The Case for Afghanistan: (Recent) Historical Considerations

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by Joshua Foust on 9/1/2009 · 34 comments

Part 1: Introducing the Case for Afghanistan
Part 2: Strategic Considerations

I’m adding a new consideration in the Afghanistan War Debate, one I did not mention in my introduction, because it seems to be a subtext behind much of the debate over the war’s stakes. That new consideration is history, specifically recent to 20th century history. When I last had this debate, in April of 2008, blogger Fabius Maximus summarily rejected dismissed the history of American inaction in Afghanistan, but I never really understood why—he just asserted that there’s no reason to think history would repeat itself.

That thought seems to have been internalized. Take George Will’s column as one example. After quoting a British historian who’s written fifteen books about World War 2 but none about Afghanistan, he says:

So, instead, forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

The trouble is, this describes Afghanistan, circa 1998-2004 or so. It didn’t work. In fact, I’ll take it a step further and say it actually made us worse off: relying solely on drones and cruise missiles to work for us, we demonstrated we cannot assemble the necessary intelligence for effective air strikes from satellites or the Indian Ocean. Despite the many targeting mistakes we see, our current round of drone strikes and SOF raids are heavily reliant on HUMINT sources that simply cannot be cultivated with a “substantially reduced” presence. We would give up our eyes and ears on the ground, making targeting monumentally difficult.

Worse stil, there WAS no significant troop presence until 2004 or so. Before that, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was primarily Special Forces—which was fine, while the Taliban and al-Qaeda were still gathering strength in Pakistan (more on that in a future post). But when they re-emerged, SOF units proved incapable of maintaining even a basic level of security, because at the end of the day in war numerical superiority still matters. There is no basis to say that security or the threat environment will improve with a reduction back to 2003 force levels.

The futher trouble to all of this is the assumption that the Taliban will either not manage to catastrophically undermine the Kabul government and reemerge as Afghanistan’s government, or if it does, that somehow American threats will somehow break its current alliance with al Qaeda. (Many commenters at Abu Muqawama, for example are under the impression that U.S. “engagement” with Mullah Omar’s government the first time around—from 94-96, and then again when we threw money at them in 2001 in return for crashing the economy by outlawing opium—actually benefited American security interests.) This is something that is asserted, mostly by non-specialists, and rarely with anything more than their own sense of logic. “There’s no reason for the Taliban to do X” is not much of an argument when the Taliban have a record of doing Y—you must build the case for why they would do X (in this case, NOT continue their close association with al Qaeda). Blithe assertion requires a certain gravitas (or, you know, experience and mastery of the subject) that 99% of the people who use it simply do not have.

But there are deeper historical considerations as well. Knowing the history fo the country and the region should inform our discussion of its strategic significance, but Afghanistan’s history is terribly easy to misconstrue. As an example, here is Tom Johnson—yes, this blog’s super double-plus BFF—in the Washington Post declaring the Taliban religious nutbags who can never negotiate, ever.

In Afghanistan, we insist on fighting a counterinsurgency strategy based on secularly defined objectives, while the enemy is fighting a religiously inspired jihad. It’s hard to defeat an enemy if you don’t understand him. Most insurgencies end through some combination of negotiation and reconciliation, but the jihadists will never sincerely negotiate with us. Our “clear, hold, and build” approach is failing in Afghanistan for the same reasons it failed in Vietnam — because we insist on prosecuting the approach sequentially — not simultaneously. We can succeed in Afghanistan, but we need a strategy that is village-based and represents decentralized, bottom-up nation building based on traditional Afghan tribal leadership and legitimacy.

Does that make any sense to you? We’re secular, but too sequential, and not village-enough? They’re too religious, but simultaneous, and somehow not exploiting the “traditional Afghan tribal leadership and legitimacy?” That’s an… interesting analysis, to say the least. Gulliver addressed some of the substantive errors of fact in Johnson’s piece, but I’d like to address a conceptual problem—and tie this back into the history piece.

Johnson argues that the hardcore ideological Taliban (let us make that distinction) will never negotiate an end to their insurgency because they’re religious zealots. There’s a hitch: fourteen months ago, Johnson was making basically the opposite argument: when comparing the war in Afghanistan to the war in Northern Ireland, he listed the fact that the Irish and the Taliban have a strong ethno-religious identity as a reason the two conflicts can be compared. The trouble is, the Irish ended their insurgency through negotiation. Their ethno-religious identity did not change. They simply renounced violence in return for a British withdrawal.

Lest we think this is an isolated case of someone getting trapped by his own analogies, at the end of 2007 Johnson compared the Taliban to the Navajo and Apache Indians, because the Taliban was a tribal force organizing its followers just like the Native Americans would (and they repeated the ridiculous lie—again brought up in the latest CTC Sentinel—that the Taliban are all Ghilzai and the government all Durrani, so let’s just map the tribes and win).

In short, Johnson, too, represents how even well-meaning analysts flail about when they don’t have a firm grasp on history. It’s even worse when someone thinks he understands history, but in fact gets it exactly backward.

History, even relatively recent history, is vitally important. As our operations in Helmand slowly deflate like a flan in a cupboard, the complete ignorance of even last year’s operations in the current planning is not only painfully obvious, but embarrassing.

It’s not like this kind of stuff is hard to find—you don’t even need a university library for all the basics. And yet, the people declaring the war unwinnable, or some tactic all wrong and we should do this, or all the other unsupportable arguments meant to undermine the current war effort are all missing one very critical thing: actually knowing what they’re talking about.

