August 17, 2009

The Afghanistan Strategy Dialogue: My Thoughts

When I started the rather grandly titled Afghanistan Strategy Dialogue a week ago, I decided that after listening to and reading the thoughts and opinions of the readership, I would then weigh in with a few thoughts of my own to close out the exercise. Some of the readership was a bit impatient for me to offer my own thoughts, but if you get one thing out of this exercise, remember this: the war in Afghanistan is complex, as are the consequences of any policy choice, and anyone who wades into this discussion full of confidence in his or her own assumptions is not to be trusted. I wanted to hear the thoughts of my readership before I offered my own. The people who have contributed to this debate thus far have advanced propositions for discussion -- and that is how it should be. I would hope that you would all take what follows to be in the same vein.

Richard Betts has argued that military officers often make bad strategists -- in part due to the complexity of contemporary military operations. Because war is so damn hard to manage at the operational level, in other words, military officers often lack either the time or the distance to step back and consider war at the strategic level. I wonder, as a way of offering a caveat emptor to begin these thoughts, whether I too have been so deep in the weeds in the operational complexities of Afghanistan and of counterinsugency warfare in general that I am now hindered from offering anything approaching coherent thought on strategy in Afghanistan. Indeed, during the three times I have traveled to Afghanistan (2002, 2004, 2009), my time has been exclusively consumed with the realities of the war at the operational and tactical levels. (This last trip was a bit of an exception, of course, but I think anyone who served with me on the strategic review would agree that most of my pet concerns revolved around ISAF's operations and operational culture(s).)

I should also start out by saying that my thoughts on our strategy in Afghanistan are not fully formed. Over the past week, I have been impressed and influenced by some of the arguments offered up by the readership. (We received over 40 submissions for the dialogue, for example, and nearly all of them made at least one or two intelligent points about the war worth considering. I should perhaps publish a "best of the rest" post compiling them.) I should also say, though, that, again, anyone who is a bit too confident in either their support for or criticism of the war in Afghanistan should be approached with wariness. Although my internet persona is often casually arrogant and impressed with himself, Afghanistan is a country and a conflict that rewards humility. Those who have spoken with me in person about Afghanistan know how deeply I feel that.

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I have been deeply influenced by the writings of Andrew Bacevich over the past year. His calls for we Americans to live within our means both in terms of our personal expenditures and the way in which we spend our collective blood and treasure are, I think, correct and necessary. But I find his arguments on Afghanistan a little too confident. Like many who have robustly questioned our presence in the country and how it serves U.S. and allied interests, he often gives short shrift to the costs of withdrawal. I have been reading Seth Jones's bookir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0393068986 recently, and what we did and did not do in the early 1990s -- cutting aid to our friends in Afghanistan and Pakistan alike -- have had dire consequences that were not forseen at the time. Anyone who confidently glosses over either the cost of failure in Afghanistan or the effects of disengagement should be viewed with suspicion, and as much as I like and admire Bacevich and Rory Stewart, I think both men do this to varying degrees. The cost of failure really is the big "known unknown" of Afghanistan. (h/t DHR)

That unknown colors my own thoughts. I believe, contrary to many of this blog's readership, that Steve Biddle really does get our interests right in Afghanistan:

The United States has two primary national interests in this conflict: that Afghanistan never again become a haven for terrorism against the United States, and that chaos in Afghanistan not destabilize its neighbors, especially Pakistan. Neither interest can be dismissed, but both have limits as casus belli.

I also believe that both interests can be secured, and I believe that neither interest is worth unlimited U.S. and allied blood and treasure.

When we started on the review for General McChrystal, we were asked to determine whether or not NATO could succeed in its mission. Our answer was "yes, but..." Yes, we can succeed in protecting the interests articulated by Steve -- and by the president in his own review. But many of us felt -- as I know General McChrystal feels -- that only a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy stands a chance of succeeding in Afghanistan. Other operational and strategic choices -- such as a counter-terror campaign designed to either decapitate or reduce transnational terror groups -- were not seen as viable in terms of protecting stated U.S. and allied interests. (Remember, General McChrystal and others among us have tried -- and failed -- to kill our way to victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

So we are on a path to carry out a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, which should make exactly no one happy because both proponents of such strategies and their critics understand how very difficult they are and the risks involved. In order to operationalize such a strategy, we will need more troops, more money and resources dedicated to building the ANSF, and strategic patience from both Washington and the capitals of our allies. A realistic timeline for Afghanistan, as I discussed with a colleague a week back, would be ten years -- two for fighting; three for transition; five for overwatch and support. And as David Richards correctly noted, we are likely to be committed to Afghanistan in some capacity for decades.

Again, I believe the United States and its allies have clear interests in Afghanistan and that those interests are worth protecting. Are there problems with trying to fight counterinsurgency campaigns? Oh yes. Are there big weaknesses and gaps in our own counterinsurgency doctrine? Absolutely

Prosecuting a counterinsurgency campaign as a third party, for example, carries with it serious risks. We are trying, in such a campaign and to quote Rupert Smith,

to establish a condition in which the political objective can be achieved by other means and in other ways. We seek to create a conceptual space for diplomacy, economic incentives, political pressure and other measures to create a desired political outcome of stability, and if possible democracy.

But as a third party, we are limited by what the host nation's government does or fails to do. Which is why, if Afghanistan's government and institutions do not develop to the degree we need them to develop in the next few years, we should reconsider the nature of our engagement in the region. It is also why our efforts to develop certain key institutions -- namely, those that provide rule of law, such as (but not limited to) the Afghan National Security Forces -- must be the main effort over the next 18-24 months. We cannot afford to do anything in Afghanistan at this stage that does not develop capacity in Afghan institutions.

I believe, having replaced the commander in Afghanistan with the military's so-called "A Team", we now owe the command in Afghanistan the time and resources to be successful. I believe that policy-makers and the public alike have the right to expect a shift in momentum over the next 12-18 months. But they must give the men on the ground those 12-18 months. It is unfair to both the Afghans and the allies to demand a dramatic U Turn in our policy at the very moment when Afghanistan is now being given the kinds of resources and personnel so long denied to it by the war in Iraq. Politically, the deficit and health care policy are going to determine who is and is not elected in the 2010 midterm elections -- not the war in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the president can afford to be patient. He should allow the commanders and ambassadors on the ground time to develop the situation.

[If change is not evident by Christmas 2010, President Obama, then direct the Department of Defense to shift its strategy in conjuntion with that of the NATO alliance. But until then, allow your new commander -- the guy you put in charge because you fired the other guy and after you promised to properly resource the war on the campaign trail -- to develop a plan for winning and to execute that plan.] 

Again and in conclusion, I want to stress my previous caveat emptor. I have been involved with the war in Afghanistan at the tactical and operational levels since it began. And this blog has been following counterinsurgency at the operational and tactical levels nonstop for the past two and a half years. So my own ability to see the big picture here may be clouded, and again, Afghanistan -- the country and the conflict -- encourages humility in anyone who studies it. But at the very least, I hope this post will at once conclude this strategic dialogue and also continue it in the comments section. Despite what I have written in the above paragraphs, I remain open to being convinced of another argument -- and would hope that you too would be open to considering other arguments and perspectives.

Tomorrow, though, we will resume our regular service of Scottish football news, SEC football, the Red Sox, Lebanese bars, etc. Sorry for the interruption.