Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Update on US "Af-Pak" Strategy

See related posts on intelligence network and special operations here and here. One way to interpret the current US strategy is that the special operations are a means to pressurize the insurgents, the old- and neo- Taliban-s that is, to come to the negotiation table. But nothing more. Not only because the US does not have the logistical capacity to get rid of the insurgency fully - the very US presence and its military operations are fueling Talibanization in Afghanistan - but also because if they could tame the beast which got out of their hands - that is, coopt the Taliban once again as they have tried several times already - the Taliban can be a useful pressure against neighboring Iran. The Saudis would like that too. The Pakistani security establishment - still wishing to develop that "strategic depth" against India - would not mind that either. The establishment's romance with the Taliban - albeit, only with the "good Taliban" now - is not over yet. Some level of turmoil in Afghanistan, moderate or extreme depending on political climate but as long as it is controllable, is also functional for the greater interests of Washington as that legitimizes the US presence in the name of combating "terrorism" - but not without raising concerns of regional powers like China.

McChrystal shifts to raids - and Wali Karzai
By Gareth Porter, Asia Times Online, May 26, 2010

WASHINGTON - General Stanley McChrystal's team once talked openly about the need to remove from power Ahmed Wali Karzai, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brother and the most powerful man in Kandahar.

Last October, as reports of Wali Karzai's role in the opium trade were circulating, McChrystal's intelligence chief General Michael T Flynn said, "If we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves."

"The only way to clean up Chicago," Flynn declared, "is to get rid of [Al] Capone." The parallel between the legendary crime boss and Wali Karzai could hardly have been clearer.

But by the end of March, Dexter Filkins was reporting in the New York Times that US officials had decided that Wali Karzai "will be allowed to stay in place".

That complete reversal on Karzai was the result of a decision by the US military to de-emphasize the much-touted promise of governance reform in the Kandahar operation and focus instead on Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids targeted against suspected Taliban leaders living in Kandahar city - operations for which McChrystal, the top allied military commander in Afghanistan, needs intelligence being provided by Karzai.

McChrystal's shift in emphasis toward the targeted raids against the Taliban was undoubtedly accelerated by the message from the Barack Obama administration in March that he had to demonstrate progress in his counter-insurgency strategy by the end of December 2010 rather than the mid-2011 deadline for beginning the withdrawal of US troops.

That earlier deadline, first reported by the Washington Post on March 31, was confirmed this month by US General Frederick Hodge, the director of operations for all of southern Afghanistan. "Our mission is to show irreversible momentum by the end of 2010 - that's the clock I'm using," Hodge told The Times of London

The Pentagon's report on the past six months of the war, written in late March and early April, reflected that shift from governance reform to night raids. It failed to mention McChrystal's "population centric" strategy as a factor in putting pressure on the Taliban but touted the "removal" of many "lower level" Taliban commanders, mainly by "special operations forces".

After a few weeks of watching the results of the Marjah operation, the officials of McChrystal's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) command conceded that the Afghan government had taken too long to put representatives of relevant ministries into the two key districts of Helmand province. They doubted that it would do any better in Kandahar, as The Times reported on May 11.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who frequently registers the latest thinking of the military leadership, wrote a column on April 1 clearly reflecting the downgrading of governance reform in the McChrystal war plan for Kandahar and the new emphasis on targeting the Taliban.

"Shaking up the power structure might put the United States on the side of the Pashtun man in the street," wrote Ignatius, "but it would open up a power vacuum that could be exploited by the Taliban."

For US commanders, Ignatius revealed, "There isn't time for risky experiments in Kandahar."

What Ignatius didn't say is that McChrystal had already ordered a major intensification of SOF raids in Kandahar city and that those raids are dependent primarily on intelligence supplied by organizations controlled by Wali Karzai.

In an interview with The Times published on May 7, Karzai boasted that he alone has supplied "the majority of intelligence in this region", adding, "I'm passing tons of information to them."

A former NATO official had confirmed that reality a few weeks earlier. "Most of our intelligence comes directly or indirectly from him," said the official, according to Time magazine on March 19.

Neither the ISAF commanders nor US SOF commanders have well-developed intelligence networks of their own in Kandahar.

Karzai has dominated the flow of intelligence to NATO forces by gaining control over both the police and official Afghan intelligence agency in the province, according to a new study of the power structure in Kandahar.

The study, published last month by the pro-war Institute for the Study of War, shows how Karzai completed his consolidation of political control over the national police in Kandahar after using the Karzai private militia used by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Kandahar Strike Force, to kill the province police chief and the chief of criminal investigation, who had been independent of his influence, in a June 2009 gunfight.

Even more important, Karzai controls the Kandahar branch of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), which combines the intelligence and secret police agencies, as the study reveals. NDS has by far the largest network of informants in the province and has long taken the lead in carrying out the raids against the Taliban in Kandahar city, because of the ineffectiveness of the national police.

In an e-mail to Inter Press Service, a spokesman for McChrystal, Lieutenant Colonel Tadd Sholtis, acknowledged that the command accepts intelligence from Karzai, and said it would be "foolish" to refuse it.

Sholtis said he could not comment on how much weight the ISAF command put on intelligence from Karzai but asserted that the command has "multiple methods and sources for collecting intelligence" in the province, and that "we evaluate all human sources with respect to self-interest or bias".

ISAF can presumably draw on Afghan army intelligence in the province, but its assets are believed to be minimal compared with that of the NDS. The command also uses information from drone reconnaissance aircraft to supplement what it gets from Karzai-controlled networks.

Reliance on drones for targeting, however, leads to constant mistakes by US troops. Carlotta Gall reported in the New York Times on March 26 that drone strikes had killed farmers digging ditches and bringing goods home from market on three different occasions in recent weeks.

The ISAF command's dependence on Karzai for intelligence allows him to use US power against his political enemies. Time's Tim McGirk reported on March 19 that critics in Kandahar said Karzai had threatened to call down NATO air strikes or night raids by US SOF units on any tribal elders who defied him.

Karzai is widely believed to have used raids by security forces under his control to target a number of tribal opponents, according to the Institute's study. Karzai is deeply engaged in intervening in tribal politics across the province, creating new alliances and making new enemies, the analysis said.

The reaffirmation of ties between the US and Karzai ensures that the whole military effort in the province is locked into Karzai's political strategy for maintaining his grip on power. But McChrystal, the former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and Afghanistan, has made it clear he is ready to sacrifice the possibility for political change in order to be able to do what he does best.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.

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