So, Andrew “Abu Muqawama” Exum is doing the interview circuit about his experience as a part of General McChrystal’s 60-Day re-review of the Afghan War. It’s interesting to try to make sense of what he said beforehand and what he’s saying afterward—I’ll be the first to admit that going there can significantly change one’s perspective (I, for one, came home convinced the Army is incapable of fighting the war properly)—but some of these changes in attitude, or temperament, or even just word choice are really interesting.
To kick things off, we have Exum’s appearance on the Charlie Rose Show, where he said something interesting. Fourteen minutes in, Ex is discussing how leadership and strategy have been largely absent in the first seven years of the war:
We haven’t had leadership in Afghanistan that’s really been able to take control of this situation [protecting communities from intimidation]. That’s not an indictment of General McKiernan, who by all accounts was a highly competent commander, and, just personally, speak as a former Army officer, I think it was a bit disheartening the way he was dismissed (as big a fan I am of General McChrystal). But again, it’s strategy, it’s resources, and it’s leadership, and we haven’t had all three in Afghanistan until quite recently, and there’s hope that we can turn this around but quite honestly it’s late in the game.
Back in May, when McChrystal’s nomination was first announced and McKiernan was summarily dismissed, Ex was singing a different tune:
This tells me that President Obama, Secretary Gates, and Gen. Petraeus are as serious as a heart attack about a shift in strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was ruthless, and they were not about to do the George Casey thing whereby a commander is left in the theater long after he is considered to have grown ineffective…
The sad truth of the matter is that people have been calling for McKiernan’s head for some time now. Many of the people with whom I have spoken do not think that McKiernan “gets” the war in Afghanistan — or counterinsurgency warfare in general. There was very little confidence that — with McKiernan in charge in Afghanistan — we the United States had the varsity squad on the field.
What changed, I wonder? Was it McKiernan publicly grumbling about the humiliation of his firing, going so far as to say—at his own retirement ceremony!—that he was so mad he almost skipped it? Or something else that he saw or hears at ISAF HQ?
I think that the population is not being kinetically targeted in the same way it was in Iraq, but what that misses is a silent war of fear and intimidation. Let me sketch this out for you: The fall of Kandahar is not going to look like the Taliban rolling down the streets in tanks. The fall of Kandahar is going to look like the Taliban steadily making ground with a campaign of fear and intimidation, and creating an environment in which the Afghan government can’t operate in Kandahar, and Kandahar eventually becomes ideologically inhospitable to the government of Afghanistan, never mind Coalition forces. So first off, the population may not be targeted kinetically in the way that it was in Iraq, but it’s certainly being targeted.
Only, in the CNAS “Triage” paper, on which I was a consultant for some sections, Exum argued something else entirely:
To be sure, violence will rise in Afghanistan over the next year—no matter what the United States and its allies do. What matters, though, is who is dying. And here a particular lesson may be directly imported from the U.S. experience in Iraq. In 2007, during the Baghdad security operations commonly referred to as ‘the surge,’ U.S. casualties actually increased sharply. What U.S. planners were looking for, however, was not a drop in U.S. casualties—or even a drop in Iraqi security force casualties—but a drop in Iraqi civilian casualties.
And in a sidebar titled “Key Metrics over the Next 12 Months”:
Civilian Casualties: A decrease in civilian casualties—whether caused by the United States, coalition, Afghan forces, or the Taliban—will indicate a genuine improvement in security. Conversely, a rise in civilian deaths will imply deterioration in the security situation.
Jari Lindholm, who pointed out this contradiction, wonders, how does one measure intimidation as a metric of success?
There are some other strange inconsistencies in Exum’s interview with Grunstein. In one paragraph, he brags about how the U.S. Army officer corps has grown and developed “a keen understanding of the operating environment in Afghanistan.” He continues, “Whether or not we’re going to be able to translate our operational prowess into strategic success is very much a question that is yet to be answered. But there was reason for being encouraged.”
Only moments later, however, when discussing Kandahar, Ex says he was shocked—shocked!—at “the degree to which we still do not understand this country that we’ve been in for the past eight years.” Is that different from an “operating environment,” or is he talking about two different things? Ex went on to say that knowing the Taliban is great, but “we need to understand power brokers at every level, we need to understand how regional power brokers interact with the insurgency, with the government, what their business ties are.” I dunno, I seem to remember a program supposed to do just that being savaged repeatedly in the press then undermined from above.
That’s a sidenote. Exum has this to say about how the Army understands counterinsurgency:
Nowhere that I went was I able to get a really coherent definition of what it means to hold and what it means to build, and how you do that. And I don’t think we’ve cracked the nut operationally on how we do those things. So first off, I think there’s some confusion as far as what that means. Second off, without question, we do not have the resources to hold much terrain in Afghanistan. We’ve got very limited international forces in Afghanistan, and we’re actually not using them to their best effect if we’ve got them “holding.” So if the Marines in Helmand are holding terrain right now, that’s a waste of resources. The “hold” function should be executed by a robust Afghan national security force.
Well, okay, I really like tautologies too, but this is a meaningless passage. We don’t know what “hold” means, but whatever it does mean we sure don’t have the resources to do it, and if we are doing that thing we can’t do and can’t define, then we shouldn’t be doing it anyway? No offense but if I want to hear crap like that, I already have Bing West. Exum’s boss, John Nagl, has led the charge in talking about the need for hundreds of thousands of more Afghan troops, when they are, at best, many years and many more billions of dollars away from being able to do the job we demand of them (and their end strength is so large and expensive the entire country of Afghanistan does not generate sufficient economic activity to fund it, so such an end state is fundamentally unsustainable as well).
There are, of course, notable exceptions in areas Exum traveled to. While Khost has not been trending well lately, we absolutely know what we need to do to “hold” communities, and Ex defines it in his own talk: create a sufficient sense and presence of security such that communities no longer feel threatened or coerced into supporting the insurgency. That’s what a “hold” is, and even in Khost we have short-lived examples of successful “holding” (like embedding individual units at District Centers to create pockets of security) that Ex, I guess, just never heard about from his generals.
That’s the biggest problem in all this talk of strategy, and the heart of why I was so deeply skeptical of even the current review: no one talks to each other, and no one does their homework (and by that I mean “no one in charge”). According to Exum’s new model for how to use U.S. forces, they should be limited to air-assault type missions, except we need more of them, because the problem is the Taliban’s campaign of silent intimidation. No offense, Ex, but does that make even a jot of sense?
In reality, we have had many successes in which NATO forces have partnered successfully with Afghan forces to achieve surprising successes. In Kapisa, they did that in Alasay until Kabul’s politics ruined their force structure (and they’re trying again this year). In Khost, they did that until units rotated and plans shifted. In Helmand, they’ve never even tried—and they’ve only seen, at best, ephemeral success and mass population transfers.
So we know what works, and we know what doesn’t, and we know why what works never continues past the RIP/TOA (new units, new plans, no room in the OER for leaving well enough alone). Yet, it’s somehow this bizarro mystery at the top levels of the military leadership what’s going on, and their civilians advisers’ response seems to be an earnest wish for more unicorns in the form of suddenly competent and westernized security forces.
That, in a nutshell, is why I have turned so deeply pessimistic. It’s not that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. It is that the Army refuses to win it, refuses to do basic diligence before sending soldiers into harm’s way, and refuses to learn from its own mistakes. I’m poking at Exum here, but he’s not even close to the real problem. I just want to know why his ideas and analysis have changed so much, sometimes within a single interview. What’s his secret, that he seems to have such a handle on this?