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June 04, 2009

What Exactly is the Policy in Afghanistan?
Posted by Michael Cohen

There's been quite a back and forth over the past few days about US strategy in Afghanistan and efficacy of counter-insurgency - and I thought it might be helpful to clear the air. The first thing that needs to be said is that there are no good options in Afghanistan - whether its CT or COIN or some mixture of both, all of the possible policy approaches have significant limitations.

Now a couple of days ago, I suggested "shouldn't destroying the Taliban and degrading their capabilities be the military's top and only priority?" This got blown a bit out of proportion, as some suggested that I was presenting the options in Afghanistan to be an either/or between protecting civilians or killing insurgents. Or even worse that I was calling for Operation Linebacker II

To some extent, I was offering a bit of a false choice. Killing the enemy (Taliban and Al Qaeda) shouldn't be our only priority (and I gave far too short thrift to the importance of building up Kabul's governing capacity and legitimacy). But taking on the enemy must be our top priority.

And it seems that at least one important man agrees with me - Barack Obama. In March when he laid out the US mission for Afghanistan he articulated three clear objectives - the first two are below:

I have already ordered the deployment of 17,000 troops that had been requested by General McKiernan for many months. These soldiers and Marines will take the fight to the Taliban in the south and east, and give us a greater capacity to partner with Afghan Security Forces and to go after insurgents along the border. This push will also help provide security in advance of the important presidential election in August.

At the same time, we will shift the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of Afghan Security Forces, so that they can eventually take the lead in securing their country. That is how we will prepare Afghans to take responsibility for their security, and how we will ultimately be able to bring our troops home . .  We will accelerate our efforts to build an Afghan Army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 so that we can meet these goals by 2011 - and increases in Afghan forces may very well be needed as our plans to turn over security responsibility to the Afghans go forward.

Here the President is laying out a very specific strategy for degrading the Taliban's capabilities and offers a very specific benchmark for training the Afghan security forces (two points that I have made repeatedly in my posts here).

Now for the third part of the President's plan, which is a bit fuzzier and open to some interpretation:

This push must be joined by a dramatic increase in our civilian effort. . . . To advance security, opportunity, and justice - not just in Kabul , but from the bottom up in the provinces - we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers. . . That is why I am ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground. . . 

We will work with local leaders, the Afghan government, and international partners to have a reconciliation process in every province. As their ranks dwindle, an enemy that has nothing to offer the Afghan people but terror and repression must be further isolated. And we will continue to support the basic human rights of all Afghans - including women and girls.

Now, here's the thing. I'm skeptical about this third part of the President's plan. First of all, we lack the civilian capacity to implement it (an assertion borne out by the fact that much of the civilian surge in Afghanistan is being carried out by the military). Second, I for one am unconvinced that it falls within America's national interests. Third, I think "a reconciliation process in every province" is unrealistic. But it bears noting that the President is a lot less specific about this part of the plan than he is first two parts. And, if the President's first two goals are met (degrading the Taliban and improving the Afghan security services), I would imagine there would be some incentive to jettison the more amorphous third part and get the hell out of Dodge.

And I'm not alone, Fred Kaplan at Slate had a similar analysis in recapping the COIN/CT debate in the Administration:

Those more strictly CT advocates, led I'm told by Vice President Joe Biden, concede that the COIN camp has a point. But they say that following that course would require too many troops, too much money, and way too much time—more of all three than the United States and NATO could muster—and that the insurgents might still win anyway. Better to focus U.S. efforts more narrowly on simply fighting the insurgents themselves, especially in the border areas with Pakistan.

In the end, Obama went for an option that might be called "CT-plus." Over the next several months, the U.S. military will basically follow Biden's advice. The "plus"—the extra things soldiers might be ordered to do in the months and years that follow—will be determined, in large part, by how well or how badly things are going. 

. . . Over the next several months, U.S. air and ground forces will step up direct attacks on al-Qaida and Taliban forces in the south and east, to kill as many of them as possible and to keep them away from populated areas, where they might disrupt the presidential elections in August.

. . . Biden's argument against an all-out COIN strategy stemmed from caution about getting sucked into a possible quagmire—a resistance to uncontrolled escalation. It's a resistance that Obama seems to share.

Just to be as crystal clear as possible - because I realize there was some confusion in my earlier post - this is precisely what I think we should be doing in Afghanistan. Focus our energies today on fighting the insurgents and degrading their capabilities all the while improving the capabilities of the Afghan security forces. (And we should do everything in our power to improve governing institutions in Kabul and ensure development aid is flowing to the places where it needs to go - all the while recognizing the limitations on these efforts).

