Friday, August 14, 2009

Flashback to 2008: some perspective on the pace of our strategic realignment

Things have been sort of slow around here lately. August in DC is pretty awful, if you ask me: the weather is usually the worst of the year, the streets are clogged up with tourists, and nobody can get any work done because everybody goes on vacation. (This is especially true if you work with or around Europeans!) And so the torpid pace seems to have impacted us around here, or at least me.

None of this is really a problem for the Gentle Reader, I'm sure, seeing as you've likely been busying yourselves with Loren Thompson's new blog. Well, actually, it's the Lexington Institute's blog, not Thompson's personal blog. And he assures us (via Small Wars Journal) that "it isn't awful." Heh. So good luck with all that. I'm gonna stick to my "ill-mannered rants masquerading as analysis," personally.

So as I may have mentioned, I've been meaning for a while to jump into the Afghanistan strategy debate -- despite Dave Dillege's consternation, everyone else is. And maybe I'll get to that this weekend, but for right now I just want to take a look back to last November at some of Dave Kilcullen's thoughts.

At the time of this email interview, optimism about the new Obama administration's increased focus on Afghanistan was tempered by what seemed like a negative turn in the coalition's furtunes. Nine months later, we can comfortably say that this was more than a temporary blip. The U.S./ISAF mission seems almost certain to meet with some far less expansive definition of success, if not with outright failure. It was interesting to read back yesterday and see what priorities Kilcullen identified for the newly-elected president.

The email exchange starts with George Packer asking "so how bad is it [in Afghanistan]?" DK responds:

It’s bad: violence is way up, Taliban influence has spread at the local level, and popular confidence in the government and the international community is waning fast. It’s still winnable, but only just, and to turn this thing around will take an extremely major effort starting with local-level governance, political strategy, giving the Afghan people a well-founded feeling of security, and dealing with the active sanctuary in Pakistan.

Sounds about like today, right? Seriously, if you read those words in this morning's paper, wouldn't they seem consistent with what most of what we're hearing in the lead-up to the Afghan presidential election next week? But I digress. Kilcullen goes on:
A normal U.S.government transition takes six to nine months, by the time new political appointees are confirmed, briefed, and in position. But nine months out from now will be the height of the Afghan fighting season, and less than a month out from critical Presidential elections in Afghanistan. If we do this the “normal” way, it will be too late for the Obama Administration to grip it up. I think this is shaping up to be one of the smoothest transitions on record, with the current Administration going out of its way to assist and facilitate. That said, the incoming Administration has a steep learning curve, and has inherited a dire situation—so whatever we do, it’s not going to be easy. [emphasis mine]
Which is exactly where we are today: nine months out, and right at the height of Afghanistan's fighting season. And how about that progress? Well, the administration moved to appoint key personnel, along with engaging in an "AfPak" strategic review. That got us a bland restatement of the counter-terror, counter-sanctuary mission, along with some pretty vague platitudes about building Pakistani counterinsurgency capabilities and so on. Now we seem to be approaching the close of yet another "strategic assessment/review," this one conducted by GEN McChrystal's staff and a crew of subject-matter experts. But what's that going to tell us, really? Probably what we already know: that there has been little to no progress over the last nine months on the focus areas of the "extremely major effort" that Kilcullen identifies: "local-level governance, political strategy, giving the Afghan people a well-founded feeling of security, and dealing with the active sanctuary in Pakistan."

"[W]e are being both out-fought and out-governed for four basic reasons," he continued.

(1) We have failed to secure the Afghan people. That is, we have failed to deliver them a well-founded feeling of security. Our failing lies as much in providing human security—economic and social wellbeing, law and order, trust in institutions and hope for the future—as in protection from the Taliban, narco-traffickers, and terrorists. In particular, we have spent too much effort chasing and attacking an elusive enemy who has nothing he needs to defend—and so can always run away to fight another day—and too little effort in securing the people where they sleep. (And doing this would not take nearly as many extra troops as some people think, but rather a different focus of operations).

(2) We have failed to deal with the Pakistani sanctuary that forms the political base and operational support system for the Taliban, and which creates a protective cocoon (abetted by the fecklessness or complicity of some elements in Pakistan) around senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

(3) The Afghan government has not delivered legitimate, good governance to Afghans at the local level—with the emphasis on good governance. In some areas, we have left a vacuum that the Taliban has filled, in other areas some of the Afghan government’s own representatives have been seen as inefficient, corrupt, or exploitative.

(4) Neither we nor the Afghans are organized, staffed, or resourced to do these three things (secure the people, deal with the safe haven, and govern legitimately and well at the local level)—partly because of poor coalition management, partly because of the strategic distraction and resource scarcity caused by Iraq, and partly because, to date, we have given only episodic attention to the war.

Yep.

