June 29, 2011

Back in the USSA, Part IV: Readings

There are two items of note I want to highlight to which I was not able to draw attention while traveling. The first is this post by my friend Steve Negus on Issandr's blog on how Libyan rebels are learning to fight by ... playing video games. Alternately fascinating and hilarious.

The second item to which I want to draw your attention is this paper by Doug Ollivant* for the New America Foundation challenging the "new orthodoxy" about what led to the dramatic drop in ethno-sectarian violence in Iraq in 2007. This is an excellent paper. Doug knows enough to know that we cannot definitively determine what caused the 2007 drop in violence, but he advances what he calls "an alternative, counter-narrative" to those offered by Tom Ricks, Bob Woodward, Kim Kagan, Linda Robinson
and others.** (Which is in itself interesting in part because Doug is one of the heroes of these other narratives -- most especially that of Robinson.)

Doug is one of the smartest thinkers on counterinsurgency I know***, and his piece is littered with interesting observations, though again, it is as tough to prove Doug's narrative is any more valid, given the lack of evidence, than that of Tom Ricks or, say, Peter Feaver. There are just too many variables out there, and as I have argued ad nauseum, the best we can hope to do in the absence of causality is to establish correlation among all the things that happened.

Some of the more interesting observations, though, concern Afghanistan, from where Doug recently returned after a year spent as John Campbell's counterinsurgency advisor. Here are a few choice excerpts. This first one echos a point I made yesterday:

The President’s statements have been ambiguous, ever since his West Point speech of 2009, during which he both authorized an increase in troop strength, and gave a July 2011 date for the beginning of their withdrawal, recently confirmed in an address on the future of the war. This mixed message from the President (which continues to resonate despite post-Lisbon Conference messaging about 2014, and not 2011, being the key date) has been echoed by his administration. This ambiguity is almost certainly driven by the desire to reconcile the largely incompatible goals of permanently and decisively denying
al Qaeda safe havens and Taliban establishment in Afghanistan, while simultaneously avoiding long-term intervention and nation building at astronomical cost. So in short, while the troops have arrived in Afghanistan, the unambiguous message of support and presence that accompanied the 2007 Iraq surge has not. We should not be surprised when politicians in both Afghanistan and Pakistan react accordingly.

This second bit is more sobering:

...it is unlikely that a push of more forces, better tactical counterinsurgency, and the arrival of a highly talented commander can compensate for a lack of political commitment and absence of shared goals between the host nation and the intervening power.

Read the whole paper here, watch Doug run his yap here, and many kudos to the New America Foundation for giving such a smart scholar-practitioner a home.

*Hahahaha, I love Doug like a brother, but he needs to change his profile picture. "Oui, c'est moi. Je suis au musée du Louvre parce que je suis un homme de culture. Regardez l'angoisse sur mon visage parce que je ne peux pas se permettre une coupe de cheveux."

**Carl Prine dings me for citing Robinson and Ricks in my recent IFRI paper (in his otherwise very touching, thought-provoking post), but I did write that this was an incomplete sample and not a full review of the literature. At least I did in the initial draft I turned in.

***It struck me as so weird and stupid that Doug is set up as some kind of anti-COIN rival to my boss (and his longtime friend) John Nagl in this snarky, argumentative National Journal piece. Doug is as much a card-carrying COINdinista as anyone, and those who understand the continued scholarly and policy development of counterinsurgency know there are genuine operational and strategic differences of opinion concerning COIN and how it should be applied in Afghanistan. (Big footprint with lots of general purpose forces? Small footprint with more special operations trainers? Some combination of both? All of that is counterinsurgency -- it's just different ways of doing it.) More to follow on this...