November 2010, Week 4


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America's Failed War of Attrition in Afghanistan

by Jeremy Scahill 

The Nation - Blog

November 22, 2010


At the end of the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal this
weekend, the leadership of the Afghan Taliban issued a
statement characterizing the alliance's adoption of a loose
timeline for a 2014 end to combat operations as "good news"
for Afghans and "a sign of failure for the American
government." At the summit, President Barack Obama said that
2011 will begin "a transition to full Afghan lead" in
security operations, while the Taliban declared: "In the
past nine years, the invaders could not establish any system
of governance in Kabul and they will never be able to do so
in future."

While Obama claimed that the US and its allies are "breaking
the Taliban's momentum," the reality on the ground tells a
different story. Despite increased Special Operations Forces
raids and, under Gen. David Petraeus, a return to regular
US-led airstrikes, the insurgency in Afghanistan is
spreading and growing stronger. "By killing Taliban leaders
the war will not come to an end," said the Taliban's former
foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, in an interview at
his home in Kabul. "On the contrary, things get worse which
will give birth to more leaders."

Former and current Taliban leaders say that they have seen a
swelling in the Taliban ranks since 9/11. In part, they say,
this can be attributed to a widely held perception that the
Karzai government is corrupt and illegitimate and that
Afghans - primarily ethnic Pashtuns - want foreign
occupation forces out. "We are only fighting to make
foreigners leave Afghanistan," a new Taliban commander in
Kunduz told me during my recent trip to the country. "We
don't want to fight after the withdrawal of foreigners, but
as long as there are foreigners, we won't talk to Karzai."

"The Americans have very sophisticated technology, but the
problem here in Afghanistan is they are confronting
ideology. I think ideology is stronger than technology,"
says Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former senior member of Mullah
Mohammed Omar's government. "If I am a Taliban and I'm
killed, I'm martyred, then I'm successful. There are no
regrets for the Taliban. It's very difficult to defeat this
kind of idea."

But it is not simply a matter of ideology versus technology.
The Taliban is not one unified body. The Afghan insurgency
is fueled by fighters with a wide variety of motivations.
Some are the dedicated jihadists of which Zaeef speaks, but
others are fighting to defend their land or are seeking
revenge for the killing of family members by NATO or Afghan
forces. While Al Qaeda has been almost entirely expelled
from Afghanistan, the insurgency still counts a small number
of non-Afghans among its ranks. Bolstering the Taliban's
recruitment efforts is the perception in Afghanistan that
the Taliban pays better than NATO or the Afghan army or

The hard reality US officials don't want to discuss is this:
the cultural and religious values of much of the Pashtun
population--which comprises 25-40 percent of the country--
more closely align with those of the Taliban than they do
with Afghan government or US/NATO forces. The Taliban
operate a shadow government in large swaths of the Pashtun
areas of the country, complete with governors and a court
system. In rural areas, land and property disputes are
resolved through the Taliban system rather than the Afghan
government, which is widely distrusted. "The objectives and
goal of the American troops in Afghanistan are not clear to
the people and therefore Afghans call the Americans
'invaders,'" says Muttawakil. "Democracy is a very new
phenomenon in Afghanistan and most people don't know the
meaning of democracy. And now corruption, thieves and fakes
have defamed democracy. Democracy can't be imposed because
people will never adopt any value by force."

The US strategy of attempting to force the Taliban to
surrender or engage in negotiations rests almost exclusively
on attempts to decapitate the Taliban leadership. While
Taliban leaders acknowledge that commanders are regularly
killed, they say the targeted killings are producing more
radical leaders who are far less likely to negotiate than
the older-school Taliban leaders who served in the
government of Mullah Mohammed Omar. "If today Mullah Omar
was captured or killed, the fighting will go on," says
Zaeef, adding: " It will be worse for everyone if the
[current] Taliban leadership disappears."

In October, there were a flurry of media reports that senior
Taliban leaders were negotiating with the Karzai government
and that US forces were helping to insure safe passage for
the Taliban leaders to come to Kabul. The Taliban
passionately refuted those reports, saying they were
propaganda aimed at dividing the insurgency. Last week the
Taliban appeared vindicated on this point as Karzai spoke in
markedly modest terms on the issue. He told The Washington
Post that three months ago he had met with one or two "very
high" level Taliban leaders. He characterized the meeting as
"the exchange of desires for peace," saying the Taliban
"feel the same as we do here - that too many people are
suffering for no reason."

UPDATE: [On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that NATO
and the Afghan government have held a series of "secret"
peace negotiations with a man who posed as a senior Taliban
leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. A Western diplomat
involved in the discussions told the Times, "[W]e gave him a
lot of money." It is unclear who, if anyone, the impostor
was working for, though the Times speculated that he could
have been deployed by Pakistan's ISI spy agency or by the
Taliban itself. "The Taliban are cleverer than the Americans
and our own intelligence service," said a senior Afghan
official who is familiar with the case. "They are playing
games." Last month, the White House asked the Times to
withhold Mansour's name "from an article about the peace
talks, expressing concern that the talks would be
jeopardized - and Mr. Mansour's life put at risk - if his
involvement were publicized. The Times agreed to withhold
Mr. Mansour's name," according to the paper.

