Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Destruction is Rebuilding, or: Fare thee well, population-centric COIN

Thomas Ruttig 6 min

Words and deeds differ more and more in the US strategy in Afghanistan. A blogger made AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig think about her question ‘Is This What Population-centric Counterinsurgency Looks Like?’, remember some reports he read recently and conclude that the answer is ‘no’.

Yesterday, we added a blogdescribing – and carrying a photo of – a ‘50-mile long barrier in Kandahar’ built to separate US troops from intruding Taleban to our ‘recommended reading’ column (to which I use the opportunity to point again). As can be expected, ‘from the US Army’s perspective, the wall’s construction has been a success’. As also must be expected, the Afghans’ perspective is another one. The wall keeps away direly needed rain water from some fields but not the Taleban; the number of attacks is increasing as far as they are concerned. ‘Instead of driving a wedge between insurgents and the population, counterinsurgency strategy as practiced in Kandahar is further dividing US troops from the people they are risking their lives to protect’, concludes the author. Its headline reads: ‘Is This What Population-centric Counterinsurgency Looks Like?’.

Good question, I thought because I was reminded of a few articles that came up today – and which make me give a clear ‘no’ for an answer.

The Global Post simply reports how US Special Operations Forces’ night raids make the locals in Nawa district very angry(*).

An AP report from Sangin, also in Helmand province, today carries the tell-tale title: ‘US Marines in deadly Afghan valley say destruction key to lasting progress’ and contains a couple of stunning quotes. A locally based US Marines company commander, for example, says in pure Orwellian that ‘[w]e are here to rebuild, but sometimes that takes destruction’. His ‘troopers’ (that’s how Gen. Petraeus has started calling his soldiers in hisCongress hearing earlier this week) task is described as ‘clearing […] an area called Wishtan’ in Sangin district. Doing this, the report continues, ‘[t]he Marines have used a much more aggressive strategy […] than British troops who were there for four years before the U.S. took over’.

The marines also use new technology:

‘ a powerful weapon called a MICLIC — Mine Clearing Line Charge — that is essentially a flexible tube several hundred feet (meters) long containing more than 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms) of C-4 explosive that is shot out along the road using a rocket, then detonated.

At least 25 bombs were destroyed and the Marines were able to clear the 3,000-foot (900-meter) long road in three days, but the blasts from the charges blew out windows, toppled walls and collapsed ceilings in the densely packed mud compounds that fill the area.

The Marines also bulldozed every vacant compound within 330 feet (100 meters) of the road — all but three — because their 15-foot (4.5-meter) high walls made it easy for insurgents to sneak in and plant more bombs.’

But what is the definition of ‘vacant’? Or should it read ‘vacated’, in fear of the ‘more aggressive strategy’ or, before, of the Taleban? In this case, the original residents might have planned to return. But this won’t be possible anymore.

The marines also bulldozed a mosque because it ‘was abandoned and had wires running into it that could be used to detonate roadside bombs’. They build a new mosque now. I am sure the local will call it ‘the American mosque’ then and go for prayer elsewhere. ‘Anyone who doesn’t think there is some pain before progress has never been to the dentist’, the Orwellian commander also said.

Population-centric COIN? Not along this road – and neither elsewhere because, as can be read from the AP report, ‘U.S. troops have used this tactic in other parts of Afghanistan, including Kandahar province‘, too.

Example no. 2 comes from today’s Independent. The London daily tells the story of a taxi-driver-turned-commander Azizullah from Paktika who is operating together with US Special Operations Forces – CIA, Army or Navy is not clear – in the triangle of his hometown Urgun, Barmal and Sarobi, based in Forward Operations Base Shkin(**) south of Barmal and close to the Pakistani border (see a map here), and has ‘launched a two-year spate of violence involving burglary, rape and murder of civilians, desecration of mosques and mutilation of corpses’.

Azizullah’s unit is labelled ‘Afghan security guard(s)’ (ASG***), a term well-known in the areas – sometimes slightly differently called ‘Afghan Guard Force’ (AGF****). These forces are indeed hired by US forces to guard their compounds. But they also go ‘on patrol’ with them, ‘disrupting al-Qaeda’ (Obama) and the Taleban. The Afghans usually call them ‘campaign [forces]’ indicating an understanding of where they belong: This ‘campaign’ was ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, as long as it was separate from ISAF.

As Mark Sedra and the late Michael Bhatia write the AGF ‘primarily consist of demobilised AMF(*****) soldiers who live in close proximity to the sites that they are mandated to protect. In many cases, they are stationed at the same posts that they occupied while serving in the AMF; they have mere been “re-hatted”’.

