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2009-09-01

Nir Rosen on the Growing Afghanistan War, Embedding and the "Counterinsurgency" Doctrine in Washington

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Nir Rosen, independent journalist who has covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003. He is a fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security. In July, he was embedded with the US military in Afghanistan.

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The commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has submitted a long-awaited review of the Afghan war. The New York Times reports although McChrystal’s assessment doesn’t call for sending more US troops, it effectively lays the groundwork for such a request in the coming weeks. The assessment comes on the heels of the deadliest month for US troops in Afghanistan since the US invasion nearly eight years ago. We speak with independent journalist Nir Rosen, who recently returned from Afghanistan, where he embedded with US troops in Helmand Province. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The commander of US forces in Afghanistan has submitted a long-awaited review of the Afghan war. General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment comes on the heels of the deadliest month for US troops in Afghanistan since the US invasion nearly eight years ago. Fifty-one Americans servicemembers died in August, passing July’s record toll of forty-four. It also comes as US support for the Afghan occupation is on the decline, with 51 percent of Americans now saying they don’t believe the war is worth fighting.

McChrystal’s assessment wasn’t publicly released, but US officials told the Washington Post the report warns that the Taliban resistance is stronger than previously thought. The report is also said to recommend a major increase in the number of Afghan forces, which in turn would require thousands of additional US troops for training and support.

The New York Times reports although McChrystal’s assessment doesn’t call for sending more US troops, it effectively lays the groundwork for such a request in the coming weeks. President Obama has already escalated the Afghan occupation since taking office, ordering an additional 21,000 troops.

The assessment also comes less than two weeks after Afghanistan held contested national elections. The latest tally shows Afghan President Hamid Karzai ahead twelve points over challenger Abdullah Abdullah, but Abdullah has accused Karzai supporters of widespread fraud.

AMY GOODMAN: Independent journalist Nir Rosen recently returned from Afghanistan, where he embedded with US troops for a forthcoming article in Rolling Stone Magazine. Nir has covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003. He chronicled his two years of reporting in Iraq in the book In the Belly of the Green Bird. Nir is also a fellow at the NYU — New York University — Center on Law and Security. Nir Rosen joins us now in our firehouse studio.

You’ve just returned from Afghanistan. What’s happening there, Nir?

NIR ROSEN: Well, there’s little sign of progress, in terms of the achievement of US or international growth. The elections, as you said, just occurred amidst widespread claims of fraud, of ballot stuffing. Turnout in the south, where the Taliban is at its strongest, seems to have been like ten percent. So this will only cost the government, the Karzai government, because inevitably Karzai will win, further credibility, undermining the government and the international community, which backs it, which, as a result, ends up leading to more support for the Taliban.

I saw a continuation of civilian casualties. I was focusing on the Afghan police forces and their training. In many districts, opium and marijuana usage among Afghan police was like 60 percent. They were disliked by the population, as is well known, for surtaxing them or extorting from them on roads or stealing from their homes. Many people view the police in Afghanistan as the greatest recruiter for the Taliban, in fact, because this is the face of the government that Afghans see, and it’s such an alienating face that it pushes them into the hands of Taliban for protection, if nothing else. I was in the south in the Pashtun-dominated areas. And yet, many of the police didn’t even speak Pashto, because they were Tajik, leading to further communication problems.

In terms of the Taliban strategy, they very wisely responded — wisely, from their point of view, responded — to this American surge, this push in Helmand Province, which started in late June, by just sort of retreating and waiting it out, waiting to see what’s going to happen, and undermining American efforts at night, because the Taliban sort of own the night and the Americans don’t patrol much at night — the Afghan police certainly don’t, because they’re scared — and just pursuing a war, an asymmetrical campaign, in terms of using IEDs, which make it very difficult for the American troops to get around. A trip of like twelve kilometers can take an entire day, which means that the American military mission is this lumbering behemoth, which can’t even get to where it’s trying to go fast enough to deal with the Taliban. And this is very effective also against the Afghan police, who don’t have armored vehicles and were getting blown up on a regular basis while I was there.

So, from the view of proponents of the war, you do need more troops. If this war is worth fighting, then you need a vast number of more troops. This is a counterinsurgency campaign that requires the control of the population, control of villages. The Taliban dominate the rural areas, not the cities, which makes it even harder, because it means in every village you’d have to have soldiers or police or security forces of some kind. And the Americans just don’t have those numbers. And if they indeed try to create this huge sort of mercenary force among the Afghan security forces, the army and the police, it will take them years to do so, but it will also never be financially tenable for the Afghan government. It will never be a viable force that they can actually afford to cover. So it will always be dependent on outside — on the influx of money from the outside.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And this whole issue of counterinsurgency, you write about how this is a new strategy that’s taken hold in Washington. It’s a new military strategy, the whole concept of stability operations. Can you talk about that and what you see as the mission, ultimately, in Afghanistan?

