Friday, August 13, 2010

Steve Biddle on CFR podcast on Afghanistan

A friend sent me a link to this podcast/media call with CFR's Stephen Biddle. He just got back from Afghanistan and since I wasn't on the call and I haven't heard it yet (and it's Friday and kind of slow and I should listen to it for work anyway), I thought I could listen and live blog it (so to speak). If this turns out to be total crap, well I'll have tried a different way of blogging. The plan is to hit post when I'm done listening.

First, he argues that COIN is less like painting a house and more like doing complex surgery. He argues that it takes just over a year to figure out whether a village has stabilized or not. He adds that in complex surgery, the patient may get a lot worse before you know whether the surgery will actually work. That strikes me as the way I would explain something to my grandmother but ok, I get it.

He says casualty rates at the national level don't help much, that we need to disaggregate the levels of violence and whether levels of violence match whatever phase of COIN a particular area is currently experiencing. In his opinion, figuring out how an area is doing requires going through an entire year (or in some cases 18 months depending on when in the traditional Afghan fighting season you started the clearing process) to figure out how that place is doing. He says in part of Helmand, it's been that long and things are clearly stabilizing while in others (like Marja), we're just at the counter-attack part post initial clearing.

Then there's a less interesting discussion of timetables, public support and the change of command. Seriously, there's not much there in my opinion, so skipping ahead.

Concerning Wikileaks, he argues that it's been damaging because of the effect of having names of people who cooperate could endanger them. He doesn't think these documents as as important as the Pentagon Papers or that the documents, which stop before Obama announced the surge, are counter to the Administration's narrative. This was before Wikileaks announced they were posting more, I wonder if he'll say something different then.

He's then asked how he would explain the rationale for the war to a parent whose child was headed to Afghanistan. He says the first rationale given by the Administration, that we can't allow Afghanistan to become (again) a haven for terrorists isn't very compelling. He calls the second more persuasive: that Afghanistan is a base for destabilizing Pakistan (and that this would be a problem for the war in Pakistan). He goes into details about how Pakistan is a nuclear power etc (this part struck me, again, as useful for someone who doesn't track this super closely, otherwise, a bit boring)

When pressed about this "domino theory", he says that people use domino theory when they oppose a war (zing, sort of). He says that regional instability is a wide-ranging international problem and that countries do worry about. He recognizes that Afghanistan are important but indirect. He says it's not a slam-dunk for either side of the argument and it's a value judgment about costs. I think that's fair enough but I also think he should have more of an opinion...I agree that it's a value judgment and I agree that the Pakistan disaster scenario is really scary. He also didn't discuss (here) whether it matters to think of it as Afghanistan destabilizes Pakistan or the other way around.

Ok, that's it for his initial intro...there's more in the Q&A but to be honest, I got a bit bored so I skimmed through the transcript and I couldn't find something that really grabbed my eye. So what do you think of his arguments?


  1. Lil:

    It seems like you need subject matter expertise, not on military affairs alone, which Biddle does possess, but on the state of Pakistani affairs, which Biddle does not possess (so far as I know). I'm skeptical of how destabilizing an adjacent failed state - and would Afghanistan even be a failed state if we pulled out, or would it simply be a Taliban-dominated state? - would be to Pakistan. But, I'm not Stephen Biddle, nor am I someone who knows anything about Pakistan.

    I haven't followed him too much, but I've been struck by how qualified Biddle's remarks have been with respect to US involvement in Afghanistan. Qualified remarks can be a sign of well-thought out argumentation, but it may also be a sign of lack of confidence in one's assertions.


  2. ADTS--I agree and I'm afraid I know very little about Pakistani politics so not much help here. Anyone out there on this front? I would be interested since I'm trying to learn more about this.

    On qualified remarks, good point. Could be either. I guess I'll have to go read more of his work to see which one it is.

  3. I think the probability of Taliban/AQ capturing advanced weapons, including nuclear weapons, from the Pakistani arsenal are quite high. If they do capture them, they are likely to be used against:
    1) Russia
    2) India
    3) Shiite population centers
    4) Europe
    5) America

    This is the real reason people care about Afghanistan.

