Afghanistan Final Phase: Nothing going right for USA
By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
Washington and Kabul were marching in step till end 2009. As the final phase in Afghanistan drew nearer, the two fell out of steps and so far they have been unable to get back in steps. Major reason for this is Washington’s unhappiness over Karzai’s performance and latter’s conflicting views on solving Afghan imbroglio. Obama’s straight talk with him advising him to improve and produce results caused heart burns to Karzai. He got miffed at the role of USA and UK in last presidential election and feels convinced that it had been purposely made controversial to weaken his position. He has become aggressive and has been off and on giving anti-US statements and even threatening to join the ranks of Taliban.
Karzai is not in favor of Kandahar operation and wants reconciliation with all without making a wedge between reconcilable and irreconcilable. In this respect he has been making repeated overtures to Pakistan which has been resented by several segments in Washington, India, Northern Alliance leaders and Israel. He suspects that rocket attack on the jirga he hosted at Kabul on 2 June was conducted either by intelligence chief Amrullah whom he subsequently sacked or Blackwater at the behest of USA. Sacking of Amrullah and interior minister by him was a major blow to USA in the given troubled times since the two were their loyalists. Seething with rage that he has been unseated at the behest of Pakistan, anti-Pakistan Amrullah organized an attack on an isolated post in Mohmand Agency held by paramilitary troops to cause embarrassment to Pakistan.
According to US Congressional subcommittee investigations led by John Tierney D-Mass, US military is paying millions of dollars to insurgents, Afghan warlords and corrupt government officials to ensure safe passage of supply of convoys. It is part of Pentagon’s $2.1 billion transport contract for food, water, fuel and ammunition to US troops serving at 200 forward bases. Reportedly Afghan security firms have been extorting as much as $4 million a week from contractors and then dishing out the booty to warlords and Taliban. Watan Risk Management Security firm under scrutiny contends it has to pay $1000 to $10000 in monthly bribes to every Afghan governor, police chief, local military unit whose territory is trespassed. Trucking companies maintain that for safe passage payments have to be made to local security firms with ties to Taliban, or warlords who control the roads. Such undesirable activities are undermining larger US objectives of curtailing corruption and strengthening effective governance in Afghanistan. Interestingly, in Pakistan instead of extorting money, militants torch supply convoys.
Another problem area is the flourishing drug trade which has doubled since 2005 and has helped finance insurgents and encouraged corruption. In Marjah, US troops stopped Afghan officials from destroying poppy fields.
Besides curse of drugs, liberal employment of Blackwater and other civilian contractors in Afghanistan on heavy fees is another drain on US economy. Recently $120 million contract has been awarded to Xe Services to provide security to Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif US Consulates. Another $200 million contract has also been assigned to Blackwater which works for CIA and US military to provide bodyguards and security cover to American officials visiting Afghanistan. It has four forward operating bases. CIA camp in Khost that had been successfully targeted on 15 January houses Blackwater operatives as well. It is mandated to conduct covert operations against Pakistan and Iran. In Iraq, KBR Inc was awarded $2.8 billion worth contract last March. Blackwater is busy trying to delay planned withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq to ensure continuation of lucrative contracts.
The US military and intelligence have become heavily dependent upon this shady outfit which is seriously undermining their operational capabilities. Their craze for drones is borne out of desire to avoid direct physical action and to play safe. Those pulling trigger to fire hellfire missiles are located in Nevada, Kandahar airbase or Shamsi airbase. Young boys raised on diet of video games now kill real people remotely using joysticks. Today US air force has more drone operators in training than fighter and bomber pilots. It is robbing the American soldiers of their fighting spirit and turning them into mischievous kids playing killing game instead of soldiering.
Huge amounts are being spent to expand and train ANA and Afghan police on war footing without achieving any worthwhile results. While the ANA soldiers are undisciplined and drug addicts with very high desertion rate, police is no better. 67 to 70% of police recruits drop out during training. Lt Gen William Caldwell said this ‘attrition rate’ is too high. The general incharge of training reported to Gen George W. Casey, commander of US Army Training Command that US Army has lost thousands of uniformed trainers because of troop demands in two theatres of war because of which junior level trainers had to be put in charge of some key training functions.
Morale of US troops is low and ill-discipline and desertion cases very high. Frequent redeployments in combat zones, like recently arrived 101 Airborne Division in Afghanistan, which had previously got deployed four times since 2002, have taxed the nerves of soldiers to maximum. US Army VCOAS Gen Peter Chiarelle revealed that percentage of American soldiers who are unavailable for combat has risen sharply during the last three years from11% of each brigade in 2007 to 16%. Repeated deployments, health and traumatic stress disorder problems have driven much of increase in soldiers listed as non-deployable. Sarah Lazre says that US Army is overstretched and exhausted. Many from within ranks are openly declaring that they have had enough, allying with anti-war veterans and activists calling for an end to US led wars, with some active duty soldiers publicly refusing to deploy.
While grappling with mounting problems in Afghanistan and trying to lessen Washington-Kabul strains, US leadership was faced with yet another challenge of civil-military relations within USA. Gen Stanley McChrystal whom Obama had chosen for Afghanistan ruffled the feathers of Obama and other high officials in his administration as a consequence to his scathing interview he gave to a magazine. He and his aides didn’t mince their words in censuring Obama and top US officials. Some among Obama’s administration as well as US Ambassador in Kabul Eikenberry differed with McChrystal’s policies in Afghanistan.
Disagreements surfaced after McChrystal asked for additional troops in September 2009 to recapture southern and eastern Afghanistan. His opponents who were not in favor of troop surge and risky stretching out strategy became more vocal once McChrystal failed to show results. Other grouses against him were his inability to rein in Karzai who of late had become belligerent, and to train Afghan National Army (ANA) to takeover security duties from coalition troops. Most weaknesses pointed out are command failures, but these could have been over looked and he retained despite his diatribe had he been a winning General.
Although Gen McChrystal has been sacked and replaced with Gen David Petraeus but not without creating tension in civil-military relations. In case the situation in Afghanistan spins out of control and coalition forces are forced to hurriedly exit in disgrace, or fatalities mount up, it is bound to further aggravate civil-military relations in USA. However, prompt action by Obama has dispelled the lingering impression that Pentagon has become more powerful than White House. He has reasserted his authority by this act and demonstrated that he is in full command.
Replacement of military commanders is not the solution to the problem particularly when Petraeus and McChrystal were on one frequency. At no stage there was any difference of opinion between the two. Petraeus task will be more arduous since he will have to hop between his two offices of CENTCOM and US-NATO Command HQ in Kabul. Unless the US leadership undertakes some revolutionary and well meaning steps to get rid of weak areas, the US will not be able to overcome its host of problems and final phase will end up in complete disaster.
The writer is a retired Brig and a security and defence analyst.