NIGHTWATCH: On Afghanistan, UN Report, Kabul

08 Wild Cards

Afghanistan Comment: NightWatch’s reading of the just released UN report is different from the mainstream media coverage. Two paragraphs of the 17 page update deal with security and they received most of the news coverage. Violence was up in early 2010 and the UN attributed it correctly to the increase in US operation in Helmand and supporting NATO operations in Kandahar. The late winter surge in fighting was Coalition-initiated and contrary to the seasonal winter lull. In May, Taliban announced their spring/summer offensive, which is a seasonal effect.

The New York Times story pretty much repeated the two paragraphs on security, but in a way that suggested there was more to the story. There is not: lots of violence and lots of IEDs. The US command has made that point.

One news account said that only five of 80 key districts are “sympathetic” to the central government, according to the US command. None are described as loyal, which is probably a semi-permanent condition. Without a baseline for loyal districts dating from the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, it is impossible to credit the assertion as significant. It is not wrong, it just lacks context.

What is missing is commentary on the geographic distribution of attacks. NightWatch has continued to monitor and document the daily fighting as reported in open sources. There is no significant change. The Taliban have not broken out of the Pashtun communities and the government has made no inroads in building support among Pashtuns. Geographically and ethnically, there are no winners and no losers.
In an essentially pre-modern economy, Kabul is where legitimate business is conducted with the outside world. This is a role it has performed for several centuries, through strong and weak central governments. Provincial and district leaders, who need to deal formally with the outside world, must deal with Kabul, the primary, single point of legal contact. Dealing with Kabul is not the same as supporting or sympathizing with it. The idea of supporters and sympathizers is Western and not really relevant to Afghanistan. Loyalty is not a zero sum game in Asia.

Internal instability, however, always is centripetal. Since the Pashtuns are not fighting to secede, they must capture Kabul if they hope to return to government for all Afghanistan. Otherwise they fail, remaining a chronic, but not terminal, security problem. At this point, they are unable to capture Kabul or to hold territory against NATO. The scale of violence has increased but control of the land has not changed much, based on open source reporting.

The big stories in the report are the peace jirga and corruption. No new ground in either.

Phi Beta Iota:  We hold NIGHTWATCH’s mind in very high regard.  The question the above suggests that any President paying attention should ask, is this: “Where are we on Whole of Government, Multinational-Multifunctional campaign for turning Kabul into a modern efficient connected city with reliable services, and where are we on eliminating corruption in the government by using preventive measures that make it difficult for any government official to mis-appropriate or mis-direct funds?