Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tired conventional wisdom about this unconventional war?

As should be pretty clear by now, I'm not wholly convinced that escalation in Afghanistan is a good idea. Actually, I shouldn't equivocate so much: unless I see some new and compelling argument to convince me otherwise, I am wholly convinced that escalation in Afghanistan will do little to secure the strategic objectives that we should be pursuing, and that the expenditure of resources required to prosecute an expanded war in that country (and region) will be completely out of balance with the potential strategic gains consequent to that escalation.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let me tell you an anti-escalation argument that I do not find convincing at all: that an increased foreign force will agitate the Afghan populace into greater support for the insurgency. We saw the same argument in Iraq, by the consistently-wrong GEN John Abizaid:
Abizaid had advised Joe Collins, the Pentagon's chief civilian peacekeeping expert, that U.S. forces would be an "antibody" in Iraqi society and it would be important to put an Iraqi face on the occupation.
Secretary Gates has repeated this worry with regard to Afghanistan (though lately he suggests that a change in approach to a more population-centric counterinsurgency could mitigate these concerns), noting that the Soviets had 120,000 troops in the country and worrying that a similarly significant intervention could alienate Afghans.

Which is why it's interesting to read Robert Mackey's blog in the New York Times The Lede, entitled "How Many Troops to Secure Afghanistan." He closes with this:
One man who has suggested that more American troops are not the answer is Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, who was a K.G.B. agent in Kabul during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Last October Mr. Kabulov told my colleague John Burns that the U.S. had “already repeated all of our mistakes,” and moved on to “making mistakes of their own, ones for which we do not own the copyright.” One of the biggest mistakes the Soviets made, Mr. Kabulov said, was letting the force grow too large. “The more foreign troops you have roaming the country,” he said, “the more the irritative allergy toward them is going to be provoked.”
Allergy, antibody, immune reaction, and so on. It's almost taken for granted that this is true. My question: WHY? What Gates has been saying lately is much more compelling: Afghans are less concerned with how many troops are in-country than what they're doing! (After all, does some guy in Spin Boldak really see a difference between 68K and 110K if the engagement in his village remains the same?) Does the top-level number even matter to anyone other than Taliban propagandists?

More worryingly, this is just yet another example of a disturbing trend in the conversation about this war (and others): assertion disguised as argument. Ok, so you think that foreign troops are an antibody, and that the population will have an auto-immune reaction to displace them? Then show me when that's happened! Explain to me why I should believe this to be true! Don't just keep repeating the same old canards and expect everyone to believe them. Even the Russian ambassador resorts to this: we lost, so it must've been something about the Afghans, something about the numbers, something about the swarthy Oriental's unique and intractable character. It couldn't be the fact that we did a million other things wrong, like killing a whole bunch of civilians or propping up an unpopular, illegitimate government.

So really, why should I buy this "antibody" argument, especially when its main proponent in Iraq was basically proven dead wrong?


  1. Right, this is just one of those "common sense" assertions that no one ever bothers to defend.

    That said, there is some evidence that occupation by foreign troops catalyzes and promotes suicide terrorism -- see Bob Pape's flawed, but instructive _Dying to Win_. And there is, I think solid evidence the Western deployments in Muslim lands does serve as a potentially powerful recruiting tool for "jihadis" worldwide.

    There is no evidence that I know of that suggests either of these effects is sensitive to changes in deployments at the margins -- 68k vs. 114k probably makes no difference. But getting down to, say, 5k living in isolated based doing training and support/intel functions might be a different issue.

    So yeah, I think there is no empirical reason to believe that our current debate over escalation should be affected by this "concern."

  2. Bernard -- I certainly agree that significant Western presence in Muslim lands plays into the jihadi/takfiri narrative. But to be honest, I'm not sure that the 5K training/support/intel presence is any more acceptable to those who pitch that story, seeing as we're then suceptible to accusations of manipulation of a puppet government, and so on.

