Thursday, December 3, 2009
Naval Postgraduate School Professor Thomas Johnson is one of the nation’s top Afghanistan scholars, but for him, the battle-scarred nation is no academic enterprise. It’s the object of a lifelong fascination that began when he read the stories of Rudyard Kipling in small-town Illinois and dreamed of an impossibly exotic land.
Even now, after three decades of in-country, close-to-the-ground research, the allure of Afghanistan hasn’t faded. Johnson sits in his NPS office surrounded by mementos of those years: A set of crudely carved wooden tools designed to bleed opium from a poppy bulb, an ancient-looking, pearl-inlaid rifle acquired at a Kabul bazaar peddling everything from prayer rugs to onions, and a large map of Central Asia with Afghanistan at the center.
He displays a framed photo of himself as a young man in the 1980s, dressed in a turban, traditional long robe and baggy trousers, posing with a mujahideen rifle. He stands beside a tribal elder; Johnson’s dark eyes stare straight ahead.
Today, Johnson has a thick head of silver hair, a salt-and-pepper beard and, behind round tortoise shell glasses, piercing brown eyes that match the intensity of his current crusade: to fight an all-out war to save the United States from a Vietnam-style quagmire in Afghanistan.
“We have been in the country longer than we were in World War II,” he says, “and we’re still debating the desired outcome.”
In eight years, no one has articulated a goal for the U.S. in Afghanistan, Johnson says, and you can’t win if you don’t know what winning would look like.
President Barack Obama made his case to the nation Tuesday night, in a televised address arguing for the deployment of 30,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan. Johnson has been shopping his own counter-insurgency strategy at the highest levels of the American military, while denouncing the military failures of the Bush and Obama administrations.
Counter-insurgency – meant to keep a population safe and provide them basic services so they’ll resist a rebel army – is a concept that lost favor in the Vietnam War. Some critics believed a U.S. campaign to sway an indigenous population for its own political ends was morally wrong; others disliked it because it failed.
Johnson is a hawk, but not of the bomb-them-into-the-Stone-Age variety. Instead, he contends the United States must remain in Afghanistan to rebuild the nation, as the Americans promised in 2001 when they toppled the Taliban.
“I’m the first one to admit I’m not totally objective,” he says. “I think Afghanistan is in our national security interests, but I can recognize that some of my positions might be just based on my basic love for this country.”
At NPS, Johnson works with the nation’s top counter-insurgency experts, whose field overlaps with his study of Afghanistan, and with students who serve in the armed services’ special operations units. All this makes Monterey a hotbed of ideas about unconventional military maneuvers.
“We are sort of the center of the universe in having a number of people who understand irregular warfare,” says Hy Rothstein, a senior lecturer at the school’s Center for Terrorism and Irregular Warfare. Military officials frequently visit the school for briefings, and Johnson himself has a direct line to General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the American forces in Afghanistan, as one of a select group of scholars in his so-called academic “red cell.”
Johnson’s career as an Afghanistan scholar began in the early 1980s, shortly after he studied anthropology in graduate school at the University of Southern California and signed on with the then-fledgling CACI International, now a national security contracting behemoth, to study Soviet strategy and tactics in Afghanistan.
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In a way, Johnson’s career path was set when he read Kipling as a teenager. The story of Kim, an Irish orphan who became a player in the great struggle between Great Britain and Russia for power in Central Asia, transported him to a world of faraway intrigue; James Michener’s Caravans, also a tale of Westerners in the region, had the same captivating effect. The Man Who Would Be King, also based on Kipling, was Johnson’s favorite movie. Those works stayed with him, and when Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan in 1979, the incursion packed an emotional punch.
By 1985, he was on the ground in Central Asia as a sort of modern-day Kim, moving among tribal people, learning about the anti-Soviet war first-hand from jihadis, sleeping on the dirt in walled compounds under stars so bright it seemed he could touch them – and learning to love sips of local green tea as tribal elders, steeped in a rich oral tradition, recounted 200-year-old feuds as if they’d experienced them personally.
The day in 1989 that Soviet troops retreated across Afghanistan’s Amu Darya River in defeat, Johnson was meeting with intelligence officials in Washington as they popped celebratory champagne corks.
“WE HAVE BEEN IN THE COUNTRY LONGER THAN WE WERE IN WORLD WAR II,” HE SAYS, “AND WE’RE STILL DEBATING THE DESIRED OUTCOME.”
But chaos soon enveloped Afghanistan, with one mujahideen faction battling another until the Taliban – bankrolled by Osama bin Laden – rolled into power, restoring order with its cruel brand of Islamic law.