So here are the historical concerns we need to keep in the front of our heads when discussing whether or not Afghanistan matters:

  • The 1990s cannot be written off as a one-time thing. Many of the ground conditions remain the same.
  • A policy of American disengagement, limited to occasional air strikes at terrorist compounds and funding proxy militias, not only did not deter the Taliban from supporting terrorist activity, it prevented the U.S. from stopping the 9/11 attacks.
  • There is no indication the Taliban and al Qaeda are any more fractured than they were in 2001, and lots of indications that they work more closely now than they did then.
  • Similarly, there is no evidence that the Taliban will renounce al Qaeda should they re-assume power after an American withdrawal or draw down.
  • Post-2001, there is a rich history of both successes and failures during the war, even if an understanding of those successes and failures doesn’t make its way into the public or private discussions of the war.
  • In broad terms, there is nothing illegitimate about a strong secular power in Kabul that rules through Islamic principles—that aptly describes most of the 20th century.

So, PLEASE, let us stop pretending we are fighting this war in a historical-political vacuum? There is a lot of history to consider, and no one—on either side of the debate—is really addressing that.


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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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{ 34 comments }

Fabius Maximus September 1, 2009 at 11:31 pm

The post you refer to is ”
Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?”, 9 April 2008.

I see nothing in it remotely corresponding to your statement that I “summarily rejected dismissed the history of American inaction in Afghanistan, but I never really understood why—he just asserted that there’s no reason to think history would repeat itself.”

You make two mentions of history.

(1) “We thought we had no obligation to rebuild Afghanistan after we helped to shatter it in the 1980s. T he result was a decade of unimaginable misery resulting in the Taliban and al-Qaeda… and the attacks of September 11, 2001. W e’ve seen what happens when we wash our hands and walk away, consigning them to their fate. Why would we want to repeat that? Surely the cost is too high.”

My reply was “This is a sample set of one, from a large number of post-WWII military expeditions to help foreigners. For example, we have tried all forms of intervention in Africa. The results have varied from ineffective to horrible. Why is Afghanistan different? What is the basis for belief that our intervention will have good effects, not creating resentment and hostility — leading to bad or worse results than just providing aid? Saying that conditions are bad and military intervention is the only alternative ignores history and logic.”

(2) “Afghanistan’s history suggests that withdrawal will have direct, and dire, security consequences for the U.S. and Europe.”

My reply (ignoring the lack of evidence for your statement): “If van Creveld is correct, we will see more States fail during the next few generations. Since military interventions have a low success rate, we might rely on — for lack of better tools — simple carrot and stick “solutions.” Aid and — if that fails — strikes and raids (either pre-emptive or retailiatory). That we want better solutions does not mean that we have better solutions. Life is like that.”

You conclude here with “So, PLEASE, let us stop pretending we are fighting this war in a historical-political vacuum?”

Mr. Pot, meet Mr. Kettle. IMO you are ignoring the history since WWII of foreigners fighting domestic insurgencies. Few wins, many defeats — under a wide variety of circumstances. Also, as Chet Ricards (Colonel, USAF, retired) showed in If We Can Keep It (2008), foreign military intervention often weaken the host government’s legitimacy — making the situation worse, not better. This seem esp likely for us, as foreign infidels in Afghanistan.

Joshua Foust September 2, 2009 at 6:00 am

Fabius, it’s my mistake for not linking the post so people can read the exchange you and I had in the comments afterward. I added a link, above, to the post in question. At reply 4, 4/6/2008 at 7:20 pm, I said:

I’m sorry, Fabius, but you’re running up against two very unavoidable dilemmas: the last time we asked the Afghans to “sort it out on their own,” the result was the Taliban and September 11. And, with the money and influence being funneled into the Taliban through sloppy policies and under-attention, the exact same conditions that created the terrorist haven for al-Qaeda will come back.

Your response, 4/6/2008 at 9:45 pm:

I understand your note about the history of Afganistan. Still, this is a sample set of one — no matter how strongly the lessons your draw from the recent history.

You then referenced “the large number of other interventions around the world, many with similar motives.” I responded on 4/6/2008 at 10:28 pm:

Fabius, the problem with generalizing—especially generalizing from other situations onto Afghanistan—is that the devil is in the details. It is specifically Afghanistan’s unique recent history that makes intervention so very necessary, as it has proven that non-intervention simply does not work.

And your response, after an interlude with the original subject of the blogpost, was:

Many bad things happen in the world. Your forecast — emphasis on forecast — may be correct, but that does not mean that military force is THE answer. Or that there is an answer for us in the form of interventions to prevent States from failing.

For most of history people watched loved ones get ill, and tried desperate remedies — often expensive, often painful for the patient — in the hope that something would work. Most of those remedies were useless, many made things worse.

Which leaves me back at the head-scratching over your rejection of using Afghanistan’s history to inform history, and also why you rejected the idea that it’s a bad idea to, say, compare Afghanistan to Africa. So yes, there IS indeed “remotely” your rejection of using history as a guide. I don’t think that was very dishonest of me to point that out.

Fabius Maximus September 1, 2009 at 11:38 pm

I did something wrong with the HTML in the above comment. The post is Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.

Galrahn September 2, 2009 at 1:02 am

The two of you are always entertaining in debate.

Will is arguing for an offshore balancing strategy that has long been proven an effective grand strategy to balance the geopolitical environment, but is very poorly developed as a military strategy in a military campaign. Will’s suggestion falls apart because we are beyond the ability to leverage offshore balancing strategies in Afghanistan, which as a rule avoids “boots on the ground” in the first place, not substitutes for “boots on the ground” after the fact.

But I have never known George Will to be a military strategist.

I think history is important to this conversation, but I am not sure the history you laid out did the argument justice. Given your knowledge of Afghanistan, a history of effective centralized governance would have been an interesting analysis, particularly considering from a strategic perspective, counterinsurgency strategies are designed to protect the recognized government seen as the legitimate authority for the people, and has traditionally only been effective supporting centralized governments.

Afghanistan’s recognized government isn’t centralized, it is tribal. I’m relying a bit on your expertise Josh, but isn’t it fair to say the last effective domestic ‘centralized’ government was the Timurid Dynasty? I’m not counting when external powers ruled, because I don’t believe our objective is indefinite occupation.

We are 500 years removed from the Timurid Dynasty, which suggests to me the counterinsurgency strategy is not going to be successful.

