Of Bomb Counts and Chickens

The U.S. military is belatedly realizing that the real battle being fought in Afghanistan is not just for hearts and minds

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In one of many fawning interviews at the end of his year-long tenure as ISAF commander, General David Petraeus (now the director of the CIA) made an extraordinary claim:

Yet the general said signs of progress were beginning to appear. Insurgent attacks were down in May and June compared with the same months in 2010, and July is showing the same trend, he said.

"This just means that they have less capacity; they have been degraded somewhat," he said of the insurgents. "This is the first real indicator -- for the first time since 2006 -- compared to the previous year, insurgent attack numbers are lower."

It was a claim difficult to square with reality, as a new report at the National Journal suggests. "The number of IED attacks in Afghanistan has spiked to all-time high," Yochi Dreazen quotes U.S. military officials saying, "because of the free flow of critical bomb-making materials from neighboring Pakistan."

This, too, is difficult to square with reality. Further investigation of Petraeus' remarks indicated he did not include IEDs in his estimate of violence—that is, he chose not to count the most common form of violence so that he could claim violence has been reduced. It was a pretty shocking piece of dishonesty. However, blaming the rise of IEDs on bomb components (fertilizer, wires, radios, and so on) also makes very little sense.

One of the fundamental challenges the U.S. military has never really figured out is what to do about IEDs. They've built bigger trucks, designed robot blimps, and bulldozed entire villages to deal with the homemade bombs. The race against IEDs is, in a way, an arms race—one where the defensive party (that's us!) has all of the disadvantages.

But IEDs are more than their constituent components. Right now, many IEDs are triggered by timers or even pressure plates that were buried in the road. This is because the U.S. military blankets areas with radio scramblers to prevent remote detonation. They can detect signal lasers and physical cables leading off the road to a detonator. For each measure the U.S. adopts to one-up the IEDs, the insurgents create new workarounds that are harder and harder to defeat.

At its heart, however, the scourge of IEDs is not a technological problem. We can safely assume the arms race of measure and counter-measure will continue for a long time at huge cost. The real problem of IEDs is a political and strategic one. Much like with suicide bombing, insurgents use IEDs because they are effective: they're hard to defeat, they cause a lot of damage if not a lot of death, and the psychological toll they exact on the counterinsurgents is extreme.

The Taliban pay attention to this. They know IEDs are a horrific thing to encounter: much worse than ambushes, gun fights, and snipers, because they seem so random. As a political strategy—to demonstrate the impotence of the foreign forces and to show that all the billions of dollars of gadgets they use still can't protect them—it is devastatingly effective.

ISAF, whether led by General Petraeus or not, still does not understand that the war in Afghanistan is a political war first and foremost: a war of emotions, perceptions, and messages. His tone-deaf statements to the press notwithstanding, the entirety of ISAF's messaging misses the politics of the situation unfolding in Afghanistan. As an example, here is a recent move the Taliban has made in Ghazni province:

GHAZNI CITY (PAN): The Taliban have banned frozen chicken sales in several parts of southern Ghazni province on the grounds that the method of slaughter is un-Islamic.

Abdul Fatah, a vendor of frozen chickens, said that consumers no longer bought poultry products in some districts. "Shopkeepers and butchers who had been buying from us were told by the fighters to stop because the method of slaughter is un-Islamic."

The frozen chickens are imported from the United States, Brazil, China and India. The Taliban say butchers in those countries do not follow Islamic slaughtering practices.

It's easy to laugh at this, cry for the humanity, and move on to something else. But as goofy as forbidding inexpensive imported frozen chickens might seem, this prohibition is speaking to a much deeper issue with the war. From the start of their re-emergence in 2003, the Taliban have spoken to the politics and the faith of Afghanistan: we are good Muslims, they say, and we wish to protect you from these anti-Muslim outsiders.

As non-Muslim foreigners, it is a difficult message to counter on our own. It is where the Afghan government could play a role. Only, when it passes laws deemed by foreigners to be too "Islamic" they face resistance. When they're pressured by ISAF to restrict the sale of fertilizer (ammonium nitrate is a cheap fertilizer and a cheap explosive), it affects farmers severely while the rate of IEDs continues to climb upward.

Banning fertilizer and chickens, misleading claims about violence, and the ever-increasing rate of IEDs explosions and death are a part of the same problem: the war, at its very top, lacks strategic focus and political awareness. That is the real battle to be fought: not for hearts and minds, but for political control of the war and the government. But it is also, as we keep learning time and again, completely ignored.

A version of this post appeared at Registan.net.