Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What we often seem to forget in Afghanistan...

...is that it's full of Afghans.

I'm being trite, obviously. But I think it's fair to admit that those of us who believe in the efficacy of counterinsurgency doctrine occasionally abstract those tactics, techniques and procedures from their specific cultural context.

There's a perfectly rational explanation for this: COIN's usefulness is explained and underpinned by social science, and particularly by social science of a sort that ascribes importance to situationally exogenous factors. There's a language of "control," "collaboration," "penetration," and so on, and a "logic of violence." (There are obviously those who make a case for the primacy of factors like ideology, geography, ethnicity, religion, and so on, but those explanations tend to be pretty objectively weaker and often contested by historical evidence.) And let me go ahead and go on record as saying that I find that language and that particular sort of social science to be compelling, convincing, historically supportable, and basically correct.

Now having said that... There's a piece in today's LA Times by Gilles Dorronsoro, one of those rare undisputed Afghanistan experts, that highlights the challenges Westerners face in waging a counterinsurgency campaign in that country.

I'm hesitant to excerpt from it because I think it should be read in full, and I'm not sure that I can choose a suitabily representative section. But here's a longish, good bit:

History is not encouraging. In two centuries, the Pashtuns have never once tolerated a permanent presence of armed foreigners. Defending families and villages is a cultural duty of local men, and the presence of outsiders is generally perceived as a threat, especially when they are non-Muslim. Historical memories are long in this part of the world. Some Afghans still say prayers for mujahedin who fought against the British -- in the 19th century.

Because the Afghan culture highly values politeness, Westerners rarely understand how unpopular they are in the region. Locals are annoyed by the road-hogging conduct of NATO patrols. They have a suspicion of men wearing sunglasses. They are outraged at the mistreatment of prisoners and the killings of civilians.

In the countryside, Westerners are essentially perceived as corrupt and threatening
to traditional Afghan or Muslim values. Contrary to our self-perception, the villagers see the foreigners as the main providers of insecurity. The presence of coalition troops means IEDs, ambushes and airstrikes, and consequently a higher probability of being killed, maimed or robbed of a livelihood. Any incident quickly reinforces the divide between locals and outsiders, and the Afghan media provide extensive and graphic coverage of botched airstrikes and injured civilians.

The cultural misunderstandings between the Pashtuns and Western forces provide fodder for the Taliban. Its members have capitalized on Afghans' natural distrust of outsiders to propagate conspiracy theories, including the claim that the Americans are helping the Taliban to give themselves an excuse to stay in the country and exploit its natural resources.

As I wrote above, I'm naturally suspicious of what you might call "culturalist" explanations for why failure is guaranteed. But I think it is worthwhile to consider the many ways in which well-intentioned but less-than-fully-committed efforts can be brought to failure (and this completely aside from the question of whether "fully-committed efforts" are justfied to secure the objectives and interests at stake).

Is it possible that we could apply all of our best practices, all of our hard-won lessons of the last eight years, all of our doctrine and TTPs, and still fail? Yes, certainly. Is it possible that we could do all of these things and still fail as spectacularly -- and I suppose here I define "fail" as "end up with endstates that are unwanted or even basically unacceptable to us" -- as if we were to do nothing, or do draw down our commitment, or to focus on CT alone, or to pursue any of the other ideas that Biddle identifies as "half-measures"? Yes, certainly. There is no question that this is possible, and a failure to acknowledge that is disingenuous.

And again, as I wrote before, all of this is completely leaving aside the question of whether the endstates we've identified are even worth fighting for, or worth fighting for in the ways that many people advocate fighting for them (which is to say, COIN).

We can fail. Failing may or may not be all that bad, but it's helpful to consider that all the resources and all the best practices in the world won't guarantee success.

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