Down the Rabbit Hole in Afghanistan

by , March 15, 2010

The notion that the great American offensive to capture the Afghan outpost of Marjah was more public relations propaganda than military strategy or even effective counter-insurgency first began to impinge itself when U.S. and – to a lesser extent – Afghan officials started talking about it weeks before it was to take place. If it had been a real military offensive, you would think, they would have wanted the element of surprise. Instead, they informed the Taliban in advance that they would be coming.

That proved to have a downside. I don’t know whether military officials expected a relatively swift advance, perhaps on the order of the first American sorties in Iraq, when it looked as if victory would be swift and decisive, or not. But what they got was a painstakingly slow advance, slowed down by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of improvised explosive devices and mines. The Marines had to slog through on foot, looking out for explosive devices at almost every step and encountering the occasional ambush.

The Marines performed this thankless mission competently, but it meant that it took longer and was more dangerous than it might have been. Was that in part a result of announcing in advance to all and sundry just exactly where the Marines would be going and what they would be doing? Might that have been intentional, to add an air of courage and accomplishment to the mission, making for better propaganda? I don’t know.

Of course, propaganda is always part of a well-thought-out counter-insurgency strategy. Creating an image of noble heroes overcoming odds and managing to kill quite a few Taliban and insurgents along the way might have been part of a solid strategy.

That thought, however, was somewhat undermined by the news that, as a Washington Post story had it, "The Afghan official responsible for governing Marjah paid his first visit to this strife-torn community" on or about Feb. 22. Let me repeat that: his first visit. He wasn’t a respected local elder who was known in the community but had been forced to leave for a short while and would be likely to be welcomed back. No, Haji Zahir, the newly-appointed mayor of Marjah, had spent the last 15 years in Germany. Where he had been jailed. That would surely let the locals know that the central Afghan government had great respect for Marjah’s local traditions and local leaders.

According to this Washington Post story, the locals were appropriately skeptical. When Zahir said the U.S. Marines were "not here to occupy our country. They’re just here to bring you peace," a local grumbled, "The Taliban provided us a very peaceful environment. … They weren’t corrupt like the police." The locals didn’t want help from the central government, they just wanted to be left alone – some of them to grow opium poppies. Who wouldn’t, since prohibition creates such a huge premium for opium over alternative crops?

Then the potentially good propaganda was undermined a bit by the fact that during the course of the offensive, despite assurance from U.S. military officials that they had learned lessons from previous encounters and there would be a minimum of bombing that might kill innocent civilian bystanders, exactly that occurred. A NATO helicopter mission reputedly hunting for militants who had escaped the Marjah area and managed to get 150 miles away ended up killing as many as 27 civilians. All concerned were publicly befuddled. An Afghan National Army commander said his forces hadn’t called in the helicopter strike, and Dutch military officials – it was in an area purportedly controlled by the Dutch – said they hadn’t either.

Well, fog of war and all that. Mistakes are always made and collateral damage is perhaps inevitable.

The clincher for me, however, came in an article in the eminently establishment (though unusually open to different perspectives) Web site for Foreign Policy magazine, started by the Carnegie Endowment and now owned by the Washington Post Co. The article is by Thomas Johnson, who teaches national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey (which does also tolerate our old friend David Henderson), and Chris Mason, a retired State Department officer who served in Afghanistan. They have previously compared Afghanistan to Vietnam, at a pretty deep level [.pdf]. In "Down the AfPak Rabbit Hole," they compared U.S. "strategy" in Afghanistan, and the Marjah campaign in particular, to Alice in Wonderland. Some examples:

"Two months ago the collection of mud-brick hovels known as Marjah might have been mistaken for a flyspeck on maps of Afghanistan. Today the media has nearly doubled its population from 50,000 to 80,000 … and portrays the offensive there as the equivalent of the Normandy invasion, and the beginning of the end for the Taliban. In fact, however, the entire district of Nad Ali, which contains Marjah, represents about 2 percent of Regional Command (RC) South, the U.S. military’s operational area that encompasses Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, Nimruz, and Daykundi provinces. RC South by itself is larger than all of South Vietnam, and the Taliban controls virtually all of it. This appears to have occurred to no one in the media.

"Nor have any noted that this nearly worthless postage stamp of real estate has tied down about half of all the real combat power and aviation assets of the international coalition in Afghanistan for a quarter of a year. The possibility that wasting massive amounts of U.S. and British blood, treasure, and time just to establish an Afghan Potemkin village with a ‘government in a box‘ might be exactly what the Taliban wants the coalition to do has apparently not occurred to either the press or to the generals who designed this operation."

Although the Afghan war at a macro level is a disaster fated to be regretted for a long time to come – whether it peters out gradually and most U.S. troops are withdrawn in 16 months or so or substantial U.S. forces are stationed there for decades, which is the only way to do nation-building in a country that has no particular desire to be a nation as Westerners understand the term. But one might have supposed that at least a few of the tactical operations involved could have been well-designed and well-executed, with something resembling a serious counterinsurgency purpose that actually accomplished some short-term gain.

However, the invasion of Marjah appears to be little more than a public relations or propaganda gesture, designed to make it seem that the "coalition" troops are doing something to earn their keep and the commanders can take some initiative. I will admit that some believe that Marjah is a more important Taliban stronghold than Johnson and Mason do and that the campaign just might have an influence beyond the tiny geographical area that it covers. But I’m skeptical, and I’ll let Johnson and Mason have the last word:

"So here we are in the AfPak Wonderland, complete with a Mad Hatter (the clueless and complacent media), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (the military, endlessly repeating itself and history), the White Rabbit (the State Department, scurrying to meetings and utterly irrelevant), the stoned Caterpillar (the CIA, obtuse, arrogant, and asking the wrong questions), the Dormouse (U.S. Embassy Kabul, who wakes up once in a while only to have his head stuffed in a teapot), the Cheshire Cat (President Obama, fading in and out of the picture, eloquent but puzzling), the Pack of Cards army (the Afghan National Army, self-explanatory), and their commander, the inane Queen of Hearts (Afghan President Hamid Karzai). (In Alice in Wonderland, however, the Dormouse is ‘suppressed’ by the Queen of Hearts, not the White Rabbit or the Cheshire Cat, so the analogy is not quite perfect.)"

Read more by Alan Bock