NIR ROSEN: Well, in a way, there was sort of an insurgency within the US military and defense establishment following the first couple years in the war in Iraq, when the — 2003, 2004, the US military approach was maybe still more conventional. It wasn’t an attempt to win hearts and minds, to separate the population from the guerrilla force by offering them incentives, by sort of a very strategic and calculated use of violence protecting the population first.

And these counterinsurgents, officers who had studied the US experience in Vietnam, the French in Algeria, the British in Malaya, and other experiences, ended up, through General David Petraeus, dominating, in some way, the US military putting out a new counterinsurgency manual and, following President Obama’s victory, taking over, in a way, the defense establishment in a way that the neocons did following the Bush victory.

And from a liberal point of view, there’s much that you might appreciate in the counterinsurgency proponents and the population-centric COIN, as it’s called, in that they do emphasize the need for aid, for protecting the population, good governance, for limiting the use of violence, because the more violence you use, the more you alienate the population. On the other hand, it still involves an occupation of a country, and the temptation might be that — to use this more and more, in a way that sort of makes the Americans a better imperial power.

So, I mean, the counterinsurgency proponents, of course, don’t have a moral position on whether a war is good or bad. They’re in the military. They simply implement policy. In the context of Afghanistan, General McChrystal of course, has been — who was recently appointed, is also a proponent of COIN.

And I apologize. I forgot the question, actually. Got a little sidetracked.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, no. I mean, we were just asking about this whole issue of COIN, and you were explaining it, how it has kind of taken over in Washington. But what do you see as the Obama administration’s mission in Afghanistan? It seems unclear.

NIR ROSEN: In fact, it is. I mean, in terms of the actual goal, they’ve said that it’s preventing al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base. How do you get there? They haven’t yet managed to explain that. In fact, al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was destroyed following September 11, and they’re based on the internet, they’re based all over the world. They’re based — it’s an ideology. And, of course, they’re based in Pakistan. The Obama administration has still, I think, failed to articulate an actual strategy and a road map for how it’s going to get to where it wants to go.

And as we see, things continue to decline, that the Taliban control more and more area or are able to operate freely in more and more parts of the country, including the north, which is a new phenomenon. They’re able to knock out American supply routes in Pakistan, which force the Americans to bring supplies down from the north. And we’ve seen those supply routes attacked, as well. There’s very little evidence of any progress.

And it seems like, in terms of the McChrystal report, which is like the fifth or sixth report on Afghanistan issued this year alone, that there isn’t really anything new, as far as we know, except for the call for more troops. And if you’re a proponent of the war, more troops just isn’t enough; you need a new strategy, as well. And we haven’t seen any evidence of that.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And the election that just took place in Afghanistan, there’s been widespread allegations of fraud, especially against supporters of Hamid Karzai, the president. What’s your sense of what happened there?

NIR ROSEN: All reports we’re getting from around the country show that, indeed, there was massive ballot stuffing, massive fraud. And yet, the international community immediately praised these elections, which — and Afghans, at this point, are very skeptical of the elections. The perception is that the elections were a failure, were fraudulent.

I don’t think the elections would matter very much, one way or the other. Perhaps they’ll matter if the new government that takes over implements some changes, because, in a way, the Taliban aren’t winning, but the Afghan government is losing. The Afghan government is perceived as being corrupt, incompetent, and oppressive sometimes. They’re just nonexistent.

Now, the Karzai ticket — and surely Karzai will win — the Karzai ticket included warlords and drug dealers, and Karzai is accused of massive corruption in this election, which, in a way, perhaps is the one positive sign about the government. At least the Karzai government is actually efficient enough to implement a massive vote rigging. So they’re not completely incompetent. But this only further de-legitimizes the government and the international effort in Afghanistan, leading to more support for the Taliban.

AMY GOODMAN: Nir Rosen, we’re going to break. And then, when we return, we’re going to talk to you about a program the US military says they have officially ended today. It’s a contract with the Rendon Group profiling reporters in Afghanistan — among them, you. You got a negative assessment based on comments you made here on Democracy Now! At least we know someone’s listening, watching or reading. And we’ll be joined by the spokesperson for the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He’s joining us from Kabul. Stay with us.

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