Misperceptions and Left-Out Anecdotes

Afghanistan police. Image by Matthias Bruggman. Afghanistan, 2010.

In response to my article on Afghanistan in the Boston Review, several members of the Illinois State National Guard with whom I traveled in Helmand last summer expressed disappointment and even a sense of betrayal. I was surprised because I tried to be as sympathetic as possible, and show their decency and humanity, as I do with all people I write about. Perhaps they mistook a criticism of their mission or the strategy with a criticism of them personally.

As a result I was pleased to hear Michael Sheehan's comments at a recent conference on Afghanistan sponsored by the NYU Center on Law and Security. Sheehan is a former special forces officer with experience in central America, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and elsewhere. He retired as a colonel. He was the State Department's Coordinator for Counter terrorism, an assistant Secretary General at the United Nations in the Peacekeeping department and most recently the New York City Police Department's deputy Commissioner of Counter Terrorism.

"Our counterinsurgency (COIN) policy is deeply and tragically flawed," he said, "they're asking the wrong questions and making the wrong assumptions. The McChrystal Report answers the question of how do we win an insurgency. But the question is why we are in Afghanistan. To prevent another attack by AQ on our country. We have been successful since 9/11. They should have asked why we have been successful and feed off of that success. Another assumption: you need stability to achieve your CT success. There is no stability in Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan but al Qaeda's strategic ability has been debilitated. Instead we went off on a tangent, which is how do we win COIN in Afghanistan, which is irrelevant…we kicked the Taliban out in six weeks, with the US airforce and ragtag northern alliance. Do we really need to reinvent Afghanistan to achieve our counter terrorism objectives that sent us there in the first place? There are no US troops in Pakistan but the strategy is working for our purpose.

The purpose is to weaken al Qaeda's strategic reach from Pakistan, which is working, but across the border their vision requires an enormous military footprint? They didn't ask themselves to what extent does your presence contribute to the problem you're solving. And they misread different types of warfare. Afghanistan is an occupation force. When the US military is providing security throughout the country it is an occupation no matter how much aid you provide and social scientists you train. I find problems with every paragraph in McChrystal report. The COIN manual is great on many aspects but if they took the manual and changed it from what the US should do to what the host country should do and the US footprint should be minimal, then it would be a useful manual. We let the Salvadorans fight their war. In the Philippines I said the worst thing we could do would be to introduce American troops, our presence there would unify the opposition."

Unfortunately writing a concise article often means that a lot of great anecdotes get left out. In the current issue of Mother Jones I have a story called "The Slog of War."

One afternoon as I was out on Helmand's highway 601 with an American police training team, a highway patrol commander called Torabas came by with his men and visited the outpost where we were staying. He and his men had just seen two Toyota Corollas full of Taliban in the distance. I asked him how he knew. He had been living here for two years he said, and he recognized their faces. All the hills north of our position were said to be controlled by the Taliban but the police were too scared to go there. I asked Torabas why the Taliban were so popular in Helmand. "the Taliban are supported by the British," he said, insisting that he had seen the British military drop fuel supplies to the Taliban. "Nobody likes the Taliban here," he said, "its only out of fear, when the Taliban see people talking to the police they kill them. They are here only by force and many people dislike the police. Some police steal from houses. Before we recruited uneducated people who had no training." About fifty of his men had been killed by the Taliban since he took command.

The British army had taken 60 of specially trained Provincial Reserve police with them for their operation. The Afghans hadn't wanted to go with them and the Americans were pissed off because the reserve was supposed to be one unit. Like many Afghans, the police believed that the British secretly support the Taliban.

Torabas was from the Nurzai tribe, like colonel Shirzad (the Helmand Chief of Police) and most police in Helmand, he told me. His father and grandfather fought the Soviets with the Hizb eh Islami, the most radical faction of the mujahedin, led by Gulbudin Hekmatyar, once coddled by the Americans and now fighting them. When the Taliban seized Helmand and pushed out Hizb eh Islami, his family fled to Pakistan. He said Taliban seized their lands. It was more likely that tribes allied with the Taliban had seized their lands. "I'm living in Lashkar Gah but my fields are still in the hands of the Taliban," he said, "when the Taliban were defeated they didn't have any power. Then we were living in our compound but now the Taliban are back." It seemed his motive was to regain his land. "When the Russians attacked Afghanistan they were trying to destroy our country. The Taliban didn't like the mujahedin. When the Americans start oppressing or disrespecting our culture, touching our women, disrespecting our elders, then we will fight jihad against them."

Other Afghans though are running out of patience faster. In May of 2006 riots erupted in Kabul after a road accident with American forces. The Americans shot at the crowd. It revealed an underlying anger that can explode at any moment. In September of 2009 a British plane dropped a box of leaflets and it failed to open, landing on a girl and killing her. Given that most Afghans are illiterate, it would not have been any more persuasive had it opened.

Folk poetry throughout Pushtun areas of Afghanistan is now often anti occupation. Below is one recent ghazal, or poem, by a female called Zerlakhta Hafeez:

Oh Afghanistan you are my love
You are my soul you are my body
They want peace while having guns in there hands.
That's why all the children are dying for you Afghanistan
Your children are dying for you because they want you
To be sovereign, to be independent like they did before.
Pashtuns from both parts of the black line (the border with Pakistan)
Call you their home, oh Afghanistan, so they fight for it