Enjoyed joining a discussion last night at the Frontline Club. If you missed it, you can watch it here.
UPDATED: 29/9/11 – Despite a UN report released today reporting higher violence than ever in Afghanistan – the latest figures show fatalities trending massively down for US and UK troops in Afghanistan. The number of US servicemen and women killed is significantly down despite the unusual loss of so many SEALS in a helicopter crash. Details see amended graphs here:
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on June 5, 2011.
BY STEPHEN GREY:
BY the light of a full moon, a team of America’s most elite Special Forces fast-roped from helicopters into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
Creeping through the pine nut groves of Qalandar district, Khost province, they approached a hide-out of bunkers, tents and make-shift buildings that was now used as a training camp for suicide bombers.
Their target, tracked to this location from Pakistan, was a senior leader of the Haqqani Network – a ruthless branch of the Taliban.
In the fire fight that ensued, the special force operators faced counter-fire from machine guns and RPG rockets, and even a suicide bomber that attempted to creep up on them. But at the end, they had killed both their target and 18 of his fighters.
Michael Waltz, a reserve officer with US special forces, was deployed to the region. And he recalled the attack won support from local people: “The elders were thrilled, even though we had destroyed some of their crop. There was an actual procession that came down from the mountains, down to our base to thank us.” Continue reading Raiders of the Night
On another moonlit runway every month these days, another bearded man is hustled aboard a military jet. He is an ‘intermediary’ from the Taliban and is about to be flown many hours before sitting down for another chance to talk about ending this war.
As Spiegel reported this week, Germany is one country that his hosting very preliminary “peace talks” in a hope of ending a war in Afghanistan that has cost so many lives. It’s not the only show in town. According to intelligence officials and senior diplomats I’ve interviewed, various “representatives” of the Taliban movement have also been flown to Norway and to Turkey in parallel tracks.
Fresh impetus to this process has been given by President Obama. As terrorism analyst Peter Bergen reports, a little-noticed shift of US policy has all but abandoned pre-conditions for talks to start.
Bergen is sceptical the Taliban is ready for talks – or, citing Pakistani truces with the Talban in its tribal areas, he argues they cannot be trusted anyway.
But while I judge the Taliban is becoming ever more extreme (despite attempts to argue the opposite by former Taliban ambassador Mullah Zaeef and indeed by Mullah Omar himself), if the White House is serious about a peace process, as I believe it is, then the critical question is what path could be chosen that could firstly make the Taliban less extreme and therefore an acceptable partner in a future accord and secondly make the peace process acceptable to the Taliban itself. Continue reading Peace talks need a strategy
Adrian Mogos (Romania) – Local journalist category
Stephen Grey (UK) – Freelance category
London, 19 October 2010
This year’s jury selected two outstanding candidates whose fearlessness and journalistic excellence represent the overall mission of the Kurt Schork Awards for International Journalism.
The 2010 Kurt Schork Awards for International Journalism will honour freelancer Stephen Grey (UK), and local reporter Adrian Mogos (Romania). The awards ceremony at Thomson Reuters headquarters, Canary Wharf on Wednesday 3rd November, will be followed by a reception and panel discussion.
This year’s Schork jury included Jeremy Bowen of the BBC, John Burns of The New York Times, Sir Harold Evans, author and former editor of The Times and The Sunday Times, Rana Husseini, author and human rights activist, and Michela Wrong, freelance journalist and author.
The jury was particularly impressed with the quality of Stephen Grey’s articles on Afghanistan, saying that they represented some of the best coverage anywhere, combining maturity with excellent analytical skills, and making a complex war more understandable.
The jury said Adrian Mogos provided an excellent in-depth investigation into issues of compelling importance. They felt that he showed great initiative, persistence and ingenuity, backed up with excellent research to expose human rights violations.
About the Winners
Adrian Mogos – 2010 Winner, Local journalist category
Adrian Mogos was born in the town of Cluj – Napoca on 1974. He graduated from the Faculty of Journalism at the West University of Timisoara, following up with postgraduate studies in European Studies in Slovakia. Since 2004, Adrian has worked for the Bucharest-based daily newspaper Jurnalul National. At the same time, he was accepted as a member of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism. In 2009, Adrian was made a fellow of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, and this summer he was awarded the CEI – SEEMO award for outstanding merits in investigative journalism. Adrian is often invited to share his experience with young journalists in Romania and Moldova.
