23 September 2009

The News

Hardly anyone in Iraq is talking about the latest plan for Afghanistan, although it is clearly dominating the milblogosphere. I can't really say anything that hasn't been said already, so I'll have to pass you all on to the following, before I go back to making fun of Qadaffi.

Also, a bit of an admin note for all you WOI followers--the quality of posts will decline for the next week or two. But don't worry--soon I'll be back in the US and I'll have an inordinate amount of time (and bandwidth) for milblogging. This is good for you.

Anyway, a lot of Afghanistan links and quotes from around the milblogosphere. I have to say, with last week's Presidential interview, the leaked McChrystal report, and the Karzai's election fraud, I'm beginning to think we're about to see the end of the Afghanistan. Of course, I said that about Iraq a few years back, and here I am. Anyway, without further ado:

Andrew Exum

When the president decides on his strategy for Afghanistan (for real this time), he's going to make a lot of people unhappy. He might, if he decides to resource a counterinsurgency strategy and back a request for more troops, make his base and his own vice president upset. If he decides to consolidate gains in Afghanistan, downsize the footprint, and conduct a counter-terror campaign focused on Pakistan, meanwhile, he's going to make Republicans and the military leadership unhappy. The latter believe that only a properly resourced counterinsurgency strategy will succeed in Afghanistan. But their job is to give their best military advice and to then leave the political decision up to the president, who should and will weigh a number of other factors into his decision. But again, once a decision has been made, everyone -- from the vice president to the military leadership (to 31-year old counterinsurgency bloggers?) -- needs to get onboard. Despite this report from Nancy, I get the sense that the military leadership will have an easier time executing the president's policy if their advice is ignored than the vice-president will if he doesnt get his way.

Tom Ricks

The New Yorker's George Packer and the Washington Post's Bob Woodward weigh in with complementary pieces that illuminate a lot of what is going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Packer's profile of aging diplo-wunderkind Richard Holbrooke is close to book length, and every word is worth reading. He plumbs three great mysteries: problems: the future of Afghanistan, the situation in Pakistan, and the size of Holbrooke's ego. He also offers up some wonderful asides. This one particularly struck me:

"Washington promotes tactical brilliance framed by strategic conformity -- the facility to outmaneuver one's counterpart in a discussion, without questioning fundamental assumptions."

Packer also touches on an issue of strategic process I was discussing last week, that the purpose of high-level meetings must be in part to find and explore differences of view. Holbrooke tells him:

"... you want open airing of views and opinions and suggestions upward, but once the policy's decided you want rigorous, disciplined implementation of it. And very often in the government the exact opposite happens. People sit in a room, they don't air their real differences a false and sloppy consensus papers over those underlying differences, and they go back to their offices and continue to work at cross purposes, even actively undermining each other. "

That strikes me as a pretty good summary of the Bush Administration's handling of Iraq, 2002-2006 -- but if other examples occur to readers, I would be interesting in hearing about it. I think this is a frequent problem in developing American strategy.

War is Boring

1) Tactics must back strategy to be effective. Whether or not to send more troops is a tactical debate, not a strategic one. The questions of "should we" and "where will they be/what will they do" is not nearly so important as "what do we hope they will achieve?" We have to define and prioritize U.S. interests in Afghanistan before we can think about things like troops numbers, COIN, equipment or outreach.

2) Pakistan should be a major concern, perhaps the major concern. The U.S. has lived with an unstable Afghanistan — even with an Al-Qaeda presence — for years, whereas Pakistan has only gained in strategic importance since the 1949 Partition. In terms of population, geographic location, economic effect and position in the community of nations, Pakistan is far, far more important than Afghanistan. Not to mention nuclear weapons.

5) The Taliban is not a monolithic force. Though coordinated, it is not under the sole command of a single person. The Quetta Shura group, Jalaludin Haqqani's network, those loyal to Mullah Omar — they are different groups, working together towards common aims. They are ethnically diverse but largely Afghan; many of the people planting bombs are young unemployed men from nearby villages.

6) The Taliban is not Al Qaeda. There is a great distinction between the two. Most American experts believe that Al Qaeda is almost completely nonexistent in Afghanistan, preferring the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. They may exchange resources and even money, but Al Qaeda is not considered responsible for attacks on the U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Jamie Mcintyre

Marc Lynch

Middle East Institute

Try to avoid the "Obama versus the professional military" narrative. I think it's pretty clear what McChrystal is actually saying: the professional military has plenty of doubts about Afghanistan, too. But if our assignment is to assess what is needed to win it, this is our assessment. Whether that is a practical policy, whether the investments outweigh the potential risks, is a political decision; they've spelled out the military realities.

Don't trust the "failure is not an option" argument. No military man makes such arguments, at least not since the fall of Imperial Japanese militarism. Suicide in the name of a cause is not rational strategy. Some of the supporters of the war come close to that argument: we can't afford to lose. But if you also can't afford to win, you bleed unendingly, as we did in Vietnam and the Soviets did in Afghanistan. That's not what McChrystal is saying, and those who make such arguments are not supporting the careful analyses of the generals. They've watched the opening of Patton too many times. Patton really did give that speech, but he was being a cheerleader, not a strategist (and he was at least as good an actor as George C. Scott).

Sic Semper Tyrannis

William S. Lind

In a curious passage, the report says, on page 2-20,

The greater resources (ISAF requires) will not be sufficient to achieve success, but will enable implementation of the new strategy. Conversely, inadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced.

Here we encounter the report's most dangerous failing. It confuses the strategic and the operational levels of war. In fact, the report does not offer a new strategy, but a new operational-level plan. How the war is fought, i.e. by following classic counter-insurgency doctrine, is operational, not strategic.

America must find a new strategy, since the current strategy depends on an Afghan state that does not exist. But the report offers no new strategy. The passage on page 2-20 thus ends up saying, "If you don't give us more troops, we will fail. But you shouldn't give us more troops unless we adopt a new strategy, which we don't have. And even if you do give us the troops we want for the new strategy we haven't got, they will not be enough to achieve success." This reveals utter intellectual confusion.

The proper response of the White House, the Pentagon, and Congress to General McChrystal's report is, "Back to the drawing board, fellas."


David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/24/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

J. said...

good collection of articles.