Now to be clear that is NOT what Lt Gen McCrystal said in his testimony the other day. He said, "the measure of American and allied effectiveness would be 'the number of Afghans shielded from violence,' not the number of enemies killed."

Indeed, according to Spencer Ackerman, McCrystal goes even further:

He repeatedly emphasized how his approach in Afghanistan would be guided by “classic counterinsurgency” precepts, such as protecting the population from insurgent assaults, rather than focusing primarily on killing and capturing insurgents. A “military-centric” strategy would not succeed, he told senators.

Maybe I'm crazy here, but isn't this very different from the dominant message that came out of President Obama's speech in March - and doesn't the McCrystal method appear to place greater emphasis on population-centric counter-insurgency rather than, as the President suggested, "tak (ing) the fight to the Taliban"?

To make the point even further, in March President Obama is a bit vague on metrics for success, but he does say this:

We will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable. We'll consistently assess our efforts to train Afghan Security Forces, and our progress in combating insurgents. We will measure the growth of Afghanistan 's economy, and its illicit narcotics production. And we will review whether we are using the right tools and tactics to make progress towards accomplishing our goals.

What I don't see here - or in the interagency white paper -- is a suggested metric that defines success by the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

Now whether you agree or don't agree, something here doesn't smell right. Either President Obama is misleading the American people about his true strategy in Afghanistan or Lt General McCrystal is preparing to carry out an approach there that is decisively more population-focused and less military-centric than what the President described in March.

(In fairness, there is some ambiguity and division between the interagency white paper on Afghanistan and what the President said in his speech on March 27th. But perhaps most striking is the one word that does not appear in Obama's address - counter-insurgency).

For those of us who are concerned that the United States is preparing to dangerously go down the road of population-centric counter-insurgency, this should be an issue of great concern. And the fact that McCrystal appears to be setting a policy course in Afghanistan that appears to differ crucially from what the President laid out should be of even greater concern.

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Maybe I'm crazy here, but isn't this very different from the dominant message that came out of President Obama's speech in March - and doesn't the McCrystal method appear to place greater emphasis on population-centric counter-insurgency rather than, as the President suggested, "tak (ing) the fight to the Taliban"?

This point has been made to you several times, but a big part of "taking the fight to the enemy" in counterinsurgency is based on protecting the population. How do you kill the enemy if you can't identify him? How can you identify him without useful, timely, specific intelligence? How do you get that intelligence from people who are afraid they'll be killed if they help you? How do you remove that fear without PROTECTING THE POPULATION.

McChrystal isn't out there freelancing, he's merely elaborating the way that the President's strategy gets executed. Of course the President is going to be vague and noncommittal on operational and tactical details when laying out a strategic approach; that's what the leadership at DoD and in the services get paid for.

This whole Afghan issue puzzles and confuses me. We don't have Taliban here in the US conducting terrorist assaults on Americans. Nor do I believe the Taliban, as such, have ever been cited as directly involved in such actions, or presumed to have that kind of global reach. Yet there are fears that Qaedists can take advantage of Taliban-controlled territories as "safe havens" to more easily plan and execute such attacks. So the sense in which the Taliban constitute "the enemy" for the US consists solely in the fact that the Taliban are the enemy of the Afghan government (and also Pakistani government) that the US is trying to save from collapse, and whose power, durability and capabilities it is trying to enhance.

So if that is the goal - securing, strengthening and firmly establishing the Afghan government - then the strategy clearly requires both resiting the government's Taliban enemies by whatever means are best suited to countering the style of fighting those Taliban enemies use, and doing other things shore up the capabilities and effective governing reach of the government. We are talking about a state-building project here.

If that is not the goal, then I don't know what the whole Afghan effort is about. "Killing the enemy", if not part of a state-building effort, just seems like a pointless effort in extermination of ignorant people in black hats, unconnected to any coherent military project.

Where Al Qaeda is concerned, sure. Killing even one Qaedist jihadist, someone who is at declared war with America and its allies, and is actively engaged at some level in efforts to mount terrorist assaults on Americans or American allies, is one less terrorist bad guy we have to worry about, and so is useful in itself.

But killing Taliban? If this is not part of a broader effort to build the Afghan state and strengthen its government, then what is it all about?

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