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Monday, August 27, 2012

American Casualties in Afghanistan cross 2,000 08-28


What’s interesting is how subjective the reaction to numbers like this can be. Every death is a life snuffed out, a story aborted, devastating upheaval for those left behind. And deaths towards the end of a war are always particularly painful. How grotesque to be the one who gets shot after the armistice is signed, by somebody who didn’t hear that it’s over. I think it is sliding into that phase of this war.
Yet, the 2,000 mark did not seem to attract wide attention. It’s as though the American public has come to a kind of decision about Afghanistan: “We’re done.” And has simply turned the page.
The problem with this attitude is that Afghanistan―or whatever the crisis may be―has a life of its own. Men and women keep dying, and U.S. policies keep accelerating the centrifugal forces that are driving the country toward civil conflict, which may have profound implications for future regional and international security. Choosing to ignore problems is rarely a good way to solve them.

Why has there been a recent growth of insider attacks?

The tragedy of this war, as perhaps of every war, is the degree to which the rank and file, be they from the U.S. or New Zealand, or from Afghanistan itself, bear the brunt of poor policy decisions made far from the battlefield. The approaches of both the Afghan and the U.S. governments are so riddled with internal contradictions as to drive nearly anyone distracted.
I have watched frustration rising among Afghans since at least 2005. They see government officials make a killing in contract kick-backs as a gaping hole opens up in a just-paved road. They see judges sell decisions, or police captains imprison people for ransom in stinking jail cells in the precinct house basement. Aware that the United States provides substantial aid to Pakistan, Afghan (and American) soldiers watch the insurgents they’re fighting attack from across Pakistan’s border. To the soldiers, it seems the U.S. is playing both ends against the middle―and they’re in the middle.
Meanwhile, international troops cut roads through their vineyards, drive a Humvee into their retaining wall, or sometimes kill their neighbors by accident or desecrate their devotional materials. All to support a government that robs and abuses them. In this context, to an angry male just leaving adolescence, Taliban arguments, and fantasies of violence, can have some allure.
There have been efforts to quantify how many insider attacks to ascribe to “Taliban infiltrators.” I’ve heard ten percent and twenty-five percent. I’m not sure how such numbers are derived. Who qualifies as an infiltrator? Someone carrying a Taliban identity card? Someone who stated ahead of time that he intended to sneak into the ranks? While the number of “sleepers” planted in Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) units with malice aforethought―that is, vetted, trained, and trusted Taliban fighters who are directed to join up under false pretenses with the aim of committing an attack―may indeed be relatively low, life in Afghanistan is rarely so delineated.
Army and police officers are young Afghan men. As such, many are exposed to Taliban thinking. Three years ago, the men with whom I worked in Kandahar came to see me aghast, after holiday visits to family and friends. “I used to know ten Taliban,” said one. “Now I know a hundred.” What he meant was that more and more members of his extended circle were expressing sympathy with Taliban ideas. I doubt I can name a single person in Kandahar who isn’t personally acquainted with some Taliban fighters, who doesn’t find him- or herself sitting with Taliban sympathizers over tea after dinner and debating the merits of jihad. It’s just demographics. And, while these boundaries may be less permeable for young men who wear the Afghan uniform, they, too, are part of the demographic.
A way to address some of the immediate triggers for these attacks might be to establish a joint Afghan-ISAF redress of grievances mechanism, an “ombudsman committee” of sorts, in each unit, where personal conflicts that tap into the underlying frustrations might be aired. Such public and collective settling of disputes is deeply rooted in Afghan culture, and this kind of mechanism could help defuse many of these situations. It could also identify systemic problems in security force development and more clearly distinguish legitimate frustration from pre-planned infiltration.
All that said, the Taliban leadership has been explicit about its intention to infiltrate the ANSF. When, less than a year after the tactic was announced, attacks are visibly increasing, it seems odd not to ascribe at least part of the change to effective implementation of orders.

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