Quick Reax to Leaked Obama Afghan Plan

The news is out on what appears to be the Obama plan on Afghanistan.  It’s obviously quite provisional at this point, but it seems to line up with what I thought would be the basic outline.

Obama will send 30,000 troops, has a (basic) end-date in sight (approximately three years later according to the piece I linked above), will ramp up training of the Afghan Army and Police, and wants to gradually transition over to an Afghan government.  Though it’s also likely that the US will keep some military advisors as well as air and logistical support in the country longer than that time-frame.  In short, Obama wants to try to achieve some victories against the insurgency in Afghanistan in the short term and then quickly transition the US out of the hot zone.

Unfortunately, things usually don’t turn out so neat and tidy in any war:

“We want to – as quickly as possible – transition the security of the Afghan people over to those national security forces in Afghanistan,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “This can’t be nation-building. It can’t be an open-ended forever commitment.”

Here’s more information on the national army and police:

In Kabul, Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the new head of a U.S.-NATO command responsible for training and developing Afghan soldiers and police, said Tuesday that although the groundwork is being laid to expand the Afghan National Army beyond the current target of 134,000 troops, to be reached by Oct. 31, 2010, no fixed higher target is set.

There is a notional goal of eventually fielding 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police, but Caldwell said that could change.

“Although that is a goal and where we think it could eventually go to, it’s not a hard, firm, fixed number,” he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

He indicated that one reason for avoiding a hard-and-fast commitment to those higher numbers is the expected cost. So his orders are to reach the targets of 134,000 soldiers and 96,800 police by next October. He intends to hold annual reviews, beginning next spring or early summer, to determine whether the notional higher targets of 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police – for a combined total of 400,000 by 2013 – are still the right goals for Afghanistan.

According to counterinsurgency doctrine, there needs to be roughly 500,000 counterinsurgents in Afghanistan. So 240,000 army plus 160,000 police equals 400,000 troops plus the NATO contingent (mostly US) of about 100,000 when this additional surge is factored in.  And there you have 500,000 counterinsurgents.

But counterinsurgents fighting from whom exactly?  Who is going to be there to follow-up with political and economic development after the fighting is over?  That question–the central question with respect to Afghanistan, in my mind–has yet to be persuasively answered.

To make that point clearer, I think a comparison with Iraq is in order.

If this policy is going to be likened to the Iraq surge (and it is certainly based in some measure on that event), then it’s worth reviewing exactly what happened in Iraq.  The surge–i.e. the addition of more troops into Iraq–was only a part of a larger process which could be broadly labeled counterinsurgency.

We need to recall what was going on in Iraq 2005-2007:

Saddam had been ejected from power.  The Baathist party structure was dissolved and the central government and its armed forces were controlled by Shia elements (mostly ex-pat) backed by Iran.  An insurgency began which eventually became linked up in ethnic rivalry, thereby leading to a bloody civil war.  That civil war was largely ended (or “won”) by the Shia through a process of ethnic cleansing of the capital of Baghdad.

The (largely Sunni) insurgency up until this point had consisted of an alliance (of convenience it would seem) between the Baathist and Sunni Iraqi forces and non-Iraqi ultra-hardline jihadi elements, better known as al-Qaeda in Iraq.  AQI at this point began to turn on its erstwhile Sunni Iraqi insurgent allies in its attempt to impose its puritanical religious-political vision.

So the Sunni Iraqi insurgency was being attacked from both sides and therefore was open to making a deal with the US army (who they previously fought).  The deal was a simple one:  the Sunni insurgents would hand over and/or kill al-Qaeda in Iraq while the US would restrain the Shia Iraqi government and provide funding and resources to the Sunni militias.

This policy (the so-called Awakening) actually began before the “surge”.  The addition of more US troops and the tactical result of sending those troops to outposts closer to the population centers worked well because Iraq was a heavily urbanized country.  It also in essence cemented the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad.  It allowed for increased training of the Iraqi Army/Police, a force which hitherto had existed as a national organization in serious strength, but was now dominated by Shia elements.  It also allowed the government of PM Maliki to go after Shia rivals within his own original unity government–most especially Moqtada al Sadr.

And that has lead us to where we are today in Iraq.  The much desired trans-ethnic national political reconciliation has yet to occur.  The civil war is over, though there is still much violence and criminality.  Various terror attacks continue to occur but generally lack any connection to a larger (realistic) political goal.

The Sunni appear to be marginalized.  And the status of the Kurds remains ambiguous.

In other words, if I had to rank the importance/impact of these elements it would be the following:

1.  Ethnic cleansing of Baghdad (i.e. victory in civil war by Shia)

2. Buying-off the Sunni insurgency  (The Awakening)

3. Additional Troops (The Surge)

While Gen. Petraeus’ strategy wisely merged The Awakening with the Surge and population-centric tactics, those two (at least in principle) are separate realities.  i.e. The buy-off could have happened without the addition of more troops.

So now to Afghanistan.  How do those points compare to the situation in Central Asia?

