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June 29, 2009

Confused About Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

I'm really confused about what's going on with US policy in Afghanistan. First, there is this recent guidance from General McCrystal to US troops:

Success will be defined by the Afghan people's freedom to choose their future--freedom from coercion, extremists, malign foreign influence, or abusive government actions.

I feel like I'm sort of beating a dead horse on this one, but here again is what President Obama said in March about US goals for Afghanistan:

We are not in Afghanistan to control that country OR TO DICTATE ITS FUTURE.  We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and our allies, and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists. So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal:  to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future That's the goal that must be achieved.

I realize that I'm not an expert on counter-insurgency and there are those who think I have trouble connecting dots, but doesn't what Gen. McCrystal said in his initial guidance to US troops not contradict what President Obama announced in March? Or at the very least, does it not herald a long US mission in Afghanistan?

Now in fairness the President's original statement on Afghanistan was a bit unclear and as several folks have mentioned to me it is certainly open to some interpretation, because the President also does talk about the need to improve governance and local reconciliation. However, this particular passage from the Obama's March speech does seem less ambiguous:

I have already ordered the deployment of 17,000 troops . . . 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.

But then I read this from a WPost interview two weeks back with General McCrystal:

"We are going to look at those parts of the country that are most important -- and those typically, in an insurgency, are the population centers," McChrystal said.

McChrystal's comments suggested that he wanted to pull forces out of some of the more remote, mountainous areas of Afghanistan where few people live and where insurgent fighters may be seeking refuge. In recent months these isolated pockets have been the scene of some of the most intense fighting between U.S. troops and insurgents.

So now we're so focused on protecting civilians in Afghanistan that we're not even going after the enemy, as President Obama insisted we would in March! This is not to mention the fact that perhaps Gen. McCrystal's focus is not in the right place -- a point nicely made by Joshua Foust:

The last army to do an “ink stain” approach to Afghanistan were the Soviets, who felt that the population was in the cities, so if they just controlled the cities the countryside would fall into line. . . .The Taliban are not strongest in the cities, but outside of them: you’ll find the insurgency grinding in the hills above Lashkar Gah, the countryside to the west and north of Kandahar, the plains of Zabul, the Khost bowl, the mountains of Paktya and Paktika, and the narrow valleys from Kapisa to Kunar and Nuristan. None of them are urban, or even sort of urban. I really hope they’ve learned by now that Afghanistan is not urban, that the insurgency—and the people—are scattered into small rural communities throughout the country. Securing the cities has never been the Coalition’s weakness.

Now, even if you believe that engaging in a long-term counter-insurgency and eliminating the Taliban's political influence in Afghanistan will accomplish the President's goals then shouldn't someone in the US government (preferably the President) make that very clear to the American people? This seems particularly important when you have the US commander in Afghanistan also saying this:

The ongoing insurgency must be met with a counterinsurgency campaign adapted to the unique conditions in each area that: Protects the Afghan people--allowing them to choose a future they can be proud of. Provides a secure environment allowing good government and economic development to  undercut the causes and advocates of insurgency

While also admitting this:

"We've got to ruthlessly prioritize, because we don't have enough forces to do everything, everywhere,"

I think everyone would agree that providing a secure environment and allowing for good government (pretty much firsts in the sad history of Afghanistan) will take a very long time to achieve. And maybe this is the absolute right approach to protecting America's interests and ensuring that Afghans enjoy a stable and reasonably prosperous future (although color me deeply skeptical).

But really this isn't about the efficacy of counter-insurgency. It's about, what the hell are we trying to accomplish in Afghanistan? What exactly is our strategy there and what is the end game?  If we don't have "enough forces to do everything" in Afghanistan then why is our top general embarking on an operational approach that under current policy constraints he is unlikely to see to its fruition?

And at a time when we can't agree to spend more than $1 trillion dollars on ensuring every American has access to health care or are reluctant to ask Americans to pay more out of pocket so that we can finally begin to roll back global warming shouldn't we level with the American people about the true costs of a full-fledged counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan? Considering that fact that we've already appropriated approximately $225 billion for the war in Afghanistan it seems like a legitimate conversation for this country to be having.

It's entirely possible that a year or two from now this Administration will decide to declare victory and go home and all my worrying will be for naught. But if 5 years from now we're still in Afghanistan chasing the dream of modernizing and stabilizing a country with little hope of achieving either . . . well I really don't want to be the one to say I told you so.


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Excellent, Michael, really good. It's deserving of a major published article.

The Commander-in-Chief and his Combatant Commander apparently have two different missions, which represents a basic breakdown in the Empire's command and control of its imperial forces. This is particularly risky when one remembers that what the local commander wants to do, protect civilians in Afghanistan, has not really been a feature of the US military occupation. Quite the opposite. Why? A soldier is trained to kill, not protect. There is no segment of military basic training that involves protecting civilians, but there are plenty on killing people, and they're very good at it, even if they're forced to apologize later and promise that they'll really, really, really try to never do it again.

Meanwhile, down at ground level, it gets complicated, the talking and the killing:

"We get a lot of those same responses from people," D’La Rotta said later. "It’s a different attitude of ‘Inshallah’ (God willing) — anything can happen. It can be easy to talk to the people. They will give you some information, but as soon as we leave, it’s back to normal for them. The enemy can be back in there without us even knowing it. We were out there for four days and the day after we left a guy was beheaded and rockets were fired at [FOB] Clark."

"I tell my men they have to be thinking warriors," Capt. Bobby Davis of Columbus, Ga., whose platoon went out to help the convoy, said the following day. "You have to be able to go out and talk to people and in the flick of a switch, like yesterday, to kill and then continue the mission — go out again and talk to people."

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