Friday, September 25, 2009

About Afghanistan

With the War on Terror debate concentrating on OEF and Afghanistan, here is a comment I just made in response to Columbia Professor Brigitte Nacos' recent post about Afghanistan:
Professor Nacos,

This link is to a comment I made on your blog last July for a similar post:

Regarding Afghanistan:

The problem is ... Afghanistan and Pakistan taken together, that border which blocks us but not the enemy, and an enemy who is not and never was bound to Afghanistan and is at least multi-regionally mobile.

With US and allied forces constrained by that border, President Bush initially pressured, funded, and relied upon Pakistan, under President Musharraf, to police its own country across that uncrossable border. The dubious result led us to the cross-border drone-missile and SF strategy currently employed. However, due to al Qaeda's increasing attacks against Pakistan, post-Musharraf Pakistan has seemed more willing to directly confront al Qaeda. Will the result be better? We can hope.

NATO's performance in Afghanistan has disappointed. While the US has been accused of allocating resources to Iraq that could have been used in Afghanistan (setting aside whether the cost/benefit of Iraq outweighed the cost/benefit of Afghanistan), NATO cannot be so blamed. While NATO's performance in Afghanistan has been wanting, I understand the historical notion of Afghanistan as mission impossible is more deeply rooted in our allies' collective European memory than ours.

Through lessons learned by the Brits and the Soviets, Afghanistan has long been viewed as the mission impossible for the West. President Clinton understood the difficulty of Afghanistan; therefore, Clinton limited our nation's response to al Qaeda in Afghanistan, despite its highly visible basing there, even while attacks on US and other Western targets escalated throughout the 1990s.

Upon 9/11, our nation, led by President Bush, was compelled to invade Afghanistan and dislodge al Qaeda and, when they affirmed their allegiance to al Qaeda, the Taliban government. Indeed, our invasion of Afghanistan accomplished its (immediate) main objective.

However, President Bush - while committed by events to an Afghanistan occupation - like his predecessor, understood both the strategic limits and myriad difficulties of an Afghanistan occupation. Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, President Obama, by his reluctance thus far to deviate from his predecessor's strategy (including the drone strikes and SF missions in Pakistan) and commitment of resources for OEF, appears to share his predecessor's view of the difficulty of Afghanistan.

Said more plainly, from the beginning, we could not win the War on Terror within the borders of Afghanistan, despite its obvious relevance to al Qaeda's campaign against the West. This is why Operation Iraqi Freedom was the right choice and the counter-insurgency "Surge" in Iraq so critical: from the beginning, an Iraq intervention, unlike an Afghanistan intervention, could provide the potential cornerstone for long-term victory in the War on Terror. Moreover, the basis for our Iraq intervention was already in place, developed under President Clinton.

Where does this leave us today in Afghanistan? Two men trying to do the same hard job under the same constraints - there's a reason President Obama's decisions as Commander in Chief have tracked so closely with President Bush's. Today, however, President Obama can make a choice in Afghanistan that President Bush could not make in Afghanistan due to the gift Bush gave to his successor, developed in Iraq at the end of the Bush administration: COIN.

Can an OEF version of the "Surge" work in Afghanistan? Even assuming it can work, can our NATO allies execute COIN or will American soldiers, again, be forced to act as a hybrid soft/hard power force? With so many military leaders opposed to the use of our military as anything other than a war-fighting force, will our military agree to act again as a COIN force for Obama in Afghanistan as they reluctantly did for Bush in Iraq?

Tough decisions: while deserving of his share of criticism, a young President Bush admirably made tough decisions as Commander in Chief in the War on Terror. As Secretary of State Clinton questioned during the campaign, we'll find out whether a young President Obama will make his tough "3 am" decisions, too.
In my comment is a link to my comment responding to a similar post by Prof Nacos last July.

