Marine Corps manual offers a blunt, revealing portrait of Afghan war

Walter Pincus
Reporter January 11, 2012

For centuries, this has been the paradox of warfare in Afghanistan: “The more enemies you kill, the faster you lose. Because of badal (revenge), the Pashtun have a saying: ‘Kill one enemy, make ten.’ ”

That’s a quote from the Marine Corps’ May 2009 update of a guidebook, “Afghanistan, Operational Culture for Deploying Personnel.” The book is for those serving or preparing to serve in that country.

Released publicly last week by the Web site Public Intelligence, a collaborative Internet research project, the 112-page, “for official use only” manual gives a clear description of the complicated Taliban enemy against whom U.S. troops have been fighting and the Afghans who are fighting alongside U.S. forces.

In neither case is the picture reassuring. Nor do the manual’s recollections of the U.S. experience in Vietnam ease current concerns of those who lived through that war, that history may be repeating itself.

The manual also explains why the Pakistani army’s intelligence branch, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), has such an interest in Afghanistan.

But first it provides some background.

“Afghanistan is still a medieval country in many ways,” it says, explaining that much of the land in the south, the Pashtun area around Kandahar, is dominated by Islam.

The manual describes the Taliban as “several loosely-linked insurgent groups” that have in common “the supremacy of their religion in their lives, and the belief that they are waging a holy war, or jihad.”

The manual warns, “The Taliban insurgent is certain that it is God’s will that he fight to eliminate the Afghan infidels in Kabul and drive the foreign infidels (you) from Afghanistan.”

Mullahs are described as providing “most of the operational leadership of the insurgents” by having “a complex underground network of support in the rural areas through their mosques and madrassas.” Many of these all-male schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan are run by Taliban adherents for orphans and refugees who emerge as “hard-corps foot soldiers of the insurgent groups,” the manual says.

“Some insurgents are farmers or shepherds by day and IED [improvised explosive device] bombers by night,” according to the manual.

The Pashtun area has always been home to radical Islamic movements, but in the 1980s, the United States and Saudia Arabia, in an effort to combat the Soviets in Afghanistan, put these groups “on steroids” by arming the fighters — called mujaheddin — with some $7.2 billion worth of foreign military equipment. This was supposedly done covertly, through Pakistan.

The Marine manual notes mischievously, “The CIA was happy to steer money towards whichever groups fooled them into believing they were killing the most Russian troops.” It also says the State Department and some Afghans, including Hamid Karzai, warned the CIA that arming “radical anti-western extremists and terrorists who hated the United States would backfire. This advice was ignored.”

Among the tribes that received CIA assistance were those associated with Jalaludin Haqqani, whose followers are believed to have carried out recent bombings in Kabul and who today is considered one of the major anti-U.S. warlords.

It was also during this period that the ISI gained power among the Taliban groups by being the channel for much of the weaponry the United States and Saudi Arabia provided.

“To control the Mujahideen, the ISI formed seven resistance groups, each with a national political party associated with it,” according to the manual. The ISI selected tribes that were rivals of those associated with Afghanistan’s former leaders, who had no love for Pakistan.

The ISI’s purpose was to create “puppets they could control when the war was over” and thus protect their northwestern border. That was needed to ease their fear of a two-front war should India invade from the southeast.

After the war concluded, former mujaheddin began to fight each other for control of the country. By 1994, a group of radical Islamic Taliban forces that had been armed by the ISI took over to end the anarchy. Unable to govern, they “became dependent on al Qaeda and their Pakistani masters for funds and military power,” according to the manual.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the United States and its coalition partners defeated the Taliban, and in 2002 a government headed by President Hamid Karzai was installed. Meanwhile, a new Taliban has emerged. “They still revere Mullah Omar as a spiritual leader, but no longer as the primary political leader of the movement,” according to the manual. This diffused Taliban leadership makes peace talks that much more difficult.

Another portion of the manual introduces the Marines to their Afghan allies, warts and all.

In combat, Afghans from all ethnic groups in the army “generally make excellent soldiers,” according to the manual. “Keep in mind that many ANA [Afghan National Army] soldiers have seen more firefights than you’ve had hot dinners.”

But the manual warns that corruption among officers was in the culture of the old army. “This included skimming pay, rations, and equipment for their own profits,” according to the manual. “Instilling a sense of duty to country and professionalism among the officers has been one of the most frequently-reported challenges,” it goes on to say.

A second problem: “Corruption in the police is endemic” with army units needing to challenge “local police graft, bribery and corruption schemes.”

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported from Jani Khel, Afghanistan that local police had “erected illegal checkpoints to extort money from the population.”

In offering advice to U.S. Marines in Afghanistan the manual quotes, with one adaptation, T.E. Lawrence, the famous Lawrence of Arabia: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the [Afghans] do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not win it for them.”

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