Johnson was well aware that the U.S.-funded anti-Soviet fighters included the likes of Mullah Omar, the one-eyed cleric who became Afghanistan’s de facto head of state under the Taliban and who hated America as much as he detested the Russian invaders. But he says no one anticipated that Afghanistan would eventually play host to the Al Qaeda terrorists whose Sept. 11 attacks returned American men and women to the country to battle former allies.
The U.S. could have remained in Afghanistan to help the country stabilize and recover from the spectacular devastation of the Soviet war, he says, but squandered the opportunity.
Now the U.S. is teetering on the brink of failing Afghanistan once again, Johnson says. In early October, as he headed to NATO meetings and a round of TV appearances, he was outspoken about American missteps in Afghanistan, hoping that McChrystal, and the Obama administration would heed his calls for a policy shift.
After all, Obama had said he was considering all options for the way forward, and that declaration provided a glimmer of hope, Johnson says, adding: “My basic strategy is to be as obnoxious as possible to be able to point out all the mistakes we’re making.”
His latest piece on the conflict – “Re-fighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template” in the latest issue of Military Affairs, co-written with Chris Mason of George Washington University – argues that the U.S. is still fighting the Vietnam War in Afghanistan. Johnson’s voice rises as he lists the mistakes he perceives the U.S. repeating more than 40 years later:
• Propping up the corrupt Karzai administration in Afghanistan just as it supported a string of weak puppet governments in Vietnam.
• Failing to understand the true nature of the Afghan enemy in the same way U.S. officials mistook nationalist guerillas for die-hard communists in Vietnam. Johnson contends that even rank-and-file Taliban fighters believe themselves to be holy warriors for whom negotiation is not an option. Therefore, he argues, strategists who believe the insurgents are so-called “accidental guerillas” who can be co-opted are ignorant of the ground truth in Afghanistan.
• Wildly inflating both the current number of Afghan National Army troops and the force’s projected growth. Obama’s likely plan to transfer more responsibility to the ANA – his Afghanization of the war – is bound to fail, Johnson contends, as Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnamization program did. That’s why Johnson says he has been shouting from the rooftops to get his policy prescription on the table.
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Johnson has returned to Afghanistan every year for the last five, and still keeps in touch with some of the characters he knew in the 1980s. One is Abdul Rahim Wardak, a former mujahideen commander who fought the Soviets, flirted with the Taliban, and now serves as Hamid Karzai’s defense minister. Wardak was an unorthodox jihadi who, on visits with Johnson, never failed to ask if he happened to have bourbon on him. Wardak is one of a number of wily Afghan warrior politicians who has landed on his feet after weathering the nation’s political storms.
To say most Afghan people have not is a cruel understatement.
Afghanistan ranks second to last of 182 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index, a measure of literacy, life expectancy and well-being around the world.
After 30 years of war, many Afghans have allied themselves with whatever faction can guarantee a modicum of security and justice.
For some in the countryside, the Taliban, which in recent years has attempted to smooth its more brutal edges, fits the bill, Johnson says. Its court system is a popular contrast to that of the Karzai government, where justice, he says, is both achingly slow and for sale to the highest bidder. By contrast, these days, the Taliban in Afghanistan hands down sentences swiftly without the severing of limbs or death by stonings that characterized its reign in the ’90s.
The village elders and their traditional system of governance by consensus is key to pulling victory out of defeat in Afghanistan, Johnson says, adding that U.S. forces should be given up to four years to restore that system, essentially converting soldiers into heavily armed community organizers working with traditional leaders to rebuild devastated villages.
Instead of capturing and killing insurgents in military raids – in which soldiers have humiliated locals, destroyed property, mistakenly killed innocents, and thereby created Taliban recruiting bonanzas – the troops would hunker down to build roads and schools.
Afghans would no longer need the Taliban’s bitter pill – or so the theory goes.
In a way, the effort would be payback. The U.S. helped marginalize village elders and destroy the traditional system in the 1980s by supporting religious leaders or mullahs whose madrassas, or religious academies, churned out endless young jihadis to fight the Soviets, and now the elders would rule as they did for centuries before.
Tamim Ansary, a San Francisco-based Afghan-American writer, says the problem with Johnson’s plan is that you can’t go back in time, pretending that the events of the past 30 years never happened. While much of the Afghan countryside looks like it hasn’t emerged from biblical times, he adds, the pace of change has been dizzying, Afghanistan isn’t going back to pre-Soviet times any more than the U.S. can return to the 1950s.
Indeed, Johnson recalls meeting rural Afghans who worry about Western pop cultural influences – Britney Spears is one name that’s come up – that they consider disturbing, or even pornographic.
