What the Indian wars can tell us about Afghanistan

Discussion in 'Subcontinent & Central Asia' started by ajtr, Oct 14, 2010.

  1. ajtr

    ajtr Veteran Member Veteran Member

    Oct 2, 2009
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    The Comanche and the Taliban

    One of the most enjoyable books I've read in the past year was S. C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches. It's a terrific, gripping story, and I learned a great deal about aspects of U.S. history of which I was only partly aware.

    In brief, the book tells the story of the U.S. effort to subdue the Comanche, the most powerful Native American tribe on the Great Plains. It was a bloody and fascinating struggle, in part because the Comanche proved so hard for the far more numerous and technologically superior Anglos to defeat. If you grew up with a John Ford/John Wayne/Randolph Scott view of the Old West, this book will be something of a revelation. And the saga of Quanah Parker himself, a Comanche war chief whose mother was a white woman kidnapped in 1836 at the age of nine, and "rescued" many years later (when her son Quanah was twelve years old), is itself a heart-rending tale of cultural conflict and personal tragedy.

    As much as I enjoyed the book, I couldn't help but read it with the current war in Afghanistan in mind. In both cases, a numerically superior, wealthier, and more technologically advanced United States confronts a tribal adversary fighting on its home ground. And in both cases, the U.S. government faces an adversary that is cunning, ruthless, and by our standards even backward or barbaric.

    But as my late colleague Ernest May used to warn, when you make a historical analogy, it is a good idea to make a list of the ways the two situations differ, instead of just invoking the similarities. So lest you think that the ultimate victory of the U.S. government over the Comanche heralds a similar victory over the Taliban, consider the following differences between the two situations.

    First, in the war against the Comanche, total victory was a vital interest for the United States. As the American republic expanded across North America, the United States was hardly going to allow an independent and hostile tribe of semi-nomadic natives to control a large swath of the territory that Americans believed was theirs by virtue of "Manifest Destiny." I am not defending this policy on the grounds of fairness or justice, by the way; just stating an obvious fact. By contrast, Afghanistan is thousands of miles from the U.S. homeland, and what happens there ultimately matters much more to the Afghans than it does to us. All Afghans know that sooner or later the United States and its allies are going to go home, but that was obviously not the case for the European settlers who had created the United States and were now pushing rapidly across the continent.

    Second, the white settlers in North America enjoyed overwhelming numerical superiority. The Comanche numbered no more than 30-40,000 people, whereas the expanding white population had already exceeded twenty-three million by 1850. Thus, even though the Comanche remained formidable warriors on their home ground, they were eventually overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. In Afghanistan, however, some 100,000-plus U.S. and allied troops are trying to impose order on over 30 million Afghans, themselves divided into five major tribal groups. Active members of the Taliban may be only a small sub-set of that population, but the Pashtuns from which they draw their main strength comprise about 40 percent of the population. Bottom line: The United States and its allies have nowhere near the same raw numerical advantage.

    Third, like other North American tribes, the Comanche proved susceptible to various European diseases. As Gwynne makes clear, smallpox, measles, and cholera all had a devastating impact on Comanche numbers, and ultimately made the task of subduing them far easier. No similar advantage exists in the war against the Taliban.

    Fourth, Gwynne's account highlights the willingness of Anglo settlers to run considerable risks in the course of westward expansion. It is true that the frontier sometimes retreated in the face of Comanche successes, as settlers moved back to safer locations, but in the end they kept coming despite the obvious risks involved. This willingness to seek one's fortune in a demanding and hostile environment reflected a number of deeper social and economic forces, but the fact remains that many Americans were willing to push forward even when doing so was understood to be perilous. By contrast, few people believe winning in Afghanistan is worth large sacrifices, which may be why we now rely on drone strikes and other tactics that minimize the risk to U.S. soldiers. I'm not questioning the courage of our soldiers, by the way, just suggesting that we are more sensitive to the human costs of the war than we were in conquering North America.