Add: My response to critics who say the Bush administration should have used the resources utilized in Iraq since 2003 for Afghanistan instead is that the problem has been method (or quality), less quantity. On 60 Minutes tonight, OEF commander GEN Stanley McChrystal blamed the "bad habits" or method of our mission there since we ousted the Taliban government. So, question: if our problem in Afghanistan chiefly has been method, then assuming we invested all the manpower and resources into Afghanistan since 2003 that was used on Iraq, would doing so have solved or exacerbated our problems in Afghanistan? If the problem and solution rests in method, then our current (relatively) best hope for Afghanistan - COIN - didn't exist for Afghanistan until the COIN method and proponents were validated in Iraq. As such, simply adding more manpower and resources in Afghanistan pre-COIN would not have helped and may have harmed. The fair counter is to speculate whether COIN could have been developed in Afghanistan instead of Iraq, but I would respond that the conditions for success were better in Iraq and the strategic value of Iraq was and is higher, i.e., Iraq was the better theater to first implement COIN. Not to be minimized, the enemy also valued Iraq higher and it would not have made sense to concede Iraq to the enemy for the sake of Afghanistan. Until last year, OEF amounted to a holding action, and as the enemy has retreated from Iraq and refocused on Afghanistan/Pakistan, our focus there necessarily must increase, too. It's a competition.

UPDATE - my response to Prof Nacos' response:
Professor Nacos,

Thank you. I did major in political science at Columbia; I like to believe my professors taught me something worthy of the pedigree. ;)

I respectfully disagree with your analysis of the War on Terror.

First, two related observations:

a. What's called neo-conservatism is just the progressive (interventionalist) liberalism of Wilson, FDR, and Truman, renamed. The bashing of neo-conservatism by self-described Western liberals, therefore, has led to the frustrating, self-defeating spectacle of influential people speaking liberal platitudes but quixotically opposing our definitively liberal strategy in the War on Terror. The effect of these liberals' tragic hypocrisy has been the degradation of the Western liberalizing influence on the illiberal regions of the world.

b. President Bush demanded more from the Western liberal world to confront the aggressive challengers to our liberal world order. Many did respond to America's call to action, but a disappointing number refused and chose instead to vilify the so-called 'leader of the free world'. Will the more charismatic President Obama, who speaks the same liberal language as Bush, succeed in rallying the Western world for the same liberal cause in the same places where Bush was rejected? My hope is Obama succeeds. But the citation accompanying Obama's Nobel Peace Prize is an indication that at least Western European liberals believe America under Obama will ask less of them than Bush, not more, and that's a bad sign.

Second, a poli sci question:

Would a greater influx of American funds, resources, and manpower (added to the billions spent and many thousands of peace-builders deployed by us and other Western GOs, IGOs and GOs) in Afghanistan over the last 8 years have actually made a difference in terms of nation-building that country?

Maybe. I mean, how do we prove a counter-factual, right? Putting aside the distinct possibility that Afghanistan is mission impossible as a nation-building project, I can still say that, with the intrinsic challenges of Afghanistan + that border, the answer is likely not as simple as more US money/resources + more US soldiers = nation-building success. The missing critical third leg of the equation is method. By method, I do not mean piece-meal efforts like the admirable PRTs, military Civil Affairs and Engineering units, Army Human Terrain project, USAID, UN et al orgs, deployed in Afghanistan since the war. I mean a comprehensive, integrated theater-wide post-war strategy.

In fact, in a recent 60 Minutes interview, GEN McChrystal blamed our mistakes in Afghanistan to date on a failure of "method" in order to explain the radical ROE et al changes he's implemented since taking over as OEF commander.

Consider: your premise is that the current poor state of OEF is due to US resources diverted from post-war Afghanistan to post-war Iraq. Well then, consider post-war Iraq. Despite the tremendous (really, mind-boggling) amount that was invested in post-war Iraq and despite that Iraq offered much superior conditions for nation-building than Afghanistan (which is as much a statement on how bad off Afghanistan is), our Iraq intervention still nearly came to disaster. Only when the COIN method with attendant troop "Surge" was employed in Iraq, against tremendous US domestic opposition, did our Iraq intervention turn around. In fact, OIF was turned around despite that the "Surge", even at its height, did not come close to employing the number of US troops in-country as recommended by GEN Shinseki et al. Under the right conditions, the right method can make a really big difference. Given the surprising speed with which OIF turned around with the "Surge", it's plausible that the initial overly optimistic projections for post-war Iraq would have proven more realistic had we employed the COIN method in Iraq from the immediate post-war transition.

