Archive for Karzai government

Inspector Clousteau, the Experts, and Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Pakistan, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2010 by whatafteriraq

At the considerable danger of defaming one of movies’ greatest characters (the legendary Inspector Clousteau of the Pink Panthers series) and its incomparable star (the late Peter Sellers), U.S (and allied) policy is beginning to look like one of the bumbling French gendarmie’s most memorable adventures. The latest example of this remark, of course, is the revelation last week that talks between the Taliban and the Karzai government sponsored and facilitated by the United States were actually between the Afghan government and a clever Pashtun shopkeeper from Pakistan who presumably walked away from the process sniggering into the sleeve of his robe while holding tightly to a sizable wad of U.S. cash (no one seems to want to talk about that part–wonder why). Could it be that this enterprising native is the real Pink Panther?

Everyone, of course, is denying everything as they lift up the corner of the rug and sweep the whole thing into a lumpy pile under a corner. The Taliban have maintained all along they were not in negotiations with anybody, which everyone has assumed was a subterfuge to cover their participation in talks. Turns about they might have been telling the truth. The Karzai government is showing predictable 20/20 hindsight and saying they never did believe this guy and weren’t really talking to him. Instead, they maintain the British foisted him off as the real deal. The American explanation: well, we don’t really have one.

How in the world did this–or could this–happen. The answer, I suspect, lies in our legendary lack of expertise in, and understanding of–Afghanistan. The experts on whom we seem to be relying, it turns out, appear not to be so expert. One evidence was an “explanation” last week of how the phony baloney managed to trick everybody into believing he was the Taliban’s second in command: since we have nobody who has ever met any of these characters face-to-face, we don’t really know who they are or what the look like. Since, presumably, all Afghans (or at least Pashtuns) look alike, it was a natural mistake.

This gets at the heart of the matter. I have argued repeatedly that the fatal flaw in U.S. policy in Afghanistan is that it is an absolute no-win situation, which even the casual observer can figure out. But we decided to go in anyway. Where were the experts, who almost certainly would have said, “Wait a minute here!”?

One of two things, in seems to me, offers an explanation. One is that we really have no experts, apart from members of the small Afghan expatriate community. Expatriates, however, tend to have axes to grind or personal agendas and are not the best possible sources of objective analysis. The number of academic experts is also pretty small, due to a lack of market historically for Afghan experts. The second is that the experts that do exist have been ignored or shunned. Real experts almost certainly counselled non-involvement in the civil war, and once it was engaged, argued for getting out as quickly and cheaply as possible. Here the principle of “shooting the messenger” comes in: if these people were consulted and told the truth, they were undoubtedly exorcised because they provided the wrong answers to blissfully ignorant advocates of the American presence. Off with their heads (or at least banishment to policy purgatory)! This well established practice has roots in Vietnam and Iraq and seems so ingrained that it is hard to imagine why anybody with actual expertise would offer advice tha contradicts what policy makers wsant to believe.

So here we are, blisfully, in Thomas Friedman’s word, dropping “dropping $190 million a day to bring corrupt warlords from the 15th to the 19th century,” with big smiles on our faces and a dogged determination we are “doing good” (or at least avoiding “bad”). That number, which adds up to about $70 billion a year and is almost certainly a low-ball estimate, keeps hemorrhaging along as the federal deficit soars. But, we may be getting our money’s worth: this is clearly the stuff of another revival of the Inspector Clousteau series. The only questions will be if Steve Martin or someone else plays the good detective and who the next Pink Panther may be.


Baghdad Bombings and Afghan Peace

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Getting out of Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraq and Election, Iraq War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , on November 7, 2010 by whatafteriraq

There is a curious peace process going on in Kabul. It is curious partly because it is so low key and private. Of course, diplomatic processes are supposed to be held behind the curtain, so that the participants can negotiate freely and reach compromise outcomes that could look like, and be exploited by, opponents as defeats if one knew negotiating postures in advance. While that is actually a sign of the health of the process, it is still curious in an electronic age where secrets of any kind are increasingly impossible to keep. Hopefully someone involved will tell the rest of us how they did it after the process is over–at least unless the process included draconian mutilations of attempted leakers.

Another source of curiosity is the American role. When the talks between the Karzai government and the Taliban began, the American role providing security for and ferrying Taliban negotiators to Kabul was widely publicized for a couple days, but since, there has been not a word about that continuing role–and it certainly does continue. What is interesting about this aspect of the process is that the Taliban actually trusts the United States to act in that capacity. What is more interesting is what this willingness says about the United States and its attitude. What it says to me is that the United States desperately wants to find a way out of Afghanistan and will do virtually anything short of a unilateral withdrawal to find a way out.

A third source of curiosity is exactly what role outsiders are playing in whatever talks are ongoing. The American role is especially veiled: what outcomes does the United States want? What is it willing to accept short of what it wants? And what leverage does it have to move the process toward what it wants out?

