Casualobserver, a soldier stationed in Wardak province, writes concerning my posting the other day:
I have been in Wardak province for almost a year now. I am quite positive that the author of this article has not been in Wardak, and if he has it has only been for a short time and has not been in a position where his opinion is even remotely valid to include Kabul and Bagram air field.
Just because one article comes out stating that soldiers in Wardak are of low morale doesn’t mean that the enemy is winning in Wardak. In truth, the “locals fighting” here are people paid by foreign insurgency to fight Americans. IED attacks are just about the only tactic being used to attack soldiers here because it is a method that can be employed by 1-2 people where they can hide from the people they are attacking without actually having to fight. In few instances do the enemy utilize small arms to combat, and when they do it is from a far distance where the chance of effective retaliation is low. From that far distance, their ability to be effective is extremely low as well. In short, the enemy is in few numbers and is cowardly.
The people in Wardak are extremely friendly to Soldiers, and in reality I am one of the soldiers who has “handed candy out to children.” The problem with this article is that children have never hurled it back to me. The “installed government” has been working with US money to better the lives of the people here and the people here have actively resisted insurgency and attacking of coalition forces which include Canadian soldiers, American soldiers, Afghan Soldiers, Afghan Police, and other organizations. I have literally not entered a town during the 156 patrols I have been on that has not welcomed us in or explained to us their problems.
These people are actively supporting their Afghan government. They go to the government with their problem and this government works from the provincial level to the local level to do all they can to help them. In truth, it is a new government and there is still a reliance on other government support, namely from the Turkish government and the US government.
The people conducting attacks are very, very few in numbers and are paid to do so. Basically, the people attacking the government here are poor and looking for sources of income. The extreme majority of people here are not attacking the Afghan Army nor the American Army.
In truth, soldier’s morale in some cases may be low, but this is the case for all deployments. Any time that a soldier leaves home to go somewhere else that morale will drop. Soldier’s morale is lowered in places like Qatar, Kyrgystan, Africa, and Kuwait where there is no large media interest.
The people reading this article need to know that this author is gaining popularity because he is writing about an opinion which people who have not been to war, have not been to Afghanistan, and have not been to Wardak have. Just because you are an armchair politician does not mean that you know what you are talking about.
Casualobserver makes several dubious claims which seem to indicate that he or she did not read the relevant blog posts very well, in particular claiming that I relied on the opinions held by people who “have not been to Wardak”. This is of course false, as the opinions offered were of people who in fact live in Wardak, as well as journalists reporting from the province.
Turning to the more serious questions raised, Casualobserver’s central claim against me is that the “people in Wardak are extremely friendly to soldiers,” offering as evidence the 156 patrols he or she has been on. There is, however, plenty of evidence from more credible sources that the opposite is true.
One McClatchy reporter embedded with newly arrived troops back in February had no problem finding dissenting opinion even in the presence of the armed troops. Addressing the soldiers, one local was clear:
“Look at how we are standing here and talking. You are asking questions. Why don’t you do more of that instead of snatch-and-grab operations?” said Samur Gul, a bearded taxi driver, to the approval of onlookers. “Innocent people are being killed.” (link)
Journalist Sayad Kharim wrote in May that “Few people [in Wardak province] are happy with what the US-led war has brought them and they want the troops out.” He quotes a 30 year old woman in Wardak named Jamila:
“I don’t like the foreigners or what they have done for this country and for its women. During the Taliban time my husband had a job, now he doesn’t. The foreigners should leave the country because it’s not just me – no one likes them. They have killed lots of people.” (link)
In July, Anand Gopal citing Habibullah Rafeh, a policy analyst at the Kabul Academy of Sciences, wrote:
“Most of the troops [in Wardak] live in small, heavily fortified outposts near urban centers. Most Afghans, however, live in rural areas – only 0.5 percent of Wardak’s population is urban, for example.” [Rafeh himself says:] “The local village people view the Americans as occupiers, not as allies… Many don’t have direct contact with the Americans, but almost everyone in those areas feel the Taliban presence.” (link)
While Casualobserver sees only smiling, grateful locals in Wardak, the American commander in neighbouring Logar province is much less of a pollyanna:
“We’re trying to make inroads with the local people, build relationships,” said Capt. Jason Wingeart, commander of COP Charkh in Logar province. “But many are scared or just plain ambivalent, and building trust takes time.” (link)
Casualobserver’s claim that the foreign troops are overwhelmingly welcomed by locals in the region of Wardak thus finds little support from independent observers or even other soldiers. But such deafness to evidence is certainly not unique in military circles. After several locals gave detailed descriptions of incidents of civilian casualties, the Boston Globe’s Farah Stockman inquired of the American forces: “Captain Rebecca Lykins, a public affairs officer for the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, who is working with the US special forces in Wardak, said her team was not aware of any such incidents.”
