-the-record quotes from the highest levels of the U.S. military, goes so far as to characterize this as “a massive information operation.”

Aside from the fact that the news isn’t actually new and that there’s good reason to believe that the potential benefits are being wildly exaggerated for political reasons, we should also be skeptical of the idea that Afghanistan is going to suddenly leap forward several centuries into modernity by virtue of a natural resource find.

First, as Matt Yglesias of the Center for American Progress notes, it’s quite likely that the actual extraction will be performed by non-Afghan companies who bid on the mineral rights at a fraction of their actual value.

Second, given the corruption that is endemic in the Afghan governance culture, it’s quite likely that most of the money will be skimmed off the top rather than benefiting the Afghan people.

Third, there’s real reason to worry about a developing country relying on resource extraction to build their economy. CNAS senior fellow’ Depressed “>Andrew Exum points to Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion and sees dark days ahead for the NATO coalition effort:

Collier describes the characteristics that “trap” countries in cycles of civil conflict: low income, slow growth, and dependence on primary commodity exports. I don’t need to tell you Afghanistan has the first and third characteristics in spades, and you may have noticed that Afghanistan has already been in a pretty miserable cycle of civil conflict since the PDPA coup in 1978. Does this resource find make civil war more or less likely? The statistics, I’m afraid, suggest the former.

The presence of civil war is not reason alone to give up on Afghanistan and bring the boys home. I have previously argued that yes, Afghanistan is in a civil war, and that we should take sides in that civil war to advance U.S. and allied interests. That’s basically what we are doing today. But counterinsurgency strategies rest on the assumption that you can eventually weaken anti-government forces and reduce levels of violence to the point where a political process can take place in more peaceful circumstances. We now have one trillion fresh reasons why this assumption might not be valid for Afghanistan.

The Washington Independent‘s Comes to Afghanistan”>Spencer Ackerman, noting that “Afghanistan’s economy is based around opium and foreign aid,” agrees:

[I]n emerging and underdeveloped states, weak legal systems and official corruption create incentives for powerful people to exploit those resources, rather than allow mineral wealth to fuel national renewal. Think Congo or Sierra Leone. It’s easy to tick off the ways in which what political scientists call the “Resource Curse” applies to Afghanistan: a tenuous legal structure; warlordism; war; foreign interventionism; corruption throughout the political system; an uneasy and unstable relationship between provincial and national authorities; and an uneasy and unstable relationship in provinces and districts with instruments of local governance as well as national governance.

Let’s hope that retired Green Beret and DoD senior executive Times’>Pat Lang is right that “the lives of ordinary Afghans will be profoundly changed perhaps for the better.” After decades of war and centuries of poverty, it would be wonderful. But a lot needs to go right for the rosier side of the perhaps to come true. And there’s not much in Afghan history that would lead me to bet on it.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

Karzai says West starts to get Taliban peace push

May 19, 2010

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Tuesday the West was starting to realize the war in Afghanistan cannot be won militarily and that the peace process must involve reaching out to the Taliban.

Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai (L) shakes hands with Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg at the Presidential Palace in Kabul May 17, 2010.

More than nine years after their ouster from power by U.S.-backed forces, the Taliban have made a comeback in Afghanistan despite the presence of some 140,000 foreign troops led by NATO and the U.S. military.

Read the rest of this entry »

Civilian Casualties Raise Afghan Ire at U.S.

May 18, 2010


An Afghan boy stands over fresh graves at a family cemetery near Koshkaky village, in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, the scene of a deadly early morning raid by U.S. special forces

Nazir Ahmad says he heard gunfire coming from a guardhouse in the early hours of Friday, May 14, outside the large adobe compound he shares with nine families. Thinking that thieves were trespassing, he and several men ran into the ink-black courtyard, where they were struck down by grenade explosions and gunfire. “They were shooting lasers,” says Ahmad, 35, misidentifying bullets as the laser sights on his assailants’ weapons. Shrapnel flew into his cheek and hit his 18-month-old daughter in the back. A neighboring family fared even worse: within seconds, a father and four sons lay dead.

