July 24, 2009

The Limits of Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

Steve Biddle of the CFR has long been a friend and mentor, and I have often felt that his central criticism of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine -- first raised, to my knowledge, last year in Perspectives on Politics -- is the most relevant to understanding the difficulties of Iraq and Afghanistan. Biddle's problem with FM 3-24 is that it assumes our interests align with those of the host government. We, as Americans, typically wage counterinsurgency campaigns as third parties -- that is, we fight them on behalf of another government. As Rupert Smithir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0307278115 and others have noted, when fighting a counterinsurgency campaign as a third party, there is only so much you can do to win. Eventually, your efforts will succeed or fail based upon -- as Smith sees it -- whether or not the host nation sets the political conditions for success. You can create a window of security, sure, but they must ultimately be the ones who win or lose the campaign through political reconciliation or compromise.

What happens, Biddle wants to know, when our interests are not theirs?

Many threatened governments are more committed to their own subgroup’s interests than they are to some abstract idea of national well-being. The existence of an insurgency in the first place is often a signal of an illegitimate government with strong leadership interests in an unrepresentative distribution of wealth and power. In many cases, leaders will see U.S.-sponsored reforms as a greater threat to their personal well-being — or even survival — than the insurgency. One thus cannot assume that the U.S. interest and the host government’s interest are aligned in COIN; what the United States wants is not necessarily in the self-interest of the host leadership.

Many of those who have studied Afghanistan closely over the past several years have come to the conclusion that a corrupt Afghan government represents as big a threat to U.S. and allied mission success as the Quetta Shura Taliban or the Haqqani Network. U.S. and allied efforts over the next year, then, will hinge on the ability of the international community to bring leverage to bear on Hamid Karzai following the election -- assuming Karzai wins, of course -- to retain effective governors and ministers and to not use the ministries to reward incompetent or corrupt cronies. Two problems there:

  1. Karzai has promised the moon to any and all in an effort to get elected. Do we have any real sense which promises are genuine and which are hot air?
  2. Karzai has been offended -- maybe not without reason -- by U.S. and allied diplomats embracing his chief rivals in an effort to stress the importance of a free and fair election. The U.S. ambassador, for example, has seemingly met with every potential Afghan presidential candidate under the sun. (Do you want to meet Karl Eikenberry? Easy. Just announce you're running for president of Afghanistan.) So how much leverage are we actually going to have after this election?

All of this, though, points to the need to actually have a post-election plan for Afghanistan. The United States and its allies must have a coherent strategy for making the Afghan government realize, in Biddle's words, "its own best interest by making itself into a legitimate defender of all of its citizens’ well-being." This goes beyond protecting effective ministers and governors, but that's a start.

The final truth is that even the most disciplined counterinsurgency operations in the world's history will fail in Afghanistan so long as the government of Afghanistan remains weak or illegitimate in the eyes of the people it aspires to govern.