Real progress in Afghanistan … but to what end?


A Coalition special operations forces member scans an area for insurgent activity as an AH-64 Apache helicopter provides air support during an operation to destabilize insurgent drug trade near Kajaki village, Afghanistan on June 2, 2011. US Air Force photo by Staff Sergeant Ryan Whitney.

Despite the vigorous beginnings of the Taliban’s “Badar” offensive, including several high-profile attacks, definite signs of ISAF momentum in Afghanistan have accumulated over the past six months. A thorough article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in the Washington Post in April detailed the startling evolution in southern Afghanistan:

In Sangin, a riverine area that has been the deadliest part of the country for coalition troops, a journey between two bases that used to take eight hours because of scores of roadside bombs can now be completed in 18 minutes.

In Zhari district, a once-impenetrable insurgent redoubt on the western outskirts of Kandahar city, residents benefiting from U.S.-funded jobs recently hurled a volley of stones at Taliban henchmen who sought to threaten them.

And in Arghandab district, a fertile valley on Kandahar’s northern fringe where dozens of U.S. soldiers have been felled by homemade mines, three gray-bearded village elders made a poignant appearance at a memorial service last month for an Army staff sergeant killed by one of those devices.

Those indications of progress are among a mosaic of developments that point to a profound shift across a swath of Afghanistan that has been the focus of the American-led military campaign: For the first time since the war began nearly a decade ago, the Taliban is commencing a summer fighting season with less control and influence of territory in the south than it had the previous year.

And a Pentagon study published on April 29 also asserted that much headway has been made across the rest of the country, and exhaustively documented positive developments in everything from force levels of the Afghan security forces to reconstruction and drug interdiction. In addition, a handful of unusually optimistic statements from US officials, including the assessment from the typically candid Defense Secretary Robert Gates that Afghanistan could be nearing a “turning point,” have bolstered the perception that ISAF is gaining traction in the conflict.

But aside from the anticipated test the Taliban spring offensive will present for these gains, much larger questions cloud ISAF’s conduct of the war and its overall strategy. Chief among these issues are: the failure of Western powers to adequately address the infrastructure of the opium trade, the continuing existence of an insurgent redoubt in Pakistan, and the failure of US political leadership to articulate a strategy and timeline that are in sync with the realities of the conflict.

Drugs are down, but far from out

A few statistics highlight the importance of opium in Afghanistan: agriculture employs 79 percent of the country’s workforce; although opium output was halved by disease in the past year, two-thirds of the world’s opium still flows from Afghanistan; and the Taliban and narco-insurgents derive an estimated $100 to $500 million annually from the proceeds of widespread poppy cultivation and the distribution networks that pour out of the country.

The Pentagon study cited above details a host of enforcement efforts designed to reduce this drug trade and cut off insurgent funding. For example, between October 2010 and March 2011, American and Afghan security forces seized 38,184 kg of opium; 4,776 kg of morphine; 6,749 kg of heroin; and 124,574 kg of hashish, among other contraband and precursor chemicals. In addition, security forces arrested “274 suspects,” presumably mid- or high-level facilitators in the narcotrade. And now a significant US bureaucracy, including the DEA and State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics of and Law Enforcement Affairs, coordinates with specialized units within the Afghan police on counternarcotics operations. All of these numbers are improvements; the DEA had less than 30 agents in country as late as 2009, and the seizure numbers have increased as a result of the added manpower, though they still represent a tiny fraction of the contraband in the country.

But those efforts seem considerably narrower than the sweeping programs needed to develop Afghanistan’s legitimate agricultural infrastructure as an alternative to opium. To be truly effective, enforcement needs to be coupled with the establishment of storage and distribution facilities and networks for legal crops; the implementation of concrete plans to increase irrigation across the dry, salty south; and the development of alternative seed programs that employ the proper seed (i.e., more crops with profit margins that are greater than wheat or opium) and scope the distribution appropriately. Some of these projects are underway, but they fall short of the scale necessary to truly address the problem.

The report notes that 107 employees of the US Department of Agriculture are working in conjunction with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock to assist with the development of Afghan agribusiness. But there is no stated scope or timeline for these efforts, and seemingly no frank estimation of how they will coordinate with counternarcotics enforcement so as to effect an enduring shift in Afghanistan’s drug economy.

Further complicating the current situation, ISAF policy toward drugs is fractious and confusing at the company and platoon levels, where soldiers and marines executing counterinsurgency grope their way through inconsistent local enforcement regimes while trying to win over farmers who grow poppy to make a living.

Overall, ISAF’s effort to address Afghan poppy production suffers from two glaring omissions:

1. While the overall campaign involves a detailed a list of initiatives, it seems to lack a frank assessment of whether such projects are sufficient to shift the Afghan farming economy away from illegal crops, and in what timeframe. The potential result of this isn’t merely ineffective; it can be counterproductive. For example, in a manner similar to the idealistic Helmand Valley Project of the 1940s and 50s, the net impact of increasing irrigation to Helmand province followed by prematurely withdrawing US forces will be an enhancement of opium production after America’s departure.

