One of the hardest things for a great power to do is reverse course when it's made a strategic blunder, especially when it involves a war. Fred Ikle wrote a whole book about this problem -- the classic Every War Must End -- where he described many of political obstacles that getting in the way of cutting one's losses and either making peace or just getting out. You know some of the reasons: politicians don't like to admit they screwed up, the fallacy of "sunk costs" continues to drive policy, the military doesn't like admitting defeat, etc. And even when the decision to end a war is made, it usually takes longer to get out than it should.
Case in point: Afghanistan. I don't know if the United States and NATO could have achieved a meaningful victory in Afghanistan had the Bush administration not embarked on its foolish misadventure in Iraq. But it was clear by 2009 that doubling down in Afghanistan wasn't going to produce an effective or fully legitimate Afghan government and wasn't going to produce a strategically more favorable outcome from the perspective of U.S. interests. But President Obama decided to "surge" there anyway, mostly because he wanted to look tough on national security and feared the domestic backlash if he cut our losses and withdrew.
Now, some five years later, NATO and the U.S. are preparing to (mostly) leave. The corrupt Karzai government has been giving us a hard time about the terms under which the residual force would operate, however, and insisting that we accept their terms if we wanted to stay.
But instead of seizing this free gift and saying "da khoday pa amaan" ("goodbye" in Pashto), Secretary of State Kerry and other U.S. officials have done a full-court press to persuade Karzai & Co. to let us keep pouring resources into this bottomless pit. To do that, reports the New York Times, U.S. officials "are planning a more minimalist mission, with a force consisting of fewer combat trainers and more military managers to ensure that billions of dollars in security aid are not squandered or pilfered."
I have two comments. First, if you've read any of the reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), you'd know that vast sums of money have been squandered already. It therefore beggars belief that we're going to do a better job of monitoring Afghan spending of our aid programs with a smaller force. Bottom line: a lot of the money spent in the future is just going to disappear.
Second, this whole enterprise looks like a can-kicking, face-saving operation, precisely the sort of long, drawn-out end that Ikle and others have described. In this regard, it is revealing to read what retired general David Barno, who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2003-05, told the Times we are going to get for this extra effort (my emphasis):
"The most important thing we can do is keep writing checks so the Afghan National Security Forces can remain funded - fuel, food, weapons, salaries. . . If that continues, they will be at least able to maintain a stalemate with the Taliban, and that is enough to keep the state up and running."
That's right: more than ten years of war, and we've managed to create a corrupt central government that cannot defeat the Taliban (who aren't getting $4 billion a year in US aid, by the way). The government can manage a stalemate, but only if Uncle Sucker keeps thousands of troops there and keeps the money flowing. . . presumably forever.
I don't quite know how to describe this policy, but I sure wouldn't use the word "strategy."
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Last Friday I posted an entry on America's "one-sided" war on terrorism, arguing that the country has focused enormous efforts on deterring, thwarting, or killing suspected terrorists and hardly any effort on removing the incentives or grievances that might make someone join a terrorist organization. The very same day, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution posted an article on the Daily Beast, arguing that various al Qaeda affiliates are making a significant comeback in places like Iraq and Syria.
Precisely my point. Undoubtedly, some pundits will interpret Riedel's article as evidence that the United States should have been even more aggressive and should have stayed in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or wherever for as long as it took. This argument overlooks the tremendous costs of these operations -- including their degrading effects on Army performance and morale -- as well as their inherently self-defeating character. Given that opposition to foreign occupation and interference is one of the prime motivations behind terrorist activity -- especially suicide bombings -- maintaining an extensive military footprint in the Arab and Islamic world is a recipe for endless war. Even more limited operations like drone strikes have been tactically effective but are strategically questionable, precisely because they give jihadi recruiters a constant pool of angry locals from which to draw and vindicate their claims that the United States is unalterably addicted to violent interference in their societies.
Indeed, the real lesson of Riedel's article is that much of the so-called "war on terror" has been misguided to the point of foolishness. It was both smart and necessary to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but letting Osama bin Laden slip away at Tora Bora was a massive command failure. It was dumb to take on the task of nation-building in Afghanistan, and even dumber to invade Iraq in 2003. It was both immoral and counterproductive to torture captured terrorists (it tarnished America's image and didn't yield better intelligence) and obtuse not to rethink other aspects of the United States' Middle East policy. The post-9/11 TSA regime has been a colossal waste of resources that has added little to Americans' overall level of security. And vacuuming up gazillions of bytes of email and phone records merely proved that government agencies operating in secret will invariably grow like Topsy, without making Americans significantly safer. As Riedel suggests, none of these activities has prevented al Qaeda and its copycats from making a comeback.
What is needed is a much more fundamental rethinking of the entire anti-terrorism campaign. As I suggested last week, part of that rethink means asking whether the United States needs to do a lot more to discredit jihadi narratives, instead of persisting with policies that make the extremists' charges sound plausible to their audiences. A second part is to keep the jihadi threat in better perspective: They are a challenge, but not a mortal threat to Americans' way of life unless the country reacts to them in ways that cause more damage to its well-being and its values than they do. Sadly, a rational ranking of costs, benefits, and threats seems to be something that the U.S. foreign-policy establishment is largely incapable of these days.
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One of the great successes of the Obama administration has been its ability to divert attention from the wars the United States is still fighting, such as Afghanistan. Given Obama's decision to escalate and extend that war is looking worse and worse with time, you can understand why they are doing this. It's possible that sending more troops bought Obama time and is making it easier to get out now; the problem is that we ended up squandering more lives and money without getting a significantly better outcome.
My real fear is that this is merely a preamble to telling ourselves a lot of self-serving myths about that war. Count on it: Our exit from Afghanistan will be accompanied by a lot of feel-good stories about the U.S./NATO effort there designed to convince Americans that the surge "worked" and that we really did give it our all. If things go south later on, that will be the Afghans' fault, not ours, and so it won't be necessary to learn any lessons from our mistakes.
But two recent news stories suggest a very different read. The first, from Saturday's New York Times, offered an account of the farewell gathering for the deparating French Ambassador in Kabul, Bernard Bajolet. According to the Times, Bajolet told the attendees:
"That the Afghan project is on thin ice and that, collectively, the West was responsible for a chunk of what went wrong, though much of the rest the Afghans were responsible for. That the West had done a good job of fighting terrorism, but that most of that was done on Pakistani soil, not on the Afghan side of the border. And that without fundamental changes in how Afghanistan did business, the Afghan government, and by extension the West's investment in it, would come to little."
And then there was this passage:
"At his farewell party, Mr. Bajolet wound up his realpolitik with a brisk analysis of what Afghanistan's government needed to do: cut corruption, which discourages investment, deal with drugs and become fiscally self-reliant. It must increase its revenues instead of letting politicians divert them, he said."
Think about that statement as you read the second story (from today's Times) describing the millions of dollars of slush funds that the CIA has paid to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But instead of purchasing Karzai's loyalty or enhancing U.S. influence, the money merely contributed to the endemic corruption that has marred the NATO effort from day one. As the Times reported:
"The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan," one American official said, "was the United States."
There you have it: The French ambassador (and everyone else) says the Afghan government needs to reduce corruption, yet a key element of the U.S. effort there has been contributing to that problem. I wonder if H.R. McMaster, the general who was assigned to head up NATO's anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan, knew what the CIA baksheesh office was up to. If so, he'll be in a great position to write a sequel to his earlier book on the U.S. failure in Vietnam.
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Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? (I know we are pretending to have succeeded, but that's just camouflage to disguise what is in fact an embarrassing if predictable defeat). The reasons for our failure are now being debated by people like Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, who have offered contrasting insider accounts of what went wrong.
Both Nasr and Chayes make useful points about the dysfunction that undermined the AfPak effort, and I'm not going to try to adjudicate between them. Rather, I think both of them miss the more fundamental contradiction that bedeviled the entire U.S./NATO effort, especially after the diversion to Iraq allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. The key problem was essentially structural: US. objectives in Afghanistan could not be achieved without a much larger commitment of resources, but the stakes there simply weren't worth that level of commitment. In other words, winning wasn't worth the effort it would have taken, and the real failure was not to recognize that fact much earlier and to draw the appropriate policy conclusions.
First, achieving a meaningful victory in Afghanistan -- defined as defeating the Taliban and creating an effective, Western-style government in Kabul -- would have required sending far more troops (i.e., even more than the Army requested during the "surge"). Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached the ratio of troops/population observed in more successful instances of nation-building, and that deficiency was compounded by Afghanistan's ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, and porous borders.
Second, victory was elusive because Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, and its territory provided them with effective sanctuaries. When pressed, they could always slip across the border and live to fight another day. But Washington was never willing to go the mattresses and force Pakistan to halt its support, and it is not even clear that we could have done that without going to war with Pakistan itself. Washington backed off for very good reasons: We wanted tacit Pakistani cooperation in our not-so-secret drone and special forces campaign against al Qaeda, and we also worried about regime stability given Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these factors made victory even harder to achieve.
Third, we couldn't get Karzai to reform because he was the only game in town, and he knew it. Unless the U.S. and NATO were willing to take over the whole country and try to govern it ourselves -- a task that would have made occupying Iraq seem easy -- we were forced to work with him despite his many flaws. Successful counterinsurgencies require effective and legitimate local partners, however, and we never had one.
In short, the U.S. was destined to lose because it didn't go all-out to win, and it shouldn't have. Indeed, an all-out effort would have been a huge mistake, because the stakes were in fact rather modest. Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been scattered, America's main interest was continuing to degrade al Qaeda (as we have done). That mission was distinct from the attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and in the end Afghanistan's importance did not justify a substantially larger effort.
