October 14, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading

A.J. Rossmiller on where things really stand in Afghanistan right now:

First, the insurgency does not have the capability to defeat U.S. forces or depose Afghanistan’s central government; and, second, U.S. forces do not have the ability to vanquish the insurgency. It’s true that the Taliban has gained ground in recent months, but, absent a full and immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, it cannot retake sovereign control. This is not to say that Afghanistan isn’t unstable; it clearly is. That has been the case for eight years, however, and, in the absence of some shocking, unforeseen development, it could be true for another eight or 18 or 80 years. An increase of tens of thousands of troops will not change that fact, nor will subtle tactical changes. Rather than teetering on the edge of some imagined precipice, the situation in Afghanistan is at a virtual stalemate.

Rossmiller's argument is that Pres. Obama doesn't need to rush the decision-making on this, and that if a surge can't show a clear path out of the stalemate, it needs to be rethought, perhaps by reintroducing the prospect of negotiations.

Kyle Flynn makes a cogent argument why negotiation and reconciliation are not realistic, however.

I also believe that we sometimes forget that the Quetta Shura Taliban, Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin, and the Haqqani networks are comprised primarily of Afghan nationals. From my experience and to our own detriment, I believe that we often overlook the local nature of this conflict. At what point do we finally admit that we are fighting an enemy that will never align its interest to those of Coalition forces and our host-nation allies? Clearly then, to defeat the insurgency we have to eliminate the insurgents. The notion that we can today somehow align ourselves with a moderate Taliban that tomorrow will not realign itself with the same fanatics with whom it's been fighting all these years is ridiculous.

Flynn also argues that an even larger ANA is the wrong tool to promote national unity, due to its primarily non-Pashtun composition:

The very idea of a developing a 200,000 strong Afghan army which can operate freely and effectively throughout the heart of the insurgency is a non-starter. While we should be focused on developing localized defense forces to combat and defeat an internal insurgency, we are instead creating an army better positioned to combat external threats. Again, we seem to have a knack for confusing the bottom-up and top-down approaches to strategic success in Afghanistan.

Some may argue however that a non-Pashtun army will be more willing to engage a Pashtun insurgency and more importantly not succumb so easily to Taliban infiltration. While I agree to some extent with both assumptions, I would also argue that only localized security forces have the ability to collect the intelligence necessary to defeat this type of insurgency. Thus, the risk of Taliban infiltration of localized security forces is unavoidable because without the collection of localized intelligence, the war is all but lost. So if the local population has no intention of assisting an Afghan army battalion comprised of different ethnicities, then in my opinion the battalion's tactical value is close to zero.

True dat. Meanwhile the Times looks in on how ANA training is going, as training goals are cut back in order to achieve more boots on the ground, faster:

Another official, who declined to be named, said: “You could argue that the recruits are being made cannon fodder. Every time we lower the bar it’s the minimum we can get away with until someone says we need to lower it more to speed things up.”

It's true that quantitative increases in this environment will inevitably lead to a drop in quality. And it's not the Afghans that want a larger army, faster: its Western troops who need those Afghan faces and door-kickers for their kinetic ops.

So what's the alternative? Austin Long takes a crack:

I am firmly convinced that a shift to a "small footprint" counter-terrorism mission is not only possible but will best serve U.S. national security. To use a military term of art, the bottom line up front is that the United States could successfully transition to an effective small footprint counterterrorism mission over the course of the next three years, ending up with a force of about 13,000 military personnel (or less) in Afghanistan.

It's a sound proposal for the pure CT side of the fight. Long specifically avoids listing the additional commitments required to bolster the Afghan government, or explaining how we untangle ourselves from the current overextended situation, saving those ideas for future posts, so more to follow on this one.

Finally Michael Innes obliquely makes a suggestion about what a NATO role could be if the US were to go with such a pure CT approach (which implies abandoning large parts of the south and east to the insurgents) in his post, "The Safe Haven Myth:"

At the same time, the forces in Afghanistan could create "safety zones" for civilians as outlined in international humanitarian law. The French did so during Operation Turquoise during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The United Nations established safe cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina during its 1992-1995 war and a no-fly zone over Kurdistan in Iraq in the late 1990s. These aren't perfect examples, but they show that the United States might be able to make a "model district archipelago" to help make the country more stable and safe.

My concern there would be that we'd be going back to the past a little, with split military commands and split mandates (CT and population protection). Unless you could somehow clearly demarcate the borders of the two missions, that wouldn't work, as the last eight years have shown. And if you didn't you'd continue to enjoy the current extreme confusion over what we're doing in the country, exactly, which merging the military missions (OEF and ISAF) at the command level has only just begun to mitigate.

In any case, it's nice to see Foreign Policy has more under the hood than that schteaming pile of poo Michael Scheuer dropped on us yesterday.

UPDATE: Finally, if you are an avid reader of all things Afghanistan, you won't get much out of last night's Frontline documentary you haven't heard before. I thought it a stark, almost devastating argument against a COIN approach: Gen. McChrystal is positively Quixotic (Cyranoic?) in his insistence it's the right thing to do regardless of the cost, but the example from Helmand is not encouraging to look at in any way, the COIN advocates (Exum and Nagl) are sublimely unconvincing ("even if we do everything right we could still lose", "we'll never have enough soldiers to meet the normal requirements of COIN"), the Pakistani allies come across as extremely feckless, the Afghans are largely mute (not a single Afghan advocate for us staying is featured) and the ISAF ChOps' statement at the end is all we can hope for for all the years of effort to come will be "an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem"... that's right up there with "put an Afghan face on the operation" as far as useless, meaningless buzzwords go. Still, I would recommend it to those less engaged in the debate thus far as a good primer.

Posted by BruceR at 10:33 AM