Behind Door #3 in Afghanistan

Br. Will is right that scaling down the Afghanistan effort in favor of civilian air strikes, just “air raiding the place” as then Candidate Obama called it, would by itself lead to more civilian casualties.

Will quotes this piece from a NyTimes article on the Biden plan for Afghani-Pakistan (i.e. The Baker-Hamilton of Afpak):

Among the alternatives being presented to Mr. Obama is Mr. Biden’s suggestion to revamp the strategy altogether. Instead of increasing troops, officials said, Mr. Biden proposed scaling back the overall American military presence. Rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics.

Will comments:

In short, not only will this leave the population more vulnerable to Taliban incursions, the Administration intends to rely on “surgical” methods that dramatically increase the likelihood of civilian casualties.  (italics in original)

But is this all of the Biden plan?  Here’s Marc Ambinder:

The deeply flawed election in Afghanistan, which, most importantly, was seen as deeply flawed by the Afghans, seems to have been the breaking point: the central government was not only corrupt, not only weak, and not only barely legitimate outside of Kabul; it was so weak and so corruptible that it would not even be able to sustain the standing army that NATO troops were desperately trying to train. Who was the U.S. fighting for? A weak, inept, ineffectual and ultimately disposable government? Implicit in this argument is that a strategy predicated on there being an alternative to the Taliban is like a hamster spinning on a wheel. In that case, removing the incentives for the Taliban to be radicalized and destroying the leadership of Al Qaeda — basically, bribing people and killing people, and doing so indefinitely, but with irregular and special operations forces — is the alternative. (my emphasis)

Now I think it’s totally ignorant that the Afghan election’s corruption was some shocker to the administration (quelle surprise!!! the horror!!!). I know I say this all the time by why the f@#! do we rate countries’ elections on the 21st century Western version of a “transparent, corruption-free election” when they are living in the 17th century?  The arrogance of this is so far beyond belief, it burns my goats (as it were).  Look into the history of American presidential elections and ask how “free and fair” say the election of 1816 was?

Anyway, off my rant.  I suppose Team Obama needs the political cover and the inevitable corruption of the Afghan election (which I can’t imagine being solved by re-running it) gives it.

The killing part is the special forces and the air strikes which Will has mentioned, but what about this bribing part?

Here’s John Robb:

One salient theme of global guerrilla theory is that nation-states, from western democracies to developing countries, are finding it nearly impossible to retain legitimacy in a globalized environment.  One of the drivers is that good governance of the type we aspired to in the late 20th Century (that delivers a rising tide and a level playing field), isn’t possible without a modicum of control over borders, currency, people, media, etc. (all of which which was lost with globalization — from communications to trade flows).  Worse, predators (fueled and superempowered by connections to the globalized system), from global banksters/hedgies to gangs to militias, abound, ready to siphon off, wreck, or corrupt any gains or attempts that are made to deliver good governance.   As a result of this theme, fragmentation (either physical or virtual) is inevitable.

Whatever can be said for the whole, it’s even worse at the bottom of the pile, in places like Afghanistan…the only means of reigning in feedback loops of death/destruction is to support decentralized sources of order and legitimacy.

Here is John (testifying to the House) on what he calls open-source counterinsurgency:

Aghanistan is a hollow state — it has international recognition (and the trappings of a nation-state including five star hotels in the capital for journalists and diplomats), but it retains little control over the countryside.  Further, the state lacks legitimacy.  All legitimacy is local/tribal/gang.  So, let’s skip to the end game in Afghanistan and run this war through “nominally loyalist” tribal militias (loyal to US money and support rather than to the Afghan government).  Let’s not waste time on building up the Afghan military, trying to make the Afghan government legitimate, or on reconstruction efforts.

His comment:

This wasn’t a strategy for “victory” (in the sense of the maximal goals required: a legitimate democracy that is integrated into the global economy), it was a strategy of “good enough” (a defensive delay).  The strategy above allows the US to maintain a level of controlled chaos in Afghanistan, enough to allow an exit.  It doesn’t waste the lives of US soldiers and our increasingly scarce financial resources on a maximal effort that can’t be won.  It’s also a strategy that comes straight out of Brave New War (the strategy, re: Sons of Iraq, that was eventually used in Iraq to create controlled chaos sufficient for an exit, is too).

