Afghanistan Again: What’s Different This Time

On August 21, President Donald Trump outlined his strategy for U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. While fully admitting his reluctance to increase current levels of support for the Afghan government and army, the president identified America’s core interests there. The “honorable and enduring outcome” that he mentioned in the speech is open to multiple interpretations, but the risk of a rapid withdrawal is not. It would lead to the collapse of the country’s central authority, thereby expanding fallow soil for global terror networks’ operations. Politically, the stakes are high. Significant gains against the Taliban and cohorts in Afghanistan would give Trump’s record a boost. After this speech, the fruits of victory or the spoils of defeat in Afghanistan rest squarely on Trump’s shoulders.

Aware that he is among the majority of Americans weary of this war, Trump proceeded to cite what will be different from past administrations. The U.S. will not publicly release timetables or air plans for adversaries’ consumption. It will hold the Afghan government accountable through a “conditions-based approach.” The U.S. will integrate “all instruments of American power . . . toward a successful outcome.” The Pakistani government in Islamabad will find that sponsorship or even tacit support for the Taliban and related entities will come with ever-greater political and financial burden. Washington will also push the Indian government in New Delhi to increase their economic and development assistance.

It is clear that Trump and his advisers have learned from the Obama administration’s failures in Afghanistan. Actions such as publically committing to timetables and trumpeting battlefield intentions bore tragic consequences, as the Taliban leadership, foot soldiers, and their backers settled in to wait out Western political timetables. The past two administrations’ reluctance to exert greater pressure on the Pakistani establishment has shown how little carrots alone can earn east of the Durand Line. Despite concerns that greater Indian involvement may hinder more than help by potentially antagonizing Pakistan, Afghanistan needs a strong regional actor that can help balance its neighbors’ often competing interests.

But do these changes amount to a new strategy? After all, haven’t we been employing “all instruments of American power” for the past 16 years? Americans witnessed a massive surge of tens of thousands of their soldiers that didn’t bring the war’s end; what difference will a re-deployment of several thousand make? Talk of greater accountability in Kabul has led to few tangible results. To some, the president’s “strategy” may seem simply as a modified “approach” to “obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”

What’s Different This Time Around?

This administration is showing respect for lessons learned. To date, there is no planned surge of tens of thousands of soldiers, as the Afghans themselves will be waging war on the frontlines. President Trump did not mention a civilian strategy in his remarks, underlying his assertion that “nation building” is off the table. While Trump expressed hesitancy to order Americans to continue fighting in Afghanistan, he unequivocally campaigned on effectively fighting terrorism. With the counsel of a number of generals absent in the previous administration, he’s doing just that, regardless Congressional support or skepticism. And Pakistan, it appears, is a state relation to be managed, distinct from a partnership based on “mutual interests, [and] mutual respect” as envisioned by Obama.

Second, Hamid Karzai is no longer in charge of Afghanistan. The ex-president managed the most remarkable feat of cowling the international community into possibly incalculable investments of money and manpower while effectively denying them any genuine say in the country’s political management. Consequently, international calls to stem systemic cronyism and take a stand against corruption went unheeded by Karzai. Accountable to personal networks and political expediency over the Afghan people, he effectively fanned the flames of Taliban propaganda and anti-government sentiment. This happened in part due to the then-surplus of international goodwill towards the Afghan people and Karzai’s fundamental misconception that the U.S. saw Afghanistan as prime geopolitical real estate.

Not so today. The international community’s priorities have moved on. Meanwhile, the Taliban and terror groups either control or are present in vast swathes of Afghan territory, placing the elected government in Kabul in palpable jeopardy. Since 2001, Afghanistan has depended on foreign aid for 70% of its annual budget. The national unity government (cobbled together by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014) is hardly united and dysfunctions accordingly. While insurgent control continues to grow, the current government is nowhere near completing the agreed-upon electoral reforms and schedules, much less the roadmap to a new constitution. Encouragingly, President Ashraf Ghani and Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah together boast years of experience in Washington, which when combined could lead to clearer, effectively mutual relations compared to those mercurial years under Karzai. This renewed U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is an opportunity for genuine cooperation towards our common goal of denying terrorists sanctuary there.

Third, the Trump administration is set to push Pakistan harder than the previous administrations. It would be disingenuous to argue that the Taliban would pose the threat that they do (if even still exist) were it not for Pakistan’s willful harbor of and aid to various insurgent groups. Islamabad has yet to effectively change course on this policy. Continued decreases in aid—specifically of the military variety—together with a review of the country’s status as a non-NATO ally can help to realign the rudder towards more stable ports.

The fear of having an Indian-allied adversary to its west makes Pakistani interests in having a friendly and reliable government in Kabul respectable. Islamabad’s nearly dogmatic distrust of New Delhi and its desire to have a compliant government in Kabul complicate part of Trump’s plan. Current relations between Pakistan and India have led to skepticism about Trump’s solicitation of more pronounced involvement from India, which could be a potential leveraging point in U.S. relations with Pakistan’s leadership. Nonetheless, there is no regional solution without New Delhi any more than there is without Islamabad or other Eurasian actors. Indeed, as the U.S. footprint erodes, direct support for the Taliban has only increased from Tehran and Moscow, categorically demonstrating the extent of their own interests in who governs Afghanistan.

