I am grateful for the responses to my article.
Helena Cobban and I are both doubtful about the chances that Obama’s counterinsurgency policy will succeed. While she thinks “domestic politics” account for the Afghan surge, I think Obama has been outplayed by generals eager to implement COIN.
Andrew Exum offers a modestly hopeful assessment of U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan. I do not understand why. In 2005 the COIN theorist and practitioner Kalev Sepp wrote an excellent article in Military Review called “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency.” If Sepp is right, then the United States is doing everything wrong in Afghanistan. (Sepp’s article is listed as one of three “bare bones essentials” on Exum’s “Counterinsurgency Reading List,” at his blog, Abu Muqawama.)
According to Sepp, a country’s civilian leaders must direct the struggle to win the hearts and minds of the people. “The Americans in Vietnam and the Soviets in Afghanistan made the mistake of letting military staffs rather than civil governments guide operations,” he writes.
Indigenous regular armies, although fighting in their own country and more numerous than foreign forces, were subordinate to them. Conventional forces trained indigenous units in their image—with historically poor results. Special operations forces committed most of their units to raids and reconnaissance missions, with successful but narrow results. . . . The Soviet command in Afghanistan was unified but wholly militarized, and the Afghan government they established was perfunctory.
This all sounds just like Afghanistan today, where the civilian government is insignificant, and the American military is leading the effort.
“Security of the people must be assured,” Sepp explains,
along with food, water, shelter, health care, and a means of living. These are human rights, along with freedom of worship, access to education, and equal rights for women. The failure of counterinsurgencies and the root cause of the insurgencies themselves can often be traced to government disregard of these basic rights.
But the Afghan government does not provide services, and it does violate rights. Moreover, the U.S. military regularly kills civilians and arrests many more and holds them without trial.
Intelligence operations that help detect terrorist insurgents for arrest and prosecution are the single most important practice to protect a population from threats to its security. Honest, trained, robust police forces responsible for security can gather intelligence at the community level. Historically, robustness in wartime requires a ratio of 20 police and auxiliaries for each 1,000 civilians. In turn, an incorrupt, functioning judiciary must support the police.
The Taliban have not been penetrated; there is no honest or well-trained police force; and the American-led coalition will never come near to Sepp’s ratio.
Sepp argues that counterinsurgents must “convince insurgents they can best meet their personal interests and avoid the risk of imprisonment or death by reintegrating themselves into the population through amnesty, rehabilitation, or by simply not fighting.” Why would the Taliban, who have all the momentum and are winning, contemplate an amnesty or rehabilitation program?
Sepp calls for “constant patrolling by government forces” to establish “an official presence that enhances security and builds confidence in the government.” As he says, “all successful counterinsurgencies” in the last hundred years used “this fundamental security practice.” The Afghan police do not patrol or provide security—they sit at checkpoints; even the Americans don’t patrol much.
“Border crossings must be restricted to deny terrorist insurgents a sanctuary and to enhance national sovereignty,” Sepp says. Afghanistan’s borders are porous, and the Taliban drug smugglers and criminals can cross them at will (often with the cooperation of the Afghan border police).
Sepp believes that “emergency conditions dictate that a government needs a single, fully empowered executive to direct and coordinate counter-insurgency efforts,” and this requires “a leader with dynamism and imagination . . . [who] must remain in authority after the insurgency ends.” The Afghan government is weak; Karzai is neither dynamic nor imaginative; and the foreign military coalition is divided among several commands.
Nonetheless, Exum thinks U.S. strategy can work, and he offers some history to prove it. The relevance is lost on me. The few real successes are the ones he doesn’t mention: the Russians in Chechnya, the Sri Lankans against the Tamil Tigers, the British in Kenya and Malaya, the Germans in Namibia, the Israelis in Palestine, and the Iraqi Shias with American support. What these cases share is mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing. Afghanistan is not yet in a civil war. While most Taliban are Pashtun, not all Pashtuns are Taliban. But all sides are preparing, rearming. Tensions between Tajiks and Pashtuns are worsening, and as soon as the Americans leave, there will be a civil war between North and South.