Joshua Foust September 3, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Timurids? There have been at least a few others, like the Moghuls, Dost, and Rahman dynasties, too, right? Seriously, though, chaotic or decentralized government is an aberration, not a norm, in Afghanistan. The (main) difference, at least the way I see it, is that the central power formed a collaborative relationship with local powers, instead of imposing them from the center outward (the way, say, a federal government would work). So even under Zahir Shah, you had a strong, recognized central government that could enforce laws, but communities still rebelled against it when it became too imposing (like the Safi Rebellion of 1944-5).

There is nothing tribal about the Karzai regime. He wouldn’t have so many Tajiks and a Hazara VP if it were.

The challenge to the current government is that it had broad legitimacy, but corruption has undermined it. That doesn’t make the fight lost—corrupt governments CAN address the issue, and have—but it does complicate matters. My big concern about the election (which Will is being incredibly hypocritical to dismiss the way he does) is that it won’t fundamentally change the corruption issue, and that is what undermines faith in GIRoA and pushes people toward the “incorruptible” Taliban.

anan September 2, 2009 at 1:05 am

Fabius, would you agree with this statement: “insurgencies have rarely succeeded in thousands of years of human history unless the insurgency has substantial foreign support.” If you do agree with it, does it have any relevance to Afghanistan?

I think there is strategic confusion here. 91% of Afghans as of Feb 9, 2009, had an unfavorable view of the Taliban. 92% of Afghans as of Feb 9, 2009, had an unfavorable view of the Taliban. Why do some think that the Afghans cannot defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda if they get hundreds of billions of dollars worth of international grants over decades?

Joshua, nice post. I agree with the large majority of it. It would be nice if commentators at least knew a slight amount about post 1700 AD Afghan history. A short summary like this should be required reading:

Between about 1700 and 1747, Afghanistan (and Pakistan, and much of the southern former USSR, and much of India) was ruled by Persia.

From 1747 until the Brits came, Durrānī and his successors ruled the Eastern Persian empire. This included East Iran, southern former USSR, Pakistan, much of India, and Afghanistan.

British influence until 1919 or 1945.

“Golden age” 1945 to 1973.

Recent instability and civil war 1973 to 2009.
_____________________________
Joshua, one of the major causes of confusion is a lack of understanding of the “Taliban.” Could you perhaps consider discussing your views regarding each of the major Taliban militias; and what you think GIRoA/ISAF/international strategy should be towards each one? Which of them is the most dangerous and linked to global terrorism? {Maybe Haqqani?} Which might be the easiest to flip? {Maybe Hekmatyur?} Thanks.

Fabius Maximus September 2, 2009 at 1:25 am

anan — No, I don’t believe that is correct.

The post-WWII era is a clear line, after which insurgencies had a higher success rate than the (low!) historical average. Anti-colonial wars were often fought with little foreign support, but massive foreign opposition. The insurgents (broadly defined) usually won, or so weakened the colonial power’s grip that independence followed soon afterwards.

Foreign aid for insurgencies improves their odds of success, but seldom extends to troops.

The record suggests that foreign troops have little net benefit for CI in most cases, perhaps because they so often weaken the legitimacy of the host government.

This is a complex subject, with ongoing debate. My comment above was not a rebuttal of Foust’s analysis here, but questioning the accuracy of his summary of my statements.

anan September 2, 2009 at 1:42 am

Interesting Fabius. Could you provide examples of insurgencies that have succeeded without substantial foreign help?

Another question: If an insurgency and the local government both have foreign backing . . . then which is more legitimate?

Ian September 2, 2009 at 7:22 am

Why do you have to frame the debate in terms of George Will’s total retreat idea versus the… um, pay attention to history and pour more resources into our current effort? That’s what you’re saying, right?

I am not someone who says that the war is “unwinnable” but there are territories in the south and east that are uncontrollable (at least by a force that U.S./NATO can afford to field right now). We should cede territory to the insurgents that we currently have a weak, non-controlling presence in (like, say, Korengal or some of P2K) where we only exacerbate local conflicts and are unwanted. We should concentrate our forces and development resources on territories that we can actually control–physical control being the prerequisite for any real progress, not info ops or humanitarian aid drops, which are bandaids. Forget Helmand, the north and much of the west are teetering, and that’s where we should be redeploying to. Allowing Kunduz to turn red will be the canary in the mineshaft.

This is an argument that you have systematically ignored, even when you train your sights on people who argue it (Rory Stewart, for one).

Joshua Foust September 2, 2009 at 8:07 am

Ian, I chose Will’s essay because it’s a) dominating the discussion at the moment, and b) because it seemed representative of most cases against further American involvement. If you have something else you think is more representative, I’m all ears.

As for Stewart and the idea of scaling back, I don’t think you can make that claim. Going all the way back to my first post about him in March of 2007, I’ve been engaging with his advocacy of abandoning the Pashtun areas in favor of the North and West (you’ve even commented on several of these posts, so you can’t claim ignorance of them). Similarly, I used to consider the concession argument somewhat compelling (see this February 2007 post, for example), I’ve come to believe that doing so actually makes us worse off — as evidenced, in my view, Musa Qala and Alasay districts (I’d link, but WP only gives me three hyperlinks). Giving up territory has made security worse off in each area it’s happened; why that wouldn’t happen were we to do it on a large scale is a case that has to be argued, and not asserted. Rory Stewart hasn’t moved much beyond asserting it and relying on internal logic to do so — not evidence from ground conditions.

Anyway, the point is, I don’t think you can really accuse me of not engaging with these ideas. I have been engaging them — for several years.

Ian September 2, 2009 at 8:37 am

Not to the point, but could you find me one of your Rory-hate posts that I’ve commented on? Not saying I’m not an avid reader, but the only such example I found was a comment I made on a post here by Laurence Jarvik.

