Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gian Gentile on CFR's website

Col. Gentile is currently a Visiting Fellow at CFR and to start off his time there with a bang, he did this interview with their consulting editor. The interview is titled "Conflicting Objectives for US in Afghanistan."

This is the intro bit:
General David H. Petraeus, in his first extended public interviews as chief U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, made news over the weekend when he argued against a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops in July 2011 and expressed optimism that an achievement of the U.S. objectives there is possible. But Colonel Gian P. Gentile, a visiting CFR fellow who heads West Point's military history program, says there is a mismatch between U.S. President Barack Obama's limited political objectives in Afghanistan, which could be accomplished in some eighteen months, and the U.S. military's "operational objectives." These objectives are "euphemistically called counterinsurgency," he says, and could take a generation to achieve. "We have the means to tactically and operationally achieve success in Afghanistan," says Gentile, but "we become mired in the tactics and operational methods of doing counterinsurgency."
I didn't know COIN was the same thing as "nation-building" but I guess you learn something everyday. The argument does strike me as a bit muddled though. Anyway, go and read it and then come back here and argue (and yes, I'm having a particularly slow day at the office).

20 comments:

  1. I am not a fan of Gentile's work (he makes the same argument over and over again, and very poorly - confusing the tactical, with the operational, with the strategic, with the policy, etc) but it does seem that the current strategy in Afghanistan as it has been articulated resembles nation-building. This debate is a bit semantic, I suppose but aren't we trying to stand up the institutions and tools of a modern state where they have not existed in a durable way before? And aren't we trying to encourage a sense of nationalism among Afghans?

    Hasn't COIN been used as a part of broader nation-building efforts before - or at least as a part of an effort to bring a constituency/ethnicity into the fold of a nation?

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  2. Anon--yes COIN can be a part of nation-building but I think that saying they're the same thing is inaccurate. I know it's complicated but please, can we stop boiling things down to the lowest level possible. It's not so complicated that it can't be explained. There's a difference between nation-building and state building which, in my view, he elides.

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  3. Agreed. And he does that as part of his COINtra Info Ops Campaign

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  4. Well, let's distinguish between three inter-related concepts: state-building, nation-building and COIN. State-building is focused on institutional capacity. Arguably, nation-building is about building legitimacy. COIN as captured in FM 3-24 presumes that capacity and legitimacy are interdependent, and assumes that security, rule of law, and material political goods are the basis for legitimacy. While the first two seem to be relatively consistently linked to the legitimacy of authority across different societies and cultures (although varying in definition and form), the degree to which material assistance (e.g. essential services; economic development, etc.) is linked to legitimacy is highly variable.

    In the case of Afghanistan, the growing body of research (with Andrew Wilder leading the pack) is that material assistance is not a strong basis for legitimacy among rural Afghan populations. Bottom line - the political goods that matter will vary according to how a given population understands the social contract between the government and the governed.

    But back to Gentile - he's just banging the same drum, and the shallowness of his understanding of the conflict in Afghanistan - and his critique in general - is evident in his refusal to provide any alternative approach when the question is put to him directly. Probably because doing so (as Austin Long did with far more insight and detail than the esteemed historian from West Point seems able to muster) makes it clear that the assumptions that underpin a limited CT approach don't seem to hold up when examined against the dynamics of conflict in Afghanistan.

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  5. MK,
    Could you provide the link to the Austin Long writings you refer to:
    "as Austin Long did with far more insight and detail than the esteemed historian from West Point seems able to muster"?

    Thanks,
    Antoinette

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  6. While I agree with Anon that Gentile confuses tactics, operations, strategy and policy, it is nice to see it in a article. It is far too rare that the theoretical basis for defining strategy is left out of public discussions on it. Its not that hard to describe the basics of it.

    I would like to point out that Gentile only ever says COIN. He never notes a difference between Pop-centric and enemy-centric. Reading his previous works should make anyone aware that he knows the difference, at least on a base level. So the fact he only states there is COIN and not the different types of COIN is interesting.