To answer my own question, would OEF be a success today if we didn't divert resources to OIF? It's tempting to think so, but I doubt it, because we entered the War on Terror lacking the right post-war nation-building method for either Afghanistan or Iraq. (That systemic deficiency wasn't Bush's fault; it was the institutional fault of a US military traumatized by the Vietnam War defeat into believing that if it did not develop nation-building capability then it would not be called upon again by a US president to nation-build. Naturally, an intelligent observant enemy exploited the obvious gap in our military capabilities by attacking us vigorously in the SASO/post-war phase.) Therefore, because we lacked the right method for post-war Afghanistan, I am not convinced more US money/resources + more US soldiers would have ='d more nation-building success in Afghanistan.

Today, due to the tenacity of visionaries like GEN Petraeus and Bush's "3 am" presidential decision to employ the COIN "Surge" in OIF, we at least have a working method to plausibly attempt nation-building in Afghanistan. That said, even though Obama has in hand the COIN choice that neither Bush nor Clinton had, it is apparent that the challenge of post-war Afghanistan is as intimidating for Obama as it was for Clinton and Bush (and Reagan and Bush Sr for that matter). Comparing the presidential decisions faced by the two presidents, Bush's choice to double-down in Iraq was easier than Obama's choice today: Iraq has much higher immediate, long-term, and regional strategic value (the reason why the terrorists also diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq until defeated there) and Iraq is a much better candidate for nation-building than Afghanistan, whereas we can lose a lot in Afghanistan without gaining much benefit even from a nation-building success.

It must be awfully tempting to the current Commander in Chief to give in to the military leaders who opposed COIN under Bush and continue to oppose COIN today, abandon nation-building in Afghanistan, and limit OEF to a kinetic warfare battle-zone.

Third, about those "made up" justifications for OIF:

The Bush admin case for war against Saddam's Iraq was hardly original. Their case against Saddam's Iraq was essentially the Clinton admin case against Saddam's Iraq. The WMD - and more broadly, the Iraqi violations of UN resolutions - rationale was the same rationale Clinton used to bomb Iraq when it had, as President Clinton declared, "failed its last chance" ... except Clinton the lawyer understood well enough not to seek UN approval for military force, unlike Bush, who's his father's son. Possible ties and verified contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda was Clinton-era intelligence. It's a partisan myth, or possibly just lazy media shorthand, that the Bush admin cited Iraq as an actor of the 9/11 attacks. OIF was never characterized as retaliation for 9/11, hence, the characterizations of a preventive or preemptive war. In addition to the Clinton admin case, however, the Bush admin did suggest that with al Qaeda's successful example as guide, Saddam's Iraq - due to our poisonous relationship, the global WMD 'black market', and Saddam's track record - was a good candidate to be an actor in future terror attacks, possibly using WMD, via its own capability or in alliance with al Qaeda.

My personal case for supporting OIF is pessimistic in that I believe we had to change course in Iraq, with or without the 9/11 attacks, and in fact, the 9/11 attacks were a result of our 1990s mission there. 1991-2003 Iraq for us was a failed mission that had morphed quickly after the Gulf War from finite disarmament, meant to leave known-quantity Saddam Hussein in charge but de-fanged, into an indefinite, highly provocative, widely harmful, and collapsing containment that was discrediting us and the UN. When I served as a MI soldier before college, part of our job was to track world events that affected the US military. As we watched the mission in Iraq fall apart, it was consensus our return to Iraq would be 'when', not 'if'. Saddam's Iraq was not a direct actor in the 9/11 attacks, but the 9/11 attacks provided the impetus to make a change in Iraq we needed to make eventually. Without the 9/11 attacks, who knows how many US presidents would have punted on the Saddam's Iraq problem - at least until our containment mission collapsed completely.

For an optimistic case supporting OIF, I defer to Thomas Barnett:

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