I have no doubt that redeploying out of areas we don’t control will make ‘us,’ by which I take you to mean the U.S. military and its immediate objectives, worse off in the short term. But moving out of Korengal and Helmand and into Badghis and Kunduz will have excellent results for the people there, in that U.S./NATO will actually be able to protect those friendly populations with the right density of forces. Then, once we can convince people we can actually control an area both during daylight and nighttime hours, start trying to spread southward and eastward gradually.

The main downside you state is that Pashtun areas might try to split from Afghanistan and create a wider civil war scenario. Is that something you still believe? Is this the fundamental reason behind your unrelenting (from February 2007 to today) push for more troops rather than a redefinition of objectives?

Joshua Foust September 2, 2009 at 10:02 am

Here you are, first post. We actually had a lively discussion about this very topic.

Oh, and there’s something of a fine line between what I do (which is criticize and sometimes mock) and hate. I don’t hate Stewart, not by a long shot. I just don’t think his arguments are as serious as his supporters make them out to be.

You’re right, the people in the North will benefit from greater security. The Korengal is something of a unique case, though—it is not really analogous to the rest of Afghanistan, not even broad swaths of P2K that would be abandoned should Stewart’s plan come to fruition. I agree that we should abandon it, but that’s because a) the people themselves have rather decisively demanded we leave (something you don’t see in a lot of places like Zabul and Khost and Paktika); and b) the threat from that area can be uniquely contained thanks to the few narrow valleys and enormous mountains that funnel almost all traffic in and out of the area along easily-monitored routes.

Ghazni, on the other hand? It’s an open book — there is no way to secure around that province if it is left to its own devices. I’d say the main downside (my views have evolved somewhat since 02/2007) is that any established safe havens for the Taliban would also be staging grounds for further attacks against the legitimate government. Oh, and there’s that whole “safe haven for al Qaeda” thing President Obama would like to avoid.

Ian September 2, 2009 at 10:20 am

Ah yes, that post. In which I take you to task for caricaturing Stewart’s positions based on your own personal dispositions against the man rather than taking him seriously (something Christian did at the time by using evidence in his argument). If this is your example of “engaging his ideas” then you need one more example.

I did not claim Korengal was representative of anything, just that the troops currently stationed there are wasted, and that there are other areas in Afghanistan where that’s also true. Failing in Kunduz is _losing_ in the absolute sense, whereas that is not true in Korengal.

If the safe haven objection is now your main one, I’d also submit that a “safe haven” for insurgents (which is to say, insurgent-controlled territory, if we can depoliticize for a moment) would be preferable *inside* of Afghanistan rather than across a porous but contentious international border.

Bernard Finel September 2, 2009 at 7:28 am

“Many commenters at Abu Muqawama, for example—people like Bernard Finel—are under the impression that U.S. “engagement” with Mullah Omar’s government the first time around—from 94-96, and then again when we threw money at them in 2001 in return for crashing the economy by outlawing opium—actually benefited American security interests.”

I never said this.

Joshua Foust September 2, 2009 at 7:49 am

Bernard, you’re right. I added the reference to you on the recommendation of a friend, and I did it without rereading the comment thread in question. That is my error, and I apologize (and I have removed the reference to you).

Bernard Finel September 2, 2009 at 8:10 am

Thank you, and I also apologize for assuming that you had done this maliciously.

David M September 2, 2009 at 9:50 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/02/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Joshua Foust September 2, 2009 at 10:25 am

Ian, I’m missing where I didn’t engage his ideas in any of the posts I referenced. I use ridicule, yes, but I thought I was pretty specific in saying his ideas were unworkable.

And you did generalize from Korengal when you used it as an example, along with P2K, of the many regions we should ignore to focus on places like Kunduz.

And say what you will about internal safe havens—they haven’t worked out so well for Colombia (as one example). Giving up on the idea of safe havens does not really make us better off in the long run.

Ian September 2, 2009 at 1:34 pm

It’s my firm belief that the phrase “safe haven for terrorists” is entirely politicized and has no real meaning. Many villages in territory supposedly held by ISAF are safe havens for terrorists because insurgents are the villagers. That said, there is a big safe haven in Pakistan (and increasingly Somalia and Yemen). The argument that a district in Zabul will become a safe haven ignores that it already is one.

I used Korengal as an example of a place where I feel ISAF/NATO troops are wasted; you said I claimed it was representative of Afghanistan as a whole, which I did not (and agree with you it is not). In the P2K areas I have in mind, no, the locals have not expressed that they want us to leave, but I have a hard time believing that our presence (in some places, not all) ends up exacerbating problems not solving them.

“I use ridicule, yes”

Ridicule isn’t a convincing way to show you are taking someone seriously. Rory Stewart is not Ralph Peters or Anne Marlowe. Most of the world has given up on you on that point but I still haven’t.

Joshua Foust September 2, 2009 at 2:14 pm

Wait, so you reject the safe haven argument as political, except the safe haven argument about Pakistan?

Sorry Ian, you need to clarify that.

Ian September 2, 2009 at 3:35 pm

What I mean is, first of all, I believe that “safe haven for terrorists” is the “school lunches for poor kids” of the debate. No one is for safe havens for terrorists. But winning in Afghanistan may mean, for the time being, ceding control of territory that we don’t really control anyway and focussing force and development efforts on territory that we really can, really, control.

Second of all, if you insist on the term “safe haven for terrorists,” I will play along and point out that they already exist all over the place.

Joshua Foust September 2, 2009 at 7:20 pm

Fine, then, let’s play: how do we decide which provinces to cede to the Taliban and which to fight over? Ignore the obvious cases like Helmand and Balkh. What about Ghazni? Khost? Farah? Kapisa? Who makes that call, tells the Afghans that, no, they’re really not worth protecting?

Now how do we manage the interface between “safe zones” like Kunduz and “contested zones” like Baghlan? What does ceding territory mean, beyond allowing the Taliban free reigh in some areas we don’t have the resources to control?

What if containing the Taliban and preventing them from overrunning the safe areas actually requires more troops?