    But I think this is intentional because Gentile can correctly claim that COIN was attempted in Afghanistan. The problem was that it was FOB and enemy-centric. So he is intentionally falsify the tactical and operational methods used to purchase extra weight to his argument.

    I am also surprised no one else has picked up on why Gentile uses 'nation building.' Its for a political reason. I don't know his political philosophy personally, but someone would only use that term if they are attempting to hark back to the mid-1990s when many political elites were arguing against using the military for anything but continental defense, invading those who have invaded others (Gulf War-type) or protecting countries like Taiwan or SK. Anything that involved 'doing windows' was considered an anathema to the warrior ethos. Gentile is trying to take a political talking point at turn it into grand strategy.

    I also found it hilarious in his use of Petraeus, McFarland and Nagl. They are proof that better operational art helps achieve strategic goals. Tal Afar was the precursor to the Surge. (I won't debate whether the Surge worked or not here, but I will state it helped a lot!) That was pop-centric COIN, state building and nation building all in one. So why does Gentile note it as if it proves his point that nation building does not work. This is very, very, very confusing.

    At the end of the day, this article reads more like someone who is running, or is going to run for office. This does not sound like a strategist. This is someone trying to make political hay.

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  7. Antoinette, you can find Austin's article in the Spring 2010 issue of Orbis (Volume 54, Issue 2, pp. 199-214).

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  8. MK, thanks.

    Michael, I think COL Gentile correctly points out that counterinsurgency tactics have been substituted for strategy in Afghanistan. I see a huge mismatch between the stated strategic goals of the US and the actions by our military and State Department on the ground in Afghanistan - the size of the Bagram airfield is one example. How exactly does COL Gentile confuse tactics and strategy? As I see it, it is the coindinistas who have confused "tactics, operations, strategy and policy".

    Perhaps if you stepped outside of your academic prism you could see that COL Gentile is one of a very few who are willing debate the counterinsurgency advocates. He has harnessed a healthy debate; one that is vital to the lives of many.

    The US political elite have been mesmerized by the International Relations-PhD-Rhodes Scholar-Social Sciences Department-West Point graduates who talk splendidly and write copiously about counterinsurgency as the new way of warfare.

    I am not convinced.

    An ordinary American,
    Antoinette.

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  9. Antoinette, your dismissal of COIN is glib and unfounded. Gentile has demonstrated in his writing on COIN that he either isn't familiar with, doesn't understand or cherry picks from among the burgeoning research on what works and what doesn't, and why (see for example his misrepresentation of Karl Hack's paper on Malaya during a discussion over on AM). There's plenty to criticize about FM 3-24 in particular, but he misrepresents both the content and intentions of the authors. There are better critics out there, most if not all of them social scientists.

    You hyphenated epithet is especially ironic given that history is widely considered a social science (although not at West Point), and Gentile is a West Point professor. You've just dissed your own champion.

    And if you do read Austin's article - the most detailed and convincing proposal for the CT option that I've seen out there - then ask yourself this: the Soviets focused on controlling cities and roads, ceded the countryside, and lost because of it. Why wouldn't the same happen if we ceded control of all but the airfields at Jalalabad, Kandahar and Bagram as bases for JSOTFs? And if we did abandon the nation-building COIN approach, why wouldn't Afghans in the most contested areas (including but not limited to Pashtuns) make an entirely rational bet that the Afghan national government won't last, and switch to what they perceive as the winning side? At minimum, if we're not securing the Afghan populations, why would they provide intel on AQ? Monetary payments are only so convincing if you're dead before you can spend it.

    There are problems with our over-emphasis on building a government from the center out in Afghanistan, and plenty to criticize about our efforts, but the CT option is even more problematic than COIN. It looks attractive because it theoretically requires fewer troops, but in the context of Afghanistan, the assumptions on which it relies are at least as contestable as those of COIN - more so, IMO.