    Fifth, technology proved to be a decisive factor against the Comanche. The development of the Colt revolver, the repeating rifle, and the buffalo gun eliminated the Comanche's tactical advantages, and made their defeat inevitable. The destruction of the great buffalo herds deprived the Comanche of a key source of food, and eventually gave them little choice but to surrender.

    Optimists continue to hope that some combination of sophisticated counterinsurgency tactics, advanced weaponry, and other innovations may eventually turn the tide against the Taliban, and one cannot rule out that possibility entirely. But as noted above, the Comanche's central problem was a declining population, and the steady shrinking of their home territory. By contrast, the Taliban still seem readily able to melt away into the surrounding countryside or the existing society, or to flee across the permeable border with Pakistan, and trying to eliminate these sanctuaries could trigger a wider war and cause further frictions with Pakistan. No such problem existed in the campaign against the Comanche.

    Finally, it is a sobering fact to realize that despite its clear interest in victory and its clear advantages in numbers, wealth, and technology, it took the United States nearly four decades to finally defeat the Comanche. If you are seeking a similarly decisive victory in Central Asia, therefore, you'd better be prepared to stay there in strength for a long, long time. As readers of this blog know, I don't think that this is worth it, given the modest stakes involved and the other tasks that we ought to be focusing on. And compared to our war effort in Central Asia, fighting the Comanche was actually pretty cheap.

    Again, historical analogies ought to be used with caution, and no doubt there are other dissimilarities between these two struggles that might yield different conclusions. Whatever the implication for our current situation, Gwynne's book is still an entertaining and beautifully written book, and well worth your time.
  3. ajtr

    ajtr Veteran Member Veteran Member

    Oct 2, 2009
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    A New Plan for Afghanistan

    Less counterinsurgency, more killing and capturing.

    Officials say a shift in U.S. war strategy has begun to take place in Afghanistan, away from classic counterinsurgency (protecting the population, providing basic services, promoting good government) and toward the traditional business of killing and capturing bad guys.Counterinsurgency (or COIN, as it's often called) is hardly dead. Many U.S. troops are still very much engaged in COIN operations. A surge of civilian officials and advisers, from several NATO countries, is well under way in Kabul's ministries in and several provincial districts. And COIN is seen as vital to Afghanistan's long-term stability.
    However, U.S. and NATO officers, intelligence analysts, and other officials and advisers now believe that our objectives in the Afghanistan war can no longer be accomplished in sufficiently short time through COIN alone or even through a COIN-dominant strategy.

    Hence the huge increase, just in the last three months, of military attacks—by drones, aircraft-launched smart bombs, and special-operations forces on the ground—against Taliban soldiers and, in many cases, specific midlevel Taliban leaders.
    The intended effect is the same: to apply pressure on the Taliban insurgents, disrupt their command-control networks, create fissures between the insurgents fighting in the field and their leaders across the border in Pakistan—to the point where many of them surrender or negotiate a reconciliation with the Afghan government.
    Under classic COIN strategy, this process would take place slowly but steadily, as the presence of security forces and the supply of basic services boost popular allegiance to the Afghan government, which in turn dries up the base of support for the insurgents.
    However, it is now calculated, even by many COIN advocates, that this process would take too long—and be too corrupted by Afghan politics—to work in any practical sense.
    As for the timing, President Barack Obama has repeatedly said that his much-publicized deadline of July 2011 will mark only the beginning of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and that the scope and pace of the pullout will be determined by conditions on the ground. Still, it's clear that domestic support for this war is winding down. Some senior White House advisers (though just some) are seeking any excuse for an exit. In any case, the time needed for success through a COIN campaign alone—another six to 10 years, or more, the strategy's most avid supporters estimate—is seen as politically unsustainable.
    As for Afghan politics, COIN can succeed only by, with, and through the host government; U.S. troops in a COIN operation are—and advertise themselves to be—fighting on behalf of the host government. And yet, by all official accounts, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government is so distrusted by its own people—and so incompetent at (or uninterested in) providing services—that it cannot really serve as a reliable partner in a COIN campaign.
    So, U.S. and NATO forces are concentrating more on a different, possibly faster, explicitly more forceful means of pressuring the Taliban to the negotiating tables.
    Airstrikes and commando killings have always been part of the operation. By the same token, COIN is still a part of this ramped-up killing campaign. Without the security provided by lots of U.S. troops on the ground—and without the human intelligence that these troops cultivate among the local population—the special-ops forces wouldn't be able to function, and the air and drone pilots wouldn't know where their targets were. The two strategies—counterinsurgency and counterterrorism—are, in this sense, connected. What's recently changed is the emphasis on each, not just in degree and intensity but also in terms of which approach is seen as the spearhead to achieving the war's objectives.
    This shift in emphasis is not a subtle matter; it is altering the character of this war. The Army's field manual on counterinsurgency—which was co-written by Gen. David Petraeus, who is now U.S. commander in Afghanistan—notes that COIN wars are "protracted by nature" and that they require "firm political will and extreme patience," as well as "considerable expenditure of time and resources." It orders all soldiers and officers to focus on protecting the population and to put much less priority on "killing and capturing the enemy." At one point, the manual advises its readers: "Only attack insurgents when they get in the way."
    Since taking command of the Afghanistan war, Petraeus has said that Taliban fighters and their commanders wouldn't seek a deal unless they thought they were losing. But in recent weeks, he has substantially stepped up this side of the campaign—the business of "killing and capturing the enemy," which his field manual discouraged—to make the insurgents perceive that they're losing much more quickly.
    "Petraeus is unleashing the special-ops guys," one U.S. official told me, in every area of Afghanistan where the Taliban are in force: north, east, and south.

