Reviewing Obama’s War Part III: Rory Stewart

Part I here, Part II here.

The Obama administration has proposed a very, very narrow objective, which is counterterrorism, and a very maximalist, broad definition of how to achieve it, which extends to counterinsurgency and the defeat of the Taliban, and basically the fixing of the entire Afghan state. And the whole problem with this strategy is its very narrow aim is connected to this hugely ambitious means.

That’s Rory Stewart, laying out a very precise and well thought out criticism of the Obama administration (and by extension the military generals) in relation to Afghanistan.

Here he gets to the heart of it:

I think what we’re talking about is actually state building, not nation building, which is to say that it’s very blind to politics, to religion, to history, to culture, to context — the kinds of things from which nation [building] is composed.

Nation building could only be done by an Afghan Thomas Jefferson. It’s a job for a founding father. It’s an indigenous project. State building, in the view of the Pentagon, is a very technical, technocratic process where there are certain things just listed off: civil service; legitimate monopoly on the use of violence; good financial administration; the rule of law; a pragmatically regulated free market. It sometimes seems to be a little bit like the recipe for building a garden shed or baking a cake. It’s a management consultancy tool for fixing a state.

The COIN strategy advocated by many in the military (and some in the administration it would seem) talks about clearning, holding, and building. Clearing areas os insurgents, holding the territory (called population-centric warfare), and then building.  In many cases building a state.  But also building buildings, schools, roads, local government, and a whole host of other things.

But here’s the problem:

Counterinsurgency is the most fashionable thing at the moment because the U.S. military believes that’s what allowed them to turn around the situation in Iraq. Afghanistan, however much people claim otherwise, is really about Iraq. It’s really about the fact that people said it couldn’t be done in Iraq and it was done.

And a lot of the U.S. military think if we manage to pull it off there, we can pull it off again. … What they forget is that what made it work in Iraq is all about Iraq. It’s all about Iraqi politics; it’s all about Iraqi government; it’s all about Iraqi landscape. You try to move the same thing over to Afghanistan, where you don’t have that kind of government, you don’t have that kind of landscape, you don’t have that kind of politics, it’s not going to succeed.

What Afghanistan does not have is a history of a strong central state, a history of a large national army/police force, or a middle class, nor a heavily urbanized existence.

To wit:

You’ve got all this “clear, hold, build” strategy. It’s the build bit that’s so difficult.

People who have been working in development in Afghanistan for 30 years just say to you again and again everything takes four times as long as you’d imagine, and you achieve half as much as you’d hoped. This is a country where most people don’t have anything approaching a high school education, where about one-third of the population can’t read or write, where the government so entirely lacks capacity to even do things like clear garbage in the center of Kabul, the idea that you would be able to in any realistic time frame get some subdistrict in Afghanistan generating the kind of self-sustaining economic or governance energy … [is], I think, delusion.

In the example of Iraq we still have not seen a real political endgame created.  The country is drifting it would seem towards a de facto Shia dictatorship, indefinite Sunni minority status rife with political, social, and economic alienation,  and the strong potential for a war between the gov’t in Baghdad and the Kurds to the north.  Reconciliation on a political leve never occurred.  By that measure, the measure President Bush laid out at the time, the surge was a failure.

How exactly will Afghanistan not follow the same tune?  Even if a COIN strategy in the short run helps stabilize various provinces, as Stewart says, the “build” part simply is not going to happen.  The Pushtuns were largely left out of the negotiations at the Bonn Conference which created the current Afghan government.  What are the chances (a la Iraq) that political reconciliation is likely to occur in Afghanistan?

In other words, if the US military was brutally honest, it would say that the best a COIN strategy can do is (potentially–not automatically) help stabilize certain portions of the country.  It would come likely with an initial increase in violence and certainly US casualties.

But whatever effect it may have towards decreased violence in the short/medium term, it will never succeed in the building of a state nor the mass development of the country, particularly in the rural areas.

On that point, Stewart–who actually knows the country from firsthand experience–is spot on.  The military establishment currently afflicted with COIN fever do not know the history of Afghanistan and I think may have learned the wrong lessons from the Iraqi surge (though that last point is admittedly open to debate).

