Monday, September 24, 2012

Afghanistan strategy three-fer

I haven't been writing much on anything other than veterans issues lately and for good reason. This has been the result of my increasing interest in the problems facing veterans and the policies that attempt to address those problems. But this increasing interest also coincides with an interesting turn in dialogue on conflict these past few months where writing has generally dug existing positional trenches deeper instead of progressing the conversation, such as with Syria.

That said, with the official end of the surge in Afghanistan last week, a few interesting pieces about that war were published in the past week that you should be aware of. I'll add some commentary at the end of this post, but these three are interesting in that they all address significant flaws with our strategy in Afghanistan from different perspectives.

Frances Brown: The U.S. Surge and Afghan Local Governance
This USIP report (linked to by Josh Foust) is an excellent and erudite review of our local governance efforts in Afghanistan since 2009. Importantly, this review is analyzed through the context of the strategy put forth by the Obama administration in late 2009 which elucidated as its goal "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." Brown, who has extensive experience in-country, goes on to quote the "Integrated Civilian-Military Campaign Plan for Support to Afghanistan" which states that to "promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government" is essential to the strategy of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda. More on that later, but even if were to assume that this is the case we screwed up implementation of the governance plan.

I've written before about the importance of assumptions during planning. Brown lays out three assumptions that were, in her words, unrealistic with regard to local governance:

  1. Governance and development timelines would mirror security progress;
  2. Bottom-up progress would be reinforced by top-down progress; and
  3. "Lack of government" as the problem to be addressed.
She picks each of these assumptions apart point by point to the extent that you wonder how it's possible anyone created these assumptions in the first place. The hints of derision throughout the paper also makes it quite readable (I especially recommend the paragraph on Marjah on page 6 as an example). Brown ends the paper with three recommendations:
  • Exert leverage to impact select systemic, rather than tactical-level, problems.
  • In a resource-constrained era, prioritize assistance to a few key efforts.
  • All the usual Afghanistan governance recommendations still apply. 
There are plenty of details beneath the lists. If you're curious as to why our local governance efforts haven't worked in Afghanistan, I highly recommend you read this paper in its entirety. 

Jonathan Rue: Auditing the US surge in Afghanistan
Rue, who hangs his hat at Gunpowder & Lead, had this piece published in The Guardian. Rue is an exceptional military analyst and always worth reading - especially for a Marine (I kid!). After discussing events over the past couple of weeks, of note the attack on Camp Bastion, he states that it's difficult to measure success in Afghanistan. On one hand, U.S. forces have achieved gains at the tactical level. On the other hand, those gains haven't affected our strategic ends. This is the same problem we faced when we left Iraq: superiority on the battlefield was ineffectual towards our goals. As Rue notes towards the end of his piece, this is the same problem we had in Vietnam as well. He doesn't talk much about why this is the case (it is the Guardian after all), but his quoting of SECDEF Panetta is indicative of a government that still does not understand insurgency or counterinsurgency even after 10 years of war:
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta claimed the latest attacks were merely the "last gasp" of a weakend Taliban. If the aforementioned actions are the hallmark of a dying insurgency, I'd hate to think what actions characterize on on the ascendency.
Indeed. Rue is also right that maybe the best news about the surge of troops is that it's over and they're now home. 

COL Gian Gentile: War: Sometimes there is a substitute for victory
In the Jerusalem Post, Gentile picks apart the famous (at least to West Pointers) MacAurthur quote: "There is no substitute for victory." He notes that sometimes "winning" wars isn't worth the cost required to do so. Gentile is well known for his anti-counterinsurgency (of the nation-building sort) writing and he uses this piece to take a swipe at the current strategy. He notes, much as Brown and Rue have, that while trying to defeat a decentralized terrorist organization the United States has set as its goal the building of a nation-state in Afghanistan, an approach that has not worked thus far. He says:
Today in Afghanistan the effect of the American military's embrace of and belief in the efficacy of armed nation building, with its never ending stream of statements of progress, has obscured the vast amount of blood and treasure invested in a military methodology that has not produced results. Yet still we hear the calls to try harder, stay a bit longer, and keep the faith that it will all turn out right, because in war there is, as they say, no substitute for victory.
I think those calls are becoming few and far between at this point in the war. We have a plan of sorts to withdraw from Afghanistan in the coming years and I doubt that anything will derail that plan. Gentile focuses too much on the military ways that our generals have decided. In his oft-repeated attacks on armed nation building, he seems to focus in on this aspect of strategy formulation and not on the political determinations of ends and means. If we were to take the President's statement of ends literally (disrupt, dismantle, defeat al Qaeda), we could probably declare the war over and probably could have years ago (Gentile does say this). 

Gentile is right in calling out military leadership for not correctly aligning ends-ways-means, but he gives the political leadership a pass for not controlling the military more effectively and exercising their constitutional and precedential prerogative. Is that not the lesson learned of the famous MacAurthur vs Truman conflict he uses to set his argument? Nits aside, Gentile has valid points that speak loudly on the failure of our strategy. 

Strategy, strategy, strategy
The recurring theme of these three works is that the United States has had a serious strategy problem in Afghanistan. We haven't aligned ends, ways and means and the assumptions we've used for that analysis was off to begin with. This is not how great powers plan for success, which becomes infinitely more difficult if we can't even define what success means. Policy-makers who should define ends and means have not done so. Military strategists and leadership have chosen ways that certainly do not align with the ends that have been stated and have not likely used the means available as effectively as possible. 

Another important theme throughout is the equivalence of tactical and strategic success, a trap the United States has been prone to since at least Vietnam. I've argued here before that all strategies are in part a summation of tactics used to achieve strategic ends. But the "in part" is essential to understanding the connection between strategy and tactics. Tactical gains and successes do not create strategic successes and gains on their own. There are other variables that when added to tactical gains creates strategic success and we haven't yet identified what those are (and logically haven't figured out how to address them). A lesson seemingly lost in Afghanistan. 

Anyway, go read these three excellent pieces by three very smart people about a ridiculously hard problem. It's definitely worth your time. 


  1. Maybe I will have to give Gunpowder and Lead another chance. There is currently a post up by a "caidid" which says, I'm guessing, that if only we'd tried hard enough at nation-building in Afghanistan it would have worked?

    All kinds of development aid don't work too well but people are tied to the concept in an almost quasi-religious fashion.

    Dunno, I read it, thought "huh" and then moved on.

    - Madhu

  2. Of course, I might have misunderstood the post, it's a brief one but for some reason, it irritated me....

    Doesn't everything?

    - Madhu

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