    It's not just special-ops troops. According to the latest unclassified Air Force data, U.S. warplanes and drones dropped or fired 1,600 weapons on Afghan targets in the last three months, nearly half of them—700—in September alone. In the same three months last year, just 1,031 aerial weapons were released, 257 of them in that September. (Though the data are not entirely clear, it appears this more aggressive strategy has not resulted in an increase of civilian casualties. For more on this point, click here.)
    This new twist in the strategy seems to be having some effect. One senior officer said (and other officials confirmed) that 300 midlevel Taliban have been killed or captured in the last three months, including a number of shadow provincial governors, district commanders, and trainers or facilitators in the use of roadside bombs. In addition, more than 800 rank-and-file insurgents have been killed, and more than 2,000 have been captured.
    Intelligence intercepts indicate that Taliban insurgents in the field are more scattered and confused, that their leaders are slow to send new unit commanders when the old ones have been killed, and that the replacements are often less competent.

    There have also been "a couple dozen instances" of surrenders, a senior officer said, involving anywhere from a handful to several dozen insurgents. In one incident still ongoing, about 200 insurgents who had been fighting in southern Helmand province marched northwest to Herat in order to surrender.
    The officer stopped short of claiming that these surrenders signaled a large-scale or higher-level co-optation to come. First, those 200 insurgents marched from Helmand to Herat in order to evade reprisals from other Taliban—a sign that, even among those willing to do so, surrendering is risky. Second, Afghan fighters have a long tradition of switching sides and switching back again (see the first chapter of Dexter Filkins' excellent book, The Forever War); those who surrender today might be back on the fighting fields tomorrow.
    Still, the trends are unmistakable. One U.S. official, who has been very skeptical about the war in the past, said in a recent e-mail: "There's a reasonable strategy in place with a reasonable chance for reasonable success." A NATO adviser, who was downright pessimistic three months ago, said, "I'm now a glass-half-full guy."
    Two caveats, which these same sources are quick to point out: First, these comments are laced in caution; they're not at all fist-in-the-air yelps of victory. Second, they speak to tactical progress, not strategic success.
    If the airstrikes and special-ops raids continue to kill insurgents, ratchet up the pressure on the survivors, and force Taliban leaders to the negotiating table, that's hardly the end of the game.
    What kind of deal will these Taliban negotiate? One condition Gen. Petraeus has set is that any Taliban seeking reconciliation must pledge to support Afghanistan's constitution and elected leaders. If they do so, will they cross their fingers and soon break the deal? Although U.S. troops might stick around to help enforce such accords, the ultimate guarantor must be Karzai. Will he hold up his end of the bargain without either demanding too much obeisance or cravenly caving in?
    Finally, in order for any deal to take hold and result in political stability, there must be economic growth, credible institutions of justice, and a steady flow of basic services to the population. In that sense, COIN theory is still valid—and that leads back to the original concerns that have made a COIN campaign so slow and difficult: How can growth, good government, and basic services develop if the regime lacks political legitimacy?
    There's another wild card, rarely addressed in these sorts of discussions: the fighters of the Northern Alliance, the former insurgency group that helped U.S. special-ops forces overthrow Afghanistan's Taliban regime in 2002. These fighters disarmed when Karzai came to power, but some intelligence analysts—and Afghans—worry that they might take up arms again if the Taliban were to come back into the government as part of a power-sharing deal. If that happens, civil war could once again break out.
    The path to the end of this war is suddenly a bit clearer, but how this thing ends and what happens afterward remain as murky as ever.
  4. ajtr