    My bewilderment is mostly at the idea that your average Afghan would even notice a difference between 68K or 114K or 400K, or that if he did notice a difference, it would be more significant than his perception of how those forces behaved, or of his options for compliance or rebellion.

  3. I agree completely. I was just positing that there may be a grain of insight in the concern over footprint, but right, this should not be an issue in the debate over sizing the force at this juncture.

  4. The "average Afghan" would definitely notice the difference--with more foot patrols in their neighborhoods and such, providing by the way more soft targets for those scatterbrains willing to take matters into their own hands! Suicidal patriots, I call them. And the "jihadists" tag should also be removed altogether. These people have "resistance to foreign presence" inscribed in their "gene pools" (I know, another unfortunate figure of speech that would further try your patience)... It's said there's more wisdom in fiction than in non-fiction. Maybe one would benefit reading novels set in Afghanistan... Even Rudyard Kipling's!

  5. Ummmm... isn't being exposed to antibodies supposed to be a good thing? As in, it helps develop immunities? Just sayin'.

  6. Gulliver, historically you are right. Take the British experience in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan during the British Raj. The number of British troops didn't make a discernible difference.

    However, note that the British Indian Army mostly consisted of South Asians although all the senior officers were British until the 1940s. The British Indian Army was "VERY POPULAR" among Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis. They were perceived as instruments of national pride. Even Gandhiji had to praise them during WWII when Gandhi was asking them and all armies in the world to unilaterally disarm.

    Viscerally anti British Indians loved the British Indian Army and the British Administrative service (where again many South Asians served.) These institutions continued after independents. The commanding general of the Indian Air Force was a British officer until 7 years after independents.

    South Asians objected to British policies, not the British Indian Army or the Indian civil service.

    In fact, one reason Gandiji was successful in nonviolent resistance was that Indians loved the British Indian Army and didn't want to fight with it.

    Mike Innes, right on bro. ;-)

    Alex, the more ISAF are in Afghanistan, the more mentors, advisors and trainers exist for the ANSF. The faster the ANSF stands up (quantity wise and quality wise.)

    If the ISAF are super embedded in, or partnered with the ANSF, why do you think local Afghans will want to attack ISAF and the ANSF more?

    The ANA is very popular among Afghans, but it is suffering greater casualties than ISAF.

  7. Errrr... developing antibodies, that is, and having them.

  8. What is with all the medical analogies, I mean, didn't Kilcullen use infection in his counterinsurgency book, too, as a model? Oh, wait, I kind of used one at KOW, today. Oops, it's catching!


    So, antibodies are a part of immunity against foreign antigens, and so are good, unless you have a hyper-reactive response, or develop auto-antibodies, and damage your own tissues. Eh, you can make the analogy work in lots of ways :)

  9. Gulliver, how do you define "escalation strategy"?

    What do you think about the "escalation strategy" I describe in the comment here?

    It looks to me like McChrystal will follow one of the following two strategies:
    1) Every ANA Corps gets 1 ISAF augmented "advisory" brigade super embedded in it, or is partnered with one ISAF brigade (partnered at every level down to company and platoon)
    2) Every ANA brigade gets 1 ISAF augmented "advisory" battalion super embedded in it, or is partnered with one ISAF battalion (partnered at every level down to company and platoon)

    Similar super embedded or partnered ISAF with ANP.

    The real question is if McChrystal will request additional forces (QRF or otherwise) that are not embedded or partnered with the ANSF other than Special Forces. I don't think he should. I also prefer super embedding to partnership in the ANA and ANP. Deploy the additional personnel to CSTC-A/NTM-A. Cede large parts of Helmand and Kandahar to the enemy. Cede parts of Kunar to the enemy. Cede other pockets to the enemy. Later try to recapture, clear, hold and build these areas with ANSF led offensives in 2011 and 2012.

  10. Before I get into all that, Anand, why do you believe this?

    It looks to me like McChrystal will follow one of the following two strategies...


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