By the way, I am not suggesting that individual commanders and soldiers did not make enormous personal sacrifices or try hard to win, or that the civilians assigned to the Afghan campaign did not do their best in difficult conditions. My point is that if this war had been a real strategic priority, we would have fought it very differently. We would not have rotated commanders, soldiers, and civilian personnel in and out of the theatre as often as we did, in effect destroying institutional memory on an annual basis and forcing everyone to learn on the job. In a war where vital interests were at stake, we certainly wouldn't have let some of our NATO partners exempt the troops they sent from combat. And if the war had been seen aa a major priority, both parties would have been willing to raise taxes to pay for it.
Thus, the real failure in Afghanistan was much broader than the internal squabbles that Nasr and Chayes have addressed. The entire national security establishment failed to recognize or acknowledge the fundamental mismatch between 1) U.S. interests (which were limited), 2) our stated goals (which were quite ambitious), and 3) the vast resources and patience it would have required to achieve those goals. Winning would have required us to spend much more than winning was worth, and to undertake exceedingly risky and uncertain actions towards countries like Pakistan. U.S. leaders wisely chose not to do these things, but they failed to realize what this meant for the war effort itself.
Given this mismatch between interests, goals, and resources, it was stupid to keep trying to win at a level of effort that was never going to succeed. Yet no one on the inside seems to have pointed this out, or if they did, their advice was not heeded. And that is the real reason why the war limped on for so long and to such an unsatisfying end.
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Back when Barack Obama began his first term, I argued that we shouldn't expect much from his handling of foreign policy. I was pretty sure he'd do a better job than his predecessor, but that's hardly saying much. Given the economic mess he inherited from George W. Bush, I thought he'd have to focus primarily on the domestic side and play for time on the international front.
Equally important, I didn't think there were any low-hanging fruit in the foreign-policy arena; In other words, there were hardly any significant issues where it would be possible to make a meaningful breakthrough in four years. I was also concerned that Obama's team was pursuing too many big initiatives at once -- on Middle East peace, Afghanistan, nuclear security, climate change, etc. -- and that they wouldn't be able to follow through on any of them. And that's exactly what happened.
Obama did get us out of Iraq, of course, but this merely involved following through on the timetable that Bush had already put in place and it hardly amounts to a foreign-policy "success." He also "got" Osama bin Laden, which is a gratifying achievement but not a game-changer in any meaningful sense. And devoting greater attention to Asia was an obvious move, although trying to forge a more cohesive coalition of Asian allies while avoiding rising tensions with China is proving to be as difficult as one would expect and it's by no means clear that they will pull it off.
The other big issues -- Iran, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, climate change -- weren't going to be easy to solve in the best of circumstances, and a good case can be made that Obama mishandled every one of them. Certainly the situation has gotten worse in all four arenas, and none of them are likely to yield a strategic victory in the next four years.
On Iran, Obama will face relentless pressure to resolve the nuclear issue once and for all. But because for years, Iran has been falsely portrayed as the Greatest Menace since Nazi Germany, etc., Obama has to demand concessions that Tehran is virtually certain to reject. There is an obvious deal to be had -- Iran would be allowed limited enrichment if it implemented the NPT Additional Protocol and the West would then lift economic sanctions -- but any deal that does not involve abject Iranian capitulation would be attacked as "appeasement" by Israel, its lobby here in the United States, and by other hawks. Assuming Obama resists pressure to launch a preventive war, this problem will still be in the in-box when he leaves the Oval Office in January 2017.
Some people think the second term is Obama's opportunity to make another serious push for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. They are living in a dream world. It's true that Obama doesn't have to worry about being re-elected, but political conditions in Israel, among the Palestinians, and within the region are hardly propitious. Obama won't be willing or able to exert the kind of pressure that might produce a deal, so why waste any time or political capital on it? We might see a faux initiative akin to the Bush administration's meaningless second-term summit in Annapolis, but nobody with a triple-digit IQ takes this sort of thing seriously anymore. We're headed rapidly towards a one-state solution, and it will be up to one of Obama's successors to figure out what U.S. policy is going to be once the death of the two-state solution is apparent to all.
The United States will get out of Afghanistan more or less on schedule, and Obama & Co. will do their best to spin it as a great achievement. Which it isn't. Once we leave, Afghanistan's fate will be determined by the Afghans -- with lots of "help" from interested neighbors -- and my guess is that it won't be pretty. But that was likely to be the case no matter what we did, given the inherent difficulty of large-scale social engineering in deeply divided societies that we do not understand. This is not good news for the Afghans themselves, but most Americans simply won't care.
And don't expect any big moves or major progress on the environment, despite the accumulating evidence that climate change is real and could have fearsome consequences over the next 50 to 100 years. Obama has paid little attention to the issue since the Copenhagen Summit, and his own environment chief just resigned. It is also a massively difficult problem, given the costs of any serious solution, the number of relevant actors, the different perspectives of key countries like China and India, and the fact that today's leaders can always punt the whole problem to future generations. It is therefore hard to imagine a significant deal between now and 2016.
What do I conclude from all this? That Obama is going to pursue a minimalist foreign policy during his second term. It won't be entirely passive, of course, and we certainly won't see a retreat to isolationism or the abrupt severing of any long-standing security ties. Drone strikes and semi-covert operations will undoubtedly continue (despite the growing evidence that they are counter-productive), but most Americans won't know what's going on and won't really care. In short, expect to see a largely reactive policy that eschews bold initiatives and mostly tries to keep things from going downhill too rapidly in any place that matters.
If President Obama is looking for a legacy -- and what two-term president doesn't? -- it will be on the domestic side. He'll hope to end his second term with his health care plan firmly institutionalized, an economy in robust recovery, and with budget and tax reforms that reassure the markets about America's long-term fiscal solvency. Given where things stood in 2009, that's a legacy Obama would be happy to accept. And the lofty international goals with which he took office, and which won him the world's least deserved Nobel Prize? Well, a lot of them were smart and sensible, but thinking he could achieve them all just wasn't that realistic.
Important caveat: the realm of foreign policy is one of constant surprises, and most presidents end up facing challenges they never anticipated (e.g., 9/11 for Bush, the Arab Spring for Obama, etc.) So it's possible -- even likely -- that Obama and his team will face some unexpected crisis between now and 2016. Maybe it will be a third intifada, or a military clash in the South China Sea, or the collapse of the Euro, or something none of us can yet foresee or imagine. If an event like that comes along, then Obama and his foreign-policy team may be forced to be more active than they'd like. But barring an event of that sort, I expect the next four years to be "stasis you can believe in."
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In 1966, in the middle of the Vietnam War, the late Senator George Aiken of Vermont famously recommended that the United States simply "declare victory and get out." With the benefit of hindsight, that seems like pretty good advice. Today, it is more or less what the Obama administration is trying to do in Afghanistan.
The president has already made it clear that he intends to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops by the end of 2014. But because Americans don't like to admit defeat and no administration likes to acknowledge mistakes, they have to pretend that their Afghan policy has been a great success. In particular, the administration would like us (and the world) to believe that their decision to escalate the war in 2009 was a game-changer that broke the back of the Taliban and enabled us to build an independent Afghan security force that will carry on the fight after we've left. As we head for the exits, therefore, get ready for a lot of upbeat stories and well-orchestrated spin.
The only problem with this story is that it isn't true. The Taliban hasn't been defeated, the Karzai government isn't more effective or less corrupt, Pakistan hasn't stopped backing its various proxies, and efforts to train competent Afghan security forces haven't worked very well. The Afghan government can't even afford to pay its troops' salaries, so they'll have to stay on the Western dole for years to come. I don't know exactly what will happen after the United States and its NATO allies leave, but the outcome won't be much better than what we could have expected back when Obama took office. By that standard, the 2009 "surge" was a failure.
But if pretending that we've won some sort of victory makes it easier for us to do the right thing and get out, then shouldn't commentators like me suspend our judgment and help sell the story? Nope. Because if we tell ourselves a lot of politically expedient untruths about the Afghan campaign, we'll learn the wrong lessons from the experience and we'll be more likely to repeat this sort of debacle in the future.
Specifically, the idea that the 2009 surge led to a significantly different outcome reinforces the idea that counter-insurgency in societies like Afghanistan is something we're good at, once we get the right generals in charge and adopt the right tactical menu. It encourages us to think that if we just keep trying, we'll eventually get really good at social engineering in war-torn societies that we don't understand very well. And the more we think that doing this sort of thing is just a question of mastering the right techniques, the easier it will be to convince ourselves that we've learned how to do it and that next time everything will be different. Except that it won't.
I don't really blame the Obama administration for trying to spin this one as best they can; that's what the politics of the situation demands. But if we want to avoid learning the wrong lessons, it will be up to scholars, journalists and other independent thinkers to give us a more objective appraisal of America's longest war.
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Today's post is something of a follow-up to yesterday's query about integrity in the policy community. According to the New York Times, the Pentagon has just issued a gloomy new report suggesting that we've made far less progress in the war than is often claimed. Money quotation:
"A bleak new Pentagon report has found that only one of the Afghan National Army's 23 brigades is able to operate independently without air or other military support from the United States and NATO partners."
The Times continues: "The report, released Monday, also found that violence in Afghanistan is higher than it was before the surge of American forces into the country two years ago, although it is down from a high in the summer of 2010.
The assessment found that the Taliban remain resilient, that widespread corruption continues to weaken the central Afghan government and that Pakistan persists in providing critical support to the insurgency. Insider attacks by Afghan security forces on their NATO coalition partners, while still small, are up significantly: there have been 37 so far in 2012, compared with 2 in 2007."
Here's what I'd like to know: did any Pentagon officials or military leaders tell Barack Obama that the "surge" was a mistake? Did any of them ever say something like this to him:
"Mr. President, we respect civilian authority and if you order us to continue this war we will give it our all. But in my best professional judgment I believe this is not a war we can win at an acceptable cost. The conditions for waging a successful counterinsurgency do not exist, and we do not need to defeat the Taliban or build a stable new state in Afghanistan in order to destroy the original nucleus of al Qaeda. I will follow whatever orders you give me, sir, but my advice as a soldier is that we end this war."
