The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged afghanistan
Trump faces the same question as Bush and Obama in Afghanistan

From today's New York Times' editorial:

Before he agrees to increased troop numbers, Mr. Trump would be wise to order a full assessment of the war to consider whether sending in more Americans can reasonably be expected to succeed in weakening an insurgency that has sprung back after earlier increases of American force.

Unless the Pentagon delivers a strategy that is significantly different from previous ones, Mr. Trump would be sending more men and women into a deadly war zone while, at best, only temporarily delaying Afghanistan’s descent into further chaos and violence.

Actually the question Trump has to answer is bigger than this – one that neither Bush nor Obama ever really answered: what is the mission in Afghanistan? What are the criteria of success and, ultimately, exit? I don't think we've ever had answers to these questions.

Gaul, Caesar, Afghanistan and the US army

Gaul, Caesar, Afghanistan and the US army

From Abu Muqawama who just read Caesar's Commentaries, which is a great book I'm surprised he hasn't read before:

Caesar very rarely sent green units into the offensive. By the fourth and fifth year of the campaign, he is still making those legions which were the last to be raised in Italy responsible for guarding the freaking baggage. He relies over and over again on those legions -- most especially the Tenth -- that have proven themselves in combat in Gaul.

. . .

The cultures, politics, tribes and peoples of Afghanistan are at least as complex as those of ancient Gaul, yet we Americans are so arrogant to think that we can send officers there with no experience and, owing to our superior knowledge of combat operations, watch them succeed. We will then send units which have never deployed to Afghanistan to partner with Afghan forces and wonder why they do not get along.

This is madness. The casual arrogance with which the U.S. military has approached the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has a direct relation to the difficulty with which we have fought each war. That we think we can send a commander to Afghanistan with no prior knowledge of Afghanistan and watch him be successful in the eleventh year of the conflict shows that after eleven years of conflict, we really don't know too much about Afghanistan. And we might not know too much about conflict either.

He also has a rant on Fisk there, which is always fun, and deserved in this case of moral equivalency between the Syrian army — which has underwritten regime repression in Syria for 40 years — and the FSA's own atrocities. Too bad because Fisk did some valuable reporting embedded with the Syrian army in the last week.

That Rolling Stone article on McChrystal

I'm no Afghanistan or military policy expert, but since everyone is talking about it, I thought I'd put out my own non-specialist two cents on the McChrystal Affair. That's the point of a blog, after all.

Quite aside from its immediate political consequences and the fact that McChrystal might lose his job over it, the article and its fallout raises several interesting questions. Michael Hastings, the journalist who wrote it, is definitely an anti-COIN person. But he does raise valid points about the Achilles' heel of McChrystal and other advocates of COIN strategy in Afghanistan: they lack confidence in the potential for success of their strategy, always adding caveats and saying it's going to be a long and tough affair, but rarely think this alone is ground for rethinking the usefulness of COIN. I would echo, and mirror, the points made by my friend Andrew Exum, a very thoughtful and reasonable COINdinista:

As much as critics of counterinsurgency like to blame Gen. McChrystal (and nefarious think-tankers, of course) for the current strategy, the reality is that the civilian decision-makers in the Obama Administration conducted two high-level reviews in 2009 and twice arrived at a national strategy focused on conducting counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. I suspect the president will not replace the man he has put in charge of executing that strategy with just 12 months to go before we begin a withdrawal. On the other hand, there are those who will argue that the principle of civilian control over the military is more important than whatever national interests we have in Afghanistan. And that is a legitimate argument to make. We just need to be honest about the risks both courses of action carry with them.

Obama decided to take up that policy, which some in the military and think-tanks aggressively fought for. At this point, the pro- or anti-COIN debate has taken such importance that there are high political stakes, not just for Obama but also for COIN advocates who see themselves as some kind of vanguard — which is exactly the way McChrystal's gang appears in the article. 

