A blogger friend, military supporter whose husband has served in this war, asked what victory looks like in Afghanistan. It’s a good question, and one that I think is probably in more minds than just hers. So I’m going to take a whack at answering it.
First, I never really think in terms of “victory.” There will be no grand surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship in this conflict. Insurgencies don’t die in a horrendous bright flash of light and culminate in a giant sigh of acceptance of defeat. They dwindle and starve, become a criminal problem, and finally fade out largely from lack of interest. Twenty years from now, former insurgents will own shops and other businesses and live relatively obscure lives here in Afghanistan. Some may even be in government. No, I don’t use the word victory. The words that we use are important, and they are powerful. They evoke images. Americans love victory, even as they love the underdog, most Cincinnati Bengals fans who don’t even bother to show up to games by mid-season demonstrate that the underdog appeal fades in the face of repeated defeat.
I think in terms of success or failure. The previous Afghan government, if you could call it that, was not so much governing as ruling over a failed state. So let’s talk about what success looks like in Afghanistan. We can describe it simply, but then you have to drill down to what that actually means. For starters, success in Afghanistan includes a stable government devoid of dysfunctional or disabling corruption. What does that mean? Look at our own level of corruption in the United States… don’t act like we don’t have corruption… but it’s generally not disabling. Disabling means that whatever corruption is present interferes materially and consistently with the provision of basic governmental responsibilities; what we often call basic services. It means an Afghanistan with a rising economy, dropping unemployment, a growing standard of living, climbing literacy rates and ever higher standards of education. It means an Afghanistan where there is a basic rule of law and where the citizens feel relatively safe in their homes and neighborhoods and where nearly all feel that there is some access to justice. This means that one of the basic services is security; the ability of the populace to live without threat or intimidation.
Can we do that? I think that perhaps we can. Should we do that? Topic for another post, but I am here of my own volition. I don’t like to lose any more than the next guy, and this is not just Operation Enduring Paycheck for me; so you can guess that my answer is likely positive on that one, too.
There are a lot of encouraging signs. The vanguard of the civilian surge is coming aboard. There are hundreds more on the way, and while they don’t meet the typical State Department mold, the community organizers of the Obama Campaign are finding their way to Afghanistan. Just this week I met and worked with a State Department employee of five months standing, four of which were in Afghanistan. She had worked on the Obama campaign, before that on “another candidate’s campaign,” and prior to that was, “in business.” Very well-intentioned. I could write an entire post about that one, but give us the raw material and you might be surprised where we can take this. The point is that we are beginning to develop the civilian capacity-building arm of our foreign policy apparatus.
Just as encouraging is the participation that we are seeing from Afghans in the civilian government and the military. COIN doctrine is Afghan doctrine as well. Everything that is being taught to Americans and NATO/Coalition partners coming into Afghanistan is Afghan doctrine. It is also being taught to Afghans. Tons of Afghan officers, including the very senior ones, are active participants in the dissemination of the doctrine and in planning for the rapid growth necessary in Afghan forces. I can’t brief it, because it’s not for public release, but there are certain economies of force that are being strongly considered to leverage the existing forces as cadre for rapid expansion. Growth becomes easier when you have a professional core upon which to build, and that core exists in greater numbers every day. The growth within the leadership of the ANA, including the NCO Corps, has been a huge success story here.
Afghan government ministries, Afghan NGO’s and Afghan contractors are also participants. They are also being trained and enthusiastically receiving the training in how to work across organizational boundaries to target effects based on the input and needs of local people. One of the legacies of the Taliban days is that the Taliban destroyed traditional structures that used to regulate Afghan life. Those weakened tribal and village structures are now the target of efforts to strengthen them and by doing so, return a sense of normal life forces in Afghan society. There is a significant movement afoot to leverage traditional methods of local justice. This may, on the surface, appear to be contrary to what we are used to… but in the United States, Mayor’s Courts thrive and are still in widespread use. Think of it along those lines.
Host nation support is unprecedented and growing.