2. The current effort leaves intact the strong incentives in Afghanistan to grow opium. With the looming prospect of US withdrawal, the failure to significantly diminish these incentives will fuel government corruption by means of selective enforcement and continued double-dealing within the hypocritical religious and political culture that surrounds Afghanistan’s drug economy. This corruption will gnaw at the government’s legitimacy while continuing to empower the insurgents and narcolords who have a vested interest in the failure of Afghanistan as a state.

In short, if one accepts the rational proposition that enforcement alone is an insufficient strategy for reeingineering Afghan society away from the widespread cultivation of opium, then ISAF seems to be punting, or playing status quo, on one of the most critical factors contributing to Afghanistan’s long-term instability.

The spring offensive and Pakistani ratlines

As previously noted here at the Long War Journal and Threat Matrix, Chandrasekaran’s article on progress in the south quoted military officials who posit that Taliban tactics during the fighting season will modify to IEDs, brief small arms attacks at a distance, and assassination attempts in place of stand-up engagements with American forces. The article also details another troubling, yet predictable adaptation – a Taliban shift to operations in provinces that have become less challenging than the task of projecting into Helmand and Nimroz provinces to fight Marines.

As has been the case in both of America’s recent major wars, the insurgency invariably moves along the path of least resistance. And true to predictions, the Taliban have increased IED attacks and conducted several high-profile infiltration attacks and assassinations, primarily in the Afghan east and north, although they have maintained emphasis on their spiritual homeland of Kandahar.

The significant and quite real progress in the Pashtun belt, a cornerstone of ISAF’s strategy to challenge the Taliban on their home turf, has placed additional pressure on other areas of Afghanistan. And this pressure will become intense in the eastern and northern provinces after the recent American withdrawal from significant portions of Kunar and Nuristan, especially in locales suffering proximity to the jihadi training grounds and ratlines snaking from Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Thus, another fundamental challenge to ISAF’s strategy remains: even if security, reconstruction, and governance gains in Kandahar and Helmand are held and built upon despite the ongoing Taliban offensive, the overall effort in Afghanistan will be imperiled by a reinvigoration of the insurgency in areas traditionally considered even less amenable to Taliban dominance than the southern Pashtun belt. And this danger will be magnified exponentially by the beginning of a drawdown of American forces and the failure of US policymakers to adequately address terrorist safehavens in Pakistan.

A failure of political leadership

This reality reinforces the obvious conclusion that President Barack Obama’s latest affirmation of a July withdrawal commencement is incompatible with either a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy or a strategy of pressuring the Taliban into a negotiated settlement via punitive counterterrorism operations. Failing to keep ISAF boots on the neck of the Taliban will render ephemeral many of the hard-fought gains of the past two years, a view notably expressed last year by General James Conway, former Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Many have questioned whether the war in Afghanistan remains worth it, and whether current US policy has coherent and achievable goals. These are excellent and difficult questions, and I’ll punt on the first for the sake of brevity. What is clear, however, is that in order for the following:

1. to achieve sustainability in population-centric counterinsurgency,

2. to achieve sustainability in acceptance or basic tolerance of national governance in the south,

3. to achieve sustainability in the competence of indigenous security forces, and

4. to maintain sufficient pressure on enough non-ideological Taliban to drive accommodation

… ISAF will need more time.

At the very least, momentum in punishing the Taliban requires another year or two at the current operational tempo. But ideally, if the goal is to keep the country from reverting to a redoubt for violent extremists, the stabilization of Afghanistan is more of a generational development project than it is a war.

Petraeus himself has testified to Congress that the military gains are fruitless if they are not sufficiently supported by civilian reconstruction funding that contributes to the enduring stabilization of a splintered, difficult Afghan society. This view was well-argued by Paul Miller at Foreign Policy:

Nation building, as I’ve argued earlier, is not international charity. It is not a superfluous and dispensable exercise in appeasing western guilt, an expensive tribute to humanitarianism, or an act of unvarnished selflessness and goodwill. Nation building is a response to the threat of failed states that threaten regional stability. It is a pragmatic exercise of hard power to protect vital national interests. In the context of Afghanistan, nation building is the civilian side of counterinsurgency, the primary objective of which is to “foster the development of effective governance by a legitimate government,” according to the Counterinsurgency Field Manual Petraeus wrote.

Afghanistan’s weakness threatens America’s security. State failure, chaos, or Taliban rule in Afghanistan will provide a safe haven for al-Qaida, destabilize western Pakistan and endanger its nuclear weapons, become a worldwide headquarters for narcotics traffickers, discredit NATO, invite Iranian and Russian adventurism, and sully self-government and civil liberties in the Muslim world. We must rebuild Afghanistan to prevent these catastrophic outcomes.