If not, then Obama got very bad advice. And for the United States to have fought so long and with so little to show for it is a stunning indictment of our entire national security establishment: civilians, military leaders, and think tank experts alike. Time to start working on Dereliction of Duty: The Sequel.
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Did the "surge" work in Afghanistan? The Obama administration would like you to think that it did, mostly so that it can declare victory and get out. I'm all in favor of the latter option, but let's not deceive ourselves about the wisdom of the Afghan surge itself.
Courtesy of Belfer Center fellow Matt Waldman, the chart above nicely captures why escalating was a bad idea in 2009. Contrary to claims that we've "broken the back" of the Taliban, this chart (based on official ISAF figures) shows that the Taliban remains a potent force. U.S. casualties increased significantly as the surge proceeded, and the pace in 2012 is roughly similar to the toll the previous two years. Whatever else we may have accomplished, we don't seem to have retarded the Taliban's ability to kill and wound our soldiers very much.
Equally important, the final column (based on figures reported by Simon Klingert) suggests that the Taliban's ability to inflict casualties on Afghan security forces (ANSF) remains undiminished. Given that U.S. hopes of a "soft landing" following withdrawal depend on the ANSF taking up the fight themselves, this does not augur well for Afghanistan's post-American future.
And not to beat a dead horse, but if four more years of effort haven't altered the basic strategic realities, then what does that tell you about the people who lobbied forcefully for the surge back in 2009?
I hadn't even finished my morning coffee, but one didn't have to be fully awake to detect a bit of tension between these two headlines in today's New York Times:
The first story details the various reasons why the long and costly U.S. effort to train Afghan security forces is mostly failing (illiteracy, desertion, corruption, etc.). The second story suggests we've learned little from that experience, and that U.S. leaders again think the way to achieve our aims in Libya is to get U.S. military officers in there to teach Libyans how to be good soldiers. Unfortunately, it is by no means obvious that this is something we know how to do, particularly in these contexts.
I know, I know: Libya is not Afghanistan, and training a small elite force is a lot easier than trying to build an entire national army from scratch. But we're going to face some similar problems (i.e., diversion of funds or weapons by corrupt Libyans, mistrust among the Libyans we're trying to recruit and train, infiltration by extremists with the wrong agendas, etc.). And some Libyans are bound to suspect that the real purpose of the training effort is to cement American influence (which, in a way, it is). There's also the danger that we'll succeed, and end up creating the nucleus of a new authoritarian regime.
But as you may have noticed, concerns like that rarely stop us from meddling in other societies. I hope this new effort works, but our recent track record doesn't exactly fill me with confidence.
Over at FP's new National Security Channel, reporter Gordon Lubold has a lengthy interview with U.S. Afghan commander John Allen. Allen offers a pretty upbeat assessment: He says the Afghan National Security Force "is really taking over much more of the fighting than it has done in the past," adding that our Security Force Assistance Teams are "really accelerating that." He doesn't actually come out and say we're going to win (or even try to define what "victory" would look like), but his bottom line is simple: "the campaign is on track."
But to where? I thought Obama made a bad mistake when he decided to escalate in Afghanistan, but this is another one of those issues where I'd love to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, I've heard nothing but upbeat assessments from U.S. commanders ever since Obama took office, which makes me more than a little skeptical about Allen's testimony now. Back in January 2010, for example, former U.S. commander Stanley McChrystal told ABC's Diane Sawyer that he "believed we had turned the tide." His successor, General David Petraeus, issued a similarly optimistic assessment a year later, though it was at odds with U.S. intelligence assessments and followed by a major increase in the overall level of violence.
Well, it's déjà vu all over again: Today, despite a dramatic increase in "green on blue" attacks (i.e., attacks by Afghan security forces on U.S. or ISAF personnel) and the announced departure of other U.S. allies, the latest American commander continues to portray our efforts in a positive light, especially with respect to the progress made by Afghan security forces. But you might have missed the fact that the DoD quietly lowered the bar for the latter, by eliminating the category of "independent" (meaning that a unit that can operate on its own) from the ratings system used to assess Afghan forces. Now the top ranking is "independent with advisors," which allows us to describe more Afghan units as "top rated." And even with these lower standards, less than ten percent of Afghan units are rated as capable of being able to operate semi-independently.
In one sense, Allen's optimism is neither surprising nor objectionable. You're not going to hear the U.S. commander tell a reporter that things aren't going well, because that is hardly the best way to inspire your troops to greater effort. Plus, the "surge" in Afghanistan was not designed to fix all of that unfortunate country's problems; it was intended either to 1) provide a fig leaf for a U.S. withdrawal, 2) inflict enough pain on the Taliban so that they'd cut a deal, or 3) buy a bit of time to build up Afghan security forces, at which point we'd get the hell out. Notice that these various goals aren't mutually exclusive, but none of them constitutes "victory."
And that's been the problem in Afghanistan all along. The original rationale for being there disappeared once Al Qaeda fled the country and metastasized to other areas. It never made much sense to spend $100 billion plus per year on a country whose entire GDP was less than 20 percent of that figure, especially once it became clear that the Karzai government was irredeemably corrupt and mostly incompetent and equally clear that we had no idea how to "nation-build" there ourselves. Plus, our main adversaries could always avoid us by slipping over the border into Pakistan or melting back into the local population. They knew we'd eventually go home, at which point Afghanistan's future will be determined by the Afghans themselves. As it should be.
In short, General Allen's testimony is precisely what you'd expect him to say, and thus doesn't really doesn't tell you much of anything at all. But his optimism stands in sharp contrast to the assessment you'll find in a book like Rajiv Chandraksekaran's Little America, which I've just been reading. I hope Allen is right, that the ANSF really is making headlong progress, and that it will be up to the task of providing security once we are gone. But I wouldn't bet on it.The only consolation -- if you're not Afghan, that is -- is that it won't matter much to us one way or the other.
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Which university is more likely to defend academia's basic commitment to sharing ideas and knowledge in an open and unconstrained way, West Point or Yale? You'd probably think it would be Yale, that well-known bastion of tweedy academics and liberal values. How wrong you'd be.
As West Point faculty member Gian Gentile outlines in a fascinating piece in the Atlantic, former U.S. Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal has been teaching a course at Yale's Jackson Institute of Global Affairs on strategy and leadership. Nothing wrong with that: Plenty of universities (including my own) hire practitioners to share insights from the real world with students. And I've got no problem having a former general teach a course. But in a shocking departure from normal academic practices, Yale requires students taking the course to sign a non-disclosure form, pledging that they will not divulge what is said in the course to outsiders. In other words, McChrystal is teaching an "off-the-record" course.
This restriction is so contrary to the normal practice of universities that it is hard to know where to begin. Academic institutions exist to pursue knowledge, to teach what we know to our students, and to instill in them an appreciation for free and open inquiry. The whole principle of academic freedom rests on the idea that knowledge is best advanced by allowing ideas to blossom and to be shared without restriction. In this way, good ideas can be validated and retained and bad ideas or conjectures can be scrutinized and eventually excluded. By telling students in McChrystal's class that they cannot share what they learn with others, Yale is artificially constraining the normal give-and-take of ideas. There may be vigorous discussions inside that particular classroom, but the rest of Yale (and the larger world) won't know about them. Secrecy of any kind is fundamentally at odds with the principles that universities stand for, yet here Yale has enshrined it in one of their courses.
A commitment to free and open discussion also keeps the focus on the ideas themselves, rather than on the identity or the supposed prestige of the faculty member leading the course. Giving McChrystal a special exemption immediately tells Yale students that the general is a "Very Important Person" who gets to be treated differently from other members of the faculty. Again, that's not how universities are supposed to work: People taking my courses aren't supposed to accept what I tell them because I am the professor and they are mere students. They are supposed to accept what I tell them only if I've successfully convinced them it is useful and makes sense. And they are free -- even encouraged -- to disagree with me, especially if they have good reason to do so and can make their objections stick. And I want them to talk about my courses outside of class; maybe someone they know will point out a new way to think about an issue or identify a mistake I've made. But if I made my students sign a non-disclosure form, I would limit their capacity to hold me accountable.
Requiring students to sign a non-disclosure form also sends the subtle but unmistakable signal that the instructor is imparting secret knowledge that is too hot or potentially controversial to be shared with the outside world. I can easily imagine students lapping this up -- we all like thinking we're getting info that others aren't privy to -- but this is just not how universities are supposed to work.
Yale officials might argue that McChrystal is a unique asset for their teaching program, and that the only way they could convince him to teach there was to promise him that some student wouldn't blab about the course to the Yale Daily News or the New York Times. But that argument won't wash: If McChrystal really believes what he's teaching, then he should be willing to have it openly discussed. He shouldn't be able to win arguments in the classroom by saying, "Now let me tell you about some really secret stuff I did in Afghanistan, stuff you won't find out about in books. Trust me." He should be willing to be held accountable for what he says to his students, and not just by those who happen to be sitting there (and whom he might eventually be grading). If some students disagree with him, he should be willing to have them voice their disagreements to the rest of the class, but also to their roommates, friends, parents, other faculty members, and yes, even to reporters. That's the same risk that all of us run when we teach: All of our students are free to talk about what they learn with anyone they want. What's General McChrystal so afraid of?
Yale's abandoning of its principles is itself a symptom of the growing deference that Americans now grant the professional military (and to a lesser extent, top members of the broader national security establishment). The country has been at war for over a decade, and there's an inevitable tendency for civilians to start treating those who've been fighting these wars with kid gloves. This tendency is not healthy, however, because the professional military has its own interests and world view -- as such, it is not necessarily the best judge of what is in the overall interests of the nation. National security is a topic that affects all Americans, and it is more likely to be openly and intelligently debated when we don't give any of the participants (and especially not those with particular interests in the subject) a free pass.
