Monday, March 2, 2009

The Other Sandbox

With President Obama recently publicizing troop withdrawal timetables from Iraq and much of the tactical focus shifting to Afghanistan, it will quickly be forgotten that there are still more than 140,000 United States servicemembers deployed in Iraq. I am somewhat fearful that they will be overlooked in these next several months. While the conflict as a whole may be in its twilight, it is still a very real and daily struggle and danger for the thousands still serving there. In our haste to fixate on more “juicy” matters, we must not neglect them in the slightest.

Nevertheless, while historians and commentators who have never seen things first-hand spend the next several decades robustly debating whether we have achieved victory or suffered defeat in Iraq, other conflicts will continue to steal national attention. Afghanistan will be the first. At the risk of appearing insincere with my aforementioned remarks, I, too, wish to throw in my own comments on the subject.

While Iraq has been undeniably awash in sectarianism, tribalism, and even regionalism (unfortunately at the expense of much-needed nationalism), there are a few factors which quickly differentiate it culturally and tactically from the situation in Afghanistan. Foremost among them is terrain.

Iraq is, by and large, exceedingly flat (except for the northern borders), and broken up predominantly by two rivers and a confusing network of canals that make otherwise terribly arid land a fantastic location for crops. There is a relatively well-established highway system, paved roads, and even a fair degree of order to how settlement has been arranged. Above all else, the people go where the water is. Roads connect such localities, and eventually all roads lead to Baghdad and a few other towns. What is not irrigated remains, as it has been for millennia, vast tracts of dusty, sandy wasteland. While roads have been, at times, extremely dangerous to travel by vehicle, a clever reallocation of most air traffic to odd hours of the night has permitted relatively easy travel to and from any given location in the country. Helicopters routinely “taxi” missions through most of the night under the cover of darkness, and will only venture out during the day to transport MVPs and support ground combat operations. For the most part, it works well.

But in Afghanistan there are no such luxuries. In addition to the standard difficulties that desert flight presents (dust storms, and disorienting dust clouds), the terrain itself is such that battlespace dominance is extremely difficult. Helicopters are restricted to certain altitudes, yet various mountains throughout the country impede their travel to more manageable elevations, or force pilots to brave the exponential dangers of higher altitude flight. Combat aircraft crash records quickly indicate this.

Not only does the terrain prohibit the relatively straightforward flight paths seen in Iraq, but even roads are scant. Those that do exist are not nearly as well-maintained as the roads found in Iraq, many are simply dirt (and therefore subject to whatever bizarre weather patterns the country experiences), and tend to wind precariously through the hills and mountains. Their infrequency further prevents battlespace dominance from the roads – relegating troops all the more to foot travel, which is slow, relatively inefficient, and a task for which their limited numbers are grievously undermanned. There is much terrain to cover – and difficult terrain – yet few equipped to do it.

The end result is that regional isolation is simple, permitting Taliban and Al Qaeda elements to quickly establish in small areas, take root, and potentially flourish as coalition forces lack the manpower to conduct thorough presence patrols. Thus, once-gained ground has sometimes been quickly lost in their absence. Not only are the regions isolated, but so also would be any troops left to secure it – if there were even sufficient numbers to do so.

The infamously lawless regions of Afghanistan that border Pakistan have also presented themselves as a profound problem, since the open border has permitted pro-Taliban and Al Qaeda elements to move from an area of combat (Afghanistan) to the relative safety and sympathy of Pakistan – which has done little to check their movements. Yet like Iraq, until Afghanistan’s borders have reached a low level of porosity, material, funding, weaponry, and fighters themselves will continue to move into the country unabated. Pakistan’s unwavering support for such an endeavor is essential – but not at all exhibited at present. That must change.

Culturally, however, there are also some significant matters differences. Until the fall of Saddam, the people of Iraq were fairly simply distilled into three general categories (I am excluding the Kurds because they have operated free of Saddam’s control since Desert Storm). First, are the Baathists – Saddam’s party of Sunnis that remained fiercely loyal to him and him alone. They were a small, highly feared minority. Second was the Sunni population (a minority representing but 17% of the population), who because of their sectarian alignment with Saddam and the Baathists, were left well enough alone, and enjoyed greater autonomy and less harassment than the third group: the Shiites. While Iraq was predominantly Shia, they were the lesser class of citizen, frequently the target of Sunni and Baathist discrimination, and generally looked down upon (especially to the south, where Shiites were quick to side with the United States during Desert Storm and paid for it dearly later).