This incident is significant on a number of levels. If true,
it underscores the ineffective and inaccurate nature of US,
NATO and Afghan government intelligence. It also confirms
what Taliban leaders have stated publicly and to The Nation,
namely that it has not negotiated with the Afghan government
or NATO and that it will not negotiate unless foreign troops
leave Afghanistan. The fake Mullah Mansour, according to the
Times, "did not demand, as the Taliban have in the past, a
withdrawal of foreign forces or a Taliban share of the

In October, an American official said that reports in US
media outlets of senior Taliban negotiating are propaganda
aimed at sowing dissent among the Taliban leadership. "This
is a psychological operation, plain and simple," the
official with firsthand knowledge of the Afghan government's
strategies told the McClatchy news service. "Exaggerating
the significance of it is an effort to sow distrust within
the insurgency."

Today on MSNBC, Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell
continued to insist that US and NATO forces have facilitated
safe passage for Taliban leaders for reconciliation meetings
in Kabul. The Taliban maintain there have been no meetings.

The Taliban imposter incident also calls into question
scores of deadly night raids that have resulted in the
deaths of innocent Afghans. Several survivors of night raids
recently told The Nation that they believed they were
victims of bad intelligence provided by other Afghans for
money or to settle personal grudges.

Contrary to the rhetoric emanating from NATO and Washington,
the Taliban are not on the ropes and, from their
perspective, would gain nothing from negotiating with the
United States or NATO. As far as they are concerned, time is
on their side. "The bottom line for [NATO and the US] is to
immediately implement what they would ultimately have to
implement, after colossal casualties," stated the Taliban
declaration after the recent NATO summit. "They should not
postpone withdrawal of their forces."

Depending on whom you ask, the fact that General Petraeus
has brought back the use of heavy US airstrikes and is
increasing night raids and other direct actions by Special
Operations Forces could be seen as a sign of either fierce
determination to wipe out "the enemy" or of desperation to
prove the United States and its allies are "winning." Over
the past three months, NATO claims that Special Operations
Forces' night raids have resulted in more than 360
"insurgent leaders" being killed or captured along with 960
"lower-level" leaders and the capture of more than 2400
"lower-level" fighters. In July, Special Operations Forces
averaged five raids a night. Now, according to NATO, they
are conducting an average of seventeen. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton called the raids "intelligence-driven
precision operations against high value insurgents and their
networks," adding, "There is no question that they are
having a significant  impact on the insurgent leadership."

The raids undoubtedly have produced scores of successful
kill or capture operations, but serious questions abound
over the NATO definitions of Taliban commanders, sub-
commanders and foot soldiers. Most significantly, the raids
consistently result in the killing of innocent civilians, a
fact that is problematic for NATO and the Karzai government.
"A lot of times, yeah, the right guys would get targeted and
the right guys would get killed," says Matthew Hoh a former
senior State Department official in Afghanistan who resigned
in 2009 in protest of US war strategy. "Plenty of other
times, the wrong people would get killed.

Sometimes it would be innocent families." Hoh, who was the
senior US civilian in Zabul province, a Taliban stronghold,
describes night raids as "a really risky, really violent
operation," saying that when Special Operations Forces
conduct them, "We might get that one guy we're looking for
or we might kill a bunch of innocent people and now make ten
more Taliban out of them."

Hoh describes the current use of US Special Operations
Forces in Afghanistan as a "tremendous waste of resources,"
saying, "They are the best strike forces the world's ever
known. They're very well trained, very well equipped, have a
tremendous amount of support, and we've got them in
Afghanistan chasing after mid-level Taliban leaders who are
not threatening the United States, who are only fighting us
really because we're in their valley."

In an interview with the Washington Post in mid-November,
President Karzai called for an end to the night raids. "I
don't like it in any manner and the Afghan people don't like
these raids in any manner," Karzai said. "We don't like
raids in our homes. This is a problem between us and I hope
this ends as soon as possible.... Terrorism is not invading
Afghan homes and fighting terrorism is not being intrusive
in the daily Afghan life."

Karzai's comments angered the Obama administration. At the
NATO summit, President Obama acknowledged that civilian
deaths have sparked "real tensions" with the Karzai
government, but reserved the right to continue US raids.
"[Karzai's] got to understand that I've got a bunch of young
men and women...who are in a foreign country being shot at
and having to traverse terrain filled with IEDs, and they
need to protect themselves," Obama said. "So if we're
setting things up where they're just sitting ducks for the
Taliban, that's not an acceptable answer either." Republican
Senator Lindsey Graham blasted Karzai's statement calling
for an end to night raids, saying, "it would be a disaster
for the Petraeus strategy."

Along with Afghan government corruption, including a cabal
of war lords, drug dealers and war criminals in key
positions, the so-called Petraeus strategy of ratcheting up
air strikes and expanding night raids is itself delivering
substantial blows to the stated US counterinsurgency
strategy and the much-discussed battle for hearts and minds.
The raids and airstrikes are premiere recruiting points for
the Taliban and, unlike Senator Graham and the Obama
administration, Karzai seems to get that. In the bigger
picture, the United States appears to be trying to kill its
way to a passable definition of a success or even victory.
This strategy puts a premium on the number of kills and
captures of anyone who can loosely be defined as an
insurgent and completely sidelines the blowback these
operations cause. "We found ourselves in this Special
Operations form of attrition warfare," says Hoh, "which is
kind of like an oxymoron, because Special Operations are not
supposed to be in attrition warfare. But we've found
ourselves in that in Afghanistan."

[Jeremy Scahill, a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The
Nation Institute, is the author of the bestselling
Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary
Army, published by Nation Books. He is an award-winning
investigative journalist and correspondent for the national
radio and TV program Democracy Now!.]


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