It’s not really a fight between a Taliban government and a Kabul government. I think it comes down to villages which for 30 years have largely run themselves and whose concerns have nothing to do with a Kabul government or the Taliban or even the U.S. forces. [They] have to do with the kind of things that villages think about, primarily, at the moment, security, by which they don’t mean necessarily Taliban bombs. They mean kidnapping, robbing on the roads, looting, these kinds of things — things which actually [have] to do with civilian security and policing more than terrorism and insurgency.

And [then there’s] a village chief or head of a household who’s sitting there trying to negotiate his way through a visit from the Taliban, a visit from the U.S. military, a visit from the police, and trying to work out how on earth to keep back all these external factors, most of which are perceived as generally unhelpful or intrusive.

His point on the centrality of the tribes is so crucial and completely missed in all the back and forth going on now re: Afghanistan in the US political and military circles.  Even talking about not uping US forces because of the fraudulency of the elections still assumes the real center of focus should be the central state.  It isn’t and it shouldn’t. The state, such as there is one, is basically a mayoralty in the city of Kabul.

John Nagl believes he can have the 500,000 counterinsurgents necessary to meet the 20:1 ratio (population to counterinsurgents) within five years.  Let’s assume for the moment he is right.  How developed will the country of Afghanistan be in five years?  How “non-corrupt” will be its government?  How built up will its state be?  And at what cost to the US with record budgetary deficits.

Remember Stewart’s rule re: Afghanistan.  Four times as long as you expect, half as much accomplshed.

The center of the action is at the level of the tribes not the state nor the state’s history (as it were):

One of the problems of the counterinsurgency strategy, it just assumes that history repeats itself exactly. Somewhere at the bottom of this is some idea that we withdrew our support in 1989; therefore there was a civil war in 1992; therefore the Taliban took over in 1995; therefore Sept. 11 happened in 2001.

And somewhere at the bottom of it, even if it’s dressed up in fancy language, is some kind of idea that if we were to withdraw our support again today, there would again be a civil war, and the Taliban would again take over, and they would again invite back Al Qaeda, who would again attack the United States. …

But the Taliban today are not the Taliban of ’94, ’95. They don’t have the Pakistan army behind them in the same way. They don’t have the same appeal to the public. They don’t have tanks. They don’t have artillery. They don’t have the wherewithal to take a city. …

A much longer view is necessary than US election and generals induced scare-tactics timetables.  It will also require a re-definition of the word “corruption” so beloved on various sides in this policy review on the war.

[It] doesn’t matter how much we talk about counterinsurgency. To do development in Afghanistan well requires a level of exposure to the language, the culture and just time. And the best development workers I know in Afghanistan have been working there for 10, 15, 20 years with individual communities. …

And in fact, even worse, often the actual skill set that you’re looking for isn’t even the skill set of a soldier, a diplomat or a development worker. It’s something more like the skill set of a 1920s Chicago ward politician. And soldiers are really not very comfortable doing that kind of political work. You see them come to you again and again and say: “I’m not going to deal with this guy. He’s completely corrupt. He’s totally discredited. I’ve just got information that he’s a bandit and he’s smuggling across the borders.”

“Corruption” is not corruption in Afghanistan.  Corruption is the way to live in a premodern society.  What Edward Luttwak called “family-ism”.  I lived for a year in Micronesia, a society that similar to Afghanistan (though not as poor) was one without a banking system, infrastructure, IRAs, savings accounts, functioning capital markets, that was also filled with slush money (given by the US to prevent them from going communist in the 80s).  It created a rainy day economy–or what we in the West call “corruption.”  In the Afghan case of course this rainy day economy is fueled by international aid, global drug trade, and donatios from wealthy Saudi/Pakistanis.

The only real to create a state on the top of all that is to put in a strongman–(did somebody just say Zalmay Khalilzad?).  But with the legitimacy put into elections that is not going to happen.  The only way then is to forego this illusory notion of state-building and focus on the creation of local tribal groups who will do their own clearing, holding, and (maybe) building.

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10 thoughts on “Reviewing Obama’s War Part III: Rory Stewart

  1. Great post. This all reminds of the Iraq debate around 2003 or 2004 when it became clear we were going to have to try nation building. The idiot brigade staring bill kristol would say, “well we did just fine building nations in germany and japan”, completely clueless to the dramatically different the histories and context of each nation.

