Archive for October, 2009

Common Sense and COIN in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , , on October 24, 2009 by whatafteriraq

As the Obama administration’s internal debate over what to do in Afghanistan has publicly clarified, two prerequisites for the success of the American effort have risen to the top–good governance and the emegence of effective Afghan security forces. Both represent the triumph of simple common sense over the supposed arcane details of COIN  strategy, and their consideration leaves one with the question, Why did someone not think of this in the first place, because if they had, the whole scenario might look very different today.

Examine each premise of the formula for success. “Good government,” as it is discussed in the basic U.S. COIN document, FM 3-24, refers essentiallyto legitimate governance. The key elements in legitimacy, which more or less translates as citizen acceptance of the government as its own, has two basic elements, honesty on the part of government officials and representativeness, which means citizens must feel the interests of whatever group of which they are a part is fairly represented in governmental decisions. The Afghan government as now constituted basically fails on both counts: its lack of honesty (measured in terms of corruption) is legendary and widely derided within Afghanistan itself. Representativeness in the Afghan sense means that various tribal factions are proportionately represented as in the case of the traditional loya jirga system in the country. Pashtuns in particular apparently feel their interests are not adequately present, and they, of course, form the large popular base for the Taliban. One might add to these two criteria that the government must be independent of outside influence, in this case such as that provided by the U.S. and its ISAF partners.

What is commonsensical about these distinctions is that they are also a checklist for why the insurgency got started in the first place. The Taliban, after all, came to power in1996 largely on the basis of their promise to clean up the notoriously corrupt government that had evolved after the Soviet occupation, and their resurgence starting in 2003 was partly based on a return of corruption in Kabul, this time generously sprinkled with drug money.  Moreover, although President Hamid Karzai is himself a Pashtun, many Pashtuns view the current government as essentially an extension of the Northern Alliance, which was essentially an anti-Pashtun coalition. Saying that remediating these conditions will end the insurgency is essentially saying that if the conditions for insurgency had not been present in the first place, there would not have been an insurgency. Wow!

The other prerequisite for a successful mission is the emergence of an effective ANSF. From an American COIN perspective, the reason is that such a force will supplant the Americans who are “clearing and holding” former Taliban strongholds, thereby creating the conditions for an American withdrawal–an exit strategy, in other words. The same criteria can be applied to this requisite as to the need for good government. The ANSF must be honest, which means they treat the population well, do not extort or suppress them, and do not devote their efforts to protecting the poppy trade. More importantly, they must be tribally representative if they are to be accepted as protective forces for the population. It would not, for instance, do to replace the departing Americans in a Pashtun region with primarily Tajik ANSF members. Since ethnicity is the basis of much of the internal conflict, that would be part of the problem, not its solution.

Once again, saying this is an exercise in common sense. The other great reason for the insurgency was the perception that the old civil war was a Pashtun-anti-Pashtun contest and that that condition did not change after the triumph of the Northern Alliance in 2o01. One again, stating the need for a frepresentative ANSF is also saying that had there not been the basis for insurgency in the first place, there would not have been an insurgency.

Then there is the common sense aspect of the continuing American presence. It should be obvious to all concerned that the United States armed forces are as much part of the problem as they are the solution in Afghanistan. Why? Because we are foreigners, or more precisely, foreign occupiers. That outsiders who overstay their welcome (which we certainly have to many Afghans) become the “enemy” rather than the “liberators” (the way we like to think of ourselves) only makes simple sense. If it does not to you, consider what you would think if your hometown were suddenly ruled by Pashtun tribesmen. Think you’d like that? 

The continuing presence also means two perverse dynamics that have been raised in earlier postings. One is that they become the poster children for Taliban recruitment, since the Taliban openly appeal for Afghans to join their ranks to throw out the occupiers. When Admiral Mike Mullen (chair of the JCS) referred to the “apparently inexhaustible” supply of Taliban recruits in the country, he failed to add that our presence helped make that supply available. The other is that the dependence the regime has upon the occupying forces to confront the insurgency and to survive is also testimony to the lack of independence the government has; to some, the government that collaborates with the outsiders is no more than a puppet at best, a quisling at worst. Our presence, one of the intended purposes of which is to promote legitimate government, does just the opposite to the extent that independence is part of the definition of good government held by the people.

One of the difficulties of the debate over the insurgency is the oft-repeated claim of privilege by its supporters–the problems are too technical and complicated for the public to understand and for public debate to inform. At the level of tactical operations, that may be true. At the more fundamental level of underlying goals, objectives, and strategy, however, much of the basis is really no more than an extension and application of commonsensical principles. And those of us on the outside do not demonstrably possess less of an understanding of common sense than those inside. Indeed, based on some of the advocacies and decisions being made, a case could be made that those inside the system suffer from a shortage of common sense.


