Archive for August, 2009

Afghan “New Math”

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , on August 31, 2009 by whatafteriraq

In an article in today’s New York Times, it is reported that the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is plannibg what is variously described as a “new strategy” for dealing with the Taliban or as simply a refinement of the current AfPak strategy based in counterinsurgency doctrine. Regardless of what it is called, it requires a calculation of forces that does not add up using the “old math” I learned in school: some “new math” is clearly needed.

The new emphasis of strategy in Afghanistan apparently is to place greater emphasis on securing and providing ongoing security for Afghan villages and villagers in areas of contention, which presumably means particularly in the rural parts of the country where the Pashtun are in the majority. This emphasis follows from the so-called COIN (conterinsurgency) doctrine found in the joint Army-Marine Counterinsurgency manual, Army FM 3-24 and Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-33.5. This shifts the center of activity away from hunting down and killing Taliban faster than they can be replaced (the way much of Vietnam was fought), because, in McChrystal’s own words, the supply of replacement fighters is “essentially endless.” This admission in itself is telling and sobering: if the recruitment pool of new Taliban is so great, how can we ever expect to prevail, since the endlessness of that reservoir suggests either that the Taliban is very popular or that our presence is greatly opposed (or a combination of the two).

Accepting this reformulation, however, turns one strictly into the teeth of the numbers. As noted earlier (at at the risk of being a “nag” on the subject), the Counterinsurgency Manual embraces the idea of pacification but also points out that it is very manpower intensive. To reiterate, an effective COIN force, in the manual’s own estimate, requires 20 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 in the population being protected. As previously noted, that literally means a force of 660,000 counterinsurgents, given the size of the Afghan population. Even fudging on the numbers, that adds up to over one half million forces confronting the Taliban, whose numbers of full-time fighters has been estimated at as little as 20,000, not including part-timers.

How do the numbers match up to fill this bill? Here we need some new math. Currently, there are 62,000 American forces in the country, scheduled to expand to about 68,000 by year’s end. With other NATO contributions, the number swells to about 100,000, although the NATO numbers are likely to shrivel. Current projections call for an Afghan National Army (ANA) force of around 134,000 by the end of 2011. Given the progress in recruiting and training those forces (and especially in making them ethnically representative enough for the Afghans themselves to think of them as “national”), we are talking about a total force of less than 250,000 by the end of next year. That does not even come close.

It is clear, as been suggested here, that McChrystal will return to Washington later this year hat-in-hand and doing his best William Westmoreland imitation to ask for more troops. Clearly, he cannot ask for the roughly 350,000 new forces necessary to meet the COIN doctrine’s requisites, so he will almost certainly ask for a more modest number of “trainers” to help expand the ANA. If my numbers are correct, however, it will require an Afghan force that is THREE TIMES the force already planned to come even close to a half million total counterinsurgents, which is on the low side (a total force of slightly less than a half million). 

Where are all these extra forces going to come from? Thanks partly to Taliban harassment (as well as antipathy toward the government), it is proving difficult to meet current goals. How in the world can these be trebled? Moreover, who is going to pay for them if they can be found (we all know the answer to that one–us)? Further, all this will take time, and in the interim, it is difficult to imagine the Taliban will sit idly by and allow this expansion to occur: may they have won before this new force can be fielded?

Maybe I’m crazy, and maybe I am a victim of some old math that does not add up. At the same time, maybe those who think this is all going to work out well are privy to some new math that makes what seems impossible possible? If so, I’d like the tutorial.

One piece of math is not so hard to interpret. Recent polls show that over half the U.S. population opposes the war in Afghanistan, mostly because people believe the war is likely unwinnable. Does that mean there are a lot of Americans still held hostage to the old math? Or does it mean the majority understand arithmetic better than the planners in Washington?