    I know I have said this before, but it absolutely boggles me how a country that was founded by through a partly guerilla style insurgency, with the help of foreign countries playing out their own agendas and rebelling against a distant power who didn’t understand the nascent culture and life of the colonies, cant seem to envision how complex and difficult nation building is in other countries.

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  2. I’m not sure I understand what you’re proposing with regard to the role of U.S. and NATO forces going forward. Also I think you far too easily write the possibility that a form of central administrative authority that is consistent with significant tribal autonomy can be developed. This wouldn’t have to attempt to enforce a legitimate monopoly on force, though it might need to claim it formally. The key is that such a state-like-entity would always seek to maximize legitimacy while deemphasizing de facto control. I don’t see quite how the outside world can relate to the country without any formal entity constituted of indigenous representatives. If we’re going to have a presence of any kind, we need something to at least pretend to give it legitimacy; even if we were to withdraw completely we would still have need for native eyes-on in the country to have some sense of developments. There’s no way we just look completely the other way.

    The other issue that concerns me in any discussion of Afghanistan without a state is the issue of what happens to command-and-control of any indigenous forces we do raise while we’re still there. Some alternatives to all-in COIN propose a focus on training and building security forces while focusing less on building state legitimacy. That seems like a recipe for a very dangerous Afghanistan, both for Afghans and the world. Full COIN, to the extent it is doomed to fail on the state-building front, or is too ambitious for its support to be sustainable over the required interval by the Western polities expected to maintain it (its most obvious fatal flaw by my lights), has the same problem.

    I’m coming closer and closer to being sure that a middle way of undetermined duration with essentially no exit strategy is the only option here. I don’t think withdrawal is a serious proposal, but I think all-in COIN clearly creates more problems than it is likely to solve. Realizing the formulation in the sentence before last is pretty much the antithesis of a marketable plan, I’d probably associate myslef with the views of this Lt.C. Davis whose views have been batted about a bit of late: go deep rather than go big ( The emphasis there is on a sustainable Western presence and a commitment to achieving realistic goals with regard to an Afghan state/minimally legitimate government. The main thing I would add that, because it is a military proposal, the author neglects is the crucial role that intensive diplomacy
    must play in bringing about an acceptable end state in the region. Our interest in the stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan, after all, has little to do with Afghanistan itself, but is related to the imperative that a track toward regional stability be reestablished. Obviously, a key there is some movement toward alleviating Pakistan’s heightened state of alarm regarding India. Bringing Iran into the fold in some way (a la their 2002 posture vis-a-vis Afghanistan) wouldn’t hurt either.

    I see this as the defining foreign-affairs problem facing the U.S. at the moment (a rising China will still be there when this situation is resolved; what is there to do other than twiddle our thumbs about that in any case?), and to me it obviously demands and merits a decades-long commitment if that is what it takes to get it sorted. The nature of that commitment — military, diplomatic, development — I view as entirely open to informed debate, and I would hope the military component can move on a long-term downward trend. For the moment, I don’t see how the situation would be significantly improved by a sudden (and frankly, panicked) withdrawal on our part right now. But nor do I find the prospects for success of full-on COIN worth the high risks associated with failure. I think this is one that’s just going to be with us a while. A long while.

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    • Michael,

      Excellent comment, thanks. Here’s a proposal of how to this happen.

      But undoubtedly training people will cause its own sets of problems. But eventually the way we were able to extricate from Iraq was through the buy in of the Sunni tribesmen. Not ideal to put it mildly, but the reality nonetheless. Afghanistan is different to be sure, but that part I think will be constant.

      Like any idea that grew from one experience in a locale, who knows how scalable it is. Also it’s pretty unrealistic given the constraints of our current State Dept and military and foreign policy wiseguys establishment.

      This could be (as you suggest) aligned with some de facto attempts at building a state. Though remembering Afghan’s only ever existing real state was one that really had no power outside of the cities. In this case “state-building” means basically building up the mayor of Kabul (aka the president).

      It’s COIN without it being the kinda of COIN officially favored by McChyrstal, Nagl, and Petraeus.

