Some new stuff on Afghanistan:
First, go read Brian Stewart’s latest piece on the cone of silence that the Canadian military insists upon when it comes to the tempo of the combat mission over there. As Brian points out, there is an almost constant pace of mortar attacks, rocket attacks, firefights, and other forms of enemy contact, but the bizarre part is that the only time we hear about it, it is when a soldier has died. Everything else is considered offlimits to reporters, due to “OPSEC”.
As an example of how bizarre it gets, Brian mentions that during our first briefing at KAF we suddenly found ourselves “dropping to the floor when the sirens wailed to announce the approach of Taliban rockets.” Often, the old rockets never even go off. But at one point, we heard a massive WHOOMP behind us, the building shook, windows rattled, and even senior officers hit the dirt pronto. “Wow, that one actually went off,” someone said, voice a tad shaky. But at the end of the briefing, a PR flack came in to tell us that what we heard was not a rocket going off, but a “controlled detonation” on the base. We’d just missed the announcement, apparently. Only later did another soldier tell us that it was bullshit, that it was indeed a rocket and they just didn’t want us to report it.
Second: As colleague Geddes alerts us, the government oh-so-quietly tabled its latest quarterly report on the Afghanistan mission yesterday. I just had a chance to go through it, and what struck me was how much more blandly bureaucratic it was from the last one. (The last one, you’ll recall, was refreshingly honest in places about the state of the mission, especially with respect to security as well as the disaster that was the presidential election). It seems that the government has learned its lesson: there’s nothing to be gained by actually being honest about what is going on. So yes, you need to skip the banal prose of the report and turn to the benchmarks at the back.
Reading them over, I agree entirely with John’s assessment,viz., that the single most pressing issue is the state of the ANSF, and that the report manifestly does not inspire confidence. All of the Kandahar-based kandaks are below strength, the ANA forces that exist are being stretched too thin, and only 18% of police units are at the target capability. The predictable consequence is that Kandaharis do not see security as improving, nor do they have any great faith in the abilitiy of the ANA to be an effective security force.
The other benchmarks are similarly disheartening. While progress is being made in some areas, and 2011 targets have even been met for certain benchmarks, these tend to be in projects where the goal is simply to give money or provide training facilities. When it comes to actual security, and actual infrastructure, things are either getting worse, or getting better too slowly.
A few things worth adding to this:
a. When I was in Afghanistan last month, we had a meeting at the Canadian embassy with some CIDA personnel. When we asked them about sad the situation with the benchmarks, we were told that because the benchmarks were chosen “ahead of time” and a decision was then made to “stay with them”, the apparent lack of progress was in many ways merely an artifact of the benchmarking system itself. I’m not sure what to make of this as an answer.
b. One issue that goes undiscussed in the Canadian reports is the question of “donor coordination”, i.e. coordination between Canada and the 42 other countries working in the country, to make sure that there isn’t too much overlap or countries working at cross-purposes. By all accounts, this is an ongoing – and huge – problem. One difficulty is the weakness of the Afghan government itself – since it doesn’t really govern much of the country, donor countries just start doing their own thing (building highways, digging wells, you name it) without really telling their partners, or often even informing the government in Kabul.
Which means that for a proper picture of what is going on over there, Canada-level benchmarks are really only good for providing political cover for the pullout. What we really need is mission-level benchmarking to know if the whole mission is actually making any progress.
C. On the ANSF manpower problem, attrition continues to sap the strength of units at all levels. But in addition to attrition, there is also the ongoing problem of troops going AWOL. In Afghanistan, we were told that at any given time, about 20% (I think — I need to go back and check my notes from the briefing for the precise figure) of all troops are technically AWOL. But in most cases it isn’t a matter of the soldier having run off for good, it is because he went to see his family, do some work, deliver some money, or do any other sort of family business that is considered routine over there. So the troops themselves don’t see it as “going AWOL” in the dereliction of duty sense, they see it as just another of their many duties.
Third: All of this, I think, provides yet another reason for why the detainee issue needs to get turned over to a proper inquiry. As their Kady liveblogged magnificently yesterday, the special committee on Afghanistan has a lot to talk about, and while the detainee issue is of paramount importance from the perspective of government accountability, it means that the crucial questions about the state of the mission over the next 18 months are going undiscussed.
Which might suit all of the parties just fine.