16 April 2011

Changing of the guard

Apparently, a goal has been set for the Libyan morass: regime change.  President Obama coauthored a piece with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy declaring that the NATO campaign would not cease until Col. Muammar Gaddafi was removed from power.  Of course, the means of how to attain this end remain a bit fuzzy.  Obama has reaffirmed that US ground troops are not on the table, even as he acknowledges that the situation as reached stalemate and NATO reports that it is running out of bombs.  So as Gaddafi’s forces are reportedly employing cluster munitions and GRAD rockets against civilians, the Allies must decide with how much bite to back up their bark.  Will French and/or British troops assist with the ground campaign?  Possibly, I think, but only targeted Special Forces and only if the US resumes lead on the air strikes.  Should be an interesting few days to say the least.

Leaving aside the question of our schizo foreign policy at the moment (if what NATO is concerned with are gross human rights violations, why not intervene in Syria, where President al-Assad's security forces have apparently been illegally detaining and torturing protesters and have killed hundreds?  And then there’s Yemen, home of the live-round happy riot police.  Or we could even become proactively involved in Cote d’Ivoire, and ensure that Ouattara’s forces don’t engage in any reprisal killings.  But I digress…), let’s focus instead on that other morass in which we’re attempting to abdicate responsibility, complete with its own crazy leaders and their wacky antics.

Afghanistan’s sanguine President Karzai declared a few weeks ago that Afghan security forces will shortly be taking full responsibility for the security of seven key areas, predominately independent of Coalition assistance.  President Karzai framed the conferral of responsibility as necessary element of taking Afghan security into Afghan hands.  ISAF forces are to be relegated to supply and training positions, leaving all kinetic action to the ANA and ANP.  The designated sites included the relatively quiet provinces of Kabul, Panjshir, and Bamiyan, as well as the cities of Herat in the west, Mazar-e-Sharif to the north, and the eastern town of Mehterlam.  In addition to these six ‘peaceful’ areas, Karzai also slated the capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah, to be handed over.  One face-saving challenged mixed in with the fluff, one assumed.  Of course, that was before the hateful Koran-burning and Mazar-e-Sharif’s subsequent explosion of mob violence, resulting in the deaths of several UN staffers.  In quick succession followed several deadly riots in Kandahar and our own storming of the gate at Phoenix.  Bon chance, ANA!  For the record, NATO agreed the decision is a positive and critical first step toward withdrawal. 

Informally, however, troops (and, for the record, me) view the handoff as little more than lip service, especially in the case of Helmand.  First and foremost, there is a very real concern regarding preparedness, especially among the mentor teams.  Case in point: in the aftermath of the attack on Phoenix, one of the aspiring suicide bombers was shot before he was able to detonate.  Rather than wait for EOD team, as they’d been trained, the responding ANA simply cut his vest from his body and stripped him bare in the street.  The American QRF was less than pleased at the breach in protocol, especially as mishandling of the vest might have resulted in casualties.  Meanwhile, the shooters who had been laying down cover fire for the bombers simply ditched their weapons (they have a commendable working knowledge of the Coalition rules of engagement) and calmly fled the scene on bicycles, blending into Kabul traffic. 

Beyond competency, however, is the question of complicity.  A friend of mine went on a recovery mission, acting on intel regarding tens of thousands of dollars worth of stolen US military equipment stashed in Kabul.  Because of the sensitivity of the mission, they opted not to invite their ANP counterparts; it transpired that the pilfered equipment was being housed directly across the street from one of the PD’s sub-stations.  The PD Chief has been avoiding the American mentor teams since the raid.  As he related the story, my friend sighed that the Chief was pissed, ‘cause his hoard had been reclaimed.  And now the two units were meant to go on these ‘mentoring’ missions within the month.  Were they simply supposed to ignore the PD’s role as, at a minimum, accessory to the theft by tacit agreement?  The Americans accepted that this might be the case, if only the Chief would ever again look them in the face again and have his guys bother to bring their ammo.  NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen seemed to conquer.  Even as he welcomed increased Afghan engagement, he offered the tepid endorsement that every step of Afghanistan’s journey would ‘be determined by conditions on the ground.’

For their part, my co-workers express cautious optimism at the ANA’s new authority, though tempered by the ever-present Afghan pragmatism.  With an acute awareness that the Coalition is ever closer to throwing up its hands and leaving, they view having even mildly operations security forces to be of critical importance.   And there can be little doubt that the ANA/ANP have exponentially improved in professionalism and efficacy.  Indeed, the UN reported that the proportion of civilians killed by Afghan and NATO forces fell dramatically, accounting for 16 per cent of total war-related civilians casualties (still too many, of course).

Of course, context is everything, and better does not translate to good.  The police and army remain yokes by myriad shortcomings, including widespread illiteracy, drug abuse, corruption, a dearth of leaders and equipment, and a damagingly high rate of attrition.  Moreover, two recent (and tragically successful) SIEDs have lead NATO officials to express trepidation that, as local security forces grow, they are becoming increasingly vulnerable to infiltration and manipulation.  Apprehension regarding the abilities of the ANA and ANP to credibly protect the civilian population is not without good cause.  More than 2,700 civilians were killed last year, an increase of 15 per cent over 2009. Further, 2010 saw the deaths of more than 800 Afghan army soldiers and 1,200 Afghan police, in addition to the 711 coalition troops who were killed. 

That said, at least one of my co-workers, the European-educated son of an Afghani general, is very much looking forward to the transition.  He recalled with longing the days of Massoud and the Northern Alliance, noting that they were real fighters.  Before 9/11, he ruminated, hundreds of ‘Talibs’ were killed by the day.  Now, with the US?  He shook his head.  None of them die.