John Nichols, Obama and Afghanistan

John Nichols of thenation.com is getting a bit infatuated with Barack Obama. That’s fine, a lot of journalists are being sucked in. John McCain should stop bitching about it – he was yesterday’s sweetheart for a long time, but that’s what he is. Yesterday’s news, just like Hillary Clinton was.

So it was refreshing to see Nichols criticizing Obama for a change in an article pasted here, but unfortunately, Nichols missed the mark. He was right to criticize Obama, but for the wrong reason.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain are right: more troops are needed in Afghanistan, but with one unifying mandate, not two different ones that cancel each other out. As is currently the case.

So I wrote Mr Nichols an email. To which he didn’t respond, of course.

Dear Mr Nichols,

I read your article on the commitments Mr Obama made to Afghan leaders, on TheNation.com.

Fine article, good read, but I felt that some points were missing.

Like many people, you correctly state that there’s too much fighting going on, and not much building.

But that’s exactly the problem; the deployment to Afghanistan has become a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma.

As you know, the American troops are basically on a fighting mission named ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, in Afghanistan. Their mandate is combat, and only combat.

Then there’s NATO’s ISAF, that has a very different mandate for the troops. ISAF is confined to (re)building, nation building, etc.

All good and well, but all the Afghans and the Taleban see are Western military uniforms.

Aside from that, the Taleban are very effective in applying what is basically an African tribal strategy. Instill fear, fear and fear among the civilian population, and ensure that the (re)building effort by NATO fails.

Their tactics are horrendous, and well documented by Dutch soldiers, who have been in Afghanistan since the start.

The biggest frustration of Dutch soldiers is that whenever they build a school or small hospital in a small rural town, the Taleban usually sneak into the town after the Dutch have left, and then raze the schools and hospitals. Those who have cooperated with the Dutch are killed, and often their entire families as well. They are public executions; young boys and girls are hanged up on their feet, so upside down, and then gutted, like one would with a cow. The warning is clear to the villages in close proximity: this is what happens to you when you cooperate with ISAF.

Dutch soldiers are now being spurned by local Afghan leaders. They would like to cooperate, but they say they can’t, because the Dutch (and other forces) won’t always be there to protect them.

In the beginning, ISAF troops made the error of promising Afghans that they were safe from the Taleban, that they’d be protected. Years of experience has shown the Afghans that those promises are empty.

And to Afghans, he who controls an area, rules that area. It’s that simple.

Another problem is the ISAF mandate. NATO troops are in Afghanistan, yes, but they’re there under a tight mandate. They are in principle not allowed to undertake offensive action against (known) Taleban forces. They are allowed to defend themselves, and the civilian population, but that’s it.

Dutch Special Forces have now taken to baiting tactics; they try to attract enemy fire, by for instance sending a lone jeep with soldiers into a known ‘hot zone’ and then faking that the jeep has a breakdown. Taleban spotters, often civilians whose family members have been taken hostage by the Taleban and so forced to enroll into their ranks, then go into action. All they usually do is call in the location of the jeep – but the talk via open walkie-talkie radio is then intercepted by the Dutch, the location of the civilian spotter located, and he is subsequently killed.

The Taleban then later show up, collect the remains, and present them to the inhabitants of the killed civilian’s town, exclaiming the perverse violence of the ISAF troops.

A couple of months ago, a Dutch TV programme comparable to ’60 Minutes’ found out that Dutch troops had started undertaking offensive action, to flush out the Taleban that had been systematically razing schools and hospitals in towns. The broadcast caused a political outcry. As a result, the Dutch forces are now back to full defensive ISAF duty. And they’re frustrated, because the results of their rebuilding efforts are nil.

This is happening throughout ISAF-‘controlled’ territory. Taleban attacks on the civilian population and ISAF troops are up. The number of hospitals, schools and medical posts in villages being razed is up. Production of poppies, the sale of which is probably the Taleban’s main source of income, is up by record numbers. And the ISAF troops are, by their mandate, not allowed to do anything about it.

Then Operation Enduring Freedom. US forces are fighting the Taleban hard, but there are two problems.

1) the population of the villages they half destroy while bombing Taleban troops who purposely take up positions in those villages, are VERY unlikely to aid the Americans and be anti-Taleban, and
2) the Taleban are constantly withdrawing to Pakistan, where GIs can’t touch them. (Eerily reminiscent of the VietCong’s retreat tactics into Laos and Cambodia.)

So US forces are doing something that the ISAF can’t – fighting offensive – but not doing what they should be doing after the fighting, which in turn is what ISAF is doing.

There are two main strategic problems.
1. Geographic divide. There are areas where the NATO ISAF troops simply are not allowed to operate.
This is Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) territory. This results in OEF GIs flushing out the Taleban from a village, and then moving on, with no ISAF troops following up to do the rebuilding – and staying there for a while to ensure that Taleban troops don’t sneak back in. Plus: Pakistan.

2. Mandate divide. As shown, the two operations have very different mandates. Problem is, if you change the ISAF mandate to allow for offensive (i.e., more risky) actions, most NATO countries will pull back their troops. (The Dutch had to extend their ISAF mandate period because no other NATO country wanted to send troops to replace the Dutch.)

The only way to solve this:
– ONE mandate, for all forces in Afghanistan.
– MORE troops, to ensure that newly built infrastructure (which is why ISAF’s there, for Christ’s sake!) isn’t immediately razed after the troops depart.

So far, both Obama’s and McCain’s proposals fall short of the mandate-thing.