August 06, 2009

“Well, Hamid, at least I’m only ruining Kandahar. You’re ruining the whole country.”

"When you come to power your eyes go blind, your ears go deaf and you don’t know anything anymore."

If anyone at work is wandering why I am late today, it is because I have been at home reading Elizabeth Rubin's sympathetic yet completely damning portrait of Hamid Karzai in the New York Times Magazine. Rubin has now written my favorite two magazine articles on Afghanistan, the first being last year's "Battle Company In Out There" on the 173rd Airborne in the Korengal Valley. (Added to our Counterinsurgency Reading List this spring.) This most recent offering is to be considered a must-read and highlights why I have argued that even the best-designed COIN campaign cannot gaurantee victory in an Afghanistan in which the government remains either weak or predatory.

Rubin's description of Afghan frustrations and fears in 2006, for example, strikes me as similarly accurate today:

They were fed up with the arrogance of American soldiers. They were fed up with hearing about the billions of aid dollars that came to Afghanistan and went into the pockets of American contractors and their Afghan partners. And they were terrified by the return of the Taliban, not just in the south but sneaking around various neighborhoods of Kabul.

And her description of the way in which paranoia and accomodations struck up with warlords and jihadists has crippled the Karzai government also strikes me as accurate:

By late 2007, Karzai’s turn toward accommodation with warlords, tribalism and semiretired jihadis — and away from the international community — seems to have been completed. The palace had become like a Shakespearean stage, its officials, like so many Iagos, filling Karzai’s mind with plots and treachery. The British and the Americans, worried that Afghanistan was sinking beyond repair, conceived the position of a civilian czar who could coordinate the U.N. mission and the NATO mission and possibly bring some order into the chaos of the Arg palace. The man they chose was the British diplomat Paddy Ashdown, who had been the international community’s high representative to Bosnia until 2006. Karzai was at first intrigued by the idea and even accepted it. But the Iagos in the palace feared they would lose their gatekeeping status and the money they earned from it. They persuaded Karzai that the choice of Ashdown, who was born in British India to a colonial family and who had served as a British spy, was evidence of a British conspiracy.

And this (possibly apocryphal) quote from AWK is, well, just amazing:

“Well, Hamid, at least I’m only ruining Kandahar. You’re ruining the whole country.”

If you ask senior U.S. commanders why we are pursuing a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, they will tell you that we are doing it not because COIN is some panacea but because we simply do not believe that any other strategic or operational choice will work. And if you think you're smarter than Generals Petraeus or McChrystal based on your own experiences or, hell, I don't know, the books you read in graduate school, then by all means feel free to sharpshoot them and propose an alternative. Lord knows, if the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have taught us one thing, it's that generals and their judgment need to be questioned from time to time. I, though, am in agreement with Petraeus and McChrystal here.

But I also feel the need to be honest about the risks involved here. I was trading emails back and forth with a soldier-turned-journalist friend of mine yesterday, and we agreed that any policy must pass the folded flag test. That is, if you cannot justify to an American mother why her son was killed in pursuit of a certain policy, you need to change the policy or the strategy and operations designed to realize it. Here, I feel a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan offers the United States and its allies the best chance of success in terms of protecting U.S. interests (so ably and honestly outlined by Steve Biddle in the most recent American Interest). And I would feel comfortable justifying such a strategy to an American mother, like my aunt, with a son or daughter serving overseas.

But there are huge risks involved, and massive resources that will need to be expended. All that must also be explained to voters. Perhaps the biggest risk is that we never build Afghan institutions capable of providing sustainable security in the east and south of the country, and that we get a government that will be increasingly viewed as illegitimate in the eyes of its people. The political leadership -- specifically, the allied heads of state (including our own) -- need to be honest with their people about these risks and their consequences.

Talking with U.S. and allied decision-makers on the ground in Afghanistan, one is struck by the sobriety of thinking in terms of the task ahead. I am not sure if the U.S. public is as familiar with the risks as are the men and women on the ground. Reading this article, though, would be a start.