The most glaring difference is that it would not be correct to say Afghanistan has been in the throws of a civil war following the US invasion.  There has been an insurgency, which certainly has been dominated by one ethnic group in the country (the Pashtuns), but this has not really been a civil war in the way Iraq 2004-2007 was.  There are of course fears that if the Afghan Taliban come back to power, they will revive their repression of non-Pashtun ethnic groups in the country (e.g. Hazari).  Moreover, the Northern Alliance with whom the US aligned is dominated by Tajik and Uzbek elements.

So there is ethnic struggle, but unlike Iraq, there isn’t one dominant ethnic fault line.  Afghanistan also lacks a strong Kurdish-like group pushing for autonomy/independence.

Moreover, the groups that we need to make a deal with are currently “winning,” unlike the Sunnis in Iraq.  This really complicates the idea of buying-off the insurgency in Afghanistan.  That said, there have been “green shoots” of tribal anti-Taliban militias forming.  A policy built around tribes could be very successful at stabilizing the country.

Nevertheless, there are some real problems with the Iraq-Afghanistan analogy.  Afghanistan does not have a history of a strong central state with a trans-ethnic national police and military force. While tribal anti-Taliban militias might be very effective at local control, simultaneous attempts to create a national police and army could work at cross-purposes.  Managing a united front of national army/police with local tribal militias would be very tricky given the largely rural (and not urban, as in Iraq) nature of Afghanistan.

So, to return to my three point (in order of decreasing importance) list of why the Surge worked in Iraq and to apply that to Afghanistan, we see:

1. There has been no ethnic cleansing in Afghanistan

2. Tribal/insurgent buy-offs could be incredibly complicated (related to lack of ethnic cleansing, the insurgency has not “lost” in Afghanistan and therefore is less amenable to a deal)

3. The NATO “surge” in Afghanistan now becomes the focus.

In other words, the three points relative to Iraq become inverted in importance with respect to Afghanistan.  This is potentially quite dangerous.  It leaves open the serious possibility that all our efforts will be put into military (“kinetic”) endeavors.  Even if they are (tactically) successful, how do you preserve victory in such an impoverished country with a history of no strong central state?

Another problem: The Iranians, who existed as a sanctuary and support in the case of Iraq, were basically on the same side as the United States, despite US efforts to freeze out Iranian influence and Iran’s attempts to goad some insurgent elements (e.g. Sadrist forces) to attack the US.

Pakistan is not even nominally on the side of the Afghan government, even if it claims to be a US ally.  There are still questions as to the degree of collaboration between the Pakistani army and security forces and the Afghan insurgency, but many Pakistanis see the Karzai government as an Indian-puppet meant to encircle Pakistan.

To return to the article:

Obama was also going to speak with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

President Zardari, however, appears on the way out of power and may never really have had any functional control over the Pakistani military.  A US surge next door and continued bombing in the tribal regions will probably further erode whatever small legitimacy/popularity he has left.  The Pakistani army has clearly made a decision that it will fight (on its own terms) the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal regions but does not seem like it cares all that much about the Afghan resistance. If the Pakistani army isn’t still actively colluding with individuals like Gulbuddin or Mullah Omar, they certainly aren’t going after them, either.

Finally, al-Qaeda in Iraq was a foreign entity that attacked the Sunni insurgency and was therefore vulnerable to backlash.  Al-Qaeda in Pakistan has a much longer history of connection and co-operation with the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, and the Haqqani network.  While there are rumors that the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Omar is willing to jettison al-Qaeda, those should be taken with a grain of salt.

The buy-off happened in Iraq because the Sunnis wanted something from the US and had something to give in return.  The Awakening largely took place within a pre-existing Sunni insurgency. It was not, however, a tribal awakening against the Sunni insurgency.

This is where the Afghan analogy really breaks down.  The insurgency wants nothing from NATO.  They believe (with history to back them up) that they can simply wait out the occupiers,  whether it’s three years, 10 years, or 25 years.

Any Awakening in Afghanistan would have to happen at the tribal level and will have to come into direct conflict with the so-called Shadow Government of The Taliban.

Robert Gibbs says the US is not going to do nation-building in Afghanistan.  Well, what he actually means is the US isn’t going to do state-building, except they are going to try to bolster the Afghan state, through largely useless and pro forma “pressure” on Hamid Karzai, “benchmarks against corruption,” and the training of the army and police forces.  But who exactly is this national army going to be fighting for when the central government, weak and ineffectual as it is, does not have any real legitimacy?

Is the training of a national army and police just the training of a larger militia force?  And if the police & army become dominated by certain ethnic groups, you may indeed be setting the stage for another civil war when the US leaves.

The “surge” in Iraq happened at a point when the Awakening was starting to hit its stride and the ethnic cleansing/civil war was winding down, and therefore violence began to abate.  At the time, this outcome was erroneously (I believe) attributed to the introduction of more US troops.

With the Afghan “surge”, more American troops are not being deployed as violence decreases.  So there is going to be much more fighting (at least at first).  If US troops gain some momentum, the insurgency will probably start melding back into the crowd to wait the occupation out.

The Iraq example in other words is in many ways a very poor one for Afghanistan.  The notion that groups have to reconcile with a national government seems very out of touch in Afghanistan.  If buy-offs do happen, if tribal militias do rise up and we start working with them, if we do train/arm a decently effective national army and police (big IF by the way), we may contain the violence on a case-by-case basis.

I still don’t see how this changes the reality of a sanctuary in Pakistan or the ability of the Afghan insurgents, gained through hard-fought experience, to patiently wait out NATO.  They realize they simply don’t have to lose to win.

I could see this going a couple of different ways:

1. The surge is initially successful, at least in military terms.  The Taliban began to melt back into the crowd and play the waiting game (in Pakistan?).  Eventually the US leaves, and the Afghan Army/Police along with air support and logistics from the US manages to maintain a kind of stalemate in the country.   Eventually some deal is struck after the US  leaves.  If Karzai could get the US/NATO to leave after some initial military victories and with a somewhat stronger force, that just might be enough to get him a deal with the big insurgent players.

2. Various sides become more militarized through the surge—tribal militias, the Afghan Army/Police, The Taliban, al-Qaeda–and the US leaves in the midst of a renewed civil war.

3. Obama isn’t able to extricate the troops on the timetable he wants and the US continues to be strategically tied down and spend money it doesn’t have and lose troops it can’t afford to in the process.

I have no idea which is the most likely outcome.  Perhaps our readers can think of other likely scenarios I’ve neglected.

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5 thoughts on “Quick Reax to Leaked Obama Afghan Plan

  1. Bleah. I don’t like Obama’s plan. Then again I didn’t like any of the other plans that have been offered short of just getting the hell out. Here’s hoping scenario #1 takes place.

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  2. Let me quote from Melissa Harris-Lacewell’s recent article in The Nation (http://www.thenation.com/blogs/notion/502243/psalm_137):

    “As a candidate, Barack Obama made it clear that he believed Afghanistan, not Iraq, was the most important theater in the war against terror. Strategically, I am not distressed by the decision. Even as he deployed more soldiers, President Obama, unlike his predecessor, offered clear objectives, an exit strategy, and a timeline for withdrawal. Politically, I am less worried than some on the Left, who perceive Obama’s decision as equivalent to Johnson’s choice to escalate in Vietnam. The parallels are not as straightforward as televised versions of American history would lead us to believe.”

    For me personally, I couldn’t agree more with her assessment. Throughout the entire campaign, Barack Obama constantly spoke about how we got “our eye off the ball” and that direct, clear action needed to be taken in Afghanistan. We as readers and the pundits we read can continue to sit back from the stands and preach or offer insight, yet I am seeing exactly what I was looking for back then. I basically dismiss almost all conservative pundits on the Afghanistan war nowadays, because they still can’t come to face reality that for years, this “front” on the War on Terror was neglected and forgotten. Now that its shifted from Iraq back to Afghanistan, everyone’s up in arms. Gimme a break.

    As North says above me, I too hope for Scenario #1.

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    • PF,

      I agree with you that Obama did say he was going to focus on Afghanistan. I believed he would do it then and so I’m not surprised (in general) either. I never believed this line that during the campaign he was only using Afghanistan as a ploy to look hawkish so he could be doveish on Iraq.

      My question is whether this counterinsurgency strategy is the best way to re-focus on Afghanistan. I’m not positively against, but I’m not convinced either.

      I can appreciate MHL’s point that the objective is more narrowly defined, but in the end it still (to me) bespeaks a mindset where “we” set the agenda on them and war conforms to our categories and strategies. War is chaos and Afghanistan has been for many previous occupiers, a graveyard for their schemes and well thought out military plans.

      Not to mention that Afghanistan is a pawn in a regional game–a game which I don’t think Pakistan (really the Pakistani Army) is willing to change, however much money we give them. They want groups in power in Afghanistan who are anti-Indian/pro-Pakistani. No amount of “pressure” on our part is going to change that. iow, I don’t see any way the Pakistani Army ever goes after people like Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyr, or the Afghan Taliban. Those dudes don’t represent any existential threat to Pakistan. The Pakistanis might not actively support them as much as they did in the past, but they won’t go after them.

      Those guys won’t be dealt in until after the occupying forces are gone. So at the end of the day various players in Afghanistan are going to decide that country’s political future not us (I don’t think). At most a surge and COIN strategy there re-jiggers the playing field a bit in the meantime and possibly gives a bit of a stronger hand to the side we support.

      But as long as there is a sanctuary in Pakistan (and there will be), the insurgency will wait out the occupation. I could be wrong about that but I doubt it.

      But this whole notion of an anti-corruption campaign is utter nonsense. My guess is that after we leave the various players will make some deals and possibly (probably?) some of them will still have ties to al-Qaeda. It just depends I guess on how strong/effective/operational any such ties are.

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