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Luttwak on Steve Coll’s Book and War in Afghanistan

Saturday, June 30th, 2018

[mark safranski / “zen”]

I’m a fan of strategist Ed Luttwak who, like Ralph Peters, is known for his bombastic and shibboleth-breaking analysis. I saw this book review by Luttwak in the Times Literary Supplement posted on a listserv to which I subscribe.

War of error

On April 14, 2011, at a meeting in The Hague, I was much impressed by the impassioned speech of Amrullah Saleh, a former Head of the Afghan National Directorate of Security and a future government minister. His chief message was that Afghanistan, being poorer, deserved Europe’s help not by way of charity but out of solidarity, because both faced the same struggle against jihadi violence. As it happened, I was sitting immediately to his left on the speakers’ stage, and when it was my turn to speak I reached for his left hand to hold up his gold Rolex watch, declaring my readiness to swap it for my steel Timex, in the name of solidarity. He declined the offer.That is one important thing that readers will encounter in Steve Coll’s Directorate S; money, and lots of it; a torrent from the arrival of the first CIA team in the Panjshir Valley on September 26, 2001 carrying $10 million in cash, which was handed out in bundles “like candy on Halloween”. That 10 million was followed by hundreds of millions and then tens of billions and then hundreds of billions – cash that made a millionaire of every Afghan official you have ever heard of, and often of his brothers, sons and nephews too, in a country where the official minimum wage reserved for those with coveted public sector jobs is $72 – per month. So assuming that Saleh’s gold Rolex was the very cheapest model, he was wearing five or six years of wages on his left wrist.

As it happens, Coll’s book starts in the summer of 2001 with Saleh, not as a symbol of the all-contaminating corruption that appears to doom any American undertaking in Afghanistan but the opposite, as a selflessly dedicated intelligence aide of Ahmed Shah Massoud, whose stalwart resistance in the Panjshir river valley that runs in a north-easterly direction from Kabul was all that prevented the complete domination of Afghanistan by the Taliban, with their highly visible al-Qaeda subordinates, on behalf of their thinly disguised masters, the Pakistani army.

….The diplomatic price the Pakistani army exacted for allowing truck convoys via Quetta or Peshawar was and is immense: the toleration of its nuclear weapons programme and – until Trump came along – the flourishing of its terrorist networks that operate in Afghanistan as well as India. Thus to defend the Afghan government, the US has been funding its deadly enemies via the money given to Pakistan and its army, thereby incidentally solving Pakistan’s religious dilemma, because its conversion to Islamic extremism (in a country that celebrated Ahmadi war heroes in 1965, and as late as 1993 promoted a Catholic to major-general), only prohibits a sincere alliance with non-Muslims. As for the Central Asian routes, across Turkmenistan to Herat, or across Uzbekistan to Mazar-i-Sharif, or via Tajikistan to Kunduz, they require Russian consent in practice, even if in theory containers could bypass Russia via the Black Sea to Georgia’s ports and then from Baku to Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan via Caspian ferries.

That is why the United States should never have stayed to fight for Afghanistan after quickly breaking up the al-Qaeda infrastructure in the country very soon after September 11; and that is why it is a very great pity that Trump frittered away his authority before he could order the full and immediate withdrawal he had wanted.

Read the rest here.

In fairness, there are more reasons than mere geography, Afghan corruption and Pakistani perfidy for our lost war in Afghanistan continuing into it’s second generation and nearly all of them are of our own making. If the Taliban went away and Pakistan turned into Switzerland we might continue the war anyway given the degree to which victory and defeat there have become politically irrelevant to our prosecution of the war.

ISIS in alliance with AQ? Taliban?

Monday, August 7th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — waiting for the wave function to collapse ]
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Hm.

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Sources:

  • Newsweek, Is an ISIS / al-Qaeda merger in the cards?
  • NYT, Joint Taliban-ISIS Attack Kills Dozens, Afghan Officials Say
  • American Spartan Redux

    Monday, July 31st, 2017

    [Mark Safranski / “zen“]

    Charles Cameron helpfully tipped the news last week in our comment section, but I wished to give this update the prominence friends of zenpundit.com deserve. American Spartan has been re-released and you can get it  from now until July 31, American Spartan is available for $1.99 at BookHub

    For those who need a re-cap, long time readers will recall Major Jim Gant coming to wider attention with his paper, One Tribe at a Time with an assist from noted author Steven Pressfield, where he called for a campaign strategy against the Taliban from “the bottom up” using “the tribes” because the current top down strategy of killing insurgents while building a strong, centralized, state would never work – the war would just drag on indefinitely until the US grew tired and quit Afghanistan. Gant forged a tight relationship with Afghan tribal leader  Noor Azfal ,won some fans with his paper in very high places, including SECDEF Robert Gates and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus who gave him some top cover to implement his ideas but Gant also faced formidable resistance and criticism from Afghan government officials, parts of the ISAF chain of command and academics unhappy with Gant’s conceptual emphasis on tribalism.

    Here is an excellent review of American Spartan by Doyle Quiggle in The Marine Corps Gazette:

    Whether from Plutarch or Zack Snyder’s 300, we all know the command, “Come back with your shield—or on it.” Special Forces MAJ Jim Gant, USA, came back with his shield, but, like his soul, it’s as mortar-pocked as the face of the moon. The narrator of Gant’s Spartan tale is his lady, a word used with chivalric respect. Ann witnesses, validates, and, by writing this book, binds up the many wounds Gant suffered to mind, body, and soul in Iraq and Afghanistan, an act of healing she began in her home in Maryland, kicking Gant of his drug and alcohol habits to get him back into the fight. As Gen James N. Mattis recently lamented in Warriors and Civilians, true, unflinching acceptance of what warriors become through warfighting is rare. Ann’s narrative asks readers to muster a hard-nosed acceptance of Gant in the fullness of his sometimes brutal, sometimes compassionate (Afghans call this blend of virtues nangyalee) warrior soul.