The plan to add resources to the ANP also cannot be described in detail, but it is possible that a plan to move significant resources in that direction, quickly, may be approved for implementation very soon. This will also build upon lessons learned from the successful but time-consuming Focused District Development (FDD) program, as well. The ANP have lacked large-scale mentoring efforts for quite some time, and it appears possible that some horsepower may be directly applied to this most important counterinsurgent force very soon. Another reason for optimism. While months and years will be required, this is not really a long time in context. Positive results may occur very quickly. Remember, you don’t have to be the faster than the bear; you just have to be faster than the next guy. The next guy, in this case, is very small and while agile, he is actually hobbled. The people don’t like him, and only need to feel safe to push back. There are approximately 30,000 active insurgents in Afghanistan to try to subdue approximately 30,000,000 people. Another thing to remember is that while the entire country needs governance and development, there is only a serious insurgent threat in portions of the country. Some threats are actually criminal in nature, sometimes under the guise of insurgency. Lots of weapons trafficking and drug trafficking-related violence is attributed to political violence, which it is not.
Overall, we are going to temporarily construct a national security apparatus that is actually economically unsustainable in the long term. Afghanistan will only need these large forces long enough for the insurgency to be beaten back. If the other factors are addressed during this process… and we are building that capacity now… then the insurgency will begin to fade. As it fades, so long as the positive changes continue, the Afghan people will themselves be less and less likely to feel drawn to any radical ideology. Young men will find fulfillment in licit work rather than finding identity with radical leadership, and the need for such massive security forces will wane. For those who fear that a massive army will need to be sustained in perpetuity, that is usually a red herring used as a bogeyman to frighten others. It’s just fallacious logic.
One of our Achilles heels is public opinion. During the elections, many gravitated towards the “good war” versus “bad war” line of thinking. Many of those folks were simply setting up a straw man. Another thing to take into consideration was that the overwhelming majority of the population knew little about Afghanistan. Our networks were flooded with Iraq doom and gloom. Now those same people who held up the “good” vs “bad” argument are openly questioning Afghanistan.
That’s because it makes their head hurt.
Afghanistan is a complicated environment. Major and minor ethnic groups abound. Tribal rivalries go back centuries. There are over three thousand distinct insurgent groups in Afghanistan. They are linked into confederations of varying degrees of cohesiveness. There are rifts and alliances and more rifts and alliances. These provide many opportunities to leverage cracks… and many opportunities for headaches. For many, who otherwise appear to be very intelligent people, it just makes their head hurt. Unable to comprehend, they prognosticate in the only direction they can. Lots of that from talking heads who know little about actuality in Afghanistan lately. These hurt-headed failures do influence, though. Sadly, some just can’t say that they are ignorant and don’t really need to be involved in the discussion. Sadder still is their inability to listen to or take seriously those who do see and do know, apparently because of some academic sense of superiority or well-developed ego. We’ve all known those types, and the foreign policy wonkworld certainly abounds with them. Their keyboards are aflame with addlepated hammerings this year.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Afghanistan is not Iraq. No question. But there is a similarity. COIN was not executed perfectly in Iraq. The surge didn’t do everything right down to the last detail. But what happened was amazing. Some will ascribe the changes in that country during the time surrounding the surge to be the result of nearly anything but the application of some very basic COIN principles, but that’s driven, often, by personal politics and disingenuous motives. What happened, at least in part, was that even imperfect application of population-centric tactics on a large scale led to disproportionate reactions within society. Positive reactions. We lost momentum in Afghanistan for a number of reasons, but the people here truly want to see us regain it and begin providing hope again. I think that it will take less to switch that momentum than the blithering heads would ever think. They will ascribe it, again, to nearly anything other than acceptably applied COIN, but that doesn’t matter. The proof is in the pudding.
