Down the AfPak Rabbit Hole

The village of Marjah is a meaningless strategic backwater. So why are the Pentagon and the press telling us the battle there was a huge victory?

The release of Tim Burton's new blockbuster movie, Alice in Wonderland, is days away. The timing could not be more appropriate. Lewis Carroll's ironically opium-inspired tale of a rational person caught up inside a mad world with its own bizarre but consistent internal (il)logic has now surpassed Vietnam as the best paradigm to understand the war in Afghanistan.

The war in Afghanistan, as we have written here and in Military Review (pdf), is indeed a near replication of the Vietnam War, including the assault on the strategically meaningless village of Marjah, which is itself a perfect re-enactment of Operation Meade River in 1968. But the callous cynicism of this war, which we described here in early December, and the mainstream media's brainless reporting on it, have descended past these sane parallels. We have now gone down the rabbit hole.

Two months ago, the collection of mud-brick hovels known as Marjah might have been mistaken for a flyspeck on maps of Afghanistan. Today the media has nearly doubled its population from less than 50,000 to 80,000 -- the entire population of Nad Ali district, of which Nad Ali is the largest town, is approximately 99,000 -- and portrays the offensive there as the equivalent of the Normandy invasion, and the beginning of the end for the Taliban. In fact, however, the entire district of Nad Ali, which contains Marjah, represents about 2 percent of Regional Command (RC) South, the U.S. military's operational area that encompasses Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, Nimruz, and Daikundi provinces. RC South by itself is larger than all of South Vietnam, and the Taliban controls virtually all of it. This appears to have occurred to no one in the media.

Nor have any noted that taking this nearly worthless postage stamp of real estate has tied down about half of all the real combat power and aviation assets of the international coalition in Afghanistan for a quarter of a year. The possibility that wasting massive amounts of U.S. and British blood, treasure, and time just to establish an Afghan Potemkin village with a "government in a box" might be exactly what the Taliban wants the coalition to do has apparently not occurred to either the press or to the generals who designed this operation.

In reality, this battle -- the largest in Afghanistan since 2001 -- is essentially a giant public affairs exercise, designed to shore up dwindling domestic support for the war by creating an illusion of progress. In reporting it, the media has gulped down the whole bottle of "drink me" and shrunk to journalistic insignificance. In South Vietnam, an operational area smaller than RC South, the United States and its allies had over 2 million men under arms, including more than half a million Americans, the million-man Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), 75,000 coalition troops, the Vietnamese Regional Forces and Popular Forces (known as "Ruff-Puffs"), the South Vietnamese police, the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) and other militias -- and lost.

Yet the media is breathlessly regurgitating Pentagon pronouncements that we have "turned the corner" and "reversed the momentum" in Afghanistan with fewer than 45,000 men under arms in all of RC South (including the Afghan army and police) by fighting for a month to secure a single hamlet. Last year this would have been déjà vu of the "five o'clock follies" of the Vietnam War. Now it feels more like the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. "How can we have more success," Alice might ask, "when we haven't had any yet?"

So here we are in the AfPak Wonderland, complete with a Mad Hatter (the clueless and complacent media), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (the military, endlessly repeating itself and history), the White Rabbit (the State Department, scurrying to meetings and utterly irrelevant), the stoned Caterpillar (the CIA, obtuse, arrogant, and asking the wrong questions), the Dormouse (U.S. Embassy Kabul, who wakes up once in a while only to have his head stuffed in a teapot), the Cheshire Cat (President Obama, fading in and out of the picture, eloquent but puzzling), the Pack of Cards army (the Afghan National Army, self-explanatory), and their commander, the inane Queen of Hearts (Afghan President Hamid Karzai). (In Alice in Wonderland, however, the Dormouse is "suppressed" by the Queen of Hearts, not the White Rabbit or the Cheshire Cat, so the analogy is not quite perfect.)

