By Brian Glyn Williams
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has recently requested 40,000 additional troops to help fight an increasingly aggressive insurgency in the country. Below are three reasons why Democrats who have soured to the war should support his request.
1. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are one.
In the past few weeks Vice President Joe Biden has offered an alternative plan for Afghanistan that could be summarized as "fight terrorists not insurgents." Instead of sending McChrystal the 40,000 troops he has reportedly requested to wage a full blown counterinsurgency against the Taliban, this "limited" strategy calls for waging a counterterrorism campaign against al Qaeda. Rather than slug it out with the local Taliban, we should focus on the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked the U.S. on 9/11, and since al Qaeda is in Pakistan, American forces should simply rely on unmanned aerial drones to kill them there, according to this argument.
Republican writer and strategist George Will summed up this strategy by stating American forces should be "substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters."
Putting aside the absurd assertion that Afghanistan somehow does not "matter," this call for monitoring a 1,500 mile "porous" border using fewer than 200 Predator and Reaper drones overlooks the logistical limitations of such a campaign. If America cannot stop Mexicans from entering America in the millions, how can it monitor the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan from afar ... using only drones? Most importantly, how can we look the Pakistanis in the eye after calling on them to go after the Taliban and al Qaeda on their own side of the border when we talk of withdrawing "offshore" to fight them on our side of the border? For the hammer (the U.S. in Afghanistan) and anvil (the Pakistani army) approach to work to prevent cross border raids the U.S.-led coalition needs to hit the Taliban from the Afghan side of the border while our Pakistani allies pressure them from the other side.(Read on)
By Brian Glyn Williams
After seven months in exile in Turkey, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the paramount leader of Afghanistan's Uzbek and Turkmen communities, was given permission by the Karzai government to return to the country yesterday. Thousands of his supporters, including many beating drums and chanting "Long live General Dostum!" mobbed him when he landed in Kabul International Airport on the evening of August 16. Rallies were also held in the north, his traditional bailiwick, where Uzbeks predominate. This was the end of Dostum's third exile in Turkey (the previous two being caused by the Taliban in 1997 and 1998 respectively) and cements his status as Afghanistan's most resilient warlord.
Dostum, who was also reappointed by President Karzai to the symbolic post of Chief of Staff of the Afghan Army, a post he was stripped of prior to his exile for beating a political rival in 2008, was officially invited back to Afghanistan Sunday morning. His exile ended with the Afghan government's announcement that, "General Abdul Rashid Dostum can travel abroad and can return home as an Afghan citizen and on the basis of the constitution. He has total freedom in this regard. There is no legal block for his frequenting and for choosing a place."
Dostum's return, which once seemed improbable due to pressure from US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to keep him in exile following the publication of a critical article on him in the New York Times, was part of a backroom deal with President Karzai. Karzai, who polls show as having support from roughly 45% of Afghans, needs to win 50% of the vote in the August 20 election to avoid a run off election.
Karzai's main opponent, the Tajik leader, Abdullah Abdullah, has been predicted to garner 25% of the vote, but this number may increase since Pashtun turnout for the elections in the south is predicted to be lower than in 2004 due to Taliban threats and intimidation. As an ethnic Pashtun, Karzai needs to gain the support of non-Pashtuns from the north to seal his victory over his Tajik opponent, Abdullah. Hence his decision to allow Dostum to return.
Karzai has already received endorsements from other key regional leaders who are often simplistically known as jang salaran (warlords) by their detractors. These have included Ismail Khan, a popular Tajik from the western city of Herat who has been given the profile of Minister of Water and Electricity, Gul Agha Sherzai, a notorious Pashtun mujahideen leader from Kandahar who currently serves as governor of Nangahar Province, Karim Khalili, a Hazara leader who has served as Karzai's Vice President, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Pasthun who represents members of his group in the north, and Sher Muhammad Akhunzada, a Pashtun governor of Helmand Province who was removed from his post for involvement in opium smuggling. All of these leaders have brought their ethnic or tribal vote with them for Karzai in return for his support for them in the government.
