Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Eight years of war

As everyone who pays attention to the world probably knows by now, today is the eighth anniversary of the start of U.S. combat action in Afghanistan. President Bush, in announcing the campaign to the nation, gave the following explanation:

More than two weeks ago, I gave Taliban leaders a series of clear and specific demands: Close terrorist training camps. Hand over leaders of the Al Qaeda network, and return all foreign nationals, including American citizens unjustly detained in our country.

None of these demands were met. And now, the Taliban will pay a price.

By destroying camps and disrupting communications, we will make it more difficult for the terror network to train new recruits and coordinate their evil plans.

Initially the terrorists may burrow deeper into caves and other entrenched hiding places. Our military action is also designed to clear the way for sustained, comprehensive and relentless operations to drive them out and bring them to justice.

Back to today: President Obama made it clear yesterday that he is not considering a significant drawdown in Afghanistan.

President Obama told Congressional leaders on Tuesday that he would not substantially reduce American forces in Afghanistan or shift the mission to just hunting terrorists there, but he indicated that he remained undecided about the major troop buildup proposed by his commanding general.

Meeting with leaders from both parties at the White House, Mr. Obama seemed to be searching for some sort of middle ground, saying he wanted to “dispense with the straw man argument that this is about either doubling down or leaving Afghanistan,” as White House officials later described his remarks.

This on the same day that his Secretary of State said this:
...we're, you know, we're trying to look at it from ground up and make sure that we're examining every assumption, because what's important is that at the end of the day, the president makes a decision that he believes in, that he thinks is going to further our core objectives of, you know, protecting our country, preventing attacks on us, trying to protect our interests and our allies. [emphasis mine]
All the recent talk about "looking at it from the ground up" would seem to imply that the President intends to determine the most appropriate objectives in the region and (with the guidance of his theater commander) how best to achieve them, then decide what resources are necessary to execute that approach. Of course, if we're limiting any such "new approach" to something that doesn't really dramatically differ in strategic intent or resource application from the current approach or the old approach, then we're not really starting from the ground up or with a blank sheet of paper, are we?

And so now we're in the worst of all possible worlds: the President seems to be signalling that he accepts GEN McChrystal's assessment, acknowledges the necessity for a wide-ranging counterinsurgency campaign, but disagrees with (or is uncertain about) the general's recommendation about troop numbers. All of which seems like a recipe for status quo ante and everyone being unhappy.

So I guess we're back to the question I asked a couple of weeks ago in reference to another statement by Secretary Clinton: who are the people out there who think that we can wage an effective counterinsurgency with the resources we've currently got in country? And if those people do exist, what's their plan?


  1. Watching NBC Richard Engel, just back from Pakistan and Afghanistan, who is questioning the assumption of those, like Senator McCain, who think a surge of the kind that occurred on the Iraq theater could work in Afghanistan. He says that in Iraq, people needed protection from insurgents. Whereas in Afghanistan people aren't the targets of Taliban insurgents--only NATO forces are their targets...

  2. I'm not convinced that COIN is the way to go, but I think a case can be made that COIN can be waged effectively with the forces in country. It just depends upon one's definition of "effectively." The much bandied-about "magic ratio" of 20 or 40 or 50 to 1 - whatever it is - applies to the areas where there is a genuine competition for control of the populace. That would be in the cities. There is no real competition in the remote areas and thus no need for the magic ratio of troops. I'd say that the remote areas should be written off for the foreseeable future, in terms of bringing those areas under government control. Economy of force. And just to be clear, I think the magic ratio is a bit simplistic, but I'm just trying to apply the COIN logic for the sake of argument.

    COIN in the cities; CT in the remote areas; lots of assistance to Pakistan in the FATA (it would also be nice if the President could use some of his political capital to push for greater intervention there). Another idea that I haven't seen anyone put out there, but that I would be curious about: how about asking the ICJ for an advisory ruling on the Durand Line?

  3. Schmedlap -- Now this is a comment that could only have been written by a conservative former infantry officer studying law!

    Seriously though, I'm curious about your ICJ suggestion. What would that accomplish?

    I'm not real concerned with the magic COIN ratio, I just question whether it's possible to make significant progress with the resources presently available, and if it is, why we're not doing so already.

    As far as your recommendation about what I would humbly label an Ink Spots approach, I basically agree and have written about it a bit here.

  4. Well, I think it would only be of use as a long term (decade or more) approach, but it could help to fundmentally alter the current dynamic in the region. How, specifically, it would alter it - I don't know. That's why I posed it as a question. But, just as an example of why I posed it, consider my half-baked hypothetical...

    Hypo: ICJ rules that the Durand Line need not be recognized and that the Pashtun have a right of self-determination. This could be the impetus for the Pashtun to attempt to carve out their own country in dominantly Pashtun areas on either side of the Durand Line (I'm thinking a movement for this could grow over the course of a few years). Now instead of the Pakistani government being seen as a puppet of the Americans - or otherwise working too closely with us - it would be waging a nationalist effort to retain its land from secessionist Pashtun. It might also force some Pashtun whom we are fighting in Afghanistan to focus their efforts inward to defending their potential new state. We could save face by withdrawing from those areas (the ICJ ruling could give us an out) and focus development efforts on the areas of Afghanistan that are fairly quiet in the north. Endstate: I wouldn't expect the Pashtun area to be a safe haven for terrorism so much as an area engulfed by infighting and internal power struggles - more like 1994 Bosnia than 2000 Afghanistan.

    Again, that's just a hypo that I pulled out of the air - I have absolutely no idea what rejection of the Durand Line would mean, if anything. Just throwing it out there, wondering if it has any potential to significantly alter the dynamics. Consider, by analogy, the case of Namibia. South Africa's League of Nations mandate ended in, I think, 1966. Five years later, the ICJ said that S. Africa had no business being there. Many years later, it finally earned independence. The ICJ ruling provided the legitimacy of the claim to independence which, once the people were able to force the issue, the rest of the world went along with.

  5. @Schmedlap,

    That Grass would be watered with blood.

    But if you really want to see this concept taken to it’s ..ah…conclusion…check out Ralph Peters Blood Borders. As you know…the borders of the modern world were drawn up by Churchill when he was drunk (Emile Nakleh my old professor).