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Will we eventually look back on President Obama's drop-in visit to Kabul as his "Mission Accomplished" moment? He's got a tough re-election battle to fight, the endless war in Central Asia isn't popular, and he wants to remind everyone that he's The Man Who Got Bin Laden. So he pulled a George W. Bush and burned up a lot of jet fuel racing to Kabul for a mostly meaningless photo op and a not-very convincing speech. This sort of posturing may help him get re-elected -- though I doubt it will have much effect -- but it's not going to help his long-term legacy when the U.S. is finally gone and Central Asia is on its own.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I don't put much value in the new U.S.-Afghan "strategic partnership." It has some symbolic value, I guess, and it can provide a fig leaf for our eventual withdrawal. If everything breaks the right way after 2014, it might even provide a general framework that facilitates some additional counter-terrorist activities. But it's merely an executive agreement, not a treaty, it is woefully short on specifics, and other people will be in charge in Kabul and Washington by the time the agreement runs out. If circumstances change in ways that give us reasons to renege (or give Afghan leaders grounds to want a different arrangement), this much-ballyhooed "partnership" won't be worth the pixels it's published with.
All told, nobody came off very well in this little episode. Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney sounds both petty and silly trying to minimize Obama's genuine accomplishments against al Qaeda (and especially the elimination of bin Laden himself). But Obama's attempt to turn the Afghan debacle into some kind of strategic triumph isn't much better, as Juan Cole and Ahmed Rashid make clear in separate pieces. All of which is more evidence that our agonizingly long electoral cycle is a major impediment to a smarter foreign policy.
Obama should not forget that the elder President Bush won a far more smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War than we are going to get in Afghanistan, and he went down to defeat in 1992. It's still the economy, stupid, and most voters won't care much about bin Laden's demise when they go to the polls in November, no matter how often the president reminds them about it between now and then. Needless to say, that is precisely what Romney is counting on.
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Perhaps I'm being overly cynical, but the new "strategic partnership" agreement between the United States and Afghanistan strikes me as little more than a fig leaf designed to make a U.S. withdrawal (which I support) look like a mutually agreed-upon "victory." It is already being spun as a signal to the Taliban, Iran, and Pakistan that the United States remains committed, and the agreement will undoubtedly be used as "evidence" that the 2009 surge is a success and that's now ok for the US to bring its forces home.
I have no problem with cosmetic gestures that facilitate doing the right thing, but let's be clear about the limited significance of the agreement itself. Although the final text of the agreement has not been made public (which itself makes one wonder both what it says and what it doesn't say), the New York Times account says that there is no specific agreement on the magnitude of future U.S. aid. Indeed, it describes the agreement as "more symbolic than substantive." We're told that Washington has pledged to support Afghanistan for another ten years, but the actual aid amounts are unspecified and will have to be voted each year by Congress. Long-term U.S. support may also be conditional on reduced corruption and Afghan reforms, but given their track record to date, it is hard to believe that the Afghans will make much progress on that front.
Ten years is a pretty long time, and a lot will happen -- including three U.S. presidential elections -- between now and 2022. The Obama and Karzai governments can make whatever promises they want to each other, but those agreements will have to be carried out by their successors and both sides can always renege by claiming that "conditions have changed." I'm not saying that the agreement is worthless, but in the end the two states will abide by its terms only if it is in their respective interest to do so. Given the volatile nature of politics throughout Central Asia, it would be folly to assume that a deal hatched now will remain in force for ten years.
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What should we make of yesterday's Taliban/Haqqani network assault on Kabul and several other Afghan locations, a series of attacks that Taliban sources described as the opening of a new "spring offensive?" I'm not entirely sure, because the evidence can be interpreted in several different ways.
On the one hand, the fact that the Taliban/Haqqanis could stage such an extensive and well-coordinated assault suggests that U.S./NATO efforts to defeat them haven't succeeded. Note that the main attack occurred in Kabul, a part of Afghanistan that was supposedly increasingly secure. Ironically, the attack occurred exactly one day after the New York Times published a cautiously upbeat op-ed by Ian Livingston and Michael O'Hanlon which said "Despite the occasional spectacular attack, Kabul is relatively safe, accounting for less than 1 percent of violent episodes nationwide." Gee, that must make residents of Kabul feel much better.
Of course, it is possible that this assault was an act of desperation by an increasingly beleaguered Taliban/Haqqani network, designed to show they were still a potent force despite our protracted efforts to destroy them. But absent definitive intelligence about the movement's actual strength, there's no way to tell if this attack is a sign of enemy resiliency or a last throw of the dice designed to rescue their failing fortunes.
One could also see this event as a sign of progress in a different way. This version might concede that the Taliban/Haqqanis were able to infiltrate Kabul, but then emphasize that they failed to do as much damage as one might have expected and were eventually rounded up and/or killed by Afghan government units. Instead of killing dozens, as occurred when terrorist struck Mumbai, it was the Taliban/Haqqanis who ended up dying in large numbers. The "half-full" version of this story would trumpet it as a sign that our efforts to create effective Afghan security forces are succeeding, and that is of course precisely how it is being spun by U.S. officials.
I'd like to believe this version story -- really -- and I certainly don't have definitive evidence to impugn it. But I think one has to take the upbeat testimony of U.S. officials with many grains of salt, because one would naturally expect them to do or say whatever they could to sustain public support for the war effort. (By the same logic, I don't accept Taliban claims at face value either). Case in point: U.S. and Afghan officials are emphasizing that the bad guys were rounded up or killed by government forces operating mostly on their own, but the Times also reports that the Afghans were aided by "a small number of embedded training teams" and by "helicopter air support." So we still don't quite know whether the Afghans could have handled this by themselves.
I'm also skeptical because successfully quelling this particular attack doesn't mean all that much by itself. Look at it this way: if an anti-American terrorist group managed to infiltrate dozens of fighters into Washington D.C. and several other cities, took over a bunch of buildings and shot up some others, would we be reassured by the fact that government forces eventually subdued them and only a few people were killed? Especially if we knew that the perpetrating organization was still in existence and still had additional cadres it could send at softer targets? I doubt it. Instead, we'd be wondering how they were able to stage the attack in the first place, and asking why the FBI or other authorities had let us down again. Thus, even a fairly rosy interpretation of the event raises questions about how well the war is ultimately going.
Last but not least, while it's important to think through the different interpretations and implications of these attacks, we should not lose sight of the larger strategic issue. In the end, the question to ask is not whether the U.S. and NATO (and the Karzai government) are "winning" or "losing." Rather, the real question is whether trying to win is worth the cost, including the opportunity costs. Yesterday's events may have some bearing on that larger issue, but do not provide a definitive answer one way or the other. It is good news that the Taliban attacks mostly failed, but by itself, that news does not tell you that "staying the course" is the right thing to do.
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Will China hold together? I'd say yes. But as scholars and pundits debate China's future, a critical issue is whether the government will face powerful internal challenges of the sort that eventually helped bring down the USSR. One piece of that puzzle is whether minority groups such as China's restive Uighur population in Xinjiang province will pose a significant threat to internal stability.
I know very little about this issue, but I found this brief commentary by Arabinda Acharya and Wang Zhihao, two researchers at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, to be rather eye-opening. Factoid #1: Acharya and Wang point out that China is one of the few countries in the world that spends more on domestic security than it does on defense, a fact that reflects the CCP's long-term concern about internal order.
Equally interesting was their reminder about the dearth of reliable information on the true situation in Xinjiang. Money quotation:
"The Xinjiang situation is also characterized by a lack of facts. Accounts of events come mainly from two sources: state-sponsored media and overseas Uighur activists who claim to have sources within the region. Reporting by these two entities however cannot be independently verified, due to China's ban on the presence of outside media in the region. Therefore, it has become difficult to determine where facts end and embellishment begins.
State media attributes the incidents to rioters or terrorists belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) also going by the name Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). Beijing also accuses overseas Uighur organizations especially the World Uighur Congress for inciting unrests in Xinjiang. Uighur activist groups however, claim that the protests are acts of the local Uighur lashing out at Beijing's "systematic oppression." These incidents nevertheless, are being exploited to garner international support for resisting what is being termed as "state oppression" in Xinjiang. As the facts continue to be obfuscated, it has become difficult to distinguish protests against specific grievances by local Uighur from organized acts of terrorism."
As we've seen in many other contexts, the dearth of reliable information is exacerbated by the contending parties' incentives to misrepresent what is really going on, making it extremely difficult for outsiders to judge either the threat of instability or the appropriateness of the government's counter-measures. And insofar as internal instability poses a significant threat to China's continued economic expansion, it means that outsiders will find it even more difficult to forecast its trajectory with confidence.
For their part, Acharya and Wang offer a fairly sanguine forecast, opining that "Fortunately for China, the situation in Xinjiang is not and does not portend to be a problem of massive proportions." Nonetheless, they warn that overly harsh measures could fuel greater Uighur resistance, and they conclude that "Beijing would do well to temper its actions with appropriate sensitivity to overall issues involved rather than attempt to crush all dissent with mere force."
Good advice, I suspect, but it will be interesting to see if China's leaders can follow this prescription for subtlety, especially internal discontent increases.
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Close your eyes, and imagine the following situation...
Suppose the town or city where you live had a bunch of heavily-armed foreign soldiers living nearby. As part of their normal duties, they sent patrols down your street with some frequency, bristling with guns and other instruments of war. Imagine that these soldiers were from a very different culture and nearly all of them did not speak your native language, although they could occasionally use a local translator to order you around. You have been told repeatedly that they are there to protect you, but sometimes these protective activities involve entering your neighbors' houses, arresting people, and even shooting up the place. Of course, these well-armed foreign troops have access to lots of sophisticated airpower, including helicopters, fighter-bombers, and drones, and these sophisticated gadgets fire missiles and drop bombs on suspected bad guys in your city, town, or village. Most of the time it appears that the foreign occupiers get who they were aiming at, but sometimes they make mistakes and kill your friends and neighbors. Maybe even one of your close relatives.