Lipsticking Pigs in Afghanistan?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , on August 25, 2009 by whatafteriraq

Two events over the weekend have dominated news from Afghanistan. One involves voting in the presidential election, results of which will not be final for several weeks but which have aroused much passionate rhetoric anyway. The other is the not very surprising conclusion by the  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the situation is going from bad to worse and that the only apparent solution is–gasp!–more American troops to save the day. In both cases, attempts to put the best possible face on events has borne a strong resemblance to lipsticking the pig.

First, the Presidential elections were held on Saturday. The issues going in were how many Afghans would vote, how effective the Taliban would be in suppressing the vote, whether the elections would be held fairly, and, of course, who would win. Each question was and remains a matter of controversy open to wildly different interpretations.

The first two questions are related: the more people voted, the less Taliban influence could be inferred, and vice versa. Early results have elicited contrasting interpretations. Apparently, about five million Afghans voted, out of 15 million registered and an overall population of 33 million. There was apparently great regional diversity: basically, very few people voted in the Pashtun, Taliban-dominated south, whereas there were comparatively large turnouts in parts of the country with a non-Pashtun majority (notably areas formerly controlled by the largely defunct Northern Alliance). The percentage of Afghans voting will certainly not send thrills up anyone’s spines, at one-third resembling the turnout for American local elections. Where the Taliban was not in control to threaten retaliation, it was better, but the very low turnout in Taliban-controlled elements suggest the Taliban is a force. I have not seen estimates of turnout from Helmand Province, the Taliban stronghold which the Marines sought to liberate to allow a large voter participation: the numbers of voters from Helmand should tell us quite a bit about the effectiveness of our strategy in the country.

The third and fourth questions are also related. There are already indications of voting irregularities, and Abdullah Abdullah, Hamid Karzai’s principal opponent who apparently lags in the vote, has accused the government of massive vote fraud. Sounds a lot like Iran. Two points might be noted. Karzai is a Pashtun (although one with whom rural Pashtuns do not much identify), voting was very low in Pashtun areas, and yet Karzai is apparently winning. Abdullah, on the other hand, is of mixed ethnic background (Pashtun father, Tajik mother), is closely associated with the Northern Alliance (he was their foreign minister for a time), voting was relatively high in those areas, and he is apparently losing. Draw your own conclusions. As to the winner, it will clearly not be western-style democracy.

While all this was going on, the military side of the war was proceeding along its increasingly Vietnam-like course. Mike Mullen announced on Sunday morning talk TV that the war continues to go poorly, that the Taliban are getting better and better at what they do, and that unless things change, the situation could become even more dire. The solution: more American troops! Moreover, expect General Stanley McChrystal (whose role has an increasingly William Westmoreland-like feel to it) to come back to the United States, hat in hand, and ask for more troops. Do not expect him to specify how a few more (e.g. 10,000 or so) will make any real difference, because a) they won’t make any real difference, and b) he knows it but wants to form the foundation for yet some more troops a little way down the road. Anyone who can find a happy ending in all of this is welcome to share it with me.

Are we putting lipstick on a pig that is inherently homely and is getting uglier by the minute? In other words, are positive interpretations about what is happening and what we are doing honest appraisals or wishful thinking? Politically, does this election, regardless of who wins, signal a real movement forward for Afghanistan, or is it mere kabuki for the American television audience? Probably a little of both, but which part predominates? Militarily, what would it really take for the United States to make a significant difference in the war in Afghanistan? Are 10,000 troops going to make a difference, or is a more realistic number more like 250,000? Once again, the answer is probably somewhere in between, but probably toward the high side.

In the end, it is my fear–and reluctant conclusion–that yes, we are slapping the Revlon lip gloss on the pig, and while it may make the pig look a little prettier for awhile, it will eventually wear off, and underneath, we will still find a swine.

Dealing with Iran

Posted in Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , on August 16, 2009 by whatafteriraq

With the dispute over the fairness of the recent Iranian presidential resolved–if not to everyone’s satisfaction–and the Iranian government’s response to demonstrators against the outcome repressed–once again not to everyone’s satisfaction–news about Afghanistan has pushed Iran off the front pages of American concern in the Middle East. But Iran is still there, and it is still a matter of concern.

