Archive for February, 2010

Evaluating “Surging”

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Iraq War with tags , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Since the American offensive in Iraq in 2007 designed to suppress the Sunni-led insurgency in central Iraq, the term “surge” has entered the lexicon of American military activities, achieving an almost iconic position as the answer to multiple politico-military problems. Most recently, it has been used to describe–and justify–the American Marine incursion into Helmand province in Afghanistan, one of the major stronghold areas of the Taliban and the heart of opium country in that country. The operation to capture the city of Marjah has been the centerpiece of this activity.

What exactly is a “surge?” It is a relatively new term that is not found in American military doctrinal statements. Indeed, a quick perusal of the United States’ primary document on cointerinsurgency or COIN (The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual: U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5) does not reveal a single reference to the term. Instead, the actions that collectively comprise surging are found under the much more descriptive (if arguably less catchy) description “clear, hold, build” (see Sections 5-51 and 5-80 of the Manual). 

According to FM 3-24/Warfighting Document 3-33.5, a clear-hold-build operation “is executed on a specific, high-priority area experiencing over insurgent operations,” by which both the Iraqi action and the Marjah initiative qualify. The operations has a three-fold and sequential set of purposes: to “create a secure physical and psychological environment”; to “establish firm government control of the populace and area”; and to “gain the populace’s support.” The first of these goals (clear) is accomplished by the “destruction or expulsion of insurgent” forces. The second (hold) is attained by the “deployment of security forces.” The third (build) is gained by “improving living conditions and restoring normalcy.”

The success of this kind of operation depends on sequentially succeeding in each task. Clearing hostile territory is the first and most visible activity; that is what the Marines have most obviously been doing in Marjah over the past few weeks, and its success is a sine qua non for the others (if one does not wrest physical control from the enemy, one can neither deploy one’s own security forces and thereby begin the battle for the hearts and minds of the target population). In and of itself, however, it is neither sufficient nor necessarily indicative of the ultimate success of the operation.

Why is this the case? Ultimately, the object in COIN is to turn a population that has either been hostile or indifferent to your side into one that supports your side and is hostile or indifferent to the opposition. If a particular area has been under enemy control, this calculus is not initially in your favor and must be reversed. This, in turn, requires proving security for those “liberating through clearing operations (hold) and then improving the situation of the population (build) to something superior to that they experienced under the enemy–in this case, the Taliban. Unless all three elements of the strategy succeed, the operation does not, because presumably the opponent will simply return at some point.

Three things must be said about the playing out of this entire sequence. The first is that it requires that those who provide the clearing operation remain in place (or at least be replaced by surrogates). In the current case, that means the Marines principally do the clearing, and the holding is done by joint operations bythem and Afghan government forces. Second, ultimately the holding operation must be turned over to and conducted by the government itself–outside military forces may provide the shield behind which these operations begin, but ultimately the battle for hearts and minds is an internal matter–which Afghans do the people want? Third, it takes a long time for these dynamics to reach conclusion. We know the interim outcome of the surge in Iraq, for instance, but will the apparent tranquility created by the surge survive the full removal of American forces there? That answer is only knowable sometime in the future. We are still at the clear stage in Helmand.

Each of these concerns has problems associated with it. The first surrounds clearing and then staying to provide the atmosphere for holding and building. Attacking and routing insurgents is one thing, but keeping the liberated areas free of their return requires occupation, which is a manpower intense problem. The Field Manual suggests a “force density” of one occupier for every fifty people being protected. We cannot do that in Afghanistan, even with the considerable expansion of Afghan government resources. If one clears but cannot stick around to hold, the situation is likely simply to revert to the status quo ante.

The second problem is that ultimately, holding and building are tasks that must be done by and clearly associated with the natives–the Afghan government–whom those liberated must come to adopt as their legitimate representatives. The current Afghan government is one of the most corrupt in the world (which is part of the Taliban’s appeal). It is not clear they are up to the task or that the Afghans being liberated will be converted. Third, these operations take a long time to bear ultimate fruit. The answer to the real success in Marjah is years away; the question is whether Americans care enough to hang around for the outcome.

So, does surging work? Well, the first stage (clear) certainly does, and that is what we have evaluated and deemed successful in Iraq and now Afghanistan. But the criteria we have for ourselves suggests that success can only be judged somewhere down the road. General David Petraeus understands this, but do the rest of us? The honest answer to the question is, “We don’t know yet.”

