A FOREIGN MILITARY OPERATION is a systematic imposition of violence on an entire population. Of the many crimes committed against the Iraqi people, most have occurred unnoticed by the American people or the media. Americans, led to believe their soldiers and marines would be welcomed as liberators, still have little idea what the occupation is really like from the perspective of Iraqis. Although I am an American, born and raised in New York City, I came closer to experiencing what it feels like to be an Iraqi than most of my colleagues. I often say that the secret to my success as a journalist in Iraq is my melanin advantage. I inherited my Iranian father’s Middle East features, which allowed me to go unnoticed in Iraq, march in demonstrations, sit in mosques, walk through Falluja’s worst neighborhoods, sit in taxis and restaurants and look like every other Iraqi. My ability to blend in also allowed me to relate to the American occupier in a different way, for he looked at me as if I were another “hajji,” the “gook” of the war in Iraq.
I first realized my advantage in April 2003, when I was sitting with a group of American soldiers and another soldier walked up and wondered what this hajji (me) had done to get arrested. Later that summer I walked in the direction of an American tank and heard one soldier say about me, “that’s the biggest fuckin’ Iraqi [pronounced ‘eye-raki] I ever saw.” Another soldier, who was by the gun, replied, “I don’t care how big he is, if he doesn’t stop movin’ I’m gonna shoot him.”
I was lucky enough to have my American passport in my pocket, which I promptly took out and waved, shouting, “Don’t shoot, I’m an American!” It was my first encounter with hostile checkpoints but hardly my last, and I grew to fear the unpredictable American military, which could kill me for looking like an Iraqi male of fighting age. Countless other Iraqis were not so lucky enough to speak English or carry an American passport, and entire families were killed in their cars when the approached checkpoints.
In 2004 the British medical journal The Lancet estimated that by September of that year, one hundred thousand Iraqis had died as the result of the American occupation, most of them had died violently, largely from American airstrikes. Although this figure was challenged by many, especially the partisan backers of the war, it seemed perfectly plausible to me based on what I had seen during the postwar period in Iraq. What I never understood was why more journalists did not focus on this, choosing instead to look for the “good news” and to go along with the official story. I never understood why more journalists did not write about the daily Abu Ghraibs that were so essential to the occupation.
The year 2008 ended with Muntadhar al-Zeidi reminding President Bush and the world for only a moment about the Iraqi victims. During a press conference on Bush’s last visit to the country, Zeidi spoke for the masses in the Arab world and beyond when he shouted, “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!” as he threw his first shoe at the American president. Zeidi was a secular, left-leaning Shiite from Sadr City whose work as a reporter for Baghdadiya television had won him local acclaim because of his focus on the suffering of innocent Iraqis. He had been arrested twice by the American army and kidnapped once by a militia.
He remembered, as did all Iraqis, that the American occupation had not begun with the surge. The story of the American occupation was not one of smart officers contributing to the reduction of violence and increase in stability. That was only one chapter in a longer story of painful, humiliating, sanctions, wars, and bloody occupation. Those with short memories, such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, might remember the American occupation “a million acts of kindness.” But to Iraqis and anyone else sensitive enough to view them as humans, the occupation was one million acts of violence and humiliation or one million explosives. There was nothing for Bush to be triumphal about during his farewell press conference. Even the surge had exacted a costly toll on Iraqis. Thousands more had been killed, arrested, thrown into overcrowded prisons, and rarely put on trial, their families deprived of them. The surge was not about victory. With a cost so high, there could be no victory. COIN (Counterinsurgency) is still violence, and the occupation persisted, imposing violence on an entire country. As Zeidi threw his second shoe in a last desperate act of defiance, he remembered these victims and shouted, “This for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq!”
Millions of Iraqis had fled their homes. Tens of thousands of Iraqi men spent years in American prisons. The new Iraqi state was among the most corrupt in the world. It was often brutal. It failed to provide adequate services to its people, millions of whom were barely able to survive. Iraqis were traumatized. This upheaval did not spare Iraq’s neighbors either. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees languished in exile. Sectarianism increased in the region. Weapons, tactics, and veterans of the jihad made their way into neighboring countries. And now the American “victory” in Iraq was being imposed on the people of Afghanistan.
In 2005 the respected COIN theorist and practitioner Kalev Sepp – a former Special Forces officer and deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations capabilities – wrote a seminal article, “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency,” in Military Review. In the article Sepp claimed that a country’s political leaders (and not the military) must direct the struggle to win the allegiance of the people, that the “security of the people must be assured along with food, water, shelter, health care, and a means of living. These are human rights, along with freedom of worship, access to education, and equal rights for women. The failure of counterinsurgencies and the root cause of the insurgencies themselves can often be traced to government disregard of these basic rights.”
