Common Sense and COIN in Afghanistan

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.


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