An in-depth examination of these points is probably going to have to wait for another time (and probably ought to be performed by someone with more granular knowledge of the situation than me, like maybe Andrew Exum, who was on the assessment team). But I think it's fair to look back and consider how, despite all the sound and fury, the last nine months haven't gotten us much closer to a time where this thing looks do-able. I'd contend that this has as much to do with structural, situational factors as much as it does misguided coalition efforts or resource constraints, though it's certainly encouraging to see our strategy, TTPs, and resource availability being reconsidered.

"The war in Afghanistan will be won or lost in the next fighting season, i.e. by the time of the September [sic] elections." That's what Kilcullen told George Packer last November. Well, the presidential election takes place in six days. And in a counterinsurgency, if you're not winning, you're losing.

I don't think we're winning.

22 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Question is if its utter defeat or salvagable. Everybody knows its been a screwup.

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  3. Is anyone credible suggesting a power-sharing arrangement with some factions within the Taliban?

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  4. Schmedlap -- Is anyone credible suggesting a power-sharing arrangement with some factions within the Taliban?

    Not that I'm familiar with, not now anyway. There are people saying "let's make some progress in the fight, let's lock down some security gains, and then let's see about talking to reconcilables when the power balance is in our favor," but I don't know of anyone thoughtful and serious who suggests that we can disengage now through power-sharing arrangements. Josh Foust, for one, rails against this.

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  5. A couple of the more easily-spun-up fellows (and their fanboys) at the US Naval Institute Blog (namelink) have got their panties in a bunch about Dr. Thompson's perceived tone. It's pretty distasteful.

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  6. The only reason that I asked about power-sharing is that our objective in Afghanistan seems to be, primarily, ensuring that it is hostile to al-Qaeda. As I understand it, not all Taliban are al-Qaeda. It would seem that some negotiated power-sharing could achieve our objectives with less time, money, and blood - each of which appear to be dwindling in supply. And even if that is not our overall strategy, I would hope that at the small unit level this is being at least explored. I recognize that Afghanistan is not Iraq but there were lots of units attempting to broker arrangements with pragmatic elements of the Iraqi insurgency at least as early as 2005.

    As for the weather, concur about August in general, but over the past couple days and for most of the summer, it has been pretty nice. My barber has marvelled at how mild this summer has been. That is, unless you are referring to the Foggy Bottom Metro, where the temperature NEVER drops below 110. I swear they keep the heat on all summer.

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  7. "It would seem that some negotiated power-sharing could achieve our objectives with less time, money, and blood - each of which appear to be dwindling in supply. And even if that is not our overall strategy, I would hope that at the small unit level this is being at least explored. I recognize that Afghanistan is not Iraq but there were lots of units attempting to broker arrangements with pragmatic elements of the Iraqi insurgency at least as early as 2005."

    That's an interesting point, schmedlap.

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  8. Madhu, you would have to be careful not to make deals with unsavory characters that Iran, Russia, the Stans, China, and or India felt were major threats.

    I for one, would oppose any separate peace agreements with terrorists that implicitly tolerate terrorism against some civilians as more acceptable than terrorist against other civilians. I would be very careful about "making friends" with some of the people that the ISI, Pakistani Army and Saudi Government tell us we should make friends with. Last time we tried that, we got the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

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  9. Madhu - Also interesting, I (a ubiquitous visitor) think, would be a list of those whom Anand considers staunch friends.

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  10. Visitor, do you really think it is in America's long term interests, or consistent with America's values to "make friends" with terrorists that attack civilians in other countries? Are you one of those old "peace in our time," make a separate peace with Al Qaeda linked networks types? Or are you a jaded cynical machiavellian Kissinger type?

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  11. ""The only reason that I asked about power-sharing is that our objective in Afghanistan seems to be, primarily, ensuring that it is hostile to al-Qaeda. As I understand it, not all Taliban are al-Qaeda.""

    I'd suggest none of them are. The problem is more that they are al Qaeda compatible, in terms of them wanting to rule an Islamic fundamentalist regime.

    ""It would seem that some negotiated power-sharing could achieve our objectives with less time, money, and blood - each of which appear to be dwindling in supply.""

    Of course it could. It has in the past. The problem which has *always* arisen though -- and why Foust objects -- is that the Taliban view negotiated peace as surrender. Which is an accurate assessment if they don't hold up their commitments to ceasing hostilities, as they always don't.

    Now that's a very Taliban-ish problem. The one where they agree to stop killing people in return for X, they take X then return to killing people. The other problem with negotiation is pretty universal. That it's not in your interests to be negotiating peace terms if you're not winning.

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  12. I guess my next question would be, "are all Taliban terrorists?" Or are some just fundamentalists?

    Definitely agree regarding the danger of them playing along initially and then becoming violent. On the other hand, one of the advantages of working with a faction is that you learn more about their inner networks. So if they do become less compliant, you can more easily target them in the future.

    I don't mean to suggest that this is a solution - which is why I posed it as an inquiry rather than a proposal. My hunch is that this is not as clearly black and white as some of the discussion suggests.