The question I'd ask you is this: If you had been living in such circumstances for five or ten years, do you think you and your neighbors might become resentful of those well-intentioned but heavy-handed foreigners? Do you think you might even begin to hate their intrusive interference, even if it were done with the best of intentions? If you then discovered that some of them were burning Bibles, Torahs, or the American flag, might you leave your house and join an angry demonstration, or may even try to do something worse?
If the answer to those questions is "yes," then you can probably understand why the United States and its allies are in such deep water in Afghanistan.
You see, the outburst of public rage at the idiotic burning of a bunch of Qurans actually tells you something very important about our Afghan campaign. It's not as if the news about this act suddenly swung lots of Afghans from being really fond of the United States to being really mad at us. Rather, news of the Quran burning was just a catalyst-the proverbial straw on the camel's back-that ignited resentments that have been building up for a long time.
The fact is: Nobody likes being ordered around by a tough and well-armed bunch of foreigners, and no amount of "hearts and minds" feel-good diplomacy can totally eliminate that fact. (And a lot of that COIN-speak was rhetoric intended as much to make the war sound more genteel here in the United States). That is one of the many reasons why the Obama administration was wrong to escalate the Afghan war in 2009, and why neoconservative supporters of the Afghan "surge" were as wrong about that as they were about the similar surge in Iraq. (For more on the latter issue, see Jim Sleeper's pointed commentary here).
Sending more troops to Afghanistan escalation didn't alter the trajectory of the war in any fundamental way, and this recent article in Armed Forces Journal suggests that we've been fed a bill of goods about the real conditions there. The Afghan reaction to the Quran burning is one of those moments of clarity where the real landscape is revealed, and it's not a pretty sight.
And now, all we need to do is imagine an administration that can face these facts squarely and bring this misguided effort to an end. I can't guarantee that Obama would do it in his second term (after all, he whiffed on this decision the first time around), but I'd bet he's more likely to do it than the people who hope to challenge him in November.
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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced yesterday that the U.S. is going to step back from a combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013, and shift over to an "advise and assist role" instead. Assuming he means it, we'll be ending our combat role about a year before all U.S. troops are supposed to be out.
As regular readers know, I've favored a greatly reduced presence in Afghanistan for a long time, simply because I didn't think a COIN/nation-building campaign there was worth the costs, and because I don't think the outcome in Afghanistan makes much difference in the larger struggle against Al Qaeda. (In other words, I reject the "safe haven" justification for the war, largely because Al Qaeda has havens elsewhere and Afghanistan isn't an especially desirable one from their point of view).
But by a strange coincidence, we were discussing an aspect of this problem in my graduate course the very same day that Panetta made his announcement, in the context of a broader discussion on international cooperation. As some of you know, one of the basic principles of the literature on cooperation is that it is facilitated when there is a lengthy "shadow of the future." States are more likely to cooperate today if they anticipate being able to reap the benefits of cooperation far into the future; they will be leery of stiffing potential partners and foregoing that stream of long-term benefits.
What does this insight have to do with Afghanistan? Although I favor getting out as rapidly as possible, we ought to do so with the full knowledge that announcing a certain date (or even an approximate date) will reduce Afghan incentives to cooperate with us now and in the interim, and their incentive to cooperate will decline more and more as the date of withdrawal nears. Once they know that the stream of benefits is finite, they will be less willing to make adjustments or concessions to us in order to keep us in the fight. So by announcing we're leaving, Panetta was tacitly acknowledging that our leverage over the Afghan government is going to erode pretty quickly. Not that it was ever that great, of course.
Notice: This situation is different than trying to encourage greater Afghan cooperation by threatening to leave if they don't shape up, coupled with a credible promise to stay if they do. In this case, continued U.S. help would be conditional on Afghan cooperation and reform. But that's not what we're saying: Instead, we've made an essentially unconditional pledge to end our combat role (and eventually leave completely). In short: We've had enough of this war and are heading home, if not exactly briskly.
As I said, I think this is the right course of action. But actions have consequences, and we should be under no illusions about what it means for our ability to determine outcomes there. Washington still has a few cards to play (i.e., we can still empower different contenders by providing them with money, arms and training), but our long-term influence over decisions there is going to decline rapidly. But unless you're one of those people who thinks it's a good idea for Americans to try to steer the politics of an impoverished, deeply-divided Islamic country in the middle of Central Asia, this development really isn't so bad.
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Sometimes you can learn more about a government from how it handles failure than from how it deals with success. For this reason, I'm going to be interested to see how the Turkish government deals with the accidental killing of 35 civilians in misguided bombing raid yesterday. The raid was supposedly targeting Kurdish extremists (aka "terrorists"); instead, the victims were civilians (probably engaged in smuggling), a good many of them reportedly in their late teens.
Despite certain misgivings, I've been impressed by Turkey's progress in recent years, and by the political sophistication of its leadership. Turkey's economic growth has exceeded 5 percent over the past decade, and it staged a sharp recovery from the 2007-2008 financial crisis (growing roughly 11 percent in 2010). The AKP has emphasized education, enacted significant constitutional reforms, and won nearly 50% of the vote in the 2011 parliamentary elections. On the negative side, there are growing concerns about press independence in Turkey and the government's protracted, wide-ranging, and still-unresolved investigation of an alleged military coup plot (the so-called Ergenekon trials) has raised serious questions about the politicization of the investigation and prosecution.
In foreign policy, the AKP government has won plaudits for its energetic (some might say, hyperactive) regional diplomacy, and despite some recent setbacks, by an ability to chart a principled but flexible course consistent with its own long-term interests. In addition to strongly backing global efforts to press the Assad government in Syria (a formerly close ally), Turkey was especially critical of Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-2009 Israeli assault on Gaza. It also lowered its diplomatic relations with Israel this past year when the Netanyahu government refused to apologize for the killing of several Turkish citizens during the IDF raid on the Gaza relief vessel Mavi Marmara. Not surprisingly, these responses helped make Prime Minister Erdogan the most admired figure in the Arab world, according to some recent surveys.
Which puts the Turkish government in the hot seat now. If you're going to be critical of other countries' over-reliance on military force (correctly, in my view), and if you're going to demand apologies and/or policy changes when these actions lead to the loss of innocent life, then you'd better be willing to live up to similar standards when the shoe is on the other foot. To their credit, Prime Minister Erdogan has already expressed regret for the incident and President Abdullah Gul has offered his own condolences, though neither has yet offered a full-fledged apology. An official investigation is reportedly underway, but it remains to be seen whether those responsible will be held to account. But if Turkey doesn't respond to this event in a convincing manner, it will lose some of the moral authority that its recent stances have earned.
More generally, this incident reminds us that air-power remains a crude policy instrument, and one that almost inevitably leads to embarrassing and/tragic results. As we've seen repeatedly in recent years, even highly sophisticated military organizations can make big mistakes when they try to impose their will solely through bombing campaigns. Sometimes you hit a foreign embassy by mistake. At other times you bomb your putative allies, or even your own troops. And as we've seen repeatedly in the Af/Pak theater, even strict rules of engagement and the most sophisticated sensors and precision weapons cannot prevent civilians from being struck by accident or becoming unavoidable "collateral damage."
It also makes me wonder we aren't seeing a further blurring of the lines between war and peace. This isn't the first time Turkey has bombed suspected Kurdish rebels across the border in Iraq, but you wouldn't say that Turkey was actually at war with Baghdad. Similarly, the United States is waging an expansive drone war against suspected terrorists and other suspected bad guys in several different countries--none of whom we are officially "at war" with--and ordinary Americans don't even know the full extent of what we are doing. Why? As Glenn Greenwald notes, it's because the Obama Administration refuses to tell us. In short, we don't "declare war" anymore: we wage it in the shadows and most of us don't really know what's going on.
As I've noted before, if more and more countries are killing people through actions that are not-quite-war-but-certainly-not peace, then we are likely to under-estimate the overall level of conflict in the world and we will fail to appreciate the underlying reasons why some groups are angry at us or our allies. And one wonders what it might take to get different governments-including the leaders in Washington and Ankara--to ask whether the instruments they are relying on aren't the right ones.
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You know that an idea is catching on when Tom Friedman gets behind it. He's been a reliable weathervane for some time (a cheerleader for U.S.-led globalization in the 1990s, backing the Iraq War in 2002 and then reversing course when it went south, supporting escalation in Afghanistan with his fingers firmly crossed, and lecturing Americans on their recent failings once that became fashionable, too). But in this case I'm not complaining, because some of his recent writings suggest that he's coming around to the idea of offshore balancing.
Consider his column in today's Times. He makes two basic points: 1) the strategic stakes in Central Asia aren't worth the costs, and 2) withdrawal from Iraq will exacerbate Iranian-Iraqi relations and improve our strategic position. Gee, where did I hear those ideas before? And then he goes further, pointing out that getting out of our current "land wars in Asia" will restore our freedom of maneuver and give us more strategic options. Here's the money quotation from Friedman, based on testimony from a prominent Indian scholar:
'If the U.S. steps back, it will see that it has a lot more options,' argues C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, in New Delhi. ‘You let the contending regional forces play out against each other and then you can then tilt the balance.' He is referring to the India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, China and Northern Alliance tribes in Afghanistan. ‘At this point, you have the opposite problem. You are sitting in the middle and are everyone's hate-object, and everyone sees some great conspiracy in whatever you do. Once you pull out, and create the capacity to alter the balance, you will have a lot more options and influence to affect outcomes - rather than being pushed around and attacked by everyone.'
The United States today needs much more cost-efficient ways to influence geopolitics in Asia than keeping troops there indefinitely. We need to better leverage the natural competitions in this region to our ends. There is more than one way to play The Great Game, and we need to learn it."
One might add that playing "hard to get" a bit would also make other countries do more to retain U.S. backing, and that would be good for us too.
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The New York Times has a startling report today about an incident from way back in 2007, where Pakistani soldiers attacked a group of U.S. military officials, killing one officer and wounding three others. It is obviously a disturbing report, although not that surprising to anyone who's been paying even modest attention to the highly complicated relationship between the United States, the various factions that make up Pakistan's government, and the various groups that are contending for power in Central Asia. Juan Cole has a good quick rundown here.
