The Long Road Ahead in Afghanistan, II

The last posting opened with the question of what was between the United States and attaining its goals in Afghanistan. To pose and frame the question, a “formula” of sorts was put forward to describe the process and barriers to reaching the desired end (Goal Attainment=Successful COIN+Successful State-Building). In the first posting, questions were raised about whether the goals the United States (or any other outsider) and the indigenous population (the Afghans) might be incompatible, and why. It concluded that incompatibilities might exist and need to be reconciled. It left off with two dimensions of the goal question: whose goals are more important to them? and whose goals should prevail? This posting attempts to clarify those concerns.

In an internal war in which an outsider has intervened, there are almost certainly going to be three different sets od preferred outcomes, or Better States of the Peace (BSOP), as defined in Part I. The government against which the insurgency is aimed has one set of goals, paramount amongst which is its own survival (without which no other goal has much meaning). The insurgency has the opposite goal of toppling the government and replacing it with its own government. Like the government’s goal, this vision of the BSOP is generally quite singular and resistant to compromise: there can, at the end of the day, only be one government.

The third BSOP is that of the intervening third power. Part of its goal is the preservation of whichever side it assists (generally the government), but it may have other goals as well. In Vietnam, for instance, the United States wanted the South Vietnamese to prevail and maintain their control, but it also was acting out of a desire to stem the spread of communism in the world. The two were, of course, related, in that the success of the counterinsurgency in preventing a Norrth Vietnamese takeover would help stem the spread of communism. In Afghanistan, the other U.S. goal is the destruction of Al Qaeda, which a successful counterinsurgency will presumably facilitate by denying Al Qaeda an Afghan sanctuary.

The success of one or another set of goals is affected by the natural of insurgent war. Internal, civil wars are inherently desperate affairs for the internal sides. The outcome is almost always the victory of one side (government or insurgents) at the expense of the other, and the consequences for the losers are potentially very bleak, up to and including their own physical extinction.

The insurgents may have the advantage in this grim calculation of motivations. In some cases, the government is able to insulate itself from the potential deadly effects of losing by padding their own wealth, usually at the expense of the national treasury, so that they can flee into comfortable exile if their side loses. The top leaders in South Vietnam did this, and there are some indications that members of the Karzai regime may be looting the till to prepare for a similar exit. For the insurgents, there is a good chance that they will not be able to escape the country should their side lose (the possibility of the Taliban slinking back across the border into Pakistan is a partial exception).  At the level of supporters of both sides, the likelihood is great that they will have to endure whichever BSOP prevails, and the consequences of the wrong side winning can add to their desperation and their resolve to avoid an untoward outcome.

Civil wars, in other words, are total wars in the sense that the outcomes involve who rules and how, and this involves fundamental political questions. It also means that internal elements, and especially the insurgents, will take the whole affair very seriously, and will likely be willing to incur considerable hardhips and privations. In language used in From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond, their cost-tolerance (the willingness to endure privation to achieve ends) is likely to be quite high.

The situation is different for intervening parties. For outsiders, the situation is neither so desperate nor the outcomes so stark as they are for the indigenous parties. The internal losers will suffer the consequences of their loss personally; the intervening party will leave physically intact, and the major post-war impacts will be psychological in terms like national pride upheld or injured, depending on the outcome.

For the outsider, these wars are limited in the sense that the intervening party’s government will not be overthrown nor its society fundamentally disrupted regardless of the outcome. The United States supported the losing side in Vietnam and withdrew to watch its side lose. Vietnamese on our side left behind suffered greatly, but Americans did not. In Afghanistan, if the American side loses, the Al Qaeda problem may increase, but that will simply make that problem more difficult, not fundamentally different.

What this means is that an outside intervening party will almost always have a lower cost-tolerance than the indigenous sides, because the outcome is simply not as important to it as it is to the natives. Indigenous populations come to understand this imbalance of importance, and insurgents will seek to exploit it. Insurgents are almost always militarily weaker in a material sense than the interveners, but because of the desperate nature of their cause, their cost-tolerance is almost always higher. The secret is thus to find a way to exceed the intervening party’s cost-tolerance, and the way to do this is generally to convince the outsider that staying around and enduring pain and hardship is simply not worth it. More on this in the next segment.

This leaves the question of whose goals should prevail? It must start from the recognition that there is a profound internal disagreement within countries experiencing internal wars, or those wars would not exist. Insurgent movements do not prosper in conditions of good, fair, and popularly supported government. They do emerge when governments are tyrannical, incompetent, corrupt, and venal. Thus, the first element in determining who should win is who, based on the kind of governance it proposes or has been administering, deserves to win. This is often a difficult question to answer, since the government has a track record (probably bad) and the insurgents have not previously governed and are thus an unknown quantity (this is, of course, not true of the Taliban, who have their own record of mismanaging Afghanistan). Still, who should win is rarely a clearcut matter, although it will be depicted as such.

Outsiders, of course, will always portray the side they support as virtuous and the side they oppose as undesirable, at a minimum. Such depictions are almost always going to be oversimplifications of what are generally very complex, difficult assessments. One always looks for the “side of the angels” to support; it may be that there are more demons than angels on all sides.

This abstract discussion should indicate that figuring out what is the goal to be attained in a counterinsurgency is not a simple matter, since goals will contrast fundamentally. In the end, some side’s goals are almost certainly going to be served at the expense of someone else’s. The fact that the outcomes are very important to some participants and potentially less important to others will affect whose BSOP prevails.

The next element of the formula is the question of prevailing in the insurgency-counterinsurgency contest itself, and this question has both military and political dimensions, the discussion of which will begin in the next post.

NOTE: OBAMA the HERICLITEAN HISTORIAN. The September 15 New York Times contained a story in which President Obama dismissed comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan. He is quoted as saying: “Each historical moment is different. You never step into the same river twice. And so Afghanistan is not Vietnam.” The quote is Hericlitean in the sense that it follows the Greek philosopher Hericlitus’ observation that change is constant: the river is never the same at two points in time, because different water is flowing through it. It is an historian’s observation that events are unique and that there is thus a limited ability to generalize from and apply lessons from one experience to another. Taken too literally, however, it suggests that we can learn nothing from history that can inform the present and future. Such an assumption denies the very basis of education, which is vicarious experience (learning from other’s experiences rather than having to learn everything from scratch by experiencing it personally). I doubt that the President taught that historical precedent is unimportant in constitutional law since the historical “river” in always different.


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