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The “Opening Act” in Marja(h)

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , on February 21, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The battle for the Helmand provincial town/city (population around 80,000) is now well underway. It has been advertised as the center of the current “surge” in Afghanistan, an entirely unveiled reference to and comparison with the 2007 exercise in Iraq that lowered the level of violence there sufficiently. It is also the new centerpiece of the American COIN (counterinsurgency ) doctrine in Afghanistan. As goes Marja (or Marjah, depending on who is writing it), so well may go the U.S. effort to Afghanicize the war: like the 2007 surge in Iraq, Marja may well be the substantive opening of the process of Afghanization of the war (turning over responsibility for conducting the war to the Afghans and thus providing a pretext for American withdrawal).

So how is it going? On the face of reporting, it seems to be going pretty well. Most of Marja has been taken by the Marines, and despite continuing Taliban resistance, the battle seems to be going well, at least as measured in comparative casualties and other battlefield measures. Unlike the experience three years ago in Iraq, however, no one is quite ready to report the “light at the end of the tunnel” in Marja and the war more generally. As one State Department official on the scene summarized it, “We are just in the opening act” in Marja. The real challenge is still ahead of us.” He adds, “Marja will be a test for everyone.” (The quotes are from today’s Washington Post.)

Such circumspection is commendable. The heart of a successful COIN campaign is not the ability to dislodge the opposition from some piece of territory for a time, although doing so initially is necessary at the beginning in order to be able to do the real, decisive job of political conversion of the population away from the insurgents and toward the government. Marja has not, for a long time, been exactly a hotbed of support for the Karzai government, or any other regime operating out of Kabul. That process requires a long, patient process of convincing a skeptical population that loyalty to your side beats loyalty to the other side, generally because your side makes life better than it was when your opponents were in charge. Moreover, that conversion must be  complete enough so that the target population will resist the return of the currently vanquished Taliban when, inevitably, American forces leave and only Afghan government forces remain.

That conversion, if it is possible at all, will take time. Among Afghans in the area, there is apparent distrust of and suspicion about the central government–a phenomenon not uncommon throughout the country. As if to fuel that dynamic, the new provincial governor on his way to Kabul “recently returned to Afghanistan after 15 years in Germany.” In the American South after the Civil War, such governors were called “carpetbaggers” and were widely suspected and opposed. Maybe the situation is different in Marja. Possibly it is not.

The natives, of course, know that it is dangerous to switch sides too fast, and they are obviously  not entirely convinced who the good and bad guys are. As one Marjan told the Post reporter, “We are afraid of the Taliban and we’re afraid of the Marines.” Probably not an imprudent attitude, and one that likely can only be overcome by a long, patient, benign, and positive experience with our side.

The Americans appear to understand this and are trying to convince the natives that we do. As a Marine commander is reported to have assured a group of Marjans, “We’re going to be here for many months.” The audience was apparently skeptical, and their skepticism will only dissipate as many months pass and the Marines are still there. The question is how long the Marines will stay. Factors militating toward shortening their commitment include their need elsewhere in the country and the desire for the United States to withdraw from the country.

So, how is the “opening act” in Marja going? At one level, pretty well, but that is obviously only part of the story by which a judgment about this application of “surginess” (apologies to the Colbert Report) can be rendered. At this point, the real answer is we don’t know how the contest for the loyalty–the hearts and minds–of the Marjans is going, and we won’t know for a fairly long time. It would probably be better to ask the question a year or so from now, when there will be some indication of what the citizens of Marja feel. Unfortunately, our attention span toward Marja will probably have been exceeded by then, and we will be on to asking different questions. At that, even a year may not be long enough: it can be argued (I have argued it) that the success of the surge in 2007 in Iraq will not really be known until fairly well after the American withdrawal is complete and the shape of postwar Iraq has settled in. The same likely will be true in Afghanistan. That is not a very satisfying answer and certainly not a very politically salable reply, but at least it is an honest answer.

