Sunday, July 01, 2007

# Posted 11:35 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

CAN YOU WIN THE BATTLE FOR HEARTS AND MINDS BUT STILL LOSE THE WAR? In 2006, the conventional wisdom about Afghanistan became increasingly pessimistic. Once considered a moderate success story, it was becoming a demonstration of the United States ability to defeat any sort of determined insurgents. In a recent dispatch from Afghanistan [TNR -- subscription only], Peter Bergen describes 2006 in numbers:
The day I arrived in Kabul, a suicide bomber detonated his bomb near the Afghan parliament, killing himself and two bystanders. It was the third suicide attack in Kabul in as many weeks. In 2006, suicide attacks in Afghanistan quintupled to 139; IED attacks doubled; attacks on international forces tripled; 700 Afghan civilians died at the hands of the insurgents; U.S. and NATO military deaths were at their highest levels since the Taliban was ousted; and Western forces continued to mistakenly kill local civilians.
The optimist might say that those numbers demonstrate what a paradise Afghanistan is compared to Iraq. It takes a few weeks, not a year, for 700 Iraqi civilians to be killed by Sunni bombers and Shi'ite death squads. If the US could keep Iraq at a low boil with 15,000 troops instead of ten times that number, we would be overjoyed. But the trend remains disturbing nonetheless.

Even so, I haven't touched on the real fodder for optimists: the public opinion figures for Afghanistan. Bergen reports that:
Strangely, despite all the problems facing their country, Afghans remain decisively upbeat about both their government and the presence of international forces. According to a countrywide poll conducted by ABC News and the BBC late last year, President Karzai enjoys an approval rating of 68 percent, while 88 percent say they are happy the United States invaded, 74 percent hold a favorable opinion of America, and 80 percent say they want foreign troops to remain.
Other than a failure of polling methodology, what could explain such an outcome? Shouldn't the residents of an occupied, war-torn country hate their invaders?

Several hypotheses can be easily dismissed, I think. First, one might say that the US has simply done a better job of fighting the war in Afghanistan. But I'm not aware of any significant differences in how we've approached the Taliban insurgents as opposed to their counterparts in Iraq. Another hypothesis is that the United States overthrew a much more hated regime in Afghanistan than it did in Iraq. But if anything, one could argue that the Taliban had broader public support. Alternately, one could hypothesize that ethnic and sectarian conflicts are less intense in Afghanistan than they are in Iraq. Yet ethnicity and religion brought more than a decade of brutal war to Afghanistan. Next, one might speculate that Afghans are simply more welcoming of outside intervention in its politics. Yet Afghanistan had long been known as the graveyard of empire, not least because of the defeat its warriors inflicted on the Soviets.

So then, what factors could be responsible for these different outcomes? One clear distinction between the two wars is that there was a multilateral consensus behind the invasion of Afghanistan, but not behind the invasion of Iraq. By extension, there is a multilateral presence now in Afghanistan, but only American and a handful of other military personnel in Iraq. But what evidence do we have that this has affected the course of the insurgency? In Iraq, the Shi'ites remain convinced that getting rid of Saddam was for the best. And it doesn't seem that the Sunnis would have been any more welcoming of a more multilateral occupation. After all, UN headquarters in Iraq was one of the insurgents' first major targets.

If one is looking for differences, one factor I would suggest is geography. Iraq is in the heart of the Arab world. Afghanistan is on its periphery. Even though Al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan until 9/11, it is a movement born of the Arab world. I'd appreciate your thoughts on that hypothesis, since it is hardly air-tight. For example, in one important respect, geography favors the Afghan insurgents. As Prof. Porter has often observed, cross-border sanctuaries tend to be critical to the success of any insurgency. In that regard, the Pakistani frontier is far better than what the insurgents have in Iraq.

But before we get carried away with asking why, relatively speaking, the situation is better in Afghanistan, it is worth revisiting the issue of how much worse the situation in Afghanistan will get. As the title of this post asks, can you win the battle for hearts and minds but still lose the war? Can the Taliban continue to surge in spite of widespread support for the Karzai government and its American support? We often hear in this country that there is no such thing as a military solution to a guerrilla/civil war. In the end, it comes down to politics. Perhaps the Taliban have failed to learn this lesson, and thus their success will only be ephemeral? Or will the Taliban demonstrate that the iron law of counterinsurgency -- that the support of the population is everything -- may not apply in certain situations?

Heck if I know. What do you think?


(19) opinions -- Add your opinion

Afghani's have a long tradition of tribal combat. Like the ancient Greeks, they meet every summer to fight. Afghani politics reflect their war culture.