I have two comments of my own. First, it is interesting that this story is coming out now, in the aftermath of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen's recent denunciations of Pakistani collaboration with the Haqqani network. The Times story says that the incident was hushed up back in 2007 so as not to disturb overall U.S. relations with Pakistan, but its appearance in the news right now sure looks like a deliberate leak. If so, what's the larger purpose here? Is the Obama administration or the Pentagon contemplating a real rupture with Islamabad, or do they think that turning up the heat in this highly public fashion is going to convince the ISI or whoever is doing these things to change their ways?
Second, the incident also shows you the dangers that arise when governments keep lots of secrets. Suppose this story had come out back in 2007. It would have been additional evidence conveying just how little control we had over our putative allies in the region, and cast further doubt on our ability to achieve a successful outcome in the Afghan campaign. Success in Afghanistan depends on cooperation with Pakistan (and in particular, on getting rid of the safe havens for the Taliban there), and this incident from four years ago was a clear sign that it was going to be damn hard to get the requisite help. It would also have suggested that U.S. officials really didn't understand very much about the complicated dynamics in that region, thereby suggesting that maybe, just maybe, we were never going to accomplish our stated objectives.
So: if Americans had actually known about this attack, they might have had a clearer picture of our prospects in Central Asia, and the uphill fight we faced. Barack Obama's claims that he was going to get out of Iraq and focus on Afghanistan might have been viewed with greater skepticism, and his subsequent decision to escalate the war might have faced greater opposition within his administration and in the public at large.
In short, when U.S. officials swept this incident under the rug for various short-term reasons, they encouraged the American people to maintain a false picture of the actual situation in Central Asia. Unfortunately, making judgments and decisions on the basis of inaccurate information rarely works out well.
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I'm scrambling to get ready for a trip overseas, so today's post will be brief. I'll be participating in a conference in Berlin on "The Public Mission of the SocialSciences and Humanities," co-sponsored by the Social Science Research Counciland the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlinfür Sozialforschung. (You can find some of the papers -- including mine -- here. I'malso giving a lecture on "The Twilight of the American Era" at the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Auswartige Politik, and then heading off to the University ofLille in France to converse about U.S. Middle East policy. Of course, what I'm really going to be doing is trying to figure out if Europe is really headed over a cliff, and I'll be especially interested in what my German and French hosts have to say about the momentous decisions that their leaders have to make about Greece, the euro, and the whole EU experiment.
I'll blog when I can, and there may be one or two guest posts while I'm away, but in the meantime take a look at this short piece on Afghanistan by Columbia's Graciana del Castillo. It makes lots of smart points about how we ought to be approaching Afghan reconstruction, although I think she exaggerates the ability of the international community to shape events inside the country. But most importantly, the implicit assumption in her analysis is that it is time for a political solution to what is best thought of as a protracted Afghan civil war.
NATO (read: the United States) is not going to defeat the Taliban so long as the Karzai government refuses to reform or share power andas long as the Taliban have safe havens in Pakistan, and there is no reason to think that the latter problem is going to be solved in the foreseeable future. At the same time, the Taliban aren'tstrong or popular enough to take over themselves. In this sort of stalemate, a negotiated settlement to devolve power to local areas, end what many Afghans see as a foreign occupation, and remove the current $100 billion per year drain on theU.S. Treasury is the smart way to go. But I haven't seen anything that suggests we're exploring that possibility with any energy, and it makes me wonder what special envoy Marc Grossman has been up to lately.
Given all the other problems on the president's plate, I'm betting this is one can that just gets kicked down the road into 2013. To little good purpose, I might add.
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One of the things that gets in the way of conducting good national security policy is a reluctance to call things by their right names and state plainly what is really happening. If you keep describing difficult situations in misleading or inaccurate ways, plenty of people will draw the wrong conclusions about them and will continue to support policies that don't make a lot of sense.
Two cases in point: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are constantly told that that "the surge worked" in Iraq, and President Obama has to pretend the situation there is tolerable so that he can finally bring the rest of the troops there home. Yet it is increasingly clear that the surge failed to produce meaningful political reconciliation and did not even end the insurgency, and keeping U.S. troops there for the past three years may have accomplished relatively little.
Similarly, we keep getting told that we are going to achieve some sort of "peace with honor" in Afghanistan, even though sending more troops there has not made the Afghan government more effective, has not eliminated the Taliban's ability to conduct violence, and has not increased our leverage in Pakistan. In the end, what happens in Central Asia is going to be determined by Central Asians -- for good or ill -- and not by us.
The truth is that the United States and its allies lost the war in Iraq and are going to lose the war in Afghanistan. There: I said it. By "lose," I mean we will eventually withdraw our military forces without having achieved our core political objectives, and with our overall strategic position weakened. We did get Osama bin Laden -- finally -- but that was the result of more energetic intelligence and counter-terrorism work in Pakistan itself and had nothing to do with the counterinsurgency we are fighting next door. U.S. troops have fought courageously and with dedication, and the American people have supported the effort for many years. But we will still have failed because our objectives were ill-chosen from the start, and because the national leadership (and especially the Bush administration) made some horrendous strategic judgments along the way.
Specifically: invading Iraq was never necessary, because Saddam Hussein had no genuine links to al Qaeda and no WMD, and because he could not have used any WMD that he might one day have produced without facing devastating retaliation. It was a blunder because destroying the Ba'athist state left us in charge of a deeply divided country that we had no idea how to govern. It also destroyed the balance of power in the Gulf and enhanced Iran's regional position, which was not exactly a brilliant idea from the American point of view. Invading Iraq also diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, which helped the Taliban to regain lost ground and derailed our early efforts to aid the Karzai government.
President Obama inherited both of these costly wars, and his main error was not to recognize that they were not winnable at an acceptable cost. He's wisely stuck (more-or-less) to the withdrawal plan for Iraq, but he foolishly decided to escalate in Afghanistan, in the hope of creating enough stability to allow us to leave. This move might have been politically adroit, but it just meant squandering more resources in ways that won't affect the final outcome.
I don't know any more than you do about the assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the well-connected and notoriously corrupt half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was also de facto governor of Kandahar province and reportedly on the CIA payroll. In fact, I probably know less than some of you. But I'll offer a few quick reactions to the news nonetheless.
First, unless the killing was some sort of personal vendetta, it seems likely that it was politically motivated and it strikes me as plausible that it was ordered by the Taliban. The killer, a family associate named Sardar Mohammed, was a regular visitor to Karzai's home, and he must have known that shooting Karzai in his own compound was a suicide mission.
Second, in the short run this has to be a propaganda boost for the Taliban, who have already claimed credit for the killing and called it one of the "great achievements" of the war. From the very beginning, the Taliban's main appeal was their ability to provide order (albeit of a very brutal sort) and their lack of personal corruption. Wali Karzai, needless to say, was a vivid symbol of the latter. More importantly, the Taliban will undoubtedly use the killing to cast doubt on the Afghan government's ability to protect even top officials. In a war of perceptions, this is not good news for our side.
Third, to me it merely underscores the continued futility of trying to win a counter-insurgency war in a country where we lack a competent, committed, or fully-legitimate local partner. We're likely to get a lot of upbeat reports of progress in the months to come, as the Obama administration tries to persuade us that the "surge" worked and that we can start going home. I hope this sleight of hand works, because the war is a running sore and a distraction from more important problems. But spin and PR won't change the basic reality: Afghanistan's fate will be determined by the Afghans and not by us.
Heck, our own political system can't even get a budget deal done without a lot of eleventh-hour hysterics, and yet we think we can reliably reshape the political order of a country of 32 million Muslims, many of them illiterate, and divided into at least five major tribes. Can you say "hubris?"
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I did say that I was "going off the grid" for ten days or so, but reading the New York Times remains a morning ritual for the household and I still have access to my email. And yesterday they combined to make a brief post imperative.
The first item was an email announcement from the Hudson Institute, inviting me (and probably hundreds of other people) to attend a luncheon briefing on "The Political Situation in Kyrgyzstan: Implications for the United States." The first sentence of the announcement informed me that "the situation in Kyrgyzstan has a critical bearing on American national security." As my teen-aged daughter would say: "OMG!" Did you know that your safety and security depends on the political situation in.... Kyrgyztan?" Yes, I know that the air base at Manas is a critical transit point for logistics flowing into Afghanistan, but otherwise Kyrgyzstan is an impoverished country of about 5 million people without significant strategic resources, and I daresay few Americans could find it on a map (or have any reason to want to). It is only important if you think Afghanistan's fate is important, and readers here know that I think we've greatly exaggerated the real stakes there. (And if we're heading for the exits there, as President Obama has said, then Kyrgyzstan's strategic value is a stock you ought to short.)
I'm not trying to make fun of the Hudson Institute here, but the idea that we have "critical" interests in Kyrgystan just illustrates the poverty of American strategic thinking these days. Even now, in the wake of the various setbacks and mis-steps of the past decade, the central pathology of American strategic discourse is the notion that the entire friggin' world is a "vital" U.S. interest, and that we are therefore both required and entitled to interfere anywhere and anytime we want to. And Beltway briefings like this one just reinforce this mind-set, by constantly hammering home the idea that we are terribly vulnerable to events in a far-flung countries a world away. I'm not saying that events in Kyrgyzstan might not affect the safety and prosperity of American a tiny little bit, but the essence of strategy is setting priorities and distinguishing trivial stakes from the truly important. And somehow I just don't think Kyrgyzstan's fate merits words like "vital" or "critical."
And then I read David Greenberg's op-ed in yesterday's Times, on the "isolationist" roots within the Republican Party. Greenberg is a historian, and his brief account of isolationist strands within the GOP is perfectly sensible. But he uses this narrative to cast doubt on the growing number of people who believe that the United States is over-committed (a group, one might add, that includes the out-going Secretary of Defense), but who are hardly "isolationists."