One more key; the Afghans really need to know that we are here for the long haul with them. Our history in the past half century doesn’t bear this out, but it’s time to show the world that we can keep going even when our head hurts and helping ourselves means helping someone else first. There are a lot of Americans who resent spending a cup of urine to extinguish a flaming neighbor, bewailing whatever other purpose they may have had for that cup of urine. Think about how those people feel when it is tax dollars they could be using for some pet project. We’ve got lots of those types, too. They often have headaches and think themselves truly brilliant analysts, too. Don’t even get me started about how they pretend to give two shits about my life or my family, though. They don’t. That’s just political fodder for them. The Afghans need to know that we are not quitters any more; that our word actually means something. The meaning of a person’s word has lost something in our society, but not in theirs nor in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The partnering of units remains to be seen. There are concerns that the American Regular Army units will revert to the same old behaviors that they had in the past; abusing their Afghan “partners” as the equivalent of their own pissboys. These units have received some basic COIN training, but there will be another factor, and that would be the Mc-Rod Factor. McChrystal and Rodriguez are serious about enforcing the application of their plan… that Afghan forces are going to lead and the Americans are there as a multiplier. It will only take a few bell-ringers to correct the old ways. Neither impresses me as a man to spare a career in the presence of failure to execute his orders.
Lastly a reason for optimism is the total lack of traction of failed ideas such as strict reliance on “CT” or counter terrorist operations. Discussions which contain references with suggestions to abandoning population-centric concepts for a strictly CT approach are the equivalent of discussing the merits of a football bat. It’s like asking if someone thinks that roughing the passer should be called more strictly during the World Series. Just roll your eyes and know that you’ve just heard from someone who has as much credibility in the current fight as a gelding on a stud farm. No one here on the ground is able to open their mouths and make such ridiculously inane noises. I think it’s happening back home on a regular basis, but no worries; no traction whatsoever where COIN meets the real world.
Afghanistan won’t look like a Mini-Me version of the United States. It will look like a war torn country with hope, though. Success looks like Afghans making plans to access their sub-soil resources in partnership with companies who don’t just buy the rights to a seam of ore. It looks like a court system that functions in such a way that Afghans feel that if they have a dispute, no one can buy the decision. It takes a while to come from the 19th century to the 20th, much less the 21st. We have to understand that success in Afghanistan doesn’t look like perfection; it looks like positive momentum and a lack of interest in further insurgency. There will be die-hards, but the police will be tracking them down. Success looks like most people not having time to listen to radicals because they are either on their way to work or on their way home from school. There is a lot to do to get there, but with the buy-in we’re seeing from the Afghan Army, Police and civil Ministries, as well as the civilian and NGO surge, there’s a sense that the momentum can be regained.
When George H. W. Bush declared a “New World Order, recipe ” many felt that his pronouncement was arrogant, healing domineering and a bit frightening in an Orwellian way. His words have been mocked, cheap twisted, and held up as an indicator to support conspiracy theories and in the rhetoric of those who oppose American foreign policy. The President may have been correct in his determination that there had been a change, but there was no change in behavior strategically that went along with such a sea change in global politics. The United States simply behaved as if it were the unchallenged superpower, declaring itself the world leader and chief proponent of “freedom.” America announced to the world that the world had changed, but America did not significantly change the way it dealt with this changed world. As globalization changed the world’s markets and political possibilities, the United States remained rooted in foreign policy practices that in many cases exacerbated the very problems that they were intended to ameliorate. Things got worse.
The more American foreign policy sought to “contain” extremism, the more extreme the threats that presented themselves. Numerous turning points were reached, and no turns were made. American success in supporting Afghanistan’s Mujaheddin against the Soviet invasion was widely heralded as a triumph of foreign policy. In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal the United States took no major steps to build capacity of any sort in Afghanistan. No leadership was exerted, and the little influence exerted was spent on warlords who were perceived to be pliable. Afghanistan slid first into civil war and finally into the grip of a group of backwards religious zealots who had no ability to govern and whose actions conflicted more and more with national mores and objectives. No progress was made, either, in persuading Iraq that compliance with any New World Order was unavoidable. Actions meant to bring Iraq to heel only hardened the resolve of Saddam Hussein and tightened his grip on his populace. The carrot and the stick were not working.
America was not leading in the development of human capacities. America was playing power games; games of manipulation that had unintended consequences in their second and third order effects that actually damaged American national interests and security. International terrorism, an outgrowth of Arab frustrations with their inability to defeat Israel on the conventional battlefield, and blamed also on the United States, came to the fore with the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Hijackings became relatively common. The pace of international terrorism waxed and waned, and the methodology evolved, but a widening gap opened between America and the Arab and Persian worlds.