Obama and John Kennedy: A Personal Account

Posted in US Domestic Politics with tags , , on October 18, 2009 by whatafteriraq

It has become fashionable to draw comparisons between President Barack Obama and the late John F. Kennedy. The bases of such comparisons are, of course, obvious. Both were young men in their 40s when they ran, both brought a level of vigor and excitement to national politics that was missing in the gray stolidness of the Eisenhower years and the lackadasical, incompetent Bush years. Both were relatively junior senators with no visible administrative experience but Harvard educational backgrounds. Both had stunning, highly visible wives and young, vivacious children. Both, of course, were Democrats.

The comparisons go a bit farther. Both men were accomplished writers (Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, Obama’s Audacity of Hope) who brought an intellectual excitement to office and who attracted the educated intelligentsia in their support. Both men had ambitious social agendas and faced the shadows of building asymmetrical wars in Asia. Both were also minorities: Obama as an Afro-American, Kennedy as a Catholic. Most Americans today were, of course, not alive when JFK ran for office and thus do not remember the bigotry based in religious affiliation that Kennedy’s Catholicism created, but it bears an eerie resemblance in retrospect to the clouds that hand over Obama today.

Both men faced opposition that was not officially racist in justification, even if religious/racial bigotry was not far below the surface. Obama is accused on being a “socialist,” even a “communist,” mostly by opponents with only a vague idea what those terms mean. As best I can tell, most of the opposition arises from economic motives (the Democrats’ attempt to reinstitute something like progressive taxation and to reverse welfare capitalism–subsidizing the rich) and purely partisan politics based in “values”. In Kennedy’s days, and especially in the South, JFK was assailed for pushing civil rights legislation that, of course, made Obama’s presidency possible.

The heat and rhetoric are especially vituperative and open today. Part of that is the result of a far less civil political process than was formerly the case, and part of it is the emergence of virulent anti-journalism in the mass media. The media’s insatiable 24/7 need for “news” means that everything, including the most insignificant and scurrilous of items, is given wide publicity that once would not have seen the light of print or visual image. Today’s news cycle has been lit up by three days about a nutty “scientist” from Ft. Collins, Colorado, and his son’s suspected ride on his “flying saucer.” By contrast, when Rep. Wilbur Mills went swimming with Annabella Bellastella–aka Fanny Foxe–in the Washington Mall’s reflecting pool in the late 1950s, it was hardly more than a day’s news.

This scrutiny of public life, particularly as it affects the presidency, seems to me to have come to a head in the flap over President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize award. The merits of his winning the award are essentially beside the point: I personally view it as the outcome of a bad year for peace and thus peace recipients. What is notable, however, is the brouhaha the whole thing has created. The Nobel committee chooses Obama, and Obama is vilified for it having occurred. Why? Because the award was (apparently intentionally) partly the result of a desire to draw invidious comparisons between the present president and his predecessor, who was never in danger of getting a Nobel for anything. Did Obama have something to do with this? Not so anyone can tell. Does that matter? Like the cartoon of the old Confederate soldier with the stars and bars over his shoulder, “Hell, no!” This would be pathetic if it did not appear to reflect deep-seated feelings of so many people.

Here the personal part comes in. I am appalled by the incivility, even nastiness and unfairness of the shrillest parts of the criticisms of Obama, and I suspect that most of the adjectives used (e.g. communist, socialist) are veiled ways of voicing underlying racist sentiments. This is what most troubles me, but I know it is nothing new. John Kennedy faced the same thing in the early 1960s, and it was just as pernicious. The rants then were about ending segregation,but underlying them was a hint of anti-Catholicism that could not always be winnowed out of the critiques. It was just as nasty and mean then.

I am reminded of a deeply personal experience that has, quite obviously, lingered in my mind for a long time. In the summer of 1963, my cousin and I (both undergraduate students at the University of Alabama–I was a transient student) attended a motion picture at the old Druid City theater in Tuscaloosa. The fare that evening was a non-memorable patriotic movie called “A Gathering of Eagles,” starring a Rock Hudson not yet out of the closet. In one scene, Hudson, portraying an Air Force colonel, is seated at his desk. Behind him is a picture of the president of the United States–John Kennedy. When the camera panned to Hudson and showed the JFK photograph behind him, a portion of the audience booed. I had never heard anything like that before then, and I was appalled. I could hardly wait for the summer term to end, so I could go back to my alma mater (the University of Colorado).