Iraqi society punishes decisive action, and rewards incremental moves. The previous regimes stifled all decisive action by preemptive execution. Iraqi warfighting is also incremental, and incrementalism is shit for war strategy. While Iraqi's have yet to learn how to fight, they seem to be getting it lately.

Then you have the Americans. Our (I'm American) military is capable of a decisive war of annihilation against insurgents. Unfortunately, the US has no will to fight. American war politics meet Machiavelli's definition of 'effeminacy.'

It's not that we can't win wars, it's that we like to start wars and then choose not to win them. In this regard, al-Qaeda is correct. We are a paper tiger.
I´d say the difference comes down to the governments which were installed in both countries. Karzai´s regime evidently does not set up torture stations or encourage sectarian attacks against a section of its own citizens,as appears to be the case with the Iraqi government and Sunnis.

I´d suspect that the positive figures are overstated in this poll however. Afghanistan must be a very difficult country to poll accurately.
The whole issue with winning against an insurgency is a matter of national will. This country has fought its share of counterinsurgencies and has actually performed well. In the current climate however all an enemy has to do is generate enough violence to have it reported and our political and journalistic classes fall over themselves to declare defeat. On this point the investment our own media has in sowing defeat in Iraq is remarkable. Whether it is up to the second death counts that only note US casualties and other "enlightened" features, the message that resounds loud and clear is that you only need to keep fighting, no matter how ineffectually, and our media will play along and our politicians will panic. If anything that is the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan that is really most critical. Our media and a sizeable portion of our political establishment is not invested in defeat in Afghanistan (a war that they ultimately could not oppose even if they wanted to based on 9/11) but is invested in defeat in Iraq, which it considers a war of choice. The media early on made strategic choices in how it wanted to report the Iraq war (remember the ubiquitous "this is the nth US soldier killed since Bush declared the end of major combat" headlines, which loosely translated means "please kill another US soldier so that we can blithely report it", albeit in tastefully somber tones), choices that continue today. Because the insurgency we see today is essentially an information war, which means that the journalists have a measure of responsibilty for the degrees to which they enable this type of warfare. What has happened in Iraq is as much, if not more, a reflection of the informational environment where the "insurgents" are effectively rewarded for every discrete violent act, than for any other more concrete condition. Whether this is an institutional or ideological phenomenon (I go with the second choice), it shows how hard it is to win a war when a nation's media is not on board and how our enemies can easily use our media as a strategic asset. That for the time being is why Afghanistan seems to differ.
I agree in principle that national will is essential to prevailing in counterinsurgency. Yet I differ strongly with the definition of 'will' relied on by both the previous post and the first one above.

The US media emphasizes the negative, because that is what it always does. But the real question to ask about national will is not whether better coverage would lead to greater public support, but why no one, from left to right, ever thought seriously about deploying enough manpower -- military and civilian -- to prevail against the insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Before the invasion of Iraq (and pretty much before the invasion of Afghanistan as well) almost no one thought about post-invasion operations as integral to winning the War on Terror. Thus, when things started going bad in Iraq, the issue was rapidly politicized, reflected earlier positions on whether the war itself was justified.

Those concerned with the war should critique the media constructivevly and aggressively. But the way to rebuild national will is with smarter work on the ground that shows results.
The obvious difference is that Taliban domination of Afghanistan was neither as complete nor as long-lived as Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq. Hence, in Afghanistan, there were pre-established alternatives--chiefly the Northern Alliance--ready to take over when the US overthrew the Taliban. These indigenous political actors were able to take advantage of the resulting power vaccuum and establish themselves as a legitimate government, winning the loyalties of local leaders and organizing domestic security forces capable of both maintaining order and preventing (with Western help) a Taliban insurgence.

In Iraq, on the other hand, two decades of Ba'ath totalitarianism had wiped out all alternative political bodies--apart from criminal, terrorist and foreign-sponsored ones. These, then, were the ones who filled the power vaccuum most quickly when the US ousted Saddam Hussein.

A natural comparison is Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. Those countries with the most active civil societies--Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary--had the easiest transition to peaceful, democratic rule, whereas those where the Communist rulers had more effectively suppressed alternative social forces had the most trouble fending off sundry tyrants, local warlords or utter lawlessness once the Soviets were gone.

(I'll dodge the messy question of what social or cultural properties, if any, make some societies more capable than others of generating alternative civil societies while under dictatorship, and whether Iraq and Afghanistan may somehow differ in that regard.)
I agree with Niall that there is a real problem with information: knowing of the terrible recriminations that might come with backing the wrong horse, Afghans often 'hedge', either supporting both sides at different times or refusing to support one side outright.

