Hamlet's Blackberry: How to Reclaim Your Soul

Perspective is always worth the trouble it takes to achieve.  For me, this applies as much to Afghanistan -- by visiting another country, for instance -- as it does when examining one’s own choices and work patterns.  I’ve become steadily more aware over the past year  (a gnawing feeling, if you’ll pardon the cliché) of the cacophony of noise and voices amongst which we all live.  Learning how to manage all this information, I’ll venture, is one of the more important practical questions of our generation.

The volume of noise is undeniable.  In my professional life I follow developments inside Afghanistan, for the most part.  As part of this work I check 72 RSS feeds (and counting) for news each morning, sending relevant articles -- at least 30 or 40 usually -- over into my Instapaper queue to read over the course of the day.  I’m subscribed to a diet of dozens of email newsletters, some of which email me more than one time per day.  Then there are the PDFs: every day two or three small ‘studies’ on some neglected issue appear, and most find their way into the queue.  I’m a hoarder, I know, but that’s sort of the job (at least part of it).

How do you know when it is a problem, though? And what’s the remedy?

Last month while ill I read a book that gave me some hints.  Entitled “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age,” this small engaging volume examines the role of ‘screens’ in our lives.  This includes televisions, phones, laptops, ipods, ipads etc etc.  I find this quite compelling.

Although it doesn’t cover the whole problem, finding a way to disconnect from screens is a necessary way of rebooting the brain sometimes.  Many Current Intelligence readers will surely recognise that 3am feeling: you emerge from hours chasing some fleeting internet thread, having passed down paths and read articles about things you originally had no interest in; you are slightly confused; your head is abuzz.

It needn’t happen at 3am, either, but the solution as proposed in this book is to switch off all screens.  Nothing revolutionary, and nothing you probably haven’t all read before -- who knows, maybe you’re all doing this already? -- but it’s a useful reminder. 

Switch off the internet.  Switch off your screens.  Switch off your phone.  Stop.  Breathe.  Think.


How to Provoke US Political Initiative

Like many, I have been glued to the live television coverage of the unrest in Egypt over the past week.  I am in no way qualified to offer any opinion about what is going on on the ground in Egypt, but it has been interesting to watch US official reaction to events as they unfolded over the past week.

Initial comments made were lukewarm or supportive of Mubarak, but the tone became stronger as the situation became more chaotic.  Analysts stepped up their barrage of commentary, noting how US President Obama was ‘behind the curve'.

All of this made me think about Afghanistan.  One of the biggest problems at the moment is the way US intervention inside the country is almost entirely conducted through military forces.  There is no political momentum, and certainly few political initiatives beyond buzzwords and platitudes like ‘transition'.  We saw in Egypt that the White House were forced to react to ongoing events and start thinking about possible scenarios that might unfold in the coming days.

But what chaos and catastrophe needed to unfold to provoke that reaction!  In Afghanistan what we see is a slow and steady passage of events, with trends that have been developing over a timeline of years and not days.  It has become increasingly clear that the front lines of the coming year in southern Afghanistan are being drawn over data presentation as much as the battlefield itself; in this environment where many conflicting voices and sets of data are to be found, it will be easy to muddle along, easy for the Obama administration to prevaricate and continue to emphasize (by default) military solutions at the expense of political initiative.  Muddling along is the default position, the path of least resistance for the White House, but it’s not a path that ends in any kind of long-term stability for Afghanistan.


The Myth of Talqaeda

The purported merger of the Taliban and al-Qaeda is the WMD of the Afghan war.  This myth is almost as old as the two groups themselves.  There's so much writing on Afghanistan that it's always going to be easy to find wild theories and dodgy "scholarship", but this supposed morphing between militant Islamist groups along the Afghan-Pakistani border has grown into more than just the theories of a few crackpots; in some ways, it's part of national security discourse and debate.

My colleague, Felix Kuehn, and I have tackled the topic from the perspective of the Afghan Taliban, drawing in as much actual evidence as we could.  For the easy question to ask after reading one or another of the proponents of "TalQaeda" - as we propose the purported behemoth be called - is "what's the evidence for that?"