Those same people are eager to get technological know-how. Western medicine is hugely popular, Johnson says; adding that he’s made friends more than once with gifts of aspirin, widely believed to be a cure-all in Afghanistan.
Gone are the days when Taliban fighters condemned music. Johnson observed one man in a Kandahar hotel lobby passing a Taliban anthem from his cell phone to a friend’s via Bluetooth. Videotaped Taliban messages are available on the Internet and on DVDs while in small villages, the group still posts so-called night letters in public places for literate residents to pass on to neighbors.
In a society that reveres oral traditions, the Taliban has deployed poetry as a weapon in the PR wars. Now, Johnson is studying Taliban verse to improve on clumsy U.S. efforts to influence the local people. He came home from his last trip with a collection of Taliban songs, and 220 pages of poems that have since been translated from Pashto to English.
“You have to get in the heads of the people who are planting the [improvised explosive devices],” Johnson says. “This whole notion is to win the cognitive battle rather than try to win the physical or military battle.”
The Taliban is crushing the U.S. in the propaganda war, he argues. “They know what resonates with the people.”
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Johnson has outlined his counter-insurgency strategy in a memo to McChrystal:
Some 20,000 soldiers, along with Afghan National Army troops and police, would mount a close-to-the-ground counter-insurgency campaign with a focus on community development in 200 districts in eastern and southern Afghanistan, overwhelming the Taliban, who control the areas with half that many fighting men. The U.S. forces would aid and empower the region’s village elders, making the insurgents irrelevant.
Although a State Department contact told him in mid-November that his proposal came up at a McChrystal video conference, Johnson doesn’t know if it will influence Obama’s policy.
“Deep down in my soul, I hope we come through on our promises,” he says.
Still, he is increasingly pessimistic. He recently debated in favor of the war at Boston University, even though he’s conflicted over how long he can support it.
Johnson’s counter-insurgency proposal is all about getting close to the people. He argues that most U.S. forces stay in giant Forward Operating Bases complete with Burger Kings and massage parlors.
Under his plan, soldiers would live in some of the toughest areas. Johnson concedes that initially the exposure would cost additional lives, but says in the end, the country would be more peaceful.
Proof that his idea works, Johnson says, lies in Deh-i-Bagh, a village in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar Province, where most people make their living coaxing wheat and pomegranates from the earth, as they have for centuries.
A hundred Canadian soldiers have settled into a crumbling yellowish government building that lost most of its second floor walls to a suicide attack that killed 10 people just before they arrived last March.
According to Johnson, 10 percent of the villagers are now employed digging a 6-mile irrigation canal. The Canadians have refurbished mosques and plan to install solar-powered street lamps and build playgrounds, all in consultation with village elders. Not a single Canadian soldier has died in the operation, Johnson says.
But while the Canadians extend an olive branch, they still wear flak jackets, and with good reason. Since they moved in last June, a second suicide attacker blew himself up outside the army compound, and an insurgent planted an IED in the town. Each time, General Jon Vance, who leads the operation, convened a jirga, or council of village elders, to warn that he expected safety in exchange for his investment of Canadian dollars.
When he visited last summer, Johnson donned the requisite army gear to join the Canadian troops on patrol, but chafed against both the military discipline and the up-to-115-degree desert heat.
He and the soldiers drew stares from curious kids and interest from local imams as they offered new prayer rugs and other mosque repairs. (Johnson says he never encountered a woman: Females live behind walled family compounds, in isolation from all but their closest relatives.) And even in Deh-i-Bagh, local folks would often whip out a notebook during their talks – insurance against Western promises. While most villagers were cordial, Johnson encountered one mullah who declined all offers to help with his mosque and instead demanded to know what the men were doing in his town. Before he could say no, Johnson snapped a photo of the cleric, capturing a face contorted with rage as white robes swirled about his head and body in desert wind.
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A month after the Deh-i-Bagh project began, Johnson says, 200 local Afghan leaders wrote an open letter to the Taliban asking the fighters not to mess with the project. So far, they haven’t.
The Taliban will burn down schools as quickly as NGOs can build them, Johnson says, but village consensus is such a powerful tradition that if locals have collectively stamped their approval on a project, insurgents are likely to remain hands-off.
The real test may come two years from now, when the Canadians plan to pull all troops out of Afghanistan.
“Who’s going to be left behind to provide that level of protection?” asks Matt Dupee, Johnson’s research assistant, who accompanied him to Deh-i-Bagh. Villagers who don’t feel secure, will have to maintain a relationship with the insurgents. “If not,” Dupee says, “they’ll just be targeted and wiped out.”