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  10. At minimum, if we're not securing the Afghan populations, why would they provide intel on AQ?

    Leaving all of the rest of this aside, how are Afghans going to give intel on an organization that exists almost wholly and exclusively in Pakistan?

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  11. Assuming you are correct, explain why they wouldn't expand back into Afghanistan as the Haqqani network and Quetta shura reassert control? In fact, explain why the TTP wouldn't spread into Afghanistan, when the LeT is already so linked with AQ, TTP, and Afghan Taliban?

    Or let's just ask how losing Afghanistan could not further destabilize Pakistan? We all acknowledge the cross border dynamics, but I've yet to hear a cogent argument as to why instability only flows one direction.

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  12. Or let's just ask how losing Afghanistan could not further destabilize Pakistan?

    Cogent argument: Afghan conflict allows for release of building tensions in Pakistani frontier areas. I don't know if it's true or not, but the Pakistani military and government often seem to believe exactly that. See here:

    "With a surge in American troops across the border, the militants facing pressure could come to our place, which will destroy peace and stability," said Haji Adam Khan, the top official in Qilla Abdullah, a mountainous Pakistani district that abuts Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan.

    To your other point:

    Assuming you are correct, explain why they wouldn't expand back into Afghanistan as the Haqqani network and Quetta shura reassert control? In fact, explain why the TTP wouldn't spread into Afghanistan, when the LeT is already so linked with AQ, TTP, and Afghan Taliban?

    I'd simply suggest that a newly returned government seems unlikely to behave in ways that have universally resulted in their removal from power and exile from the country in past instances. The U.S. can still make life awfully uncomfortable for a government that chooses to host al-Qaeda, whether it's interested in investing a tremendous amount of time and effort in providing alternative government to the people of that country. In short, the Taliban government got its ass kicked straight across the Hindu Kush last time it thought it would be a cool idea to openly support bin Laden's efforts. You see them replaying that scenario?

    Further, why would a movement that seems comfortably ensconced on the Pak side of the frontier have the slightest interest in returning to Afghanistan, where the recent U.S. presence, infrastructure, and proximity of U.S.-friendly elements seem to make life a lot more difficult? What does al-Qaeda get from coming back to Afghanistan that they've not got in Pakistan?

    Do you think that a U.S. departure from Afghanistan would somehow eventuate a pledge not to return swiftly and in force if circumstances demanded? Do you imagine that a withdrawal would be total and complete, that the leave-behind government would have no Western support? Or that that leave-behind government would be less capable of resistance than the Najibullah government?

    I've yet to hear a cogent argument for how and why our presence in Afghanistan helps to protect Americans from terrorism, or why instability flowing in either direction is a tremendously large problem for the West (with the exception of Kilcullen's scare comments on Pakistani state failure and the collapse of nuclear protections), or how this purported instability on the Pakistani side of the border is in any way aided by U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan.

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  13. Pakistan's gambit to turn Afghanistan into a strategic asset has unleashed forces it's having a hard time controlling. You might think Kilcullen's worries are scare tactics, but if you read about the influx of Pashtuns from NWFP and the FATA into Sindh - and specifically Karachi - and the violence unleashed by the MQM against them, if you spoke to OTI district officers returning from the region, or NGO staff, you might think them a little more reasonable.

    That increased force levels in AF could push insurgents into Pak in the short run seems neither here nor there. But the idea that AF provides the pressure-release valve for violent jihadis in Pakistan doesn't seem cogent - it seems ludicrous. The same groups that were linked to the Lal Majsid, and to the TTP more broadly, have a history of training in AF, and in some cases still send people to fight there. At the same time, they are sinking their claws deeper into Karachi, and launching operations across Pakistan (assault on the Pak military intel HQ; attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team; etc.)

    First, the Taliban needn't support AQ openly.