In addition, Sepp noted, Intelligence operations that help detect terrorist insurgents for arrest and prosecution are the single most important practice to protect a population from threats to its security. Honest, trained, robust police forces responsible for security can gather intelligence at the community level. Historically, robustness in wartime requires a ratio of 20 police and auxiliaries for each 1,000 civilians. In turn, an incorrupt, functioning judiciary must support the police.”
On each of Sepp’s criteria Afghanistan has been a study in abject failure. The civilian Afghan government is insignificant; it is the American military that is leading the war effort. The Afghan government does not provide and services or protect rights. Moreover the U.S. military regularly kills civilians with impunity, arresting many more and holding them without trial. The Taliban have not been penetrated. There is no honest or well-trained police force, and the American-led coalition will never come near to the ratio that Sepp calls for.
COIN was a massive endeavor, I was told by retired Col. Pat Lang, who had conducted COIN operations in Vietnam, Latin America, and elsewhere. There were insufficient resources committed to doing it in Afghanistan, but if the Americans didn’t plan owning Afghanistan, he argued, why waste time on it? It was worth the expenditure of resources only if you were the local government seeking to establish authority, or an imperialist power that wanted to hang around for a while. There were thirty million people in Afghanistan, and they were widely dispersed in small towns. “You have to provide security for the whole country,” he said, “because if you move around they just move in behind you and undo what you did. So you need to have effective security and massive multifaceted development organization the covers the whole place. COIN advisors have to stay in place all the time; they can’t commute to work. If you’re going to do COIN, it really amounts to nation building, and troops are there to provide protection for nation builders. Afghanistan doesn’t matter. The Taliban is not part of the worldwide jihadi community a war with the U.S. We need to disaggregate Taliban from Al Qaeda. The idea that Al Qaeda is an existential threat to the U.S., it’s so absurd that you don’t know how to deal with it.”
. . . . .
The American’s obsession with Afghanistan’s elections also resembled their Iraqi approach, which erroneously focused on landmark events. Just as in Iraq, when elections helped enshrine sectarianism and paved the way to civil war, so too in Afghanistan the election empowered the warlords, enshrined a corrupt order; and, in the case of the 2009 elections, completely discredited the government and its foreign backers.
Strategy in Afghanistan was put on hold so that elections could be held. Turnout in the south was less than ten percent, and zero in some places. There was overwhelming evidence of systematic election fraud and ballot stuffing. The Taliban managed to reduce the turnout compared to previous years. There were even thousand polling stations throughout the country, so the Taliban could not actually disrupted voting too much. It would have been bad PR for them to kill too many civilians. Their lack of operations might have shown that even they knew the elections didn’t matter and that nothing could better serve their ends than letting the elections take place and ending up with a deeply flawed result. Meanwhile, the Americans and their allies immediately hailed the elections as a success, merely because violence was low, thus further associating themselves with a corrupt government. How could Afghans take Americans seriously when they backed a corrupt government and were deeply implicated in corruption? The flawed elections were a message to Afghans that there was no hope of improvement or change.
In September 2009 Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s assessment of the war in Afghanistan was leaked to the media. He had been advised by a team of experts, many of them celebrity pundits from Washington think tanks. Only one of his advisers was an expert on Afghanistan. When Petraeus conducted his Iraq review, he called on people who really knew Iraq to join his “brain trust.” McChrystal called in advisers from both sides of the political divide in Washington who already believed that population-centric COIN was the solution to everything. It was a savvy move, sure to help him get support in Congress. There was a cult of celebrity in the DC policy set. Many of the same pseudo experts who were once convinced that the war in Iraq was the most important thing in the world, even at the expense of Afghanistan, were now convinced that Afghanistan was most important thing in the world, and were organizing panels with other pseudo experts in Washington think tanks. They offered trending solutions, like an industry giving managed and preplanned narratives about was going on. COIN advocates from DC think tanks were connected to political appointees who came from DC think tanks. There was an explosion of commentary on Afghanistan coming from positions of ignorance, quoting generalities. McChrystal himself had been chosen because he could drum up bi-partisan support. He was another hero general like Petraeus, with an aura of infallibility – he was there to save the day. Fawning articles praised his low percentage of body fat, his ascetic habit of eating one meal a day, his repetition of simple COIN aphorism that had already become clichés in Iraq by 2007. He was another warrior scholar the media could write panegyrics about.