Stephen Gray – 2010 Winner, Freelance journalist category
Stephen Grey is a freelance writer and reporter based in London, covering security issues for both newspapers and television and radio. A former foreign correspondent and Insight Editor of the Sunday Times, he has continued to work for the paper as a freelance, covering most recently the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but has also written regularly for publications including the New York Times, Guardian, Prospect magazine and Le Monde Diplomatique. He is best known for his work on reporting the CIA’s rendition program, which resulted in his first book, Ghost Plane. Since 2007, he has been reporting on the war in Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar, where he reported in the spring and early summer of this year. His account of the battle for Musa Qala – Operation Snakebite- was published last year by Penguin. He has made several films for Channel 4 Dispatches, BBC Newsnight, Radio 4’s File on Four, and is currently working on assignment for the PBS documentary series Frontline. Stephen is married with two children.
Zenith Press have just released the USA edition of my book on the battle for Musa Qala and the war in Helmand, Afghanistan. THis is an updated version of Operation Snakebite, published in the UK, and includes new material on operations by the 82nd Airborne Division in Helmand.
It can be purchased on Amazon here
I had a phone call from a long- retired senior CIA operative in the Middle East (station chief in three continents, commanded major covert paramilitary operations, and managed Near-East desk at Langley). He prefers to go these days by the pseudonym Eric Jordan, so that’s what I’ll call him. Jordan was boiling with a kind of frustrated anger.
“It makes me so damn angry to see those constant pictures of young soldiers working through all those damn fields of Afghanistan being blown up by IEDs left and right. I’m angered that this generation hasn’t learned any of the basics of how to fight with tribes.”
Jordan’s contention that flooding in tens of thousands of conventional troops into the fray in southern Afghanistan is a “wholly inappropriate” response to the current crisis. “Let the tribes fight the tribes. It’s the only system that has historically worked all over the world.”
If nothing else, Jordan suggest the US is failing to pick up any of the lessons of “the monumental exercise of CIA covert support to drive the Soviet Union superpower forces into an ignominious defeat without the use of any US military ‘boots on the ground’”; nor even Lawrence of Arabia’s stirring of Arabian tribes, not to mention the marshalling of irregular revolutionary forces in the American war of independence (I was less convinced on his latter point; my family fought on the other side!). His remarks came as a series of influential voices point out that we’re not getting it quite right.
As CNN’s Zakaria has pointed out: “Obama says the mission in Afghanistan is the defeat of Al Qaeda. The CIA director says that there are at most 100 Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. This means that the US will spend $1 billion to fight each remaining Al-Qaeda member there this year alone. Do we need to be fighting such a MAJOR war there for so few Al Qaeda?”
“How can, he asked, the current US and NATO generals believe that putting “boots on the ground” – the boots of young inexperienced soldiers – generally unfamiliar with such irregular combat is a good strategy?”
Jordan followed up his call with an email in which he wrote: “I vacillate between anger and sadness as I watch TV, seeing young NATO troops being sent out on foot or in vulnerable vehicles on dirt tracks in the Afghan countryside to be killed – easily – by IEDs or snipers. OK, that could happen in the towns or cities also, but let the Afghan fighters do the countryside and mountain tracks, with a few grizzled covert veterans who know best how to protect themselves and their men while providing some modern support to the cooperating tribal fighters.“
“These tactics and strategy should lead to eventual tribal settlements among the Afghans that leaves the “good guys” (NATO’s side) in charge in this ancient nation with NATO troops gone, but with some covert support to keep the “good guys” fully equipped and funded. After all, although there is no such thing as “unconditional surrender” in this part of the world, and al-Qaeda no longer has their main base there.”
Talking earlier, Eric had his own memories of tribal warfare in Yemen in the 1960s. In those days, while the British and French were covertly working with tribes in the hills, when two American USAID officers were imprisoned, the Pentagon’s knee-jerk response was to propose at a Washington meeting a parachute-drop of a Green Beret team to raid the prison to free the two Americans. The operation was killed when Eric, asked to comment on the plan, told the mulit-agency gathering that the bright young Colonel and all his men would likely return in body bags. Eric suggested there was indeed a much simpler solution – parachute a smaller team to the nearby desert camp of a notorious tribal chieftain and get his men, with gold coins and a few of the latest automatic weapons to win their attention, to perform the mission on America’s behalf.