The response of the United States to terrorism was often forceful retaliation. America sought to strengthen security agreements and arrangements with friendly, and not so friendly, countries. The political side brought pressure based on the threat of force, money and sanctions. These were considered the tools of foreign policy. Decades of foreign policy sought to erode Communism rather than trust that it would die a natural death of its own weight. It was a policy born of a lack of faith in our own system; a fear that the other could actually win somehow. While this is understandable in light of the unthinkable tragedy of WW-II, it helped spawn another, asymmetric threat. International extremism was growing, not in the least bit slowed by our old techniques. We had sponsored it in Asia in order to gall the Soviets. Now it became firmly entrenched in Middle Eastern societies.
After the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan, America determined that it had achieved a strategic victory in backing the Mujaheddin. Although there were cries for help in many areas from Afghans, funding for aid to Afghanistan was drastically cut. The Afghans were on their own. Factions fought to a near standstill over control of the country. Former allies fought viciously to control Afghanistan. Local warlords controlled areas of Afghanistan, and depredations were widespread. Kabul lay in ruins as the various factions fought for control of the symbol of power in Afghanistan. The Taliban began as a tiny group rebelling against a local warlord. The ISI began their long association with the Taliban. U.S. foreign policy, confused as ever, backed and then turned against the Taliban. Afghanistan failed as a state. Chaos reigned, concealment and incubation for exportable extremism.
Failed states affect other states. In the era of globalization, they can affect states halfway around the globe. After plenty of actions taken against American citizens and property overseas, we finally got an extreme display on our own soil on 9/11. The disaffected of Afghanistan had a hand in that. The disaffected of the Middle East participated directly. Failed or failing states threaten all.
The root causes of insurgency lie in a combination of factors. We break them into three general areas; a vulnerable population, leadership who are available to direct disaffection and weak government. U.S. foreign policy from WW-II forward often served to exacerbate insurgencies, because very often the actions taken by the American foreign policy organs were to utilize the three main tools of policy (money, sanctions and military power) to either benefit a relatively small slice of society or to punish all. The American carrot and stick were actually making things worse, just as surely as doing nothing but hunt the enemy is not weakening him in modern day Afghanistan. With a very large percentage of people under the age of 25 in Afghanistan, the recruiting pool for disaffected and angry youth is nearly endless. This is the basis for the statement that you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency.
You have to address the root causes. The military can help to secure the physical vulnerability of the population, but the population is not just physically vulnerable. They are also economically, educationally, socially and governmentally vulnerable. The military can help address the leadership issue… but then what? If we kinetically solve the problem of one leader, another will grow in his place. Government may be physically weak, unable to deliver on its mandate… or it can be morally weak in the eyes of the people, rendering it susceptible to attack both physically and rhetorically. The military cannot protect a government from rhetorical attack or the disregard that citizens will show for a morally weak government.
We Americans view ourselves as “good guys.” We are the characters who ride into town wearing white hats, sure of the effectiveness and fairness of the “American way.” We see ourselves as the champion of justice. To significant portions of the populations of poorer nations, that is not the way that we are seen. A conventionally-minded military is not the most effective counterinsurgent force. The military is not the answer to insurgency by itself, only a part of the national ability to project real power. We need to change the way that we conduct policy. This begins here in Afghanistan. If the civilian organs of American foreign policy become strong in the ways that they need to in order to assist the Afghan people forward, we stand a chance of developing significant capabilities to transform our foreign policy behavior in ways that will provide greater security than we have known in over 30 years. This is not to say that we should become wimpy. It is to say that we will become a more secure nation by assisting people who are not Americans to be more secure.
It is hard to argue with some assertions made by those in the United States who claim that we are in this position due to our own faults. These folks tend to be in opposition to American foreign policy in general, and their greatest weakness is that they offer no real alternative, only cries of exasperation or excessively isolationist recommendations that no one views as realistic. They are able to diagnose the disconnect between what we say we want and our effects on the other people on this planet. We have indeed contributed greatly to our own problems by propping up strongmen who opposed regimes that we opposed, manipulating the internal politics of nations via intrigue, arming groups and sponsoring regime change.