Last, herein lies one of the greater—and newer—threats to a sustainable resolution of the conflict. A decade ago, the road to peace primarily went eastward from Kabul. This is no longer the case. Today’s resurgent Russia and regionally emboldened Iran cannot be consigned as diplomatic afterthoughts vis-à-vis the Afghan war. These countries have provided cash and arms to elements of the Taliban, as well as significant funds to various political and religious actors to forward agendas often at odds with the elected government. Both share common goals of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a base for Islamic extremists in Central Asia and minimizing American presence in the region. Peace negotiations without due representation of their concerns would be short, as the likely response would be the disruptive mobilization of local spoilers.

With these issues in mind, we are left with one component of the president’s strategy that hasn’t changed: the full use of American military, diplomatic, and economic power. Trump asserted that “we are not nation-building again.” A few years ago, a senior Pentagon official told me that this was never U.S. policy (My follow-up review of official public statements confirmed this). Call it what you will; however, if the U.S. is to exercise all its powers towards a successful endgame in cooperation with a more accountable government in Afghanistan, shoring up its floundering governmental institutions is unavoidably necessary. And as daunting a task as this will be, it is not Panglossian to envision a better-fortified foundation for a democratic Afghan state. After the U.S. shores up these domestic weaknesses, we can then let the Afghans build their nation up from there. In my view, that would qualify as an honorable and enduring outcome.

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Are You Staying, Or Just Passing Through? The Geopolitics Of Asylum

European politics have been roiled over the past few years by the question of how the EU as a whole and its individual member states should deal with refugees seeking asylum from the ongoing wars throughout the Greater Middle East. Most attention has been focused on the stream of unfortunates coming across Turkey and the Aegean from Afghanistan, Iraq, and especially Syria. Their stories have tugged at European heartstrings, even as some have worried that the crowds of apparent refuges could also include potential terrorists.

Germany in particular has chosen to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s confident proclamation “Wir schaffen das” (We can handle it) has earned her praise from humanitarian groups but also brickbats from analysts and political critics who claim she has undermined national security in quixotic pursuit of moral redemption for the German people’s historical sins.

At the root of the debate has been the question of German and European responsibility for helping the victims of wars on Europe’s periphery—wars in which Europe has been unwilling or unable to take an active role—and the potential danger such migrants pose to European society. Critics of Merkel’s policy point to recent terror attacks as proof of the dangers of unchecked immigration, and argue for robust interdiction and higher fences.  Supporters of a more open policy, such as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor John Shattuck, have argued the opposite, that accepting refugees will allow Europe (and the United States as well) to display their commitment to human rights, counter Islamist assertions that the West is at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile to the well-being of Muslims, and thus actually enhance both the reputation and the security of the West. 

So far, neither side in the debate has scored an undisputed victory, and it is unlikely that they will any time soon. But the discussion of migration and asylum, so focused on the actions of European governments, often leaves out the actions of the migrants themselves.  Although one will occasionally see discussions of the need for the refugees and asylum seekers themselves to integrate into European culture, the primary policy question for Europeans has been framed as “do we let them in or not?”

The closer one looks, however, the more one sees that it is not just a matter of who comes in, but how they come and go once they have found asylum, and the political activities they choose to engage in while enjoying the protection of that status.

All of which leads us to the saga of Yahya Badr al-Din al-Houthi. Al-Houthi is a Yemeni activist, the brother of the leader of Yemen’s Houthi rebels, currently involved in a bitter civil conflict with the government of Yemen. That conflict has developed into a proxy war between Shiite Iran (which backs the Houthis) and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, which backs the Yemeni government.

[For those interested in more detail, the conflict in Yemen was the subject of the February 2015 episode of FPRI’s “Geopolitics with Granieri,” which addressed its local, regional, and global complexities.]

Al-Houthi’s exploits have recently been the subject of a two-part summer series in the print edition of the Saudi news magazine Majalla (available in English as well as Arabic). The series highlights the significant questions about German capacity and willingness to hold political refugees to the legal conditions of their stay, and the implications for this case for future asylum policy.

Although even less well known to American audiences than the Syrian Civil War, the war in Yemen has entered its second year with no clear end in sight, and is producing its own flow of displaced refugees. Its wider implications have also increased the significance of Houthi activists abroad. Al-Houthi himself fled Yemen more than a decade ago, and found political asylum in Germany.  Far from staying out of the politics of his homeland, however, al-Houthi has been an active supporter of the rebel cause, appearing on a variety of media outlets (including the Arabic service of Deutsche Welle, Germany’s version of the Voice of America), meeting with Iranian representatives and other supporters of the Houthi cause, including Hezbollah, and even traveling back and forth to Yemen to participate in the rebellion.

Such activity stretches the legal meaning of asylum, and poses a difficult political problem for the Germans. There is of course historical precedent for rebel groups and self-styled “governments in exile” to set up shop abroad. Usually, however, such actions depend upon the formal approval of the foreign host. The Germans have extended no such formal support to al-Houthi and his compatriots, but at the same time they have not acted to shut down his behavior either. Either decision would bring political challenges that Berlin appears to prefer to avoid. The resulting ambiguity, however, is not only embarrassing for the German authorities, but also raises uncomfortable questions about the broader responsibility of even the most welcoming governments for the political activities of those whom they chose to shelter.