    ajtr Veteran Member Veteran Member

    Oct 2, 2009
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    General Petraeus's ambitions

    BY IMTIAZ GUL, OCTOBER 13, 2010 Wednesday, October 13, 2010 - 9:48 AM Share

    Gen. David Petraeus forged extremely good relations with Pakistan’s armed forces. Will his ambitious strategy in Afghanistan destroy that goodwill, and with that mess up the U.S. endgame?

    Islamabad -- Hundreds of NATO cargo trucks and containers are back on Pakistani roads, carrying vital military, fuel, and food supplies destined for troops based in Afghanistan. These thousands of kilometers of roads between the Karachi port in the south and the northwestern and southwestern border towns Torkham and Chaman remain the key link in this crucial supply chain, and the closure of Torkham halted some 6,500 trucks.

    This supply chain came to a grinding halt after NATO helicopters fired missiles on a Pakistani security post in the tribal region of Kurram on September 30, destroying the post and killing two soldiers on the spot.

    Pakistan reacted fiercely to the border incursion, closing down the border in the northwest to protest both the killings and the border violation. Also, within the next few days, NATO lost almost 150 oil tankers at various locations, apparently to Taliban militants, who, too, grounded their torching of the trucks and containers to NATO’s incursion in Pakistan and to the drone strikes which continue to hammer their strongholds in North Waziristan.

    Background interviews with a few of the most influential and senior-most Pakistani military commanders reveal that the altercation triggered unusually stiff opposition by the army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, who took up the deaths of his soldiers with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in early October. The Pakistani military’s General Headquarters also conveyed its stringent disapproval of border infringement through the Office of the Defense Representative in the U.S. embassy in Islamabad to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    Viewed against the hard line that the Pakistani Army took on the issue of NATO supplies, it is safe to conclude that the resumption of the traffic through Torkham came at a relatively heavy cost, and caused quite a few ripples and ruptures in the U.S.-Pakistan military-to-military relationship that began two summers ago.

    The honeymoon between the top military bosses of Pakistan and the United States began on board the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Indian Ocean in the summer of 2008, when General Ashfaq Kayani, accompanied by two aides, sat across the table to discuss his operational plans and limitations with five top American military officials including Admiral Mullen and Gen. Petraeus.

    Both sides, according to Gen. Kayani, heard each other out, and this laid the foundation for a relationship that seemed to reach its apex in December last year, with the two American generals showering praise on General Kayani during their visits to Pakistan.

    "I couldn’t give the Pakistani Army anything but an 'A' for how they’ve conducted their battle so far [in Swat and Waziristan]," Adm. Mullen told journalists accompanying him on December 16, 2009. "[Gen. Kayani] planned well, and he's been very deliberate about how much he can get done and when he can get it done," Mullen said, according to one correspondent. "I think that’s a very realistic approach to the operations."

    At the center of today’s controversy between Pakistan and the United States stands the man who, along with Admiral Mullen, helped shape what many viewed as an unusual friendship between the two militaries: top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus. Pakistani military officials, who once revered General Petraeus as a talented strategist, are wary of what they call his "ambitious plans" for the Af-Pak region. "We think we have checkmated Petraeus and thwarted his designs to impose a new hot pursuit paradigm on us," a senior Pakistani military official explained to me, amidst the backdrop of border violations by NATO choppers.