We helped create failed and failing states. We did nothing to help developing nations to develop the capacity to govern properly and provide essential services that a government needs to provide in order to be legitimate. We failed to assist with mentoring and guidance and examples for developing nations to develop the capacity to begin to serve their populations.
We failed in the good will and good faith departments.
The backward slide ends somewhere. Either that or the relevance of the United States in the world will continually erode. The change in our behavior needs to start in Afghanistan. If the new initiatives are successful, those who participate here are the “seed corn” for a whole new breed in foreign relations, particularly in second and third-world countries. Several Presidents have talked about American “leadership.” The best leaders are also great mentors. They assist others in their development.
By providing the mentoring and leadership to assist developing countries in their capacity building, not just governmental, but also in basic economic development (encouraging investment and partnering,) the United States can help prevent state failure. The true power of the United States is not self-contained in the military. It is also in the economic power, the technical expertise, the ease with which our services are delivered and the competence of our public employees. In return we will assist in preventing state failure and insurgencies from ever really developing by addressing their root causes before they have a chance to develop. We will create markets and opportunity. Security will be secured and enhanced.
In order to be successful in Afghanistan, we will need to develop these competencies in our foreign policy organs. A new breed can be birthed in Afghanistan that will change the way that we deal with the world around us and by being more beneficial reap rewards for our own people at home.
This week, Abu Muqawama is asking if, in 600 words or less, involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is in America’s (and her partners’) strategic interests. Well, that depends on whether you believe in World 2.0 or not. By that I mean not some bizarre New World Order. By that I mean that the world is no longer a place that is compartmentalized and insulated. 9/11 was a symptom, not the disease. The disease is that failed or failing states can, will and do have a profound impact on the rest of the world.
If you live in a neighborhood and your next door neighbor, only a few yards away, has major problems with drugs and unruly children, how will that affect you? He has a violent brother-in-law living in a Winnebago in the driveway. Their house and yard will likely be unsightly, which will affect your property values. You will occasionally have trash blown into your yard. Eventually, when they get rats in their garage, you will get them, too. You will be affected, though they do not have the keys to your house.
What if you live a block away? Perhaps your yard will not be messy due to the neighbor a block away. Will your children be affected by their interactions with the unruly children? What about when the rats breed really well… is there a possibility that some may find their way into your house? The violent brother-in-law keeps a guest in his Winnebago who has taken a strong dislike to you and has attacked you, breaking your nose and destroying your mailbox by smashing a car into it. He vows to burn down your house. You and your friends go over to confront him, but he has left a note saying, “I’m gonna get you, sucka,” and fled. You suspect he is still hiding in the neighborhood. He and his friends still leave you threatening voice mails.
Whoops… now their neighbor is partying with them, too. Taking the same drugs. He owns weapons and explosives. Explosives that can knock down the house of his other neighbor, with whom he does not get along. They constantly bicker about which one of them owns a large tree they both covet. It’s not in your interest for these neighbors to get some help though, is it? When the one blows up the other, will that not affect your house as well? In World 2.0, the world is a neighborhood. No longer are we separated by economies that are completely unaffected by the failed
families states of the world. No longer do the disaffected and violent of Asia remain only a Central Asian problem. We cannot hide from the world any more than our auto manufacturers can wish Honda, Toyota and Hyundai away.
I know it’s a simplistic analogy. Sure, it’s flawed. If you do not buy into the fact that the world is getting smaller, that we are more a global ecosystem and society than just some global warming debate, then the chances are that you will not see any strategic interest here. If you do believe that we live in a global society, then what affects some strongly affects all to some extent. Can we ever really have security in our own home if our neighbor is unstable, violent, drug-addicted and generally out of control? Can we sleep easily when that neighbor blames us for all or some of his problems?
