Governments Matter: Afghanistan Edition

George Packer has been digging through books on Vietnam as to what they may tell us about Afghanistan.  (George is smart enough to know that actually Vietnam is probably not the best place to look but it does offer some relevant information).**

His most recent post on the subject involves the new book Why Vietnam Matters by Rufus Phillips. According to Packer, Phillips was the only American who really understood Vietnam as a place, as a people, its history and governance.

Phillips sent a note to Packer that is reprinted on the blog.  Some key excerpts–but please read the whole post (and especially the whole letter):

I’m afraid the President, who seems like a supremely rational being, is trying to find the most rational policy option on Afghanistan, without thinking about whether it is feasible given political conditions on the ground, as well as who is going to implement it and how. What seems the most rational option here could be likely unworkable over there.  This is part of what happened to President Johnson during Vietnam. He relied exclusively on policy ‘experts’ who understood military and geopolitical strategy in the light of World War II and Korea, but who had no direct experience combating a ‘people’s war,’ while underestimating the North Vietnamese and misunderstanding the importance of the South Vietnamese, who were treated as bystanders. His advisers constructed strategies whose feasibility never got tested by those who knew Vietnam first hand…

I don’t see evidence of any real political thinking about how to deal with Karzai and the local political scene, no matter what option is selected. As we swing between counterproductive table pounding and passive non-interference, we must muster the will to interfere quietly but firmly when we are on solid moral ground—standing up for the Afghan people and for principles of honest governance. (my emphasis)

I generally loathe Vietnam analogies to Afghanistan because of its politicization in American consciousness.  But as a marker, both countries are examples of fourth-generation warfare insurgencies.  In some ways Afghanistan is pushing towards a potentially fifth-generation or open-source form of insurgency.  In other ways not.

Regardless, the track record of superpowers in 4GW insurgencies (and then counterinsurgencies) is not very good to put it mildly.  The key is that the wars are won while the follow-up peace cannot be won, while the advising crew (as per Phillips’ comments) still thinks of everything in terms of war.  i.e. They are fighting the wrong battle both in their minds and then on the fields.  Counterinsurgency is part of winning the peace and therefore relies heavily on the local government.  In the Afghan case, I think this is particularly problematic and I see no way around that impasse.

The individuals pushing for a ramped up COIN in Afghanistan–Petraeus, Nagl, Mullen, McChyrstal–would all seem to fit the bill of the experts who understand military and geopolitical strategy but not Afghanistan proper.  Nagl studied Malaysia (and of course Vietnam) and Petraeus/McChyrstal are Iraq War II guys.

I’ll just re-type that essential Phillips line: “I don’t see any evidence of any real political thinking about how to deal with Karzai and the local political scene.” None.  Nada.  Full stop.  Well that about says that. 

Since the whole debate is around counterterrorism (Biden?), accelerated training of Afghan Army (Levin, Webb), and/or COIN (The Generals/Experts), the entire political question is again missed. To be fair that lacuna might be because it’s damn near impossible to think of what anyone can do on that front.  An Yglesias post on that point.*

Some more from the Phillips letter:

My Afghan friends tell me as soon as he is confirmed, Karzai is going to launch a big initiative on talks with the Taliban, which are not likely to go anywhere if he leads them. Are we thinking that if we cede territory to the Taliban because they promise not to let Al Qaeda back, we will be able to hold an imaginary line, including Kabul, with the Afghan and international forces we will have? What will that tell the Afghan people, except to signal ultimate abandonment? And how will that affect their support for the Taliban to avoid being killed or severely punished?

I agree that Karzai’s will probably try to make some such deal and said outreach to the (Afghan) Taliban will likely not be very productive.

But the next sentence is the real crux of the paradox (even for a Phillips who as clearly articulated above knows the value of the locals themselves).  Look at this line again:  “Are we thinking that if we cede territory to the Taliban…”

The obvious question is:  Who is the royal we here?

If Karzai makes a deal with The Taliban have “we” (again this is an American speaking) have ceded territory to the Taliban.  Isn’t Afghanistan their country not ours? And if Karzai does good ahead with some deal (contra US/NATO wishes), then the gig is up.  (Unless I suppose, per Vietnam analogies, the US backs a coup against Karzai).  In COIN if the host government balks against the invited/occupying force (depending on pov), then that’s it.  Game over.  See Maliki’s SOFA deal and Iraq as an example.