In this atmosphere of increasing tension about how to deal with the challenge of integrating political migrants and asylum seekers, European policy discussions should include an understanding of this particular case. So far, it offers no satisfying solutions, but many questions well worth pondering.

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The Local Proxy Problem

On Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined a bold plan to expand the war against ISIS during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We should be honest about the fact that to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS,” Clinton said. “If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them.”

There’s one serious problem with this approach: it is utterly baseless.

Contrary Mrs. Clinton’s assertion, our experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan should lead to the opposite conclusion: relying on local proxies, whether formal as an army we train or informal as a militia that we arm, has a deeply troubled history and so far has resulted in catastrophic battle losses against the enemy. 

In Afghanistan, the army and militias America has spent years building up barely function. From the scourge of “green-on-blue” attacks (whereby Afghan police and soldiers decide to murder their American trainers), to catastrophic combat losses against the Taliban, our local partners have proven wholly inadequate to the task of defeating the Taliban (and al Qaeda, and now ISIS). Furthermore, the Afghan national army has staggeringly low retention, so low that if the U.S. Army were experiencing the same rate it would be a full-blown crisis and the institution would be facing collapse. Lastly, there is the appalling corruption of both the national army but especially the local militias trained in an attempt to implement a locally-led counterinsurgency policy: not only in terms of money and weapons stolen, but in terms of directly implicating the United States in the systematic sexual abuse of children.

Is it any surprise that such a force is unable to hold its ground against a massive Taliban assault? As more details emerge about the horrific air strike against a hospital in Kunduz province, it seems that the Afghans were the ones falsely claiming that it was a Taliban outpost. In our effort to support our local partners, we may have abetted a war crime.

There is a similar story to tell in Iraq. Training the Iraqi national army, and later the Iraqi militias, was the signature counterinsurgency policy of General David Petraeus. From his command in Mosul in 2004 to his command of the entire war effort, training locals to do the heavy lifting was the key to winning the war. Nevermind that the Iraqi Army cost America more than $25 billion and collapsed at the first sign of ISIS in 2014. Nevermind that some of the Iraqi militias we trained were little more than death squads. And nevermind that we flooded Iraq with so many unaccounted-for weapons and so much equipment that ISIS is currently outfitted about as well as the Iraqi army.

How Mrs. Clinton can look at our record and conclude this is an effective way to combat terror is puzzling. In Libya, American attempts to arm a local proxy would up helping al Qaeda, instead. We lost half a billion dollars-worth of weaponry in Yemen, a humiliating disaster which is no longer the successful example officials use to cite as their model for defeating ISIS. Even in Syria, the train-and-equip mission cost $500 million and resulted in “four or five” men able to fight. 

Beyond the practical disasters of relying on local proxies to do our fighting for us is the moral hazard inherent to their use. Relying on local proxies to do our fighting allows us to avoid the risk and responsibility of what happens during the fighting. It is a way for a politician to appear to be doing “something” about a challenge without assuming any political risks in the act of doing so: no “boots on the ground,” no massive deployment, and no dead bodies coming home in flag draped coffins. Proxies allow America to fight wars invisibly, with all of the risk off-loaded onto contractors and anonymous locals.

Proxies also present a serious challenge when their interests are not in exact alignment with ours. In Syria, our proxies care much more about defeating Bashar al-Assad than they do defeating ISIS (this is also why Russia’s assistance mission to Syria has consisted mainly of bombing those proxy groups). It is a logical decision for the Syrians: Assad is responsible for the vast majority of the death and devastation there; the reason ISIS exists in the first place is because of Assad’s brutality. He is the root of all evil in Syria. But toppling Assad is not our immediate goal (even though the President has said it was, at times); defeating ISIS is, and no one is prepared to start a war with Russia and Iran to do so.

Lastly, as Adam Elkus put it, “there is something very unjust and disturbing in the way in which the United States can encourage men to risk their lives under the false hope that Uncle Sam will be with them the whole way.” Because America is never fully committed to our local partners — that is their appeal, after all — the moment it becomes inconvient to do so these proxies are discarded. When America discarded our proxies in Afghanistan, the result was appalling disaster on a scale only now matched by Syria; it created the space for al Qaeda to organize and grow and spread; and it created the horrors that led Afghans to cheer the Taliban’s emergence in 1994. There were seemingly good reasons for using proxies then that mirror the same reasons people find them appealing now: fear of a quagmire, a desire not to directly war against Russia. But that fear does not always result in sound policy, and we’re still left holding the bag in Afghanistan more than 35 years later.

This week, the House of Representatives approved a measure, targeted at Iraq and Syria, that will both restrict the resettlement of war refugees here but will also possibly interfere with the visa program meant to help Iraqis who risked their lives and now face death threats for helping us during the war. These terps, who literally save U.S. lives with their work, are being discarded because, like all other proxies, they have become politically inconvenient.