Now, if there is nothing to my analogy, and you don’t buy into it at all, then the answer is likely, “No, it’s not entirely in our strategic interest.” You will likely subscribe to Bacevich’s “Blood and Treasure” equation. But, even with a flawed analogy, what if there is something to what I’m saying? What if the events in little valleys in Afghanistan can send ripples around the entire planet?
Is that not what happened on 9/11?
Say what you will about the Obama administration’s domestic policies, which this blog is not about, nor will it ever be. Somehow or other, they have managed to put together the dream team on Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have listened to them in forming the new “AfPak Policy,” and when you see such men as David Kilcullen testifying before the House Armed Services Committee and hear the things that they are saying… and being taken mui seriously… there is room for hope.
Even though the “new policy” appears to back away from nation-building, it holds more hope for success in and for AfPak than what we’ve been doing in the past. The “surge” may or may not be a wonderful thing in Afghanistan. It depends on whether the troops are used properly, but if GEN Petraeus pushes his authority and begins to be ruthless with commanders about enforcing a standard of counterinsurgent achievement, it will much more helpful than harmful. I’d like to quote an email from my friend and fellow blogger Vampire 6 here regarding the counterinsurgent behaviors versus words he finds in field grade officers in Afghanistan, but I didn’t ask for permission. Suffice it to say that there is a significant variance. Of course, that is only the military side of the question.
What is even more encouraging is the recognition of the importance of the civilian/economic aspects to stabilizing the societies of both Afghanistan and Northwest Pakistan. This war is about society and its conditions in both areas, really. The insurgency will never be resolved through killing bad guys exclusively. While we should never shy away from killing bad guys, an exclusive quest for kinetic engagements is a great way to fail at COIN. While this causes many military listeners to shut down completely (a symptom of the problem we have in successfully implementing COIN doctrine tactically,) the more military leaders can hear that message and understand the linkage, the more success we will find. Each one who “gets it” is then capable of making a difference in their discrete area of operations. All politics is local, and as these discrete areas come under the influence of leaders who are making a difference, the balance will start to swing.
It starts at the top. While today’s hearings are only one day’s hearings, the momentum towards an effective application of national abilities in the pursuit of sane and rational foreign policy objectives is mounting. I see wicked smart people being listened to at the highest levels, and this is extremely encouraging. Nobody is perfect, and just like a sports team on game day, we play with the team we have. President Bush went to war with a team that had never anticipated or trained for, and had a policy of stringent avoidance of, irregular warfare. He had a Secretary of Defense who was more interested in showing off the conventional primacy of the our nation by beating Iraq’s military with one hand tied behind our backs, totally missing the larger picture. He had officers who had never seriously contemplated the challenges of counterinsurgency and an Army and Marine Corps without a relevant doctrine. It took the Bush administration’s Army and Marine Corps over five years after the start of hostilities to publish the relevant doctrine, and there are still traditionalist dinosaurs who resist the promulgation of the only doctrine that has a hope of succeeding against an insurgency, which is not AirLand Battle Doctrine, but Counterinsurgency Doctrine.
These are our cavemen. If GEICO were to make doctrine commercials, the slogan would have to be, “COIN; So difficult a caveman can’t do it.”
There is a saying that one good way to discredit a good idea is to execute it poorly, and as has been pointed out in two recent posts, we have an Officer Corps rife with those who wish to refuse the mission. These leaders will use all the right buzzwords and then proclaim the failure of a doctrine which is not really applied, but instead merely parroted. If the mounting momentum towards an actual integrated policy such as the one being developed by the Obama administration continues, we may yet see the ruthless weeding out of such officers from the ranks and the furtherance of a corps of leaders who have the mental and professional flexibility to actually practice what is being preached.
Hell, they may even start teaching COIN Doctrine to NCO’s in their professional education, bringing the Backbone of the Army into play. Training your troops to execute the doctrine you need to win? What a concept.
Domestic policy will never be the subject of this blog. But it would be a kick in the head if President Obama, who was expected to be a domestic policy wonk and never a foreign policy success, actually brings success not only in Afghanistan but the region. The team he has assembled has advocated a plan to do this through the proper and synergistic use of the military and civilian power of the United States to achieve excellent results. The team he has assembled are, without a doubt, world class. There is room for optimism.