Such deals have given Karzai's critics ammunition for accusing him of catering to warlords at the expense of democracy. Human rights groups in the West have deplored this ‘umbrella' approach and the US government has also expressed its concerns.
When it received news of Dostum's return, the U.S. embassy expressed its dismay stating it had, "made clear to the government of Afghanistan our serious concerns about the prospective role of Mr. Dostum in today's Afghanistan, particularly during these historic elections. The issues surrounding him become all the more acute with his return to Afghanistan during this period. Among other concerns, his reputed past actions raise questions of his culpability for massive human rights violations."
Glib calls for Karzai to cut his ties with leaders like Dostum, however, overlook one key point to understanding Afghanistan: all politics is local. While foreigners may define men like Dostum as warlords, among their own qawm (tribe, ethnic group or regional community) they are seen as respected leaders.
Among the Uzbeks and related Turkmen, for example, Dostum is known as either Baba (Father) or the Pasha (the Commander). He is seen as grass roots representative of their people vis a vis Kabul. Any perceived offense to their local leader by the central government can cost it the support of that community. If Dostum was not allowed to return, he promised that his followers would vote for Abdullah Abdullah. This would cost Karzai roughly ten percent of the Afghan vote based upon Dostum's success as a candidate in the 2004 presidential elections when he garnered that number.
Dostum has already begun campaigning for Karzai and has ended a split in his Uzbek-dominated Jumbesh Party caused by his departure. His Uzbek and Turkmen followers have promised to vote for Karzai in return for the respect given to the Pasha, Dostum. One of these followers stated, "We love him [Dostum] like our father. He is our elder and anything he says, I'll accept."
Another follower claimed, "In Faryab, whoever Dostum votes for, we'll follow his word. Dostum is our heart, he is our kidneys...whoever Dostum votes for, we'll vote the same." During my time living with the Uzbeks and Dostum (2003 and 2005), I found that support for the Pasha ran deep. Uzbeks hung calendars with his face on it in their stores, pasted his picture to their cars, and turned out in the thousands to his rallies.
Seen in this light, Dostum, the new chief of staff of the Afghan Army, appears poised to give Karzai a victory among his Uzbek ethnic constituency in return for an end to his exile and a seat in the government. Dostum's own power in the plains of the north and Karzai's power as president thus appears assured by the quid pro quo.
While many see this sort of Machiavellian politicking as making deals with the devil, it actually follows Afghan tradition where the central government has often had little power in the provinces. Traditionally the Afghan president or king made deals with local khans who had real grassroots power, he did not rule directly. For Karzai, who has been called the "Mayor of Kabul," this is perhaps the best way to keep himself in power, regardless of the public relations fallout his decisions might have among his vocal critics in the West who don't have his grasp of Afghan tribal politics.
Brian Glyn Williams is an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. A longer version of this article is available from the Jamestown Foundation.
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Having spent this past July at International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul, I have seen what defeat looks like. It takes the form of thousands of casualty-phobic troops ensconced behind the walls, sand bags, and blast barriers of a well-protected safety bubble.
When ISAF troops venture out from their base into the "red zone" (i.e. the comparatively safe streets of Kabul) they are prepared for combat. Barreling through the crowded streets of a city that has been called a comparative "safety zone" by those fighting in the south, they jam the phone signals of average Afghans with their ECMs (electronic counter measures) and jam the roads with their convoys. One would think that the coalition vehicles driving around Kabul in combat posture and menacingly waving 50 caliber machine guns at Afghans were storming a Taliban sangar (trench) in Helmand, not competing with rush hour traffic.
For the vast majority of troops at ISAF headquarters, Afghanistan remains an enigma, a threatening land lying beyond the concertina wire of the base. The only Afghan most ever meet is the Hazara carpet seller on base who serves authentic Afghan food once a month. And the only coalition soldiers most Afghans meet are encased in armor-plated vehicles or flak jackets.