The unpleasant truth is that there is no substitute for American troops on the ground implementing American policy. Our reliance on proxies is not just immoral and unjust; it has been actively counterproductive and harmed our national interests. Sending in American boots on the ground is a political minefield, as it should be — we should never be flippant or casual about risking our people in war. The decision to send in troops should only match a threat so grave we are willing to put our own people at risk to address it. Does ISIS rise to that level of threat? That is the subject of considerable debate at the moment. But as this debate matures, policymakers should not be given a pass when they send unaccountable militias to do our dirty work for us.

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The Seven Deadly Sins of the Human Terrain System: An Insider’s Perspective

The Human Terrain System (HTS) – a U.S. Army program aimed at helping U.S. and allied military forces understand the people around them in Iraq and Afghanistan – is dead. And anthropologists are dancing ritualistically around its corpse.

The idea behind HTS was simple and promising: embed social scientists with military units and give them the resources to unearth operationally relevant socio-cultural data and findings. Its founders, Dr. Montgomery McFate, an anthropologist by training, and former Army officer Steve Fondacaro stood the program up and served as its leaders and missionaries for its first few years of existence. At the height of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan most ground-holding brigades and special operations units had Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) supported by Human Terrain Analysis Teams (HTATs) at the division level.

So what went wrong? When Tom Vanden Brook broke the story of the death of HTS he focused on fraud, racial and sexual harassment, as well as ethical issues related to the program’s roots in anthropology. His sources for the story, his most recent of several on the program, were a predictably bland statement by an Army spokesman, Dr. Roberto Gonzalez – an anthropologist at San Jose State University who, like many of his disciplinary colleagues, has been a consistent critic of the program, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif), who has waged war against HTS for years.

I was surprised and disappointed that Brook did not dig a little deeper. He did not get any of the hundreds of people who worked for HTS to comment on the record, even though a number of us write for public consumption these days and probably would have been happy to talk to him. He did not reference any of the four major studies (briefly reviewed at e-IR by Michael Davies) that sought to assess the program’s effectiveness. He did not seek out any scholars who have conducted pathbreaking research on HTS, such as Christopher Sims who recently finished his doctoral work at the King’s College London War Studies Department on this very subject.

Instead, Brook went to an anthropologist who had no association with the program (but wrote a stinging critique of it in 2009) and a Member of Congress who is a known foe of the program. He tried to go to the Army and it is unfortunate they did not offer anything substantive.

One cannot get at why HTS failed without looking at all the information at hand. This actually matters because understanding socio-cultural issues in war zones remains an important endeavor. I spoke to several of my former Human Terrain System colleagues, some of whom I did not actually get to know until after I had come home, to identify the seven deadly sins of the program from an insider perspective. What were they?  

  1. Calling it anthropology

One of the program’s founders was McFate – a trained anthropologist who was also involved in developing Field Manual 3-24 on counterinsurgency. When the program started receiving media coverage in 2007 as an anthropological program, the American Anthropological Association was livid. They called it “an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise” and launched what amounted to a jihad against HTS.

Anthropology is a valuable academic discipline that has helped to shed light on diverse cultures around the world, however it tends to attract and foster those with opinions on the far left of the political spectrum. At the risk of over-generalizing, Western anthropologists as a group are skeptical of the U.S. military and generally politically opposed to U.S. wars. This is a cultural departure from the earlier history of the discipline, which some say was overly intertwined with imperial projects and ambitions – a legacy that is deeply regretted by many present day scholars of this discipline and feeds their skepticism of many western military operations.

It was therefore no surprise that the American Anthropological Association came after the Human Terrain System with everything they had, even producing a highly critical 73-page report on the program in 2009. But HTS was not an anthropological effort and never should have been called one or defended on that basis. HTS officials spent a great deal of focus trying to “engage” with the anthropological community and make nice. HTS leaders insisted the program was not an intelligence effort (also untrue, as I discuss below) to appease crunchy academics. But that was an unwise and unnecessary effort.

HTS drew on social scientists from a variety of disciplines (not, as some think, primarily because of its rejection by the anthropological community) as well as historians. Field research and ethnography are not the exclusive domains of the anthropologist. And HTS personnel did not even have the time or opportunities to do proper ethnography (as discussed eloquently by David Edwards).

So what were they doing?

  1. Denying it was an intelligence program

HTS leadership constantly denied that it was an intelligence program (read this semi-ridiculous FAQ) to the media, representatives from the anthropological community, and those of us who went through HTS training because someone decided that “intelligence” is a dirty word.

HTS was absolutely an intelligence program and the Army and HTS leaders should have embraced it from the start. All “intelligence” means is information gathered and analyzed at the institutional level to inform decision-making.  What’s more, the program fell under the G2 (“2” indicates “intelligence”) at the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). This U.S. Army budget document called it a “Military Intelligence Program.” As an HTS employee (and Department of the Army civilian), I fell under the Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel System (DCIPS), as did my HTS colleagues. Many Human Terrain Teams, including my own, worked closely with and were embedded within the intelligence staff sections in the brigades they served. Does that mean we were involved with lethal targeting? No, of course not. But we absolutely collected and analyzed information that informed military operations.