In particular, Greenberg ends his piece by warning that "following the path of isolationism today won't serve America well." He may or may not be correct in that judgment, though his op-ed offers no arguments or evidence to support this particular conclusion. More importantly, Greenberg falls into the familiar trap of assuming that those who are now calling for a more restrained, selective, and above all realistic foreign policy are "isolationists." There may be a few people in contemporary foreign policy discourse who deserve that label, but it simply doesn't apply to most serious critics of today's over-extension.
In particular, critics of our over-committed and overly-militarized foreign policy recognize that the world is interconnected, that the United States cannot wall itself off from that world, and that defending long-term U.S. interests occasionally requires the application of the many diverse elements of American power. People like Andrew Bacevich, Barry Posen, Paul Pillar, Lawrence Wilkerson, Chas Freeman, the late Chalmers Johnson, and many others are not reflexive doves, naïve pacifists, or fatuous one-worlders. On the contrary, they are hard-headed experts who support American engagement in the world, just not in the mindlessly hubristic fashion that has become the self-defeating norm of the past several decades and the default condition of foreign policy thinking in D.C.
What realists (and other advocates of greater "restraint") also recognize is that 5 percent of the world's population cannot dictate how the other 95 percent should live their lives. They also know that trying to impose our preferences on others by various coercive means (e.g., military force, economic sanctions, etc.) is helping sap our economic vitality and turning more and more people against us. Advocates of a more restrained foreign policy understand that other major powers will just free-ride if we insist on doing everything ourselves, and that other client states will engage in what Posen has called "reckless driving" if they know that the United States will back them now matter what they do.
In short, the isolationsists of a by-gone era have little to do with today's advocates of restraint, and it is serious error to conflate the two. In particular, applying the discredited label of "isolationist" to those who now question our present "strategy" will make it harder to formulate a grand strategy that is consistent with our present resources, less likely to provoke unnecessary resentment or resistance, cognizant of our many political advantages, and focused (as foreign policy should be) on our long-term vitality and security as a nation.
UPDATE: In my original post, I mistakenly equated libertarians with isolationists. This was careless, insofar as some important analysts who favor more limited government (such as Chris Preble of the CATO Institute), are clearly not "isolationist" in the proper sense of that term. I regret the error, and have corrected the text above to eliminate the conflation.
There's some second-guessing going on in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, mostly having to do with whether he actually "resisted" or whether the SEAL team that took him out did so deliberately. Although it would be better if the Obama administration's original story had been more complete from the start, I'm inclined to cut them a bit of slack on this one. To me, it's not that surprising that some details were wrong in the initial accounts, and to their credit the administration has been forthcoming about amending the basic account.
Did the Obama administration deliberately send the team in to take him out? I don't know. But I'm sure the SEALs were given very loose "rules of engagement," such that even a minimal degree of "resistance" could be met (as it was) with deadly force. At the same time, I suspect that one reason Obama decided to send a team in rather than simply bomb the compound was a desire to use discriminate force, and to minimize the danger to bystanders. Killing bin Laden during the raid is one thing; killing his wives or the children present there would have played far worse in the eyes of much of the world. Sending a team in was also a way to ensure that we could prove we had got him; leveling the compound would have given even more fodder to conspiracy theorists to argue that he had actually escaped (presumably to join Elvis and Hitler somewhere in South America).
There are two reasons to suspect that we were more interested in killing him than capturing him. The first is the obvious point that having him in custody would have been a major policy challenge. How many terror threats or hostage takings might have accompanied his trial and incarceration? In the abstract, I'd prefer to have put him on trial for his crimes, to draw the sharpest possible contrast between his lawless behavior and the principles of the rule of law that we like to proclaim. But the practical obstacles to that course would have been daunting, and I can understand why the U.S. government might have preferred just taking him out.
The second reason, of course, is that targeted assassinations have become an increasingly favorite tool of U.S. security policy. And it's not just drone attacks on suspected terrorists in Pakistan or Yemen, targeted killings by special forces are one of the key ways that we are prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. And there's certainly some reason to believe that this is how NATO is trying to resolve the civil war in Libya, though of course we will never say so openly. Given our current practice in these contexts, it would hardly be a stretch to imagine Obama sending in the SEALs not with deliberate orders to kill bin Laden, but with instructions that made his death very, very likely.
Lastly, what about the decision to dispose of his body at sea? Somebody clearly thought about this issue in advance, and this step was supposedly done because 1) there was no country that would want to accept his remains, 2) the United States had no interest in keeping them ourselves, and 3) U.S. officials were worried that a gravesite might become some sort of inspirational shrine for like-minded extremists.
I get all that, but I'm not totally convinced. For one thing, some Muslims are likely to see the burial at sea as disrespectful or callous, and Muslim religious experts seem to be divided on this issue. Second, while it's possible that his body/grave might have emerged as some sort of shrine, that's hardly a certainty. Mussolini's place in the family crypt isn't a big pilgrimage site for proto-fascists, and the site of the bunker where Hitler died hasn't become a big rallying place for neo-Nazis. Revolutionary states like the Soviet Union, Iran, and Vietnam have built enormous shrines to their founding leaders, but do these pretentious attempts at immortality really inspire many followers? And needless to say, no government or charitable foundation was going to pour any money into a shrine for bin Laden. If his body had ended up buried in some remote corner of Saudi Arabia, I rather doubt it would attract a lot of visitors. And even if it did, as Yglesias points out, it would be a nice way to get their pictures on file.
It seems somewhat superfluous of me to join the feeding frenzy of commentary on the killing of Osama bin Laden, but it is also an event that I can't quite ignore. I caught the announcement late last night, along with some rather breathless initial commentary. Here are a few initial reactions.
For starters, I think it's important to keep his killing in perspective. By all accounts bin Laden was no longer playing an operational role for al Qaeda, and his main value to the movement he founded was largely symbolic. It was the fact that he was still at large and still defiant that made him significant, and his death takes that symbolic value away. He may serve as an inspirational martyr for a few people, but I doubt that lots of new recruits will rally to al Qaeda's banner merely to avenge his death.
In fact, one could argue that the movement he founded has already failed. He hoped to inspire a broad fundamentalist revolution that would topple existing Arab governments and usher in a unified Islamic caliphate, but that goal has failed to resonate among Arab and Muslim populations and his own popularity has declined steadily since 9/11. Instead, the upheavals that have swept the Arab world in 2011 have drawn their inspiration not from bin Laden but from more universal ideals of democracy, human rights, and open discourse. And the more that these movements succeed, the more discredited his entire approach to politics will be.
Which is not to say that bin Laden was a complete failure. One of his main goals was to lure the United States into costly and protracted wars in the Muslim world, and with our help, he succeeded. Had 9/11 never occurred, the United States would not have squandered trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possibly accelerated the end of the "unipolar moment." But this "achievement" was not solely his doing. Had the Bush administration been smarter, and focused on counter-terrorism rather than a misguided campaign of "regional transformation," we might have found him sooner and at less financial, human, and reputational cost.
Going forward, focusing too much attention on bin Laden threatens to distract us from the broader social and political challenges that the United States still faces in the Arab and Islamic world. Bin Laden is gone, but anger at various aspects of U.S. policy continues to drive anti-Americanism and makes it more difficult to protect our core interests in that part of the world. Al Qaeda isn't the real reason we having a hard time in Afghanistan, and it has nothing to do with our difficulties with Iran. Indeed, even it it were disappear entirely, we'd still face plenty of other foreign policy challenges in the Middle East (and elsewhere).
Furthermore, there's a tendency for both presidents and the media to exaggerate the long-term significance of events like this. Whenever we are successful, we assume our credibility will soar, our opponents will be disheartened and confused, and our allies will once again be impressed by our prowess and inclined to do our bidding. Maybe so, but the effect usually wears off quickly. In the long run, what really matters is not our ability to catch a single bad guy after ten years of trying, but rather the long-term health of the U.S. economy and our ability to devise foreign and defense policies that other powerful states will welcome and/or respect.
Perhaps the best thing to hope for, therefore, is that Obama will use this event as an opportunity to "declare victory and get out." Not that he will do this overtly, but the United States can now claim -- as Obama did last night -- that the primary perpetrator of 9/11 has been "brought to justice," and that our long campaign in Central Asia has finally achieved its primary goal. (That's not quite true, of course, but politics often involves a bit of sophistry and rhetorical sleight-of-hand). So if Obama can exploit this triumph to justify an accelerated disengagement, he'll reap the maximum benefits from this otherwise modest victory.
But don't count on it. For one thing, we've spent that past ten years creating a pretty massive set of organizations designed to prosecute the "war on terror," and government bureaucracies (like other organizations) tend not to put themselves out of business without a fight. It will take a sustained political effort (and continued fiscal pressure) to unwind the post-9/11 version of the national security state, which means we'll be standing in TSA lines, conducting drone attacks, and having our emails and phone calls scanned for a long time to come. And I suppose bin Laden would take posthumous credit for that too.
Lastly, although President Obama and his team are undoubtedly (and deservedly) gratified by this achievement, I wouldn't rest on these laurels if I were them. President George H. W. Bush won a smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War, and then he was turned out of office by a disgruntled electorate eighteen months later. Americans will be exchanging high-fives for a few days and Obama will no doubt get a bump in the polls, but memories are short and other issues (e.g., employment) are likely to loom much larger come 2012. As the winner of the 1992 election, Bill Clinton, might have put it: "It's the economy, stupid."
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Next week the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, will visit Capitol Hill to tell Congress about our progress there. Judging from this pre-visit story in the New York Times, he'll offer an upbeat appraisal, no doubt tempered with the usual cautions about how there are still challenges to be overcome, that the mission remains difficult, etc. etc. As I've noted before, this is pretty much what one expects any commander to do in such circumstances, so one should approach his testimony with a certain healthy skepticism.