In Iraq, what happened was not the success of the surge contra the neocon right.  What happened was the insurgency was bought off because it had failed strategically and tactically both in a military and political sense–this became apparent as Baghdad had been ethnically cleansed of Sunnis.  i.e. The Sunnis lost the Iraqi Civil War. They were therefore “buy-able”, at the price of the heads of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Now Iraq has a history of strongman leadership as well as strong state apparatus.  What occurred politically was trading one strongman (Sunni) for another (Shia, Maliki).  The history of Iraq is playing itself back out as the Arab strongman is heading towards potential war with the Kurds in the north.

Afghanistan does not have this recent history of strong state leadership.  The Taliban were in charge but actually didn’t govern much, instead focusing insanely on public/private conformity to their religious (dys)utopian ideal.   Of course The Afghan Taliban have much stronger ties with Al-Qaeda are not likely to sell them up the river.  In the Iraqi cases, the al-Qaedites were largely non-Iraqi, foreign intruders and were easy targets.  Most of AQ now appears to be in Pakistan anyway.

But Afghanistan is not Iraq.  A “surge” in Afghanistan will do probably as little, maybe even less than a surge in Iraq did.  The various factions called Taliban will simply melt back into the crowd and wait NATO out.  The “surge” in Iraq was not the success.  It was the buying off (“the bribing”) of the insurgency.

And that is where Robb’s idea comes in.  Afghanistan will not even get to the level of a Maliki-lead (tenuously but sufficient at this point) Iraq.  Not in a decade.  And to replicate the real counterinsurgency success of Iraq requires  not more troops and nation-state building but rather buying off the insurgents.  To that would inevitably even more so than is already the case to a fragmented Afghanistan.

The alternative requires not just a (mythic?) deal with the Taliban to enter the government but also (an equally if not more so mythic) regional deal between India, Pakistan, Russia, and China.  Good luck with that one.

Open source counterinsurgency could work as a third option between the Chechen school of counterinsurgency--which in the Afghanistan case would include massive attacks on the narcotics industry–and the population-centric COIN school that Gen. McChrystal is pushing for (plus “surge” just like in Iraq).

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17 thoughts on “Behind Door #3 in Afghanistan

  1. US airstrikes have limited ability to defeat al Qaeda – The Long War Journal

    As the Obama administration weighs switching its Afghanistan strategy from one of counterinsurgency to secure the Afghan populace to counterterrorism operations aimed at al Qaeda’s network based in Pakistan, US military and intelligence officials said that while the US air campaign in Pakistan has been effective in taking out nodes and senior al Qaedaleaders, the capacity to cripple the terror network with this tactic alone is limited.

    US intelligence officials have noted that while the attacks have hurt al Qaeda’s operations, particularly the external operations branch, which is aimed at striking the West, al Qaeda’s command is intact and junior leaders, some who have been waiting in the wings for years, have stepped into new leadership roles.

    “Al Qaeda still maintains a deep bench,” a senior official told The Long War Journal. “We’ve hurt them, we’re forcing them to focus more on personal security and leadership succession, but we can’t defeat them like this.”

    Numerous al Qaeda operatives, many with a decade or more of experience, wait in the wings to assume leadership roles. Many are based in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Yemen [see list of al Qaeda leaders still active].

    A senior official warned of overly optimist reports “that the military strikes have reduced al Qaeda’s core leadership to only a handful of men and diminished its ability to train fighters,” thus forcing the group “to turn to its global affiliates for survival.”

    “We’ve heard similar, premature reports of the demise of al Qaeda over the past several years,” the senior official said, “only to be shocked when much of northwestern Pakistan and wide areas of Afghanistan fell under the sway of the Taliban, with the aid of al Qaeda. We won’t beat them unless we hold ground, its that simple.”

    “Predator strikes are one tool in the kit to help defeat al Qaeda, but an overrelaince on this tool does not make for sound strategy.”

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  2. RN,

    That may be true–in fact I wouldn’t deny it. What’s the alternative? Invade Pakistan? I don’t think there is any way to cripple a terrorist network in a globalized world. I think there’s way to keep negative pressure on it, keep it boxed in–mostly this has to do with surveillance, intelligence gathering, and probably yes at times targeted strikes (of varying effect). But there’s no way to get rid of them. If you invade Pakistan–which of course isn’t going to happen but let’s imagine it did for a second–they would just migrate up north to Central Asia or re-locate back to Somalia or Yemen. If you go there, then they’ll move again (Nigeria? Congo? back to Afghanistan?). The one way to cripple the network en toto would be to build up every nation-state and region on the planet to a modern level. All the best in that endeavor.