  1. Flawed recruitment

There were generally three types of people who joined HTS. The first were people who believed in a mission (although not necessarily the ones our forces were in Iraq and Afghanistan for) and wanted to contribute to it. The second were people who saw such a deployment as an opportunity for self-actualization, escape, or adventure. The third were people looking to make a buck (HTS was a well-paid gig, even after the program switched from employing contractors to government personnel).

All three categories had their problems. You had special ops-wannabes, a guy who had previously worked in Afghanistan (and got kicked out) but wanted to return solely to get some locals funding to build a doll factory (no joke), another guy who wanted to introduce Christianity in Afghanistan… I could go on.

My job interview for HTS was a joke. It was two ten minute phone interviews and, as far as I know, they followed up on exactly zero of my references. I have no reason to believe that this was not typical, especially once I met some of the people with whom I was in training, to include fantasists and fraudsters who routinely and obviously embellished their experience (many – but not all – of the worst were weeded out during training and did not make it to deployment). Once one made it past this ridiculously low hurdle, we were hired as contractors and told to show up at Ft. Leavenworth, where we would be trained and, eventually, “transitioned” into the ranks of the Department of the Army as civil servants.

What they did not tell us was that this transition process was actually a whole separate job application process. Once we arrived in Leavenworth, we were told we had to apply for the government version of the job and if we did not make it through, we would be sent packing. I accept that they couldn’t just let us into the ranks of government service without some sort of process, but they should have told people ahead of time that this would be the case. People had left their jobs and even sold their homes with the expectation that they had a real job.

As it turns out, the government application process was also absurd (but far more cumbersome) and we were told pretty directly by a Department of the Army civilian official that they would not have the time to check our references. Still, many people were weeded out at this point. Unfortunately, they were often the wrong people. Most Afghan-Americans and Iraqi-Americans in the training program did not make it through this process. One colleague who had done his graduate work at Oxford got turned out at this point because Oxford was not recognized by the Department of the Army (no joke). Some of the wash-out survivors were the most troublesome and the biggest perpetuators of sexual harassment.

Take a breath before you attack the contracting companies that brought in misfits and oversaw an ineffective recruitment process. They were executing the contract as it was written and it was written poorly. True responsibility sits with the Army.  

  1. Awful training and deployment processes

Maybe two weeks of useful training was spread out over five and a half months.  Our training schedules changed on a daily basis, introducing a frustrating element of unpredictability that did not set HTS trainees up for success. We also received way too little language training. And for you taxpayers out there, the entire time we were in training, we were staying in nice hotels, had rental cars provided for us (complete with reimbursed gas), and received per diem on top of our generous salaries.  

Training would have been a great opportunity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of candidates. While efforts were made along these lines, they were ineffectual. One huge missed opportunity was the failure to capitalize on prior in-country experience by U.S. military personnel and civilians in HTS. People with experience in one part of Iraq or Afghanistan should have been enabled to go back to those areas, where they would have had the most value. No efforts were made in that direction. People did not usually know where in Iraq or Afghanistan they were going until a couple weeks before they deployed, which deprived them of a chance to do in-depth research on the provincial and district levels of analysis – which is where HTTs did all their work. 

  1. Deploying personnel who were unprepared to survive in a combat zone

Up until at least late 2010, HTS trainees received no practical training on how to safely use firearms and to survive in combat, despite the fact that many of us would be expected or given the opportunity to carry firearms and get shot at. The official line was we could be trained and certified for these sorts of things downrange by the brigades we were working with – a form of on the job combat training.

One former HTTer conveyed an all-too-common experience to me:

My on the job training in Afghanistan included: riding in an MRAP for the first time; riding in a helicopter for the first time; shooting an M4 and M9 for the first time.  I “qualified” on an M4 at a strong point overlooking an abandoned village by shooting at a house with a suspected sniper inside. Luckily he wasn’t shooting back at the time. The first time I wore NODs [night observation device] was on a night time patrol and I’m lucky I didn’t fall on my face let alone step outside the cleared path. 

Ridiculous, right?

While I had fired rifles and pistols a few times before HTS, I had never been that into guns. While in training, I went to the range with current and former military personnel in my training class who kindly showed me the ropes as well as they could. I also spent a sizeable amount of my own money to fly to the U.S. Shooting Academy in Tulsa, Oklahoma during my pre-deployment leave to take a private class with a former recon Marine on handling and firing a carbine and a pistol.  Luckily, I had an amazing and responsible team leader (an Army reserve officer) who insured once we were in Afghanistan that those of us who wanted to carry firearms (I carried an M9 on most missions) were trained and appropriately equipped to do so.

After my training was complete, HTS started to send its people through more rigorous training at Ft. Polk.

  1. Broken leadership and organizational culture

This is a bit misleading, because to call the HTS organizational culture “broken” implies that it was once whole. It never was. There was a pervasive sense that leadership did not care much for the well-being of the people in the program during training and especially once they were deployed. Sexual harassment was a big problem, both in training and downrange, but it should be noted that this was (and remains) a broader U.S. military problem – not just an HTS problem – yet the fact that accountability mechanisms in HTS were so messed up (and sometimes just absent) made it worse.

