Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Juan Cole: Serial Catastrophes in Afghanistan threaten Obama Policy

Today's Democracy Now features an especially strong interview
with journalist Alan Nairn, first on Afghanistan, then broadening out
significantly. It's well worth listening to. As is the analysis below
worth reading. -Ed

Serial Catastrophes in Afghanistan threaten Obama Policy

Juan Cole
Informed Comment: January 04, 2010

You probably won't see it in most US news outlets, but on Monday morning in
Kabul and Jalalabad, hundreds of university students demonstrated against US
strikes this weekend that allegedly killed a number of civilians. I want to
underline the irony that the students in Tehran University are protesting
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while students in these two Afghan cities are calling
for Yankees to go home. Nangarhar University in Jalalabad only has a student
body of about 3200, so 'hundreds' of students protesting there would be a
significant proportion of the student body.

The demonstrations could be a harbinger of things to come, but there was
worse news. CIA field officers blown up, four US troops killed Sunday, and
the rejection of most of the cabinet nominees by parliament, all signal
rocky times ahead.

The past two weeks have seen the situation in Afghanistan deteriorate
palpably, raising significant questions about the viability of the
Obama-McChrystal plan for the country. The chain of catastrophes has been
reported in piecemeal fashion, but taken together these events are far more
ominous than they might appear on the surface.

First, the US military launched a raid in Kunar Province two days after
Christmas on a village at night, in which President Hamid Karzai alleged
that 10 civilians, some 8 of them schoolchildren, had been killed (some say
dragged out of their beds and executed). The NYT reported the head of a
Kabul delegation to the village saying,"They gathered eight school students
from two compounds and put them in one room and shot them with small arms."
(The spokesman is a former governor of Kunar and now a close adviser to
President Hamid Karzai-- i.e. not exactly a pro-Taliban source). The
charitable theory is that in a nighttime raid, US troops got disoriented and
hit the wrong group of young men.

The outraged Afghan public saw this raid as an atrocity, and on Wednesday
December 30, they mounted street protests against the US in Jalalabad, an
eastern Pashtun city, and Kabul. In Jalalabad, hundreds of university
students blocked the main roads, and then marched in the streets, chanting
"Death to Obama" and "Death to America," and burning Obama in effigy. (If
they go on like that, the anti-imperialist Pashtun college students of
Jalalabad may attract the support of Fox Cable News . . .)

Even while the protests were taking place in Jalalabad and Kabul, a NATO
missile strike on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province was
alleged to have killed as many as 7 more civilians, some of them children.
Now the Afghan public was really angry.

Then on Thursday, all hell broke loose when a high-level Pashtun Jordanian
asset who had been informing to the CIA on the location of important
al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives detonated a vest bomb at FOB Chapman in
Khost province, a CIA forward base. The attacker killed 7 field officers and
one Jordanian intelligence operative detailed to the base. Those experienced
field officers were on the front lines in the fight against al-Qaeda and
their loss is a big blow to counter-terrorism. It is true that they had been
drawn in to a campaign of assassination, but it is the president who gave
them that task--unwisely, in my view.

The use of a double agent not only to misinform but actually to kill the
most experienced counter-terrorism officers in the region showed the
sophistication of tactical thinking in the Afghan insurgency.

The CIA's dependence on a double agent who finally openly betrayed them
raises troubling questions about US strategy and tactics in the region. Such
informants essentially direct CIA drone missile strikes.

You could imagine Siraj Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network in Khost and
over the border in Pakistan's North Waziristan, inserting such a double
agent into FOB Chapman and then using the CIA. For instance, what if a
middling member of the Haqqani network launched a challenge to Siraj's
leadership and that of his ailing father, Jalaluddin (an old-time ally of
Reagan who was warmly greeted in the White House in the 1980s)? Wouldn't it
be easy enough just to have the double agent tell the CIA that the
challenger is a really bad guy in cahoots with al-Qaeda? Boom. Drone strike
kills Taliban leaders in North Waziristan. In this way, Siraj could have
used the US to eliminate rivals and become more and more powerful. And how
many double agents have given up a few Arab jihadis who had fallen out with
the Haqqanis, but then deliberately followed this up with bad intel on some
innocent village, making the name of the US mud among the Pashtuns?

The drone strikes shouldn't be run by the CIA, and probably shouldn't be run
at all. It could well be that savvy old-time Mujahidin trained in CIA
tradecraft in the 1980s are having our young wet behind the ears field
officers for lunch.

In short, is the bombing at FOB Chapman the tip of an iceberg of
misinformation, on which the Titanic of Obama's AfPak policy could well

Aljazeera English has video of these dramatic events leading up to the New
Year, including the anti-US demonstrations, which looked big and significant
to me on satellite television.

A soldier of the Afghan army shot an American soldier further raising
suspicions between the two supposed partners. Then a Canadian unit and
embedded journalist were blown up.

There were more errant US strikes over the weekend, producing the
demonstrations in Kabul and Jalalabad on Monday morning.

Then there were two other pieces of information coming out in the past few
days that suggest all is not well.

First, a report on the Afghanistan Army threw cold water all over the idea
that it could be enlarged and trained to provide security in the country any
time soon. High desertion rates, illiteracy, working half days, refusal to
stand and fight against the enemy, and other factors just made that prospect
remote. But such training, and the substitution of the Afghan National Army
for NATO and US forces is the centerpiece of the Obama-McChrystal plan.

Finally, the Afghan parliament rejected 17 of the 24 nominees to the cabinet
offered by President Karzai. The speaker of the House, Yunus Qanuni,
supported Karzai's rival, Abdullah Abdullah, in August's presidential
elections-- which many Afghans believe Karzai stole. This rejection was the
Abdullah faction's chance to humiliate Karzai in revenge.

Aljazeera English has video on the rejection of 70 percent of the cabinet,
including the old time warlord of Herat, Ismail Khan, and a key women's
affairs minister.

But the step means that we go into the winter with 17 ministries headless.
Having an increasingly competent Afghan government to partner with was
another key element of the Obama plan. There is not one.

So, the US is killing schoolchildren far too often, enraging the Afghan
public. It has provoked a student protest movement against it in Jalalabad
and Kabul. Its informants are double agents. Its supposed partner, the
Afghan army, mostly doesn't actually exist and couldn't be depended on to
show up to anything important; and that is when they aren't taking potshots
at US troops; and there is no Afghan government as we go into 2010.

President Obama may have a lot on his plate, but Afghanistan could make or
break his presidency. If he doesn't view what has happened there while he
was in Hawaii with alarm and begin thinking of alternative strategies, he
could be in big trouble.

End/ (Not Continueden)

posted by Juan Cole @ 1/04/2010 01:26:00 AM

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