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  3. So we agree. That’s a first.

    In the discussion of Obama’s latest deliberation, it implies that he’s headed down the Nixon/Johnson path since he’s considering the “precision bombing” alternative that Biden is promoting. This is all that’s left if we withdraw since there will be no bases left to mount drone/special forces attacks.

    I can’t think of an alternative either, except for “build[ing] up every nation-state and region on the planet to a modern level.” But then, I’m not president. It’s his job to think of alternatives, not mine.

    Probably the best alternative is to just keep on with what we’re doing, since this tends to keep the hajis boxed in, like you say.

    However, see this: this

    Bekkay Harrach, alias Al Hafidh Abu Talha al Almani, warned that Germany would be attacked if Chancellor Merkel is re-elected and the country does not withdraw from Afghanistan.

    Read more:

    Maybe they’re not so “boxed in” after all and we do need a better strategy. Hillary said that,

    Mrs. [Hillary] Clinton, who opposed Mr. Biden in March, appeared to refer to this debate in an interview on Monday night on PBS. “Some people say, ‘Well, Al Qaeda’s no longer in Afghanistan,’ ” she said. “If Afghanistan were taken over by the Taliban, I can’t tell you how fast Al Qaeda would be back in Afghanistan.” [From the NYT]

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  4. I’m not sure quoting some jihadi saying he will bomb Germany unless they meet his demands is exactly what we should be focused on. Everybody says everything.

    A possible alternative is the one laid out by John Robb. Start buying allegiances. It will not be to the national Afghan gov’t which I think is a waste of time. This would the third option between the Nixon/Johnson fly-over bomb route and the stay the course/add more troops and continue indefinitely down some road that has no viable political end. bc I can’t see us actually building some trans-ethnic, democratic, corrupt-free Afghan gov’t ever, but certainly not without about 15-20 years which we don’t have the time or resources for.

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    • If you read the article, he’s not just “some jihadi.” He’s a senior member of al Qaeda command.

      Otherwise, buying allegiances doesn’t sound so bad. If we’re going to fantasize plans, then mine is that we should start by buying all the Afghan opium and cannabis crop. It might cost less than the McChrystal strategy and nobody would have to die. With that as a base, we’d have something to build upon later, if Obama ever gets done deliberating.

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  5. Will we be seeing a battle of Obama vs the Generals now? I can’t say why exactly, but my money’s on the generals. Obama is no Truman or Lincoln to be fighting generals.
    Situation Reports: U.S., Afghanistan: Petraeus, Mullen Approve Of Assessment

    September 23, 2009 2059 GMT
    U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus said Sept. 23 that he and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen endorsed Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s “assessment and description” that more troops are needed in Afghanistan, Reuters reported.

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    • I don’t know, Obama wasn’t particularly impressed by Petraeus’ vaunted power point presentation when he went to Iraq as Senator. They had a tussle on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The key player in all this probably is Bob Gates. Obama’s got Biden and Jim Jones in one corner. Stanley McCh, David P, and Adm. Mullen in the other. And Gates is probably the swing vote (I think Hillary is largely on the sidelines, maybe I’m wrong on that one).

      Gates is cagey and has at times been both hard on the Euro allies in NATO and critical of the idea of sending in more troops. He’s got a lot support in the Pentagon.

      If Obama does add troops within I would bet 5 months or so, someone with more mainstream appeal than Russ Feingold (a Jim Webb maybe?) comes out for a flex timeline like Obama had on Iraq.

      At this point they are just haggling over the price of withdrawal–when and at what cost.

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      • Petraeus and Obama had a tussle that Obama lost, hands down. If this thing goes to congressional hearings, like some congressmen are recommending, I bet he loses again. He’s just in way over his head with national security policy. There’s just no way can he compete with the likes 0f Petraeus in an open debate. Anyhow, that’s my bet if you want to take it.

