Maintaining Perspective

by Joshua Foust on 1/18/2008 · 1 comment

SecDef Gates raised a touch of ire when he suggested NATO only ever trained for the Fulda Gap, rather than fighting insurgencies. While this critique is similar to what the Brits sling our way (and therefore, darkly funny), he almost has a point. The problem is, while there has been some progress in Iraq, there most certainly has not been in Afghanistan—and neither campaign is complete. As of, say, 2006, the U.S. had no usable strategy for fighting a COIN war, and it remains to be seen if FM 3-24 really does the trick—I’m optimistic, but you never know. Not until either country can be called a definitive success story will anyone know what a truly good COIN strategy is.

So, much like with The Don Rumsfeld’s “Old Europe” comment, it was boneheaded—which is surprising, because normally Gates is more impressive with his word choice. You don’t convince Europeans of the need to commit more troops and treasure to Afghanistan by insulting them.

But there is more happening with regard to Europe’s involvement in Afghanistan. Rather than petulantly poo-pooing “multilateralism” like National Review Online, or even the Washington Post (see link), a sober look at why, exactly, European countries seem to commit fewer resources to Afghanistan can reveal some reasonable explanations… and, naturally enough, more than a bit of hypocrisy on the part of the U.S.

Péter Marton and Péter Wagner recently wrote an exploration of the Dutch and Hungarian deployments to Southern and Northern Afghanistan(pdf). They show that, right off the bat, the U.S. spent less money during its first two years in Afghanistan than it did in Haiti, and well under a fifth what it spent in Bosnia. Additionally, while efforts in Uruzgan have seen at best limited success, and while the Dutch were decent enough fighters, the rest of NATO has been worse than slack in helping along a success strategy. The subtextual argument in the Péters’ work is that the compounding problems in Afghanistan are, contra Gates’ foot-in-mouth proclamations, a double-edged problem stemming from under-investment by all parties.

What of the British? It is common to see criticism focus on the “British retreat” from Basra, Iraq, and to parlay this into a criticism of the Musa Qala deal, which was a complete disaster. The problem with this, and it is one that can be applied to all NATO countries, is that the British have a vastly smaller military. While they maintain aircraft carriers and SSBNs, their economy, and thus military (regardless of their comparatively smaller percentage of GDP expenditure) is smaller. Thus, they don’t have as many troops to go around—and Iraq has already strained U.S. troop deployments so much we can spare a mere 3,200 Marines. This basic resourcing issue is the downside of a Europe finally at peace: there is no longer a compelling reason to maintain large militaries with the Communist threat removed and the ease of free-riding on U.S. security expenditure.

Musa Qala, however, is not solely the fault of the British. There have been other “reconciled” Taliban warlords, who turned into effective, pro-government leaders—Mullah Naqib in Kandahar in particular comes to mind, but there are others. So the problem isn’t necessarily the British concept of reconciliation, or even that Mullah Abdul Salaam wouldn’t fight. A broader look at the dangers of reconciliation—essentially, warlord amnesty—and how it mirrors many Afghan complaints against the current regime in Kabul might yield some better analysis.

The psychological impact upon the local populace of reconciling with Taliban leaders matters tremendously, and it is something that is rarely if ever discussed. This is partially familiarity—lots of people have a decent understanding of the military, and a Newsweek understanding of Afghanistan. The trouble is, neither is sufficient in assessing the goals, values, and attitudes of ordinary Afghans—the very people whose support is crucial for ultimate success. A news-y understanding of Afghanistan would have indicated widespread discontent about government institutions… but the opposite is the case. Why is that? What explains the disparity in coverage and the apparent reality on the ground?

I hesitate to accuse everyone else of laziness, as it is clearly not the case. But impact matters—look at the messages the Taliban have been sending. While Herschel Smith thinks “no ostensible harm” has been done to the COIN campaign with the “silly episode” of Musa Qala being Taliban-occupied for ten months, I think he’s exactly wrong. If Musa Qala had happened in isolation, he’d be right and it would be just a bad mistake. But in the context of the recent lighting strike into Arghandab (in which Taliban fighters made triumphant broadcasts from Mullah Naqib’s home right after his death), and the apparent new strategy of targeting aid workers at their luxury hotels, Musa Qala becomes yet another symbol of how persistent underinvestment will eventually cede the country to the marauding Pakistani Taliban. The trends are not pointing in a positive, direction, in other words—and in a counterinsurgency, the population tends to go with the winners.

The plea for more resources—manpower, equipment, reconstruction/development money—is universal among Afghanistan watchers, whether from the Afghan government itself (Ambassador Said Jawad has become increasingly vocal in this regard, at long last), from COIN experts, or simply scholars and activists with deep knowledge and understanding of the country. Yet, increased attention seems to be the last thing on President Bush’s mind.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Nick January 18, 2008 at 8:03 am

IMHO, the Coalition is damaging its own interests by washing its dirty linen in public. Differences of opinion among the NATO allies over counter-insurgency tactics and strategy should be discussed in private, because otherwise this growing rift is going to destroy the Coalition and undermine the Afghanistan mission.

There seems to be a macho obsession with demonstrating that “na-na-na-na – my strategy’s better than yours, so bite me!” – all very childish. There’s also too much off-the-record briefing by all sides aimed at denigrating the other’s achievements: hence Brits complain about gun-happy Yanks, and Americans complain about Euros appeasing the Taliban. Remind me – who’s in charge?

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