Extending Vietnamization to Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Getting out of Iraq, Iraq and Vietnam, Iraq War with tags , , , , , , , on February 14, 2010 by whatafteriraq

 The war in Afghanistan took a familiar turn this week, as the U.S. Marines began an Aghan “surge” to wrest the city of Marja in the opium-infested province of Helmand from the Taliban. The term “surge” kept coming up to describe the purpose and intent of the operation, presumably because of the widely advertised “success” of similar operations in Iraq in 2007. The surge in Iraq, however, was only the first step in a process of Iraqification that is unfolding in that country and will be fully implemented by the end of 2011, if current timetables are honored. Is the Afghan surge the first step in a policy of Afghanization? It sure looks like it.

Consider the prototype: Vietnamization. In 1969, the new Nixon administration finally realized that it was not going to be able to achieve a World War II-style victory in Vietnam and that the American public (in no small part because of the impact of the Tet offensvie of 1968) would not tolerate an indefinite extension of a war with no decisive ending in sight. The solution was to turn the war over to America’s South Vietnamese allies: Vietnamization.

To implement the decision to quit the war without appearing simply to bug out with our tails between our legs and leaving our erstwhile allies to the wolves, the policy of Vietnamization entailed two essential elements. The first was to train and equip the South Vietnamese (to “stand them up,” in a truly awful military term) so that they had a chance of winning the war themselves. The other element was to stabilize the military situation as best possible to give the ARVNs (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) the best possible chance of success. This amounted to “preparing the battlefield” and included such things as the incursion into Cambodia and extensive attempts to interrupt the Ho Chih Minh Trail through Laos.

In the process of formulating and implementing Vietnamization, the American political objective changed as well. During active American combat operations (1965-1973), the goal had been to guarantee the territorial integrity of South Vietnam. Under Vietnamization, that goal was modified to providing a “reasonable chance” the South Vietnamese could succeed.

How do Iraq and Afghanistan measure up in these terms. Remarkably similarly. In Iraq, the United States has spent a great deal of time and energy training and equipping the Iraqi armed forces, and the purpose of the 2007 surge was clearly to weaken opponents of the regime, thereby preparing the battlefield for the Iraqis once the Americans leave. The same process is underway in Afghanistan, although it is not as far along. The United States is currently trying to “stand up” the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), including the army (ANA) and has put additional human training and monetary resources into the effort. Whether that will succeed is problematical, for reasons discussed in this space. At the same time, the current, first surge in Marja looks and sounds a lot like “preparing the battelfield” for the ANA by rooting the Taliban out of places they have historically dominated.

How did Vietnamization work out? It is a fair question if the intent of Iraqification and Afghanization is roughly the same as the intent in Vietnam. In Vietnam, obviously, the answer is unhappy and negative, since the “reasonable chance” proved not enough to prevent the fall of the Republic of Vietnam in 1975. While some apologists continue to argue that had the United States not effectively left our South Vietnamese allies out to dry that this would not have been the outcome, The objection misses the point that the primary purpose of the policy was to extricate the United States from a no-win situation, which it accomplished. Our allies surviving was a hoped-for outcome, but not the heart of the policy and implementing strategy.

Will the outcome extend to Iraq and Afghanistan? The answer is that we do not know, since the policies of Iraqification and Afghanization are not fully implemented and won’t be until the final American withdrawal. Certainly, the process is further along in Iraq, and we should have some idea not too long after the final U.S. withdrawal scheduled for 2011. In Afghanistan, the process is less far along, with the first U.S. troop draw down not scheduled to begin until mid-2011 and no date for total withdrawal yet established. The answer in Iraq is closer than it is in Afghanistan, but in both cases it is a matter of conjecture.

The Vietnamization prcedent does, however, suggest a couple of probable parts of the outcome. The first is that the United States will leave before there is a definitive politico-military outcome in either country. If one assumes U.S. presence artificially affects the environment in both countries and is part both of the solution and problem and a barrier to natural internal process reaching fruition, the outcome cannot be decided until we leave. When that occurs, however, there will be no surrender by either side, no white flags waving, and nobody holding up one finger (presumably the index) crying “we’re number one.” The second is that since American withdrawal will only begin the process of internal settling of the war in an atmosphere in which the United States no longer has much leverage, there will be recriminations over leaving. These will be especially hysterical if our side fails (as it may well in both cases), but charges of “bugging out”–which, of course, is the ultimate purpose of the policy–will be frequent and shrill.