Also there is a question of ceding territory.   My understanding is that the Taliban basically already control large portions of Afghanistan.  It wouldn’t be ceding so much as acknowledging the reality or capitulating to it if you prefer. But if you go in COIN style and knock the Taliban out of various quarters, as Phillips says, there is still no thinking being done on local governance, so you have the same problem all over again.  Wars/battles won and failed follow up peaces.

Phillips is perhaps right that such a deal would signal ultimate abandonment/futility on the part of NATO, but according to the reporting of Richard Engels, he thinks the Afghan people are largely confused and bewildered by the whole NATO mission.  Ultimate abandonment would just be another step in the “we’ve never understood why you are here and what you are doing” thing.

Phillips one last time:

Nobody seems to factor in our moral obligation to the Afghan people. We abandoned them twice. Will this be the third time? What does that say about us?

The moral obligation is a tricky one.  It has both light and shadow.  The shadow is confusing “our” perceived responsibilities and obligations with the country’s actions, such that “we” are unconsciously equated to be the real government.  A mistake I think Phillips himself makes above as I pointed out.

The positive flip side is actually caring about the people of Afghanistan instead of a totally cynical realpolitik, “f@!# ’em” attitude.  But care for people does not mean practically that much if anything positively can be done.  My own sense is that too much time was lost with no planned follow-up to the initial war in Afghanistan.  And even if COIN were implemented and had some military success, the script would just be replayed–i.e. no followup or lasting real change.  And even if the right people and strategy to have a proper followup were in place, I think the region is probably too poisoned for it to even work.  But those people and that strategy aren’t in place anyway, so it’s a moot point.

* MY’s post talks about Afghanistan as corrupt–and by developed country standards that is certainly the case.  (See his graph in the post on that one).  But within the frame of a non-developed world, corruption isn’t corruption but doing whatever you have to do to feed/protect your family and kin.  The libertarians at the League can back me up here, but until there is more economic freedom and a rising level of income/prosperity among the population,  there isn’t “corruption”, there is just life.  This is why in a country like Afghanistan, the quick influx of volatile slush funds in the form of international aid as well as payments to various warlords is such a problem.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

10 thoughts on “Governments Matter: Afghanistan Edition

  1. Phillips one last time:

    “Nobody seems to factor in our moral obligation to the Afghan people. We abandoned them twice. Will this be the third time? What does that say about us?”

    It says that we should shoot any f*cking neocons the *first* time that they invoke morality as an excuse for conquest.

      Quote  Link


  2. “The positive flip side is actually caring about the people of Afghanistan instead of a totally cynical realpolitik”

    Yeah, I’m increasingly of the opinion that there are hard limits to what America can accomplish for the Afghan people (distinct from with) and that we’re fast approaching them if we haven’t already reached them.

    However, now, to leave the country to civil war, tribal feuding, and/or Taliban rule would be disastrous for people who opposed tyranny because they thought America and Europe would be there for them.

    Maybe we should just allow anyone who wants to leave with us to immigrate to Puerto Rico or the Marianas or some other US protectorate.

    That said, great post Chris.

      Quote  Link


  3. I don’t think he’s a neocon. Colin Powell had the Pottery Barn rule re: Iraq. It might be someone who is opposed to the war initially but then thinks if you go in and blow up somebody’s country then you are bound to try to clean it up and make it better (if you can) then it was beforehand. Instead of just blowing shit up and running, leaving somebody else to clean up the pieces.

      Quote  Link


  4. Every time I read about Afghanistan I start feeling tired. How are we ever going to get out of this disaster? To think I used to think Iraq was the big problem child. This reeks of bad politics. Who does state have over there? The military angle is unpleasant but managable but the civilian component seems to be where the wheels are coming off.

      Quote  Link


    • Holbrooke is the assistant for Af-Pak. Was I think supposed to be for India too but the Indians and the Pakistanis balked at that idea.

      But the problem with the state department is the state dept assumes a state. It is built for diplomacy/coordination between states not the building of a state. For that we would need a new Cabinet dept. What Tom Barnett calls the “Dept of Everything Else” or the Dept of Reconstruction.

        Quote  Link


      • Fair enough Chris. I suppose what I was getting at was I could have sworn someone got handed the box that said “help develope civilian government in Afghanistan” and I could have sworn that person was not military. Was it our ambassador or state or someone else? I have to admit, I hadn’t paid Afghanistan close mind for a couple years.

          Quote  Link


  5. There’s a lot of problems but the biggest one is the simple discontinuity in policy outcomes from development and security oriented appendages of the US government.

    Lots to discuss here, but I’d like to get back to this in a week, after I’ve listened to some CIA folks talk about this subject after hearing a think tank person do the same.

      Quote  Link


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *