September 30, 2011

The Times Afghan piece: case of a bad headline

I know what people like Ackerman and Cohen are trying to say about the controversial New York Times op-ed on Afghanistan by a US Special Forces major this week, but I really think it's about them not getting past the unfortunate headline, which has nothing to do with what Maj Lujan is actually saying.

Lujan's point, which largely mirrors my own take these last two and a half years of blogging, should not be something that makes one "bang my head against the wall" (Cohen) or is "just gibberish" (Ackerman). Let's look at the thesis statement again: "the Afghans [specifically the Afghan army] have the will to win, with or without us."

Well, duh. Look, this is simple COIN 101 stuff. We can go home. They can't. If they are endangered by the shape of the political order, they will keep fighting. That's why insurgencies tend to work better against colonial powers than in countries where the regime has nowhere to go. The same has always applied in Afghanistan.

No sensible military commentator I know thinks the war will end in the Taliban's favour the day the U.S. pulls out. People who say things like that, like the current U.S. ambassador, are using scare tactics for motivational purposes.

The default state in Afghanistan, what we were trying to avoid all this time, was a return to a civil war between the north and south, one which the south would tend to have an advantage in due to Pakistani military assistance. Whether the fighting stayed in the south, or Kabul was besieged again, or some neo-Taliban faction won out in the end were all unknowns, but it was certain from the start that if the West left, the security forces would tend to fracture on previously ethnic lines, and a Northern Alliance type force would attempt to resist southern encroachment.

That force would use very different methods than the current Afghan army, more suited to their changed situation, but the Taliban, which has optimized itself to fight Westerners, would have to change their game plan too, and start holding ground, etc. There's absolutely no guarantee they'd do that well at it, or that local warlordism could not restrain them for a very long time. In those question marks, there'd be all kinds of opportunities for western Special Forces, ISR, air power, etc., to keep a thumb on the scales for relatively low cost without endangering main-force Western troops.

That's really what Lujan's saying: that after we leave, the civil war will continue, and the faction we're backing now has a fair shot of protecting itself. Well, again, duh. Do Ackerman and Cohen know anyone credible who thinks differently?

Now of course, that's not the same as Western forces "winning," as Lujan clearly admits. In fact, given that that's likely what would have happened anyway, if we'd left entirely before this, it's fair to say that kind of end state is exactly what we were trying to avoid -- making it a "loss", true, if we really must be binary about it all. So Ackerman and Cohen aren't wrong, either: we really are defining winning down at this point, if we're thinking that all we're going to have achieved is postponing the inevitable.

What I'm saying is that you can accept BOTH that the bulk of Western military intervention in Afghanistan has been useless if not counterproductive, and ALSO that the Taliban don't seem likely to be able to immediately take over when you leave. Western withdrawal isn't going to be a helicopters-out-of-Saigon moment, and was never going to be. And if you accept those two statements, Lujan's point that we need to husband our resources now to maximize our chosen Afghan faction's chances after we declare victory and go home is the right strategy.

As far as whether our faction's forces can fight, Afghan forces are the way they are now because we wanted and designed them that way: to aid in the force protection of Western troops by putting a layer between the population and us. It's what a reconstruction-led approach gets you: first we put in Provincial Reconstruction Teams to achieve goals that ultimately reflected a desire to reshape Afghan society to our ends: a mammoth and thankless task. Then we put in infantry battalions to protect and enable the PRTs. Then we rapidly and unsustainably expanded the local Afghan forces (who up to that point we'd been setting up as a ceremonial organization to provide sinecures to demilitarized warlords) to be our door kickers and the route sweepers for our infantry battalions, operating with their own discipline/promotion and our tactical control -- the worst possible combination from an accountability perspective. For instance, in my day, walking down the highway every morning and detonate or hopefully find those IEDs themselves in advance of Western forces in mine-protected vehicles. Meanwhile, we bathed the country in money to the point that anyone who wasn't a thief of some kind was actually losing ground economically, and distanced ourselves from their soldiers in every way possible. And a lot of them reacted to this by acting like unmotivated junk. Well surprise, surprise.

There was another way, even if we passed that decision point over five years ago: limit our reconstruction ambitions, focus on providing small groups of enabler staff for Afghan formations, gradually extending their ring of Afghan-led security out from Kabul, at their pace, fighting their way, accepting much higher force protection risk, accepting defeat, accepting a much smaller Afghan military, supporting a strong national government in principle but accepting that in the absence of a national army, warlordism in the hinterland was going to continue, but could still be shaped. Avoid the "antibodies" that large Western troop concentrations guaranteed... accepting that Afghan main force operations have always ended with a withdrawal back to secure environs*, and so limit them to situations backed with solid intelligence and well-defined targets... might have worked, would have been cheaper, couldn't have done any worse.

The only good thing to say about withdrawal is it gives us an opportunity to go back to some of that. What Lujan is trying to do in his piece is influence the NATO training mission and others to start thinking about re-optimizing the Afghan army now so it can continue the fight as effectively as possible when we're gone. It's only what smarter people than I have been saying all along.

If you don't like the picture of a future Afghanistan that presents, or don't feel that's enough to justify the sunk cost, or to start throwing around words like "victory" now, well, that's nice for you, but it really makes no difference in the most likely outcome here was, and never has.

*The old debate between sweep or raiding operations and "clear-hold-build" COIN-y stuff was always a false distinction. The sweep has a long and noble history, especially in Central Asia. Alexander the Great did sweeps. The British army in India did sweeps. The sweep/raid works, if it has a clear target, the sweepers actually get that target, and they move in fast and pull out fast, and convey an overall sense of overwhelming power, that they could come back tomorrow if they felt like it. The trouble with most sweeps in Afghanistan in this decade is that they hit air, and lost more casualties than they took, often because there was nothing much in place to begin with (the failed British sweep that led to Lexington and Concord in 1775 was much more successful in this regard than most of ours: at least it reclaimed a few seige guns from rebel hands). The right approach to the southern Afghanistan theatre was always aggressive, saturative patrolling and surveillance to help identify and suppress the local enemy in your safe areas, with battalion-level ops a very, very rare alternative to disrupt significant enemy concentrations in the outlying contested zones, if any appeared. But the whole point of the safe zones and the patrolling to manage them is always about keeping the freedom of action of the battalion in that safe zone as high as possible, so it could kick out on call and give a militarily significant target a thumping... in other words, a sweep. (Another way to put it is, the problem with "inkblot" strategies is the hidden assumption that an inkblot, or hold/build area, needs to expand to be sustainable, which isn't actually true. If the armed force at the centre of the inkblot is secure in its zone, and can and does go anywhere outside the inkblot on call whenever a serious challenge to its authority should arise, you have achieved basic security, or at least sovereignty, without ever expanding the inkblot. Clear-hold-build may play into a local government's fantasies of increasing its population control, but it's not actually a military requirement.)

Posted by BruceR at 11:39 AM