One gets over such things, but you never forget. John Kennedy created feelings of great passion in both directions, as does Obama. Kennedy was, in some quarters, treated inconscionably, as is Obama. Kennedy has been rehabilitated and is now remembered heroically; Obama probably will be sometime in the future. It is, however, hard to experience when the vituperation is so loud.

One does, however, put memories behind and move forward. In my case, I was back in Tuscaloosa as a newly minted PhD and assistant professor at the same University of Alabama in the fall of 1969. UA had changed (the first thing I remember seeing on arriving on campus was a black student in an Aalabama sweatshirt.), and so will these times. At least I hope so.

The World Averts Its Eyes: Darfur

Posted in Darfur, Diplomacy, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2009 by whatafteriraq

One of the offshoots of the current fixation with Afghanistan, with which this space has itself been almost totally consumed, is that it tends to redirect our attention away from other crises in the world that might otherwise attract our attention, and even possibly corrective action.

The humanitarian crisis in Darfur is a case in point. The Sudanese government’s efforts to repress the insurgency in their Darfur province is slightly longer in duration than the American war in Iraq (the insurgency by the Justice and Equality Movement [JEM] and Sudanese Liberation Army/Movemnt [SLA/M] in Darfur began in February 2003, while the American invasion of Iraq occurred in March 2003). The toll in Darfur is high: estmates suggest between 2-400,000 killed in Darfur as well as upwards of 2 million internal and external displaced persons (IDPs and EDPs) or refugees. The Darfurian population, both in and outside Sudan, have been subjected to regular atrocities ever since, with the most public being the actions of the so-called Janjaweed (which translates as “evil men on horseback”), a sort of informal militia with apparent ties to the Sudanese government.

The Darfurian case is part of a broader pattern of unrest, rebellion, and atrocity in Sudan. In addition to the troubles in the western Darfur region, there has been an ongoing civil war in the southern parts of Sudan since 1962 that has periodicially raised its ugly head, been negotiated to a ceasefire, and then reemerged. What sets this conflict apart is that oil was discovered in the southern part of the country in 1978, which makes control of the area all the more important. This aspect of Sudanese violence has, over the year, resulted in as many as 2,000,000 deaths and 4 million IDPs and EDPs.

And yet the world hardly notices, and when its attention is forced back to the situation, does very little. Media coverage of Darfurian misery prompted international cries of despair, and even caused then Secretary of State Colin Powell and President George Bush to describe the campaign against the Darfurians a “genocide.” Sudanese President (since 1993) Omar al-Bashir has since been indicted in absentia for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC). These charges do not include genocide, and the United States is disadvantaged in being part of this process since it not a member of the ICC. To deal with Darfur, the UN Security Council authorized a peacekeeping force, the United Nations Mission in Darfur (or UNAMID) in July 2007 with an authorized force size of 26,000 soldiers and police to bring and maintain order in an area roughly the size of Texas. As of this month, the actual force is less than 19,000, including no American participation.

While the United States continues to debate how many troops are needed in Afghanistan, Darfurians in Sudan and contiguous countries (notably Chad and the Central African Republic) continue to suffer, with little prospect of improvement. Sudan’s civil war in the south is in abeyance as Sudan moves toward national elections next year that could provide for substantial autonomy for the south, including a division of oil revenues between Khartoum and the southerners that appafrently is acceptable to both. Despite a 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement that neither side honors, the situation is not so hopeful in Darfur.

Why has nothing been done internationally to halt this disaster. While there is no universally agreed answer to that question, let me suggest four possible elements.

1. It happened at the wrong time. The Darfur crisis, as well as the war in the south, happened at times when the international system was preoccupied with other problems. The civil war in the south began during the height of the Cold War, the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and, as noted, Darfur began a month before the US invasion of Iraq. Had Darfur occurred during the 1990s, when response to humanitarian disasters was at its peak in places like the Balkans, there might have been a stronger response. But maybe not, for reason #2.

2. It happened at the wrong place to the wrong people. The Sudan is, after all, in Africa, where humanitarian responses to tragedies by the west have been, to put it politely, restrained. In the 1990s, the international system acted forcefully in the European Balkans but ignored Rwanda until it was too late. The southern civil war in Sudan pits the majority Arab Muslims of northern Sudan against a collection of Christian and animist Africans, with the Christians in the minority. In Darfur, the combatants are basically all Muslims, with sedentary farming Africans being besieged by nomadic Arabs. For better of worse, these are not conflict parameters thathave activated the outrage of the developed world.

3. The United States, Madeleine Albright’s “indispensable nation,” was otherwise predisposed in both cases. As the world learned in the 1990s, international responses depend on a prominent American role, and we were busy with other things. UNAMID, for instance, has no American personnel, although the United States does provide some aid to the displaced.