    ADTS, what do you define as "pulling out"? As long as the ANSF gets international funding, equipping, training, advising, I don't see how they can lose. What would likely happen is that the GIRoA/ANSF would pull back to a smaller ink stain, temporarily yielding much of the South and East to the Taliban. Afghanistan would probably see far greater violence over a long period of time as the GIRoA/ANSF [backed by Iran, Russia, India, Stans, Turkey, NATO] fight the Taliban.

    Probably hundreds of thousands of Afghans would die.

    The only way the GIRoA/ANSF is defeated is if the international community refuses to fund them. Is this likely?

  4. ADTS, Russia, India and Iran all see the Taliban as an existential threat to themselves. Why would they let the Taliban fully defeat the GIRoA/ANSF?

  5. Anand:

    Not sure where to begin addressing your points. I think the analogy might be South Vietnam post-1972 Easter Offensive (give or take), with regard to pulling out - absence of forces on the ground, absence of willingness to use air power. Some form of "decent interval." For what it's worth, it's not hard for me, given American electoral politics, to envision the international community (I know the international community and American politics are not the same) saying Afghanistan is not worth the trouble. At a minimum, I can easily see a small footprint option - per Austin Long - being used.

    The crux of your questions revolve around great power politics (as well as some "pivotal" (Kennedy et al) as well as some "seam" (TPM Barnett ?) states, and their respective interests. First, I reject as overly simplistic that states always act in their best interest. It's a nice simplifying assumption for international relations theorists, but that's about it. Granted, it may be more true when it comes to existential threats than in, say, trade disputes, but this begs the question: is a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan such a threat to Pakistan and the states you've enumerated. I myself am doubtful. I like Steve Walt's "Revolution and War:" revolutions are difficult to export. So too, I would imagine, are entities like the Taliban. We weren't concerned about the Taliban's effect on Pakistan that much prior to 9/11; at least, we didn't invade Afghanistan to stop the Taliban from destabilizing Pakistan. It seems now we're arguably looking for rationales to justify courses of action that are difficult to undertake, such as ending a war without having "won."


  6. On Vietnam, note that there were savage cuts in the ARVN budget in 1973 and 1974. The ARVN ran straight out of money. [The 1973 oil crisis sparked a deep recession and plunging tax revenues, and the US Congress refused to give foreign aid to South Vietnam.] If not for the severe budget cuts I don't see how the ARVN could have been defeated.

    The officer at NTM-A that works on long term funding for the ANSF confirmed a week ago that the long run steady state ANSF budget was about $8 billion a year. As long as this funding is provided, I don't see how the Taliban defeats the GIRoA/ANSF. If funding drops appreciably below these levels, the Taliban/AQ may overrun Afghanistan. If they do, they will likely unleash their full might against their enemies inside Pakistan. They might be able to peal off larger parts of the Pakistani establishment to their side. You know the implications of that.

    Perhaps it might be best to put issues into the open the way Madhu sometimes does. The Taliban/AQ were created by part of the Pakistani establishment in the 1980s and 1990s to use against Iran, Russia, former Soviet Republics, India, and Shiites. It is no accident that Osama Bin Laden's first large massacre was against the Shiites in Gilgit, Kashmir. It is thought that Pres Zia asked him to do it [many Pakistanis accuse Pakistan's 15 million Shiites of being pro Indian and pro Jewish traitors.]

    The Taliban and Al Qaeda have from the beginning represented factions of the Pakistani establishment. The Taliban and Al Qaeda are also backed by part of the Saudi establishment.

    There are many simultaneous wars going on in the greater region. Of these the largest and most important in the Pakistani civil war. The second largest of these wars is the Pashtun civil war on both sides of the Durand. The third largest of these wars is between GIRoA and its allies against the Taliban. Subsets of this third war are the war between ISAF and the Taliban, between Russia and the Taliban, between India and the Taliban, and between Iran/Shiites and the Taliban.

    The forth largest war is organized crime and permeates this entire region and is often confused with the prior three wars.

