• Obama
  • October 7, 2009
  • 5 minutes read

Getting to Know Afghanistan — 8 Years Late

Getting to Know Afghanistan — 8 Years Late

One of the most shocking things about General Stan McChrystal’s leaked “Commander’s Initial Assessment” about the war in Afghanistan is how bluntly he admits that the US occupation authorities, ISAF (the NATO International Security Assistance Force), and Centcom know little about the country they’ve invaded.

You’d think that, as the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, we’d know a little about the place. But no. As McChrystal writes (page 2-4): “ISAF has not sufficiently studied Afghanistan’s peoples, whose needs, identities, and grievances vary from province to province and from valley to valley.”

That’s a stunner. ISAF has “not sufficiently studied” the very country it’s occupying? After eight years? Read on (page 2-5): “For this strategy to succeed, ISAF leaders must redouble efforts to understand the social and political dynamics [of] all regions of the country.”

He goes on (page 2-10): “Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood. ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population.”

It’s incredibly arrogant that after so long the United States argues that it knows what to do in Afghanistan while, at the same time, admitting in public that it has barely the faintest idea about how the country really works.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Centcom is setting up (for the first time) an intelligence shop to focus on Afghanistan. The new center, says the Journal, is “designed to help troops deepen their intelligence about the country’s complex political and tribal dynamics.” And it reports: “The new intelligence center is meant to provide military and civilian officials in Afghanistan with detailed analysis of the country’s tribal, political and religious dynamics. The center, at Central Command’s Florida headquarters, employs about 150 troops, contractors and civilian officials.”

So, where is this vaunted new “Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell”? In Tampa, Florida! I’m sure that’s an excellent place to study Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, I interviewed one of the few people who actually seems to have a grasp of the complex dynamics of tribes, subtribes and clans in Afghanistan. That’s Seth Jones, a RAND Corporation specialist whose new book, In the Graveyard of Empires, is a must-read, even if you don’t agree with all of his conclusions. In the interview, I spoke to Jones about whether the US military and the intelligence community have a good map of the tribes and their networks.

Here’s that exchange:

Q. Does the United States have a map of these tribes?

A. No.

Q. They don’t?

A. There are maps, but especially down south, very serious micro-level maps that get down to sub-tribes and clans, relationships with criminal organizations, no. That’s being built at the moment.

Q. Maybe you just haven’t seen them?

A. Completely on background, I have Top Secret SCI clearances. I’m telling you.

Q. So why is it seven years into this ….?

A. Well in some areas, like Assadabad, the PRT’s [Provincial Reconstruction Teams] are there….

Q. But without this map…

A. You can’t do anything we’ve talked about. At the very least, linking up with local Afghans. The NDS, Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the ministry of interior, especially when you get into the provinces, there’s an NDS chief for the province, and he’s got a range of NDS operatives, they’ll definitely know, because they’re from the province. It also means linking up with the Afghan government, especially the intelligence service.

Q. So they’re local intelligence people are actually rooted in the area and they know who these people are?

A. Absolutely!

Q. So we have to trust them. We can’t reconstruct a map if they’ve got one.

A. Yes. That is exactly what we have to do. The United States isn’t in all areas. There are some United States forces in and around Qalat, along the ring road. But for the most part, in the south, in Kandahar, some Canadian forces, in Helmand, mostly British, but they’re in the northern parts. So huge chunks of Farah, of Helmand, of Kandahar, northern Zabul, chunks of Uruzgan: no forces. No mapping. And this is the heart of the insurgency. So now we’re sending some Marines down south. And we’ll start mapping. Seven years into the insurgency.

Now, it’s eight years and counting.

Robert Dreyfuss is a contributing editor to The Nation magazine, and the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Metropolitan).