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Saturday, August 7, 2010
Afghanistan: a War Correspondent's Viewpoint: By RON JACOBS
A Conversation with Anand Gopal
Anand Gopal is a correspondent who has been covering the war in Afghanistan for several years. He has worked for The Wall Street Journal. and The Christian Science Monitor. He is currently working on a book about Afganistan. I met Gopal a couple of years ago and check in with him occasionally to get his viewpoint on the Washington-led occupation and war in South Asia. Most recently, I sent him a few few questions via email. The exchange follows.
Ron: If you were to compare the situation in Afghanistan in summer 2009 with the current situation, how would you characterize it? For example, is there more fighting or less? Has the nature of the insurgency changed? If so, how?
Anand: It is six months into the troop surge yet we haven't seen any drop-off in violence. Rather, the summer of 2010 is proving to be far more violent than that of 2009, which in itself is remarkable given that 2009 was the bloodiest year of this war. Look at the numbers: There is a 30% increase in the number of soldiers killed in June and July compared to the same period last year. The number of security incidents in the first week of July, for instance, is 65% greater than the same week last year (see websites like icasualties.org and indiciumconsulting.net for these numbers). This is easily the most violent summer in Afghanistan since the civil war days of the mid-nineties. Hope of peace amongst ordinary Afghans has plummeted to incredible lows.
The insurgency has changed quite a bit in the last year. It is more splintered movement, partly due to Coalition Force assassinations of commanders, and partly due to the arrest of the Taliban's leader Mullah Beradar. Hundreds of commanders have been killed, but the Taliban has no trouble finding recruits to fill their shoes. The new commanders are younger and (often) more radical than their predecessors. At the top, after Pakistan's arrest of Beradar (who was the day-to-day leader of the movement) in February has led to a power struggle between different insurgent leaders. None of this, however, has diminished the group's effectiveness as a fighting force on the ground, as the above numbers indicate.
Ron: Now that General McChrystal is gone, is there any sense among the people in Afghanistan that you talk with—among the occupying forces or Afghans—that the nature of the war will change? Part two to this question: is there any sense among the Afghans you talk with that the US presence will begin to diminish next summer (2011)? If not, in what ways do these people see the war ending?
Anand: Most Afghans don't believe the nature of the war will change. In particular, many Pashtuns in the south and east view the Americans as brutal, arrogant and deadly. For them this has less to do with this or that commander, but more so with the general thrust of the war and US policy here for the last nine years.
From the point of view of the soldier, however, I believe that they do expect a change. There was a lot of anger and disgruntlement towards McChrystal from the military's rank and file. In particular, many soldiers felt that McChrystal's rules of engagement were too restrictive and put the lives of ordinary soldiers in danger. Whereas before soldiers were able to fire when they felt a threat, under McChrystal they had to take measures to ensure that there were no civilians the could be harmed--a difficult thing to do in the heat of battle. Moreover, while such rules existed for conventional soldiers, a different set of rules appear to have existed for the special forces, who seemed to have been free to attack whom they wanted as they pleased. This led to a lot of night raids that killed civilians, and also spawned an image that McChrystal's special forces guys had free reign (keep in mind that McChrystal used to head the special forces) while conventional troops had their hands tied.
It may be too early to say exactly what changes will come about with the changeover of command. However, it appears that one big change is that Petreaus is pushing hard to expand the militia program in an attempt to replicate his successes with militias in Iraq. But militias in Afghanistan can be quite dangerous, especially in a country with recent history of warlordism and civil war. Another change is that Petreaus appears to be moving to ease restrictions on air strikes, which will likely lead to more civilian deaths.
Ron: The last time we communicated, I asked about the war in Pakistan? What can you tell us about that? We know that drone attacks continue at an even greater rate and that the US media has published allegations that there are some connections between Pakistan's ISI and certain elements of the Taliban. Based on your knowledge, are those allegations true or are they merely an attempt to convince the US public that the war needs to be expanded in Pakistan?
Anand: First, it's important to realize first that the Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban are distinct organizations. The Pakistani Taliban is a broad collection of Pakistani groups and commanders, most of whom have been fighting against the Pakistani military during the last few years. These groups mostly consist of Pashtuns from the tribal areas and surrounding regions. It is also closely allied with an array of other groups, made up of Punjabis, Arabs and more. In recent times the Pakistani military has succeeded in weakening the Pakistani Taliban quite a bit in places like Swat and South Waziristan, thanks to a series of offensives.
The Afghan Taliban are, as the name suggests, mostly Afghan. Allegations that elements of Pakistani intelligence support the Afghan Taliban are undoubtedly true. The Afghan Taliban's leadership is based in Pakistan, and the ISI supports the group in a variety of ways. There was ample evidence of this even before the wikileaks incident. Unlike most of the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban concentrate their efforts in Afghanistan, and in particular against the Afghan government and the foreign forces.
Pakistan is playing a double game in all of this. They are closely allied with the US, and get millions in support from Washington, but at the same time secretly supporting an insurgency against the Americans in Afghanistan. There are a lot of complicated historical reasons for this, but to make a long story short we can say that Pakistan views the Afghan Taliban as one of the best ways to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan.
It should be added, by the way, the Pakistan is doing now what it has done consistently for the last thirty years--supporting Afghan Islamist groups. What is new is the change in the U.S. position. For instance, whereas in the eighties Washington, together with Islamabad, funneled millions to Afghan insurgent leaders like Jalaluddin Haqqani, the U.S. has now stopped and is fighting Haqqani, whereas Pakistan continues to support him.