The consequence of this simplicity is that tribalism, while present, held less weight than it would have otherwise. By sectarian alignment, they universally hated another sect/party, or were the ones being discriminated against by the Sunni minority or the Baathist superminority. Tribalism was not permitted to have the strength that it naturally holds in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, lacked a strong central government or a single, feared leader. While the Taliban was sufficiently discriminatory and ruthless to be considered a threat, many simply aligned with them for the ease of it, and other terrain-isolated regions were banded around tribalism and warlords. Much more than Iraq, violence and a lifetime of constant conflict was the norm. Localities simply vacillated between fighting for various warlords, tribes, or the Taliban. Boundaries and even loyalties remained vague.

A teenaged male growing up in an isolated area may habitually join the local warlord or fighting faction (be it tribal, warlord or Taliban), and be thus quickly indoctrinated into a warmongering culture. When they were told to fight, they fought. This they have been doing for decades. When one warlord or another was dispatched and replaced by another, alliances shifted and men suddenly found themselves fighting on the same side as others they invested years in ruthlessly killing, which suggests that their specific loyalties played a lesser role than their participation in a fight. Perhaps it gave them purpose. It was, undeniably, an innate aspect of their culture. Until one has experienced such things, it is extremely difficult to explain them. Universal rights and wrongs to not particularly exist in the Afghan culture (if there is such a thing). Alliances were formed and broken mostly as a matter of convenience. This dearth of deeply-revered convictions is fairly common in Islamic culture – perhaps in part because the Koran itself lacks the Judaic-style commandments that serve as the pillars of all Judeo-Christian cultures. In this void, convenience and self-interest quickly surpass some universally-acknowledged truths.

It is in this culture that a society that is adapted to, accepts, and perhaps even celebrates violence has been given unhealthy root. Driving out something so deeply engrained in the social, religious, and tribal habits of Afghanis will pose a far greater challenge to coalition forces than it did in Iraq. Iraqis simply needed to overcome sectarian resentment, and years of living under a single megalomaniac. Afghanis, however, must reverse their culture altogether. It will not be an easy task – especially with the limited military and Civilian Affairs personnel available to do it. Their terrain-based isolation only worsens the matter.

These do not, however, amount to insurmountable odds. Successes in the unification of Iraq and the slow process of overcoming sectarian squabbles should serve to further embolden US troops to the task in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it has given them superb practice in the field. They will need it.

Several measures can be undertaken to assist them in this process, however, and it would behoove all coalition forces to unite towards this goal. Foremost, troop numbers must be bolstered to not only root out and eliminate Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, but sufficient numbers must remain in these “secured areas” to keep them away permanently. Unless the Afghan citizenry are constantly exposed to the benefits of some form of democracy, they will continue to treat it as a passing ideology that will soon depart and permit them return to their culture (and truly a cycle) of violence.

Just as it was essential in Iraq, Afghanistan’s borders must be resolutely sealed to prevent ideological and manpower reinforcements to Taliban and Al Qaeda elements within the country. At the moment most of the blame for their growing ranks can be directly blamed on Pakistan’s total failure to quell Taliban and Al Qaeda factions within their own country. Their participation is crucial to the improved security and stability of Afghanistan. In fact, such a situation may be truly impossible without their unequivocal support. At present, it does not exist, and they have actually begun “ceding” large portions of their country to Taliban ideologies. This must necessarily stop.

Additionally, the suicide bombing tactics that so successfully demoralized and impeded troops in Iraq must be firmly halted in its infancy in Afghanistan. As must also the concept of IEDs. Both have gone up exponentially in practice within the country, but with a sealed border, there are insufficient volunteers and ordnance to sustain the practices. Gaining mastery over these highly effective insurgency tactics will permit concentration of combat efforts to small arms fighters, which are far better organized, numerous, and established in Afghanistan than they were in Iraq. Slowly and methodically coalition forces, with heavy reinforcements, can begin a sustainable mission of terrain denial.