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        • Ultimately Obama told Petraeus that he was going with his strategy of a timeline in Iraq when Petraeus wanted a longer commitment. Eventually the US and Iraq signed an agreement that essentially was Obama’s plan from about 2006.

          This round may in fact be very different. You might be right. Afghanistan is not as unpopular in the public’s view as Afghanistan is. Who knows. And I’m not convinced that Obama has signed on to the Biden-Jones plan. Although he appears to be seriously giving it a second look.

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  6. When you think about it, your points about expectations of corruption cut in opposite directions. On the one hand, you say that what is significant is that Afghans themselves regarded the election as extraordinarily corrupt, but at the same time you say that the administration shouldn’t have been surprised at a corrupt election, as it is the norm there. It seems clear, then, that what surprised them was not that the election wasn’t clean by 21st century western standards, but that it was so significantly more corrupted than what is normal that it was regarded as illegitimate by Afghans, who regard election legitimacy in reletive terms to begin with. It’s fairly implausible to suggest that “Team Obama” was expecting the Afghan election to be clean by 21st century standards — I seriously doubt that was the case, so you can probably unburden yourself of your outrage at their cross-cultural ignorance/arrogance.

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    • I wouldn’t throw that point away that quickly. I still think they were naive and/or are playing naive so they can play the outrage card when they should have known how corrupt this all would be. I mean Karzai’s brother is a major drug lord. And since the Obama adm. basically tried a soft coup by pushing Abdullah Abdullah as their candidate of choice, they had to know that Karzai would rig the thing yes? They might have wanted that so they could cut final cords with him–and this is the theory that this is all a rope a dope on their part–but I don’t know. I still get the sense that they weren’t on the ball on this one.

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  7. “The alternative requires not just a (mythic?) deal with the Taliban to enter the government but also (an equally if not more so mythic) regional deal between India, Pakistan, Russia, and China. Good luck with that one.”
    This may seem mythic but, would not giving the Taliban and the Narcos free rein (more or less) cause so much havoc in the area that those countries would have to step in to ensure some regional stability? Not so much out of altruism as national self-interest.

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    • potentially, tough to predict. I could see a scenario where Russia, China, US make some deals with Central “istan” countries to keep this boxed in and then put pressure on Pakistan to try to modulate their clients (i.e. elements of the Taliban). Afghanistan would be used as the release valve in this scenario.

      Not sure how successful that would be. But if they crack down hard on the drug industry they will create a more professionalized, harder core crew. They will create a petri dish of criminal enterprise/innovation that will then leak out (via the net and globalized communications/trade platforms) and spread outward from there.

      If they don’t go after them, they might expand their trade.

      Real Catch 22, lose-lose in my book.

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      • I think you’re correct. I didn’t think of an increase in the sophistication of the drug lords. The delivery/processing system must be pretty good right now (all I know is what I saw on Traffik). But even if this happens, the border countries would be as effected by this as we, would they not? Although it sounds immoral are at-will raids in failed states (and yes, I think Afghanistan is a failed state) an option? No nation building, provide humanitarian aid and go after terrorist cells when found. I also have to agree with North, control and sell heroin cheaply and the drug lords are out.

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    Another article from the Long War Journal on this topic:

    US military and intelligence officials are concerned that a proposed alternative plan to ramp up cross-border attacks in Pakistan and rapidly build the Afghan security forces in lieu of a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy may take hold and lead to a catastrophic failure in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    This alternative strategy, which was proposed by Vice President Joe Biden and reported in The New York Times, calls for reducing the US military mission in Afghanistan and ramping up airstrikes and covert raids against the al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

    “Rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics,” The New York Times reported. “The Americans would accelerate training of Afghan forces and provide support as they took the lead against the Taliban. But the emphasis would shift to Pakistan.”

    But US military and intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal warned that a strict focus on a counterterrorism mission concentrating on al Qaeda’s leaders in Pakistan would cede the ground in Afghanistan to both the Taliban and al Qaeda and would have only a limited impact on al Qaeda’s leadership.

    A ramped up program of cross-border strikes into Pakistan would also likely lead to the destabilization of Pakistan’s government and a possible revolt within the Pakistani military and intelligence services. And, a strategy that focuses heavily on counterterrorism tactics such as unmanned strikes and night raids would only play into the propaganda message of al Qaeda and the Taliban

    Read more:

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