One can certainly disagree with Miller on whether Afghanistan is worth it, and others will doubt it’s even possible. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is the realization that the current strategy cannot achieve its goals and also wrap up a neat American withdrawal within a couple of years. Success in Afghanistan will take time, and yet granting ISAF that additional time may still turn out to be an insufficient condition for success, in light of the well-stocked jihadi factories in Pakistan, and the frustrating combination of reticence and incompetence demonstrated by America’s putative Pakistani allies in cleaning up the cancer on their side of the border. So far, none of these issues have been adequately addressed by the political or military leadership of the US or its ISAF partners.

Which makes stories like this one from Chandrasekaran’s article more difficult to rationalize:

The Marines had not traveled more than 250 yards when the shooting started. First a few pops. Then a volley. And then a fusillade from not just AK-47 rifles but belt-fed machine guns as well.

Pinned down amid the corn, the platoon radioed for help. A reinforced machine-gun squad from 2nd Platoon threw on its gear and left the outpost to set up a blocking position so the Marines from 1st could withdraw. But as soon as the backup squad neared the scene, it was ambushed by a dozen insurgents.

Within minutes, the squad’s leader was shot in the leg. The only place his comrades could take cover was an adobe compound to the southwest marked on their maps as Building 3.

It was then that those Marines — and soon the rest of Kilo Company — would come to understand why Sangin had become the killing fields of the war in Afghanistan.

As the squad rushed toward the compound, one of the machine gunners stepped on a homemade mine on the southern corner. He was blown into a nearby canal.

On the north side of the building, a Marine seeking cover behind a wall was struck by a bomb planted in it. When the squad’s medic rushed over to help him, he stepped on a pressure-triggered makeshift bomb. He lost both his legs, and the Marine he sought to save died before the medevac helicopters arrived.

There were so many explosions, so close together, that others in the platoon assumed fellow Marines were firing mortar rounds at the Taliban. Only later would they understand that the sound was from their buddies stepping on mine after mine.

Attempting population-centric counterinsurgency strategy – which requires endless foot patrols exposing Marines and soldiers to IEDs that could have been easily defeated by up-armored MRAPs – only to fritter gains away by withdrawal a short time later, calls into question the point of undertaking the strategy in the first place. Similarly, further questions are raised by a policy that attempts to sway the population via establishing governance, reconstruction, and economic incentives, without devoting due attention to addressing the instability caused by Afghanistan’s opium economy or the radical redoubts in Pakistan.

And yet, despite charting this counterinsurgency course as recently as December 1, 2009, the Obama administration has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to a withdrawal timeline regardless of conditions, and is even floating trial balloons about the possibility of a faster pullout, something that is inciting natural pushback from the military.

The bottom line: Whether one agrees or not that long-term commitment is worth it, that is exactly what is needed to achieve an outcome in Afghanistan that roughly approximates the original goal of leaving behind a country less amenable to radical Islamic terrorism than it was in 2001. With the war now in its 10th year, the most coherently defined American strategy to date remains a muddle, in which the strategy and its execution on the ground are at complete odds with domestic political deadlines and characterizations of the war by civilian and some military officials. American policy requires more commitment and more clarity. Otherwise, individual opinions on the war won’t matter, in light of the predictable outcome.

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  • Charles says:

    I don’t think it would be too tough to cultivate the disease that has been plaguing afghan poppy crops.
    Then spray that disease over the rest of the afghan poppy crop.
    Then assemble all the interested parties and explain to them that there is a trillion dollars in minerals in afghanistan. That with a little bit of thought organization and effort — afghanistan could be the saudi arabia of minerals.
    That no survey has been done of the Pakistani Northwest. But should a survey be done–it would likely turn up similar deposits.
    All the players currently fighting and dying for nothing could also live peaceably, work cooperatively and make a lot of money to boot.
    No fuss. No muss.

  • blert says:

    As long as the ISI, S Section, is permitted to regenerate the Talibs there is no strategy in the world that can prevail.
    Grand Tactical thinking is trumped by Deep Strategy.
    The war is with Pakistan, not the Taliban, the puppet force.
    The game is parasitism. EVERYTHING is being run to milk America for the benefit of the Punjabi elites in the ISI and Army.
    Very much like 1930’s Japan, the military runs Pakistan.
    Its president is reduced to foreign minister, bowing and scraping for donations.
    Opium is NOT the key source of funding.
    The ISI is. And we’re the ones paying it.
    The drug-war campaign is entirely miss direction.
    No wonder the Russians are all for it.
    ( BTW, Putin’s ex-KGB pals in St. Petersburg are infamous traffickers in heroin. Interesting, no? )
    Increasing irrigation is a fiasco. Just don’t do it. Its sole purpose is to ramp up opium production. It’s the ONLY cash crop that can pay for the water.
    The hope that increased agricultural output will turn Afghanistan into Iowa can’t happen.
    The entire culture is NEOLITHIC. That’s what Pastunwali means.
    And in that culture it’s a drastic mistake to educate girls. Even literacy has zero economic merit for their women.
    The priority must be the men. THEY must be educated FIRST. Then, and only then, girls may gain literacy.
    Everything has to be male led and men on top. It’s patriarchy all the way down.
    It is absolutely imperative that we stop elevating Afghan women in any way. Any such attempts will bring horrific blow-back — a lot of which we’re witnessing on the battlefield.
    Elevating women up to be peers of their men is a casus belli of the first water.
    What do you think is motivating the opfor? Our attempts to change their culture — that’s what.
    As seen all over the third world — via the Peace Corps — no matter how backward — the primitives revel in their conditions — culturally.
    One example out of millions: my nephew is in the Corps in SA. The locals drink muddy water out of puddles. Having finally picked up on their lingo; he’s discovered that they all laugh at him for drinking bottled water and washing his hands. They treat themselves like livestock — and rebut all of his advice WRT sanitation. The fact that they’re only living in the manner of their forefathers is enough social proof for them.
    The location and the people could be anywhere in the third world: the story of man is the same.