The US-led coalition arrives, and they express support. After sunset, the Taliban arrive, and they express support.

Many probably do prefer the international forces and the programme of nationbuilding and reconstruction, and they probably don't want to see a regime that banned music and girls schools return.

But they are also aware that the Taliban have the advantage of time, and that the international forces and their governments may lose heart and pull out. It also doesn't help that we've been burning down their economy.

On the 'hearts and minds' issue, it thus depends much on who looks like they will prevail in the long term. Its about strength and credibility, not just being politically attractive.
Patrick - if I don't remember to email you regarding your article in the next couple of days, give me a prod.

My instinct on this - and I stress it's only that is that the two main planks we're dealing with here are, first of all what Patrick has outlined, namely that it's actually vary loose soil trying to get accurate poll results and we need to be very careful of taking the polling at face value (Though there does seem to be a good case to be made that the coalition retains the acquiescence of most Afghans, especially of the non-Pashtun variety) and second of all the fact that in Iraq the coalition's legitimacy has been bum-raped by the fact that it was proven incapable of providing order and security to a degree that has not (yet) manifested in Afghanistan.

It's also arguable that the different groupings within Afghanistan have - with glaring exceptions - been manages better than in Iraq and that a bigger segment of the population has more to gain by NATO staying put.
In Afghanistan, almost every tribal/ethnic group has been on top and on bottom in the last few decades. There was a general willingness to try something new.

In Iraq, the Sunnis have ruled under the Ba'ath, under the monarchy, under the Ottomans. They see themselves as the rightfully dominant group and were intrinsically hostile to any new regime which did not leave them dominant.

The area of Iraq most like Afghanistan--Kurdistan, peopled by non-Arabs who really wanted to try something new and where the US could support local forces--is the area which is even more peaceful than Afghanistan.

So, the answer is local circumstances: specifically Sunni intransigence somewhat aggravated by Shi'a political inexperience.
It's simply not true that there is no military solution to a civil war and that only politics works. Jefferson Davis wasn't interested in negotiating, or in a political solution, and the only reason his presidency ended is because of the North's military victory over the South.
Yet I differ strongly with the definition of 'will' relied on by both the previous post and the first one above.

Why? I completely agree with what you've written, and I can find no contradiction whatsoever.
Two things jump out at me.

The first is that Afghanistan has been a country for over 250 years, Iraq has only been around for about 80. Afghans may just have more of a sense of nationhood. Kurdistan is effectively independent. I don't know of any region of Afghanistan that has tried to secede.

The second is that Afghans may understand why they were invaded, the Iraqis do not. The Taliban was hosting an aorganization that attacked the US. The US came to kick them out. Anyone can understand that. The case for invading Iraq and the subsequent collateral sufferring is just not as clear.
I do believe the presence of international, coalition forces may be a deciding factor for the future of Afghanistan. International forces suggest a consensus among many governments, which offers more credibility to their involvement in Afghanistan. Additionally, dedication to rebuilding the nation, to developing a working government and to building an infrastructure that supports the people make international involvement seem like a genuine effort to help the people of Afghanistan rehabilitate following the fall of the Taliban.

In Iraq, the situation is completely different. The forces are primarily US, the conflict is commonly called the War in Iraq, there is much debate over U.S. involvement in the country and, as others have pointed out, there were few alternatives waiting to take Saddam's place once his regime was changed. The whole tenor of international involvement is different, which might explain why Iraqi opinion on US involvement is mixed and why public sentiment in Afghanistan seems to support international involvement.

However, the recent surge of Taliban-led attacks and their recent changes in tactics (greater use of suicide bombs, for example), is an interesting development that should not be ignored. Such rogue tactics are often the most difficult to overcome or defend against...
Lady Mary,

the Sunni insurgents demonstrated their attitude to international involvement and multilateralism when they blew up the UN Headquarters in Iraq.

There are plenty of vital differences between the two cases, but the lack of an international consensus over Iraq I suggest does not explain one little bit why Iraqi militant groups want to kill Americans and each other.
Patrick Porter
the Sunni insurgents demonstrated their attitude to international involvement and multilateralism when they blew up the UN Headquarters in Iraq.

Patrick, with all due respect of your view, I think you miscalculate and miss reading the reality on the ground in Iraq that going five years now.

If you allow me to put these points to inlight my argument and to out some truths that very clear which telling what’s went wrong in Iraq.