For his part, as the Economist noted this week, Karzai has made fools of all the Western officials who sternly admonished him to begin a new era of transparent democracy, seizing control of the Electoral Complaints Commission to dismiss its independent members. Like the Queen of Hearts, Karzai has literally lost his marbles, according to our sources in the presidential palace. Or, as U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry more diplomatically phrased it in his leaked cable, his behavior has become "erratic." He hasn't started shouting "off with their heads" yet, but the legitimacy thing is toast. Only the massive public relations exercise in Marjah kept Karzai's kleptocracy out of the media spotlight in February.

The military and political madness of the AfPak Wonderland has entered a new chapter of folly with the detention of a few Taliban mullahs in Pakistan, most notably Mullah Baradar, once the military strategist of the Quetta Shura, the primary Taliban leadership council headed by Mullah Omar. Like the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon in Alice in Wonderland, this has the Washington establishment dancing the whacked-out Lobster-Quadrille: Instant Afghanistan experts at the White House and pundits at august Beltway institutions like the Brookings Institution are absurdly calling the detentions a "sea change" in Pakistani behavior.

In fact, it is no such thing. Pakistan has not abandoned overnight its 50-year worship of the totem of "strategic depth," its cornerstone belief that it must control Afghanistan, or its marriage to the Taliban, and anyone who believes that is indulging in magical thinking. What has happened is, in fact, a purge by Taliban hard-liners of men perceived to be insufficiently reliable, either ethnically or politically, or both. It is well-known that there had been a schism in the Quetta Shura for months, with hard-liner and former Gitmo prisoner Mullah Zakir (aka Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul) coming out on top over Mullah Baradar. Baradar sheltered fellow Popalzai Hamid Karzai in 2001 and possibly saved his life after an errant U.S. bomb in Uruzgan province killed several men on the Special Forces team that was escorting him. Baradar later became a confidant of the president's  brother, paid CIA informer Ahmed Wali Karzai, and met occasionally with the president himself in the tangled web of Afghan politics.

The core Ghilzai leadership of the Taliban had long suspected Baradar of being too willing to negotiate and too partial to his kinsmen in making field appointments. Indeed, this suspicion led to the creation of the Quetta Shura's Accountability Council in late 2009, whose job apparently included removing many of Baradar's excessively Durrani and Karlani appointments.

This explains why when Mullah Zakir, the hard-line military chief of the Quetta Shura along with Baradar, was detained near Peshawar two weeks after Baradar was detained, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) - Pakistan's powerful military spy service -- released him immediately. Meanwhile, all of the other lesser figures currently in detention (including Abdul Kabir, aka Mullah Abdul Kahir Osmani, the RC East regional commander; Mullah Abdul Rauf Aliza, an Alizai Durrani, former Gitmo prisoner, and Taliban military chief for northern Afghanistan; and Mullah Ahmed Jan Akhundzada, former shadow governor of Uruzgan province and Ishaqzai Durrani) are known moderates and allies of Baradar.

In other words, the Quetta Shura has used the ISI, its loyal and steadfast patron, to take out its trash. Those few mullahs suspected of being amenable to discussions with the infidel enemy and thus ideologically impure have now been removed from the jihad. This is not cooperation against the Taliban by an allied state; it is collusion with the Taliban by an enemy state. Pakistan is in fact following its own perceived strategic interests, which do not coincide with those of the United States. Pakistan has masterfully plied the Western establishment with an LSD-laced "drink me" cocktail of its own, convincing everyone that it is a frail and fragile Humpty-Dumpty that must not be pushed too hard, lest the nuclear egg fall off the wall. This is nonsense. In fact, what is needed against Pakistan's military leaders is a lever more powerful than "strategic depth" to force them into compliance and make them stop sheltering al Qaeda, destabilizing Afghanistan, and killing hundreds of Americans by proxy.

Unfortunately, in this AfPak Wonderland, there does not appear to be any magic mushroom to get back to normal. Instead, Afghanistan and Pakistan policy is trapped in an endless loop in a mad policy world operating under its own consistent internal illogic. Unlike Alice, the handful of Afghan analysts in the United States who actually understand what is happening cannot wake up or break through the corporate media noise. Far worse, thousands of brave U.S. Marines and soldiers are caught up in this deadly political croquet game where IEDs, not hedgehogs, are the game balls. The Duchess's baby really has turned into a pig, and there seems to be no way out of this increasingly insane rabbit hole.

