Round and round they go
Barack Obama was apparently misquoted by the Associated Press. His remarks that "We've to get the job done there and that requires us to have enough troops so that we're not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there" were apparently in reference to Afghanistan, and not Iraq as earlier reported. I unfortunately did not pick up the AP error, and I apologize.
Glenn Reynolds writes:
I suspect that the Breitbart version is more accurate than the Guardian version, because when I read it originally in The Guardian I remember thinking that this would have been a marginally plausible criticism of Afghanistan policy (though the "killing civilians" bit is mostly Taliban propaganda) but was utterly nonsensical in the context of Iraq. I assumed Obama was conflating the two, but it appears that the error is the AP's.
All the same, Obama's remarks kicked up a miniature storm, which has focused attention -- in a not entirely unwelcome way -- on the conduct of operations in Afghanistan. Pajamas Media had this recent mini-roundup suggesting that all was not well in Southwest Asia:
Glenn Reynolds passes on an email from Michael Yon, “When I wrote in 2006 that I would not be surprised to see a base overrun in Afghanistan in 2007, some people called me a traitor… . We are winning in Iraq … But we are losing in Afghanistan.” CNN reports rapid, sequential attacks on a Coalition base in Afghanistan “possibly … a rehearsal for … an attempt to completely overrun the post”. Meanwhile a retired Canadian General claims NATO is shirking its commitment in Afghanistan.
During the 1920s, the British Royal Air Force actually attempted to "police" Iraq and Pakistan's Northwest Frontier using punitive air raids. "Raiding villages" was used in order to economize on using one's own troops, avoid wastage to materiel and skip the bother of developing indigenous counterparts. The British had found it too expensive to do in Iraq and simply turned over the lot to an acceptable strongman.
If the British government had deliberately and carefully crafted a grand strategic plan to alienate the three major groups in Iraq (Kurds, Shiite Arabs, and Sunni Arabs) and force the whole country into a massive rebellion against their British occupiers, it could not have succeeded more handily. The Indian political officers tried to impose a very alien Indian-style administration upon the Arabs and Kurds. Under the Turks, the administration might have been inefficient, but at least the Turks spoke Arabic and left the tribes largely alone. On top of this new and irritating administration, the British and French governments had issued a declaration on 7 November 1918, promising the Arabs freedom and self-government after the war. They had given hopes for self-government not only to the Arabs but also the Kurds. Such promises were quickly forgotten as the British moved to create an Iraqi monarchy and put a Sunni Arab on the throne. The fact that the British consulted none of the major groups in I raq especially offended the Kurds and Shiites, the majority of the population. By 1920 Iraq was ready to blow up--and did. The rebellion began in Kurdistan and quickly spread throughout the country.
As is evident from above quote, many of today's Iraqi problems arose from this solution; where a decrepit autonomy under the tottering Turkish empire was handily replaced with a efficient Sunni strongman. I wonder how many who hanker after Saddam today realize that their cure to the supposed consequence of American naivete to "bring freedom to the Middle East" is the soothing balm of the earlier European disease. But I digress. The point of this history is that although Afghanistan could certainly use an infusion of troops, that reinforcement is probably largely going to come from the US and will eventually drive Barack Obama back to the dilemma of bearing the costs of a ground force and maintaining strong political support for paying those costs at home.
The costs will include a long investment in developing Afghan and Pakistani intelligence assets and interpreters, as well as political allies, because the campaign will have to be fought across two countries, whether directly or indirectly, and one of them already a nuclear Islamic State. Maybe somewhere the ghost of a quick solution based on "actionable intelligence" to "get Osama" with "surgical forces" still exists, but it will have to thrive in a battleground haunted by betrayal. Former Spook notes some Taliban "camps" long monitored by US surveillance suddenly emptied as if on a signal.
Mr. Roggio noted an article by Asia Times writer Syed Saleem Shahzad, claiming that Al Qaida and Taliban camps have "emptied out" over the past month, ahead of anticipated strikes by the Pakistani military, and possibly, by U.S. special operations forces.
The implications of that move are obvious. Not only will scores of terrorists live to fight another day, but it also raises renewed questions about security and loyalty within the Pakistani military. According to Mr. Shahzad, the U.S. had developed extensive intelligence on 29 suspected camps in the Waziristan and passed the information to Islamabad, in preparation for an expected offensive. The quick exodus of insurgents from that camp suggests (once again) that the Taliban has a number of "friends" in the upper echelons of Pakistan's military (particularly within the intelligence service or ISI), who provide tipoffs and warning to the terrorists.
Shahzad's sources also claim that "all but one of the 29 camps" have been dismantled, although U.S. officials (questioned by Bill Roggio) deny that report. Clearly, there's a critical difference between an abandoned camp (or one where no activity is observed), and a facility that is being disassembled. Empty camps would suggest that Al Qaida and Taliban elements have temporarily relocated, moving into defensive positions against expected Pakistani attacks, with plans to return once the government's offensive ends.
And given that Afghanistan is entirely landlocked and surrounded by Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan, it will be interesting to see what kinds of challenges a large land American force, recently having been booted out of Iraq as per Obama's plan, their former indigenous allies probably being hunted down as collaborators, will face in the Southwest Asia. New beginnings are always possible, but only to those who have some intention of seeing them through.