  • ArneFufkin says:

    Keep a good thought Charles. I’m an optimist too.
    The NATO decision to continue ISAF operations until 2014 was a turning point in the Aghan COIN campaign I believe.
    There were too many mixed signals coming out of this Administration with VP Biden saying one thing, Admiral Mullen and Sec Gates another, and the CinC being mum. The 2014 date gave the operation some breathing room to build economic and governing infrastructure and win trustful hearts and minds in a part of the world where that is exceptionally difficult
    The one question that every Afghan tribal elder asked and continues to ask … “Are you staying long enough this time?” I think we’ve indicated we are.

  • villiger says:

    Good description of a non-strategy.
    astonishing that Petraeus agreed to a July 2011 deadline in the first place, where now even 2014 appears unrealistic.
    Maybe post a re-election Obama will be more ready to admit that he is a full-on War President. But at what financial cost this War?
    There are only 3 possible efficient and winning strategies, or a combination thereof:
    One, establish Pashtunistan. Let Baluchistan follow.
    Two, bribe Pakistan to abandon its nukes with massive bucks. The present spend on Pak all told is less than 5% of the total annual cost of Afghanistan–$100bn pa.
    Three, fight the Long War through 2020
    But, i like Charles’ lateral thought–well worth a try! I’m not convinced these people are capable of looking beyond the ends of their noses.

  • Cordell says:

    Thank you for an excellent and frank analysis. It sadly appears that thanks to politics ISAF troops will not be given the opportunity to secure the gains that they achieved at great loss of life, limb and treasure. The killing of UBL is now being used to justify a rapid withdrawal of surge troops despite the realities on the ground in Afghanistan. Perhaps “The Long War” would be more aptly labelled as “The Forgotten War” or “The Half-Hearted War.”

  • amk says:

    The indians like Rajiv Chandrasekaran and others making comments here are on a devious crusade to get the west to do damage to Pakistan as they never miss an opportunity to link Pakistan, ISI, Tribal belt to the War. There slant always is the Pakistanis are against the U.S. And yet who has killed more Al Qaeda than Pakistan, who has sacrificed more in terms of people killed in this fight. The answer is no one. Pakistan is on the side of the US but not ahead of it’s own interests. They are all playing the double game here including the West, Pakistan, India and others but the most renowned slippery Machiavellian are the Indian who want the west to do what they would secretly like to do but don’t have the courage.

  • Paul D says:

    why have the farmers never been bought off and moved to a house in Kabul?Cheaper in the long run!

  • MJ says:

    Don’t you guys worry so much. Special forces is winning this war and we will be here for the next ten years fighting for the security of Afghanistan and inevitably the world. So as regular army pulls out, we will be picking up the slack….which we have become accustomed to.

  • DANNY says:

    Have not most of the people in pakastan killed been killed by their pakastani brothers? Those who train kids to be suicide killers? Those who seek to establish an Islamic caliphate? Has not Pakistan created these monsters and made peace deals with them trying to appease them? Do not the killers ask for fighters from all over the world? I guess they are guilty after all and the conspiracy has been proven sound. They invited OBL and Omar to dine with them, we shouldn’t want to show the reality and where it is going to lead them? Sorry but those who play with fire get burnt. My guess is that Pakistan is either going to succeed in it’s Islamic ambitions and grab a larger chunk of the world or it’s going to be burnt to the ground. Tell the truth the PakTaleban believe they will rule the world someday. Well just so they know, we intend to fight their madness.

  • Dr. H says:

    The US military is commanded by a democratically elected civilian. It is not suited for decades-long occupations. Nation building, however noble it may seem, loses its luster after ten years…especially when we piss away any early legitimacy by invading Iraq. And the idea that the US should establish viable governments in all failed regions of the world is merely a hopeful theory that the US can “win” a war against terrorism. We have to face facts. Fighting terrorist groups by invading and occupying foreign lands and installing western-friendly governments is silly and inefficient and it is not cost-effective.
    Stabilizing Afghanistan is Afghans’ responsibility. By 2014, we will be able to say to Afghans that we have provided them an opportunity to govern themselves and stabilize their country. If they choose to throw that opportunity away, so be it. We can always return with tomahawks.
    Sure, the sunk-cost fallacy is painful in view of all the dead servicemen and women. But they aren’t dying to stabilize Afghanistan. They are dying to give Afghans an OPPORTUNITY to stabilize Afghanistan. We can’t do everything. At some point, it’s not worth it, and 2014 is that point.

