The Afghanistan briefing: It’s getting worse


From PBS, a dynamite Frontline documentary designed to suit the moment: a new President who has promised to pay more attention to what’s happening in Afghanistan. At the risk of repeating something I’ve said a few times lately, Obama’s attention, while welcome, is certainly insufficient to turn around a declining situation in Aghanistan. A review of the Frontline documentary is here; the whole documentary, an hour’s television cut into more digestible chapters, is here. It is tremendously sobering viewing…(UPDATE)…and especially in the fifth chapter, has unsettling images of extreme violence, so viewer beware.

UPDATE: Watch this and ask yourself whether it portrays a challenge Lawrence Cannon can begin to comprehend. As a handy gauge, recall how much trouble he had deciding who is or is not a member of the Québécois nation.


The Afghanistan briefing: It’s getting worse

  1. I saw the film and, yes, it’s a powerful piece of work.

    I don’t think it says anything not already said elsewhere. But it shows a lot not seen elsewhere.

  2. Best part, for me, is that it draws Pakistan more comprehensively into the picture. Not just as a place with mountains where the Taliban can hide, but as a place that’s spiralling out of control. The birthplace of the Taliban transformed from a base of operations to a target. That great line from Dexter Filkins: “Frankenstein’s off the table.”

  3. It also shows how the insurgency is primarily a Pushtan initiative. Other areas away from the Pakistani border area with strong populations of Uzbeks and Hazaris are relatively quiet. It’s not clear (to me) what kind of development effort is going on in those areas that might be more amenable to an aid/development emphasis.

    The Taliban is portrayed as disparate groups united by an extreme religious views. They are probably more than that. But I don’t see their views as being more extreme than the general Pushtan population which makes the possibility of isolating them very difficult.

    One of the secrets (not so secret) of their success is their dominance of the poppy fields.
    That gives them the cash to actually pay their soldiers. Which really matters in a land that lives hand to mouth. But it also means that substantial numbers of the insurgency are not fully committed volunteers but are a kind of condottieri that may, at some point, be open to a better offer.

    It’s possible to foresee a time – a few years away – when a variation of an Iraqi solution might be available. Spread enough cash around to keep things quiet enough to get troops out and give Karzai a condo in Monaco.

  4. During grad school, the Canadian ambassador to Pakistan visited our political science society to talk about Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said the biggest mistake in the last twenty years was that the West didn’t feel the need to fund schools with international curriculum and standards. At the same time, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries were setting up schools like gangbustas! Only these schools didn’t teach math or science or literacy, just religion.

    The point was that we can stabilize security in the short term maybe, but it will take a long, long investment to reverse the entrenched system there.

  5. Anyone that grew up in the Vietnam and Russia/Afghanistan era’s has predicted, from day one, the evolution of matters during the current foray into Afhganisnam.
    Selfish, greedy, maniacal fools (and those that faun over them) have led this foray and now, it’s inextricable.
    Out by 2011! “Hah”, says I to another of his lies of convenience!

  6. Getting out 2011 is a good idea all around. A government with such disdain for its own mechanisms has nothing to teach the Afghans about what they should do with theirs.

  7. G the L,

    Did you even watch the documentary? Because it describes a serious, pertinent issue to the global community about out-of-control extremists, their influence on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the difficulty in combating these elements.

    But sure, your line about our government not being able to teach or help others because you disagree with the Conservatives is really, really intelligent.

  8. more intelligent than you think. All we’re doing right now is propping up the Hell’s Angels.

    3D my ass.

  9. “A bomb has killed at least nine people and wounded nearly 40 at a gathering of tribal elders in the Pakistani tribal area of Bajaur, hospital staff say.

    The bomb went off when the tribal elders were gathering to draw up a plan to drive militants out of their area as part of a government anti-Taleban plan.”


    Speaking of how difficult the Afghan/Pakistani/ Taleban question is. Has Obama renounced his idea of invading Pakistan? I thought Obama’s idea to invade Pakistan was crazy at first but now I am not so certain.

  10. jwl – I have noticed in recent speeches that Obama always mentions Pakistan when talking about Afghanistan – I think he is sending a message and I think it’s the right one.

  11. Dealing with Pakistan be an interesting, subtle diplomatic/military challenge for Obama: he can threaten to let troops cross the border, but he has to avoid provoking Pakistani nationalism; yet he also has to intimidate the ISF into abandoning the Taliban.

    What is the best-case scenario? No ISF backing for the Taliban and permission to pursue Taliban raiders into Pakistan, plus more help from the Pakistani army in the tribal areas. Even so, the Pakistanis have already taken a lot of casualties in the mountains on our behalf, and it hasn’t made any difference. Historically, no one has ever conquered the Pushtun tribes, they’ve only ever been coopted (e.g. by the British); now that they seem to have turned against everybody for religious reasons, what can make them calm down again? Military force will never work.

  12. “Military force will never work.”

    As the great John Derbyshire says, ‘rubble doesn’t cause trouble’.

    From Strategy Page, Oct 17 2008

    Largely out of the media spotlight, at least in the West, the Pakistani army has taken on the most numerous and aggressive part of the Taliban organization, and is tearing it to pieces. For the last two months, the Pakistani Army has been moving through the Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), killing Taliban and al Qaeda fighters who have largely controlled the rural parts of the 1,300 square kilometer district for years.

    The Taliban fighters are willing to fight to the death, and have a psychological advantage over the army (most of the troops come from the lowlands). But outsiders have conquered Bajaur before. Alexander the Great did it 2,500 years ago, and the Mongols did so 700 years ago. But in both cases, conquest was accomplished in the Roman fashion (“they created a desert and called it peace.”) But in many respects, the army is going old-school on the Taliban, with most of the civilians fleeing, and any resistance getting blasted to rubble. When victory comes, it will be celebrated in a depopulated desert of rubble and empty homes.