    The war all of us [the international community as a whole] should care most about is the Pakistani civil war. We need to make sure that the bad people don't win and capture nuclear weapons.

    The danger isn't the export of "revolution." The Taliban are very unpopular, even in Pakistan. The danger is the Taliban conducting massive terrorist attacks against many countries around the world, including against their Pakistani enemies.

    What would the consequences of a WMD terrorist attack be? How would that inflame transnational emotions?

  7. Anand:

    You clearly know more about this than I do - meant honestly, not sarcastically - so I defer.


  8. Anand:

    I disagree with the premise that simply funding ANSF will keep them in power and prevent the Taliban from re-taking control. This is overconfidence in ANSF's capabilities and overconfidence in the Taliban's lack of capabilities.

    ANSF is nowhere near the level of competency they need to be in order to stave off an insurgency. The US Army for too long had been trying to train them in their image instead of training them up to deal with an insurgency. Only recently has this flaw been acknowledged and new methods implemented into the training of them, but it will take a long time to bring them up to speed. One need only examine the caliber of officers being sent to American military schools to gauge the effectiveness of their Army right now.

    The Taliban, on the other hand, are well seasoned, highly motivated, and continue to opearate from the safe-havens provided by FATA and the former NWFP. Across the country civilians grow weary of their attacks and cow-tow to them to end the suffering. In a recent meeting with tribal elders, ADM Mullen, after explaining how the Taliban had killed seven times as many civilians as had ISAF in the past month, was met with the response "none of them would have been killed if you weren't here." This attitude, combined with widespread frustation at nationwide corruption and the inability of the government to govern is setting the conditions for the Taliban to swoop in and gain the population's support.
    In many areas of the country, the Taliban has already set up a shadow government and is providing services.

    Short of ISAF and USFOR-A successfully waging a counterinsurgency, the Taliban will begin to roll back ANSF presence around the country and eventually regain the control they had before. Pulling out American forces and simply throwing money at the problem will not stave off the insurgency.

  9. Mikey Bin Mike, perhaps I could ask you to clarify your comments offline?

    "The US Army for too long had been trying to train them in their image instead of training them up to deal with an insurgency." Until last year, a majority of ANSF advisors and trainers were not American. Different ANSF units were trained and advised differently, creating interoperability problems.

    "One need only examine the caliber of officers being sent to American military schools to gauge the effectiveness of their Army right now." Could you please clarify? Are you referring to mid grade or senior ANA officers attending Staff College in the US? Anecdotal accounts suggest that NMAA cadets perform well in competitions with West Point Cadets. Are you saying that NMAA cadets are substandard?

    "the Taliban, on the other hand, are well seasoned, highly motivated" This is an over generalization. Most Taliban are $10 or $20 a day Taliban who are not well seasoned or highly motivated. Granted there are many thousands of foreign Taliban who do seem "well seasoned, highly motivated." There seem to be more foreign Taliban in Afghanistan now than ever before. This is a severe problem. The police and locals are reluctant to engage the Taliban in Jalalabad until ANA/ISAF engage the large numbers of foreign fighters in the rural areas around Jalalabad.

    What matters most is the quality of Taliban officers and Taliban embedded combat advisors. Many of them are very good. Many of them have extensive combat experience against Russia [in Chechnya/Dagastan etc.], the Stans, China [Xinjiang], India, Northern Alliance. Many of them are retired soldiers from quality national armies.

    "ADM Mullen, after explaining how the Taliban had killed seven times as many civilians as had ISAF in the past month, was met with the response "none of them would have been killed if you weren't here."" This is one anecdote. In every national Afghan public opinion poll taken to date, the Taliban is opposed by over 85% of Afghans, and strongly opposed by over 80% of Afghans. Granted the percentage is far lower among Pashtuns.

    If the ANSF pulled back to a small ink stain, they could defeat the Taliban within their ink stain, and gradually expand the ink stain over more than a decade [provided they get international support.] Probably hundreds of thousands of Afghans would die in this civil war.

    I don't know what experiences you had in Afghanistan and would like to hear more about them.

