Friday, July 10, 2009

Michael Cohen is Spot On

I have been tracking Michael Cohen's series, Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch (AMCW), over at Democracy Arsenal very closely. For everyone's understanding, Michael and I did not get along very well initially and I'm pretty sure I said some pretty rude things in very public forums, as have many COINdinistas. What a lot of people misunderstand about Michael (including some of my co-bloggers) is that he isn't a COINtra or anti-COIN in general (this is my take on it and surely do not speak for him). He's just against using it in the case of Afghanistan, for a couple of reasons. First is that we don't have any real strategic interests in Afghanistan due to a lack of existential threats that could be projected from there. Second is that with what the President and GEN McChrystal have said we're going to do and for how long in Afghanistan, we have not devoted enough resources to get the job done. So something has to give. His new series tracks this second case.

I can honestly say that he is 100% right in this case. He cites two interesting facts: that we don't have the civilian agency personnel and Afghan Army numbers to sustain any gains in the current operation in Helmand. Other than the fact that we're limiting air power and talking with local leaders (to what end I have no idea), this doesn't even resemble population-centric COIN as I have ever defined it. It's a clearing operation being sold as pop-COIN for some sort of PR/strat comms reason. And I have very serious doubts about the sustainability of any gains made during the op. The Dons at Kings of War are suggesting the same.

This all may work out and prove me wrong, but there doesn't seem to be the same urgency found before the Iraq "Surge" - especially from an interagency focus. Either the civilian agencies and the ANA cough up the folks needed to accomplish the mission or we shouldn't bother doing it in the first place. There's also the possibility that we're selling ourselves short on military personnel as well to do what we need and want, understanding the limitations there due to other commitments. This is all adding up to a half-assed attempt at COIN and if we do learn anything from Iraq it's that COIN can't be done half-assed.


  1. Let me share with you an email sent out today. The chat began with someone suggesting that we need to become adults and just concede that sometimes we have to say that the "population" of the Afghans really doesn't mean that much to us:

    Well, yes, but that's still feeding into their notion that the population, solely, is the key to success. Just as with aerial bombardment during WWII, the B-29 didn't break the will of any city, much less any nation, despite nearly 30,000 dead airmen and many more civilian casualties below.

    I continue to insist that there are means to defeat any insurgency, using the time-tested warmaking goals of people (will), terrain (land) and the enemy. In our industrial age, with its cheap availability of automatic arms and plentiful cellphone communication, even a ragtag rebel army can survive for quite a long time against 21st century militaries, so long as they are able to flee to safe areas we, for whatever reason, won't or can't go.

    If we agree that the center of gravity is that redoubt, NW Pakistan, then we've already conceded that we'll never to be able to destroy, deter or detain enough insurgents to replace those that they can replace, either from disaffected Afghans or Pakistanis across the fictional border. If we agree that we can't seize their key pieces of terrain, then we also have two strikes against us.

    All that's left is the "people." But not really, because even the architects of this blasted "strategy" in AfPak agree that the center of gravity is in Pakistan, and the only "people" available for us to woo or coerce are in Afghanistan.

    To me, this is like landing in Gallipoli while trying to defeat Berlin. It might be the most successful sideshow in the world, but it's still a sideshow. So why not level with the real population that matters, the American people, and just effing tell them that we likely won't catch bin Laden or those who masterminded 9/11 by rebuilding the "nation" of Afghanistan. The Afghans, themselves, don't seem to want to give us their "hearts" or their "minds," and, moreover, even if they did we're going to end up spending several hundreds of billions of dollars and wasting the lives of thousands of decent soldiers so that they can live in the effing Burkino Faso of SW Asia.

    At the moment, it seems as if Pakistan is closer to losing half of its territory to rebellion than we are to securing half of Afghanistan from the Taliban. Indeed, the more we do of the latter, the faster goes the spread of the former.

    In the end, we don't have the people, the enemy or the terrain of AfPak as goals we can conquer. If you can't do all three, not even one of the three, then why are we still there?

    Callwell would've -- and did -- leave. Callwell, an adviser to Churchill, also famously told him that Gallipoli was a very bad idea.

    We need a Callwell on the NSC today.


  2. Well said, my friend. Well said.

    The difficulty lies in domestic politics, for which I understand the reasons in continuing our efforts (thought question the morality of doing so). What I don't understand is how we're selling this as one thing, when we're doing another, all while selling a load of crap to the American people. This is not pop-COIN, nor does it resemble it in any way. To say otherwise is an affront to anyone who is a self-averred COINdinista and the men of the RAND symposium are turning in their graves (except for that one bloke who seems to be alive still).

    But you bring up a great argument for Michael's first case about the strategic necessity of Afghanistan in the first place.

  3. "If we only intend to be in Afghanistan for say, two years, does anyone think that we would be carrying out a mission that focuses more on protecting the population than it does killing Taliban?"

    Michael is still wrong about that.

    It's not an either/or. It's not enemy-centric or population-centric. As I mentioned above, there's a three-part pursuit in any war (and counter-revolutionary operations add up to war), and population, terrain and the enemy are all important ends one uses warmaking and other tools from the kit to control.