  • Bungo says:

    Great article.
    Yes, this has evolved into, primarily, “nation building”. And rightfully so. Afghanistan is societally one notch above the Bronze Age. Military operations, beyond some “terrorist control” is primarily “security” FOR the nation building.
    I estimate it would take 2 to 5 more years to bring the Afghani security forces any where NEAR being able to fend off the Taliban. Even then I don’t see that the general populace (or even the Afghan security forces) would really put up much of a resistance to the Taliban. I think that if push comes to shove and Western forces are not around they’ll roll over pretty easily. In that event all of this so-called nation building and development of their security forces would have been for nought. So what’s the point? Besides some good terrorst kills it’s still going to be trillions of dollars flushed down the AfPak toilet.
    Once the Taliban eventually re-take Afghanistan (remember Viet Nam? I do.) people say AlQueda will re-blossom in such a safe haven. I’m not so sure. I think AlQueda has pretty much max’d itself out as far as personnel, power and prestige. They pretty much already have all the safe-haven they need in Pakistan and other countrys. Realistically, what else can they possibly do? It’s not like they’re going to have air-bases with stealth bombers.
    Anyway, it’s not going to end pretty no matter what. I always find it amazing that after over 10 years of having immeasurable military assets in Afghanistan we never killed 1 poppy plant. Whats up with that?
    Quote from article : “two-thirds of the world’s opium still flows from Afghanistan”
    Our leaders are self-serving egotists interested in their own little power trip. They have no honor, bravery or imagination. Sometimes it makes me wanna just puke.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    Dr. H –
    I consider your argument seriously, and I think it is an important one in the debate of whether Afghanistan is ‘worth it’ or ‘possible’ within the framework of a Western democracy. That said, three things:
    1. The main thrust of this post is this: why spend 2 years of those ‘sunk costs’ you mention, including all of the servicemen who have been killed and have had limbs blown off in intensive census operations, on a counterinsurgency strategy that anyone with reasonable intelligence knows cannot be completed by the stated withdrawal timeline?
    2. 2014 might be enough time to keep enough CT strategy pressure on the Taliban *and* at least keep development momentum going, but this is diminished when you telegraph the withdrawal deadline for domestic political reasons, and make a show of *starting* to pull out forces several years prior to that date.
    3. Moving beyond the main point of this post, and into the argument of whether Afghanistan is still worth it … the argument isn’t based around emotional attachment about sunk costs, humanitarianism or giving the Afghans the opportunity (though they are factors). Those who would argue against your view (and I am honestly on the fence) would say it is a cold calculation that leaving before sustainable stability is achieved will just delay the inevitable US re-engagement when the failed state breeds more regional and national security threats, or, God forbid, another catastrophic attack on the US.

  • Matt says:

    The aspect for this year is can the Talib launch a Tet style offensive and can they gather enough foot soldiers to try to over run bases and launch large scale attacks and how often. Compare that data with the data from last year. The launch of their summer offensive has been lackluster. May to October will give an idea if the insurgency is being contained.

  • Villiger says:

    Is defanging Pakistan of its nukes a strategic part of the overall mission?
    If not, then the whole basis of any strategy is bound to fail, for this is the NUMBER 1 risk in magnitude. The rest is little delta, relatively speaking, imho.
    What do other readers think?
    Bear in mind that the fundamental circumstances in the AFPAK area have changed since the US first went in post 9/11. My question is very much in the context of today’s reality, where we actually are today.

  • Dr. H says:

    I appreciate your perspective, and there are some merits to the case. First, we’ve only had the full complement of the “surge” in country since July 2010…less than a year, and look at the gains in that short time. So the surge has proven that the military mission, reasonable security, is possible. So I’m sympathetic to your point.
    But here’s where we are just guessing. What makes us think sustainable stability is achievable? Like I said, we can create temporary security, but GIRoA is not currently a viable government. GIRoA has a patronage system that centralizes power in Kabul, and disenfranchises its 74% rural population, and breeds corruption. GIRoA’s donor-financed services rarely reach beyond the PRTs and provincial capitals, let alone the district centers, if their districts even have them.
    The conditions do not bode well for sustainable anything, and we can’t hold on to the handle bars forever, especially when its not even our kid trying to ride it. Afghanistan needs to start peddling on their own or crash and learn how to stand back up on their own two feet. 2014 is when we let go of the handle bars.
    As far as telegraphing the date, you are thinking of the mission in terms of defeating the Taliban. That’s not ISAF’s mission. Their mission is training the ANSF so they can beat the Taliban. With that in mind, GIRoA needs to know that our help is not endless and that they need to step up to the task and begin solving their own problems. So the date is not a message for the Taliban. They are irrelevant. The date is a message for GIRoA. They are who is most relevant.
    Too, the US is a democracy with a presidential election in 2012, so plans can change after 2012 if conditions merit staying and the mission shows promise.
    On the encouraging side, the ANSF have generally been improving and operating more effectively. We don’t see that in our press, but I understand that to be the case, especially their commando KDKs.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    Dr. H –
    Two long points, and I’ll have to table my end of our discussion, which has been a very good one:
    1. You said “GIRoA is not currently a viable government. GIRoA has a patronage system that centralizes power in Kabul, and disenfranchises its 74% rural population, and breeds corruption.”
    As you generally describe, in what I guess one might call the “good old days” in Afghanistan, it kind of worked: the central government had affiliation with the tribal power brokers in the various provinces and districts, who maintained their own security in return for distribution of patronage. This is a form of stability, if/when the power brokers are not in open war against the government (i.e. the Mujahadeen, then Taliban). Thus, one doesn’t really need to make GIRoA a viable national government; as I mention in the post, the goal is “to achieve sustainability in acceptance or basic tolerance of national governance in the south.” Get stable power brokers in place who will keep the peace and be happy with money from Kabul in return for not trying to overrun the country.
    2. “As far as telegraphing the date.” First, I would say that given the Taliban doubling down on the “we are one with al Qaeda” rhetoric since OBL’s death, plus their continued threat to the Pakistani government, defeating the Taliban or beating them into submission is arguably part of the mission.
    But aside from that, you leave out a major player in your list of people who are telegraphed a message of withdrawal: the folks at the local level who aren’t really part of GIRoA, but are sticking their necks out to work with us and stand up to the Taliban. If you refer back to the goal of that working detente of the patronage system, then supporting the rise of new power brokers who can maintain enough local mojo to present a counterweight to the Taliban is also a goal of the ISAF strategy straight from the Iraq playbook.
    The Taliban are powerful and deeply ingrained in the South, and yet there are no shortage of these folks who fought the Taliban before fighting the Taliban was fashionable for the West. Make accommodation profitable, build up their wasta, to borrow a term from the Iraqis, and they’ll play ball. I’m specifically aware that examples are starting to proliferate in USMC AOs, but the overall process will take a little time. Telling them we are on our way out, when these efforts just started, is counterproductive.

  • Dr. H says:

    I think we are in agreement. There are signs of legitimate progress, growing security in the South, improving ANSF throughout, shorter life-spans for HVIs, sub-national governance reforms underway, agri-business development…and we’ve only had the full “surge” of troops there for 10 months (since July 2010).
    I also agree that there are risks in declaring dates in military plans, but there are also benefits. And in view of the reality of a democratically governed US military, we have to be frank and practical with both the US public, the NATO public, and Afghans.
    I’ve been pretty close to the problem, and so have you. Our perspectives are compromised, biased towards the belief that success is possible in Afghanistan if we just try harder. I’d like to see that actually happen, but looking at the latest polls, the US public is tired of financing this political experiment.
    The US public has supported OEF-A for a decade, albeit without any added taxes or a draft or any real domestic impacts. But the US public is a spoiled lot, and tying OEF-A to effective measures against terrorists who actually threaten the US is growing less convincing.

  • Cordell says:

    Dr. H:
    President Bush faced perhaps even greater opposition to the Iraq war in 2006 with even members of the U.S. Senate saying, “This war is lost.” American troop casualties were running more three time higher in Iraq then compared to Afghanistan today. Nevertheless, Bush committed 50,000 additional troops to the fight after Patraeus offered him a new counterinsurgency strategy. It was a risky gamble, but it paid off. Iraq now has an army that can maintain a reasonable level of security and democracy appears to be taking hold with the help of a robust, oil-fueled economy.
    Once sufficient Iraqi forces were trained to take over from the U.S. in 2009, President Obama had sufficient troops to address the growing insurgency in Afghanistan without risk of destabilizing Iraq by the U.S. withdrawal. Unfortunately, rather than send the 50,000 extra troops requested, Obama sent only 30,000 and announced a July 2011 initial withdrawal date for them at the same time. As Bill said, this did nothing to encourage Afghan civilians to stick their necks out to help ISAF. Moreover, it reassured the Taliban that they could just wait us out.
    From where I stand, this looks like Obama places more weight on getting re-elected than on backing a well-conceived policy, similar to his past votes of “present” when faced with contentious issues. Perhaps Bush would have made a different decision in 2006 and withdrawn from Iraq if he had to face voters again. I doubt it though; he was not so insecure that he would sacrifice doing what he thought was right merely to retain popularity. If Obama wanted the U.S. out of Afghanistan, he should have ordered the troops home in 2009 and not embarked upon a half-hearted “surge.”