Two pieces were published in the last month which reminded me how enduring the myth is, so I thought it'd be useful just to examine them openly, in the harsh light of day, since they are pretty representative.  I'd like to hope that 2011 will be the year this hoary old chestnut comes to rest, but I think we'll be fighting this one for a good while yet.

So the first, a blogpost by Max Boot entitled, "The War in Afghanistan Is Part of the Larger Struggle Against Global Terrorism."  He writes:

"An American officer quoted by the Times does a good job of summing up the state of play among the jihadists: 'This is actually a syndicate of related and associated militant groups and networks, Trying to parse them, as if they have firewalls in between them, is really kind of silly. They cooperate with each other. They franchise work with each other.'

If that’s the case — and the preponderance of intelligence certainly points in that direction — then it’s silly to disassociate the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, as so many critics of the war effort do, from the broader struggle against jihadist groups bent on inflicting serious harm on America and on our allies. There are real differences among the jihadist groups, but there is also a growing commonality of tactics and purpose. The war in Afghanistan is part of a broader struggle — a global war — that we must win not only to safeguard distant allies but also our own territory.”

It’s only a blogpost, so it seems unfair to fault him for not being expansive enough. But the question remains: "what’s the evidence for that?" And an unnamed "American officer" (gosh, well, he must know what he’s talking about) is not enough, not by any stretch.  One of the reasons An Enemy We Created is so long is that we take pains to lay out the evidence, to examine it all, to talk to people in the field and so on.  It’s an enduring feature of those who believe in the “syndicate” (or nexus, or morphed or fused organisation -- take your pick) that with a few exceptions they have not spent much time independently on the ground in Afghanistan.  And no, embed trips courtesy of the military don’t count for much.

Bruce Riedel has long been an advocate for the existence of "TalQaeda".  His last book, The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future, was pretty bad and included bold claims of a role in the September 11 plot played by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.  There’s much more to amuse you in the book, presumably cobbled together in haste as a position paper of sorts with which to advocate policy in Washington D.C. I refer you to my thoughts on the book, written back in May 2009, for some of the best quotes.

He has a new essay out, co-authored with Mike O’Hanlon, on US strategy for Afghanistan (what else?!).  Because it’s co-authored, it’s difficult to know who wrote what, but there’s a passage which is classic Riedel TalQaedaism.  It deserves a full quotation, along with the footnotes cited in support of the claims:

Those who assert that the Afghan Taliban may no longer have sympathy for these other extremists base their hopes on a thin reed. Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden continue to work together to send terrorists to the United States, as illustrated by the foiled 2009 New York metro attack planned for the eighth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The three U.S. citizens led by Najibullah Zazi, who have pleaded guilty to the plot, were referred to al Qaeda after initially approaching the Taliban to fight in Afghanistan. The Taliban were active recruiters for an al Qaeda attack on the U.S. homeland, and it is not clear why the Afghan Taliban would become more moderate at the very moment it defeated NATO and reclaimed control of its historical heartland.”

[and the footnote states:]

“Bruce Riedel, The Search for al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 2008), pp. 122—124; Antonio Giustozzi, ‘‘Conclusion,’’ in Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, ed. Antonio Giustozzi (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), pp. 293—300; and O’Hanlon and Sherjan, Toughing It Out, pp. 58—60.”

It’s almost enough to leave it there, steaming away like something your dog left in the park on a cold winter’s day, but unfortunately these ideas have currency in the current US Administration, largely on account of Riedel’s advocacy.  I happen to have all three books cited in that footnote, and the evidence they allude to is not contained within.  Not to mention, citing your own book as evidence is not the best way for your work to be taken seriously as rigorous scholarship.  We see similar stunts in The Search for al Qaeda, where Riedel would effectively write, “trust me, I know what I’m talking about.”

It’s not enough.  The issues are too important, too consequential, to continue to rely on hearsay and the weight of personal reputation to drive the debate.  So here’s me hoping for more fact-based, confirmed-on-the-ground research that comes from people who speak relevant languages and who have full exposure and familiarity with all available sources.  Above all, in 2011, we should ask ourselves: "what's the evidence for that?"



Sometimes there's very little to say; the story speaks for itself...

