Who Wants to Be The President of Afghanistan?

Well, apparently not Abdullah Abdullah.  Meanwhile. the second round of Afghan elections–which were called after much US pressure–have been canceled.

Yet again the US puts all its eggs in the basket of democratic proceduralism as a mechanism to try to build a centralized state create governance/legitimacy.  Both prongs of that strategy (the democratic and the centralized state build-up) are failures and events like this only confirm this obvious fact.

Reading the briefings of various governmental personnel (both Afghan and Western) in this BBC piece is a rather disheartening exercise.  My favorite is from Gordon Brown:

A spokesman said the PM had “spoken to President Karzai to congratulate him on his re-election” and the two men had “discussed the importance of the president moving quickly to set out a unifying programme for the future of Afghanistan”.

Good luck with that one.

I meant to get to this last week, but Steven Pressfield has published on his blog a strategy paper by a Major Jim Gant that deserves serious attention.  You can download the pdf of the entire document from that link.  Gant titles his piece “One Tribe at a Time.”  It is based on the presupposition that the natural governing social fabric of Afganistan is tribal.  While the US has built its entire mission to date–including a possible Stanley McChyrstal-style all-in counterinsurgency program–around the twin foci of a centralized state versus the Taliban (and allied insurgent groups).

Meanwhile, the actual makeup of the vast majority of the country–namely, the tribes–is completely missed.  Afghanistan’s history shows that even when the country did have a functioning state (prior to the Russian invasion, Civil War, and Taliban takeover), it was a very weak one that only had influence in the cities.  So instead of imposing a strong, centralized government, let the President of Afghanistan become the Mayor of Kabul.

There’s no “unifying programme for the future of Afghanistan” that is going to come from the top-down.  Certainly not from Karzai and any US/NATO mission (with 10,000 or 40,000 more troops) that is built around the legitimacy of a centralized state.

As someone who was heavily involved in operations throughout the country, Gant seems to understand this.  Gant befriended a local tribal leader and basically practiced a properly scaled (i.e. at the level of tribe) counterinsurgency operation.

Gant argues for small US teams that embed completely as training/fighting/assistance forces within Afghan village tribal structure.  They would create the equivalent of tribal police forces/fighters.  As Gant himself admits in the paper you still have to deal with warlords, the drug trade, and the sanctuary in Pakistan.  It’s a mess. 

His proposal would require (as he says) a complete paradigm shift in rules of engagement, soldier training, diplomacy, metrics for success, and strategy.  In other words, I can’t actually imagine it happening anytime soon. But it’s a brilliant piece, far deeper than so much of the superficial analysis that surround this debate.

To the degree COIN worked in the Iraqi surge (and I still think it failed at the strategic level) it did so because Iraq had a history of a strong centralized state.  The surge cemented the shift of that state functioning from the Sunni to the Shia (via the related policy of buying off the Sunni insurgency and “surging” into areas previously ethnically cleansed by Shia forces).  Afghanistan, on the other hand, does not have a history  of a strong central state.  The too-easily argued for application of some generic COIN theory from Iraq to Afghanistan is not taking this point into sufficient account.  The recent electoral shenanigans in Afghanistan ought to alert the military and US government to that fact (but I really doubt it will).

The only kind of COIN that would work in Afghanistan is precisely the kind laid out by Major Gant.  As I said, read his paper.

We are coming nearer and nearer to President Obama’s decision re: Afghanistan.

Given that, I think something on the scale of a radical transformation towards a localized, networked (even open-source) counterinsurgency laid out by Major Gant is not going to take place, though the various alternatives are becoming clearer by the day.

1. Counter-terrorism plus.  This option seems to have the backing of VP Biden and Chief of Staff Emanuel.

2. McChyrstal’s plan for massively ramped-up COIN.  Support from Adm. Mullen, CENTCOM Head Gen. Petraeus, Sec. Clinton?

3. The Sen. Kerry option (should I call it that?).  10,000 or so additionals troops for a limited time, in a specific area, with lots of attempts to buy off various elements of the insurgency.  Tea leaves (or should I say unnamed administration sources?) suggest this is where Obama is headed.

#2 is not going to work because it relies on the creation of a strong centralized state.  This is not going to happen in Afghanistan.  Look at the history, look at the current reality.