  13. Actually, that’s not how Alexander and the Mongols “conquered” those areas at all. They simply bypassed them (came down through the Khyber) and then claimed nominal sovereignty: after all, they couldn’t care less what a bunch of tribesmen did in their hills, they were after the Indus valley. “Making a desert and calling it peace” refers to the Roman annexation of Britain (well, it’s a Pict saying it), i.e. total control of all social, economic, and religious structures.

    Pakistan would not be remotely interested in controlling the Tribal Areas in that way if it weren’t for our pressure. Part of the ISF’s motive for supporting the Taliban was to redirect their energy away from Pakistan.

    “Rubble doesn’t cause trouble” – any idea how huge the Tribal Areas are, jwl? Got the faintest, foggiest idea, do you?

  14. Then, for the most part, it’s already rubble.

  15. I can only gently recommend that people block off an hour today or tonight and actually watch the Frontline doc. It pulls together a bunch of threads very well — and, again gently, suggests that going old school may rank very high on the Pakistan army’s list of mistakes.

  16. “any idea how huge the Tribal Areas are, jwl? Got the faintest, foggiest idea, do you?”

    I do, yes. Tribal Area is quite large in total but Bajaur, which is what we are discussing, is tiny.

    I would ask you, Jack M, if you have ‘the faintest, foggiest idea’ about reading comprehension.

  17. Thank God the Taliban have nobly agreed to confine their activity to Bajaur. They really mustn’t have the faintest, foggiest idea about guerrilla strategy, eh?

  18. having an American-approved neighbouring army indiscriminately killing anything that moves in huge expanses of Afghanistan would be the biggest gift to the Taliban since the invasion of Iraq.

  19. “going old school may rank very high on the Pakistan army’s list of mistakes.”

    I think that’s what Strategy Page blurb was pointing out. Roman fashion was not ‘rubble doesn’t cause trouble’ but closer to what Jack M mentions. Assimilation is what we would call it now.

    Indiscriminate death and destruction is short term thinking, the Taliban and al Qaeda will have to focus on rebuilding their homes/base but once they do that, but they will be feeling even more outrage and hatred than they already do.

    One of the lessons I have taken from the Afghan/Pakistan/Taliban/al Qaeda situation is that there is no ‘good’ answer to this problem, they are either ‘dire’ or ‘appalling’.

  20. “Roman fashion was not ‘rubble doesn’t cause trouble’ but closer to what Jack M mentions. Assimilation is what we would call it now.”

    Just a historical note: in order to assimilate the provinces, the Romans did first have to go medieval classical on the locals’ collective ass. That’s the Pict’s complaint about “solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant.” Caesar, for example, killed something like a million Gauls in his ten-year campaign; there basically were no laws of warfare in the ancient world.

    This frankly genocidal approach doesn’t work anymore, for more than one reason. First, with high explosives an individual can do as much damage as a battalion, and he is effectively unstoppable if he’s willing to die; in Roman times, you 5000 Germans had to walk across the Alps with spears in order to do that. Second, the public in the West is just never going to accept bombing the Pashtun back to the stone age, shooting villagers, etc. It’s already hard enough to get them to support any Afghan mission at all: try adding a policy of war crime to that!

    So I fear we either have to defeat the Taliban militarily, somehow, or make peace with them, or coopt the non-religious Pashtun somehow.

    Still, I will take Mr. Wells’ advice and watch the Frontline documentary before sounding off any more!

  21. There is only one way out of this mess and it is a negotiated peace agreement. Perhaps we Westerners could find it in ourselves to put our pride aside and figure out a way for both sides to walk away from a peace deal without losing face.

  22. We need to take a long look at Sun Tzu – I think there should be lot’s of talks (then take down names and locations and the timing of their return to said location and then off with the stealth cruise missiles to those who don’t sighn up for peacer) as well as infiltrate and all Madrassas teaching and promoting violence and off with another batch of stealth cruise missiles! Finally a coordinated push between Afghanistan and Pakistan directly into the heart of those northern outlaw tribal areas (starting with the largest) create a base then extend outwards all the time talking and all the time taking names and repeat until no more bad guys.

  23. comment by boudicca on Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 3:10 pm:

    There is only one way out of this mess and it is a negotiated peace agreement. Perhaps we Westerners could find it in ourselves to put our pride aside and figure out a way for both sides to walk away from a peace deal without losing face.



  24. “extend outwards all the time talking and all the time taking names and repeat until no more bad guys.”

    Wow. I wonder why no one has ever tried this before.


    Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

  26. Surely, though, the Taliban will only agree to peace if they have something to gain from it. That would mean building up NATO forces in the short term. Otherwise, why wouldn’t the Taliban just keep fighting? It’s not like they’re, uh, peace-loving.

    Just watched the documentary. Some amazing footage, especially from inside Waziristan! And of the US troops in the hills. (How did/do the Pathans ever manage to feed themselves, incidentally? The whole country looks like it’s in permanent drought!) They’re clearly doing a good job, though you can tell they’re not of the same calibre as our guys. The local villagers literally look like they stepped out of a Kipling story.

    I must say, the documentary reinforces my sense that the Pakistanis neither can nor want to do anything about the Pathan problem.

  27. There is a dispassionate report on the cost of the Canadian war in Afghanitan published by Kevin Page, Parliamentary Budget Officer. Interesting to note in the report that the war will costs Canadians $18 billion in future costs. Can we afford to fight this unwinnable war when the economy is tanking…

  28. Kevin Page’s war cost report is a must read for Canadians who would like to know how Ottawa spends cash.

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