In the most recent edition of Cases in International Relations (the fourth edition), I included a chapter on Iran, entitled “Pivotal States: Confronting and Accommodating Iran.” Its basic thesis is that there are regional powers in the world whose presence and influence cannot be ignored, and in the Middle East, that state is Iran. The problem occurs when regional pivotal states and world powers like the United States come into conflict, as the Iranian-American relationship regularly does. What is the United States, and for that matter Iran, to do?

The relationship is not without ironies, some of which surround Iran. Iran is, after all, the largest state in the Middle East, with an area slightly larger than Alaska and about three times the size of Arizona. At around 65 million, its population dwarfs that of its Arabian Gulf neighbors and is the third largest among Muslim countries (behind Indonesia and Egypt). Further, it is the second oldest country in the world, after China. It also has the area’s second largest known oil reserves (after Saudi Arabia) and occupies a strategic location, bordering on Iraq to its west and Afghanistan to its east.

Iran is also a mess. The Ahmadinejad regime has run what could (and probably should) be the region’s most vibrant economy into the ground, amassing substantial foreign debt, budgetary deficits, double digit inflation, and a high unemployment rate that particularly afflicts the urban middle class and the country’s youth. Things have gotten so bad that although the country is a major oil exporter, it must import gasoline, since its refinery capacity is inadequate to convert enough petroleum into fuel for its own domestic use. In these circumstances, it is suprising neither that there would have been plenty of opposition to Ahmedinejad in the election or that opposition should have been concentrated in the urban areas. Iran, in other words, is both a formidable concern and a basket case of sorts.

The United States-Iranian relationship is similarly a case of ironies and contradictions. At the most basic level, there is little real basis of antagonism between the peoples themselves, and indeed, during the period before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, people-to-people relations were quite good. There is little evidence that Americans dislike Iranians or vice versa.

The same cannot be said about the relationship between the two countries’ peoples and the other’s government: Iranians dislike the American government, and Americans feel the same way about the Iranian government. There are some good reasons for both sentiments.

Many Iranians dislike the US government because of its history of meddling in Iranian politics, especially in support of Shah Reze Pahlevi. Iransian remember well the role of the CIA in overthrowing the democratically elected Mossadeqh regime and in the CIA’s support for and training of the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK. Moreover, the American government was a key cog in the Shah’s White Revolution, an attempt to westernize the country. If one wants to rally public support behind a political figure or position in Iran, associating the opposition with the Americans is not a bad ploy to take: a kind of Lee Atwater/Karl Rovian approach to politics. On the other side, recollections of the Iran Hostage Crisis inflame Americans against the current theocracy in Tehran, although few Americans remember that the triggering event of the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran was the refusal of the US government to turn over the Shah to the revolutionary regime after the Shah was allowed into this country for cancer treatments.

 These animosities have a symbolic expression that adds to the heat if not light of the relationship. In Iran, after all, the United States is the “Great Satan,” and to match that soaring rhetoric, Iran is one of the unholy triad in the “Axis of Evil.” Nothing like high road politics!

These animosities extend to current issues. Among the reasons for Iranian dislike for the United States is America’s unrequited support for Israel, including tacit support for Israel’s militantly anti-Iranian policies. On the other side, the United States joins Israel in its denunciation for Iranian support for anti-Israeli terrorist movements like Hizbollah, support for militant groups in places like Lebanon, and in Ahmedinejad’s fiery anti-Israeli rhetoric. We have come a long way from the days when the largest foreign student group on many American campuses was Iranian and the United States and Iran were close military allies.

The United States and Iran currently face off against one another on two important matters. The first, and most public, is the question of Iranian nuclear program and the possibility the Iranians will attempt to build nuclear weapons. Like so much of the American-Iranian dialog since 1979, the discussion over this prospect is overheated. Iranian possession of nuclear weapons is “absolutely unacceptable” to the United States because of the danger it poses to the United States and the “existential threat” such possession would pose to Israel. Largely missing is exactly what threat a few Iranian nukes pose to the United States or why even the supposedly crazy Iranian regime would risk the utter destruction of the world’s second oldest civilization for the satisfaction of destroying a couple American cities. For that matter, an Iranian nuclear capability only balances the existential threat to Iran and the rest of the Islamic Middle East that Israel has posed for the last 40 years or so. Israeli not-so-veiled threats against the Iranian program do not add to the calmness and prudence of the debate.

