Friday, October 1, 2010

ISAF's fingers are crossed. That should do the trick.

Michael Cohen highlights today an interview Kimberly Dozier did with General Petraeus and as Michael says, it is incredibly eye-opening. There are a couple of points that I think warrant some further inspection.

First is the excerpt about Petraeus' staff being "hunkered down" in "fingers-crossed" mode. While this was used to specifically describe the U.S.'s plan for decreasing corruption in Afghanistan, I would suggest that seems to be the overall strategy in Afghanistan. Much like the surge plan for Iraq (which we'll get to in a bit), we seem to be using what I've referred to previously as planning on the enemy's Least Dangerous Course of Action, or LDCOA. (Enemy representing here any challenge to mission success.) When we find ourselves in these "hard but not hopeless" situations, we seem to use hope as a major line of operation. I don't think I need to expound upon the serious issues with doing that. We need to either figure some way of effectively addressing the big issues in Afghanistan or if we can't figure it out and it actually is too hard, then we need to start heading for the door. Hope is not strategy.

The second topic is the Petraeus' reference to Iraq. COMISAF is way too experienced and smart to make such an absurd correlation between Iraq and Afghanistan. Having been part of the Iraq surge, I still firmly believe that those plans were based on the LDCOA. But we were lucky - things ended up even rosier than our unencumbered hope had anticipated. While the increased troop presence was an integral part of the surge's successes, it was by no means the most important. Think The Awakening, Sadrist stand-down, and internal changes to the Government of Iraq. The surge helped support those things, but it wasn't the deciding factor. And Petraeus should know that and also know that because of that fact, saying that COIN worked in Iraq and therefore will work in Afghanistan is just plain wrong thinking.

It's also lazy thinking. Iraq, while similar to Afghanistan in some ways, is and was a very unique situation in the history of U.S. interventions. Just like the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan is unique. Inflating the similarities shows torpid analysis - Petraeus should be talking about how the two conflicts are different and why we're doing things differently in Afghanistan because of those differences. Cut and paste does not work at the strategic level. I'm sure I've mentioned this book before, but I suggest Neustadt and May's Thinking in Time to anyone who tries to use historical reference to suggest current policy. If Petraeus' staff hasn't pored through this work yet, I'm willing to buy it and send it to them. Then maybe we won't have this terribly lazy thinking and maybe stop using hope as a plan. We were lucky that Iraq was somewhat successful in spite of the fact that we did, but it doesn't seem that Afghanistan will work out the same way.


  1. Gunslinger:

    1) Since you're in a book-buying mood wrt books about analogies, I recommend you buy this in addition to or in place of "Thinking in Time":

    2) You post is great. Great. A quibble for thought, though. Everything is unique. So no analogy is perfect. Can't two unique events be similar enough that we can apply insights from one to the other?

    3) 2) was a quibble. I agreed, if not 100%, then close to it, with your post. See 1).


  2. ADTS - Thanks for the recommendation. I will certainly add it to my reading list!

    As for 2), I didn't mean to make it sound as if you can't use historical analogy. I meant to say that you can't cut and paste solutions because things are somewhat similar. I'm more interested in hearing about the differences than the similarities and how that changes the solution used in the historical and similar situation. Apologies for the confusion - obviously history will always give us some insight into what we should do.

  3. I'm more interested in hearing about the differences than the similarities and how that changes the solution used in the historical and similar situation.



    That's an interesting take or approach. Khong, in "Analogies," seems to argue the best of all worlds is *ambiguity.* If situations resemble each other too much - or perhaps, if we try to construe different situations to resemble each other - then we resort to analogies, which may or may not be appropriate. If a situation is ambiguous, though, while we're still tied to analogies (because of our limited information-processing capacity), we're more inclined to sort out with rigor which analogy(ies) work better than others.

    (I'd be curious if someone compiled a list of ostensible similarities between Iraq and Afghanistan that we may be letting shape policy - to me, the respective nations seem pretty different, but I could see how one could construe them as pretty similar.)

    (Quasi-redundant single-sentence paragraph): Ambiguous situations may not lend themselves to the easy application of analogy(ies), and hence we have to think about the situation in particular with precision.

    Once more, great post.


  4. This part of the article struck me:

    The most encouraging report of the day was of progress on "stressing" networks of insurgents. The commanders, American and British, painted a picture of Taliban leaders so under pressure from constant special operations night raids that they were running out of ammunition in some areas, and even trying to expand into rival Taliban territory to shake down the locals for cash to make up for their own weapons and ammunition shortfall.

    I suppose if the above described process is not tied to some sort of reasonably functioning central government with a credible security force, then it pretty much means nothing long term? I would be useless as a security planner or whatever because I keep changing my mind about stuff.

  5. I think one of the main fallacies of comparing Af/Pak to Iraq, apart from the obvious geographical/cultural differences, is that in Iraq the allies had not yet lost momentum. You were in control of the battlespace, and still in a process wich culminated with The Surge. In Af/Pak the enemy has had a good 9 years to build momentum, and its only in the last year (maybe 2 to be generous) that ISAF has started taking the conflict even seriously.

  6. That's not totally true fnord, even in 06 they were launching major operations, like Panjawii (?) with the Canadians down by Kandahar. I just don't believe you can minimize the extent to which the Pakistanis are in control. If they really wanted to, they could hand us the entire Quetta Shura, and to me (for what that's worth) that's the big difference, in Iraq the Iranians were interfering but not to the extent that Pakistan is, and the Iranians weren't being paid with US govt funds.

  7. Canadian operations in the Panjwai district amounted to disruption operations. With a battalion of infantry, the Canadian's ended up clearing territory they couldn't hold, let alone build. It was a pattern that was sadly repeated until 2009, when the 5th Stryker Brigade deployed.


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