Finding the silver(ish) lining in Afghanistan's Emerald City

The Taliban Are Coming! The Taliban Are Coming! (Chicken Little Version)

Thanks to the good people over at NewsNow and their freakin’ awesome news aggregation service, I don’t have to spend hours scouring the tubes of the interwebs for news about Afghanistan. It comes right to my doorstep. Electronically speaking.

So as I’m reading through the headlines for today, I found this commentary by Erin Fitzgerald, a Master’s candidate in international relations at Oxford University. If it were some backwater of the internet, I’d probably let it go, but since HuffPo has something of an audience, let me drag out the stack of soapboxes that comprise my wobbly ivory tower…and retort.

The title of the article is “The Talibanization of Central Afghanistan,” which is why it caught my eye, since I was hoping to learn more about a wave of Talibanism presumably washing over that part of the country. Which led to the post title, since there seems to be a significant trend lately in the press as a whole to portray the Taliban as some vast shadowy horde poised to pounce on a hapless Afghan government.

From the article:

Recent months have witnessed a surge of Taliban activity in historically more stable regions of Afghanistan, with an increasing number of insurgent attacks taking place in the provinces surrounding Kabul. On August 14, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-packed vehicle in front of the offices of Abdul Baseer Salangi, governor of Parwan province, which is located just north of the capital. Five other militants wearing suicide bomb vests stormed the building. The resulting fighting and two exploded vests left at least 22 people dead.

Nothing here is ever that simple. Ms. Fitzgerald, by assuming that the attack on the provincial governor was executed by Taliban intent on destabilizing the government continues to perpetuate the myth of the Taliban as some kind of omnipresent entity that can strike anywhere at anytime. This assumption also ignores the distinct possibility that Salangi is a thug from way back who might have had it coming.

To illustrate that possibility, in this piece over at Ghosts of Alexander, Christian Bleuer deconstructs Governor Salangi as a hero of the revolution who was stoutly defending himself from the evil Taliban. He goes in depth on the background of the governor, peeling back the Taliban onion to reveal that, as is generally the case with strongmen in this place, the reasons why he was attacke are still unknown, and the possibilities are pretty complex.

Fitzgerald’s failure to acknowledge the possibility that these attacks are motivated by a more complex series of driving forces isn’t uncommon, unfortunately. Dexter Filkins and Ahmed Rashid, in an interview on Charlie Rose, did something very similar in response to the recent assassinations of Ahmed Wali Kharzai, Jan Mohammad Khan, and the mayor of Kandahar, Ghulam Haidar Hameedi. Earlier on this blog, I posted a response to that interview.

In making the case for a spread of the Taliban hordes across a once-peaceful portion of Afghanistan, Fitzgerald continues:

The Taliban’s spread to the north of the country has been noted for some time, but the spike in insurgent activity in the central provinces is a more recent phenomenon. It is not unique to Parwan. In Kapisa, which also borders Kabul, a suicide bomber killed five French soldiers last month. To the west, in Wardark, security has been deteriorating since 2009, but attacks have recently been creeping closer to Kabul. Last week, five police officers and three intelligence agents were abducted by the Taliban in the Maydan Shah area and beheaded. The proximity of these incidents to the capital further entrenches the impression that the government’s writ does not extend outside of Kabul.

Fitzgerald’s premise is that Kabul and the surrounding areas are a secure area from which the government is expanding its influence, when the reality on the ground is that security in this country is a series of often-disconnected pockets of relative peace and prosperity. Since Karzai’s connection to the rest of the country is fairly insular (OK, pretty much nonexistent), security and stability is better framed on a district-by-district basis rather than a provincial or regional basis.

Fitzgerald continues to make the case for the spreading wave of Talibanism across the area, and references a couple of articles:

Using diverse tactics — pitting communities against each other in some cases, preying on people’s frustration with the government in others, and employing classic intimidation in large measures — insurgents have seized territory in northern provinces such as Kunduz, Baghlan, and Badakhshan, where they previously had slight influence.

