Monday, September 21, 2009

Late Change In Afghanistan Strategy

Caption: Construction Representative Robert L. Williams (far right) shows the Cadets a gate at the Ministry of Defense that has some foundation problems and asks them how they would design the foundation to resolve the issue. (Photo by Leslie J. Wright, Capacity Development Program Manager)

Image credit: Leslie J. Wright/U.S. Army

Spencer Ackerman discussed General Stanley McChrystal's operational philosophy for Afghanistan today at The Washington Independent:

That approach is familiar to anyone who read McChrystal’s counterinsurgency guidance or the “metrics” he set out with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Protect the population. Give the population material reasons to support the Afghan government and NATO. “Prioritize responsive and accountable governance,” which appears like a pipe dream now that Hamid Karzai looks to have stolen an election. Reorganize the NATO command to better fit these missions. Reverse the Taliban’s momentum in the next year — or, he doesn’t say explicitly, mitigate failure. It’s also, as Josh Foust has observed, more of a quantitative change from McChrystal’s predecessor than a qualitative one.

It’s Not Just Resources: McChrystal’s Message to Obama, and to the Military

This strikes me as the proper strategy. In fact, it strikes me as the only strategy that ever plausibly could have worked in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, I just can't get over the feeling that it's about four years too late.

We passed on the "material reasons" idea by invading Iraq for no good reason. That diverted money and resources that could have been used, not only to hunt down Osama Bin Laden and the other Al Qaeda leaders, but to improve the country. As The Globalist's Stephen Richter observed last month:

[I]nstead of focusing its mission on Afghanistan and taking the opportunity to deal with neighboring Pakistan — and, in turn, improving its own tumultuous relations with India — the Bush Administration suffered from outright mission creep and utter delusion when instead it changed its focus to Iraq.

To this day, George Bush's successor, Barack Obama, still struggles with accepting the lesson that an opportunity missed can sadly mean an opportunity lost.

To succeed in the critical and extremely worthy Afghanistan-turnaround mission would have required relentless focus. By turning Afghanistan into a sideshow to the war in Iraq, the execution of that vital mission could not succeed.

Why Afghanistan Is Lost

I can't claim to know what the average citizen of Afghanistan is thinking, but I think if I were one I'd be wondering why the Americans and NATO are still there. I'd probably also be wondering why they don't seem to do anything but blow the place to smithereens.

That's because there's lots more water under the bridge than just a stolen election. The air strikes that Gen. McChrystal has rightly limited have killed wedding parties, our allies' soldiers, and a whole lot of other people. The lack of accountability has honked off Afghanistan's leaders:

A US spokesman said that if "innocent people were killed in this operation, we apologise and express our condolences". But the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, called on the US and its president-elect, Barack Obama, to stop civilian killings.

"Our demand is that there will be no civilian casualties in Afghanistan. We cannot win the fight against terrorism with airstrikes. This is my first demand of the new president of the United States."

US warplanes 'bomb Afghan wedding party'

Short of repeatedly bombing mosques while services are in session, I can't think of a better way to make new enemies than bombing wedding parties. But that isn't the first such incident, nor is it likely to be the last. It hasn't helped us with our allies, either.

It's astonishing that an army that went through a long, failed counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign has not learned this lesson yet, but this isn't like fighting the Wehrmacht. Civilian casualties will come back to haunt you here, and there are already a lot of ghosts in Afghanistan.

So, good strategy though it might be, it's a day late and a dollar short.

UPDATE: Added a (somewhat) expository link for "a lot of ghosts". More than one empire has reached its limits there. Maybe the real reason it's a "burial ground for empires" is that only an empire that had fallen so far that idiots or maniacs run it would try to conquer the place.


Anonymous said...

Well, Cujo, the biggest problem is that you can't run that sort of campaign when the so-called "government" is a buncha goons and thugs that you helped shoot their way into power. "Karzai" apparently is how you spell "Thieu" in Pashtun. Yeah, like that turned out good. About all that the Afghan "government" is good at doing is what the South Vietnamese "government" was good at doing -- be ineffective while looting U.S. aid money and padding their nests for their inevitable flight somewhere else when the whole goddamn ball of wax collapses. Which will happen, because the U.S. public couldn't give a shit about Afghanistan -- and probably shouldn't, given that there's no "there" there unless you're a heroin addict in need of a fix.

Cujo359 said...

I think our invasion of Iraq was proof enough we weren't interested at a time when it could have made a difference. Such aid as there has been since then has often benefited the country very little. The public works projects we undertook often used American or other foreign contractors, and little local labor.

Whatever Karzai's faults, he's been pointing out the futility of providing so little aid and aid that doesn't put Afghans to work.

There has been little central government in Afghanistan for a long time. Those leaders who do exist will, I think, tend to be thugs under those circumstances. It goes with the territory.