It’s Not Our War and It Never Was
The depths to which the US strategy in Afghanistan have now sunk can be best illustrated with the following quote, from a senior US military leader, in the wake of President Karzai’s demands that US forces pull back to major bases:
Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, the senior Marine commander in southern Afghanistan, said further restrictions on night raids may not be possible. “I don’t know how much more accommodating we can be with what is a critical element of a counterinsurgency fight,” Gurganus said.
Which makes a lot of sense, I suppose, if we are defining this as our war, for our purposes, fought according to our schedule. Mighty inconvenient that it happens to be taking place on the sovereign land of a nation and people whose support our own doctrine defines as essential for success. Will there come a time, before we have left this war in our rear view mirror, when we actually take our own doctrine seriously, and recognize that this is essentially a socio-political struggle that is not, in the final analysis, ours to win, lose, define or resolve?
“But Karzai is only playing politics,” the stay-the-course crowd will object. “He doesn’t really mean it. He’s staking a position, and he expects us to argue him off of it.” Well, obviously. But the fact that he feels required to assume a boldly anti-American stance—and has felt this need repeatedly and vociferously over the last couple of years—ought to tell us something rather disturbing about the state of Afghan public opinion about the US presence after ten years of diligent efforts to win popular support.
But to cut to the chase. Karzai is demanding a pull-back; the Taliban have withdrawn from talks; the residue of the Koran burnings continues to poison the whole affair; the horrific shooting of Afghan civilians by the US sergeant scorches public relations; the aftermath of several shootings of US and ISAF personnel by Afghans continues to undermine trust. Reports that some in the White House wanted a faster exit ramp were quickly denied, but the reports themselves have done their damage.
The Washington Post is concerned that the Obama administration’s strategy is off-kilter. Nice of them to notice: It’s been apparent since at least mid-2010 that this was a cobbled together contraption. It’s amazing to read their concern that there is now “no mention of defeating the Taliban or of peace for the Afghans themselves”: Did these people not read the book written by their own senior editor? The administration hasn’t been after those goals for a year, if ever. Are these people paying attention?
Meantime Bruce Reidel and Michael O’Hanlon continue as leading spokesmen for the full-speed-ahead brigade. “Beneath the headlines, international forces are actually making substantial progress,” they trumpet: And of course they are, thanks to the dedication and heroism of lots of troops and civilians; but the devilish and persistent question has always been whether that progress is tactical or strategic, and the events of the last weeks continue to offer some worrisome hints. Violence is down in the south, they say; but there are numbers and there are numbers, and the UN, at least, found 2011 more dangerous than the prior year. The north is under control, they contend, which would be news to the many journalists who have passed through these areas over the last year and pronounced them, among other things, increasingly under the sub-rosa influence of the militants.
All of this suggests several things about a substantially unraveling US strategy in Afghanistan.
- Claims that “if only we had stayed the course, all would have been OK” have been revealed as utterly bankrupt. Events of the last weeks suggest not that the Obama administration’s deadlines and timetables disastrously fed insurgent confidence and dynamics of Afghan warlordism. Instead they suggest once again that the US mission was unsustainable and an effort to wind it down on a reasonable timetable was absolutely essential—because events like Koran burnings, fifth-columnist-assassinations, and tragic singular out-of-control US soldiers are simply inevitable during massive wars fought on another’s ground.
- It now appears pretty clear that “insurgency” is no longer a fully accurate word to describe the violence going on in Afghanistan, if it ever was. This is now a full-fledged criminal-narco-warlord-quasi-civil conflict in which corruption, nepotism, and profit are responsible for as many deaths as insurgent political intentions. Again this is hardly new, it’s been an important aspect of the conflict for years, but it’s arguably becoming more evident as more groups arm up in expectation of a post-2014 free-for-all and as more elements of the “insurgency” put themselves more fully into business of one sort or another. An obvious implication is that “bringing peace to Afghanistan” becomes a vastly more complex job than a great big loya Jirga in which elements of the Taliban pledge fealty to the constitution.
- The original mission of COIN per se—generating a governing structure with legitimacy to which the Afghan people would devote their protective energies—has failed. Corruption, ineffectiveness and so on have proved so entrenched, and will bloom even more without prying US eyes looking over shoulders—and Afghan attitudes have become so frustrated and cynical—that the idea of a national (or even for the most part provincial) governments that attract the loyalty of the population through good works is, for the moment, a lost cause.
- Tactical momentum may remain in place, but political momentum is gone. The last few events, to include the daring attack on the US Embassy compound, now make it clear that after a year of clearing southern Afghanistan, a year of “grabbing momentum,” in the space of just a few weeks, a handful of powerful negative events have erased all the public perception of success and created an impression of a mission on the edge of collapse. Which it isn’t, exactly, but the lesson is clear: The enemy (and fate) has the ability to shape public perceptions at will, and there’s not a lot we can do about it. We can spend a year, billions of dollars, and thousands of lives—and watch the “progress” generated evaporate in the smoke of a prison camp’s incinerator.