    Secondly, I think the Taliban accurately believe that if the US pulls out, it won't be politically viable to go back in with any significant number of forces.

    Thirdly, yes, the fragmentation of politics and power that followed the fall of the Najibullah gov't - a reflection of a trend that had been gathering momentum for decades if not longer - means that I'd be surprised if the Karzai gov't can hang together all that long if we leave before achieving some real stability in the south and east and forging a template for how to connect rural districts and provincial gov't, and district/provincial gov'ts with the central gov't.

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  14. That increased force levels in AF could push insurgents into Pak in the short run seems neither here nor there. But the idea that AF provides the pressure-release valve for violent jihadis in Pakistan doesn't seem cogent - it seems ludicrous.

    Of course it would seem ludicrous to you. It seems less so to the Pakistani government and military, and they're the ones responsible for maintaining internal security in that country. The simple fact of the matter is that -- right or wrong -- the Pakistani establishment seems to view U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and the concordant escalation of that conflict as detrimental to its own interests, including internal stability.

    The same groups that were linked to the Lal Majsid, and to the TTP more broadly, have a history of training in AF, and in some cases still send people to fight there. At the same time, they are sinking their claws deeper into Karachi, and launching operations across Pakistan (assault on the Pak military intel HQ; attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team; etc.)

    Have these incidents imperiled the government? Or perhaps I should rephrase: aside from the threat of military coup "in the national interest," have these incidents imperiled the government? Yes, Pakistan has significant social and political challenges. Yes, that's scarier than it otherwise would be if Pakistan were not a nuclear state. But the argument here essentially amounts to "we need to be involved with Pakistan because of Afghanistan, and we need to be in Afghanistan because of Pakistan!", and it's not compelling. How is our presence in Afghanistan helping to settle those difficulties inside Pakistan? How are American troops in Afghanistan meant to prevent another Lal Masjid siege or terrorist attack in Karachi? You want to make the argument to me that there will be sufficient future stability in Afghanistan to settle Pakistan down by osmosis?

    If Pakistan is the problem, why not find ways to meaningfully engage THERE? Is it because we can't find any ways, so instead we use the "they harbored AQ!" excuse to access the problem through Afghanistan?

    What is the problem we're trying to solve in Afghanistan, exactly? What is the desired endstate?

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  15. First, the Taliban needn't support AQ openly.

    Of course they needn't. They're not now, and neither is the Pakistani government. So what difference does "safe haven" or "sanctuary" make? (And does "non-open" support even constitute either of those conditions?)

    Secondly, I think the Taliban accurately believe that if the US pulls out, it won't be politically viable to go back in with any significant number of forces.

    Significant number of forces? A Special Forces Group and a bunch of B-52s, like in 2001, constitutes "significant number of forces"? Remember, all we're trying to do at that point is say "don't be stupid enough to let AQ run around your territory or you risk getting blown up and put out of business."

    Thirdly, yes, the fragmentation of politics and power that followed the fall of the Najibullah gov't - a reflection of a trend that had been gathering momentum for decades if not longer - means that I'd be surprised if the Karzai gov't can hang together all that long if we leave before achieving some real stability in the south and east and forging a template for how to connect rural districts and provincial gov't, and district/provincial gov'ts with the central gov't.

    Not clear why you believe this. You don't think the insurgency would be similarly fragmented in the wake of a U.S. departure? You think the enemy would be more capable of connecting rural and provincial and central governments? You think the post-Soviet Afghan army was more capable of holding off the emboldened mujaheddin than the couple-hundred-thousand strong ANSF with U.S. air and financial support would be of keeping the "Taliban" out of Kabul? (Geez, if so, that doesn't give me a whole lot of optimism about that whole train-and-equip effort that our future approach to Afghanistan is predicated on.)

    But we're doing this backwards. Before I worry about whether a post-U.S. Afghanistan could hold up against Taliban domination, or whether that newly restored Taliban government would play host to and enable terrorist groups, I need to understand just exactly what it is that AQ would get out of that deal that they've not already got in Pakistan.

