Covering the Afghan-Pakistan War
September 4, 2008
Covering the Afghan-Pakistan War is not easy. The US government, allied governments, the NATO/ISAF command, the UN, the Afghan government, and the Pakistani government have provided remarkably little data that gives any meaningful overview of developments in the war. Aside from one official report by the Department of Defense, almost all of the data made public is anecdotal information on tactical incidents.
The Lack of Official Transparency on the Afghan Side of the War
Unlike the Iraq War, there have been no maps and charts released that show the patterns of Taliban and other enemy activity. The figures quoted by various commanders are not defined and often repeat the same figure for months at a time. Attacks are up by 40%? As of when and where? There is only violence in a limited number of districts? Really, as of when and defined in what way? Do the figures really explain why Kabul and half the country is now rated unsafe for aid workers by the UN? Are any data provided on the expansion of Taliban, Hek, and HiG areas of influence and support areas? Does any official information address the fact that the Taliban and similar groups don't have to win tactically, they simply have to outlast the US and NATO/ISAF in a war of political attrition?
Basic military data are either missing or provided in interviews and statements that are contradictory or show too little change over time to be credible. Once again, basic data that have been available on the Iraq War are not provided. The authorized current strength of the Afghan Army and Police is what? Their readiness is what? The patterns in various types of attacks such as suicide bombings are? (Everyone seems to have slightly different numbers) Afghan civilian and security force casualties are? Allied wounded are? The patterns in air attacks -- fixed wing and gunships -- are? The trends in estimated Taliban, Hek, and HiG strength are? The more one seeks some degree of official transparency that goes beyond the news of the day, the harder it is to find.
There is no equivalent to the SIGIR reporting on aid activity. Aid reporting is anecdotal, self-serving, and unrelated to the ability to meet requirements and any measures of effectiveness. There is no doubt that some good work is being done, but its impact on the war and combat areas, on Afghan needs, and Afghan perceptions is not reported. The only data on the civil sector that provides any detail is on narcotics, and that is spun in ridiculous ways. The UN and State Department see a minor cut in output, and a continuing shift towards production in Taliban influenced provinces as "progress." Their recent statements ignore the failure to deal with major traffickers, corruption, and the level of funding that narcotrafficking provides to the Taliban and other groups. In general, it is almost impossible to figure out where aid money actually goes, how many Afghans it actually benefits, and whether the end result is worth the cost. More than half a decade into the war, the end result of economic aid spending is as impossible to track as the impact of spending on Afghan forces.
The Lack of Official Transparency on the Pakistani Side of the War
It has been apparent since the rebirth of Taliban activity began in 2003 that Pakistan was a key part of the war, and that it faced critical internal problems in dealing with a growing threat. By late 2005, it was clear that any official reporting that did not address the Pakistani side of the conflict was almost meaningless, and that Pakistan was not only a key sanctuary but the new center of gravity for Al Qa'ida. US official reporting, however, continues to focus on tactical and aid activity in Afghanistan, and treat Pakistan as if it was a separate case. A Pashtun dominated war is being treated as if the US and NATO/ISAF could win the war in Afghanistan without a Pakistani victory against the same insurgent and terrorist groups in Pakistan.
The end result has been even less transparency in official reporting on Pakistan than is the case in Afghanistan. At least in the case of Afghanistan, there were some maps and charts that showed the patterns of Taliban and other enemy activity issued back in 2005 and 2006, and some UN leaks in 2007. There were some figures on attack patterns, areas of influence or support activity, and some data on levels of violence. There has been no meaningful transparency on the steady growth of Taliban and Al Qa'ida influence in Pakistan. There also has been little meaningful data on Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps activity, and what has been said rarely seems to track with later after action reports.
Pakistan has been treated as an "ally" when the actions of the central government, ISI and other intelligence groups, and some of the Pakistani military have been uncertain to say the least. There have been no pattern data issued on cross border activity and infiltration, or attacks from the Pakistani side of the border. There has been no reporting on the patterns in growing attacks on US and NATO supply routes through Pakistan, or weapons smuggling and transfers.
Aside from the GAO and CRS, there has been no meaningful data on how aid to Pakistan has been spent,, whether it has really had any meaningful impact on Pakistani military and security activity, and whether or not it is bringing some degree of security and stability to the critical FATA and Baluchi areas of Pakistan.
Women, Children, and Political Warfare
This lack of transparency extends to the most basic forms of information and political warfare. Two recent incidents illustrate this fact. The Taliban has long operated in ways which mix Afghan and Pakistani families with fighters in both the forward and rear areas. It is almost impossible to attack forces that are not active in the field without attacking targets that have some women and children. At the same time, the US and NATO/ISAF have failed to show that they have effective targeting methods and rules of engagement, or can quickly validate whether or not civilians were hit that were not directly colocated with threat forces. The end result has been a mix of legitimate mistakes and a steadily growing Taliban ability to manipulate such attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, with growing political and propaganda success.
Similarly, the failure to provide transparency on Pakistan's actions or non-actions in the FATA and Baluchi areas has create a situation where the Taliban and other hostile groups can portray any US raids or use of UAVs and air power as almost a random violation of Pakistani sovereignty.
These are not minor problems. Opinion polls show that while Afghans still support US and NATO/ISAF operations, they react strongly to bombing and casualty reports, and increasingly doubt US and NATO/ISAF staying power. Pakistani public opinion has been heavily hostile from the start, and the lack of meaningful official US and NATO/ISAF information and transparency has played a critical role in sustaining such views.
Once again, the Taliban, Al Qa'ida, Hek, and HiG, do not have to win battles or conquer cities. They simply have to outlast the US and NATO/ISAF willingness to fight, or Afghan and Pakistani willingness to sustain the conflict. As the late Colonel Harry Summers noted about Vietnam, one can win every battle and still find such victories to be irrelevant.
The Need for Official Transparency, Credibility, and Integrity
One of the most basic tactics in government is to blame the media. In this case, however, the blame lies with governments and international organizations. The US and its allies are involved in what is clearly a long war. They cannot win by spinning the moment or claiming victory. They need to provide a detailed overview of the patterns and developments in the Afghan-Pakistan War, and they need to show why and how it is being fought in the way it is. They need to win long-term information dominance, and this means a dramatically new degree of official transparency, credibility, and integrity.