4. Sudan has international defenders. Sudan, of course, has maintained all along that these situations are entirely internal and thus exclusively within the purview of Sudan. Their argument for non-interference is based in sovereignty, and they have one strong champion in defending this position, China. The PRC is,along with the United States, one of the staunchest defenders of national sovereignty. China is also the largest importer on Sudanese oil. Draw whatever conclusions you wish.

5. The international response is inappropriate. The IN Security Council has conceptualized the Darfur crisis as apeacekeeping operation (PKO), which it is not. You must have peace as prerequisite to keeping it, and that is clearly not the case in Darfur. Yet UNAMID is a PKO. Why? Because it is what the UN can afford and what the international community is willing to support. That it is also almost totally ineffective is almost beside the point.

So, Darfur simmers and festers while the world looks the other way. “Attention! Eyes Right (or Closed)!” Now, what’s going on in the strategic review over Afghanistan…?

The Options Debate over Afghanistan

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

During the past week, General Stanley McChrystal’s leaked redacted report on his needs for prosecuting the war in Afghanistan has sparked an increasingly public debate about where US policy should be heading. One fascinating aspect of this debate surrounds the leaking of the McChrystal recommendations to Washington Post analyst Bob Woodward: who did it? and why? The other, and far more consequential aspect is the shape and outcome of the substantive debate: what should America do?

The first aspect is purely speculative. The logical source of a copy of the report is straight from the horse’s mouth, which is the Afghanistan command and McChrystal. If the general or his staff leaked the redacted report (which the fact of redaction makes one suspicious was the case), then the motivation would probably have been to force a favorable response from the administration to his requests. McChrystal’s speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) was a further example of this kind of advocacy, and while it is  certainly proper for a general to make his case as forcefully as possible, the general press is not exactly the chain of command through which such requests normally proceed. If McChrystal or his staff leaked the report, they should be in a world of trouble. The other possibility is that someone within the administration who opposes the increased force levels contained in the report leaked it to incite opposition, trying to influence the outcome in the other direction. In either case, the effect (and probable intention) was to restrict or prejudice the President’s options. The President must be furious over all this, and some heads should get lopped off as a result.

There are now two future visions on the table. On the one hand is McChrystal’s. His position is that unless there are substantially more troops devoted to Afghanistan, the COIN effort will fail and the Taliban and their Al Qaeda associates will prevail. The general does not say that with the additional troops, reportedly about 40,000, that the effort will succeed (which as pointed in this space his own doctrine says it will not) if troops are allocated, only that it will fail if he does not get the reinforcements. The added forces would, as numerous observers have pointed out, swell US and NATO forces to about the same numbers the Soviets deployed in the 1980s with less than great success. McChrystal would maintain that they were there under the wrong doctrine, trying to forcibly subdue the Afghans rather than battling for their loyalty. We will see.

The other image is the Biden approach. The Vice President believes that more troops will not materially help the situation and that a change in sgtrategy is called for. Biden wants to see a reduction in American forces in theater, and a reorientation of the American effort away from the Taliban and toward Al Qaeda. To do so, he wants to place emphasis on clandestine activities by Special Forces and the use of drone and other aircraft to bomb Al Qaeda into submission, while US forces emphasize training the Afghan forces (army and police). For this to work, of course, a transformation of the first order must occur within the Afghan system itself, as the promotion of good government is part of the package.

There is, of course, a good bit of room between these two positions. The president has the additional choices of increasing troop strength less than McChrystal wants, not at all, or reducing it less than Biden proposes. One of these may prove politically more palatable to the White House. Freezing or reducing troops would bring howls from the Republicans, and accepting the McChrystal recommendations will be opposed very vocally by Democrats. One could hardly blame the president for concluding that he cannot win in all this.

History, notably the Vietnam experience, suggests a decision somewhere between the extremes. In that war, both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon both consistently chose an incremental option over a potentially decisive option that could go in either direction. The result was never decisive but bought time that never seemed to get invested adequately in an acceptable outcome.  Are we headed in the same direction again?

What option the president should choose requires looking very carefully at what the intended ultimate outcome, the better state of the peace (BSOP), is and what actions (strategies) will best achieve those ends, as the posts of the last two weeks have suggested. I have not seen the discussion phrased this way. McChrystal’s ringing plea is “Send troops so we don’t lose.” Lose what? Biden’s is “withdraw troops and concentrate on Al Qaeda.” Will that produce the outcome we want? I’d sure like to see the discussion rephrased in these kinds of terms. Wouldn’t you?