The troops at ISAF HQ are hardly the exception. Only a small percentage of "fobbits" (those who live in forward operating bases or FOBs) actually interact with average Afghans due to hyper-protective S.O.P. (standard operating procedures) meant to lessen their risks from interaction with Afghans. It was precisely this siege mentality that led the United States to come dangerously close to losing the war in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. U.S. forces in Iraq were more concerned with force protection that protecting the center of gravity in Iraq, the Iraqi people.
It was only when Generals Petraeus and Odierno pushed their troops out of the bases and into the streets of Iraq that they began to make headway in the counterinsurgency. After the nightmares of Haditha and Abu Ghraib, Americans began protecting Iraqis and interacting with them in smaller and more exposed FOBs. This meant more meeting with Iraqi people, who began to feel that the Americans were protecting them. The Anbar Awakening began when a disgruntled sheikh walked across the street to his neighborhood FOB and offered the support of his tribe in fighting al Qaeda.
For the most part, the coalition has ceded the countryside of the south and parts of the east to the enemy, who took advantage of the vacuum left by enemy troops in 2003 when the U.S. was focused elsewhere. The White House's fear of engaging in grassroots nation building allowed the Taliban to fill the void. Pro-government khans and mullahs were executed, villagers cowed into submission, and "vanguard" groups sent onto the next province to lay mines and kill "infidel collaborators." With no visible coalition presence outside of the provincial capitals, the Taliban swarmed the countryside.
Much the same thing happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s under the Soviets, who controlled the major roads and cities and remained safe in their bases for fear of sustaining casualties.
The U.S. Marines' recent efforts to clear and hold territory in Helmand Province represent a welcome break from this barracked mentality. It is only by establishing a reliable coalition presence in contested places like Helmand that the coalition can show the Afghans that they are there to stay and protect them. With more Fobbits out of their bases and working on protecting the Afghans instead of themselves, the U.S. and its allies can learn from the Soviets' mistakes -- and avoid sharing their fate.
By Brian Glyn Williams
For more than two years, U.S. drones seemed to avoid hitting Baitulllah Mehsud. While the strikes did concentrate on hitting targets in South and North Waziristan, they largely went after the networks of Haqqani, Maulana Nazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, and Taliban who were involved in cross border raids into Afghanistan. As Baitullah Mehsud was focused on attacking the Pakistani state, he was not a priority for the U.S.-operated drones.
In fact, a former Pakistani security official told ABC News that "Three times in two years, the Americans turned down Pakistani requests to target Mehsud."
This changed in June and came about as a result of Pakistani pressure. There was a rumor in Pakistan that Baitullah Mehsud was on the CIA payroll, hence the US aversion to hitting him with Predators or Reapers. The Pakistanis demanded that Baitullah be added to the targeting list and in June attempts were made to kill him, including a much publicized strike on a funeral that he had attended which may have killed as many as 80 (the costliest Predator strike today). In this sense Baitullah's death was a gift to the Pakistanis, who felt the United States was acting strictly in its own interests.
As Baitullah was enemy No. 2 (after India) in Pakistan, this may go a long way in making the U.S. strikes on Pakistani citizens (including hundreds of innocent victims) more palatable for the Pakistanis.
Brian Glyn Williams is an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.
By Brian Glyn Williams
One of the biggest questions in Kabul today is whether exiled Afghan-Uzbek warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum will return from Turkey to Afghanistan. Dostum, who has served as chief of staff of the Afghan Army and deputy defense minister, traveled to Turkey in December 2008 to visit his family and has not been permitted to return by President Hamid Karzai. Karzai has seized upon an incident wherein Dostum beat a rival as a pretext for keeping this powerful warlord in exile. But the underlying reasons for Dostum's exile stem from the fact that he is a popular leader among his own people, the Turko-Mongol Uzbeks, and defends their interests vis-à-vis the Pashtun-Tajik-dominated Karzai government.