Politics Daily: "A recent Pentagon report, for instance, asserts that U.S. and allied forces and the new strategy announced by Obama a year ago are “beginning to have cumulative effects.” But in unusually frank terms, the report concludes that despite combat operations against the Taliban by the 97,000 U.S. troops and 49,000 NATO and allied troops, the insurgents’ “capabilities and operational reach have been qualitatively and geographically expanding.” In other words, despite the U.S. “surge,” enemy forces are getting better and bigger." Read the full article...

Danger Room: "Petraeus unleashed special operations forces, who have killed or captured thousands of militants. His generals relied on massive surface-to-surface missiles to clear the Taliban out of Kandahar, and ordered tanks to help crush opponents in Helmand province. And then there’s the metastasizing air war. In the last three months, NATO aircraft have fired their weapons on 2550 sorties, according to U.S. Air Force statistics provided to Danger Room. During the same period last year, there were less than half the number of violent sorties — just 1188."  Read the full article...

New York Times: "American commanders say their plan in the next few years is to kill large numbers of insurgents in the border region — the military refers to it as “degrading the Taliban” — and at the same time build up the Afghan National Army to the point that the Afghans can at least contain an insurgency still supported by Pakistan. (American officials say Pakistan supports the insurgents as a proxy force in Afghanistan, preparing for the day the Americans leave.)" Read the full article...

Associated Press: "Only 11 percent of enlisted personnel and 35 percent of noncommissioned officers in Afghanistan’s army and police are literate, according to NATO trainers." Read the full article...

ICRC Press Release (15 Dec 2010): ""In a growing number of areas in the country, we are entering a new, rather murky phase in the conflict in which the proliferation of armed groups threatens the ability of humanitarian organizations to reach the people who need their help," said Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan. "One armed group may demand food and shelter in the evening, then, the next morning, another may demand to know why its enemy was given sanctuary." The emerging groups, which also include criminals, remain difficult to identify." Read the full article...

Open Letter to President Obama: "The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure. Military action may produce local and temporary improvements in security, but those improvements are neither going to last nor be replicable in the vast areas not garrisoned by Western forces without a political settlement." Read the full article...


Five Things David Petraeus Wants You To Believe

The problem with milestones is that there’s always another one a little further down the road.  Last week we had the NATO meeting in Lisbon, to be followed soon after by the long-anticipated December Strategic Review.  I can recall back in February this year when think-tank "lifers" in Washington told me to sit tight in anticipation of the "big review" coming up in December which would deliver some much-needed policy changes.  Now that we’re here the view seems much less rosy

Last week a team led by Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the president’s Afghanistan adviser at the White House, returned from Afghanistan and Pakistan with data that will serve as a basis for Mr. Obama’s review of the war next month. General Petraeus is also assembling masses of data.

Those final five syllables should be enough to make even the most die-hard optimist take pause.  Petraeus wants to present an empirically valid case for continuing along the current course -- the so-called "default position" turbo-charged with all the money and weapons the heart could ever want.  Petraeus wants to use all these "masses of data" to make you believe five things, all of which are also more problematic than he’d have you believe.

Truth Number One: "It’s Working!"  In this scenario, the momentum has shifted, the Taliban are on the back foot, international military forces have recaptured the initiative, and other clichéd idioms ad nauseam. Take your pick.  Petraeus wants to show that his reinvigorated "counterinsurgency" strategy is delivering gains against the Taliban and that there are positive trends in how the local population in southern Afghanistan views and interacts with the local government. Remember back to 2009 when there was a big debate about the metrics with which the war effort could be assessed. These are internally set by the military (albeit with some civilian political input). It's these that Petraeus will use to show that the surge is working, and that it should be given more time to work properly.

Unfortunately, signs on the ground don’t seem to confirm this.  Marjah -- the great test-case for the US military engagement -- is by all accounts plagued with insecurity issues.  US troops are pushing into Kandahar’s western districts in an attempt to dislodge the Taliban there. In parallel, they have set up a series of bases circling Kandahar City, and assassinations and IEDs continue unabated. It’s true, many fighters have left Panjwayi and Zheray and are taking some down time in Quetta, but they’ll be back in spring, and IEDs and assassinations will continue in the meantime.