Exum corrects my mistake about Michael O’Hanlon, who did not participate on the McChrystal team. Exum did, and his own military service (two tours in Afghanistan) gives him some knowledge of the country. Still, he was there to shoot people, and his knowledge is at the micro-level and many years old. As he has said on his own blog, being a platoon leader in Afghanistan did not teach him anything about the country. He has since learned Arabic and traveled throughout the Middle East, neither of which provides special insight into Afghanistan, though they do make him far more qualified than most of the others who were consulted by McChrystal. It is astounding that only one expert with on-the-ground knowledge of Afghanistan, Sarah Chayes, was included.
The longer American forces stay in Afghanistan, the more likely Afghans and Pakistanis living in the West will seek revenge for their slain kin.
My most emphatic disagreement with Exum regards his claim that the United States has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan on behalf of host nations. This is not true. The U.S. occupation created puppet governments there. They do not represent any host nation.
Aziz Hakimi and Alex Thier see political solutions as the best hope for Afghanistan and urge the United States and its NATO allies to support that effort. Both focus on the legitimacy of the Afghan government. Hakimi believes that Karzai’s legitimacy can be salvaged. I am surprised that someone with such deep knowledge of the Afghan regime would make this claim. The fact that Karzai openly stole the recent election raises very large questions about his legitimacy. Karzai is widely seen as dependent on and a puppet of foreign, Christian occupiers, while those occupiers are delegitimized by their association with his corrupt and brutal government. Hakimi argues that power must be devolved to the local level, but Karzai does not see it that way: he is personally appointing governors and subgovernors and micromanaging power. His project is centralization, not devolution.
Hakimi thinks that the situation has descended into a civil war, that the solution to the conflict lies in national reconciliation, and that somehow, with enough money and cajoling, the Karzai government can overcome its corruption to play a role. But without a fundamental change in the political calculus, why would a new round of reconciliation talks work, when the previous six have failed? And with whom would the government and the occupiers negotiate? The Taliban are more and more a local and indigenous insurgency of unpaid and committed volunteers.
Thier insists that Afghans want a legitimate government with considerable local autonomy, but what makes him think so? The initial Bonn accords called for immediate district, provincial, and presidential elections. But no district elections have been held, and Afghanistan remains highly centralized.
Thier is right that there was a functioning state in Afghanistan from 1880–1970 or so. But Afghan rulers who extended the state’s reach did so at horrendous costs: ethnic cleansing, forced religious conversion, internal exile, mass hostage-taking, and bloody crackdowns on political dissent. The functioning state caused rebellion in the hinterland. Extending the reach of the government has always been a cause of insurrection. Thier does not explain why new efforts to extend the reach of the state will not provoke similar or even greater conflict.
Syed Saleem Shahzad correctly worries about the Taliban and the spread of the conflict, as I would if I lived in his neighborhood. As he points out, some Taliban have indeed aligned themselves with al Qaeda. That is hardly a surprise: both will take whatever help they can get. But the Taliban I have met are locals fighting because they want foreigners out of their country, not because of some grand ambition. Shahzad and Thier make it clear that the threat of regional war is coming from Pakistan, or at least Pakistanis.
The longer American forces stay in Afghanistan, the more likely Afghans and Pakistanis living in the West will seek revenge for their slain kin. The Taliban might be a threat to their opponents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but, as Andrew Bacevich tells us, that is not America’s problem. The massive investment and destabilization are not worth the small threat al Qaeda poses. To be sure, the United States can have an impact on the problem: it can make things worse by escalating (here I agree with Cobban, Hakimi, and Shahzad: our military intervention is costly and futile). None of the U.S.-led activities in Afghanistan have anything to do with preventing serious threats to the United States, the most powerful country in the world.