Thursday, September 3, 2009


I generally refrain from citing other posts and articles here, since I figure my loyal readers (all three of you) don't actually come here for political commentary and strategic/tactical analysis. However, I do read a lot of that stuff, mostly online or downloaded academic papers and articles.

The stuff generated by the various professional COIN-theorists (and their antithesis, the anti-COIN crowd) is often unreadable, but occasionally contains a few nuggets of truth, or at least of useful analysis.* While I disagree with some of what the military types have to say (especially if they have no operational experience here), it's usually worth listening to their perspective.

*Apparently, a career spent in any modern Western military does not endow one with the ability to read or write effectively. Methinks it has something to do with the dominance of PowerPoint as an information-sharing technique.

By contrast, much of what is available out there in the popular press is pretty weak on Afghanistan, demonstrating a total lack of understanding of either local conditions or the peculiar tactical problems of this campaign. There are a few reporters, mostly for the NYTimes, who make an honest effort to get the story right, and often go above and beyond what most reporters would endure. But overall, newspaper reporters simply don't get this place, probably because it's hard to understand the complex problems facing Afghanistan if one spends all their time in the garden bar at The Gandamack Lounge.*

*Not that I dislike the Gandamack. It's a venerable Kabul institution. The food is even halfway decent, although they do water down the whiskey. As if I wouldn't know.

And with apologies to anyone with a fondness for the UK papers, a quick review of the last twelve months will conclusively demonstrate that none of them rise even to the level of the Miami Herald when covering Afghanistan. They're too busy trying to score political points for their respective parties to actually worry about getting the story. Fortunately, the BBC at least partially makes up for their utter failings.

But by far the worst transgressors in the realm of public commentary are the various pundits, talking heads and think-tank types who populate the OpEd pages of the major newspapers.* These largely self-appointed experts feel compelled to spout off about anything that remotely enters into their supposed sphere of knowledge. And given the depth of their hubris, there's not much that falls outside that sphere.

*You thought I was going to say "bloggers" didn't you? Well, some of them do suck, for a variety of reasons. I'll get to them later.

And by far the worst of these are the political science/international relations/international security academics who have spent their entire careers writing voluminously about security and defense issues without ever having gained first-hand experience on the topic. Some of you may know the type. The publish articles, in various prestigous journals, with titles like "Tribalism, Marxism and Feminism: Three Social Movements in Contemporary Insurgencies" and "Comparative Social Dynamics of the Role of Non-State Actors in Civil Strife." I usually can't even decipher the titles, much less the text of the articles.

So, all of that, by way of introduction, brings us to the point of this post, which is to highlight one of the more recent efforts by our distinguished ivory-tower dwellers, specifically this piece published yesterday on the New York Times OpEd page.

The author, one Dr. Kimberly Martin of Columbia University, discusses the nascent plans to fund and equip a "tribal militia" in Afghanistan. The purpose of this militia* is to provide local defense against Taliban reprisals, while at the same time providing some jobs in every community. The hope is that the combinaton of economic development, employment and some limited defensive capabilities will allow remote rural villages to begin to develop economically and socially.

*Militia is not really the right word here, since it generally has connotations of minutemen and brave American revolutionaries. The concept is really more akin to the CIDGs, or Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, that were created in South Vietnam in the late 1960s.

Dr. Martin apparently takes exception to this approach, and there are several reasons to be sceptical of the whole idea. However, either for reasons of space or simply general ignorance, Dr. Martin rolls out all the old tropes rather than discuss the actual pros and cons of the program.

For instance, she opens with the indispensible comparison to British colonial practice in Central Asia:
Almost point for point, this plan repeats the terrible mistake that the British colonial army made in the Pashtun tribal areas in what would become Pakistan, in the late 19th century.

Bravo Doctor! In only the second paragraph, you've managed to connect the whole scheme not only to a failed program from a previous campaign, but also imply that the whole concept is "colonial" in nature. Hmm, let me guess. Your favorite courses in undergrad poli sci were on Marxist theory?

The problem here is that this is not the 19th century, Afghanistan is not Pakistan, and the U.S. Army is slightly better at this whole counter-insurgency thing than some heavy-handed redcoats 150 years ago. At the very least, we have a lot more money to spread around this time.

But the real problem with the article is that the elements of the plan which she says failed so badly are actually the exact same elements that we need more of in Afghanistan today. She condemns the previous effort in part by writing, "British intelligence officers created charts of which sub-tribes and leaders (or maliks) had the most influence...." Yeah? And? That's a good thing. Detailed, accurate information about who the local power-brokers are is one of the key elements that is most lacking in our current efforts in Afghanistan. Any plan that creates a greater awareness of the intricacies of the tribal structure can only help in the long-run.

Or where she writes, "This system violated the tribal code of equality among all Pashtun men, but the official maliks accepted it with enthusiasm." Well of course they accepted it with enthusiasm. I haven't met an Afghan yet who wouldn't pledge his undying loyalty in exchange for $50 bucks. Even the vaunted fanatics of the Taliban fight and die for $10 a day. Cash is king, especially in A-stan.

And what's the bit about the "tribal code of equality" among Pashtun men? Notice how she limits that statement to the male half of the population. No need to dirty up a nice pretty argument with the ugly reality of female suppression. Besides, despite whatever Western-trained sociologists will tell you, there is no equality in Afghan culture, male or otherwise. This is a traditional (i.e. primitive) tribal structure, with deference to chief or clan-head (or whoever happens to be in charge), enforced by violence and backed up by familial ties. Equality in the Western sense of the word is a foreign concept.

If Dr. Martin's fear is that the tribal militia program will somehow undermine the traditional power structures here, well then I'm all for it. What she fails to understand is that it is exactly those traditional social constructs that are directly responsible for the shit-hole that this country has become. Afghans like to blame everyone for their problems, the Russians, the Pakistanis, the Arabs, the Iranians and the West. Fact is, this place is a mess because the Afghans have made it that way.

As so often happens after reading an article like that, I'm left wondering. Dr. Martin, have you even been to Afghanistan?