Another problem with missions like Deh-i-Bagh is that the inherently conservative U.S. armed services don’t train social engineers, diplomats or community organizers. But at NPS, in Johnson’s Contemporary Afghan Politics class, where officers like Lt. Col. Nathan Springer combine on-the-ground experience with their studies, Johnson’s message resonates.
Tall and broad-shouldered, with 11 years in the Army under his belt, Springer served in Iraq, where chasing insurgents mostly proved a dismal failure, and then in Afghanistan, where his commander was an early convert to McChrystal’s view that pursuing insurgents in violent raids is often counter-productive and alienates potential allies in the villages.
In a line that sounds like it could come from Saturday Night Live, the officer from Oklahoma says of his tour in northeastern Afghanistan, “I spent a lot of time on the streets holding hands with other men.” But Springer is dead serious. “When in Rome,” he says.
“THIS WAS TAKING AN ARROW OUT OF THE QUIVER OF THE TALIBAN.”
Springer would lead soldiers into a hamlet, and instead of hunting insurgents, assign each one, based on rank and experience, to talk to a villager to gather intelligence on insurgent activity. The greenest might chat up 7-year-old kids, while more seasoned soldiers would be paired with more important villagers.
Lt. Col. Mike Fenzel, an Afghan war vet, recalls one NPS class where Johnson sat on the edge of the desk, faced the room full of fighting men and women, several of whom had served in Afghanistan, and asked how they would propose to win the war.
“I put forward this concept of Operation Embrace Islam,” Fenzel says, describing how his soldiers would do whatever they could to demonstrate respect for the religion, including allowing their interpreters to take prayer breaks during the day in keeping with Muslim tradition.
“You’d have individual Afghans who came up and said, ‘I thought you’d persecute anyone who prayed,’” Fenzel says. “This was taking an arrow out of the quiver of the Taliban.’”
Fenzel says he loved the class, but disagrees with the Vietnam analogy. “We’re going to be out there on the ground and committing a year of our lives to this mission,” he says. “We’re eternally optimistic.”
Rick Reyes, a spokesman for Iraq Veterans Against the War and a former Marine corporal, shed his optimism long before he hung up his uniform five years ago.
Reyes says the American military in Afghanistan is not the sort of force Fenzel and Springer describe, but more like the drunken uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. He means well, but creates havoc. Even though he keeps promising to make things right, he can’t stop knocking over furniture – everyone just wants him out.
Reyes’ position on the war is the opposite of Johnson’s, but they share some common ground.
Both contend Karzai’s government is illegitimate and an obstacle to progress. Both believe military efforts to find and capture insurgents have proven counter-productive because they’ve alienated the people. And both argue that the Taliban would weaken considerably if the Afghan people had greater resources.
Polls show that many Americans who initially supported the Afghanistan mission have now turned against the war, but the fierce anti-war demonstrations of the Vietnam era have abated. Forty years ago, Americans watched the play-by-play on television, sent their sons and daughters to fight, and were far more engaged than they are as an all-volunteer force goes to battle in 2009.
Now, few disagree that the President faces a range of tough choices, and no perfect solution.
In the days before Obama announced his strategy, Johnson grew frustrated with military officials living in denial. He describes how a senior government official launched a verbal attack at an NPS briefing when he said the U.S. was on the verge of strategic defeat. “The guy went crazy on me because I didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear,” Johnson says.
Days before Obama announced his plan for 30,000 new troops and an exit strategy, Johnson still held onto a sliver of hope that the president would announce a strategy he could believe in.
But as Obama outlines his plan at West Point, Johnson watches on TV, and hears echoes of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, announcing the pull-out ofSoviet troops from a war often called the Soviet Vietnam. “My hypothesis is his timeline is being dictated by domestic political concerns,” Johnson says, adding that there’s no way the Afghan army will be trained and ready to take over by 2011.
“What’s going to finally happen is a civil war,” he says, predicting the carnage that erupted when the Soviets left the country in the 1990s, this time between the Taliban and the ethnic groups of Northern Afghanistan.”
Johnson says he’ll give himself a week to reconsider his dogged support of the war. “I don’t want to see more of our men and women die in a losing cause, and I think this is a losing cause.” One thing he won’t give up on is his affinity for Afghanistan.
“Studying the Afghan people is like being addicted to a drug,” he says. “Something about the culture really captures your attention and you hold on to it.”CORRECTION: The print edition erroneously states that Johnson graduated from USC with a doctorate in anthropology. He completed his graduate work, but did not defend his thesis.