January 10, 2011

Kagan Squared on Afghanistan

Early this morning, I participated in a discussion of Kim and Fred Kagan's new report on Afghanistan. I'm going to briefly share my comments on the report:

First, despite the unpopularity of the war in Afghanistan, it strikes me that we see a whole lot of agreement about where we're going. Very few people think garrisoning a land-locked state in Central Asia with 150,000 NATO troops makes a lot of strategic sense in the long run, and most people in and around policy-making circles agree that the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan should transition away from counterinsurgency and toward a strategy combining counter-terror activities with a train-and-equip mission. I see the differences begin to emerge in two places:

1. Presentation: For many folks -- whether it be Richard Haass, Michael Cohen, Bing West
or Peter Galbraith -- there is this need to talk first about how stupid the war is and how we need to "draw down" before then ... recommending a long-term security partnership with Afghanistan as well as a robust residual force to both target al-Qaeda and associated movments and to continue to train local security forces. (A lot of this strikes me as posturing, though I do not want to insult either West or Cohen want to exempt West and Cohen from that charge. I am reading the former's book
at the moment, and the latter is someone with whom I have had more substantive disagreements.) Others, though, have instead just focused on how to get from Point A to Point Z with no need to ramble on about how much they don't like the war. 

2. Substance: There is genuine disagreement about how much -- if any -- counterinsurgency you need to do before the conditions are set for that alternate, less resource-intensive strategy. There is also disagreement about how big a residual force you need, and what you should do about Pakistan and the government of Afghanistan between 2011 and 2014. So there is more room for substantive, reasonable disagreement about Points B through Y. I am, as you all know, in the camp of those who agree with Kim and Fred that you have to set conditions for a new strategy in Afghanistan through NATO-led counterinsurgency operations between now and ~2013. But you can read my own opinions about what we should do in greater detail here.

Second, as far as the Kagan paper is concerned, I had three big(ish) reservations, which should not detract from all the many things I found in the paper with which I agreed:

1. I am much more heistant to champion the tactical gains of 2010. The Kagans, to their credit, acknowledge that the "true test" of the successes of 2010 will be whether or not they have a lasting, strategic effect in 2011. But I would have led with that uncertainty. We simply do not know how significant the security gains in southern Afghanistan are until they have weathered a Taliban counter-offensive in 2011. (And I do not understand why Josh Foust chose to rake the Kagans over the coals for saying it is too soon to tell whether or not tactical successes in 2010 will mature into strategic effects in 2011. Surely this is a quite reasonable thing to say?)

2. I am not nearly as enthusiastic about the ALP (Afghan Local Police) as are Kim, Fred and Gen. Petraeus -- among others. To me, the high-level enthusiasm for the ALP reminds me a lot of the high-level enthusiasm for the AP3 program and other local defense initiatives in 2009 and 2010. In both the former as well as in the case of the ALP programs, it is worth noting that the Special Forces officers actually charged with running the programs were and remain much more cautious about how well these programs will work and whether or not they can be rapidly expanded.

3. I am much more cautious about the situation in northern Afghanistan. On the one hand, I have seen ISAF make the case why many within the intelligence community and think tank community are wrong to sound the alarm over northern Afghanistan so loudly. But given the degree to which intelligent observers disagree about the situation in northern Afghanistan, surely it is wise to gather more evidence before pronouncing all to be well. 

I thought the Kagans made some good observations in the report that make it worth reading, including the observation that hard fighting remains in eastern Afghanistan. I do not think the peoples of the troop-contributing nations (aside from the people of Afghanistan) really understand this. The war is being fought in phases, and assuming -- and this is a huge planning assumption -- that things hold in southern Afghanistan, the bulk of ISAF's efforts will shift northeast up the ring road in 2011 and 2012.

I left the life of a U.S. Army officer in Afghanistan in 2004 to try my hand at social science and picked up a concentration in the Arabic-speaking world along the way. The social sciences gave me the epistemological questions I'm always asking myself -- "How do I know what I 'know'?" -- and the regional concentration made me more aware of what I do not know when looking at another, new region. So I am very cautious -- maybe too cautious, for all I know -- about drawing conclusions on what is taking place in Afghanistan at the moment. (And, goodness gracious, I would have never made the attempt Fred and Kim made to delve into Pashtunwali, but good on them for trying.) But Fred and Kim spent a lot of time in 2010 in Afghanistan, and anyone who dismisses their report out of hand is foolish. I said little at but really enjoyed today's discussion. I'll post a video as it becomes available below.