To back away from the demagoguery over the “safe haven” rhetoric, these are the kinds of question Rory Stewart doesn’t seem to have considered. There are tremendous consequences, tremendous human and political and social consequences, to doing what he advocates, but he at best glosses over it.

I won’t deny that there could be a convincing case for creating safe zones and giving the Taliban territory. But no one, not even the sainted Rory Stewart, seems to have thought through the consequences—what will THAT take? How much will it cost in money and lives? Will we actually be better off?

Right now, I don’t see encouraging answers to any of those questions. Which is why I rely on the “safe haven” shorthand, and continue to treat Stewart’s ramblings with the disdain they deserve.

anan September 2, 2009 at 8:32 pm

Joshua, I support a smaller ink stain approach to Afghanistan.

This is a necessary component of my preferred approach, or super embedding advisory ISAF division, brigade and battalions headquarters directly in the ANSF and fighting through them. This means transitioning all battlespace in Afghanistan, all PRTs and all reconstruction to the ANSF. Andrew Exum also favors completing the transition of all battlespace to the ANSF within 12 to 24 months (although he hasn’t given his opinion on transitioning PRTs, reconstruction, and their security to the ANSF,) so elements of the strategy I favor are part of the current strategy.

For this to succeed, I think the Afghans will need many tens of thousands of foreign civilian advisors (hopefully many from China, India, Iran, Indonesia, Turkey etc.) over the long term. In addition Afghanistan will probably need $250 billion in grants and $50 billion in loans over the next 20 years. {As I do the numbers, it will be difficult for the Afghans to win with less.}

I think there is a difference between fighting COIN super embedded in the ANSF and GIRoA versus fighting COIN in “PARTNERSHIP” with the ANSF and GIRoA . . . which McChrystal and Andrew Exum favor.

The embedded approach will require ceding large parts of Afghanistan to the Taliban and her allies in the short term and gradually recapturing these areas over the long term. It will also require fewer ISAF OR1 to OR3 (although more senior officers and NCOs, since the ANSF respect them more than younger officers/NCOs.) The embedded approach will save many tens of billions of dollars in ISAF operational costs, be politically more sustainable to international contributors, the global muslim community (ummah), and be more popular among Afghans (since Afghans love their army . . . and mostly like their police.)

Shouldn’t this more limited but long term commitment to Afghanistan be discussed? A smaller ink stain approach as part of a comprehensive integrated long term strategy is a legitimate option.

BTW, this was the Rumsfeld/Cheney policy until Rumsfeld was fired. America didn’t really start training, equipping and paying for the ANP until Rumsfeld was fired. At the beginning of 2008, Afghanistan–a country of 33 million poeple–only had 3 thousand trained police officers. Rumsfeld/Cheney believed in ceding most of Afghanistan to chaos and insecurity. Rory Stewart is in many ways part of the Dick Cheney school of foreign policy.

Ian September 3, 2009 at 4:23 pm

“What about Ghazni? Khost? Farah? Kapisa? Who makes that call, tells the Afghans that, no, they’re really not worth protecting?”

Is this not a basic question of war? Have we not implicitly said that to every conflict area we haven’t invaded? Obviously Obama and his generals make this kinds of hard necessary decisions.

“What does ceding territory mean”

It means redeploying entire FOBs to areas where the majority of the population is willing to inform on insurgents. I assume you can take a map and consider where we have good information and where we don’t, and put FOBs where we have good information.

“What if containing the Taliban and preventing them from overrunning the safe areas actually requires more troops?”

If so, at least then there is a strategy of protecting safe areas, unlike the current drift. I’m not against more troops if they have a mission.

I’m not for sainting Rory Stewart, but I continue to be perplexed at the all-in-or-fold mentality of this debate, which you could help to raise to a higher level by considering more nuanced positions.

Joshua Foust September 3, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Well, Ian, there you go implicitly accusing me of not considering this. I said above that we know the obvious places where there could be more of a security presence—you’ll never get an argument out of me about that. The trouble I see is, you fall into the same trap the military does: using the other side as a black box. (The military tends to use “civilians” as a thing they use somewhere, with little or no understanding of how or why they work.)

So, if the generals are meant to decide which areas to abandon based on whether or not people are willing to inform on insurgents… how do they determine that? You know as well as I do that they haven’t the first clue who lives in the towns nearby their bases, much less the overall social fabric of a given area. Let’s look at some examples:

Eastern Paktika. Locals there complain about special forces raids, and say they will not cooperate with CF until the raids stop and their men are returned. Those locals are portrayed as “sabotaging” the war effort by being truculent. Do they count as people willing to “inform” on insurgents, or are they too rejectionist to warrant a western security presence?

Alasay district, Kapisa. The people there are generally friendly to Americans (and French!) but very wary of collaborating too closely because of the numerous times their area has been abandoned for better pastures elsewhere. Do we beef up our presence there or do we decide they’re not cooperative enough and move on?

Kandahar City. ISAF is decidedly unpopular there, and according to local sources (like Alex Strick) most of the violence inside the city is between rival gangs, and not necessarily Taliban. Different factions violently compete for the right to distribute unmonitored ISAF development funds. They’re licking their lips are the prospect of “tribal militia” money because of how easy it will be to launder. Do we abandon them because it’s tough despite the symbolism, or do we hang on knowing that at least it’s not majority Taliban yet?

See, Ian, I don’t think even the military can reliably make the right call in these kinds of cases because there is no right call. And I really don’t see any evidence that Rory Stewart (or, to be frank, you) have considered the humanitarian or strategic consequences if we actually adopt that kind of a policy. When TF Currahee pulled out of Sabari District of Khost, saying they’re too unwelcoming and they didn’t want to try, with the plan of spreading development and security stations around the troublesome district, violence spiked and the province’s security posture still hasn’t fully recovered (by all accounts, TF Yukon wisely re-established a government and military presence there).

