Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How Goes the War?


The question I get asked most since I got back from Afghanistan usually goes like this:

“So, since you got a first-hand look at things over there”—

and here the questioner’s volume usually drops to a loud hush, one better suited for shared confidences about whether the U.S. government may be pulling the wool over our collective eyes—

“How do you think it’s going? It’s sounding a lot worse.”

I always start to answer by saying that I spent little time outside the wire and interacted with essentially no Afghan civilians who were not press. I also note that I’m a partisan and think that this is the war the U.S. should be fighting, I admire the job U.S. forces have been doing, and that it’s going to take one to two decades to accomplish anything that looks like a win.

With those caveats out of the way, I continue that from what I’ve read since returning and what I hear from those still deployed, the war sounds like it’s going pretty well.

The pace of Afghan civilian deaths, whether from insurgent action or U.S. mistakes, seems to have dropped off, although there are still times when U.S. forces are accused of killing or actually do kill civilians. (This most recent episode is still up in the air.) The pace of U.S. military deaths, which was a worry last fall when I left, has dropped as it does every winter. Western-sponsored infrastructure projects continue to progress, at least in low-lying areas that aren’t snowed in. While insurgents may threaten much, they control little.

But it still looks bad through the lens of the Western media. According to many reports, the Taliban insurgency is growing, is spreading, is surrounding Kabul, and is winning through whatever means. The Kabul government is ineffectual, the Western forces clumsy and ill-informed, Afghan villagers terrified, at least when you read the papers. What explains this?

The thing I ask people to remember about the Afghan war is that it is a counterinsurgency conflict, not a stand-up fight. The goal of Western forces is to suppress the insurgents long enough for the Kabul government to start winning its people’s loyalty and trust by helping and protecting them. In short: Anything that strengthens Afghans’ bond with their government is good, anything that weakens it is bad.

The insurgents are well aware of this. These groups, whether Taliban, HIG, al-Qa’ida, or the notorious al-Three Guys with a Grenade Launcher, are extremely media-savvy, and Afghan civilians are no shrinking violets either when confronted with Western cameras and microphones.

Here’s the sequence of events that seems to happen when U.S. or, occasionally, ISAF forces conduct a raid or drop a bomb that kills Afghans, civilian or otherwise.

First, the insurgent groups work the phones. When their fingerprints are on some new act, they are quick to call the media and glorify their latest suicide bombing, crow about the latest Western casualty, or fume (correctly, in most cases) about corrupt officials in Kabul. In this case, they fulminate about the latest Western misstep, painting U.S. and ISAF forces as bloodthirsty.* These assertions plug in nicely to the insurgents’ broader narrative of a Crusader force propping up a feeble government whose writ doesn’t even extend to Kabul’s city limits.

In the ensuing days, Afghan civilians and survivors of the raid pile on. They talk to the media about the loss of their innocent relatives and demand cash reparations. Payment of such blood money is the accepted norm in South and Central Asia, and Western forces are generally quick to pay it. This fact, and the lack of a paper trail to prove conclusively that a named person did or did not exist, creates a broad incentive to inflate the numbers of people—especially women and children—who were killed.

Third, Afghan government officials express outrage at the killings of their constituents for days or weeks on end, just as the governor of Oklahoma would at tornado damage or the governor of California would following an earthquake or mass shooting. The Afghan officials demand an end to unilateral bombings or raids by Western forces and generally grandstand to the limits of their ability, again according to South/Central Asian regional norms.

The combined effect of these actions—insurgent PR savvy, civilian demands for reparations and apologies, and elected officials’ professed outrage—is to produce a constant stream of stories about Western mistakes. This, I tell people, is one reason why it might seem the West is losing the Afghan war.

I’m leaving out a lot of details for the sake of brevity, but this model is broadly valid for occasions when Western forces kill or are accused of killing civilians. There are several other templates for how the media cover or are forced to cover this conflict—Suicide Bomber in Marketplace was popular last summer, Kabul Government Linked to Opium Trade is a spring/summer perennial, School Opens in Tiny Village works year-round, as does Insurgents Are Surrounding Kabul.

But the model I’ve just discussed, Western Forces Kill Civilians, is the one that seems to get the most play lately in this hemisphere. Knowing that it and other models exist, and that they are entirely predictable and repeating, goes a long way toward understanding how the war goes in Afghanistan.

*Secretary Gates testified yesterday that the U.S. actually does need to apologize faster for causing civilian casualties:

Civilian casualties resulting from U.S. combat and airstrikes have been particularly harmful to progress in Afghanistan and must be avoided, Gates stressed. "My worry is that the Afghans come to see us as part of their problem rather than part of their solution, and then we are lost," he said.

Moreover, the U.S. military must immediately voice regret for any civilian casualties, rather than waiting to investigate the details, Gates said in separate testimony before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday afternoon.

Gates said this is necessary to counter Taliban insurgents, who he said hide among the population and then report civilian deaths in coalition military operations quickly and widely on the Internet. "The instant we believe there may have been civilian casualties, we have to be out there" expressing condolences, rather than arguing over the numbers, he said.

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