- Nobody appears to have the slightest clue what the hell is actually going on, in terms of political goals and dynamics, with the Taliban. Are they so exhausted they really want an end to the war? What are they insisting upon as preconditions as opposed to talking points? Is it all a charade to keep the Americans talking while US troop levels ebb and they can recover their strength? Do they feel that the ANSF are a serious long-term check on their national ambitions? What promises could be extracted in terms of relationship to al Qaeda? Do the same answers hold for all elements of the “insurgency”? Accurate answers to these questions are absolutely essential to the making of sensible post-2014 strategy, and as of now it’s not apparent that we’re doing anything better than barely-informed spitballing.
- Strangely enough, nobody is talking about Pakistan any more. At all. Anywhere, in just about any mainstream media. The safe havens persist, and Washington probably engages in ritualistic complaints, but after the long string of clashes and embarrassments in that relationship, the US and Pakistan are trying to just keep their heads above water in the bilateral situation.
The single overwhelming truth of all of this is that American intentions, fears, interests and desires have—like many outsiders before us—slammed up against the uncomfortable realities of Afghan political culture. Where do we go from here, in terms of strategy?
A single principle must now guide everything we do—the principle that we are not in charge. The principle that this is an Afghan conflict—to win, lose, muddle through, manage, or redefine. From this point forward, the US approach must take that simple fact seriously rather than give it lip service.
We lost the ability to define the terms of this conflict—if indeed we ever had the slightest pretense to such a right—when the Obama administration announced its plan for a graduated withdrawal. All of this seems obvious enough to say, and to some is an age-old truth of this conflict. It was a necessary and inevitable recognition of the realities of fighting an endless war on the territory of a proud people: It just can’t go on forever. And yet, other elements of the US mindset, strategy and approach—such as the Major General’s astonishing comment, such as the US insistence on bases in Afghanistan to hunt Afghans who may appear to belong to al Qaeda for as long as we wish—continue to reflect the idea that events will pry this war from our cold, dead fingers.
If we moved to assemble a more formal strategic posture based on the principle that we weren’t in charge, what would this mean?
One would be a series of concessions to Afghan sensibilities on the conduct of the war. As Steve Coll has recently suggested, this could amount to “a much more determined accommodation of the declared, broadly based political goals voiced by Afghan leaders, including but not limited to President Karzai. These goals include an end to night raids, greater and faster sovereignty over international military operations, and a review of the arming and supervision of militias. Even the announcement of such a direction might arrest the despair and contention that surrounds the American-Afghan partnership, bogged down for months in increasingly implausible negotiations over a strategic partnership accord.”
Second, in terms of posture in negotiations, we could take the advice of Anatol Lieven and give up the idea of endless bases and then idea of a permanent war against Taliban Pashtun in southern Afghanistan. Declare a willingness to consider a complete withdrawal of all US and coalition forces from the country, if the Afghan government requests it, as part of a peace agreement.
Third, announce the formation of a high-level working group—composed of Americans, Afghans and others with serious cultural sensibilities, to work with senior Afghan officials, NGO members, scholars—and, perhaps, high-level Taliban representatives—to identify, and develop strategies to avoid, the top three or four social dangers attendant to the US withdrawal. Off the top of my head I’d list militia/warlord/civil war; economic collapse as the war economy dries up; and political gridlock as corruption, machinations over the 2014 elections, exploding cross-cutting ethno-sectarian clashes and so forth make the formal operations of the country’s weak political institutions even less effective. In each case, ask Afghan officials, leaders and experts what they think, what to do, what they need; offer advice, suggestions, thoughts. Develop a realistic, feasible agenda, not for an unending counterinsurgency war, but for the leading problems that will actually confront Afghan society.
Fourth, at the operational level, a suggestion of utter obviousness: An order should go out to all US and coalition units—turn over the initiative to your Afghan partners. They are in the lead. Ask how they want to run the operations. You support their initiative. Actual commanders will call this foolish, it reduces a hugely complex situation of mutual advice and consultation to a simple rule; and this is true. But the overriding hunch here is that the overwhelming impulse of the US military will be to lead, instruct, tell, demand, and shape until the last possible moment, and then drop the whole affair on the heads of an ANSF that is suddenly thrust into the leading role. I know the mentoring process is supposed to bring this along. But it’s time for a hard and fast rule; it’s time to turn it over.
The bottom line is that transition was necessary and inevitable. The risk—to America, which is the risk that the American government gets paid to worry about—isn’t that transition itself will equal chaos which will make it impossible to manage any al Qaeda remnants that crop up in the aftermath. More instability is as inevitable as transition itself. The leading question now is what terms we have left for ourselves when transition is complete; will we be able to call up our friends in Kabul and say, “Hey, a satellite tells us there are some bad guys at location X, would you mind if we sent some dudes to partner up with some of your SOF and go out there to check it out?”
Every element of our strategy from this point forward should be designed to ensure that the answer to that phone call is yes. And to do that, it’s long past time to signal clearly and unambiguously that we respect the people of Afghanistan enough to stop demanding how to fight a war on their territory.