Tuesday, September 14, 2010

For all the talk about strategy this week, we're not any closer to doing this right (updated)

Boy, oh boy, that ASG report has stirred up a hurricane of debate. I won't even link to all of the great posts on this discussion because there are too many and I'd probably leave quite a few out - and readers of Ink Spots probably already follow and read most of them anyway. And before I go on, I acknowledge that I am not an expert on Afghanistan or the conflict there. But my current problems with the Afghanistan conflict and how it is being waged - as well as my issues with the critiques of the strategy - has little to do with Afghanistan itself but in our discussion of strategy.

I have not yet seen a viable or coherent discussion on strategy in terms of ends, ways, means. I find a lot of commentators pay lip service to this form of strategic development, but I find the arguments lacking because they're too often narrowly focused on each writer's interests and biases. Even within the government where the strategy is determined, the logic of connecting ends, ways, means has been lazy at best to meet domestic political imperatives. While these imperatives are important in a democracy, they should inform and not skew the logic of strategy development. We, and our NATO allies, are wealthy countries full of really smart people with access to vast amounts of data and information. We should be able to do this correctly, if only because we've done it correctly(ish) before. So here's how I'd like to see our strategy in Afghanistan developed - irrespective of what that strategy ends up being.

1. Posit the importance of defending the United States against al Qaeda versus all of the other threats that face the United States. Somehow, 9 years on we still haven't done this. AQ is still a looming bogeyman and policymakers have yet to articulate what kind of threat they pose and what would be considered acceptable. You know, because total security is not possible. We need to be realistic about this. As defeating AQ is the stated central purpose of our operations in Afghanistan - and they're not exclusively in the AfPak region - I would think that realistically framing our intended ends via AQ (globally - not just what we want to do to them in Afghanistan) would be the first step. If, after careful deliberation, it's determined that we have specific objectives against AQ (and figured out what we're willing to do and what to do it with) then we can move to step 3 after considering step 2.

2. Define our objectives in the AfPak region - and not just about AQ. I don't need to belabor this point, but we simply lack any real regional strategies anywhere on the globe. It's a large, populous place where the United States has many interests. Many interests. But regionally we're incoherent and that needs to change. No, we're probably not going to solve India/Pakistan or Pakistan's internal problems or Iran any time soon. But we can develop a coherent strategy based on our policies towards all of these problems. These objectives need to be balanced with our other global objectives so that we can really determine what we're willing to do there.

3. Determine how Afghanistan fits into 1. and 2. and define our objectives there as they nest with our global and regional objectives. Wars that escalate into behemoth operations with no end in sight do so because we too often look at them as ends in themselves. But they shouldn't be - they need to be weighed against all of the other objective the United States has all over the world. Many pundits are for or against the war for a number of reasons, but I've heard little of reasons other than for monetary reasons (means by the way - not ends) or ends about Afghanistan itself devoid of grand (or at least grander) strategy.

I'm not going to hold my breath that this will ever actually happen or any variation of this. Even if it did, there would still be plenty of debate on the assumptions and data underpinning our stated ends at each point - such is the nature of politics and there is nothing wrong with that. But we don't have strategy - I'll refer you back to my posts from a couple weeks ago about this - we have operational art masquerading as strategy. Wars are too expensive in so many ways for too many people to continue to wage it in the way we have been.


  1. But don't we already sort out our global and regional strategic objectives in the NSS?


  2. You're absolutely right. But we can't even get the intermediate strategies right either - or create them in them in the first place. We're either doing a strategic movement to contact or recon by fire. Either way... not good.

  3. 1. "Posit the importance of defending the United States against al Qaeda versus all of the other threats that face the United States."

