Sunday, October 17, 2010

two related stories on Afghanistan

Suddenly the Afghanistan news is full of talking. Petraeus says that ISAF provided one or more significant Taliban leaders with safe conduct to Kabul in order to take part in what sound like "talks-about-talks". The Grauniad was ahead of the story on this one, confirming that contact had been made with the Haqqani network in particular. Note the usage here:

Drawing a parallel with the Northern Irish peace process, the diplomat said: "The Haqqanis know they have to make the transition from the IRA to Sinn Féin."

Dexter Filkins makes the point explicit.

In recent weeks, General Petraeus has increased raids by Special Forces units and launched large operations to clear territory of Taliban militants.

And it seems increasingly clear that he is partly using the attacks to expand a parallel path to the end of the war: an American-led diplomatic initiative, very much in its infancy but ultimately aimed at persuading the Taliban — or large parts of the movement — to make peace with the Afghan government.

Spencer Ackerman sounds faintly bereft, and remarks that:

It would be quite an irony if the chief counterinsurgent prosecuted a hit-em-n-quit-em campaign that helped convince the Taliban that enough is enough

Interestingly, this is actually how his plan in Iraq was originally meant to work out. A combination of counterinsurgency centred on Baghdad, aggressive action against selected groups in the insurgency, and political action was meant to get the violence down to a level at which there would be an opportunity for a negotiated peace between the major factions. It didn't work out like that - to everyone's surprise, mine included, what little peace there is in Iraq came about from below, from local initiatives, while the grand bargain never happened. Iraq still doesn't have a government; the census and the related federalism issues are forever delayed, as are the oil issues.

And the really worrying news on that score is the recent rise of violence at the individual level, as shown by the wave of assassinations against policemen and officials. The danger is that the shaky raft of improvised local deals, which allows the Iraqi politicians and the foreign diplomats to keep arguing without anything too disastrous happening, might break down. In Afghanistan, it looks like the plan is to focus on getting as many enemies on side as possible - and not looking too closely at the raft. This Small Wars Journal piece makes the excellent point that in some ways, the more closely you focus on the whole situation, the less you know - it dissolves into a fractal mass of micro-conflicts. It also practically exudes frustration and the desire for it all to be over. (Who wouldn't.)

Of course, it doesn't do to put too much reliance on the words here. As pointed out in Ackerman's comments, whether you call it counter-insurgency or not, it's still war. However, it's very telling that the "kill team"'s commander was quite so addicted to the rhetoric of the early Bush years. Sean Naylor's piece here quotes him as saying that he wanted to "degrade formations, supply chains and leadership near simultaneously, you’ll cause the enemy in the area to collapse". It's an application of all the stuff about "breaking states through simultaneous strike" that you'll find here.

Also, he was convinced that he had better information than the Taliban because of his vehicles' new computer system. The combination of the hubris of the network-centric warriors, the land submarines, and enthusiastic grassroots participation in torture and war crimes - it's the great smell of the Bush era, all right, and it will clearly be with us quite a lot longer.

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