The other question is Iran’s role in its own region, and more specifically, what it is prepared to do to assist in settling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to a long border with both countries, Iran has significant interests in both states that are not served well by ongoing instability and war. Early on in Iraq, the Iranians did provide assistance to American efforts, and it is not impossible to imagine that happening again, if the United States and Iran can cease giving one another the “one finger salute” and convince/coerce Israel to lower its middle digit as well. Such a pragmatic approach would never have appealed to the ideological ninnies of the Bush years, but hopefully there are at least some adults in charge now whose intellectual range extends beyond Vince Flynn and Brad Thor novels.

It is sometimes said that war is too important to be left to the generals, to which it might be added that diplomacy is too important to be left to the ideologues.  Iran is an important, pivotal regional power in the Persian Gulf area. It should start acting with the responsibility that flows from its stature; similarly, the United States needs to recognize what Iran is and quite treating it like an asylum where you cannot tell the keeprs from the kept. Only when both sides rise above the current level of dialog will we start dealing with Iran.

Outside Intervention in Internal Wars

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , on August 14, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The most ignored but arguably the most important factor militating against American success in Afghanistan is the dynamic of outside intervention in internal wars. The experience of foreign countries intervening in other people’s civil conflicts is, to put it mildly, dismal. In Distant Thunder, I went so far as to assert that there was not a single instance in the Cold War period where a racially distinct outside intervenor was successful when confronting an insurgent that had significant indigenous support. During the Cold War, the Malay insurgency of the late 1940s was used to refute this hypothesis, but the rebuke was off the mark: in Malaya, almost all the insurgents were ethnic Chinese who lacked the support of the Malay majority and who thus opposed the insurgents. While I published that assertion originally in 1993, I believe it holds to this point. I know of no other way to describe what the United States is doing in Afghanistan other than intervening in an internal war. This does not bode well for the enterprise.

I have suggested in previous postings why this is the case. For one thing, intervention rarely occurs until an insurgency is sufficiently advanced that it has substantial support and momentum, meaning the intervenor is playing “catch up” from the beginning. In Afghanistan, the Taliban were driven from power but still maintained a nascent presence and possessed an infrastructure from which to launch their effort–at a time of minimal American involvement.

Foreign intervenors are, well, foreigners, and some members of the population will almost inevitably oppose them on that basis alone. It was, after all, British military presence in New England in the 1760s and 1770s that that helped spawn the American Revolution. The longer that outsiders remain in the country “helping” the population, the more some natives are going to wonder if they ever plan to leave. Inevitably, some conclude that the intervenors may need a little help leaving and join an insurgency that promises to do just that.

In addition, the cooperation of the government against whom the insurgency is being conducted with outsiders further delegitimizes it in the eyes of some in the country. Is the government so weak that it requires being propped up by foreigners? The more foreigners there are, the more likely that criticism is to be made. Sending more American troops into the country is not necessarily going to improve the situation. It may makes it worse.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates appears to understand this possibility. In an article in today’s Washington Post by Karen De Young, he is quoted as saying, “I think most Afghans see us as there to help them and see us as their partner. I just worry that we don’t know what the size of the international presence, military presence, might be that would begin to change that.”  The answer, quite simply, is that some Afghans already see us as part of the problem, and the more we send, the more are going to reach that conclusion. Make sure General McChrystal understands that when, at the end of the year, he comes back, hat in hand, asking for more American troops.