It’s a microcosm, I think, of what happens if we try that tactic writ large: much much much worse violence, with much less freedom of action to respond to it. Which is why I find the idea wholly unworkable. If you can build a case for why and how that would be better than the status quo—aside from “let the generals do it”—I’d be all ears. But I’m not hearing it.

Ian September 3, 2009 at 9:03 pm

It seems like you are ridiculing my criterion of people informing on the enemy. This seems to me to be a fundamental feature of success against an insurgency, especially one that mainly uses IEDs and suicide attacks.

My accusation–not implicit, but explicit–is that you refuse to consider where the U.S. and Europe could have less of a presence, not more of one. It’s easy to imagine where we could have more, I agree. Then you list off places we couldn’t *possibly* ever, ever abandon no matter what. This is clinging to a bad situation. But let me respond to your specific preference: fight for Alasay if people are willing to pick up the phone when their neighbor harbors insurgents. This is assuming a modicum of security backing them up. Otherwise move out. Rinse and repeat.

“what happens if we try that tactic writ large: much much much worse violence, with much less freedom of action to respond to it”

Agreed, if we are talking about areas we abandon. And, in addition to that, much much much less violence in the areas we control, because we will actually control them. American troops should not be in another country unless they actually have control (or have a chance, the way they are resourced) to control of the areas they reside in. Otherwise they should move out.

aarun September 2, 2009 at 11:33 am

“Despite the many targeting mistakes we see, our current round of drone strikes and SOF raids are heavily reliant on HUMINT sources that simply cannot be cultivated with a “substantially reduced” presence. We would give up our eyes and ears on the ground, making targeting monumentally difficult”

1) Maybe I just don’t know enough about this. What does a “substantially reduced” military/overt presence have anything to do with our ability or the necessity in keeping a significant clandestine/intelligence presence in Afghanistan? Couldn’t we withdraw militarily and not diminish our ability to recruit HUMINT assets by keeping clandestine intel officers on the ground?

2) I think you dismiss an important point about the strikes when you say, “despite the many targeting mistakes we see…”

Intelligence is never perfect, or it wouldn’t be intelligence, it’d be called fact. However, if the HUMINT we are collecting isn’t all that good, in that it leads to “many” targeting mistakes, we need to be asking what the root causes of these mistakes are. Is it simply the luck of the draw or the nature of the beast? Are we using sketchy intelligence because its all we’ve got? Is it because we need more troops/intel officers collecting and corroborating intel? Are our HUMINT assets duplicitious? I don’t have an answer.

All I know is that the perception in that region is that our “precision” strikes are killing far more civilians than they are militants: http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/world/14-islamabad-urged-to-concede-its-tacit-approval-of-drone-attacks-zj-02. This perception, accurate or not, undermines the COIN effort.

So I guess I don’t see why increasing or mantaining our troop levels for intel/targeting purposes will work.

Dan A September 2, 2009 at 12:15 pm

It seems to me that yes, trying to make significant progress in many parts of eastern afghanistan, particularly Korengal, makes no sense, there is some value in keeping minimal numbers of troops in some of those areas, even if to just to make the taliban expend resources there that could be better utilized somewhere else. The amount of resources the taliban expend on small, heavily fortified COPs that have open lines for smallarms, indirect fire, and close air support are probably detrimental to the Taliban’s war effort, just as us trying to pacify these areas is detrimental to our war effort. It seems it would also be vital to heavily support nearby friendly areas to isolate these regions.

expat8 September 2, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Re: “Johnson argues that the hardcore ideological Taliban (let us make that distinction) will never negotiate an end to their insurgency because they’re religious zealots.”

Since your piece here emphasises a need to remain aware of history, from an old – but I believe reasonably credible – source:

http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn11012004.html

Now the story has some controversial implications about the entire post 9/11 campaign against Afgh. but if anything like the dynamic between Washington and Taliban interlocutors is accurate – which again I suspect is the case – any depiction of them as purely ‘religious zealots’ or ‘medieval tribesmen’ is little better than a poorly drawn cartoon.

There is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence from before we went in that the Taliban and ‘the warlords’ (aka Pashtun tribal leaders) did not always see eye to eye, echoing the rift between the central administration (of whatever ilk) and the more remote regions you mention.

However, once you have a foreign imperial power coming into the equation, the likelihood is that these previously discordant elements will unite to beat back a common enemy. This indeed seems to be have been what has been, and continues to be, transpiring.

If this is more or less the case, what exactly is the US mission in Afghanistan? Al Q was never a central governing authority. If the linked article above is relatively accurate, the Taliban – i.e. the central Afg. govt – was more than willing to hand him over or take him out in which case the entire basis of our invasion and occupation is undermined and – again in terms of paying attention to the history of the situation – analysis of the campaign should not dwell on tactical pros and cons, or even shallow arguments as to whether ‘strategic’ victory is possible, rather why we are there in the first place.

Why are we there in the first place? What is the mission? There is simply no credible, publicly articulated reason for a single US or NATO soldier to be there in the first place. Even leaving justification aside: what is the goal?

Seems to me the only valid goal is to take over the country’s governance in some way, either overtly or covertly (usually the latter) such that all decisions important to geopolitical issues regarding energy, military and financial flows, can be controlled by the US Empire. Given that is the case, ‘victory’ is persuading the Afghan elites – or creating new elites who have the power to overcome existing/old elites including Pashtun tribal leaders in Afg. and Pakistan areas – which are actually Pashtun but not on our nicely-drawn contemporary nation-state post WW II maps.

Dropping bombs all over the place using drones is one way to enforce authority – though not allegiance. But that is just a way of keeping the little people in local areas in line. Creating a new elite or making an existing elite into a compliant proxy is something that, if being attempted, is neither reported on nor analysed in terms of the overall strategic, let alone tactical, picture.

