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Losing it. (Situational Awareness)

July 20, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Summary

The post-2014 Afghanistan will still be critically deserving of world attention and engagement, but the knowledge base upon which all kinds of decisions (political, military, economic) will be made will be contracting with every year.  As the months go by, accurate, reliable and verifiable information will become harder to find, as international forces pull out, NGOs and other agencies wind down and journalists scale down and search for other stories.  Analysts, politicians, diplomats, NGOs, stakeholders and other decision makers in the Afghan, regional and international spheres will, whether they realise it or not, become increasingly reliant on information that is harder to check.

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…most Afghans are not precise with figures, using them instead to express their sense of menace.  A friend of mine once conducted an experiment.  He lay in wait before an ambush, side by side with an Afghan commander, and counted the Soviet tanks, armoured personnel carriers, jeeps and trucks driving along the road in front of them.  There were a hundred and twenty vehicles – frightening enough if you expect that the column is about to attack you.

“How many tanks did you see?” he asked the Afghan.

“800 tanks”, the man answered.  The commander was offended when the Englishman maintained the correct figure in his report, thinking his bravery was being put in doubt.  This attitude rightly made journalists cautious about Afghan testimonies…”

Radek Sikorski, Dust of the Saints, p.26 Paragon House, New York, 1990

If it hasn’t already started, I think we are slowly going to start losing our understanding of what is happening in Afghanistan.  As the months go by, accurate, reliable and verifiable information will become harder to come by as international forces pull out, NGOs and other agencies wind down and journalists scale down and search for other stories.

Several stories recently might help to underline this point – the key questions, in each case, should be: “How do we know what has happened? What were the causes? Who was responsible?”…

IED kills 10 civilians aboard Afghan bus

GHANZI, Afghanistan, July 1 (UPI) — Ten people died in Afghanistan Sunday when a civilian bus was hit by a roadside bomb in Ghazni province, the International Security Assistance Force said.

Another 19 passengers were injured in the blast, which occurred around 9 a.m. local time as the crowded bus traveled along a road in the province’s Ghazni district.

“Killing our defenseless and innocent fellow civilian citizens is an unforgivable crime that insurgents should know the people of Afghanistan will neither forget nor forgive it,” Provincial Gov. Musa Khan Akbarzada said in a written statement.

The ISAF said in a written statement the bombing raised the civilian death toll in eastern Afghanistan for the week of June 23-July 1 to 40, with another dozen injured. The vast majority of the casualties were the result of insurgent attacks.

Taliban killing of Afghan woman an outrage

It’s an apparent a cellphone video, obtained exclusively and posted online by Reuters, showing Taliban “fighters” executing a woman accused of adultery. A tiny, unarmed woman covered in Taliban-dictated shrouds squats in a muddy patch on a dirt road. Her back is facing a crowd of armed, sneering men — Taliban members. She is not allowed to speak the entire time.

The camera also shows a hundred or more villagers, all male, standing in the dirt streets that crisscross the barren hillside. They are hanging out of crude, low apartment buildings.

The Taliban do not allow women to leave home unescorted. This is one of myriad freedoms routinely denied to women, whose meager, miserable existences are lived as little more than sex slaves and brood mares. I cannot imagine a worse fate in this day and age than to be a girl born under Taliban control, powerless, penniless, abused and dismissed.

Kuchi nomads clash with Hazaras

Kuchi nomads or Taliban?

KABUL – Following invasion of Behsud villages and attacks on the villagers, armed Kuchis (Nomads) set fire to hundreds of copies of the Holy Quran and a religious Madrasa along a mosque in Kajab valley of Behsud district of Wardak province, witnesses said on Wednesday.

Local civilians say that armed Kuchis attacked their houses and burnt copies of the Holly Quran and other books that were kept there.

A video report that was broadcasted on an Afghan private TV channel showed that hundreds of armed men took part in assaults on Kajab area of Behsud.

According to local resources, hundreds of armed men, under the disguise of Kuchis, who were equipped with various types of light and heavy weapons, attacked the area and raided houses of the people. As a result, hundreds of copies of the Holly Quran were put on fire, huge material losses were caused to the people and several dozens of villagers coercively abandoned the area. The report further added that 600 families have escaped to other areas as result of Kuchis’ invasion.

Death of Samangani

Samangani aftermath – inter-ethnic dispute or insurgent attack?

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — An initial investigation into a bloody weekend suicide bombing at a wedding suggests the Taliban and terrorists were responsible, Afghanistan’s interior minister said Sunday.

A suicide bomber drew close to a warlord-turned-lawmaker at his daughter’s wedding on Saturday, then blew himself up, killing the father of the bride and 22 others.

The Taliban have not claimed responsibility for the attack, nor have they denied that they carried it out.

For many groups in Afghanistan (yes, from ISAF to a local district police chief) it is routine, lazy and easy to blame the Taliban (aka “enemies of Afghanistan”) for everything.  It can suit many different agendas for incidents to be attributed in this way.  I am not trying to get the Taliban off the hook, but I wonder how many Soviet “legacy” mine explosions have been attributed to Taliban IEDs, how many ethnic disputes have been signed off as Taliban intervention and how many individual killings linked to insurgent groups.  Afghan government ability to gather, store and analyse evidence will remain very poor for years.

I don’t have a sense for the way ISAF is dealing with the inevitable loss of “ground truth”, but deal with it they will have to.  They are likely also to gradually lose their understanding of what is going in the Afghan provinces as they slowly begin to pull out troops and intelligence gathering assets – first from district outposts into the provincial capitals, then from the provinces into the urban areas.  Analysts, politicians, diplomats, NGOs, stakeholders and other decision makers in the Afghan, regional and international spheres will, whether they realise it or not, become increasingly reliant on information that is harder to check up.  But the requirement for snap decisions in fast moving situations and incidents will still be the strong reality.  It is true that the fledgling Afghan independent media has made significant gains, but it can still expect to come under pressure from insurgents and the Afghan government alike and may not be sufficiently strong to withstand such assaults (see “A hard time for Afghanistan’s independent media,” by Martin Gerner).  The Afghan government appears to be unwilling or unable to open up to reveal or release information when under pressure or things are going wrong.  Their statements must continue to be treated with caution – as, of course, must those of the Taliban – but, increasingly, these will be the initial, and perhaps only, sources of information in many cases.  And we should also understand that this does not simply apply just to “Taliban vs the Afghan government” angles.  Other issues, incidents and situations in Afghanistan – security, economic, corruption, ethnic, tribal, legal, development, political/electoral – will also be subject to the difficulties of finding accurate information.

My final thought is that even experienced Afghan and international analysts themselves may not stay focused on Afghanistan – there are plenty more crises in the world to be getting on with.  It echoes where we were in late 2001.  The time when crucial and far-reaching strategic decisions were being made was also the time when the least amount of up to date and accurate information on Afghanistan was possessed.  The post-2014 Afghanistan will still be critically deserving of world attention and engagement, but the knowledge base upon which all kinds of decisions (political, military, economic) will be made will be contracting as each year goes by.

Before you know it, we’ll all be huddling around one ticker tape machine awaiting the latest monthly transmission from the Afghanistan Analysts Network… (only joking).

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