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January 18, 2012


If We Don’t SAY We’re Not Winning …

by Mike M

There’s a Los Angeles Times piece from a few days ago reporting on a supposed National Intelligence Estimate saying, yet again, that the war in Afghanistan is not going well.  Local military ops are fine, the NIE reportedly says (and of course having not seen the thing or talked to anyone who has, I am merely trusting the LAT on all this).  But “security gains from an increase in American troops have been undercut by pervasive corruption, incompetent governance and Taliban fighters operating from neighboring Pakistan,” as the paper summarizes the report.

This is not what one can call “news.”  These were precisely the factors identified, for example, by McChrystal’s very public assessment when he took over in Kabul some years ago.  The strategic problem in Afghanistan has always been whether tactical COIN gains could be translated into strategic success; and the answer was always to be found in degrees of progress in governance, corruption, development, and Pakistan.

So the issue isn’t how many villages the courageous Marines have cleared in Helmand.  We always knew we could do that, if we sent in enough troops and put our mind to it.  Instead, answer this:  What progress are we making on these other areas?  According to the LA Times reporting on the NIE, and according to every other nongovernmental source I am aware of:  Not very much.

So naturally, instead of taking this seriously and saying, “Hmm, OK, what would we then do,” we have people saying things like, “the NIE is going to be very damaging to the war effort” (which, if broadly accepted, will send a message to intel analysis and independent scholars in the future to shut the hell up about “truth,” we’re fighting a war) and making efforts to throw the blame onto the Obama administration’s deadline.

The fact is, the lack of a deadline was an enabler for the lack of progress on corruption, governance, and Pakistan:  When everyone in the region felt the U.S. would own the war forever, we bought into the “dependency syndrome.”  Afghan military officers, civilian officials and U.S. embassy types will give you both sides of this issue:  The deadline was absolutely essential to spark necessary energy for reform; it was counterproductive by getting folks to rush to protect their group, tribe, family while there was still time.

What it is very difficult to find from any quarter is a truly compelling argument that any of these lines of effort—corruption, governance, development, safe havens—had begun to get on a schedule of progress necessary for success on the Traditional Model, or had any prospect of doing so, before or after the deadline.

So where does this leave us, in terms of Strategy for the war, Regional Strategy, Global Counterterrorism Strategy?  Unclear, but more evidence, it would seem, of the need for complex, nuanced strategies that accept risk in searching for a path between “traditional” victory and defeat.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mark Tillman
    Jan 18 2012

    Perhaps the approach we should seek is one where we do not have to win on the ground yet be better off in the longer run. It seems to me that we are too fixated on setting the conditions that permit a declaration of victory and success as we tradiitionally know it. What we should seek, I think, is a “more favorable peace” that may be infected with the very things we think are undermining progress but can reject the vectors of transnational violence that compelled and even propelled us into action on this scale to begin with. This appears much less than ideal but isn’t that what we really want? Does every culture and people really aspire to be like us? Even if they do, shouldn’t they come to this on their own terms and timeline, not ours? We should begin by defining what we really need and not what we want.

    • Andres Ploompuu
      Jan 23 2012

      Well said, Mark. And no, every culture and people do not really aspire to be like us. Nor should we want them to. Nor, I may venture to guess, do most of us want them to. So why do we continue to behave on the national level as if we want them to? What is this strange urge to throw our weight and military muscle around every time potential trouble begins to brew in some odd corner of the world?

  2. Andres Ploompuu
    Jan 18 2012

    Where, indeed, does this leave us? It’s a good question, which it seems to me you answered in your piece. It leaves us in a very messy place. A messy place which, by the way, it was a given we would reach once we decided, by default it seems, to stay in Afghanistan after successfully punishing the Taliban. The more relevant question yours leads to is “what do we do now?”
    In a perversely fortunate way, our current economic troubles limit our potential answers. We may wish to do several things, motivated by a variety of fears and aspirations. Yet the fact is that our strategic choices are limited by tight resources, regional realities, human nature, and domestic US public opinion.
    Tight resources require little explanation. A huge public debt, public outcry over that debt, a military not structured or equipped for occupation, and little in the way of tools in our kit beyond the military, rule out options centered on “winning” or “victory.”
    Regional realities should have dissuaded us from ever considering staying in Afghanistan. For starters, Afghans don’t like strangers in their back yard. Never have. And they’ve never tolerated them. No strangers have ever succeeded in staying there. We are just the next set of strangers with fancier toys and bottled water. Another reality is almost too rudimentary to point out. Afghanistan is landlocked, surrounded by states that have no interest in seeing us succeed there. If I were fighting Americans in Afghanistan, I too would be blowing up every fuel tanker I could on routes through Pakistan.
    As for human nature, we ought to relate very well to the Afghan dislike of outsiders (See American Revolution, Civil War, and school districts throughout the current US). It is also an understandable manifestation of human nature for US public opinion not to support spending blood and treasure on a venture with no perceivable successful outcome.
    So what is to be done? Leave. The sooner the better. There is nothing to be gained from one more day of military presence there.
    The cacophony of abhorrent responses to this course of action is already deafening:
    “What!? But all of our fallen will have died in vain!” Indeed. And what’s your point? Sacrifice more of our soldiers?
    “If necessary, yes. Victory/winning/success is right around the corner.” Well, once you define success for me, we can talk about expending more effort to achieve it.
    “We have to build a stable Afghanistan to keep it free from Al Qaeda/Taliban/extremist elements. They attacked us on 9/11.” Sorry – doesn’t hold water. The definition of “stable” in this context is problematic. Afghanistan can be stable without democratic institutions. And assuming we can ever eradicate extremist elements, whatever their name, from Afghanistan doesn’t matter. They simply go elsewhere. Those elements are not emotionally attached to a particular piece of ground.


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