  1. Trying to become the COIN poster boys and gals hid the real success stories

The problems of HTS were rooted in the early public narrative on the program, which started with the major media attention it started to receive in 2007. HTS advocates in and out of the Army tried to sell the program as the thing that would make counterinsurgency work. You know those hearts and minds you are trying to win? Well here are the folks that will help you see inside them and tell you what you’ll have to do. This was never a realistic aim and it was rooted in a fundamental misconception of how and why counterinsurgency operations can be successful (read my chapter in this book).

Human Terrain Teams were never going to “fix” counterinsurgency or make it work, but at their best, a functioning team could provide a sharper lens through which their brigades could see their area of operations. The saddest part about the Human Terrain System legacy is that many teams were successful at this (as confirmed by four authoritative studies of the program) and provided real value to their brigades, but this was all lost in the public discourse because so many mistakes were made in recruitment, training, management, and everything else I discuss above.

I am proud of the work I did in Afghanistan on a Human Terrain Team and so are most of my HTS comrades. It is crucial that we understand the seven deadly sins of HTS, but I hope journalists also talk about the good things. They happened too and they matter. 


Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks. He worked as a U.S. Human Terrain Team social scientist in Helmand province from November 2010 to August 2011. 

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Afghanistan On The Brink – The Last Chance For A “Correction”

By Andrew Garfield

In April 2014, shortly after the first round of the Afghan Presidential election, I wrote an FPRI E-Note publicizing the findings of two pre-election polls that my company Glevum Associates had undertaken in Afghanistan, funded by a grant provided by the Department of State.   I assessed that Abdullah and Ghani would be the clear winners of the first round of the Presidential election but that neither of them would be able to secure an absolute majority.  As a result a second ballot would be necessary.  As predicted, that ballot will be held this coming Saturday, June 14th 2014 with Abdullah and Ghani contesting the outcome.

Based on these two face-to-face polls, conducted in December 2013 and January 2014, I had estimated that Abdullah and Ghani would each secure between 39 and 44 percent of the vote. I expected Ghani to secure slightly more votes than Abdullah in the first ballot and that the second ballot would be Ghani’s to lose.  Not least, because I expected him to secure the majority of the Pashtun vote (the Pashtun are a plurality of Afghans overall) and with Dostum as his running mate, the majority of the Uzbek vote as well.  I expected Abdullah to secure the vast majority of the Tajik vote and other minorities but that this would not be enough for him to win an outright majority. 

When I wrote my E-Note, the election had just been held on April 5th and there were already early indications of some election fraud, although it did not appear to be on the same scale as was the case during and after the 2009 Presidential election.  My concern therefore was that the supporters of both Abdullah and Ghani might feel compelled to influence the outcome of the second ballot by fraudulent means, given that the stakes would be even greater. 

When the results of the first ballot were finally published, the results certainly validated my assessment that Ghani and Abdullah would be the clear winners and that neither would secure sufficient support to avoid a second ballot.   The results were however still very surprising.  Abdullah was the clear winner with effectively 45 percent of the vote while Ghani had only 31.5 percent.  This outcome aroused my suspicion, as I expected Ghani to have a slight lead going into the second ballot and it further increased by concern about election fraud.  I could draw only three conclusions.  My polls and assessment were wrong, which is of course, possible.  Abdullah had significantly out performed Ghani during the campaign, which I do not think the evidence supports, as both candidates appeared to have run effective campaigns.  Or there had been a significant level of fraud, which had potentially undermined Ghani’s vote and reinforced Abdullah’s.    

Sadly, the latest reports from Afghanistan have reinforced my original concern regarding the extent of election fraud.  Last week, Afghanistan’s election commission fired more than 3,000 election staff, accusing them of malfeasance at polling stations and during the subsequent counting process.  Independent election monitors have also indicated that many complaints were actually ignored by Afghanistan’s supposedly independent election commission, reportedly in an effort to meet deadlines.  These monitors also stated that the entire decision making process lacked transparency.  This would suggest that the extent of the fraud is even greater than the 3,000 firings suggest.  According to media reports, more than 900 complaints were eventually classified in the most serious category.  That is more than in the previous election, when more than a million votes were thrown out and it is well known that President Karzai’s supporters extensively manipulated the vote and the subsequent counting process. Around 300,000 votes have reportedly been excluded this time around. 

This is deeply worrying not only for Afghanistan and its people but also the International Community.  Another highly questionable election will almost inevitably lead to conflict within Afghanistan, probably along ethnic lines, and potentially the subsequent withdrawal of donor support, which would be disastrous for Afghanistan.  It is highly unlikely for example that the Afghan National Army would survive for very long without international funds and American advisors. Nicholas Haysom, deputy head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, told journalists recently that “the worst-case scenario would be if the election is both polarizing and the results are not accepted by one of the candidates and that has the potential to lead to conflict.” The only winners from a discredited election and subsequent conflict would be the Taliban, who remain a potent force, and some of Afghanistan’s neighbors, mostly notably Pakistan and Iran. 