    The ANSF has many quality elite units and many poor units.
    Good Units:
    -one good ANA Corps Troop,
    -more than a half dozen good ANA brigades [3-111, 1-203, 2-203, 3-203, 1-205, maybe 2-205 although that is debatable, 3-215, 1-209],
    -18 or more good ANCOP battalions [376 authorized per battalion],
    -8 good ANA Commando battalions, and
    -good ANA Special Forces A-teams.

    The Taliban also has many very poor units and many good units.

    Does the Taliban in your opinion have any units capable of taking on 203rd Corps?

    The international community deliberately kept the ANSF tiny and weak until November, 2009. Partly to appease Pakistani paranoia, and partly because the international community was too cheap to develop the ANSF. For most intensive purposes, ANSF capacity building started in November, 2009, which is also when America finally decisively took the lead in ANSF development.

  10. You are right about the ANSF lacking officers and NCOs. This was by design. Until November, 2009, the ANA use to only train about 500 NCOs at any given point of time, and only 1850 NCOs were trained per year. Similarly, the ANA only accepted about 300 cadets per annual class to their 4 year academy [NMAA.] ANA officer selection candidate school was limited to 20 weeks. Compared to 1 year for British Sandhurst, and that too after a bachelors degree.

    In my view ANA would be officers with a bachelors degree should get 1 year officer selection course. ANA officers with 12th grade or less education should get 2 years officer selection course. ANA officers with some incomplete college or high 12th grade academic achievement should get 18 months of officer training. Naturally none of this is happening to save money on the ANATC budget. [ANA Training Command]

    Joint Service Academy (CGSC & War College) should be expanded from over 1.100 to several times that number for experienced officers.

    All of this could easily be rectified if the ANATC budget was boosted and if international trainers were sent to NTM-A and ANATC training academies.

    Have other ideas on the ANP side.

  11. Most of these arguments about whether to do whatever in Afghanistan are moot if we lack the willingness to formulate a reasonable strategy, lack the understanding of the country to operationalize it, and lack political support back home to carry it out. We're 0 for 3.

    Until then, these pundits are just eating good food at fancy places and getting paid to blow hot air and wave their hands. Not a bad job if you can get it.

  12. The amount of Pollyannaish finger-crossing in this thread is just absolutely breathtaking. I don't mean to be a dick, but my eyes just glaze over when I start reading Anand's assessment of ANSF unit capabilities and the amounts of money and time that will be required to improve them.

    To say that any associated problems "could be easily rectified" with the provision of more cash and more troops is simply ludicrous, and makes me want to put my head through the drywall.

  13. Gulliver,

    Whatever do you mean?

    Practically no effort was made to build the ANSF before November, 2009. It is amazing the ANSF are where they are now under the circumstances.

    What rectifies the ANSF is boosting the ANATC [pronounced ANA-tec] capacity, and training more ANSF at any given point in time. This hasn't happened yet in a meaningful way.

    How many international instructors have been sent to work with ANATC, MoI equivalent, NTM-A?

    Gulliver, are you arguing that the NMAA graduates are incompetent? If so, how so? The reason that only 296 have graduated since 2001 is because the international community has refused to fund the ANATC [and MoI equivalent] or send them international instructors. [And actively discouraged instructors from India and Russia from coming.]

    The weakness of the ANSF is deliberate. What explanation is there for why the ANA was only training about 500 NCOs at a time in November, 2009, [annual throughput was 1,850 NCOs]? Why didn't the international community send more international NCO instructors to train ANSF NCOs?

    Group psychology leads to ANSF performing like the people around them in classes. This is why the best security personal [officers and NCOs] are segregated and trained separately from ordinary privates.

    Is there any reason to believe that ANSF officers and NCOs will not perform well if trained?

    As far as the quality of ANSF, keep in mind that most Taliban units suck. Are there any Taliban units that are as good as the elite ANSF?

    How would LeT, TTP, TNSM, Lashkar al Zil [including brigades 055, 313], Siraj Haqqani perform against an ANA Commando battalion in a battalion on battalion engagement? Or for that matter a battalion in 1-203 ANA?