Eric also pointed out that recent archaeological evidence showed most of the Incas were killed by other Peruvian tribes, not by Francisco Pizarro’s invading Spanish. (Most Incas were eliminated with big stones and clubs, not with swords or spears). “So the Spanish had worked out tribal warfare strategy and tactics hundreds of years ago.”
In Afghanistan, Eric suggests, it is “criminal” for young NATO soldiers to be told to patrol through fields and villages arranged perfectly for deadly ambushes among a population that will never learn to a) like them, or even b) tolerate them.
The problem is the total failure to cultivate the continuing covert capability to handle and manage this kind of irregular combat, least of which is learning the relevant languages.
In the early 20th Century, British political officers working the north-west Frontier came to their jobs with generations of experience. Now, as an intelligence reports to the Washington Times, “commanders still have not found the key to shifting the loyalties of Pashtun tribal leaders away from the rigidly Islamic Taliban and toward the democratic government of President Hamid Karzai.
“We’re fighting a cultural battle we have yet to come to grips with,” the official said. “We don’t get the Pashtun mindset. We can’t figure out how to work through the system of corruption.”
In other words, this stuff is hard ::: all the more reason to mean it is primarily a job for a small group of elite operators – committed to very long term engagement with this problem.
Special Force experiments.
Of course, as many have reported, many experiments are underway in engagement with tribal forces, not least of which experiments with Green Berets with the Local Defence Initiative.
Among the most powerful arguments for this approach are contained in Major Jim Gant’s “One Tribe at a Time Paper” and an essay called The Tribal Path by a group of former Royal Marines, including some members of the UK’s Special Boat Squadron.
The danger is that doing these wrong is worse than doing nothing – for instance arming local tribes works only if the resulting militia can be made to represent the entire community, not a local warlord whose domineering is precisely the reason so many support the Taliban (as I reported in my film from Kandahar) . In other words, there has to be a micro political process, dealing with tribal differences, that goes ahead of any kind of military work.
Jordan summarises his approach as follows:
Go up close to what’s happening in Afghanistan – for example, in the city of Kandahar – and you find crime, corruption, tribal conflict and ordinary people powerless to resist the armed might of the militias. No happy ending isin sight
Kandahar, Afghanistan. We visited the snooker club at the Kandahar Coffee Shop. It didn’t sell coffee. And I can’t play snooker. So we ordered burgers and filmed street life from the terrace: the traffic went around the roundabout and a manic flock of doves circled a hundred feet above. US soldiers drove by in huge armoured trucks, policemen stopped white Toyota Corollas and searched their trunks for bombs, and gunmen of every species drove around in their SUVs and pickup trucks.
Round the corner was our hotel. Half of it was destroyed earlier this year when a man walked past, pushing a bomb on a cart. He was heading for another target but when challenged by police, he and his cart – and the side of the hotel – were blown up. The bomb was detonated by the policemen’s shots. The hotel owner is busy rebuilding. He’s expecting an influx of journalists and trade when Nato conducts what until lately was called the “summer offensive” or even “the battle for Kandahar” but now, causing confusion, is just a “complex military-political effort”.
Everyone is still playing up the game in line with a recent ABC News headline, “Campaign for Kandahar May Be America’s Last Chance to Win Over Afghans”. On a visit to Kandahar, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, described the city as “as critical in Afghanistan as Baghdad was in Iraq in the surge”.
Sadly for the US, almost everyone supports the Taliban rebels. Even Nato commanders. A senior officer said: “If I was a young man, I’d be fighting with the Taliban.” In this heartland of the Pashtun people, the idea of being a stooge to foreigners or an unpopular Kabul government hardly appeals to the young unless there’s serious money involved. They ask themselves if they want to take the money and work with foreigners, or fight and risk a courageous death. Most people loathe those who work with the government.
I met a professional man in his 50s, a generation that dominates the administration (they were in their 20s when the Russians were here). He has a long flowing beard. “That’s because he’s a communist,” said my Afghan companion. “The people that ISAF appoint, most of them are communists.” (ISAF is the International Security Assistance Force, the Nato mission in Afghanistan.) “They support Lenin and Marx?” “No, not at all, but they were the ones that collaborated with the Russians. We call them the communists.”
“They’re still in power?” “Yes, they like working with foreigners. They’re all communists. Many of them got educated in Russian too. We all despise them.”
“And the beard?” “Oh they do like their beards. They’re trying to cover up their past.”