  • Dr. H says:

    Iraq and Afghanistan are two very different problems.
    In Iraq, the US was the only true participant, the Iraqi population is a largely urban society accustomed to socialism and government control, and the insurgency was fairly well-organized. Once Rumsfeld was removed, the US could begin a more coherent strategy and turn the Sunni insurgency and then the Shia insurgency around. As fairly well-organized groups, dependent on urban infrastructure and used to central control, those insurgencies were reasonably malleable once their leadership was captured or killed.
    Afghanistan is not Iraq. Afghanistan is mostly a rural population with hardy, independent pockets of self-sufficient populations living in isolated valleys. Generally, they are not accustomed to government control, nor are they looking for any government services. The insurgents in Afghanistan cannot be described as one group. Instead they are a variety of independent groups who work together on occasion. So with these decentralized, independent pockets of irregular militias, “turning” them or defeating them is much more difficult than in Iraq, primarily because there is no “them.” They are ill-defined and they vary from valley to valley and district to district.
    Granted, Obama only sent 30K when the commanders asked for 50K, but in Afghanistan, we actually have a legitimate, UN-sanctioned, multi-national coalition. So while the US only sent 30K more, NATO also sent more troops. Moreover, the ANSF training and manning was farther along in 2009 than ISF training was in Iraq in 2006.
    So you’re arguing apples and oranges trying to prove Bush is better than Obama on national security. If that’s where you want to go, I’d advise you that this is a public forum and it will get ugly if you go there. Allow me a chance to de-politicize this debate somewhat and see if you’ll leave it at Gates is better than Rumsfeld. Gates, I believe, is the primary force behind both adjustments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    Finally, to your point about politicians wanting to get reelected, does that surprise you? I think you are dismissing the political risk Obama took by surging in Afghanistan when his most strident supporters were against it. And he not only surged troops, he also surged strikes in Pakistan. I’m not a Republican (anymore), nor am I a Democrat, but I am more than happy to declare that I never have and never will support G.W. Bush. And to characterize Bush’s 2006 surge in Iraq as some sort of courageous decision ignores how the Iraq invasion was politically driven by his base in CNAC, not by facts. The surge in Iraq was pure political desperation on Bush’s part, and he has Gates and Patraeus to thank for making it appear to work thus far.
    Sorry for the rant, but you must admit, Afghanistan is a mess right now because of the asinine invasion of Iraq. OIF drew forces and low-density-high-demand assets away from OEF-A for seven crucial years (2002 – 2009) and allowed the pockets of Taliban, HIG, Haqquani, and other criminal elements to rise up and gel into the insurgency we saw last fall. Furthermore, OIF gave militant extremists a testing ground for IEDs, ERPs, VIEDs, and a wide array of new deployment tactics; which we have seen them transfer to the Afghan and Pakistan theater. Imagine where we’d be if in 2001, the US would’ve recognized the historical challenges of military operations in Afghanistan and focused our efforts on getting Afghanistan right. Instead, Rumsfeld was sending deployment orders for troops to Kuwait as early as 2002. It was infuriating to watch then, and it’s even more appalling in hindsight.

  • blert says:

    Dr. H
    You seem seriously confused as to the role of Sec Defense.
    Both Rumsfeld and Gates spend strikingly little time and effort running the overseas war.
    The last Sec Defense to get immersed in operational details was McNamara — and his track record has forever changed the desire of Sec Defense ( anybody ) get into the war fighting business.
    By his own words, and he’s not unique, Rumsfeld spent the vast bulk of his time creating the Army and Navy of the future. His fingerprints are all over the high-tech military we have. And its these new gadgets that are winning the campaign.
    Like Radar in WWII, they are all classified to one degree or another, so any accurate discussion will have to be left to our great-grandchildren.
    Iraq was not a ‘single’ war — it was a sequence of entirely different campaigns that merge across time.
    Phase I was strikingly successful, way beyond the most optimistic guess.
    Phase II was triggered when Rumsfeld was over-ruled by the State Department – -and had Paul Bremer pushed upon the scene.
    Every day that Bremer meddled the campaign went downhill.
    The only thing that turned matters around was giving political Iraq back to the Iraqis.
    We were then forced to hold the fort while the Iraqis beat each other into submission. Only after they’d had enough blood spilt was it possible for them to shift their prior positions.
    It was at such an hour that the surge could actually work.
    But the key was not the surge, it was the change in the political ground truth. The Sunnis gave up on AQ. It was the locals that turned the bastards in. Until that event, no troop level boost held any prospect of success.
    This also coincided with ever more high tech gear, courtesy of Rumsfeld, that made opfor positions naked in the night.
    Phase IV occurred when the Shia started policing their own. The collapse of the Mahdi Army was striking.
    It took years and years to correct Japan and Germany. It was naive to expect anything rocketing along in Iraq.
    As for Afghanistan, we’ve got mission creep even worse than Iraq.
    We’re wasting blood, money and time trying to bring a Neolithic society into the 8th Century…
    Planet-wide, humanity does NOT like to have its culture changed by outsiders. So educating young girls is a fiasco: we’re imposing our notions of what is right onto a die hard patriarchy.
    The blow-back is dead girls and assassinated teachers. Plus, we get highly motivated Talbs now insanely resentful that the kafir are changing the status of females. Swell.
    As for Bush & Obama — neither one is a brainiac. They’ve surrounded themselves with weak minds and poor analysis.
    Even the very idea of deliberately fighting a long war is insane; even Sun Tzu figured that out.
    Rumsfeld became roundly hated in the Pentagon because he was shutting down programs that Generals didn’t want shut down. Worse, he’s got an IQ past 180 and a photographic memory, to boot. Strong personalities like his draw opposition like crazy — because he’s on a mission.
    An endless stream of Generals found their great plans shot down in flames by Rumsfeld. And these plans were never about fighting overseas — they were always about spending priorities — the one thing that Generals really go to the mat over.

