If We Don’t SAY We’re Not Winning …
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.