“Fragile and Reversible Progress” in Afghanistan

Speaking of the situation in southern Afghanistan at what is the traditional beginning of the military campaigning season (it is warm enough and the winter snow has melted), this was the assessment put forward by General David Petraeus about what he considers to be more favorable circumstances as the United States and its Afghan and NATO allies prepare for yet another year’s battle with the Taliban. We are making “progress,” but it is “fragile and reversible.”

Wait a second! Haven’t we heard these identical words (or at least very close approximations of them) before in both Iraq and Afghanistan? Is this phrase not simply a part of the counterinsurgency (COIN) manual written under Patraeus’ difection for the Army and Marines that has been discussed in this space before? It certainly has a familiar ring about it. Why?

There are several candidate reasons. The most prominent involve the nature of countering indigenous insurgencies in foreign countries (foreign at least to those conducting the counterinsurgencies). In this situations, “progress” is an elusive term. Does it mean military progress? If so, what are the measures of that progress? Attrition of the enemy? Victory in encounters with the opposition? More territory gained and secured? These are traditional ways military progress is measured, and they do not quite fit insurgent circumstances. We generally do not know how effectively we are “attriting” (killing off) the enemy, or we cannot measure accurately his ability to replenish whatever losses he endures (remember Vietnam and the infamous body count that “proved” in 1968 that the North Vietnamese/VC had been so depleted they couldn’t possibly field the size forces they did at Tet?). Victories on the battlefield are also an imprecise measure, as demonstrated by the famous exchange after Vietnam by an American officer and a North Vietnamese where the American said, “We never lost a single battle,” to which his counterpart replies “That is absolutely true and irrelevant.” Similarly, control of territory is a notoriously limited metric, both since insurgents do not consider territory held their objective and because holding gained territory is the Achilles heel of COIN strategy (because of having too few troops to keep liberated areas secure). 

Maybe “progress” means political progress, winning the battle for political loyalty (LBJ’s “hearts and minds of men”), which is the ultimate measure of success in insurgency. But how do measure that? Typically (including in the current case) we ask people in the areas we have liberated if they are glad we’re there. Standing at the wrong end of an American rifle barrel, those we ask almost always reply that they sure do like us better than they did the Taliban. What a surprise and wonderful measure of loyalty and conversion that is.

All this suggests that “progress” is a slippery term, and it is unkind (but not unfair) to say we really do not know, in any meaningful operational way, what it means in this or similar circumstances. We do know, however, that it is, at any point in time, “fragile and reversible.” The translation for this term is pretty straightforward: whatever “progress” we experience is ephemeral and subject to rapid, radical change, but with a rejoinder. The rejoinder is that we have worked damned hard to make this progress, and if policy (defined in terms of support levels) for what we have done flags, the result could well be that the fragile progress may be reversed. Is there any reason to wonder about the motivation of such a warning when faced with a presidential determination to review policy in a few months, with scaling back the resources that have allowed “progress” to occur as a major element?

One could be more sanguine about this pronouncement by Petraeus if one had not heard it so many times before. When was the last time anyone heard the U.S. or allied military command pronounce progress as solid and irreversible? It is always “fragile and reversible,” and one must ask why.

The answers lie in the nature of the enterprise. Outside intervention in civil wars in the modern world has turned out to be fool’s work: it never succeeds in the manner those contemplating it anticipate before they jump in. NEVER! I have discussed these dynamics in a number of books (“Distant Thunder” and “Uncivil Wars,” both published in the 1990s are the most complete statements, but the arguments also appear in the various editions of “National Security for a New Era”). Basically, the problem is that intervention, no matter how well intentioned by whoever (i.e. the U.S.) does it will never be viewed in the same benevolent manner by whoever is the recipient of the action. Intervention changes civil wars, adding to the firepower of the government on whose behalf one intervenes, but it also alienates the target population unless the action is swift, decisive, and followed by a rapid withdrawal before the natives can get sick of us. These conditions never hold in modern internal warfare, meaning intervention will always be resented and opposed. Progress, such as it may appear, will always be “fragile and reversible,” because it is the intervener’s progress, not the progress of the (reluctant) host government. It does not matter how “bad” the Taliban are (which is bad) or how “good” the government may be (which they are not), intervention will always make the insurgents look better.

It really is as simple as that. The United States has been in Afghanistan for a decade, and the best we can come up with are statements of “fragile and revsersible” progress which is, effectively, no progress at all. The president has said he expects to be in Afghanistan with significant force at least until 2014, and apologists for the war think it will be much longer than that. Why? The best we can hope for is more “fragile and reversible” progress. It’s really as simple as that.


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