And we should not forget another point Exum makes here:

 In a weird way, Hastings is making the argument to readers of Rolling Stone (Rolling Stone!) that counterinsurgency sucks because it doesn't allow our soldiers to kill enough people. What, pray tell, is Hastings' alternative to counterinsurgency? Disengagement from Afghanistan? Okay, but what would the costs and benefits of that disengagement be? I am frustrated by the reluctance of the legions of counterinsurgency skeptics to be honest about -- or even discuss -- the costs and benefits of alternatives. Some do, but not many.

I'm not qualified to even start thinking about suggesting alternative military policies, but like any American I can express a simple distaste for prolonging a military adventure indefinitely and not particularly care for expending treasure and blood for the future of Afghanistan. Let Afghanistan's neighbors take care of it, and just ensure the country does not become a base of operations for transnational terrorists again. I'm not even sure to what extent Afghanistan was crucial to 9/11 anyway, aside as a place where Osama Bin Laden could spend his time in relative safety. Surely the Hamburg cell was more important.

One last thing: to me, the most striking thing is that the offensive comments made by McChrystal and his teams speak not necessarily of insubordination, but a besieged groupthink mentality centered around protecting a charismatic leader — McChrystal himself. I don't particularly care about the loudmouthed camaraderie around McChrystal, and in fact I find much of it rather funny. But one gets a rather worrying sense that these guys are not just doing their job, but have a grander sense of mission and a point to prove. And that makes me feel uneasy.

Cordesman on Afghanistan and more

The latest by Anthony Cordesman weighs whether the Afghan war is worth it. Pretty strong stuff from this establisment commentator:

The current situation is the product of more than eight years of chronic under-resourcing, under-reaction, spin, self-delusion and neglect. It is the result of one of the worst examples of wartime leadership in American history.

Although he ends up doing what every serious expert on Afghanistan seems to have done so far: say that it's "too close to call" to decide to pull out. That kind of hedging seems dangerous, purely from the strategic standpoint either there has to be full commitment or a pullout, halfway measures have been a big part of the problem. I am very troubled by his conclusion that accepts that the US should be some kind of global nation-builder:

This is not likely to be a century of confrontations between Western powers fighting conventional wars on their own territory. It is almost certain to be a century where the US must learn to fight irregular wars and exercises in armed nation building whether it likes it or not. If nothing else, the case for the war in Afghanistan may be that it is the prelude to an almost inevitable future. 

More maintaining of empire where such things could be more easily handled by the region's own powers. Has the US not wasted enough money yet on neoconservative pipe dreams? I'd rather repair bridges in Minneapolis and increase funding to California's state universities.

The report also has this intringuing line touching on the Arab world:

Moreover, it is time to stop demonizing Bin Laden and Al Qa’ida and focus on the broader threat. Massive population increases, poverty, decaying educational and social infrastructure, culture shock and alienation, and failed secularism affect far too much of the Islamic world. Yemen and Somalia are only the two worst cases, and some form of extremist and terrorist threat is likely to be a regional constant for the next two decades –regardless of whether the US and its allies win or lose in Afghanistan. Moreover, the trade-offs involved do raise serious questions abouthether the same – or a much lower – investment in helping key allies like Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco would do far more to provide overall security.

I must say that, aside from not being sure what "failed secularism" is, I am a bit troubled by this view of these countries at strategic bulwarks of stability in a troubled region — especially considering what Western-backed stability has meant for these countries in the last few decades.

Also my doubts about Cordesman have grown since reading Norman Finkelstein's takedown of his reporting on the Gaza War in This Time We Went Too Far. Still, this is an interesting — and alarming — establishment point of view.

Afghanistan: super-rentier state

I suppose one should be happy that a poor country like Afghanistan discovers vast mineral wealth that could drag it out of under-development and help solve some of its problems. Except it seems to rarely happen that way for mineral-rich states with weak central governments (just look at Congo):

WASHINGTON — The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

The vast scale of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists. The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai were recently briefed, American officials said.

[. . .]

“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

The value of the newly discovered mineral deposits dwarfs the size of Afghanistan’s existing war-bedraggled economy, which is based largely on opium production and narcotics trafficking as well as aid from the United States and other industrialized countries. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is only about $12 billion.

“This will become the backbone of the Afghan economy,” said Jalil Jumriany, an adviser to the Afghan minister of mines.