‘Re-hatted’, and not disbanded. In other words, US forces simply ignored the disbandment and hired them right away, which means nothing less than undermining the Bonn agreement which had called for demobilisation of militia forces.

In another paper (with Bhatia as co-author again) the AGF’s aim is described as ‘in part to create a 5-6,000-strong ethnic Pashtun rapid reaction force’. This sounds rather different from ‘guarding’ and might even link them to the infamous 3000-man strong, CIA-led ‘Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams’ the existence of which only became known as the result of a wikileak.

The two authors quoted above also called the AGF ‘an interim measure’. As we see, they still exist today – which should make us think twice when we hear that the Afghan Local Police – the latest reincarnation of the long series of local militias created as stop-gaps for the still-ailing ANP – are called temporary.

According to the author of the Independent article, ‘some’ describe these forces as ‘the most effective fighting formation in Afghanistan’. He himself calls them ‘mercenaries’. This, indeed, they are. According to Afghan law, there are the Afghan National Security Forces – i.e. ANA and ANP – and, also sanctioned by the Karzai government although probelmatic, what is now called the Afghan Local Police. But ASG/AGF are completely outside the realm of Afghan law.

The author also mentions that the UN had passed a report on Aziziullah Nato’s deputy commander in Afghanistan, David Rodriguez.

‘”There was a derogatory report via UN channels last summer, but when we tried to research it, there was really little information to substantiate what were essentially claims,” [confirmed] Lieutenant-Colonel John Dorrian, chief of operations at Nato’s public affairs unit in Kabul. “As a matter of due diligence, we subsequently tried to backtrack to the origin of the claim, but nothing credible could be found.”’

But maybe, Dorrian is just on the line of the former CIA Libya station chiefwho said recently (about his agency’s secret contacts with Qaddafi’s intelligence with regard to al-Qaeda) that ‘to get intelligence about bad people, you can’t just deal with nuns and Boy Scouts‘.

When I was working for the UN in Gardez, the US SOF usually left their prisoners to their Afghan allies first for ‘interrogation’. One of the commanders of such an Afghan ‘force’ was later killed by a suicide bomber in Gardez. The attack was attributed to the Taleban. But who knows? There were enough people who wanted to take revenge for their or relatives’ time under torture.

In any case, it looks as if Aziziullah will be allowed to continue operating as he does, at least as long as the Independent doesn’t kick up more dust on this affair, and as if this is no population-centric counterinsurgency, either. On the opposite: People from the area say that many ‘have joined [the] Taliban because of Azizullah’s atrocities.’ Militia-centric Taleban recruitment, rather.

Apart from question marks behind Petraeus’ COIN strategy, there are also worrying ethnic implications in the latter case. There, a minority (Tajik) commander operates in an overwhelmingly Pashtun environment. I am not sure whether the Americans instrumentalise ethnic animosities here or whether the responsible commanders are unaware of them. In both cases, however, they will run the risk that ethnic tensions are further fanned. In a similar case, US special forces used Hazara militias in Pashtun areas of Uruzgan which led to the displacement of a number of communities when the Taleban announced they would take revenge on the families who had allowed their sons to join these forces. This does not bode well for the tiny and isolated Tajik minority in Urgun where it has been part of the community for a long time.

In general it seems that the US forces in Afghanistan continue to directly operate with Afghan forces that are factually illegal armed groups banned under Afghan law and that they provide them cover if they are accused of atrocities. Their US cover amounts to impunity. It looks as if General Petraeus’ population-centric COIN has become pure waste-paper. The logic of the capture-or-kill has put the ability of fighting forces to provide bodies to be counted back into the focus, human rights or population-centrism had to retreat into the second line. Sentences like ‘we recognize that we and our Afghan partners cannot just kill or capture our way out of the insurgency in Afghanistan’ are just window-dressing.

The sequel of Petraeus’ famous COIN manual is not out yet. It should be called: ‘Forget everything, and take the gloves off – it doesn’t make a difference anyway’.

(*) Earlier blogs on night raids and SOF operations are here and here andhere   and here, only to mention some.

(**) Renamed Fire Base Lilley in 2007, in honour of a killed Special Forces soldier.

(***) Please do not confuse with the Asia Security Group, one of the Private Security Companies to be dissolved according to a Karzai farman.

(****) AGF was officially established in 2004, based on an agreement between the Afghan MoD and the US military. Guard forces were active much earlier. See here.

(*****) AMF stands for Afghan Militia Force and covered those former mujahedin units to be disbanded and (individually) re-integrated into Afghanistan’s new army or police or into civilian life, through the not-so-successful DDR programme.