As the Barack Obama administration releases the details of its strategic review of Afghanistan’s “good war”, an acronym-plagued global public opinion is confronted with a semantic dilemma: what in the world is happening to George W Bush’s “global war on terror” (GWOT), then slyly rebranded by the Pentagon as “The Long War” (TLW)?
It all started when a mid-level bureaucrat in the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent an e-mail to the Pentagon stressing the White House was finally axing GWOT and giving birth to the delightfully Orwellian Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).
As it happens, no Taliban will be OCOed – at least for the moment. The White House and the Pentagon still rely on GWOT. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell was adamant: “I’ve never received such a directive.” Asked by a reporter what nomenclature he would prefer, Morrell took no prisoners: “Another way to refer to it would be, you know, a campaign against extremists who wish to do us harm.” So exit GWOT, enter CAEWWTDUH.
What’s in a name?
There’s still no evidence that the Obama administration’s new strategy will be all-out CAEWWTDUH. Or that the US-backed international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague next Tuesday – which Iran has confirmed it will attend – will go CAEWWTDUH. Or that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels next Friday will re-evaluate all its CAEWWTDUH options.
It’s widely accepted in acronym-infested US foreign policy circles that what’s happening in the Afghanistan-Pakistani theatre are in fact three overlapping wars. But the Shakespearean doubt remains: are they CT or COIN?
Afghanistan itself is certainly privileged COIN (counter-insurgency) territory – as per Bush’s “main man”, Central Command supremo General David “I’m always positioning myself to 2012” Petraeus strategy. And so are the tribal areas, the Pakistani North-West Frontier Province and now parts of the Punjab as far as the offensive against the neo-Taliban Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Fazlullah are concerned. But there’s also CT (counter-terrorism) going on in the tribal areas focusing on a few dozen “historic” al-Qaeda, including lecturer-in-chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and elusive icon Osama “dead or alive” bin Laden.
Strategically reviewed or not, what is de facto happening in the Afghan theater of CAEWWTDUH during the Obama administration – courtesy of Petraeus, a “The Long War” (TLW) General if there ever was one – is nothing but a remix of a British Raj policy of buying off peace with Afghan tribes as a means to bide time until a way is found to smash them to pieces. It didn’t work for the Brits and there’s no evidence it will work for the Americans and NATO.
As for Taliban and neo-Taliban commanders and foot soldiers, it’s irrelevant if from now on they are designated as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) targets or the principals in CAEWWTDUH. They don’t fight acronyms; they fight “Western invaders”. So in the interests of neo-realism, let’s examine how CAEWWTDUH – or OCO, or plain old COIN – are faring when applied to a crucial microcosm of the vast Afghanistan-Pakistan theater, the western Afghanistan region around Herat.
Calling Sergio Leone
To sum it all up, the whole picture looks like nothing less than an Afghan version of a Sergio Leone-directed, Ennio Morricone-scored The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Move over, Spaghetti Western, and call it a deadly Spaghetti Eastern.
There are three military bases (“camps” in Pentagon terminology) in western Afghanistan. One is American. The other one is Afghan (these two are basically forts in the middle of nowhere, manned by no more than 100 soldiers). And the most important – the regional command of NATO/International Security Assistant Force (ISAF) troops – is Italian.
Only in the first two months of 2009, “hostile acts” against Westerners – chiefly car bombs and improvised explosive devices – in this “Italian” zone around Herat were up by 50%. General Paolo Serra commands a multinational force of only 3,000 men (half of them Italian) who are charged to control an area the size of northern Italy.
Only 600 of these – Italian and Spanish – are actually soldiers. Total forces in the area number 10,000 men – including American and Afghan soldiers and 1,000 Afghan policemen. Everyone familiar with the war theater remembers that during the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad the Soviets had 10 times more men – with subsequent well-known results.
The best roads in Afghanistan are in the Herat region – because of Iranian investment; after all this used to be a very important satrapy of the Persian empire. The border at Eslam Qal’eh is only a 40-minute drive from Herat. The whole region is absolutely strategic for Iran. It straddles a New Silk Road. Iran wants Central Asian trade and commerce – from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – flowing to Iranian ports instead of Pakistani ports.
And then there’s the all-encompassing Pipelineistan angle. Iran – as well as Russia – has no interest whatsoever in seeing the construction of the perennially troubled, US-backed, \$7.6 billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline that would cross western Afghanistan east of Herat and advance south through Taliban-controlled territory towards Pakistani Balochistan province.
So no wonder the Iranian secret service is absolutely ubiquitous. And its best ally in the region is none other than legendary anti-Soviet mujahid warlord Ishmail Khan – with whom President Hamid Karzai in Kabul has been clashing virtually non-stop since 2002.