Certainly both candidates have accused the supporters of the other of perpetrating significant election fraud.  Ghani claims that close to a million fraudulent votes were included in the ballot, which should have been dismissed.  And his supporters suggest that the inclusion of these votes largely benefited Abdullah.  Abdullah has been less strident in his accusations but he has acknowledged that fraud did occur while strenuously denying that his supporters were responsible.  He stated to the media that “The whole process would have been questioned had we gone further…exposing the faults of the process,” and “[s]ince there was a chance for the second round and for a correction of the system…we did not want to be responsible for that.” This is hardly an unequivocal condemnation of such fraud and seems more like deflection, which certainly does raise suspicions. Given that Ghani’s actual share of the vote was well below my expectations, while Abdullah performed above the absolute maximum (44 percent) that I expected for him, my suspicion now rests more with Abdullah and less with Ghani.  Either way, all parties concerned do agree on one thing.  There was significant fraud in the first ballot, reported and unreported.           

These revelations and admissions encouraged me to do a comparison of the results of the first ballot with the two polls that Glevum undertook in December 2013 and January 2013 and with the recently released poll funded by Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research (ACSOR), which was undertaken in March 2014.  Incidentally, ACSOR was one of the two other organizations given a grant by the Department of State to undertake three pre-election polls each, along with Glevum.  However, under pressure from Afghan government officials and others, the U.S Embassy in Kabul canceled that grant after the three organizations had conducted just one poll each.  ACSOR is to be commended for funding another poll with its own money. They have done the Afghan people a great service.  It is a terrible shame that we bowed to pressure from President Karzai, which I can only conclude was intended to prevent the nine polls from being used to both deter fraud and to demonstrate after the fact that it had occurred. 

My analysis of the stated intentions of likely voters in each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces suggests that Abdullah secured a significant increase in his actual share of the vote in seven key provinces – Balkh, Daykundi, Ghazni, Heart, Kandahar, Logar, and Nooristan.  These increases ranged from 15 percent to 25 percent, which is far greater than one might expect in a closely contested election.  While Ghani also gained a sizable boast in a number of provinces, his vote surprisingly collapsed in others by between 10 percent and 20 percent. This is all the more surprising because in the Glevum polls, Ghani’s support appeared to be the most firm.  The provinces where Ghani suffered a surprising decline again included Daykundi, Ghazni and Kandahar.  Press reports suggest that some of the worst and largest scale examples of election fraud occurred in the seven provinces mentioned above.  While this comparison is not clear evidence that election fraud has benefitted Abdullah more than Ghani, it is at least coincidental and worthy of further investigation.  Unfortunately with the election less than a week away no such investigation will take place.  And Abdullah at least is encouraging Afghans and monitors alike to look to the second ballot for a “correction.”  Sadly that is unlikely to happen, even if 3,000 election workers have been fired.

An evaluation of the ACSOR survey, which was conducted in March, after campaigning was well underway, suggests that the differences are not as great as in the earlier Glevum polls and that Ghani’s support had indeed declined from January.  ACSOR indicated that likely voters favored Abdullah by 46 percent to Ghani 35 percent.  This is more in line with the official results of the first ballot.  The other most interesting finding of the ACSOR survey was that likely voters, who did not support Abdullah or Ghani in the first ballot, favored Ghani by 57-34 percent in a second ballot.  This is a significant increase from the Glevum polls, which did have Ghani as the second choice of more likely voters than Abdullah but only by a few percentage points.  ACSOR also found that in a second ballot against Abdullah, Ghani’s support amongst the Pashtun would likely increase from around 49 percent to 75 percent.  Given that a significant reason why Abdullah may have legitimately increased his support above my expectations, was the higher than expected support from some Pashtun voters, this finding could become decisive in the second ballot.


I believe it is clear that there was extensive fraud during and after the first ballot, exactly as I warned.  The Afghan election commission has acknowledged it and so have both candidates.  Ghani at least, along with independent monitors and media reporting, claim that the extent of this fraud was far greater than has been reported by the election commission, which is also accused of lacking in transparency.  Sadly I think that there is an overwhelming likelihood of significant and decisive fraud taking place during and after the second ballot as well. 

It seems likely to me that President Karzai has thrown his weight behind the candidacy of Abdullah and he has notoriously been involved in election fraud before.  And despite International Community wishful thinking, he will remain a powerful force in Afghan politics after he leaves office, and therefore has a vested interest in seeing someone he can work with be elected President.  I still believe that in a fair election, demographics alone should ensure a Ghani victory.  It therefore seems likely that if anyone will benefit from such fraud and has the means to perpetrate it, it is far more likely to be Abdullah, whom I believe is the favored candidate of President Karzai.  This would fly in the face of the Afghan peoples wishes, as they have overwhelmingly indicated in the ACSOR poll that they want Afghanistan taken in a new direction. 

Unless we want to see another election tainted by fraud, with the Pashtun in particular potentially seriously aggravated and disenfranchised, it is vital that the International Community uses all the means at its disposal to encourage all parties concerned to actively resist the temptation to cheat.  This must include much greater oversight, closer independent monitoring, external auditing of the votes counted and the application of significant political pressure on all parties.  There is not much time left to beef up this oversight effort but the price of doing nothing more then is already complacently planned, will be far greater.  While President Karzai and some candidates may complain of foreign interference, I think Afghans themselves would welcome such extensive oversight.  There will not be another opportunity for a “correction”.  And if this election is seriously tainted, there may not be another chance for democracy in Afghanistan, which is on the brink of either taking a huge stride toward a better future or a terrible step back to the 1990s.  