Regardless of the reasons for his exile, Dostum's chances of returning to his homeland were hurt by the recent publication of a New York Times article. The July 10 article by James Risen, "U.S. Inaction Seen After Taliban P.O.W.'s Died," revived charges against Dostum of killing hundreds of Taliban prisoners of war back in November 2001's Operation Enduring Freedom. These unsubstantiated charges referring to the transfer of captured Taliban prisoners were first made in a 2002 Newsweek article, "The Death Convoy of Afghanistan," but were largely forgotten because no investigation into the killings was ever carried out by any Afghan or international organization. Risen's article has, however, refocused the light on them, and President Obama has reacted to the article by announcing he will launch an investigation of the charges.
Although it might seem natural for a liberal-leaning newspaper like the New York Times to focus on exposing the war crimes of an Afghan warlord, there is a twist to this story that few non-Afghans are aware of. Namely, that Dostum has a reputation as the most liberal warlord in Afghanistan and has long stood as a defender for secularism and the empowerment of women. In addition, he has consistently fought against the Taliban who are now encroaching into the northern territories that he and his followers have kept free of insurgents. A history of Dostum's activities paints a picture of a warlord whose goals are aligned with those of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan and one that defies stereotypes of Afghan warlords.
Dostum the Kingmaker
Unlike other warlords in Afghanistan, Dostum was not a fundamentalist mujahideen. On the contrary, he first rose to power in the early 1980s as an antimujahideen counterinsurgent. Dostum proved to be incredibly efficient as a leader and soon cleared the mujahideen from his home province of Jowzjan. Dostum's "Jowzjani militia" was subsequently upgraded to division status by the Afghan communist government and came to include 40,000 fighters. By all accounts they fought loyally, especially against the fanatical mujahideen faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who is currently aligned with the Taliban.
But as the jihad ended following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Pashtun-dominated communist government sought to demobilize the Uzbeks who were seen as ghulams ("Turkic slave warriors"). Forewarned of the government's plans, Dostum mutinied and seized the northern plains town of Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum's seizure of the holy shrine town in April 1992 deprived the government of the mandate to rule the land and led to the central government's collapse. The various mujahideen commanders then carved the country up into fiefdoms. For his part, Dostum ran a ministate in the north made up of six provinces based on Mazar-e-Sharif. Far from pillorying Dostum, at the time the New York Times, in a 1996 article that helped its reporter win a Pulitzer Prize, described his fiefdom as follows:
General Dostum is widely popular here in Mazar-i-Sharif, the dusty city of two million people where he makes his headquarters, and not only among ethnic Uzbeks, many of whom take pride in the martial state he has created, with tank barrels and antiaircraft guns bristling from every mud-walled fort and hilltop. For many others, it is the freedoms here, fast disappearing in areas under Taliban control, that make him an icon.
'I think he is a good leader, because people here can live as they want,' said Latifa Hamidi, 18, who is in her first year of medical studies at Balkh University, an institution financed by General Dostum.
Like perhaps half of the population of the city, Ms. Hamidi is a refugee, in her case from Kabul, where her father was killed by a shell five years ago. She has nightmares about what would happen if the Taliban defeated the general and took control here.
'I want knowledge, and I want a useful life,' she said. 'I don't want to be forced to stay at home.'"
But Dostum's secular realm was overwhelmed by the Taliban in 1998, and he was forced to flee to exile in Turkey. He returned in April 2001 to fight a horse-mounted insurgent war against the Taliban from a mountain base in the Hindu Kush. When he heard about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Dostum offered to assist the Americans. On Nov. 9, 2001, he once again seized Mazar-e-Sharif, and this led to the collapse of the Taliban house of cards, thus preventing the United States from having to launch a frontal invasion of the Afghan "graveyard of empires" in winter. It was at this time that he captured thousands of Taliban, some of whom were reported to have died. Dostum has repeatedly claimed that between 100 and 120 prisoners died, many from wounds. But until an investigation is carried out, the unsubstantiated claims that hundreds or perhaps "thousands" of Taliban prisoners died will continue to bedevil Afghanistan's most secular warlord.
Brian Glyn Williams is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.
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