    The largest security threat in the world today to America and the international community as a whole is extreme militant Takfiris. This is because Takfiris seek to establish global righteousness by force, and are willing to use WMD against global population centers to bring about utopian global goodness. Takfiris are also eager to die for their cause because they believe the bliss of the transcendent is infinitely greater than all the sensual pleasures and impulses of this materialistic world. Attacks by Takfiris threaten to cause cataclysmic financial crisis that severely harm billions of people in addition to mass murdering tens of thousands or more.

    No other global security threat with a significant chance of transpiring is close to this dangerous.

    This said, America and the world have many priorities other than security. Some of them are more important than security, such as facilitating faster global technological innovation [through better education, R&D, and facilitating innovation in education, CO2 emmissions, energy, health care, the gambit.] Another more important priority might be global climate change.

    You could write a US centric and global centric utility function that prioritizes all objectives, and the costs of achieving a specific unit of progress in each of these objectives. Optimize the model. Different people could use this same model to calculate what resources they would devote to each of their objectives depending on their preferences and their estimates of the marginal value of additional spending on their priorities.

    2. "Define our objectives in the AfPak region" Please define AfPak. Does it include India/China/5 Stans/Iran/Saudi Arabia? If it only includes Afghanistan and Pakistan, they are extremely poor countries with little influence over the global economy. The only reason we care about Afghanistan is because of Pakistan. And the main reasons we care about Pakistan is because it is central to the global extremist Takfiri threat, because Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and other defense assets are insecure [with AQ/Taliban supporters among the leaders of the Pakistani establishment], and to prevent a nuclear holocaust between Pakistan and India. Maybe we also care about Pakistan because of Shiite extremism/Iranian regime. These are the primary interests of the US and international community regarding Pakistan.

    3) Afghanistan is an indirect way to influence Pakistan. This is by far the main reason almost anyone in the world cares about Afghanistan.

    Maybe you really should add other criteria. For example the marginal effect of spending on Afghanistan. And the value of Afghan progress to America and the international community.

    Calculate this by country. Think you would find that Afghanistan defeating the Takfiri [AQ/Taliban] provides greater benefits to Russia, 5 Stans, Iran, India, Europe and Turkey than it does for the US. Obviously the Afghans benefit most of all from defeating AQ/Taliban. This needs to be communicated far more effectively. America should threaten to reduce the US commitment unless these other countries step up more.

    Another critical point is that US/international spending on Afghanistan is amazingly inefficient. It would cost $200 billion over 20 years to help the ANSF defeat the Taliban. It is far more expensive to use non Afghan international assets to achieve the same goal. Yet, there remains a deep reluctance to commit to long term resourcing of the ANSF and a preference to use non Afghan assets. Go figure.

  4. Thanks for the list of links about the ASG Report.

    I've been sort of offline recently and now I see it being discussed everywhere!

  5. Anand, your analysis is interesting. I like your question:
    "Please define AfPak. Does it include India/China/5 Stans/Iran/Saudi Arabia?"

  6. No problems, Madhu. Shoot me an email when you get a chance, please.

    Anand and Antoinette - I'll probably disagree with the comment that Takfiris are the biggest threat we have. But yes, AfPak would include both of those countries, the countries they border, and the countries they deal with. One of my problems with the ASG report is one real mention of Pakistan (that whole tiring thing about the nukes getting into AQ hands...) with no other discussion of the effects of our disengagement from there. But it all matters.

  7. Do you ever wonder if the Taliban, or IMU, or whoever else you want to finger has their own Afghanistan Study Group? That there's these three old Saudi dudes who preach what they want to happen in Afghanistan, but then these junior guys from Helmand just get really pissed off about how the Saudis don't speak the language or understand the realities on the ground? And then the Saudis snap back that the Helmandis don't understand the grand strategy of this Islamic Revolution?

    I've always wondered stuff like this. It's not like DC has a monopoly on mediocre thought.

  8. AJK, have no doubt this happens a lot. There is a lot of tension between Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. Many local Taliban are irate that they are so dependent on the international Taliban.

  9. Sent you an email Gunslinger.