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Amid Tragedy, Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic Aspirations Should be Acknowledged

In late May, yet another car bomb exploded at an isolated base in Afghanistan’s famously restive Helmand province, killing seven coalition soldiers and wounding another nine. But these were not typical coalition troops — they weren’t even from a NATO member state. They were Georgians, whose contingent is the sixth largest in Afghanistan, making the small country of 4.5 million the highest per capita contributor to the NATO war effort (PDF). The Helmand bombing took Georgia’s death toll up to 30.

For most of the West, the bombing was but another tock in the seemingly metronomic output of bad news coming out of Afghanistan. Though the incident was the largest loss of life for the coalition since August, it was not an unexpected development at the height of the spring fighting season in Afghanistan’s arguably most infamous region. The New York Times, in a startling act of insensitivity and questionable editorial decision-making, opted to include unflattering — and largely unsubstantiated — allegations of Georgian forces’ rough treatment of locals. “According to some local Afghan elders, the Georgian troops are not particularly well liked in the area,” reported the Times

The piece went on to ponder whether the Georgian language’s “Russian-sounding” timbre (though Georgian is completely unrelated to Russian, or any other non-Kartvelian language) or one elder’s claims of petty thieving were the source of locals’ supposed discontent before qualifying that such complaints were over a year old. Even if the allegations are true, it remains a mystery as to how these issues found themselves in an article reporting on Georgia’s largest single loss of life while participating in ISAF.

The decided flippancy telegraphed by the Times article, and the general yawn that accompanies most casualty news from Afghanistan these days, sharply contrasted to the reaction in Georgia, where the country remains in shock and mourning. However, the real issue isn’t that Western audiences have become desensitized to violence — it can only be expected, particularly in the U.S., where losses in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to edge into the news ticker as regularly as box scores. Instead, Georgia’s losses signify something else entirely because Tbilisi’s participation in Afghanistan is so unusual.

Georgia’s outsized deployment of 1,561 troops to Afghanistan is nothing less than extraordinary for several reasons. Besides being the largest per capita contributor, the Georgian active military totals only some 37,000 in total, making its ratio of deployed to total forces a staggering 1:23. Among the top five ISAF contributors, the ratio climbs after the U.S., the UK, and Georgia. For the U.S., this ratio is 1:21. The UK, 1:25. Germany is 1:42 and Poland is 1:68. Italy is 1:134. And even this obscures the extent of the Georgian commitment. Unlike most coalition members, Georgia is one of the few to deploy such a large force without the inhibiting national caveats that keep many contingents away from the more dangerous regions and missions. But perhaps more importantly, unlike its fellow top-tier contributors, Georgia is a country facing very real security risks at home. In Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgian legal territory is technically under occupation from Russian forces in support of de facto ethno-separatist authorities.

More to the point, Georgia’s impressive (the Times’ isolated allegations aside, U.S. troops highly rate the ability and professionalism of Georgian troops) — and decidedly non-token — contributions to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan aren’t part of any obligations to NATO. Georgian troops have marched off to war in a distant land with which it has no direct national interests. And it has done so without the benefit of a Western or NATO security umbrella. Rather, Tbilisi hopes that its participation in such missions will sell the West on its longstanding desire to join the Atlantic Alliance. Few in the West appear to grasp the significance of Georgia’s deployment and the toll it is exacting all in the hope of eventually being offered a genuine pathway into the Euro-Atlantic security club.

Between its outstanding role in Afghanistan and significant signs of progress in its own neighborhood, Georgia’s increasingly productive role in Euro-Atlantic security ought to be acknowledged with a Membership Action Plan (MAP). While a MAP doesn’t commit NATO to Tbilisi’s inclusion any more than the Alliance has already publicly announced, it would be a major symbolic boost to Tbilisi and would lay down concrete benchmarks in democracy development and security reform. Alliance members wary of Russian opposition should be encouraged by Georgia’s more conciliatory, though unbowed, tone towards Russia. Tbilisi would likely also be willing to entertain NATO membership for those regions of Georgia under Tbilisi’s control as an interim solution, at least temporarily bypassing the sticky issue of the separatist territories.

Delivering a MAP to Georgia would not only be a nod to Georgia’s efforts to be a friend and partner of the West, but would also help reinforce the country’s political development. Although already rated equal to or better than current NATO members like Albania and Turkey or MAP holders Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina by democracy watchdog Freedom House, Georgian democracy is still a work-in-progress. A MAP would help facilitate this process.

There are legitimate concerns over the how best to structure and manage Georgia’s integration with NATO and other Euro-Atlantic structures. However, these are issues that would be best considered and resolved within the MAP process. As for Russia, which vehemently opposes Tbilisi’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, there are small but interesting signs that Moscow is conceding to the eventuality (Ru) of Georgian membership. But more practically, in a post-Reset world, Washington and European capitals have become increasingly aware that there are some issues with Moscow cannot be ironed out through dialogue. 

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