For the Italians, the black – not olive – oil in the pizza is not Iran, but the “Taliban”, a true portmanteau word. In an ultra-remote base in Bala Murghah, a village very close to the Turkmenistan border in what is now Taliban-controlled territory, the Italians’ security perimeter varies from a mere 500 meters to 1.5 kilometers. If they stay inside, they are protected by the village, controlled by – who else – a former mujahid. If they venture outside, they are at the mercy of the “lions” – a joke referring to the Colosseum days of the Roman Empire.
Any “Taliban” foot soldier is worth \$5 a day. Anybody can assemble a private army. Anybody with good tribal connections can make the very profitable career move from tribal chief to drug warlord.
And that brings us to Qulum Yahya Sia Shoon.
The Italians are virtually encircled. There’s a very small base in Farah, in the homonymous province, south of Herat. South of Farah, Taliban groups fleeing American air power are encroaching. North of Herat the region is infested with pro-Taliban smugglers. And in Guzara – halfway between Herat and the Iranian border – is a new Western public enemy number one, the flamboyant Qulum Yahya Sia Shoon, the former, anti-inflation mayor of Herat who, after losing a political battle, did an about-face and became – what else? – a crime boss.
He’s not with the Taliban – whom he used to fight – but he’s not with the doomed Karzai’s people in Kabul either. He used to be an Ishmail Khan faithful – until he turned against his master. So this means he’s his own man, with his own private agenda (and militia), who wants no interference from foreigners. Virtually everyone in the region knows where he’s hiding. But he always eludes capture – a source of endless puzzlement for General Paolo Serra.
So in this enormous expanse, Westerners are confronted with vast no-government zones; villages totally controlled by tribal clans; the web of the tribes themselves; the various shura (tribal councils) composed by a web of cross-marriages; a web of enemies; and chiefly local warlords enjoying very good relations with the Taliban. This Mafia-style controlled territory with Godfathers aplenty is not too dissimilar from Sicily or the region around Naples controlled by the Camorra.
“Local economy” means opium and heroin produced in Helmand and Nimruz provinces that have to go through Herat before crossing to Iran and Turkmenistan and then to Europe. Hence a phenomenal cast of local characters including opium smugglers, human traffickers, kidnappers, mercenaries working for the Taliban and even a few, very fanatic, hardcore Sunni Islamists. Being “for” or “against” Kabul under these circumstances is a mere detail. Pragmatism trumps ideology. After all, the Afghan war in its various incarnations has been raging for 30 years virtually non-stop. The pizza surge
What the Pentagon, with General David McKiernan, the overall commander of NATO, ISAF and US troops on top, wants from NATO troops such as the Italians is less prudence and more manly, gung-ho, trigger-happy action. This is the kind of stuff from which people recoil in horror in European capitals – and even classic Obama in next week’s turbo-charm offensive in Europe won’t be able to change the parameters.
The debate in Italy, for instance, centers on a minimum of extra troops to be sent to Afghanistan so the Pentagon shuts up. This “pizza surge” would mean a maximum of 200 troops. It’s also a matter of constrained budget. Rome spends something like 1,000 euros (US\$1,357) a minute for its 2,800 troops in Afghanistan. The idea is to get maximum bang for the euro.
For starters, this means more “coaches”. In NATO’s world, one coach is worth 10 regular soldiers. So if you deploy 50 coaches (equipped with radios accessing air strikes by four Tornado jet fighters and 13 Mangosta attack helicopters), they count for 500 people in Brussels. And in a much more efficient set up – with the Tornados based in Herat (and not in distant Mazar-i-Sharif), more airpower (16 helicopters instead of 13) but with less flight hours each, spending the same amount, and four advance bases instead of the current three.
It’s painfully, obviously impossible to win local hearts and minds, curb drug smuggling, invest in nation-building and fight a CAEWWTDUH or OCO under these circumstances with such a set up. NATO is on a losing war – and the best political minds in Brussels know it.
But the crucial problem remains; the Obama administration is just remixing the Pentagon’s operational priorities – same as with the acronym fiasco. For all practical purposes, strategically reviewed or not, GWOT, TLW, CAEWWTDUH or OCO goes on, with no end in sight, with the Persian Gulf as a secondary theater, Afghanistan-Pakistan and Central Asia as the primary theater, and ideology poisoning strategic vision.
This framework, inherited from Bush and his former vice president Dick Cheney, is incompatible with what can be glimpsed from some of Obama’s speeches and actions, the lineaments of maybe a new, more equitable, American project. Yes we can? Not yet. There will be blood – a lot more blood – in this Afghan Spaghetti Western.