You are right. History is important. And history tells us that if you don’t take them over with massive force and essentially murdering any and all opposition to impose order, that you still have to put together a credible local proxy than can essentially effect the same. There is little that current US military operations in theatre are doing to effect this. Indeed, the US is demonstrating that it has lost its grip on authentic imperial leadership and is essentially blundering. Rarely do good results come from such sloppily thought out, internally incoherent, policy.

aarun September 2, 2009 at 12:58 pm

“The trouble is, this describes Afghanistan, circa 1998-2004 or so. It didn’t work.”

First, correct me if I am wrong, but until 9/11 we didn’t care to have many intelligence officers on the ground in Afghanistan, so of course it would be hard to collect HUMINT. To say that if the US withdrew militarily now, we would go back to 1994 doesn’t seem logical to me. The post 9/11 mentality has changed the US view of the region substantially.

Second, to say “it didn’t work” is problematic. You have to be able to link our strategy back then to our goal in order to assess whether it worked, partially worked, etc. From 2002 until now, we didn’t have a coherent end state or goal (although even now its pretty hazy, ask Richard Holbrooke).

If we can agree that the US goal in Afghanistan is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida, there may be different views on how to achieve that goal. Some are arguing that the only way to achieve the goal is to ramp up our military footprint and focus on population-centric COIN. Others, such as George Will, are saying that much of a commitment is unnecessary and we can achieve the goal without occupying the country.

I find the arguments for withdrawl slightly more convincing. However, to say that withdrawing would a) put the US in a time-machine back to 1994, where the backdrop of 9/11 and the threat from al-Qaida was not taken as seriously as it is now, and b) be akin to abandoning Afghanistan post-1989, just does not seem realistic given what we know now. We abandoned Afghanistan after 1989 because we ignored the need to help develop the country, not because we didn’t replace Soviet troops with US troops.

Pre 2001, we ignored Afghanistan altogether, and that will not happen in a post -9/11 world whether we do or do not withdraw militarily.

omar September 2, 2009 at 8:48 pm

Good article. It seems to me that a great deal of useful information is lying around in history, provided people are willing to drop their preconceptions and soundbites and are willing to see things from more than one angle.
Anyway, I think discussing the war as if its all about afghanistan (or afghanistan and pakistan) is also misleading. What IS the purpose of going to war after 9-11. Obviously the final purpose is not some kind of police mission to arrest a particular perp. IF that is the purpose, then this trillion dollar war is the most ridiculous possible way of going about it. You could have paid Musharraf 100 billion and had everyone in Alqaeda in Guananamo in one month. The fact is, that is NOT the overall purpose. Let us define the overall purpose, then the purpose of each subsidiary operation can be debated…..
My contention is that the reasons include some combination of deterring future attacks like 9-11 (or worse) “by any means necessary”, making sure that no organized modern state in the Muslim world actively supports or even passively tolerates such terrorists, and perhaps, getting some other geopolitical benefits in the process. Is that a fair assessment?

anan September 2, 2009 at 9:23 pm

“the reasons include some combination of deterring future attacks like 9-11 (or worse) “by any means necessary”, making sure that no organized modern state in the Muslim world actively supports or even passively tolerates such terrorists, and perhaps, getting some other geopolitical benefits in the process. Is that a fair assessment?”

What “geopolitical benefits are you referring to? I don’t see any conceivable ones, except the possibility of collaborating positively with Russia, China, India, Iran and Afghans to achieve shared interests. However, that does not seem to be happening right now nearly as much as it should. Instead all of them are free riding on America. {One example: China is the largest trading and investment partner of Afghanistan. An Al Qaeda video from 3 weeks ago called for attacks against the Chinese homeland. China should be sending tens of thousands of civilian advisors to the GIRoA and billions of dollars in grants rather than the hundreds of millions in grants it is giving now.}

A large strategic objective that you didn’t include is “to make Afghanistan a success”; because:
1) this would encourage the majority of decent muslims who seek a positive future for muslims and nonmuslims alike.
2) this would discredit extremist Takfiri type ideologies within the Ummah.

Another large reason for long term engagement in Afghanistan is that a highly capable ANA (which is anti Takfiri and anti extremist to its core, and which includes many orthodox sunni Pashtuns) would be insurance against disaster in Pakistan, unlikely though that may seem now. In the event of a disaster, the ANA could go east of the Durand line.

Omar, do you (like me) favor temporarily yielding large parts of Afghanistan to the Taliban, and helping the Afghans retake these areas over the long term? (See the discussion above.)

Old Blue September 3, 2009 at 2:11 am

The one simple fact that continues to slip from discussion in both Fabius Maximus’ arguments and the discussion regarding any decision to cede areas either internally (Kapisa, Korengal) or regionally (Afghanistan) is support of the people. As Anan points out, the overwhelming proportion of Afghans do not want the Taliban. They wish to see the GIRoA succeed, but don’t have the strength to resist the insurgents when they are present. As many who have spent time in Afghanistan have found, Afghans are also consumate fence-sitters.

People discuss the Afghans as indomitable. They view themselves, wishfully, as such. A recent book plays off of it in its title. The meme has become nearly universally accepted, to the point that the spurious argument is constantly raised as a justification for strategy. History indicates, however, that the Afghans are the speedbump of history. They have been regularly conquered… and usually because they are just in the way of someone who is either on their way somewhere (Khan, Alexander) else or in the way of interfering with someone else (Britain, America v. Russia). You can see the genes of many conquerers in Afghanistan today. Simply put, Afghans are the ultimate survivors. Their ability to fence-sit and await the gelling of any situation has demonstrated itself throughout the ages. In the meantime, they have developed a strong ability to maintain the essence of their culture. While Afghanistan has been repeatedly conquered, the Afghan culture itself has not been conquered. Afghans have assimilated anything which they have chosen and left the rest behind to wash away with the tide of retracting empires which the Afghans have had little if anything to do with the deaths of.

