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These past few weeks have brought a fresh torrent of bad news from Afghanistan: a governor in a key district assassinated, U.S. and allied operations in flux, Afghan leadership in question. Policy-makers in Washington and allied capitols are wondering if the U.S. and allied counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan can succeed. These are reasonable concerns. Tony Cordesman, one of the U.S. defense analysts who has advised the command in Afghanistan, wrote today that “There is nothing more tragic than watching beautiful theories being assaulted by gangs of ugly facts. It is time, however, to be far more realistic about the war in Afghanistan. It may well still be winnable, but it is not going to be won by denying the risks, the complexity, and the time that any real hope of victory will take. It is not going to be won by ‘spin’ or artificial news stories, and it can easily be lost by exaggerating solvable short-term problems”.
Researchers – whether in think tanks or in the academy – are loathe to admit error or display genuine humility. But as the preacher-king in Ecclesiastes warned us, “Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice”. Humility pays, which is why John Calvin instructed us all to have a “teachable spirit”.
I cannot think of any place where humility pays as much as in Afghanistan. One of the smartest military analysts I know arrived in Afghanistan this past spring having never been there and promptly announced he could not understand how anyone who had not spent at least a year in Afghanistan could say anything of consequence about the country. And the longer I spend time away from Afghanistan, the less confidence I have that I can even understand operations there or the challenges facing U.S. and allied officers, diplomats and aid workers – to say nothing of ordinary Afghans. This is one of the reasons why I have been reluctant to say anything in the media or in a policy paper on the tactical and operational levels of war in 2010. And having spent a good many years of my life studying one sub-region of the Arabic-speaking world, I have always been quick to point out that my lack of Dari and Pashtu language skills or time spent in Afghanistan as a civilian researcher really means that I am confined to observing and offering comment on NATO/ISAF operations and U.S. and allied policy and strategy rather than on Afghan culture or society.
Judge what follows with that massive caveat emptor in the back of your head.
The purpose of this post is to revisit some assumptions we – to include this analyst – have made about the environment in Afghanistan as well as U.S. strategy and operations. A year on from President Obama’s “white paper” outlining U.S. policy and strategic aims in Afghanistan and Pakistan, what assumptions remain valid and what assumptions need correction?
Wags like to joke that when you “assume” you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. Very funny, sure, but the reality is that assumptions are necessary for strategy, the social sciences, and everyday life. The economist Greg Mankiw writes that assumptions help us “simplify the complex world and make it easier to understand … The art in scientific thinking – whether in physics, biology, or economics – is deciding which assumptions to make”.
In war, getting your assumptions right does not necessarily mean you win, and getting them wrong doesn’t necessarily mean you lose. As with all things, the ability to execute matters most, and in war, setting priorities and allocating sufficient resources matters quite a bit as well. In Afghanistan, it is unclear that the United States and its allies have allotted sufficient resources (time, troops, money) to execute a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. It is also unclear whether or not the United States and its allies can execute such a strategy in southern Afghanistan if given sufficient resources. We have to be honest about that, as well as about the possibility that we could somehow end up with a favorable policy outcome regardless of those concerns.
This post, though, is about assumptions. In Afghanistan, leaders at the political, strategic, operational and tactical levels of the war have made and continue to make assumptions that allow them to plan and execute a strategy and operations. Some of the assumptions made in 2009 have proven correct in 2010. Some have proven in need of correction, and that means leaders need to revisit their plan. Here are some of them:
1. "The United States and its allies will devote the time, money, and troops to execute a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan". Probably False. For a variety of reasons – some good, some less good, some having to do with massive oil spills that didn't exist in 2009 and a financial crisis that didn't exist in 2007 – the United States and its allies will likely not provide the resources necessary for a long-term counterinsurgency effort. They might have in 2003. But in 2009? In retrospect, it was always going to be unlikely, and I think I personally overestimated U.S. and allied resources available (including but not limited to political will).
2. "The United States and its allies have vital interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan". Probably True. Tony Cordesman is correct when he writes that we have no reason to maintain a long-term presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. But disrupting networks of violent non-state actors is a vital U.S. interest, and allowing these non-state actors to establish a safe haven in Afghanistan is not in our interests. As with anything, the trick is weighing marginal costs versus marginal benefits. I do not have faith in my ability to accurately assess either.
3. "Afghanistan is a binary conflict between the government and the insurgents".* Certainly False. Take a close look at Helmand Province or read the chapter written by Tom Coughlin in this book. On the one hand, you have a binary conflict between insurgents and the government. On the other hand, you have inter-tribal rivalries layered on top of that conflict. And on someone else’s hand, you have the drug trade layered onto both. Try to imagine a battalion commander who speaks only English figuring all that out by June 2011. And if most counterinsurgency strategies are about extending the reach of the government, should we still do that if the government is known to be corrupt and predatory?
4. "The provision of social services leads to a reduction of violence". Mostly false. Theorists and practitioners of counterinsurgency had long argued, as Galula did, that “the counterinsurgent should … seize every opportunity to help the population with his own resources and equipment”. And as Eli Berman and David Laitin demonstrated, insurgent groups do in fact benefit from providing social services. But how about counterinsurgent forces? There the evidence is weaker. Berman & Co. have demonstrated that CERP funding – and CERP funding alone among aid and development spending – likely had an effect on the drop of violence in Iraq. But Andrew Wilder argues that even CERP funding is destabilizing in Afghanistan. Whether or not any of the $70b the United States and its allies have spent on aid and development has had a stabilizing effect seems to be unproven. This has, I think, some serious implications for U.S. aid and development strategy going forward.
5. "What we do is what matters".** Mostly false. I think we drew some false lessons out of the Baghdad security operations of 2007, thinking it was what we did that caused the dramatic drop in violence that allowed for a political process to take place and allows us to consider the Surge to have been a success. As I have pointed out several times here on the blog, there was a lot of stuff going on in Iraq in 2007 – a Jaysh al-Mahdi ceasefire, the effects of a brutal civil war, the Sahwa, etc. U.S. military operations most certainly had an effect on levels of violence, but correctly portioning out causal responsibility for the drop in violence among all those factors is impossible. One lesson from the Surge, though, might have been that in order for us to be successful in Afghanistan, a lot of stuff outside U.S. and allied military operations was going to have to go right. Another lesson might have been that conditions might change on the ground without us having the ability to accurately explain why. Regardless, in Afghanistan, it is always worth remembering that we are waging a war on behalf of a host nation. What the leaders of that host nation do or fail to do matters more than what we do or fail to do.
6. "Population-centric counterinsurgency is appropriate for Afghanistan". Mostly true but perhaps false in one key way. The enemy in insurgencies can control his loss rate and is fluid – while the population is fixed. That’s why we’re population-centric. But does population-centric mean protecting the population or controlling the population? And if you do not have detention authority and the population is 70% rural, can you even do the latter? I’m not sure.
I still think, as echoed in this New York Times editorial, that "General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy still seems like the best chance to stabilize Afghanistan and get American troops home." But for a lot of the same reasons Tony outlines in his most recent paper for the CSIS, I am not sure we can pull it off. I think we need to reexamine our assumptions, reconsider our strategy, and do both with the requisite epistemological humility about the environment in which we’re fighting.
*I didn’t actually make this one, but as I read a lot of policy documents from 2009, I feel like the United States and its allies largely did.
**Okay, I didn’t make this either, and I do not know any operational decision-makers who did, but I think this most certainly applies to many legislators in the U.S. Congress and to much of the U.S. public.
Update: Cohen and Boot respond. I respect the heck out of Max Boot and consider him among the smartest of the thinkers often lumped under the label "neoconservative". (He has also been intellectually brave, unafraid to take on members of his own party.) But I think Boot, like many other neoconservatives, overestimates the importance of U.S. actions and downplays the agency of others. So Afghanistan will definitely be a success if we will it? Sorry, but that's not how third-party counterinsurgency campaigns work. The actions of others matter as much or more than our own. (Though Boot is right, to a degree, about political will.)
Update II: Now Spencer, with some kind words regarding my intellectual honesty. (Hey, if you don't have much intellect, you might as well have intellectual honesty.)
Update III: The military analyst I mentioned in the third paragraph wrote in to say that he thinks an intelligent analyst would have something of consequence to say about Afghanistan after as little as 90 days on the ground -- but agreed with me that knowledge is perishable. He also pointed out regarding Assumption #3 that we often assume both the government and the insurgents to be unitary actors. Not true -- neither in Iraq nor in Afghanistan. And Joe Klein wrote in to say that his worries -- only partially articulated in this column for TIME -- dovetail with my own.
Update IV: Max Boot has penned a very thoughtful response to my, er, response. I did not write that the United States and its allies will not be successful in Afghanistan -- merely that I am having my doubts, in part because I am not sure how much I can really "know" about the battlespace and that some of my earlier assumptions have proven either wrong or in need of slight revision. As far as the success rate of counterinsurgents fighting as third parties -- that is, not on their home turf and in the service of a host nation, like the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan -- is concerned, I would point Boot in the direction of the freshly defended doctoral dissertation of one Erin Simpson (Doctor Charlie to this blog's readers). Once you're done coding everything out, it turns out it doesn't so much matter whether or not you're a democracy or an authoritarian regime. But counterinsurgents are a whole lot less likely to be successful if they are fighting as third parties as opposed to on their home territory. Boot also references my service on Gen. McChrystal's assessment team last summer. Surely he remembers that we* concluded the United States and its allies were losing the war at the time, right? We found the overall situation to be deteriorating. What was needed, we felt, was a new strategy and more resources. In 2009 and 2010, the president has devoted many more troops and resources. But that changes the cost-benefit analysis I referenced in #2 above. I want to thank, though, Max Boot and all the others who have used this post to engage in some really good (and civil) debate.
*The report, of course, did not reflect the consensus of the group and only reflected the opinion of the commander. I largely agreed with everything that was written in the first 22 pages (which were the only pages I helped draft), but there were some really dynamic debates among the various experts and strategists (and one smart-ass blogger) that were not reflected in the final text.