10 August 2009

Afghanistan Shrugged, Part II

Today brings a new round of articles regarding American strategy in Afghanistan, many of which come from a number of prominent writers within the military and foreign policy arena, to include Andrew Exum, who just recently participated in General Stanley McChrystal's policy review of Afghanistan this past month or so.

Exum—better known as Abu Muqawama (although I don't need to tell my fans that)—has opened up the forum at CNAS—the Center for a New American Security--to a debate on Afghanistan in the grand strategic sense.

As I mentioned the other day, the blogosphere and the news media—even among the more prominent COINdinista milbloggers (for example, "turcopolier", a former Green Beret colonel at Sic Semper Tyrannis, and Marc "Abu Aardvark" Lynch at Foreign Policy Online)—have written scathing critiques on the war in Afghanistan in the past few weeks, a point which Exum acknowledged in his blog, noting:

Upon returning from Afghanistan, one of the things I have noticed is how quickly support for the war in Afghanistan has diminished in the United States (especially in progressive circles) and the frustrations of those who feel we are prosecuting a war into its ninth year without debating whether or not the war is in U.S. interests.

Make no mistake: I applaud General McChrystal's renewed vigor in executing a comprehensive population-centric counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, particularly after that war had been neglected for several years. Certainly, no one wants to see the Taliban in power. Especially since the Taliban have been responsible for egregious human rights violations—including, most recently, using squirt guns to spray acid into the faces of girls simply for attending school.

Nevertheless, a number of us have been starting to ask honest questions about our fundamental assumptions about Afghanistan—the strategic goals in that nation and how we go about achieving our foreign policy objectives. Below are a list, some of which are inspired from other blogs.

  1. Is the war in Afghanistan is primarily a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban, or is it a counter-terror campaign against al Qaeda? Or is it both? I understand that David Kilcullen has labeled this as a "hybrid" war against al Qaeda/the Taliban/narcotics warlords/tribal interests. Which should we be dealing with? Which poses the greatest threat to NATO interests? What is their relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda at this time?
  2. Will Afghanistan once again become a "breeding ground" for al Qaeda if the US were to withdraw? If the US were to leave Afghanistan, would al Qaeda simply stay in the FATA region of Pakistan, or move back to Afghanistan? Would they vacate to another area of the world? Would al Qaeda and other takfiri movements recruit members from other areas of the world through long-distance methods, such as the Internet? How do we effectively counter a threat that is as trans-national and mobile as al Qaeda?
  3. How is al Qaeda organized? Were the 9-11 attacks were planned from Afghanistan, or does al Qaeda have a more decentralized organization? If al Qaeda is a decentralized, trans-national organization, how do we effectively disrupt it?
  4. Democracy in Afghanistan: With tribalism, poor communications, and rampant illiteracy, is a strong central democratic government likely to succeed? Have our attempts to establish a strong central government led to the rampant corruption in Kabul? Would we be better off strengthening defense and governance at the tribal level to protect against Taliban intimidation (with much closer monitoring)?
  5. Finally, as a thought exercise, let me ask the obvious question: Who are the Taliban? Is it one entity or is it a collection of loosely-affiliated groups?

Exum has set up a Gmail account (afghanistanstrategy@gmail.com) in order to collect many of the comments and suggestions from readers on Afghanistan in the grand strategic sense. While many criticize Exum for concentrating on Afghanistan in the tactical sense, based on his counterinsurgency experience, it should also be noted that he was called to Afghanistan to provide just that—advice on how to conduct population-centric COIN in Afghanistan.

The trap that I hope we avoid falling into, however, is using our new counterinsurgency strategy because "it works". As I think back to when I first read John Nagl's "Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife", I realize that one of the most profound statements that he made concerned the propensity of US generals in Vietnam to apply conventional warfighting techniques to a counterinsurgency. Nagl went on to say that "when all you have is a hammer, all the problems look like nails", with the implication being that conventional warfighting was the hammer, and its indiscriminate use was applied to irregular threats—the nails, as it were. Now, I fear that those of us in the counterinsurgency camp might be falling into the same trap. Since the Iraq experience has taught us the merits of counterinsurgency, we may be indiscriminately applying it in Afghanistan when it might not be the right tool from the toolkit.

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