There is only one effective way to counteract these assertions, and that is to argue that the current insurgency does not possess significant indigenous support and is thus defeatable. There is some validity to such an argument. The Taliban are not univerally popular, especially in non-Pashtun and urban areas. Indeed a recent poll showed fully three-quarters of the Afghans surveyed opposed the Taliban. Unfortunately, it was almost certainly not a representative sample, because it was largely drawn from urban areas, where the fundamentalist appeal of the Taliban is at its lowest. While the Taliban do not enjoy uniform support (insurgencies rarely do), they do have apparently strong support in rural Pashtun areas, which compose a significant part of the country. The battle in Helmand province is an attempt to see if the Taliban’s hold in such areas can be broken. If it can, there may be some chance for the COIN strategy–although its success will not be assured. If it cannot, it is back to the drawing board.

The dismal record of outside intervention in other people’s internal wars should have provided a strong cautionary note for American planners in Afghanistan, but it has not. The light drawing the moth to the flame in this case was Al Qaeda, but, as pointed out repeatedly here, that is not the primary enemy on the ground here. Can the U.S. succeed in this endeavor? The contemporary record worldwide is not encouraging, and this is, after all, Afghanistan, where the historical record is not so hot either.

Afghanistan Craziness and the 2012 Election

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War with tags , , on August 9, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The press over the past few days has produced two basic stories about American involvement in Afghanistan. One story surrounds what we should do about the poppy crop in the country, especially Helmand Province that has been the site of a major Marine incursion and is also the major source of the opium poppy crop. The other, reported in today’s Washington Post, is an assessment by a series of military talking heads about the future of the involvement. Both are reported as if they were imminently sensible analyses. Both are openly crazy: how can adults think and talk this way?

The poppy story comes first. In order to disrupt the source of Taliban income from the opium “industry” that starts in Afghanistan, the United States has initiated yet another “war on drugs”, centering in Helmand Province. Proceeding as if the tragicomedy of the 1990s war on drugs in South America never happened, American strategists have been trying to figure out a way to squash poppies without alienating the poor largely Pashtun farmers at the bottom of the production chain who grow them by diverting their attention from growing poppies to growing something else, in this case wheat and fruit. Anyone who remembers similar efforts in the mountains of Peru will find this more than vaguely familiar, and can project the outcome. The idea is to subsidize the farmers by selling them wheat seeds and fruit tree saplings at well below market costs and to pay them to grow these on land previously devoted to poppies. What could be wrong with that?

Several things, actually. First, it is probable that the crop substitution plan (the term used in South America) will not produce anywhere near the income to farmers that poppies do. The only way to compensate for that is to overpay for the crops, a subsidizing that could go on forever. Second, it is not clear the Afghan government will wholeheartedly support the effort, since parts of the income of many Afghan officials comes from corruption underwritten by drug money. The Taliban, of course, also profit from the trade and can expected to be less than wholehearted supporters. Third, aside from putting a crimp in Taliban financing, it is not clear why the United States, which will doing all the heavy lifting in this effort, really cares about all this. The Afghan opium does not, by and large, find its way into the systems of Americans; why not let those who suffer do the work? Fourth, the more this works in terms of cutting down poppy production, the more it will likely alienate the  very rural Afghans who are the  core of the “battle for the hearts and minds” of the Afghan population. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke argues that this is different than before, that we have it right this time. Don’t believe it.

For all these reasons, this new war on drugs is almost certain to fail. Pat Lang, in his Sic Semper Fidelis blog, suggests it would make more sense for the United States simply to buy up the poppies, thereby not alienating the Afghan peasants and still denying funds to Al Qaeda. Hey, we the people already own General Motors; why not branch out into the drug lord business as well?

The Washington Post, in an article compiled by Walter Pincus, interviewed a series of the more prominent defense talking heads around the capital about their expectations for the American commitment in Afghanistan. To avoid identifying the terminally stupid, I will not use their names, but they are all household names in the defense business. Their combined “wisdom” on the subject is that the United States is in for a long commitment in Afghanistan that will likely take a decade or more to complete, will cost thousands of American lives and numerous billions of dollars too great to estimate, and whose eventual outcome is impossible to project. What a good deal! Where can we all sign up? At the risk of being repetitive, political democracies do not like long, indeterminate military commitments where the necessity of American sacrifice is neither blindingly obvious or clearly necessary for American well being. Neither is the case in Afghanistan. It is a dumb war, fought in one of the worst parts of the world for success, and the American people will turn on it. Moreover, the American people will turn on this war before the next presidential election.