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  16. Remember, all we're trying to do at that point is say "don't be stupid enough to let AQ run around your territory or you risk getting blown up and put out of business."

    So let me get this straight:

    a) you believe that operations in 2001 were a strategic success.
    b) you think that the international environment that permitted that kind of action (punitive with no nation-building agenda) in 2001 exists today and will endure indefinitely.
    c) you believe that repeating such operations after a withdrawal, and perhaps more than once, is both politically feasible and will not result in negative unintended consequences.

    If your answer to these is 'yes', I can't understand how or why. It's not 2001, history can't be undone, and the strategic calculations of Afghans, Pakistanis, and the rest of the world, not to mention perceptions on the ground, are different now, and would be even more different if we throw the towel in on building a stable Afghanistan. Moreover, if any country has demonstrated the folly of a punitive force without other forms of engagement, surely Afghanistan is it.

    Not clear why you believe this.

    If the government fragments at the national level, the training of the ANSF will not on its own hold the country together except perhaps through a military coup. And momentum and narrative count for a lot when people are picking sides in a civil war. Do you really think that for most Afghans it won't look like they're being abandoned?

    I need to understand just exactly what it is that AQ would get out of that deal that they've not already got in Pakistan

    I think the proportion of the Pakistani government, politicians and security forces that stick to the old strategic logic of building an Islamist bulwark in Afghanistan against India, and a training ground for proxies would grow. I think that AQ gets more space to train under a friendly regime, even if it is more covertly than in the past. And I think the nexus between AQ, LET, LJ, TTP etc. grows stronger, and by moving to Afghanistan, AQ has more space to conspire with other movements to destabilize Pakistan. Bottom line - AQ goes from a government that is internally divided as to whether to embrace or attack them, to one that they can rely on for less ambivalent shelter. I don't doubt that all that time in Karachi and Quetta has only strengthened the bonds between the various players. And since when has AQ's expansionist ambition ever been in doubt?

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  17. MK -- You're still avoiding what is, for me, the most obvious and necessary question in all of this: what is it that we're hoping to achieve in Afghanistan? What is our desired endstate?

    I hope I don't cast aspersions by speculating that the reason you avoid this question is that the answer is so uncomfortable, so obviously unattainable in the near- to mid-term, so clearly something that can only be achieved with something on the order of half a century of serious, full-bore commitment and probably a touch of magic pixie dust.

    So again, if you don't mind, please address the question: what do we hope to achieve in Afghanistan, and more broadly, what do we hope to achieve in central and south Asia through our presence in Afghanistan? NOT "why are we there?", but what are we intending to accomplish? What is our desired endstate?

    a) you believe that operations in 2001 were a strategic success.

    No. But I find it difficult to imagine effecting "strategic success" in a struggle against anti-globalist ideology solely or even primarily through a military intervention. I don't believe that current, ongoing operations have much hope of "strategic success," either.

    b) you think that the international environment that permitted that kind of action (punitive with no nation-building agenda) in 2001 exists today and will endure indefinitely.

    Permitted? Does the international environment "permit" the sort of action we're currently engaged in? Will that permissive environment, if it exists currently, exist indefinitely?

    c) you believe that repeating such operations after a withdrawal, and perhaps more than once, is both politically feasible and will not result in negative unintended consequences.

    Do I think it's more politically feasible to drop a shit-ton of JDAMs on Kandahar than to persist in an operational approach that requires six-figure troop numbers for an indefinite period of time, with literally no idea of our desired endstate or the sort of metrics that define progress? Call me naive, but yes.

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  18. Do you really think that for most Afghans it won't look like they're being abandoned?

    Again, we're spending a lot of time talking about something that's a secondary concern. The results of an Afghan civil war are only particularly significant if one result or another can be plausibly said to imperil American lives or interests to an extent that outweighs the commitment of time, resources, effort, and attention necessary to avoid that result. I still haven't seen that case made in a compelling way.