#1 could come with some serious negative side effects (e.g. increased civilian deaths from drone attacks).  It basically also allows for a stronger Taliban hold in much of the country.

So given that Option Zero (the Gant proposal) is not on anyone’s radar, #3 is probably the least bad of the options outlined above.  It’s not without serious negative side effects.  One being the (very likely) continued destruction/co-option of the tribal structure of the country (especially in East and South) by the Taliban (or Taliban-allied groups like Haqqani or Hekmatyr).

Option #3 continues to see the conflict basically in terms of a government we back versus The Taliban–along with al-Qaeda as an X factor.  It misses the central ally of a potential US strategy in the country (i.e. the tribes).

But the McChyrstal counter-offer of a more offensive COIN (#2) in the near term would likely push back The Taliban.  It could also cause a mass uprising given Afghan historic hatred of occupation though I think that’s not particularly likely.  I don’t think the McChyrstal option is going to be Obama’s decision, but if it were, how I imagine it will play out as follows:  The offensive would achieve short/medium term tactical military success but completely fail at the political level.  The strategy is built on naive American utopian foundations of re-fashioning the world in our image.  Complete with human rights, non-corrupt governments, democracy, strong centralized state, etc.  In that case the insurgency just waits out the counterinsurgents and then strikes when finally the clock runs out domestically for US and NATO countries.  Remember that for insurgents, they only have to not lose.  Not losing for them is the equivalent of winning for us.

And option #1 (counterterrorism plus) probably accelerates the Talibanization of swaths of the country and could leave problems regionally in terms of expansion of Taliban-like ideologies into India and/or the northern “stans” (e.g.Uzbekistan).

Politically, option #3 for Obama is really problematic.  The Republicans are lock-step into backing option #2 (more war all the time) while the Democratic base increasingly is pushing for a withdrawal from Afghanistan.  We know Obama is a political creature who wants to move only when he has the political cover to do so.  I’m not sure he’s going to have it in this case.  I know this administration fears the Johnson-ization of their tenure–i.e. owning a war in Asia a previous administration started but left underfunded –costing him the ability to pass the an ambitious domestic agenda.  But this result may come to pass anyway.

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4 thoughts on “Who Wants to Be The President of Afghanistan?

  1. More and more I’m beginning to fear that with regards to Afghanistan our only sensible option is to simply get out. I’m well aware of the humanitarian disaster this would cause of course what with the civil war and opression that would ensue. On the other hand I do not know for certain that America is 100% responsible for the plight of that region. Yes we funded the islamic warriors in the cold war but it was the Soviets who invaded and the country was a mess even prior to that. Unlike Iraq, where there was a tyrannical but orderly government before our arrival and then chaos after, I’m not sure that we’re morally obliged to turn the country into a pluralistic democracy before we can leave.

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  2. The country needs some sort of gov’t so that the Taliban and their Al Qaeda cronies don’t come back into power. I could care less if the Taliban want to enact a medieval style theocracy there but when they harbor folks that plan to attack us then I have a problem. I am 100% certain the US is not at fault for the plight of that region. It wasn’t the most stable country but was fairly stable until the commies over threw the gov’t in 1978 and called Moscow to come in and prop them up.

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  3. I agree with most of this. I’d only say that I see no reason that option#3 is in principle not compatible with Maj. Gant’s proposal. Or, to be honest, option #2, though the offensives would have to be judicious, and McChrystal would have to commit to a radically different vision than he outlined. But the extra troops to my way of seeing don’t preclude a tribal approach. As McChrystal and averyone else who looks at this for five minutes can see, it’s what more troops do. More troops can interact per Gant with more tribes, it would seem to me. But I don’t think McC-like numbers would be necessary for that. A few more a la your option #3 might be helpful, though. At this point I’m for anything that sends an unambiguous message to McC that he doesn’t have free reign to do as he sees fit (though maybe that goes down the LBJ road all the more…) My guess is Obama matches but does not go much above his early-2009 increase of 21,000. I do wonder how one would order a commander with a fully articulated strategy proposal for a specific situation to shift to a strategy that is at best a conglomeration of other officers’ views of the same situation without making a change of personnel. It would seem the most that could be done from the position of commander-in-chief would be to order the commanding general to be familiar with these other views and maintain some operational flexibility with an eye to integrating these other views into operations where possible. Beyond that, a change in command would seem necessary, and profoundly unlikely.

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