  • villiger says:

    blert, i credit you with a great sense of history.
    Now turning to the future as you say, “Even the very idea of deliberately fighting a long war is insane; even Sun Tzu figured that out.” So what is the way to go? Bearing in mind the situation in Pakistan and the risks surrounding their nukes..
    Will appreciate your thoughts.

  • Dr. H says:

    The RMA began well before Rumsfeld. I can assure you he had very little to do with the US military’s technology superiority during his tenure. In fact, I’d say his disruptive micro-management had more to do with our acquisition confusion during his tenure than with any advances. Think up-armored HUMMVs, UAVs, added troops. It was Gates who shoe-horned in the USAF’s acceptance and acceleration of UAVs and ISR, as one illustrative example.
    SECDEF’s role includes planning military campaigns, as well as playing a key role in the NCA / NSC, including approval of all PLANORDs, DEPORDs, & EXORDs for COCOMs. These are mostly classified, so you may not be familiar with them.
    Granted, Rumsfeld should not have played much of a role in the operational planning and conduct of OEF-A and OIF. Unfortunately, he did. And Gates changed that for the better when he took the reigns.
    And you are mistaken about Rumsfeld’s role in OIF Phase IV. He adamantly demanded and retained authority over OIF Phase IV rather than transitioning Phase IV to State Dept control under Gardner, which left Bremer as a wildcard working directly for the President with no oversight from State or Defense. In short, Rumsfeld’s micromanagement here disrupted the lines of authority and created just the seam Bremer needed to exercise his incompetence.
    Rumsfeld may have been hated because he defied some of the military-industrial complex’s pet projects, but he also championed some wildly stupid ones too like missile defense in the Eastern bloc. But he is also hated for his technocratic, myopic micromanagement, and his colossal misunderstanding of terrorism and counter terrorism, and his arrogant dismissal of the AQ threat, and his arrogant dismissal of the challenges in Afghanistan, and his arrogant dismissal of the challenges in Iraq, and…
    A 180 IQ doesn’t mean you should be leading the defense department, especially when your active duty career in the military amounts to two years in a training squadron, with no overseas deployments. All a 180 IQ appears to have done for Rumsfeld is propel his tremendous ego to ignore dissent, surround himself with yes-men, and cultivate a fantasy of certainty of historic proportions.
    Historians will likely remember him as the worst SECDEF in US history, the Custer of SECDEFs.

  • Dr. H says:

    Here’s a link explaining Bremer’s confused chain of command and the office’s most closely linked to his incompetence…under OSD:

  • Mr. Wolf says:

    Back on topic: Progress in Afghanistan. Don’t let the State Dept., Military complex, or the industrial world describe what “progress” is there. The real test of any society is how well can they manage their daily affairs. If there are markets disrupted by explosions, if there are hospitals full of civilians and families, if there are police (the idea of a big brother, not really the police) attacked; this is NOT progress.
    The real reason to give a timeline, is to prove to the world that we are not “occupying” their land. And the other reason to give a timeline, is to tell the fighting forces, “who will you attack when we leave?”.
    This is when the “police” should be supported with intel. The central gov knows that there are many resources in the hills around the Durand line, there are many new ways for lowlanders to take highlanders’ land, and some are not going to like moving. The political observers, not the military, will be the force to reckon with after 2012. These politics in the rural heartland will fall well short of western ideals, but will represent the real change that is needed to oust the AQ leadership (which accordingly are on the move already). Remember that each of the HVT’s have families. They have wives, daughters, sons, and cousins who married into a life of danger, and now have to find a way out, or a way to lay low.
    The long war will not end in Af/Pak, it will continue throughout the region. But as we send more MILITARY aid to countries such as India, SA, Jordon, Iraq, Uzbek, Tajik, Pakistan we also are training their forces to target individuals not towns or regions.
    The only progress that needs to be measured, is the ability for a local farmer to ask for help to defend their land. This is what a police force is supposed to do, protect citizens of every type. Without that solution, the tactics of war will continue unabashed.


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