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      • Thanks — likewise on your stuff.

        We’re on the same page completely. It’s not that I doubt we need to build an Afghan force or maintain a semblance of a state (and also big-time humility about expectations for it). It’s just that it has to be done at a pace that can be absorbed by Afghanistan, which itself has to change gradually in order for that to happen I’m wary of an attempt to go in and significantly Americanize the security apparatus, and then try to ramp up Afghan forces in a hurry and rest responsibility for security (and our exit strategy) on them. That seems like it would be transparently vulnerable to delegitimization as an American confection. The only thing we can do, it seems to me, is to stay in relatively unobtrusive numbers and try to protect the population from Taliban domination where possible, but more important, establish some trust and demonstrate some staying power, thereby gaining a bit of quasi-legitimacy (though obviously in the context of being an occupying force). At the same time, we’d be building up Afghan forces at a pace that seems natural to the population, focusing on quality and self-motivation over numbers. Then we would be able to hopefully transfer authority to a force that is seen as legitmately formed.

        I agree that reconciliation is the long-term strategy: outright victory over the Taliban is an inappropriate goal. An Afghanistan scrubbed clean of Taliban or any Islamic fundamentalism is not a natural end state. What I think distinguishes Afgh. from Iraq in terms of a surge is the background condition of the conflict. In Iraq, we had two highly mobilized populations vying for control of a country that had an established state more often in its history than not. In Afghanistan, the conflict essentially arises out of anarchy. In Iraq, the situation was at a stalemate but because of extant forces, could be moved into an equilibrium with a nudge from us. In Afghanistan, essentially the lack of force or will to use it on most everyone’s part (save us and the Taliban, both of whom infuence only very limited parts of the territory to begin with) means that any particular nudge is likely to be swallowed up in the vacuum. We were pushing a precariously-balanced rock off the top of a hill in Iraq, while in Afghanistan, we’re pushing it slowly up.

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    • Zalmay is Afghan. He was UN Ambassador and before that an Ambassador to Iraq. Prior to Amb. Crocker as I recall. I think as of now he holds dual nationalities. There has always been some background chatter about installing him (instead of Karzai) as Prez of Afghanistan. In the short term, the US/NATO seems more to be backing Abdullah Abdullah.

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  3. Not that I haven’t taken ample space to express myself in this thread (thanks to the League for providing diary space!), but looking again at what I wrote, and in light of recent published pieces by Robert Pape, David Rohde, Glenn Greenwald (drawing on Rohde and, entertainingly, Rumsfeld), and Nicholas Kristof, I am struck that while I raise a number of concerns about an Afghan surge, I don’t explicitly focus on the primary immediate and certain effect of greater American forces in Pashtunistan: inflammation of anti-American sentiment and resulting strengthening of the insurgency. Just to reassure myself, I absolutely take this to be the first-order problem with escalation, and it was assumed in this statement: “I think all-in COIN creates more problems than it is likely to solve.” My other concerns about efficacy and consequences of up-paced attempts at statebuilding via a surge are all layered on top of that fundamental in-theater problem, which in turn lays atop the basic reality that a surge in my mind will clearly exhaust domestic support for a long-range commitment (at a lower level of force) to this problem in fairly short order.

    Bottom line, because of the inflammation effect particular to this region, if standard COIN theory would expect a return on investment of one unit of stabilization per counterinsurgent per unit time, the effect of a large surge in this environment would place a multiplier on that expectation of some significant fraction less than 1, say 0.5 or 0.7. That combined with the many other questions raised about the ability of COIN to succeed in this case under any circumstances makes a large escalation an exceedingly bad investment at this time.

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    • Michael,

      I think this is right if the kind of COIN is US-centric population-centric, if you get my drift. i.e. We lead a bunch of our people into forward bases. Some anti-occupation backlash will occur–potentially as Steve Coll suggested major in scale which would end everything. And/or per Richard Engel’s comments, most of the locals will just wonder, “why are you guys here?” and probably just ignore them relative to the build part (Rory Stewart’s argument).

      The alternate I linked to earlier and we will be the basis for my last post in this series offers a potential way around those problems. Maybe. But it certainly comes with its own sets of issues. It might solve one set of problems and only create another.

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