    Some officials in the Pakistani Army believe Gen. Petraeus deliberately sent his men into hot pursuit of suspected Taliban fighters. With this, he may have wanted to gauge the Pakistani reaction before intensifying the U.S. military campaign into Waziristan, which U.S. military officials say is the source of at least 50 percent of attacks in Afghanistan.

    Although public apologies from the Obama administration and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paved the way to the resumption of cargo traffic across the Afghan border after eleven days, the incident, following another boots-on-ground operation in early September 2008 in South Waziristan, has dented the cordiality that had existed between Gen. Kayani and Gen. Petraeus and Mullen.

    "We were left with no choice but to convey that the U.S. and NATO cannot take anything for granted, and we already are paying a very heavy price for our cooperation with the Western forces," the official said.

    It was Mullen who went public in regretting the strikes by NATO helicopters and said he hopes to "avoid recurrence of a tragedy like this," but, highly placed government officials insist, Petraeus has already done the damage, though he too offered his public condolences.

    The Pakistani Army and other concerned ministries, officials claim, are now insisting on reviewing the rules of engagement that have governed U.S.-Pakistan military cooperation since 2001.

    They say that right-wing opposition parties and religio-political groups are already up in arms against the government because of the ongoing CIA-operated drone strikes into the Waziristan region -- more than 30 since early September -- and Taliban insurgents are attacking targets in southern and central Pakistan as well, and the country is reeling under the consequences of devastating floods.

    Army and government officials believe that the country already is paying a heavy price and cannot put up with the ambitions of Gen. Petraeus, which are likely to have long-term implications for Pakistan.

    That is why, it seems, the Pakistani government and the army are also concerned about the seeming American desperation to woo key Afghan insurgents into talks via Saudi Arabia, which wields considerable influence over important Afghan insurgent leaders such as Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Professor Sayyaf, and some Kandahari businessmen who had allegedly also been friends with Mullah Omar.

    For the Obama administration, opening up space for talks holds the key to what some analysts call the 'endgame.' But this phrase raises alarm in Pakistan.

    It may be the endgame for the U.S. and NATO, but not for Pakistan. For Pakistan, it is a battle for long-term survival as a permanent neighbor of Afghanistan, a highly placed general says. He believes Gen. Petraeus shall have to lower his goalposts if he wishes to see some semblance of peace in Afghanistan.

    "We shall have to find a mutually beneficial way -- not to the exclusion and detriment of Pakistan -- to marry the short term American objectives with our long time interests. We are here to stay next door to Afghanistan, unlike the Americans and other NATO members. They should try to understand it can’t be an endgame for us," the general insisted.

    And near history is probably a good guide to follow that advice: an over-ambitious and reckless Pakistan and a disinterested America ignored the importance of an endgame after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. Both allowed warring Afghan factions to fight it out among themselves, rather than helping them put a power-sharing mechanism in place. The result: Afghanistan descended into factionalism and chaos. It now threatens Pakistan too.

    Imtiaz Gul heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad and is the author of The Most Dangerous Place (Viking Penguin USA).
  5. Tshering22

    Tshering22 Sikkimese Saber Senior Member

    Aug 20, 2010
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    Gangtok, Sikkim, India
    Actually there's a bi difference in the beginning article. The colonization of America by whites was a purely and evil imperialist intention whereas the attack on Afghanistan is sheer vengeance for something that was done by Taliban which then ruled the government of Afghanistan. The first case is something that Europeans attempted everywhere including China and India; where they couldn't make another America because of a large local population and strong local culture and religion. For example, Lord Mcaulay was so impressed with the strength of Hindu essence in India that he recommended the British government to make ways in which Indians would think of Western things superior to their own despite not being so. This they successfully implemented in India as the cultural breakdown started in India.

    Afghanistan was on the other hand, a response to the Jihad that Talibs and AL Qaeda launched against American people. What made the world support America was not their charm but rather the horror that innocent American civilians felt when 3,000 died.

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