American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the mineral discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan. The American-led offensive in Marja in southern Afghanistan has achieved only limited gains. Meanwhile, charges of corruption and favoritism continue to plague the Karzai government, and Mr. Karzai seems increasingly embittered toward the White House.

So the Obama administration is hungry for some positive news to come out of Afghanistan. Yet the American officials also recognize that the mineral discoveries will almost certainly have a double-edged impact.

Instead of bringing peace, the newfound mineral wealth could lead the Taliban to battle even more fiercely to regain control of the country.

The corruption that is already rampant in the Karzai government could also be amplified by the new wealth, particularly if a handful of well-connected oligarchs, some with personal ties to the president, gain control of the resources. Just last year, Afghanistan’s minister of mines was accused by American officials of accepting a $30 million bribe to award China the rights to develop its copper mine. The minister has since been replaced.

Endless fights could erupt between the central government in Kabul and provincial and tribal leaders in mineral-rich districts. Afghanistan has a national mining law, written with the help of advisers from the World Bank, but it has never faced a serious challenge.

“No one has tested that law; no one knows how it will stand up in a fight between the central government and the provinces,” observed Paul A. Brinkley, deputy undersecretary of defense for business and leader of the Pentagon team that discovered the deposits.

At the same time, American officials fear resource-hungry China will try to dominate the development of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which could upset the United States, given its heavy investment in the region. After winning the bid for its Aynak copper mine in Logar Province, China clearly wants more, American officials said.

One should take a moment to pause and consider:


  1. The commander of Central Command speaks on economic/business issues.
  2. The Pentagon has a business department.
  3. The US military has staff prospecting for minerals in Afghanistan, even though it subcontracts many other services.
  4. This news is placed in the NYT and announced by General Petraeus — not Afghan authorities or even the State Dept.

If you need any proof of the imperial mindset of Central Command, this is it. They're in it for the long haul. That's why they focus on open-ended military doctrines like COIN (i.e. populations need to be pacified), employ business development teams and carry out geological surveys. That's a nation-building job, which is inherently colonial. Who asked David Petraeus to start looking for rocks? 

As for poor Afghanistan, this means it's more fucked than we thought. The minerals are unlikely to replace opium and cannabis, they'll supplement them.

Blake Hounshell points out there's no hurry to start worrying, though:

Read a little more carefully, though, and you realize that there's less to this scoop than meets the eye. For one thing, the findings on which the story was based are online and have been since 2007, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey. More information is available on the Afghan mining ministry's website, including a report by the British Geological Survey (and there's more here). You can also take a look at the USGS's documentation of the airborne part of the survey here, including the full set of aerial photographs.

Nowhere have I found that $1 trillion figure mentioned, which Risen says was generated by a Pentagon task force looking to help the Afghan government develop its resources (looking at thechart accompanying the article, though, it appears to be a straightforward tabulation of the total reserve figures for each mineral times current the current market price). According to Risen, that task force has begun prepping the mining ministry to start soliciting bids for mineral rights in the fall.

Don't get me wrong. This could be a great thing for Afghanistan, which certainly deserves a lucky break after the hell it's been through over the last three decades.

But I'm (a) skeptical of that $1 trillion figure; (b) skeptical of the timing of this story, given the bad news cycle, and (c) skeptical that Afghanistan can really figure out a way to develop these resources in a useful way. It's also worth noting, as Risen does, that it will take years to get any of this stuff out of the ground, not to mention enormous capital investment.

Moreover, before we get too excited about lithium and rare-earth metals and all that, Afghanistan could probably use some help with a much simpler resource: cement.

According to an article in the journal Industrial Minerals, "Afghanistan has the lowest cement production in the world at 2kg per capita; in neighbouring Pakistan it is 92kg per capita and in the UK it is 200kg per capita."Afghanistan's cement plants were built by a Czech company in the 1950s, and nobody's invested in them since the 1970s. Most of Afghanistan's cement is imported today, mainly from Pakistan and Iran. Apparently the mining ministry has been working to set upfour new plants, but they are only expected to meet about half the country's cement needs.


Good point. I would still worry that the long-term strategic gains are going to be interesting to a lot of corporations and countries.