I do hope the Hill staffers who will be preparing questions for their bosses will also read C.J. Chivers's account of the complexities that continue to bedevil our efforts in Afghanistan. Chivers has clearly been talking to soldiers in the field, and his story paints a less optimistic vision than we are likely to hear next week. Here's the revealing hint that the view from the bottom is different from the view at the top:
Officially, Mr. Obama's Afghan buildup shows signs of success, demonstrating both American military capabilities and the revival of a campaign that had been neglected for years. But in the rank and file, there has been little triumphalism as the administration's plan has crested."
Chivers also quotes a U.S. colonel (who requested anonymity) as follows:
You can keep trying all different kinds of tactics," said one American colonel outside of this province. "We know how to do that. But if the strategic level isn't working, you do end up wondering: How much does it matter? And how does this end?"
Needless to say, the problems at the strategic level are quite familiar:
The Taliban and the groups it collaborates with remain deeply rooted; the Afghan military and police remain lackluster and given to widespread drug use; the country’s borders remain porous; Kabul Bank, which processes government salaries, is wormy with fraud, and President Hamid Karzai’s government, by almost all accounts, remains weak, corrupt and erratically led. And the Pakistani frontier remains a Taliban safe haven."
As for the anonymous colonel's last question -- "How does this end?" -- I think the best we can hope for now is that the Obama administration goes in to full spin mode, touting all the progress it has made, and uses that as a justification for a gradual strategic withdrawal. That's one way to interpret Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's own remarks about recent U.S. progress, heralding the likelihood that U.S. troop levels will begin to decline this summer. It's a variation of the old "declare victory and get out" strategy that was once proposed for Vietnam, and if that's what it takes to end this continued drain on our resources and strategic attention, fine by me.
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It goes without saying that the accidental killing of nine Afghan boys by an American helicopter gunship was yet another public relations setback for the U.S. war effort. But more than that, I think it may also tell us a lot about how we are really waging that war, which is somewhat at odds with the rhetorical emphasis that it tends to get back home. The incident also underscores the inherent contradictions in U.S. strategy and does not augur well for our long-term prospects.
Ever since the publication of Field Manual 3-24, much of the rhetorical emphasis in U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine has been on "population protection," along with the necessity of building local institutions. As noted at the very beginning of FM 3-24: "A successful COIN operation meets the contested population's needs to the extent needed to win popular support while protecting the population from the insurgents." To win "hearts and minds," in short, a counterinsurgency force is supposed to provide security for the local population so that the enemy cannot win local support via intimidation or by exploiting local rivalries. Protecting the population is also supposed to earn their gratitude and convince them that the central government and its NATO allies are winning, so that local populations will tilt in our direction and provide us with additional intelligence, thereby allowing us to go after insurgents effectively.
This approach sounds great on paper, and it helps make the war more palatable to Americans back home. We all like to think that our armed forces are performing noble deeds, and protecting Afghan civilians from the likes of the Taliban certainly qualifies on that score. The problem, however, is that this is a misleading picture of what our forces are actually doing in Afghanistan. (It's also an oversimplification of what the Field Manual actually says because it also devotes plenty of space to the military operations that are also part of any serious counterinsurgency effort.)
The deaths of these nine Afghan boys remind us that this is a real war and that we're actually devoting a lot (most?) of our effort not to population protection but to killing suspected insurgents. U.S. reliance on airpower has increased dramatically, and USAF airstrikes are reportedly up by some 172 percent since General David Petraeus replaced Stanley McChrystal last year. The approach is also consistent with greater U.S. reliance on drone strikes in Pakistan and should be seen as part of an intensifying effort to kill as many insurgents as possible and especially to target key insurgent leaders.
Furthermore, "population protection" itself is not always a purely benign or politically neutral act. Protecting a local population often requires interfering with their daily lives in sometimes onerous and bothersome ways, whether through the construction of massive concrete barriers (as in Baghdad), or "strategic hamlets" (as in Vietnam), or through intrusive search missions in local villages. Even when we are in fact improving the security of the local population, that may not be how the people we are supposedly protecting perceive it. In the Pech Valley, at least, the local population mostly wanted us to get out and leave them alone.
Put all these elements together, and the central conundrum of our position becomes clearer. Heavier reliance on airpower and more aggressive military operations on the ground are bound to lead to more accidental civilian deaths, because military force is a crude weapon, humans are imperfect, and errors are bound to happen no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Yet the more we emphasize that our objective is "hearts and minds" and protecting the population, the more damage the inevitable mistakes do in the eyes of Afghans, the world at large, and to popular support here at home.
Ironically, Section E-6 of FM 3-24 makes this same point quite clearly (my emphasis):
The proper and well-executed use of aerial attack can conserve resources, increase effectiveness, and reduce risk to U.S. forces. Given timely, accurate intelligence, precisely delivered weapons with a demonstrated low failure rate, appropriate yield, and proper fuse can achieve desired effects while mitigating adverse effects. However, inappropriate or indiscriminate use of air strikes can erode popular support and fuel insurgent propaganda. For these reasons, commanders should consider the use of air strikes carefully during COIN operations, neither disregarding them outright nor employing them excessively."
But in their zeal to find some way to turn the war around (or to at least appear to have done so), have our commanders forgotten their own advice? And given all the internal contradictions in U.S. strategy, doesn't it suggest that the war simply isn't winnable (in any meaningful sense), at anything like a reasonable cost?
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Last Friday I suggested that one reason we keep slogging along in Afghanistan is the natural tendency for military organizations to portray their own efforts in the most favorable possible light. This tendency is not unique to militaries, of course; most organizations (including universities) prefer to talk about their virtues and achievements and find it harder to acknowedge shortcomings and setbacks.
In a democracy, it isn't the miltiary's job to decide where and when to fight, or for how long. But they don't like to lose either (which is by itself an admirable trait), and one should therefore expect them to do a lot of spinning, especially in the absence of clear and obvious signs of progress.
With that warning in mind, two sentences caught my eye over the weekend. The first was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' much-publicized remark to cadets at West Point. His whole speech is well worth reading, but here's the money quote:
In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should "have his head examined," as General MacArthur so delicately put it."
Notice the not-so-subtle implication: if it would be foolish to send a big army into Asia in the future, might we also question the wisdom of having one there now? Or to put it somewhat differently: if the situation in Afghanistan were exactly as it is today but U.S. forces were not present at all, would President Obama be getting ready to send 100,000+ troops there? I very much doubt it. And if that's the case, then the only reason we are still fighting there is some combination of the "sunk cost" fallacy, misplaced concerns about credibility, overblown fears of an al Qaeda "safe haven," and the usual fears about domestic political payback.
The second sentence that grabbed my attention came at the end of Dexter Filkins' New York Times Book Review piece on Bing West's new book The Wrong War. Filkins writes (my emphasis):
As ‘The Wrong War' shows so well, the Americans will spend more money and more lives trying to transform Afghanistan, and their soldiers will sacrifice themselves trying to succeed. But nothing short of a miracle will give them much in return."
Put those two statements together, and they cast further doubt on the positive spin we've been hearing about how the Taliban is on the run, the Afghan "surge" is working, and how we'll be able to start leaving by 2014. I think the latter claim is correct, by the way, but not because we will have succeeded in creating a stable Afghanistan. We'll eventually leave Afghanistan to its fate, but it will be because we've finally figured out that the stakes there aren't worth the effort, especially given the low odds of meaningful success. It's just taking us longer to figure that out than it should.
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Rolling Stone magazine has a provocative article on the streets right now, alleging that U.S. commanders in Afghanistan ordered "information operations" specialists to use their techniques not on the Taliban or on Afghans, but to help persuade visiting U.S. politicians to keep backing the war effort. When one of the officers involved questioned the policy, he found himself under investigation in what seems to have been a spiteful act of punishment. (For additional commentary on the story, check out FP's Tom Ricks here.)
Assuming the story is accurate, it's pretty disturbing. But the issue isn't an individual general's overzealous effort to sell the war back home. The real issue is whether any of us can tell how the war is actually going, given that the people closest to the battle have obvious incentives to portray their efforts in a positive light.
Over the past few weeks, there have been a number of prominent stories suggesting -- if guardedly -- that the war effort in Afghanistan is going better than most people think. Not surprisingly, these stories emerge from people who have recently visited the theater under the auspices of the U.S. military, or from U.S. commanders themselves. Yet just today, the New York Times reports that U.S. and NATO forces are now abandoning the Pech Valley, a remote region that was once deemed vital, despite serious misgivings that it will quickly become a safe haven for the insurgency. And the Times story also contains this telling quotation:
What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-U.S. or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone," said one American military official familiar with the decision. "Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area."
So how can you or I tell if the war is going well or not? For that matter, how can Barack Obama be sure that he's getting the straight scoop from his commanders in the field? Even if the military was initially skeptical about a decision to go to war, once committed to the field its job is to deliver a victory. No dedicated military organization wants to admit it can't win, especially when it is facing a much smaller, less well-armed, and objectively "inferior" foe like the Taliban. Troops in the field also need to believe in the mission, and to be convinced that success is possible.
To the extent that they need to keep civilian authorities and the public on board, therefore, we can expect military commanders to tell an upbeat story, even when things aren't going especially well. I am not saying that they lie; I'm saying that they have an incentive to "accentuate the positive" in order to convince politicians, the press, and the public that success will be ours if we just persevere. Indeed, this was one of the key "lessons" that the U.S. military took from Vietnam: Success in modern war -- and especially counterinsurgency -- depends on more effective "information management" on the home front. And this tendency is not unique to the United States or even to democracies; one sees the same phenomenon in most wars, no matter who is fighting.
Regular readers here know that I think our military effort in Afghanistan is misguided and that our overall national interests would be better served by a timely withdrawal. Reasonable people can disagree about that issue, and it is bound to be debated until the day the war ends (and probably for long afterward). But my point today is a broader one: It is nearly impossible for any of us to know for certain exactly how well or badly the war is going. But when we read a story like the one in Rolling Stone, we're entitled to be more skeptical about the good news we're being fed.
ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.