Supporters of McChrystal said “he gets it,” as if there was a magic COIN formula discovered in 2009. But Afghans have a memory. They remember, for example, that the American-backed mujahideen killed thousands of Afghan teachers and bombed schools in the name of their anti-Soviet jihad. The Taliban atrocities had not arisen in a vacuum. Similarly, past American actions have consequences. Opinions were already formed. The Taliban were gaining power thanks to American actions and alliances. Warlords were empowered by the Americans. No justice was sought for victims. The government and police were corrupt. The president stole the elections. The message was that there was no justice, and a pervasive sense of lawlessness and impunity had set in. Afghans who had been humiliated or victimized by the Americans and their allies were unlikely to become smitten by then merely because of some aid they received. And the aid was relatively small compared to other international projects, like Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, and East Timor. The Americans thought that by building roads they could win over opinion. But roads are just as useful for insurgents as they are for the occupiers. The Americans failed to convince the Afghan that they should be like them or want them to stay, and they certainly had not been convinced that Karzai’s government has legitimacy. You can’t win hearts and minds when you are an occupying force.
The Taliban was the most obscurantist, backward, traditional and despised government on earth. The fact that the Taliban was making a comeback was a testimony to the regime that the U.S. set up there, and to the atrocities that had been committed in Afghanistan by occupation troops and their Afghan allies. It was sheer arrogance to think that adding another thirty thousand or fifty thousand troops would change the situation so much that the occupation would become an attractive alternative.
There is little evidence that aid money in COIN had an impact. There was not a strong correlation between poverty and insecurity or between aid money a security. The more insecure you were, the more development money you got. The safer provinces felt as if they were being penalized for not having Taliban or poppy cultivation. The aid system raised expectations but didn’t satisfy them. Life remained nasty, brutish, and short for most Afghans.
Aid and force do not go well together. The Americans assumed that material goods superseded all other values. This was not true in Iraq or Afghanistan. Positive as the aid was, it did not outweigh the civilian casualties or the offensive and humiliating behavior of the past eight years. In Iraq it took the trauma of the civil war to make the Americans look good. There might be a new administration in Washington, but for Afghan it was the same America: the America of civilian casualties, night raids, foreign occupation, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib – the America seemingly at war with Islam.
The Pentagon propaganda machine, for instance, turned Marja from a backwater to a key strategic city, and the American media accepted it. But in fact there were only a few thousand people living in Marja. It took months and thousands of troops for the Americans to seize Marja, only to learn that the Taliban were popular there. And there were up to twenty thousand similar Marjas throughout the country. In Marja ANCOP too proved a failure, incompetent and dependent upon the Americans. Fighting remained frequent. The Americans were not effective in evaluation Afghan police units. Although hailed as an elite, the ANCOP annual attrition rate due to all causes ranged from seventy to one hundred and forty percent. Even by local standards they weren’t an elite.
The story of Marja was meant to be the first sally in a larger campaign to expel the Taliban from the southern heartland, especially Kandahar. The Americans thought if they could wrest it from Taliban hands, then it would turn the tide against the Taliban. But Kandahar meant little to anybody that wasn’t a Kandahari. It was part of the same focus on population centers that were overwhelmingly urban.
Violence was getting worse. How long would the Afghan people accept the presence of armed foreigners in their country? Even a message of help can be humiliating, more so when it is backed by a gun. The Americans underestimated the importance of dignity and the extent to which their very presence in Afghanistan was deeply offensive.
In May 206 riots erupted in Kabul after a road accident with American forces, and the Americans shot at the crowd. The episode revealed an underlying anger that could explode at any moment. In September 2009 a British plane dropped a box of leaflets that failed to open, landing on a girl and killing her. Given that most Afghans are illiterate, it would not have been any more persuasive had it opened. Despite the lip service given to “protecting the population” in 2010 the American-led coalition killed far more civilians than previous years. In February a night raid by American special forces killed two pregnant women; the Americans attempted to cover it up. “Son of an American” has become and insult among Pashtuns the way “Son of a Russian” once was.
At any rate, Americans lacked the political will for a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, regardless of whether it was right or wrong. Americans would bail on Afghanistan sooner or later. It would be tragic if it happened within Obama’s eighteen- month deadline or after five years. There was no way to “fix” Afghanistan. In fact, the Soviets themselves never lost their war in Afghanistan; the puppet regime they installed had pretty much crushed the mujahideen until the Soviets withdrew support. The Soviets won their last battle in Khost’s Operation Magistal. But it made no difference. Only the rusting ruins of tanks and a few Russian-speaking Afghans remain. The Americans too weren’t losing, stressed a retired military officer working on security in Afghanistan. “Every time our boys face them, they win,” he said. “We’re winning every day. Are we going to keep winning for twenty years?”