1- By saying “Sunni insurgents” to be blames for all crimes and terrorists acts its not reflects that facts on the ground, Iraq after 2003 with Paul Bremere one line order to dismantled 250,000 Iraqi army force which left Iraq open to all those terrorist and criminals from around the world who seek the opportunities make Iraq is the most attractive place on the earth moreover order Paul Bremer order 57 that give immunity for the security contractors in Iraq from any excursions by Iraqi law make Iraq just a haven of terrorists on the ground.

2- With Iraqi two neighbours the most naive states with a historical support and records of Islamic extremists terrorists (Iran, and Saudis) with the desire to bring down any success of democratic state in Iraq which really will be real threat to both regimes and other in the region make them very egger to sent their criminals and terrorist to Iraq under the name of Jihad while in specially from Saudi first to down democratic process in Iraq and secondly to get rid of those Islamic extremist who are brain washed and breaded for 100 years by those Saudis religious clerics who serving house of Saudi.

3- With Iran the motive may be different as part of historical revenges from Iraq back to Cyrus time to latest Iraq/Iran 8 years war, one example tell us of their dirty work inside Iraq the killing and assassination of the most very high ranks military personal specially those who commands Iraqi troops in that 8 years war and also the Iraqi Air Force personal those pilots who did hits Iran badly during the war the best example the last battle in Karbla when the media reported the battle about “Solder of Sky” that area it the home” tribe” with large farms and land owned by that tribe one of the most bravery and smart guy he is the commander of the feet that destroyed Al-Kharj base in Iran during the war.

4- I believe you be well aware about what reported in many media sources about death Squads and who behind them who support them and what plane for this squad to do inside Iraq.

Finally I pick your attention to the report done by The International Crisis Group last June called “Where Is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra” it’s really stated very clear the case of struggle in Iraq with the groups and criminals who involved the bloodshed in Iraq today:

Basra is a case study of Iraq’s multiple and multiplying forms of violence. These often have little to do with sectarianism or anti-occupation resistance. Instead, they involve the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighbourhood vigilantism and enforcement of social mores, together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly intermingle with political actors. Should other causes of strife sectarian violence and the fight against coalition forces recede, the concern must still be that Basra's fate will be replicated throughout the country on a larger, more chaotic and more dangerous scale. The lessons are clear. Iraq’s violence is multifaceted, and sectarianism is only one of its sources.

The International Crisis Group (Crisis Group) is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation, with over 130 staff members on five continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.

Also recent terrorist acts in Lebanon in the Al-Naher Al-Bareed (Cold River) its appeare to be many Saudis extremists killed and caught their, the last one the Pakistani Red mosque and I believe you are well aware that Pakistani one the most place that Saudis doing their Wahabi extremists job by those Madrasa their toady reported that the head of that terrorist group caught wearing Burkah dressing like woman.

much of what you say is right. the Sunni insurgents are not the only aggressor, nor are they one unified body.

I am simply saying that international agreement for the occupation probably would not have reconciled most of the warring factions in Iraq towards the American presence.
How about, Iraq was poor, and a depotism, but more or less stable pre-war. Afghanistan was a disaster area, and had been for 25 years. I low level insurgency is a major improvement for Afghanistan, while it is a net reduction in the quality of life of the average Iraqi.

I don't think anyone, least of all the Iraqis, care whether there are 5 countries or 50 supporting the operation. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the major leaders are American and the troops are mostly American. I'm sure the distinction between US and, say, Dutch troops is as lost on the Afghanis as the distinction between Al Qaida and the Mahdi Army seems to be lost on many Americans. They are all "Americans", or "Al Qaida terrorists".
The reason for the difference in public opinion is the relative success of the two counter-insurgencies.

A major reason for the difference in relative success is the level of support by foreign governments for each of the insurgencies.

Evidence suggests that Iranian support is picking up for the Taliban, which could be the reason for the current trend we are seeing there.
Iranian support is picking up for the Taliban

Afghan villagers answer your questions?
There is a big rumour these days that the US is actually helping the Taleban to keep the war going. The Taleban were created by the US and the US has all the powers in the world, so people here find it very difficult to believe that the US can't take them out. It just doesn't make sense.
I am simply saying that international agreement for the occupation probably would not have reconciled most of the warring factions in Iraq towards the American presence.

You know why? Iraqis knew but looks you don't know!!

300 Iraqis killed by Americans each day sounds like an impossible figure, but a close look at the reported numbers of violent deaths and rate of armed patrols makes it all too likely.
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