There’s a new CNAS paper out, this time talking about the transition taking place in the military campaign in Afghanistan. This is an important discussion to have, one I consider far more responsible than the Afghanistan Study Group’s empty posturing.
Now, since full disclosure is a big deal these days, I need to say up front that Andrew Exum, one of the coauthors of this report, asked for my feedback nearly two months ago. Much as he did with the Triage paper 18 months ago, he sought out some voices he knew would probably dissent from broad themes in the paper. I think this is considerate of him, though the author’s prerogative to ignore input means it can be a crap shoot if he agrees with you or not.
In this case, several of my comments and pieces of feedback went unaddressed, and several were incorporated. I agree with several points Exum and LTG Barno make, and disagree with others. So, in the interests of parsimony, and to avoid retyping things I originally wrote weeks ago, I’m going to largely copy from that feedback to highlight why this paper, while a step in the right direction, still falls short.
First off, it is important to note that Transition makes a case, implicitly, for a managerial approach to Afghanistan. It’s something I’ve been toying with for a while, unable to really express it properly. Basically, I think much of the discussion of Afghanistan is crippled by the language we use to discuss it—victory and defeat are not, in a very real sense, useful or explanatory ideas. If we transition our thinking about Afghanistan from winning a war to managing a problem, a whole new realm of political and strategic opportunities open up.
This is the implicit context Exum and Barno use to frame their paper, and I think it is a very good idea.
That being said, there remain some serious shortcomings that, I think, undermine their broader goal of responsibility in transition. For starters, this talk of “defeating” al Qaeda is, put bluntly, madness. Defeating al Qaeda is like defining porn: you can’t know when it actually occurs, but somehow you’ll know it when you see it. As much as I agree with Exum’s and Barno’s contention that al Qaeda is a very serious threat both to the region and to America, I don’t see how merely reducing the number of troops and more narrowly focusing them on CT is going to achieve a defeat of al Qaeda (since I don’t know what a defeat looks like). While they do skate around the idea of managing al Qaeda the way one should manage Afghanistan, it is left in indirect language and is not terribly persuasive.
The regional picture is muddled. While the paper is about Afghanistan, the authors argue repeatedly that meaningful, political and security progress cannot happen without Pakistan’s involvement. While this is true, they then explain in “The Regional Landscape” that it would be great for India to take a broader interest in Afghanistan. This runs up against the Pakistan problem again: so long as they irrationally obsess over India, India needs to back off in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis see most Indian involvement as deliberately provocative, rightly or wrongly, and simple American “pressure” cannot change that.
I really dislike talk of decentralized governance in Afghanistan. It rests on the mistaken belief that Afghan communities have never had to live with authoritarian, strong, central regimes—at best a distortion of history writ large, and I’d argue it misrepresents the last fifty years of history. If the 20th century is any guide, Afghans want two main things from their government: a sense of having a say in its affairs (or more narrowly a collaborative relationship with Kabul), and a sense of it being “Afghan.” While not precise, that can help us both understand both the serious shortcomings of the current government, while avoiding the romantic and vaguely orientalist of Afghans as ungovernable rural savages.
The talk of governance also rests on some assumptions worth questioning: on what basis do we want the IDLG to keep operating (that is, what are its successes we should repeat)? How should USAID, for example, “balance short-term and long-term investments that will both improve the lives of ordinary Afghans and support their traditional tribal and village leadership structures” (and what do any of those nouns even mean)? In fact, the “how” question remains frustratingly out of reach for several of the key pillars of the transition plan. The ideas themselves are not necessarily bad, but reading this gives me no sense of how we are to actually achieve them.
Finally, because this discussion is getting long in the tooth, I find it ridiculous that Exum and Barno think the U.S. can, conceivably, reduce or cancel Pakistan’s aid. It’s not just a question of Pakistan’s cooperation on logistics and counterterror measures—when the Pakistani government was mildly annoyed at a single incursion into Pakistani territory by a single U.S. helicopter earlier this year, it shut down the Khyber Pass and hundreds of supply trucks got destroyed. This is the policy equivalent of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face—no matter how much promise it holds, the Northern Distribution Network simply cannot handle the slack needed to eventually pressure Pakistan in this way. We are severely constrained by Pakistan’s position, and we cannot change that in the near term.
Lastly, some nits to pick. The force structure Exum and Barno recommend is Joint, but it is not Combined. The distinction is important: usually, a Joint command is one that encompasses multiple services, but not necessarily other countries’ services (JSOC—the Joint Special Operations Command—has elements from the Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marine Corps), while a Combined Joint command encompasses multiple services from multiple countries. I don’t know if this is intentional or not, but Exum and Barno seem to be tacitly admitting that, especially after 2014 when their Joint Task Force Irregular Warfare—the 25,000—30,000 troop contingent left over after their repositioning—comes online, there will be no NATO countries left to contribute troops.
Which gets at one of Responsible Transition’s fatal flaws: it is a military document with very little discussion of politics. That doesn’t make it a bad paper per se—the military component is a complex angle to the war, one that many would-be strategists write off as a black box, thinking the Pentagon can do what the Pentagon does and suddenly we have fewer troops. It is important, in other words, that Exum and Barno discuss the military transition in detail.
But I am struggling with the politics of what they suggest. I don’t know what the Afghan government is supposed to look like, post-2014. Nor for Pakistan. Spending less money is great—that is precisely what the Afghanistan Study Group Advocated, in fact—but like ASG I have no sense of what boundaries, drivers, and metrics will define this strategy. I don’t know how, in their new, less-corrupt world, they handle all the disenfranchised warlords and powerful, wealthy elite families who stand to lose inhuman fistfuls of cash in the transition to a more normal society.
And I really need to see why the Triage paper no longer applies. I could probably state why it no longer applies, but CNAS made a huge splash in July of 2009 when they wrote about how to “triage” the war in Afghanistan. Triage focused much of the challenge on Pakistan, and while Transition does mention Pakistan, considering its place as a major spoiler of any political or military arrangement we make without its input, I’m disappointed the management of Pakistan didn’t receive a more detailed treatment (for example, when you demand Pakistan go after the Taliban, you are demanding Pakistan go after its allies in Afghanistan—a complex, difficult, and possibly impossible task Exum and Barno describe as applying an unspecified quantity of “pressure”).
This isn’t an entirely fair complaint: Triage was focused on operations, while Transition is focused on strategy. But Transition is, essentially, an abandonment of the population-centric counterinsurgency advocated in Triage (and still advocated by CNAS President John Nagl). Every single metric for measuring success that was laid out in Triage has gotten worse over the last year. It is appropriate to change your approach if that happens—I fully support changing one’s mind when new evidence rears its head!—but I also think CNAS as an organization owes its readers an explanation of why their Afghanistan team has undergone such a dramatic about-face in the space of 18 months.
Now, all that being said, this is actually a very positive first step. But it should be considered the first step in an iterative process of designing a strategy for the war. There are too many holes to consider it complete, and many recommendations are too vague for us to have an idea of how they’d be operationalized. But it is important to note the growing consensus, described both here and with ASG, that the current war is unsustainable and not achieving our national objectives. That in and of itself is important, but Transition treats at least parts of the problem that consensus poses with seriousness that should be lauded.
Wishing for more details is not, I suppose, a “real” complaint (though “more details please” is not really the topic of this post). But it is an important one nevertheless. Responsible Transition is a important paper for the mere fact that it will be influential; the ideas in it, though, are important as well, and with some more refinement—for example, I still think their end force strength is as arbitrary without further explanation as ASG’s—it could be revelatory in telling us how all this will end.