POOL/AFP/Getty Images


Yemen's 15 Minutes of Fame

The world's attention may have moved on since January, but that doesn't mean the country's problems have disappeared.

Remember Yemen? For a few short weeks this winter, after the Yemen-trained Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried (and failed) to blow up a commercial airliner in Detroit, the troubled country found itself under a rare media spotlight. Journalists descended on the capital, Sanaa; pundits offered advice for fighting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ending Yemen's two insurgencies. Congress called hearings. Yemen's foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, was a regular guest on international news networks.

The country was the new Afghanistan, many said, the latest worrisome safe haven for al Qaeda and its affiliates. U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman declared it "tomorrow's war."

And now: nothing. Most of the reporters who landed in Yemen shortly after the failed bombing have left the country. If you search Google News for "Yemen," you'll get 24,100 results for January. For February? Just 593 -- many of them wire stories or items from the handful of blogs that regularly cover the country. The contrast is even starker on TV news, where the word "Yemen" was uttered exactly twice on U.S. evening newscasts in February, both times in the context of the bombing plot.

In Washington, too, the discussion has largely stopped: The congressional hearings and think-tank discussions have ended, and Yemen only merited mention at one State Department press briefing in February.

The Abdulmutallab plot convinced Americans that they should pay attention to Yemen -- but as quickly as it arrived in the public consciousness, it disappeared. The few weeks of media attention did little to dispel popular misconceptions of the country, so often portrayed as a drug-addled nation of radical terrorist sympathizers. Journalists who should probably know better often reinforced the myths: Thomas Friedman's two Yemen columns in February recounted a khat chew and fretted about Osama bin Laden greeting him at Sanaa's airport. The brief public debate also failed to answer a number of key policy questions or clarify the United States' often muddled Yemen policy.

The lack of attention now is unfortunate because -- despite the media's silence -- quite a bit has happened in Yemen over the last few weeks. The Zaidi Shiite rebels in northern Yemen -- the Houthis -- agreed to cease-fires with both the Yemeni and Saudi governments. The rebels have taken steps to implement both truces, releasing most of their Saudi prisoners of war and clearing roadblocks from northern Yemen.

But though the fighting has largely stopped, reconstruction has yet to begin. Northern Yemen's infrastructure is shattered after years of war: The fighting has demolished "7,180 houses, 1,412 farms, 267 mosques, 94 schools, eight medical centers, four police stations, three court buildings, three other government facilities and two religious centers," according to an estimate published in January in Small Wars Journal. A quarter-million people have been displaced in Yemen, and many have been displaced in villages in Saudi Arabia along the border.

Western countries have pledged to provide development and humanitarian assistance to Yemen; rebuilding the devastated north should be a major goal of those aid efforts. And yet the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in late February had to approve a $5 million bridge loan to finance its operations in northern Yemen. It shifted money away from other programs, in other words, so it could continue to provide basic services to refugees and internally displaced persons in Yemen's border regions.

Why was this kind of last-ditch effort necessary? Because international donors have contributed less than 10 percent of the $39 million the UNHCR says it needs to fund operations in northern Yemen this year.

"This step is an alternative to scaling down or suspending UNHCR's protection and assistance programs," Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the agency in Geneva, said at a news briefing.

Refugees in the north might seem irrelevant to policymakers in Washington or London. The Houthi conflict is an internal issue (though it has drawn in Saudi Arabia as well), and predominantly Shiite northern Yemen isn't a very fertile recruiting ground for a stridently Sunni organization like al Qaeda.

But the Houthi conflict is a central piece of Yemen's complex political and socioeconomic puzzle. The Yemeni government has spent millions of dollars fighting the Houthis since 2004, draining an already-depleted treasury. And every dollar that's spent fighting the rebels is a dollar that can't be used to fight al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- or to spur economic development in a desperately poor country where half the population lives on $2 or less per day.

The Houthi conflict has quieted down, for now, though previous cease-fires have collapsed after weeks or months. In southern Yemen, the government continues to round up members of the separatist movement: More than 130 people were arrested in the last week of February, and Tariq al-Fadhli, the separatists' leader, has pledged "acts of civil disobedience" against the government.

Both of these conflicts distract the government from dealing with the small AQAP presence in the country. Yemen's Interior Ministry made a much-publicized pledge on Feb. 9 to fight the group "around the clock" -- or that's how it was reported, at least. The actual Arabic statement, though, made almost no mention of al Qaeda; instead, it promised to fight "the terrorists" -- al-irhabeen -- a shorthand the government often uses for all its internal threats. The statement pleased an international audience, which viewed it as proof of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's willingness to fight al Qaeda, but it was also intended as a not-so-veiled threat to his domestic foes.

Another unanswered question is the proper role of development aid. Both of Yemen's insurgencies are fueled, in part, by complaints about a lack of economic development and the government's inability to provide basic services. Economic issues, then, should be a key part of Western policy toward Yemen, but questions linger about what sort of foreign aid is best. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University and an FP contributor, has urged more development aid "as a way of dealing with local grievances in an attempt to peel-off would-be members of al-Qaeda." FP's Marc Lynch notes the government's "mind-boggling" corruption and advises a more modest approach to foreign aid.

International donors have pledged to give more, though specific commitments are still vague. Representatives from Gulf Cooperation Council countries -- plus the United States and the European Union -- met in Riyadh on Feb. 27 for another international conference on aid to Yemen. President Saleh is looking to raise $40 billion from international donors over the next five years but got little in concrete commitments.

The United States, for its part, has pledged to deliver $121 million in development aid to Yemen over the next three years. The U.S. Agency for International Development says the money will focus on a few key areas, such as increasing youth employment and improving the Yemeni government's ability to deliver health care and education. That's an insignificant sum -- less than $2 per Yemeni per year -- and it's unlikely to have a significant impact on Yemen's economic problems.

Most U.S. aid to Yemen is still focused on the military. Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, was the first high-ranking U.S. official to visit Yemen after the Christmas Day bombing plot. He met personally with Saleh and delivered a letter that promised to double the United States' $70 million annual budget for training and equipping Yemen's security forces.

Military aid would undoubtedly help Sanaa combat AQAP. Saleh's government, though, views security assistance as "dual use": New training and hardware will help the Yemeni Army fight the Houthis and the southern separatists. But the Army's conduct in both conflicts has often been brutal -- so U.S. support for those conflicts, even unintentional, could fuel anti-American sentiment in Yemen.

"Countries working with the Yemeni government should recognize that many Yemenis see their government as a greater threat to their security than al Qaeda," Human Rights Watch wrote in a Jan. 22 memo, which urged the United States to ensure its security assistance is not used to commit human rights abuses.

Security assistance is ultimately a short-term fix to a long-term problem. Yemen's mounting economic woes -- the country is running out of oil and water, the official unemployment rate is 35 percent, the state-run power company can meet only 83 percent of the country's rapidly growing electricity demand -- will rapidly become a regional concern, as impoverished Yemenis leave the country in search of work.

And that failing economy could create security problems for the region and the West. AQAP remains deeply unpopular in Yemen; the group has less than 300 active members in the country, according to most estimates from Western and Yemeni intelligence officials. But the group has shown itself able to exploit Yemen's internal grievances, particularly in the south, as a useful recruiting tool. As the economy deteriorates, the government's ability to provide services -- and thus its authority -- will continue to weaken. That could make parts of Yemen a useful base for AQAP and affiliated groups.

Yemen will surely never command the attention that, say, Afghanistan does -- at least not while U.S. soldiers are fighting and dying in the latter. But Washington still needs a holistic policy toward Yemen, one that addresses the country's longstanding socioeconomic problems and political grievances. That requires a sustained focus from policymakers and analysts (and even reporters!) -- not a reactive approach that simply escalates military aid without regard for the consequences and offers superficial solutions to Yemen's woes.