Casualobserver claims that insurgents in Wardak are few in number as well as relatively ineffective against the foreign troops. Before examining that claim, it would be useful to consider the extent of the physical area held by the American troops. As mentioned above, the US troops are concentrated around a few urban centres, while in Wardak as of July “the Taliban, who hail from nearby villages  rule over vast, remote areas,” according to the Boston Globe.
Little seems to have changed in Wardak since February when US forces were deploying and journalist Anand Gopal wrote that “insurgents today control six out of nine districts, according to interviews with locals and government officials here.” (The Taliban controlled four while Hizb-e Islami controlled two.) Media reports indicate that US forces have a presence along the highway in perhaps four districts ( Chak, Jalrez, Saydabad and Nerkh) – while the remainder of even those districts is beyond their reach.
Casualobserver’s claim that the insurgents are few in number may thus hold true for the small areas where foreign forces have a significant presence. However, the fact that insurgents have succeeded in detonating 180 IEDs and have killed 19 American soldiers demonstrates that they are far from ineffective, as Casualobserver claims.
The evidence indicates that a small number of insurgents are seeing success against a large foreign force confined to a small area of operations, while the rest of the province is still under insurgent sway. Such a situation is reminiscent of what occurred last year in Helmand province in the south. There, a spring of 2008 “mini-surge” of US Marines managed after tremendous struggle to secure just 11 square kilometers of territory while fending off an enemy that had largely retreated, yet was still able to offer the Americans numerous heavy fire fights. While the western media kept a lid on the fact, the UN’s humanitarian news agency reported that “about 30,000 individuals, mostly women and children – are estimated to have abandoned their homes” in the areas near the fighting. As we have seen, a similar exodus appears to be underway in Wardak.
Casualobserver also claims that insurgents are paid for their work, implying that they are not, as I hold, motivated in part by a desire to rid their country of foreign troops. Yet serious observers generally do not share Casualobserver’s opinion. The recent DfID report which looks at reasons why Afghans join the insurgency posits three key contributing factors: religion, government corruption and the presence of foreign troops in the country. The cash incentive is mentioned as an ancillary factor, alongside social status, self-protection and leverage for political disputes.
It is not difficult to guess the reason why a soldier on the ground might get different responses from the Afghan public than does a journalist: It is likely that locals simply pretend that they have no problem with the presence of heavily armed foreigners when they are questioned by the same heavily armed foreigners. While many foreign soldiers serving in Afghanistan have noted this phenomenon, it appears not to have occurred to Casualobserver.
It reminds me of something Louis Dupree wrote. Dupree, the dean of Afghanistan studies, noted that Afghan villagers universally display a talent for quick agreement with outside meddlers. The point is they know that the foreigners will leave sooner rather than later, and they humor the foreigner to hasten his exit so that things can return to normal. In light of this, Casualobserver’s claims and those of locals have a logical fit.
Finally, any skeptical reader would note that the Afghan politicians and citizens quoted above say such things publicly – at no small risk to themselves, one might add. So too did the US combat soldiers currently serving in the province publicly state their concerns – also a risky, thus brave, move. Yet Casualobservers comments are anonymous, giving us less reason to take them seriously.