    I think we'll see a combination of all three tried at various times. But I also believe that it will sold as pop-centric, even when it's not.

    Was it not so in Iraq? Oh, surely, Exum and the crowd always brayed that the "Surge" was using less CAS, less artillery, less kinetics, less, less, less, while protecting more and more and more of the population. Indeed, that would become the key "metric," right? How many innocent Iraqis we protected from our collective might?

    But riddle me this, Gunslinger, what does one make of CAS?

    "While the USA has used a variety of means in its surge strategy, military force has remained central, with the predictable outcome of new civilian lives lost. Airstrikes—the most frequent mode of US military attack involving civilian victims—have continued with regularity throughout the surge, killing 252 civilians in 2006 [and] then—in the surge years—943 in 2007 and 365 in 2008 [by the end of November]."

    That was from Iraq Body Count, an open sourced acknowledgement of our kills, good or bad, and it likely tracks pretty well with our SIGACT reporting.

    I'm so sick of the platitudes designed to explain away the reality of war. It's an insult not only to the fighting man, but also to the victims who die in the midst of his fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The only reason it exists is to influence a population outside of Afghanistan or Iraq: Western Europe, sure, but also the U.S.


  4. CAS is mui importante, in answer to your riddle. You and I both know that. As a veteran of the "Battle of the Belts" during the Surge, CAS and artillery were as important to me as PRTs. My issue isn't with enemy or terrain centric COIN. My issue is with enemy and terrain centric COIN that is called pop-COIN and is done in a manner that the gains cannot be held in the long term.

    You're right. It's all platitudes as we've discussed before. And it is insulting - COIN is cool in the military finally, so these Marines are being sold that they're doing COIN. They are, but it's not pop-COIN and it's not sustainable.

    I'm also waiting to see the combination of the three - that's yet to occur and apparently to be planned for. Although it seems to me that that balance is the only path to a successful endstate.

  5. half-assed COIN costs us over $60 billion a year in Afghanistan when our annual budget deficit just peaked $1 trillion for the year. In total, the US doesn't even devote $30 billion to official development assistance to the rest of the world.

    So if half-assed is this irresponsible financially, what is full-assed?

  6. In total, the US doesn't even devote $30 billion to official development assistance to the rest of the world.

    For what it's worth, the president's request for the FY10 international affairs account is $53.9 billion. The vast majority of this is foreign assistance.

    Of course, it costs a lot more when you pour development assistance into an abyss, which is what you're doing when you give aid to a country like Afghanistan that is completely incapable of implementing its own governance and development programs without outside help.

    So this is sort of a canard, but you already knew that.

  7. I was going off of FY08 numbers from State.

    But that's still the point... do we really "pour" double of what we give rest of the world into a place where we have no existential threat anymore.

  8. But that's still the point... do we really "pour" double of what we give rest of the world into a place where we have no existential threat anymore.

    I'm not sure that I understand your question. If you're saying that instead of spending money waging war in Afghanistan, we should be devoting more resources to development aid and other foreign assistance, ok. That's a legitimate viewpoint.

    Having said that, it's an unbelievably difficult sell. Already it's extremely difficult to get Republican support for an increased foreign assistance budget; how do you think they'd react if we abandoned the "war against al-Qaeda" in favor of huggy-feely development projects?

  9. Yeah, I wasn't being clear... I meant "do we really want to pour double..."

    And no, I don't mean increasing foreign aid. Sometimes the best way to spend money is to not spend it at all. That's what I meant.

    $1 trillion budget deficit. Plus, Obama's ambitious domestic agenda (much of it needed). Means let's stop dicking around with Afghanistan. The mission is over, unless our mission is to build the 51st state in Central Asia. AQ's not going to attack us from Afghanistan. The Taliban's not going to take over the country.

    We can spend the rest of our lives trying to "disrupt and dismantle al Qaida" in Afghanistan. But should we? Is that really what we need to be concerned with?

  10. AQ's not going to attack us from Afghanistan. The Taliban's not going to take over the country.

    We can spend the rest of our lives trying to "disrupt and dismantle al Qaida" in Afghanistan. But should we? Is that really what we need to be concerned with?

    This may come as a surprise (or maybe not), but I mostly agree with you here.

    My concerns about Afghanistan have little to do with prosecution of AQ, and are instead connected to stability in Pakistan, which is the real bellybutton of the region.

    More on this to come.

  11. I don't think we disagree on how fighting in Afghanistan is a waste of resources. But, maybe it's the broader point that is in contention. I'm saying we need to reduce our footprint in Afghanistan for myriad reasons, while (I think) you are saying that we need to stay there for reasons other than just fighting AQ and Taliban. Namely as you refer, to maintaining a staging base to keep an eye on Pakistan.

    We don't have to go on with this since you are going to post more later. But I am curious as to what you think about the thesis that our operations in Afghanistan are actually destabilizing Pakistan. Maybe you can include something on this in your next post?


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