More importantly, the surge has failed to shift public opinion in favour of either the American presence or the Afghan government.  There is now a deep seated suspicion of the foreign involvement, rooted in a failure to understand western interests or goals in southern Afghanistan.  Unless this is addressed head-on, everything else being done is meaningless.

Truth Number Two: "The Night Raids and Targeting of the Insurgency’s Leadership is an Effective Tool." We’ve already heard a lot about this in sneak previews of Petraeus’  "masses of data", even as far back as late-spring.  In July 2010, the New York Times quoted NATO military statistics as showing 130 important insurgency figures captured or killed in Afghanistan in the prior six months.  In the same month, Amrullah Saleh, the former NDS chief, said that under General McChrystal, 700 Taliban commanders were captured or killed.  In the ninety days prior to November 11th, special operations forces had conducted 1,572 operations that resulted in 368 insurgent leaders killed or captured, 968 lower-level insurgents killed and 2,477 captured, according to NATO statistics.

These numbers are impressive at first glance.  It’s difficult to come up with an exact figure for total number of insurgency field commanders and political cadres inside Afghanistan, but needless to say this is putting pressure on their structures and on their ability to fill the positions of those killed or captured.

Unfortunately, there is a problem with the numbers being bandied around.  The exact breakdown cited above is not given as part of the data set; the "killed and captured" are simply stated to be "insurgency leadership." The Haqqanis, for example, are classed as a separate entity to the Taliban, as are, for the most part, al-Qaeda.  The only publicly available data set is ISAF’s collection of press releases.

I’d never bothered to read these in the past. Much like the free trilingual ISAF newspaper, Seda-ye Azadi, these missives do all they can to discourage readers with any experience of what is actually happening in Afghanistan. But there is a certain amount you can learn from the nearly-3000 press releases issued since November 2009 (the earliest date available).

Different classifications of insurgent members are given, but while the distinctions between fighters and "insurgents" are generally glossed over, the different types of "insurgent leaders" range from "facilitators" to "key cell leaders" to specific shadow-government positions like "district governor" and so on.  Looking through the data set, though, and comparing the numbers given by Petraeus’ PR team, it seems that all of these different actors are collated and offered up as aggregate numbers.

It’s difficult to tell, since the full data set is not released by the military, but anyone involved in the December Strategic Review would be strongly advised to ask Petraeus what percentage of these numbers of "leaders" are subsequently released without charge.  Even if the numbers are as high as he’d have you believe, there are serious problems with decapitating the insurgency without a sense of where all of this is leading politically, and in terms of how it actually influences or pressures the leadership networks.

Which brings us to...

Truth Number Three: "The Military Effort is Subservient to Broader Political Goals."  Petraeus has always said that winning in Afghanistan is not simply about capturing or killing lots of fighters.

You don’t end an industrial-strength insurgency by killing or capturing all the bad guys. You have to kill, capture — or turn — the bad guys. And that means reintegration and reconciliation.

A political solution is thus the desired end-game.  The recent excitement over claims that several "senior figures" among the insurgency had been "allowed" by NATO/ISAF forces to visit Kabul played right into Petraeus’ hands.  Here he could claim to the world’s media that he was fighting his war while simultaneously encouraging a move towards political settlement.

That’s not how the insurgency see Petraeus’ contribution, however. Nor are there serious negotiations in play at the moment.  Quite the opposite: members of the Taliban’s political wing see Petraeus as one of the key obstacles to a negotiated settlement.  One of his first actions upon his return to Afghanistan and stepping into McChrystal’s shoes in July, was to loudly petition for the Haqqanis to be blacklisted.  When that didn’t happen, three other insurgent members engaged at the time in discussions with the Afghan government found themselves blacklisted by the US treasury. The surge, too, is seen as a clear manifestation of Petraeus’ unwillingness to engage in talks.

Part of these mixed messages on a process of political settlement is...

