What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Adding to the debate: Marjah operations + Baradar's arrest

I still have a huge amount of work ahead of me today, so I will only touch upon two of the most important developments in Afghanistan and its region, and try and add to the debate regarding them.
Tactics, operations
The "battle" is (still) on for Marjah, even though the pace of the advance is not that spectacular. This very sceptical take on U.S./British/Afghan troops' performance suggests that once the "air power advantage" is gone, the Taliban gain "an edge" because they are more willing to die. Another op-ed article by somebody who seems to have woken up from a dream in the last couple of days to news of the offensive in Marjah (and with no familiarity with what's been happening in Afghanistan over the last eight and a half years) claims that the air power advantage is promptly needed (back).
My view is that both takes are mistaken. Air power is not the only tactical advantage troops can have against insurgents. Advancing slowly, or "walking the walk" on COIN as Julia Mahlejd puts it in her take on all this, is required in this sort of context, and that is what makes sense strategically.
I would put it in this way: otherwise, the standard ISAF line, that allegations of ISAF's indiscriminate destruction of villages is pure propaganda from the enemy, will only be true for intensive engagements in the sense that in fact it is the insurgents who get to choose ("discriminate") which buildings are destroyed in these instances, themselves, by shooting from those buildings at the approaching troops. Thus, the destruction would certainly not be "indiscriminate." Technically, or rather absurdly, speaking.
Just blasting compound after compound "marked" by insurgent fire cannot be the right tactic. It aggregates into flawed strategy. And it is good to see there is at least some thinking going into this nowadays, even if it is so far down the road now that it is too late perhaps, and even if it is not yet applied with real consistency. Meanwhile, one would still want to see even more innovative tactics.
You need to shoot someone running towards your position despite your warnings but doesn't seem armed? I understand you might assume he is wearing a suicide vest under his shalwar kameez. There is a chance. But can't you shoot someone in the foot then? Or try to do that? Couldn't one be prepared to use nonlethal munitions when one just needs to hold a position for example? It is nice to hear the family "understood" that, too bad, their mentally ill son had to be mowed down (though it would be a bit more credible to hear this from the family). But perhaps this could have been avoided as well.
Now, look at this photo here. Marines and Afghan soldiers there are going through a family's belongings in a deserted compound that they have cleared. They may not take anything from there, but still they are messing up somebody's home - the home of a family, members of which are likely internally displaced somewhere right now. Is that respect? Is it judged so that the intel that can be gained from this is worth it? IED materials, weapons all need to be searched for, I get it, but perhaps this could be done with the more simple and discrete use of metal and explosives detectors and not touching every single object in a house where the owners may still return.
And if a compound needs to be cleared, perhaps tear gas and other means could have some effect as well. They could be used to clear compounds, and if the insurgent body count still matters to some, they can still continue shooting once they actually do have visual contact with the enemy.
Troops involved may take this as just a clueless civilian's baseless second-guessing, and perhaps the things I am saying do not seem feasible to them for one reason or another. But they can only ignore this honest advice at their and their comrades' own long-term peril of course.
Baradar's arrest: Shaping the insurgency's prospects
Mullah Baradar "Akhund" (that is a peculiar religious/political/military title right there*) was captured. Number two in the Taliban ranks, some say, though of course Taliban don't wear numbers on either their backs or their foreheads or anywhere else. The New York Times now says it was a "lucky accident," but then it was curiously well timed up with the Marjah offensive and with other arrests of Taliban leaders in Pakistan.
There is a really intensive debate now as to how this should be interpreted for example as far as Pakistani intentions are concerned. Someone like Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Talib ambassador in Islamabad, would say that "Pakistan just removed the Taliban's address" with this - making the prospects for negotiations with the Taliban weaker. Another way of looking at it could be that perhaps Pakistan made it clear to the Taliban now that they cannot pretend to be an autonomous entity that can endlessly raise the stakes as far as it wishes.
Still regarding Baradar's capture, I would also add to the basics of COIN doctrine that just as it is not enough to "clear" territory, you have to "hold" captured insurgent leaders as well as "build" on their capture and either deliver procedural justice in the name of good governance in their case, or make some impact on the insurgents' positions by holding them. Whether holding will work here, there can be some concerns: one could quote the LWJ for example, which posted the following neatly prepared briefing on related matters:
"The (Pakistani) government has released senior Afghan Taliban leaders such as Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, the Taliban’s former minister of defense and a member of the Shura Majlis, or executive council; Abdullah Mehsud, the late Taliban commander in South Waziristan who served time at Guantanamo Bay; Mufti Yousuf, a top Taliban leader in eastern Afghanistan; and Abdulrahim Muslim Dost, a former prisoner at the US military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, who serves as a propagandist.
Al Qaeda leader Rashid Rauf escaped from custody in what certainly was an inside job to have him released. And Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man behind Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl's brutal murder, plots assassinations and runs his network from a prison in Lahore. Sheikh is said to have been behind the assassination of Major General Faisal Alavi, the former commander of Pakistan's counterterrorism Special Service Group commandos.
Pakistan has also freed radical clerics Sufi Mohammed and Maulana Abdullah Aziz. Sufi leads the radical pro-Taliban group that brokered peace deals in the Malakand Division, while Aziz was the leader of the Red Mosque and the instigator of the July 2007 insurrection in Islamabad. And just a few days ago, Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed was released from house arrest as the government could not find sufficient evidence to hold him in prison."
But more importantly, I would draw attention to what Bette Dam (Dutch correspondent who covered ISAF/Dutch operations in Uruzgan extensively) reported recently:
"President Karzai started to ask for Mullah Baradar's help in 2001. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the Americans helped Karzai take control of ‘his’ region in Uruzgan from the Taliban. By talking and negotiating he convinced one tribal leader after another to support him.
When Karzai found himself in a life-threatening situation while in the Durji mountains he was rescued by Mullah Baradar, who was then the Taliban’s defence minister. In exchange, Karzai agreed not to punish Mullah Baradar for his role as a Taliban leader. Karzai assured him that he had nothing to worry about and that the Taliban would later be allowed to participate in the government. However things turned out differently. United States forces bombed Baradar’s house in Deh Rawod in spite of Karzai’s objections. Mullah Baradar fled the country and began operating in neighbouring Pakistan."
Karzai and Baradar are well connected to each other of course not so much by being "members" (they have no member IDs) of the same BIG Populzai tribe. But through a bunch of common contacts in the area of Deh Rawod, in Uruzgan province. That is important, as well as the anecdote above.
By the way, I will also add that it was in this area in 2002 that the U.S. military bombed a wedding, in Operation Full Throttle, during the night of June 30/July 1, where even the bride was killed. And the bride was Mullah Anwar's daughter - Mullah Anwar Akhund is Mullah Baradar's brother.
Switching off such a key node now in the sophisticated human network of contacts that is Afghanistan... a node that can very much be assumed to have been "on" with Karzai's planned renewed outreach in the wake of the London conference... I am stroking my beard.
Update (February 20, 2010): And I now realise Mullah Baradar went for the Hajj to Saudi Arabia last year, when by the way Abdul Salaam Zaeef and many others were also there...
* Originally I only put "military" there, but prof. Magda Katona has meanwhile pointed out to me that the potential religious significance of the title (meaning either someone learned in religious matters, or the descendent of a family line of mullahs, as "Ahkundzada") should not be omitted. Hence the correction - plus I also added the adjective "political." Akhund is really a concept of central importance, given the peculiar notion of "akhundism" in the past of the Pashtun regions (discussed in a sarcastic essay here for example, by Amir Taheri).

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