Local witnesses interviewed by TIME say the nighttime raid by U.S. forces killed eight residents of this sunbaked farming village in eastern Afghanistan. The U.S. military insists that the operation in Koshkaky, about nine miles (14 km) west of Jalalabad, targeted active insurgents in the area, including a Taliban subcommander who was killed. Two wounded fighters were seized, along with machine guns and “communications equipment,” the military said in a statement without offering casualty figures. (Afghan police are conducting their own investigation.)

But ordinary Afghans are more inclined to believe the worst. As word of the incident spread Friday morning, street protests erupted, as hundreds of people burned tires and threw stones to chants of “Death to America,” “Long live the Taliban” and antigovernment slogans. When a crowd tried to storm the district police center, officers responded with gunfire that killed at least one protester.

Since General Stanley McChrystal took command of international forces in Afghanistan last summer, restrictions on airstrikes have sharply curbed the incidence of civilian deaths, which have fueled public outrage and friction between the Afghan government and the U.S. Observers, however, point to a concurrent rise in night raids by special-forces units. According to United Nations and Afghan government estimates, night raids accounted for more than half of the 600 civilian deaths by coalition forces last year. After a series of mishaps, McChrystal issued a new tactical directive in late January to reduce casualties and be less invasive. He mandated that “wherever possible,” Afghan authorities and local elders should be notified ahead of time and that Afghan security forces take the lead.

But McChrystal’s guidelines appear to have been applied more to regular infantry units than to special forces, whose officers fear that their covert missions could be compromised by such consultations. Nor has the involvement of Afghan troops helped reduce fatal mistakes. For instance, in a Feb. 12 raid in Paktia province, special forces barged into a family celebration of a newborn baby, killing an Afghan police officer, his brother, two pregnant women and a teenage girl. NATO initially claimed that a joint Afghan-coalition operation had discovered the bodies of three women bound and gagged after a firefight with militants. But as contradictory evidence mounted, some reports suggested that a U.S. officer had been sent to personally apologize for the shootings and offer compensation payment to the relatives of the deceased.

Some Afghans ssy the errant raids may be directed by misinformation passed to the Americans to settle local feuds. On April 29, the brother-in-law of Afghan lawmaker Safiya Sidiqi was shot dead in a night raid on her family home in Surkh Rod district. Sidiqi says her brother had called earlier, saying thieves were outside the house. When she checked with police, she said they informed her that American forces were conducting an operation there. The U.S. military later asserted that the victim was a “Taliban facilitator” who emerged from the home with a shotgun, displaying lethal intent and refusing orders to drop the weapon. Lieut. Colonel Joseph T. Bresseale, a spokesman, dismissed claims that the weapon had been wielded in self-defense against suspected criminals, calling it a common excuse used by night-raid targets.

But residents of Koshkaky village who witnessed the latest American raid stick by their story. Mohammad Siddiq Bismil says it is normal for isolated farmers to keep weapons on their property, and when they heard gunfire, he says, several men gathered their rifles and two Kalashnikovs – for which they had permits – and fired several shots into the air as a warning. Seconds later, some of the men were gunned down by soldiers who had scaled 15-ft. (5 m) walls on several sides and blasted through a rusty gate. “Instead of announcing themselves, they shot first,” Bismil claims. The U.S. military says the firefight began after the men refused to step outside.

When the dust settled, villagers said, they were held inside the compound and interrogated until after dawn by American and Afghan soldiers. They maintained that they had no idea who Qari Shamshudin, the alleged Taliban subcommander, was. Their rifles and cell phones were confiscated, they alleged, and two injured men, said to be truck drivers, were taken away. Though reporters were not allowed inside the family compound to explore the scene of the shootings because women were mourning in the courtyard, there were dried streaks of blood outside and broken glass still peppered the ground. Bullet holes were visible in car windshields.

A short drive down the road back to Jalalabad, a gaggle of young men were gathered at a cemetery around one of five fresh graves, palms open in prayer. Assadullah, a 19-year-old student, listed the names of his former neighbors, the father and sons from the village: Sayid Rahim, Shafiullah, Shams, Zikruddin, Rasul Khan. “These are our brothers, not Taliban,” he says, “The U.S. is telling lies. We will fight the Taliban – and [the Americans] too, if we must.”

This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


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