I will make what I think is a not-so-dumb projection about Afghanistan. Between now and 2012, the situation will not visibly improve (at least from a US vantage point), and attachment to the Afghanistan albatross will be an increasingly heavy burden for anyone forced to run on it. Right now, the Republicans do not possess a presidential candidate who could win an unopposed election campaign. However, if Afghanistan–poppies turned to peaches and brave projections by those who will not have to carry them out notwithstanding–is still going on, it is the one thing that could cause the defeat of President Obama for reelection. That is not a prediction I like to make, but it is one I fear.

Arguing Against Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , on August 4, 2009 by whatafteriraq

Should theUnited States be engaged in the COIN “long slog” in Afghanistan to which it is apparently committed? Part of the answer, discussed earlier in this space, is military, largely couched in terms of the application of the Petreaus COIN strategy to that country, and is largely negative: it suggests the very real prospect that the United States will not prevail in this military struggle. There is, however, a prior question about American involvement, and it is political: SHOULD the United States be engaged in Afghanistan. Once again, I think the answer is no!

Basing my argument on the soon-to-be published (in September) new edition of Snow and Drew’s From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond, I would suggest three factors which suggest the United States should not be entangled in the war in Afghanistan.

The first reason involves the political objective of the war. As argued by Denny Drew and I in From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond, the political objective is the statement of the reason for going to war and serves two purposes: explaining the reason for the effort and providing guidance for those who must conduct it. To serve these purposes, the objective needs to be simple and straightforward (thus understandable), noble (for Americans), important to achieve, and attainable. The war in Afghanistan flunks this test. It is not easy to state why we are there unless one terribly distorts the actual reasons (something like “promoting an anti-Taliban government that will resist the return of Al Qaeda”), hardly morally lofty given the corruption of the government we support, arguably not very important to Americans, and certainly not definitively attainable. Defeating Hitler in World War II was a great political objective; whatever we are trying to do in Afghanistan is not.

Second, even the government (principally military leaders) argue that this is indeed a “long slog,” which means an extended commitment that could require a decade or more to complete. In November, Afghanistan will pass Vietnam as the longest war in US history (in terms of length of US combat participation), and projecting it out for another decade would make it overwhelmingly the country’s longest military commitment. It is essentially a given that political democracies do not like long wars and will not tolerate them unless there is a compelling reason for continuing them–something like a very good political objective that is missing in Afghanistan. Is there anyone out there who seriously believes the American people will tolerate another five or ten years of American sacrifice in Afghanistan? I certainly do not.

Third, there is the conjunction of the first two arguments with a third, which is the level of US interests engaged in Afghanistan. This is familiar ground. American initial motivation for entering Afghanistan–isolating and destroying Al Qaeda–clearly was worth our effort, and it is the rationale that continues to sustain our efforts. The problem, as noted in earlier postings, is that the current effort is only indirectly about that interest. Al Qaeda, after all, is located in Pakistan, where we are not fighting, not in Afghanistan where we are. Effectively, our effort is the defeat of the Taliban insurgency and assist in achieving the victory of the Karzai government. Does the United States really have any “dog in that hunt”? The answer is indirect: the defeat of the insurgency contributes to keeping Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan.Is that reason enough for a 15- to 20-year military commitment to a country in which we have no other earthly interests? Hardly.

The Obama administration has hitched its star to prevailing in Afghanistan, and it has anointed this generation’s apparent successor to William Westmoreland, Stabley McChrystal, to implement that policy choice. Like Westmoreland before him, McChrystal’s major idea is more troops poured into a war that he shows little evidence of understanding and in support of unsustainable political objectives. This is not a recipe for success.