The current surge is almost certainly the first step in the policy of Afghanization of the war there, beginning a painful process of disengagement. It is not, of course, being advertised that way, for fear that admitting it to be the case would submit the administration to withering rhetorical fire from the right. It is, however, likely the policy in Afghanistan (and Iraq) for the same reason it was the policy in Vietnam: it was the only real option available. The only way to have avoided Iraqifying or Afghanizing those wars would have been to heed what many at the time thought was the lesson of Vietnam: to avoid those kinds of wars in the first place. If you ignore that entreaty, count on the same thing happening again, and again, etc.

Sarah on Terrorism

Posted in Global War on Terror, International Terrorism, US Domestic Politics, War on Terror with tags , , on February 7, 2010 by whatafteriraq

In her paid speech before the Tea Party “convention” at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville last night, former Vice Presidential candidate and current right-wing heart throb Sarah Palin made her “strategic” statement about dealing with terrorism. It was hidden in the middle of a much longer paean to political sermons that I confess I did not have the constitution to watch on live cable TV, but her signature on the subject was captured in the Washington Post coverage of the event. It says a great deal about Palin the terrorism strategist.

“Treating this (terrorism) like a mere law enforcement matter places our country at great risk because that’s not how radical Islamic terroristsare looking at this,” she opined. “They know we are at war, and to win that war we need a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at a lectern.”

Aside from the snide reference to Obama the former professor, this statement says a couple things about Palin’s worldview that might be matters of concern for anyone who dreams about a Palin run for and even capture of the White House in 2012 (as a matter of personal opinion, this is a prospect I view as a decidedly Freddie Kreuger moment).

The first thing it says is that terrorism is not a “mere” terrorism concern. I don’t know of anyone who thinks terrorism is a “mere” anything, but it certainly is at least partly a criminal justice concern. Terrorist acts do, obviously, break laws, and those who terrorists captured alive are subject to criminal prosecution. One can argue, as people are now about the 9/11 trial, whether the administration of justice should occur in a civilian or military venue, but nonetheless, the decisions about innocence or guilt and disposition for Mullah Omar or the underwear bomber or anyone else are  matters of criminal justice: law enforcement. The suggestion that these are not “mere” law enforcement matters appears to assume that they are principally something else, and that is, at a minimum, debatable.

The terrorism community is divided, more or less equally, on the question of whether it is best to conceptualize terrorism as principally a legal or a military problem, with most analysts arguing it is partially both while disagreeing at the margins if it is a bit more of one than the other. Hardly anyone thinks the decision is either-or, although that is certainly what the Palin statement suggests: commanders-in-chief waging “wars” on terror rather than college professors (presumably in tweed sports coats with suede patches on the elbows smoking pipes) arguing the nuances of terrorist rights (pinkies thrust defiantly in the air). It is,of course, a false, misleading, and even dangerous analogy.

Conceptualizing terrorism as a war (“they know we are at war”) is certainly a more tidy, conceptually simpler way to think about it than the reality suggests, but it can get you in trouble, as it has the United States. Beginning from the premise of war, the responses are naturally military, and it is not clear that the kinds of military responses the United States has or can make have much to do with solving the problem. It is, after all, the kind of thinking that has led the U.S. into two long, indeterminate wars in the name of defeating terror (Iraq and Afghanistan), which have not been noticeably successful in overcoming the problem but have made a major contribution to the economic problems the country currently faces. I would suggest, indeed, that sucking the U.S. into economically ruinous military exploits has been part of Usama bin Laden’s strategic plan for weakening the United States all along, and that it is the one part of his strategy that has worked. It is a game of rope-a-dope, and guess who holds the rope and who is the dope.

The reason a war-based vision is distorting is that terrorism is not warfare in the traditional sense, and it misleading and distracting to think of it that way. I don’t know the answer, but neither apparently does Sarah. If I knew exactly how to defeat terrorism in a detailed way, I would be a lot richer and more famous than I am. What I know is that it is a lot more complicated than a war to be turned over to the military leadership. That, of course, is not what the Tea Partiers wanted to hear (or at least what Sarah thought they wanted to hear), and maybe a war on terrorism is what Palin can see looking out over her backyard in Alaska when she is otherwise viewing Russia.

Rallying speeches are not, of course, the place for nuanced debates on complex public policy issues, but neither should they be conscious exercises in oversimplification and distortion. Terrorism is a more complicated problem than a “war on terrorism,” Sarah!