One of the monsters thought to be slain has raised one of its ugly heads again: the ‘let’s replicate our Iraq success in Afghanistan’ discussion, seasoned with ‘yes we know Afghanistan is not Iraq but…’ attachments. See the surge that supposedly has brought a decrease of violence in Baghdad and elsewhere and has been replicated in Afghanistan. The Sons of Iraq a.k.a. Awakening Councils are reincarnated in the countless ‘tribal’ ‘shuras’ and non-militias etc pp. Now the walls that segregated Shia from Sunni in Baghdad are erected in Kandahar. Kate Clark, Senior Analyst at AAN, calls the Baghdad-Kandahar comparison ‘lazy and dull’ and finds Kandahar much more like — Kabul.
Iraq used to be interesting for journalists, analysts, soldiers, diplomats, security advisors and UN staffers, but for some time now, the circus has moved on to Afghanistan. Those who brought such success to Iraq or reported on it are coming to Afghanistan with their thoughts, insights and ideas. As Iraqophiles struggle to make sense of a country which is also dry, hot, Muslim and has an armed rebellion and a western occupation/military presence, there are frequent references to the old country: “In Iraq, we did X” or “Ah, in Iraq it was like Y.” or “I know this isn’t Iraq, but…” It is a natural response to the new to try to see how it compares with the familiar, yet the heart faints at the prospect of another conversation revolving around why Afghanistan isn’t Iraq.
Earlier in the year, I woke up to the BBC’s foreign editor, John Simpson, breathlessly saying that the Kabul to Jalalabad road had become so dangerous that locals had renamed it Baghdad Road. Where do journalists get such nonsense, I wondered? Why would Afghans, who had never been to Iraq, use it as a frame of reference? The road is not even that dangerous by Afghan standards, compared to other roads and other times. I didn’t believe the correspondent. Simpson should know better – he’s been coming here since the 1980s, but it must have sounded like good copy.
This rant of a blog was kicked off by a report from the fine Washington Postjournalist, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and I feel a bit of a cad for singling him out, but his recent report on Kandahar, made painful reading (‘In Kandahar, U.S. tries the lessons of Baghdad’, WP 3 August 2010).
Strap-lined, “This city is starting to feel a lot like Baghdad,” his report is based on an embed: his entire information about Kandahar seems to have come from the director of operations for NATO regional command in southern Afghanistan, Brigadier General Frederick Hughes. Both journalist and soldier previously served in Iraq.
The supposed Baghdadliness of Kandahar is based on: new concrete blast walls, US soldiers manning checkpoints and residents being urged to have new biometric ID cards, all “population-control tactics employed in the Iraqi capital during the 2007 surge” writes Chandrasekaran. “US and NATO commanders…are betting that such measures can help separate insurgents here from the rest of the population, an essential first step in the U.S.-led campaign to improve security in and around Afghanistan’s second-largest city.” And as Brigadier General Hughes says, ‘”If you don’t have control of the population, you can’t secure the population,”’ A neat-sounding one-liner, but is it actually true? Surely it’s just the sort of thing a good journalist should question, not just repeat as if it’s the Gospel truth.
Erecting concrete walls may have separated “warring Shi’as and Sunnis” (their neighbourhoods having been freshly ethnically cleansed of the other) in Baghdad, but what on earth has that to do with the geography of war in Kandahar? The comparison just does not work – which Chandrasekaran admits, so why make it? And why pretend that the concrete in Kandahar is somehow about making the population safer? The walls are not transforming Kandahar into something like the Green Zone of Baghdad.
The comparison, much closer to home, is Kabul – which has had such walls for a long time, around embassies, military camps and, later, Afghan ministries, not separating the insurgents from the population, but protecting the machinery of state and its international allies from the insurgents. Indeed civilians working or living opposite such walls may be in greater danger because a blast would get reflected back. I always wince when I see the Malalai Girls School opposite the blast walls round the Ministry of Interior or, for many years, at Ahmad Shah Massud lyceum, opposite of one of the many Dyncorps compounds in Shahr-e Nau, now both walls and compound happily gone.
But anyway, back to Kandahar and Chandrasekaran’s analysis.“Another tactic employed in Iraq,” he writes, “and soon to be copied in Kandahar involves major outlays from a discretionary fund that commanders can use to pay for quick-turnaround reconstruction projects. General David H Patreus, the former top commander in Iraq who recently took charge of the US and NATO mission in Afghanistan, called such money, a “weapons system.”
Oh dear. For the historical record, US commanders were doling out funds from QIPs (Quick Impact Project) and then CERPs (the Commander’s Emergency Response Program), and Quick Response Funds (QRF) at least as long ago as 2003, as the PRT concept took off (first one established in Gardez in February 2003). The US and its allies have been flogging the dead horse of persuading Afghans that they and the government are nice by spending money for at least seven years now. As for aid as a weapon – what a nasty and outdated idea that is – recent research suggests it often fuels discontentment and can be a rallying point for the opposition – see two recent Christian Science Monitor articles here and here.
Chandrasekaran’s only quotes from Afghans are what a few said to Hughes. Indeed, the lack of independent Afghan voices is shocking. Chandrasekaran happily relays a funny story about an Afghan district governor and police chief getting into a fight involving a kettle and a tea-cup which allegedly culminating in a shoot-out between their guards. It is evidence for him – and for Hughes? – of the poor material which US and Canadian advisors have to work with – as they try to “transform ineffective administrators… into competent leaders.” Would he have told such a story about identifiable US officials, without getting comment, confirmation and a right to reply?
Finally, the idea that anyone might even think of destroying pomegranate orchards and vineyards so that IEDs or potential hideouts for Taleban ambushes(1) can be removed and international troops made safer makes me want to cry. Is it any wonder that, in Chandrasekaran’s words, “in many parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan, the population has yet to seek (the) protection (of the US military from the insurgents)?” (italics added)
Afghanistan is not Iraq, but having diplomats, soldiers and journalists viewing Afghanistan through a Baghdad lens is not just dull and lazy, it is dangerous.
NOTE I haven’t listed the reasons why the countries are different, but this could be done…
(1) We have received reports from one Kandahar district that US marines have handed out chainsaws to ANA or ANP to cut down fruit trees in July already but were not able to confirm. In the summer of 2009 locals reported that a newly established US base in Wardak was cutting down trees to prevent ambushes, along with diverting water so that some houses and a mosque lost their water source.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020