With a history that has rewarded fence-sitting as a coping/survival mechanism, is it any surprise that while 90-some-odd percent of Afghans do not wish to the see the return of Taliban rule, it often seems as if there is an ambiguity in their actions? I think it makes perfect sense. Add to that the irritation with their “guests,” who show such arrogance and fear, and the ability to materially commit their own “blood and treasure” in one direction or the other is not exactly encouraged. They view this as possibly sentencing themselves and their families to death.

Could anyone demonstrate the linkage between popular support and the percentage of insurgencies that succeed or fail without greater than 50% of popular support? History has proven that a much smaller but heavily armed, violent and committed group can dominate a larger, more docile group. But what percentage of unpopular insurgencies succeed without external support? What percentage of foreign-assisted governments fail against unpopular insurgencies? I would submit that the answers are likely to be quite different from the contemporary “insurgency math.”

Regarding ceding areas of Afghanistan in favor of concentrating on holding areas where the GIRoA holds seemingly uncontested sway or consolidating against minor insurgent encroachments, try applying a couple of standards. First, what is the level of popular support (desire) for the GIRoA/insurgent to succeed? Second, what is the how does the inkspot theory apply in reverse? I would submit that the answers to these questions leave us with perhaps temporarily ceding only the Korengal for later.

We are learning here in Afghanistan. We are learning that clearing before there is a plan to hold and build (no build; no hold) is a bad idea. What is the purpose? We have perenially done clearing operations that resulted in no long-term change in the situation except reducing the number of humans respirating.

The overarching argument over the “strategic interest” of any nation in Afghanistan would never have been argued on September 12, 2001. It was pretty clear. The world has materially changed. Like any revisionist history, there are many reasons, many explanations, and much “clarity” provided in historical references which may or may not be relevant. Getting lost in the weeds over arguments that dismiss the effect that globalization has had on the propensity for disenfranchised groups from discrete nations to export violence on a (formerly) state-actor scale completely ignores two simple truths that were apparent to all on 9/12/01. First, there are people out here in the world who bear incredibly ill will with the United States and her allies for their particular situations, for whatever reason. Two, failed or failing nations who exchange ideas, capabilities and support with these extra-state actors enhance the abilities for the export of tremendous violence to be performed within our own borders.

As the suicide bombers are proving regularly in Afghanistan, a single man or small group with a powerful weapon and little or no regard for his own life is capable of severe harm and very difficult to stop. We fail to understand this at our own risk. Perhaps we should try (again) the technologically-driven selective firepower approach. Like an alcoholic trying to drink only wine or beer in order to control the amount of alcohol, it is an experiment that might have to be tried… unsuccessfully… again and again before he gets the point that it will not work. We have forgotten the hangover of the World Trade Center. There are two ways that we can provide security for ourselves. One is to micromanage life in our countries, aspects of which are being used in places such as our airports. There is also addressing the root causes and conditions for such events. But, perhaps we should try the Clinton method (standoff, cruise missiles) again, since the first time didn’t teach us anything.

expat8 September 3, 2009 at 7:27 am

Tried posting this yesterday but kept getting kicked back because it thought it was a duplicate post. Trying again :

Re: “Johnson argues that the hardcore ideological Taliban (let us make that distinction) will never negotiate an end to their insurgency because they’re religious zealots.”

Since your piece here emphasises a need to remain aware of history, from an old – but I believe reasonably credible – source:

http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn11012004.html

Now the story has some controversial implications about the entire post 9/11 campaign against Afgh. but if anything like the dynamic between Washington and Taliban interlocutors is accurate – which again I suspect is the case – any depiction of them as purely ‘religious zealots’ or ‘medieval tribesmen’ is little better than a poorly drawn cartoon.

There is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence from before we went in that the Taliban and ‘the warlords’ (aka Pashtun tribal leaders) did not always see eye to eye, echoing the rift between the central administration (of whatever ilk) and the more remote regions you mention.

However, once you have a foreign imperial power coming into the equation, the likelihood is that these previously discordant elements will unite to beat back a common enemy. This indeed seems to be have been what has been, and continues to be, transpiring.

If this is more or less the case, what exactly is the US mission in Afghanistan? Al Q was never a central governing authority. If the linked article above is relatively accurate, the Taliban – i.e. the central Afg. govt – was more than willing to hand him over or take him out in which case the entire basis of our invasion and occupation is undermined and – again in terms of paying attention to the history of the situation – analysis of the campaign should not dwell on tactical pros and cons, or even shallow arguments as to whether ‘strategic’ victory is possible, rather why we are there in the first place.

Why are we there in the first place? What is the mission? There is simply no credible, publicly articulated reason for a single US or NATO soldier to be there in the first place. Even leaving justification aside: what is the goal?

Seems to me the only valid goal is to take over the country’s governance in some way, either overtly or covertly (usually the latter) such that all decisions important to geopolitical issues regarding energy, military and financial flows, can be controlled by the US Empire. Given that is the case, ‘victory’ is persuading the Afghan elites – or creating new elites who have the power to overcome existing/old elites including Pashtun tribal leaders in Afg. and Pakistan areas – which are actually Pashtun but not on our nicely-drawn contemporary nation-state post WW II maps.

Dropping bombs all over the place using drones is one way to enforce authority – though not allegiance. But that is just a way of keeping the little people in local areas in line. Creating a new elite or making an existing elite into a compliant proxy is something that, if being attempted, is neither reported on nor analysed in terms of the overall strategic, let alone tactical, picture.

You are right. History is important. And history tells us that if you don’t take ‘them’ over with massive force and essentially murdering any and all opposition to impose acceptance of defeat along with subsequent overlordship and order, that you still have to put together a credible local proxy than can effect the same. Seemingly, there is little that current US military operations in theatre are doing to effect this. Indeed, the US is demonstrating that it has lost its grip on authentic imperial leadership and is essentially blundering. Rarely do good results come from such sloppily thought out, internally inconsistent, policy.

That said, if the intention is to maintain an overall atmosphere of instability in the ME along with boosting defense sector corporate profits, it’s working just fine.

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