The next phase of combat operations will not be easy by any means. In truth, it may require a massive reallocation of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, rather than home where they nation would prefer they be. Yet to continue to approach the Afghan conflict halfheartedly will result either in total failure or an even greater prolonging of a conflict many presumed would be complete years ago. But it must happen. To continue to permit the presence of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces will perpetuate a greatly heightened threat to US and Western interests and citizens throughout the world. The ideology must be terminated, since, as primitive as it may appear from the outside, and as ragtag as the individual fighters may be, their leadership has proven to be powerful, well-connected, well funded, far-reaching, and hateful of all those unlike them. As a nation, we have been shocked at their capabilities once already, and it would be tragic were that to happen again.

The process will necessarily take time, but that should in no way detract from the United States’ vested interested in its success. It remains essential to our safety, and that of much of the western world. It is tragic, however, that so few nations are willing to concede that and offer their assistance. Once again, the United States will find itself prosecuting a war of global significance that most others will view with timidity or outright apathy. This does not defeat us however; and instead only serves to sweeten the victory.

Thanks, Melody, for making me think.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. Since we should have sealed the borders early on in the Iraq reconstruction, why have we not learned from that one mistake and sealed the borders in Afghanistan?
    I realize this can't be a simple task but your thoughts?
    You brought up many differences in the two countries... I've seen photos of the road bulding challenges in Afghanistan, the difficult terrian is an enormous challenge.

  2. This post was too long, so I'll just comment without having read anything but Sarah's comment. Here goes!

    The US seems to have a hard time finishing its overseas tasks. How much of this is dependent on national sentiment back home?

  3. Answer to Sarah's question: The reason the Afghan border is so difficult to secure is largely terrain-based. Rather than needing to secure a couple major arteries (like in Iraq), literally the whole mountainous area must be sealed. We lack the personnel to do this. Furthermore, I can almost guarantee that such a force would daily deal with Pakistani fighters attempting incursions. Such thing would infuriate Islamabad and the general public, and they would be even less likely to assist us in the war on terror. As is, they're virtually useless, if not altogether so.

    Answer to Elizabeth's question: Why does the US seem to have a hard time finishing it's overseas commitments? Because an impatient public, fueled by an extremely unbalanced media that presents inaccurate accounts of whatever is taking place in the war, quickly dismantle whatever public momentum the effort may have once had. A great portion of the public, frankly, is unwilling to actually draw conclusions based on conversations with a genuine veteran of the conflict. It is simply easier to openly oppose it, paint the US government and DOD as the enemy, and attempt to publicly thwart whatever measure they undertake.

    In short, many in the US population have resoundingly demonstrated that they care for the freedom, safety, and rights of nobody but they themselves. And even those they will quickly abandon when a price tag is attached to them (as invariably happens at some point). Americans will never truly enjoy and appreciate freedom until it has been utterly taken from them. Those few that DO understand it will fight for it, and everybody else will continue to misunderstand them, paint them as warmongers, and violent. And thus, they bask in the fruits of the warriors' efforts - perpetuated freedom. I doubt they will learn until they are oppressed, which will not be permitted to happen so long as the military continues to do its job. But, they will forever be hated for it...

  4. I'm glad I could help! :) You provide very interesting , and I believe accurate insights into this complicated problem. Securing the border is definitely the first major step to isolating the problems in Afghanistan, and ideally cutting off the supply of fighters, weapons, and ideological support. However, the increase of troops that this will take won't be popular with the American people, especially considering how short their patience is. The unbalanced reporting of the press only weakens what patience might still exist.

    You talked about the religious composition of Iraq, but didn't mention anything about Afghanistan's religious makeup, other than mentioning tribalism. Is that due to the fact that their religious identities are secondary to their tribal or cultural ones? Is the Taliban a religiously motivated group or tribal? If religious, how are they aligned, in comparison to Iraq's sectarian divisions? Are there lessons learned from the religious groups in Iraq - their mindsets or possible intents - that could be applied in Afghanistan?

    Also, the question of Pakistan's cultural and physical geography arises, considering their tacit support of the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, as well as their political interactions and relationship with the US. If the borders cannot be closed from one side, perhaps the flow can be slowed from the other side of the line. Obviously, they are allowing support of insurgencies in Afghanistan to continue, but why? What is their goal? How can we put political pressure on or persuade Pakistan to work openly against the Taliban fighers moving across the border?

    I appreciate your focus on the challenges the terrain presents to the counter-insurgency effort. That essential evironmental awareness that is part of the battlefield dominance is often neglected in intel and reports by those in command. It is primarily those on the ground who appreciate and deal with the challenges presented by harsh and unforgiving terrain. It should be taken into account more often by those giving the orders.

    Sorry, I guess I left that with more questions than comments! Good analysis, although, as we both know, the situation is far more complicated than any brief synopsis can explain. Still, some explanation is better than none, especially for those who have never been there themselves. (Which is me as well, despite all of my pretending at knowledge above!)

  5. More answers:

    It is difficult to separate Islamic faith from culture in both the Islamo-Arab groups in Iraq, and the Islamo-Persian, Urdu, Pashtu, etc. cultures of Afghanistan. Every aspect of their culture is linked to their faith. At times, it is difficult to distinguish which is the root of certain customs and behaviors. They are too tightly linked.

    What political (or other) pressure would help gain Pakistani cooperation in sealing their side of the border? I do not know, namely since the entire region along the border appears decidedly sympathetic to the Taliban and Al Qaeda cause. At the risk of sounding perhaps barbaric, they must be completely silenced before any alternative view has any chance of taking root. Yet, since this is just as much cultural as it is religious, it requires perhaps a nearly-impossible reversal of their ideologies and thinking. Islamic culture (since it is more than a religion) does not align terribly well with any sort of democracy.

    If I speak in general terms here, and I do, it is because I truly do not know the answer to your questions. What I know I have not gained from personal observation, but gleaned it from Afghanistan veterans, the news, and personal reading (particularly Rory Stewart's "The Places In Between."). I highly recommend that book for its glimpse into a very closed, radically different culture.

    As for Pakistan, however, they show no sign of the conviction that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are a threat to their lifestyle and country. In fact, their actions in the past few months are almost a direct reversal to the gains made under the leadership of Pervez Musharraf. The country, as whole, is changing. And frankly, mostly in the wrong direction. They are increasingly tolerant of radical, violent Islamic elements. This position, unfortunately, is poisonous to their neighbor Afghanistan, which has a reasonable shot at being among the first halfway democratic Persian countries in the world.

  6. One thing easily overlooked is that the US has not prosecuted any war to a satisfactory ending since World War II...unless you count Grenada or Panama, and they were pretty sorry excuses for wars.

    Traditional wars are either won or lost. The governments are defeated and we win. Then we occupy the country until we are ready to leave. This is certainly not possible when you are fighting, not the government, but
    the way of life. We have sadly embarked on a modern crusade and it can not succeed any more than those of 1000 years ago.

    The answer is to eradicate the Taliban, and destroy the Al Queda network and leave. They will hate us for another 1000 years. However, we remove the threat to our national security.

  7. Years ago when the war was new and chat was buzzing on various reputable sites, I visited a political chatroom hosted by an actual government employee, and in this room I suggested that we start schools over there that would feed the children, offer computer learning and other perks, and at the same time indoctrinate and/or teach them the way of peace. One of the higher ups in the online forum counter suggested that American men take wives from over there and raise the kids to be Americans. I liked my idea better.

  8. What one may find interesting is that, while there are certainly a large number of Vietnam veterans who have zero interest in returning or even associating with Vietnamese, there is a similarly large number that fell in love with the culture, the social constructs, and also married Vietnamese women. It was not, however, part of a govt plan to better the country with "American genes." The secret to winning a counterinsurgency (though very few successful models exist) is to win the hearts and minds of the populace. Such measures have begun, but will necessarily take time, patience, and a tremendous committal of resources.

  9. "Now it is not good for the Christian's health to hustle the Aryan brown
    for the Christian riles and the Aryan smiles
    and it wearth the Christian down

    And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased

    and the epitaph drear: "A fool lies here who tried to hustle the East""

    -Rudyard Kipling