The war in Afghanistan has taken a bizarre turn. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, under foreign pressure to clean up corruption in his government, has apparently warned that he might just side with the Taliban instead. Meanwhile, down south major NATO combat operations continue to target Taliban strongholds. In the east, stretched-thin NATO troops struggle to build grassroots governance and security without much support from Karzai’s regime. Zach Rosenberg, War Is Boring’s youngest correspondent, heads into this morass to observe U.S. counter-insurgency operations up-close.
by ZACH ROSENBERG
On a combat outpost in Logar Province, a group of young American soldiers sit around on guard duty, bored to tears, swapping stories about the Afghan National Army (ANA). Between drags of his cigarette, one soldier tells a story of his time guarding the COP’s senior medic. One day, it seems, a senior ANA officer came to the clinic complaining of an infection to his penis; after some time and much sheepishness, it emerged that the ANA officer likely contracted the infection when he had sex with a donkey. He was given antibiotics. Around the guard post, the other soldiers nod; they have similar stories.
In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Daniel Byman and Christine Fair write about the stupidity of large parts of the jihadi movement, including sordid anecdotes of sex with animals, pornography, suicide bombers blowing themselves up before their meant to, the sheer idiocy of some of the world’s most notorious terrorists. The reminder is a necessary one. This is a time when negative articles continuously appear, one right after the other, stressing the Taliban’s strength and support.
But neither are America’s allies immune from whatever lure donkeys apparently possess. The terabytes of porn the Taliban look at are doubtless outclassed by any U.S. Army base. For the talk of the hypocrisy of the Taliban’s supposed religious conservatism this conveys, the Taliban have managed to stake out the religious high ground, which is not a very difficult task given the competition from Karzai’s government of flagrant violators and the defiantly secular NATO nations.
In some ways, the West’s failures are more egregious than the Taliban’s. Byman and Fair note the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, one guy with some explosives in his underwear, who slipped effortlessly through security measures that have taken billions of dollars and years of effort to put into place. He failed to blow up his target, thankfully. He wasn’t very smart, but he didn’t have to be: Abdulmutallab made it so far due to failures of intelligence and coordination. The same basic idea is evident in the old U.S. obsession with port security, which despite billions of dollars and days of rhetoric no terrorist is yet known to have attempted to breach. Or nuclear and biological terrorism countermeasures — not to say these were necessarily bad ideas, but if we overestimate our enemy, isn’t that our failure?
Perception, not reality, is the most important factor in determining what side a person will support. Let half the Taliban suicide bombers blow themselves up by accident — they only need one to do it right. NATO’s technology, resources and experiences, light-years ahead what the Taliban has available, makes any minor Taliban success a great failure for NATO. The same cannot be said of NATO’s successes.
As Amil Khan notes on the blog Abu Muqawama, the clear presence of lots of idiots isn’t necessarily a good sign; it means that the jihadi movement is finding lots of people in general. It only takes one idiot to press the right button once, Khan says; meanwhile the smart jihadi are engineering the really complex operations that undermine the Afghan government and NATO.
I would add to this — not exactly news, but still — that the jihadi movement operates with a high degree of autonomy, in which independent groups or individuals can initiate large-impact action. That sort of autonomy allows for a high degree of creativity and operational diversity. Thus far, we’ve been lucky in that the clever operations have been largely confined to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Byman and Fair suggest that the idiocy of many jihadi could be used to discredit them. There is an argument to be made that the U.S. no longer has any credibility among the potential target audience. Imagine, for example, a story in a Pakistani newspaper about some gross Taliban ineptitude — maybe the suicide-bomber embrace where one bomber killed six would-be bombers by accident. Place that story on the page opposite another about the tough times Marines are having outside Kandahar. The takeaway message is that the Taliban may be idiots, but that the U.S. can’t counter them.