The first link refers to the Taliban’s current offensive (2011), and as is typical of Long War Journal provides a pretty in-depth look at what has been termed Operation Badr.

Slight Snarky Sidebar: From a methodology standpoint, the 2nd link is from 2008, and an article from three years ago in a place as dynamic as Afghanistan under current conditions is ancient history.

Where the paragraph goes wrong is the “seized territory” where there was “slight influence.” Afghanistan, like any place where military operations are being conducted, is a big ol’ tube of toothpaste: squeeze the South, and it’s going to pop out in the East.

While activities in the Helmand and Kandahar areas have not completely ceased, the pressure that has been put on the Taliban in those areas ensured that the focus this spring would shift more toward the East, which it has. Both in their campaign plan and ISAF’s response to it, more emphasis is being placed in the East. This does not mean that the Taliban have “seized territory,” so much as they have not received the same level of attention to this point as their brothers in the south. This new focus sometimes leads things like a BSTB acting as the battalion element in charge of “clear and hold operations.”

Sidebar: That’s right, shameless self-promotion. Two pingbacks to my own blog in a post. Some kind of narcissistic personal record.

Taliban are getting squeezed out of the South. Like toothpaste. No, I don’t know what kind of toothpaste.

So if the Taliban in these areas are getting more attention from ISAF, then more events will take place. This does not mean, necessarily, that the Taliban are seizing new territory, but that more ISAF troops are now in the neighborhood where the Taliban have been all along. The Taliban, like every good insurgent group, likes its “safe havens” where it can retool and regroup. They’re there, but they’re not trying to kill anybody. However, now that ISAF is encroaching on those safe havens, Taliban forces are being compelled to respond in those areas, and what results is an increase in the number of incidents.

Even if the territory has been newly seized, corresponding losses of territory in other areas have weakened their overall footprint considerably. This is not to say that the Taliban are defeated, or that they have left Afghanistan, but the overall indications are not that they are holding the same areas as before, and gaining new ones, but that the Taliban are shifting different regions of the country.

Here’s where I completely agree with Ms. Fitzgerald:

Following timelines will not produce the desired results if the Taliban are subsequently able to establish safe havens and support networks in the provinces around the capital.

Timeline-based vs. situation-based transition activities are driven by politics more than strategic objectives, and are a really, really bad idea.

While an accurate portrayal of events based on the supporting documentation provided, Ms. Fitzgerald’s overall assumptions about recent activities in Afghanistan are missing one key admission: it’s complicated, and anyone, regardless of experience, offering a simple explanation of key events, is wrong. Said the guy with the keyboard as he teetered atop his ivory tower of stacked soapboxes.

Update: In doing some research for another post, I found this article by Anna Badkhen over at Foreign Policy on the takeover of villages in the North by the Taliban, which details some of the gaining of territory Fitzgerald’s article references. However, despite the “takeover”:

Outwardly at least, the Taliban so far have brought little palpable change to Balkh. Boys still sickle heaps of drought-stunted wheat by golden armful. Camelback farmers with shovels still ride at dawn to till their cotton fields. Indian rollers still tumble out of the sky in magnificent display flight, so blue they look like swatches torn out of the firmament, and sail over women squatting among miniature silver fireworks of onion blossoms.

But the villagers suspect this is a temporary peace, that war will arrive shortly, in NATO tanks and helicopters and Afghan army Humvees. Lately, Swedish and German personnel carriers have been rattling their armor down highways more frequently, auguring the violence to come. A few nights ago a NATO helicopter strike on a suspected insurgent’s holdout in Alborz district mistakenly killed a vegetable farmer, the brother of one of the policemen guarding Mazar-e-Sharif’s dazzling Blue Mosque.

So the villagers’ concern is primarily the onset of violence that might result due to the Taliban presence, vs. the actual presence of Taliban themselves. I stand corrected, but with caveats. Per usual.

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