    I think the proportion of the Pakistani government, politicians and security forces that stick to the old strategic logic of building an Islamist bulwark in Afghanistan against India, and a training ground for proxies would grow.

    Grow beyond where it's at now, which is to say a significant enough proportion to exert a controlling interest in government, military, and intelligence institutions?

    I think that AQ gets more space to train under a friendly regime, even if it is more covertly than in the past.

    Can you explain to me how or why "space" is necessary, and how or why a lot of it is more useful than a little (or whatever is currently available in Pakistan, or Yemen, or Somalia, or Mali, or a number of other spots)?

    And I think the nexus between AQ, LET, LJ, TTP etc. grows stronger, and by moving to Afghanistan, AQ has more space to conspire with other movements to destabilize Pakistan. Bottom line - AQ goes from a government that is internally divided as to whether to embrace or attack them, to one that they can rely on for less ambivalent shelter. I don't doubt that all that time in Karachi and Quetta has only strengthened the bonds between the various players.

    Why? Why is it not equally likely (or even more likely) that the various aspirants to leadership in a post-civil war Afghanistan splinter as they have before, stripped of the rationale of resistance to outsiders? Why is it not more likely that those individuals who make up the bulk of the anti-government movement think something like "shit, hanging out with AQ got us a ten-year occupation last time we tried it. Maybe we go a different direction this time"?

    And since when has AQ's expansionist ambition ever been in doubt?

    Huh? I think their strategic calculus could generally be said to focus on establishing influence and control in one place as the vanguard of a broader revolution. Ambition doesn't always synch up with reality, though, as Iraq evidenced.

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  19. MK, in my previous comment I was addressing Michael, not you. I did thank you for the link to Austin Long's article on counter-terrorism. But my dissing of the social scientists was reserved for Michael. You must be a social scientist, too. I apologize for my strident tone.

    I do think that West Point is wise to separate the discipline of History from the other social sciences. History is too fact based to be included in the very messy human interpretation of behavior and the strong focus on the manipulation of human behavior that the social scientists seem to be so fond of these days.

    I am a chemist by training and am currently teaching a bunch of eighth graders the joys of the clean and crisp ways of physics and chemistry.

    I diverge from the topic; but, because this thread is now a week old, not so many will read this.

    I read the Austin Long article and understand that he has a well developed argument for the application of a counter-terrorism tactical approach to solving the Afghanistan conflict. But, I agree, counter-terrorism is not the best answer for ending the war in Afghanistan.

    I am sad to say that I believe there is no clean way out of Afghanistan. I am very discouraged by the results of the Marjah campaign and the delay of the "takeover" of Kandahar city.

    The war in RC East seems very different from what is happening in the west, south, and north of Afghanistan. The delicate application of force in the various battlespaces in Afghanistan most assuredly takes a deft and artistic touch.

    I just wish you war artists out there could reach a consensus and bring peace to the different peoples of Afghanistan.

    Thank you, Lil, MK, Gulliver, Gunslinger, and Alma for a very fine blog.

    Rebecca/Antoinette.

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  20. In related news, MK, Spencer Ackerman finds that (an admittedly small, unscientifically-selected, and possibly non-representative sample of) troops in Afghanistan are similarly mystified:

    What they wanted to hear was a sure path — any path — to winning it. Or even just a clear definition of success. If the goal is stabilizing Afghanistan, what does that have to do with defeating al-Qaeda? If this is a war against al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda is in the untouchable areas of tribal Pakistan, where the troops can’t go, why not just draw down to a few bases in the east in order to drop bombs and launch missiles? Even if we can’t just do that, what will Afghans consider “stable,” anyway? Is all of this vagueness just a cover so we can decide at a certain point that we can withdraw in a face-saving way, declaring victory as it suits us to cover up a no-win situation? If so, why not just do that now?

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