    A collaboration between a warrior and his woman, American Spartan provides an exemplary model for receiving the blood-tainted warrior back into the kill-shy civilian fold. The partnership itself, a cooperative, on-going translation of combat experience into a narrative for communal sharing, is a ritual of homecoming from war, a gift of acceptance that a non-killer, Ann, gives to a killer, Gant. Together, they offer military readership an enduring lesson about how to fight—in mind and battlespace—gray-zone war. With tooth-breaking honesty, Ann records Jim’s edgy mindset after his Iraq deployment:

    He had sacrificed everything at the altar of war. War was, by then, all he really knew. He could not imagine a world where the people he had loved most had become strangers, and where—unlike in Iraq—his enemies were not trying to kill him, making them much harder to find and impossible to destroy.

    Read the rest here.

    I wrote in my own review of American Spartan:

    The substance of the book, Gant’s implementation of his “One Tribe at Time” strategy among the Pashtuns and his rise and fall with the hierarchy of the US Army is more complicated and begs for deeper examination. Readers with knowledge of Afghanistan, the Army, American policy or some combination of the three will find nearly as much to read between the lines of American Spartan as they will in the text itself. It is fascinating, really, and the moral implications are deeply disturbing.

    To summarize, American Spartan lays out a tragic paradox. My impression is that the tribal engagement strategy Gant championed would never have been permitted to succeed, even had he been a Boy Scout in his personal conduct; and secondly, even if tribal engagement had been fully resourced and enthusiastically supported, Gant himself would have self-destructed regardless.  A Greek tragedy in a khet partug.

    Gant has frequently been compared to the legendary Lawrence of Arabia and the fictional Colonel Kurtz.   Interestingly, both of those figures died early and untimely deaths, having long outlived their usefulness for their respective armies. Major Gant is, fortunately, very much alive today which may be the only good outcome associated with his fall from grace.  Given his predisposition for assuming heroic risks, taking battle to the enemy, chance hazards of war and Gant’s own struggle with PTSD, alcoholism and pills chronicled by Tyson, the bitter vendetta of Gant’s immediate superiors ironically may have kept him from also becoming Afghanistan’s John Paul Vann or Bernard Fall.  Gant is not a Colonel Kurtz. That charge would be a slander; nor is he really T.E. Lawrence either, though that is a much better comparison. Gant had more bite to Lawrence’s bark and that was at least part of the equation in Gant’s success.  The al-Saud and al-Rashid tribes and Turkish pashas did not fear Lawrence the same way Taliban commanders and rival Pashtun subtribes personally feared Jim Gant, whom one of his fiercest anthropologist critics called “very scary”.  It was not only tea and beards, nor could it be.

    Pick up American Spartan at BookHub today for $1.99!

    Among the believers

    Wednesday, April 5th, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — a blistering documentary account of Pakistan’s Lal Masjid, jihadist focal point ]
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    I’ve just been watching the 2015 documentary Among the Believers, now showing on Netflix. It concerns the Red Mosque, Lal Masjid — its teachings, its encouragement of jihad, and the government siege which shut it down in 2007. The speaker denouncing the masjid is Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy.

    Here are some screengrabs that caught my eye..

    **

    Maulana Abdul Aziz, who runs the place, speaks of his son, who was inside the Masjid during the bloody siege, and lost his life:

    He was my only son. When I was in prison, during the final part of the siege, police guards loyal to us told me that since I had only one son, they would smuggle him out of there. But I said no. I told them I was willing to sacrifice him for Allah. You know, I regret the fact that I didn’t died for Allah. They said, “What’s more important than one’s child’s life?”

    He concludes:

    What is of interest here is the amplified echo of the story of Abraham‘s willingness to sacrifice his son (variously Isaac, Ishmael)

    **

    The book the student is reading is one I mentioned a while back, in 2011’s The Black Banners of Blackwater by Maulana Umar Asim.

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    A new category of martyr — the madrassah. Will it cross the bridge As-Sirat? What will be its reward?

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    What those who protest Lal Masjid’s encouragement of jihad wish to reclaim for a happier and more toalerant Pakistan..

    The film is banned in Pakistan.

    **

    Here, to bring you some joy out of all this, is a song that I encountered on the soundtrack of this remarkable documentary, performed here as part of the splendid Coke Studios series:

    Trees and the Taliban

    Sunday, February 26th, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — do you suppose trees only prostrate before God, Q 55.6, during high winds? ]
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    This admirable United Nations goal gains Taliban support..

    The Taliban, in turn, have the encouragement of the Prophet:

    The Prophet (pbuh) said:”If the Hour is about to be established and one of you was holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it.”

    and:

    Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said, “There is none amongst the Muslims who plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, but is regarded as a charitable gift for him.”

    **

    Sources:

  • Plant for the Planet, Billion Tree Campaign
  • BBC, Taliban leader urges Afghans to plant more trees
  • Hidaya Foundation, Why Plant Trees?
  • Muaz Nasir, The Value of Trees in Islam

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