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  13. If we're talking about goes-bang terrorism rather than just the way the former Afg-ruling Taliban ruled, then no. You're on the right track.
    The keyword you'll be googling there is "irreconcilables".

    The hard part there being that until you represent something more intelligent/powerful/secure/rewarding than the Taliban does, what's the incentive for a reconcilable to operate against them rather than with them.

    "Definitely agree regarding the danger of them..."

    It's not so much a danger as a certainty. They simply don't negotiate and from what evidence there was from the civil war, they don't share power either. Which is to say that they do have these negotiations about power sharing, but they have the Corleone kind.

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  14. Kilo, the "irreconcilable" Al Qaeda linked networks we shouldn't negotiate with are:
    1) Haqqani
    2) Quetta Shura Taliban
    3) Punjabi Taliban (Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar e Jhanvi, Jaish e Mohammed, Lashkar e Toiba, Harakat al Mujahadin etc.) Many seem to fight alongside Haqqani
    4) Dagastani, Chechen, Uzbech groups. Many seem to fight alongside Haqqani.
    5) Uighar AQ linked networks
    6) Arab groups

    Most of the dozen or so "local Taliban" militias might be open to switching over to the GIRoA from Haqqani or the Quetta Shura Taliban for the right price. Perhaps even Hekmatyur (HiG) would be, which is why I didn't include him in the top list.

    We shouldn't negotiate directly with the "local Taliban" but only jointly with the GIRoA. These "local Taliban" have a lot of Afghan blood on their hands, and aren't exactly loved by a lot of Afghans. The last thing we Americans need to do is reinforce the widely held conspiracy theories among millions of Afghans that America is secretly backing the Taliban, Al Qaeda linked networks, and Pakistan against them.

    I am sometimes surprised by how many of those who favor negotiations with "local taliban"--which I favor for the record--don't emphasize how dangerous such negotiations with unsavory characters can be.

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  15. Kilo,
    "It's not so much a danger as a certainty..."
    Well, it need not be intended by us as a permanent arrangement. I observed as a unit entered into a loose alliance with IAI against AQI. Once the remaining AQI in that city were hunted down and/or driven out, IAI didn't want to play ball anymore. That wasn't a problem, because after AQI left, so did we. Again - I recognize that Afghanistan isn't Iraq.

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  16. Anand - I don't think I fall into either of the groups you describe - if only because I am trying to understand current circumstances, without having a defined view on larger questions.

    As I learn more, I find my perceptions change about even those issues regarding which my views are consistent.

    Your knowledge, and ability are obvious. What questions you have asked and answered, as well as the answers, are not.

    The same could be said to be even more true of me - anonymous as I usually prefer to be. The desire for anonymity arises from previous experience with people of differing views who don't limit their activity to comments.

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  17. Hey Gulliver -

    Thought you might find this interesting. Okay, I find it interesting. It's sort of a 'well, but of course' article:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125061548456340511.html

    India Befriends Afghanistan, Irking Pakistan

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  18. Madhu, in my opinion Indian aid to Afghanistan isn't nearly large enough. India could be sending thousands of civilians to Afghanistan as part of a civilian surge. Many of these could embedd in provincial and district PRTs, as well as national ministries.

    The ANA officer and NCO academies could use more Indian officers and NCOs. There are already some in Afghanistan, but not nearly enough to increase the through put of the ANA to the degree required.

    If the ANA is too sensitive. Then India could contribute mightily to judges, the rule of law and ANP. (Perhaps focusing on the East and North to avoid offending Pakistan.)

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  19. (Perhaps focusing on the "WEST" and North to avoid offending Pakistan.) Typo above.

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  20. I'm sure they could, Anand, my point was simply that the extent of involvement will make some in Pakistan nervous. I don't know what practical effect that would have....

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  21. Madhu, what makes many senior retired members of the Pakistani Army and ISI more nervous than India-Afghan relations is the growing size and capabilities of the ANA and ANAAC. There have been several recent editorials by them worrying about the long term implications for Pakistan of a highly capable ANA (which they pejoratively imply is lead by anti Pakistan Tajics and former Northern Alliance.)

    It is important to remember that in the Feb 09, 2009, Afghan public opinion poll, 91% of Afghans had a negative view of Pakistan (for reasons that are partly unfair to Pakistan.) Pakistani feelings about Afghans is mutual. The tension between both countries is greater than India Pakistan tensions.

    In fact, many senior members of the Pakistani establishment argue that the Pakistan should help defeat the Taliban before ISAF/India/Russia/Iran and make the ANA too strong and dangerous from a Pakistani perspective.

    I am surprised that this issue isn't getting more play in the US press. Well actually I am not, we are into Michael Jackson here ;-)

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  22. Yeah, the MJ think was very, very strange.

    Thanks for the rest of your response - that's really, really interesting. In particular,"In fact, many senior members of the Pakistani establishment argue that the Pakistan should help defeat the Taliban before ISAF/India/Russia/Iran and make the ANA too strong and dangerous from a Pakistani perspective."

    Again, thx for the info.

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