One can offer tentative answers to these questions. The answer to the first (what do we want?) is that the United States wants out, but in a way that we can plausibly argue victory (at least in some vague way) or, more minimally, the absence of defeat. That translates into a post-agreement Afghanistan that is non-Taliban and has a strong, stable government. This latter requirement is almost certainly unattainable (Afghanistan never has a strong stable government, and there is really no party that can lead a plausible attempt to create one). That leads to the second question (what, short of our preferred outcome, will we accept?).

The answer to that question is crucial, and it depends on two calculations. The first is domestic in the United States. Like it or not, Barack Obama’s reelection campaign for 2012 is in full motion, and the critical Afghanistan question it faces is, what about Afghanistan will do the president the most good (or create the least harm)? The answer again seems two-fold. By a healthy majority, the American people want out of Afghanistan, an outcome with the secondary benefit of possibly saving money and thus appearing fiscally responsible. Thus, getting us out or well on our way out before 2012 makes political sense. However, there is a second part of the answer: to make the political right, who believe Afghanistan is a righteous cause, the withdrawal has to look like it is done on American terms: there must be an appearance of victory/lack of defeat. An outcome that does this will not gain the support of the right for Obama, but it will make their opposition less convincing and maybe even less shrill (picture Mama Grizzly here). The other consideration is what the parties themselves will accept. It is gradually being recognized (and I suspect we will find later is the real joint interest that created the possibility of talks) that what virtually all Afghans want is for the Americans and their allies to be gone: Karzai so we will quit hectoring him about honest government, the Taliban so we will stop shooting them. If that is the case, they have reason to accede in a peace process wherein the Americans can declare “mission accomplished” and depart.

This brings us to the Baghdad bombings. In the past week or so, what had been passing for tranquility in Baghdad has been shattered by a string of bombings by dissatisfied Iraqis. The process that has just been described for Afghanistan is indeed essentially what happened in Iraq for the past couple years, and what is now going on in Baghdad is its net result. The Americans came, stayed, and seemed intent on staying indefinitely. Faced with that distasteful prospects, the Iraqi factions came together and negotiated enough of a peace agreement to make it look enough like peace had broken out so the Americans, anxious to go, could conclude an arguably accomplished mission, and withdraw combat forces.

Everybody who knew anything about Iraq knew the peace would not hold, and the bombings are just the tip of the iceberg of lingering Iraqi instability. Peace has not taken hold in Iraq, and it will not for a while–but with a difference. The United States retains a physical presence, but we have withdrawn in a psychological, political sense. Nothing likely to happen in Iraq will affect the 2012 election. In answer to the third question about Afghanistan (what is American leverage?), the answer is close to zero, and no amount of proposed American postwar assistance (which we will probably welsh on anyway) will affect that much.

Will the same thing happen in Afghanistan? Almost certainly. The peace process will, in due time, produce what both sides and the United States can agree is an honorable, stable peace. No one involved will really believe that, but it is a necessary kabuki dance to a) get rid of the Americans and b) remove Afghanistan from the 2012 election campaign. Will the peace hold? The answer is about as well as it has done in Iraq, but like Iraq, if we have managed to establish a psycho-political distance from Afghanistan, who cares?

The Long Road Ahead in Afghanistan, II

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , , , on September 15, 2009 by whatafteriraq

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.

Implementing COIN in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , on July 31, 2009 by whatafteriraq

In the most recent posting in this space, questions about the application of the 2007 Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy were raised. Among the most serious concerns surrounded the doctrine’s own statement that a successful COIN application required a ratio of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 citizens in the target country, which would require approximately 660,000 anti-Taliban troops in Afghanistan.

The COIN force in the country does not even come close to that number (about 90,000 foreigners and an Afghan force the size of which, in operational terms, no one discusses), and moreover, it is not clear how those numbers can be achieved. The Obama administration has suggested that throwing more U.S. troops into the fray is not a route it desires to pursue, possibly seeing a parallel between the dynamics of this process and what happened in Vietnam between 1965 and 1968. There is an apparent quandary here.

General Stanley A. McChrystal either read the questions of these numbers in this space (extremely unlikely) or has looked at the COIN manual and done the math himself (more likely), and he has come up with a solution: more Afghan forces. To that end, he suggests that the Afghan National Army (ANA) and security forces be increased to around 400,000 which, along with foreign participants, at least begins to approach the doctrine’s own manpower dictates. Problem solved?

Not really. The problem, as has been suggested here over the past year, is both quantitative and qualitative. Efforts to recruit a more substantial force have been going on for several years and have yet to produce numbers even vaguely approximating those being advocated by McChrystal. Moreover, the Taliban have taken a page from the Iraq insurgency’s playbook and have begun intimidating potential recruits through terror tactics like attacking recruiting stations with IEDs. Where enough “good young men” are going to come from is not at all clear.

The qualitative problem is even more fundamental. As suggested several times in this space, the problem of recruitment is basically from which tribal groups recruits are drawn. The Taliban, after all, is almost exclusively Pashtun, and an effective ANA and security force that does not represent the Pashtun at least in proportion to their numbers in the general population is almost certain to fail. The current guidelines for the ANA is that 38 percent of recruits must be Pashtun; the government (both U.S. and Afghan) do not publicize if this goal is being attained, making one suspicious it is not. If the Pashtuns are not a major part part of Afghan government security forces, the effect is to make the government’s effort effectively an anti-Pashtun effort. Such a coalition is, if Afghan history is any guide, almost certain to fail.