Truth Number Four: "Mullah Mohammad Omar is irrelevant."  Whether or not Mullah Mohammad Omar will be a part of the political process and/or settlement is an important issue.  Recent months and purported developments have suggested that he might not be essential to a deal with the Taliban, and could either be excluded or even overruled by senior leaders.  As a US State Department press spokesman remarked:

From our view, Mullah Omar has been attached at the hip to bin Laden for some time. So, based on everything that we know about him today, in fact he will not meet the criteria that we have laid out. [...] So you know, there’s nothing that we see that indicates that Mullah Omar will, in fact, change his stripes. As a result, we don’t see that he qualifies to play a constructive role in Afghanistan’s future.

There will, no doubt, be more statements of this kind were any negotiated political process to begin. This should not detract from the solidity and cohesion that Mullah Mohammad Omar brings to the movement. Of course, he is a link to the past, to the dysfunction of previous interactions with the international community, but circumstances have changed now and any negotiated process would likely not see him ascend to the top of the Afghan government or to any role with more than symbolic value.  He has a strong interest in consolidating both his authority and the movement.  In the course of discussions, there might be ways to promote the role of those in the tier below him -- provided this level of the command structure isn't killed off in the meantime -- without removing his influence or participation completely.

Most importantly, however, he should not be excluded from the political process outright or against his will.  This would lead to extremely negative consequences for any negotiations or reconciliation.  His title represents a de facto religious institution, and fighters in the lower rungs of the movement would not appreciate such a public sidelining, which would be seen as foreign-imposed in any case, regardless of how such a situation might come to pass.  Mullah Mohammad Omar retains ample power to act as a spoiler in any negotiations, so any sidelining or retirement from the leadership would have to be agreed upon or instigated by him.  There's always the possibility that he might die or be killed, but it's not something that should either be counted on or planned for - active targeting of the Taliban leader as part of the military campaign (resulting in his death) could have serious negative consequences for any negotiation process.

Regardless of any future role for Mullah Mohammad Omar, a key factor preventing positive movement towards a political settlement is the Afghan government.  But we have...

Truth Number Five: "Don’t mind the Afghan Government." The truth behind this final claim has come a cropper in recent days during yet another public spat between Karzai and the internationals, this time over night raids.  Petraeus wants you to believe that all is well -- or at least as well as might reasonably be expected.

All is not well, though.  It is difficult for those based inside Afghanistan but who live outside the military bases to reconcile the rhetoric that Petraeus and his team are pushing, with the every day realities of a Kandahar or a Kunduz.

Pick your cliché, then, to describe what’s going on; there are still a few left over.  My current favourite is the description of Lisbon by a colleague based in Kabul: “a morality play to convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing in Afghanistan, and to sign everybody up for the next four years. And who ever said we were leaving in 2011?”


Hello World: An Introduction To Afghan Wire

Eager to support Current Intelligence’s continued presence online -- and proud to be associated with a number of very smart people -- I’ll be posting some thoughts on Afghanistan and topics related to my ongoing research/writing in this new "Afghan Wire" blog.  The name is taken from an old venture that I worked on together with my colleague, Felix Kuehn, in which Dari/Pashtu-language articles and broadcasts were translated, summarized and published online in a daily newsletter.  Needless to say, we ran out of funding and there wasn’t actually that much interest outside a small community of readers.

Since then (2008) I’ve been based full-time in Kandahar, working on a number of different research projects.  I’m currently working on a PhD at the War Studies department, King’s College London, on the identity of the Taliban movement as expressed through their own writings and statements; as co-editor of two books written by former Taliban envoy to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, one of which was published by Hurst and Columbia University Press in February 2010; a volume of poetry written by Taliban members, together with Felix Kuehn, to be published by Hurst (UK) in April 2011; and a history of the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda 1970-2010 to be published by Hurst (UK) in early 2011.

I’ve worked as a freelance journalist from Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and Somalia, writing for Foreign Policy, International Affairs, ABC Nyheter (Norway), the Sunday Times (UK), the Globe and Mail (Canada), The National (UAE) and The Tablet (UK).  I also played a facilitating role in the two Emmy Award-winning Globe and Mail features, Talking to the Taliban and Behind the Veil, both made in Kandahar.

You can catch old writing of mine on my personal blog and I’m fairly active on Twitter.