The Rules of Engagement v Hearts and Minds


This week, General Stanley McChrystal apologized to the Afghan people and personally to President Karzai after at least 27 civilians were killed by a NATO airstrike in the southern Province of Uruzgan.   To his credit, General McChrystal has taken concrete steps to limit civilian casualties in Afghanistan.  Since becoming commander of US and NATO forces, he has tightened the rules of engagement to restrict the use of artillery attacks and airstrikes.   These measures were definitely needed.  But I would like to see General McChrystal go even further.

A Pivotal Week for Afghanistan?

The past week has witnessed two actions billed as possible turning points for the war in Afghanistan:  the launch of Operation Moshtarak in Helmund and the capture of Mullah Baradar, the top military commander of Mullah Omar’s Taliban.   Could either event be a potential game changer?

The capture of Mullah Baradar is significant, especially if it leads to the arrest of Mullah Omar and/or more of his top tier commanders.  But I doubt whether taking Mullah Baradar out of action will make a drastic difference at ground level in Afghanistan.  After all, Mullah Omar’s Taliban is just one insurgent group fighting the coalition.  Mullah Baradar’s arrest is unlikely to curtail the operations of the Haqqani network (which many consider the most capable militant group in Afghanistan at present) or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami. Continue reading

Afghanistan: A Tale of Two Timelines

Will it be a graveyard of Hummers next?

It’s finally official: the US will send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. The number may have topped the headlines, but it is only the latest chapter in what is shaping up to be A Tale of Two Timelines

The public was expecting President Obama to give some idea of an exit strategy and he didn’t disappoint.  July 2011 is the date he set to start pulling US forces out of Afghanistan.  By announcing a timeline, Obama may have pacified elements at home that have soured on the war, but he’s done so at the expense of confirming to all — including the Taliban — that there is an expiration date on the coalition’s commitment. Continue reading

Afghanistan: Looking For An Honourable Way Out

NATO's Road to Nowhere

When President Obama announced this week that he intends to ‘finish the job’ in Afghanistan, I wondered exactly what job he was referring to; finding Osama bin Laden? Denying al-Qaeda a safe haven? Democratization? Promoting women’s rights? Curtailing the opium trade?  All have been cited over the past eight years as reasons for staying in Afghanistan.

With public support eroding by the day, fighting al-Qaeda now tops the list of excuses.  In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is telling us we must stay the course in Afghanistan to keep our streets safe. Tenuous connections between Afghanistan and home grown terrorists aside, it is clear that from Washington to Whitehall there is a concerted effort afoot to buy time for the coalition to achieve an honorable exit.

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Part II: Afghan Security Forces: The Weak Link in NATO’s Exit Strategy

When NATO military officials meet in Brussels later this month, they will be asked to contribute more resources to step up the training and expansion of Afghanistan’s security forces.   In the second instalment of this two part series,  I’ll examine how politically motivated recruitment and training schedules compromise the safety of coalition soldiers and threaten to undermine the justification for the war in Afghanistan; containing the threat from al-Qaeda.   

Rapidly accelerating the expansion of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police is understandably attractive to western military and political leaders sick fed up with explaining mounting war causalities to an increasingly sceptical public.  But what looks good on paper has already proved tragically short-sighted in practice.  Continue reading

PART I: Afghan Security Forces: The Weak Link in NATO’s Exit Strategy

When NATO military officials meet in Brussels later this month, they will be asked to contribute more resources to accelerate the training and expansion of Afghan security forces.  In the first of this two part series, I’ll give my thoughts on the efficacy of NATO’s mentoring programs and what it means for western exit strategies.

Since 2004, I’ve had occasion to see Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police training programs in action. I’ve shared live fire ranges and training areas with ANA and ANP recruits and accompanied journalists doing stories on security sector reform.  What I’ve witnessed has convinced me that in its present form, NATO’s mentoring of Afghanistan’s security forces is at best woefully inadequate and at worst, dangerously short-sighted. Continue reading

Afghanistan: The Biggest Loser?

The Taliban must have been rubbing their hands when the White House and Downing Street congratulated Hamid Karzai on his default Presidential victory. ‘What is astonishing is two weeks ago they were arguing that the puppet President Hamid Karzai was involved in electoral fraud,’ said a Taliban statement, ‘… but now he is elected as President based on those same fraudulent votes, Washington and London immediately send their congratulations.’

            The West’s hypocrisy is nothing exceptional in Afghanistan. As a matter of necessity, Afghans always back the winning side.  Thirty-five years of civil war have taught them to value survival over political principals. I know one Afghan who jumped from the Soviet Army to the Mujahudeen in the 1980s. When the Taliban came to power, he joined them. When they were ousted, he went to work as an interpreter for the US military.  Last I heard, he was an Afghan National Policeman.  Basically, whoever has the upper hand in Afghanistan has his support. Continue reading