If the McChrystal plan has any hope of success, it must be based on a concerted effort to recruit as many Pashtuns as possible and must, to some large degree, be the result of a successful contest for recruits against the Taliban, principally in the rural areas of the country where the Taliban are strongest and the government weakest. Such an effort will be daunting at best, and is likely to be resisted, passively or actively, by non-Pashtun elements in the government and military, especially Tajiks who currently have disproportionate representation in the defense effort.  One hopes and assumes that McChrystal and those around him understand and appreciate these distinctions. If he does not, creating a larger Afghan force not only will not make the COIN more effective, it will probably make it worse by making the current civil war a more explicitly Pashtun-anti-Pashtun affair. The last thing the United States should want is to be the leading supporter of an anti-Pashtun war in Afghanistan.

One can, of course, question whether the McChrystal plan is realistic under any circumstances. One of the major vulnerabilities of the COIN strategy is its failure to take into account that outsiders can and usually are part of the problem as well as the solution in COIN situations. The implicit effect of this failure is to make the COINs feel they can be more effective than they in fact can be, notably in their impact on the loyalties of the target population (the battle for hearts and minds). In that regard, it is not at all clear that the Afghan people will rise in enthusiastic support of joining a military effort because it is proposed by an outsider (the United States) whom they would like simply to leave them alone. If such a force is to be raised, it has to be an Afghan initiative, and the recruits need to join (in correct ethnic proportions) because they support the government and oppose the insurgents. That is a tall order indeed.

Afghanistan: A New Quagmire?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Getting out of Iraq, Global War on Terror with tags , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2008 by whatafteriraq

On August 6, the New York Times reported that on July 22, 2008, the United States reached a new plateau in Afghanistan, the “other war” that has been going on since October 2001: 500 Americans have now perished on the Afghan plain. What is it exactly that we are doing there?

Afghanistan is widely contrasted with Iraq: Afghanistan, we are told repeatedly, is the real war where American interests are engaged, unlike Iraq. Had the United States not allowed itself to be diverted from the central mission of tracking down and destroying Al Qaeda in Afghanistan by going into Iraq, things would have been better: we would have gotten bin Laden, wiped out Al Qaeda, and probably broken the Taliban forever. The result would have been a peaceful Afghanistan under the Karzai government, and a real victory in the war on terror.

These assumptions are rarely questioned, but they should be. Both candidates herald the drawdown in Iraq as evidence that troops will then be available to go after the “real” enemy in Afghanistan. Obama says an extra 10,000 troops; McCain ups the ante to 15,000. The immediate answer is to provide more adequate protection for exposed forces in the field. But is that enough?

Look at the situation. There are currently about 57,000 western troops under NATO auspices in Afghanistan (of which about 32,000 are American). Add the McCain figures and that force become 72,000 (assuming more NATO countries do not bale out). This number is being asked to pacify a country roughly the size of Texas (analogy compliments of the CIA Factbook) with 33 million inhabitants, many–if not most–hostile. By comparison, Iraq is about two-thirds the size of Afghanistan (twice the size of Idaho, according to the CIA), with about 28 million inhabitants, also many hostile. For the Iraq mission, American troop levels are currently about 140,000, and it is not entirely clear who is winning.  

Then there is the small matter of historic Afghan “hospitality” toward foreign intruders. Since Afghanistan became independent in the 1700s, various countries have tried to subdue it, most notably the British and the Russians (mostly as part of the Great Game of the 19th century). The Soviet Union, which no longer exists partly as a result, was the latest to enjoy Afghan hospitality. History would seem to suggest that invading and reordering Afghanistan is not the best idea anyone has ever had. What makes us think it is different this time? No one seems willing to say. Could it be they know we can’t win anything worth winning? That Afghanistan is Arabic for quagmire?

Clearly, making Afghanistan inhospitable to Al Qaeda is a worthy goal, but is it achievable in the way we are going about it? Seven years of “slogging” it out has not exactly proven the case that it is. How exactly half the number of troops (Afghanistan versus Iraq) is going to pacify and stabilize a country half again the size of Iraq that has a long history of chewing up and spitting out invaders has not been made by anyone who is putatively an adult in charge: the Bush administration, the candidates, or the military command. Lt. General Carter Ham, a spokesman for the JCS and an old student of mine, has been made the front man for all this enterprise, and I don’t envy him the task. A decade ago at the Air War College, he had a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. It is ertainly going to be put to the test.  

I want Al Qaeda destroyed as much as anyone else, but what we are doing is simply not working. Can someone please help me understand what a larger U.S. force commitment in Afghanistan is going to accomplish, except for more American casualties. Would we, for instance, not be about as well off withdrawing our ground forces from the country and bombing and strafing everything suspicious that moved along the Afghan-Pakistan border (the Durand line)? Might not work, but it would reduce casualties. Otherwise, I have the foreboding that we may be in Afghanistan indefinitely with little gain to show–another quagmire. I hope I am wrong.