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June 03, 2009

The Strawiest of Strawmen
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at Abu Muqawama, Andrew Exum has responded to my concerns over counter-insurgency policy in Afghanistan - and my notion that the US should be focused more on degrading the enemy rather than protecting civilians -- with the following snarky observation:

Is there really someone left out there that thinks the goal of war-fighting is the destruction of the enemy's fighting forces and not the accomplishment of political aims? Really? Aren't we past this? Has Antoine Henri-Jomini been reincarnated as a fellow at the New America Foundation?

This is the strawiest of strawman arguments - and Andrew conveniently ignores the fact that my quibble always has been with the "political aims" of counter-insurgency (namely the notion that we able or willing to "protect Afghan civilians"). As I wrote yesterday:

The United States is not prepared to devote the time, sacrifice and patience to meeting this probably unreachable goal. Churchillian rhetoric sounds great in congressional testimony but the simple reality is that US forces in Afghanistan are operating under a constrained time frame. Gates has spoken about the need to see progress in a year. Our focus needs to be degrading the enemy, not some amorphous counter-insurgency goal.

Or this:

The US needs to recognize that we simply lack the capability to provide for the basic needs of the Afghan people; that our efforts to turn the Afghan population against the Taliban are beyond our capabilities. And thus we need to focus on what we can accomplish in Afghanistan: ensure that the country's security services are strong enough to prevent a Taliban takeover and degrade, as much as possible, Taliban forces.

Or this:

While I am sympathetic to the notion that enemy body counts are perhaps an imprecise way of judging military success I'm really not clear on how protecting Afghan civilians from the Taliban makes Americans any safer or fulfills our mission there.  Are American troops going to spend 10, 15, 20 years in Afghanistan "protecting civilians" from the Taliban? Are we going to try to meet David Kilcullen's goal of extending “an effective, legitimate government presence into Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages.”? Is that even possible in a country as large as Afghanistan and facing an enemy with far more staying power than the United States and NATO?

Perhaps Andrew or the other COIN-danistas could answer these questions and tell me precisely how they intend to marshal the resources and will to protect every Afghan village from the Taliban, all the while providing Afghan civilians with basic health care, education and good governance. Because, that is more or less what they are arguing we need to be doing in Afghanistan.

Amusingly, Andrew throws Clausewitz in my face and argues that political objective must drive the military objective. Um yeah. Either he doesn't realize or doesn't want to engage with the fact that I believe the political objective that McCrystal lays out is fatally flawed - and can't be achieved. This is the crux of the disagreement.

The US must recognize that in Afghanistan there are severe limitations on what we hope to accomplish there and that protecting civilians is an unreachable and unrealistic goal. Our political and in turn military focus must be on degrading the capabilities of those that most directly threaten US interests.

Oh and one last point, this notion that "civilian casualties were the metric we used to gauge success in Iraq in 2007" is the ultimate red herring because the implication here is that the decline in civilian casualties came about because of the surge and counter-insurgency tactics employed by the US. This flies in face of the 2007 NIE on Iraq, "Where population displacements have led to significant sectarian separation, conflict levels have diminished to some extent because warring communities find it more difficult to penetrate communal enclaves" and this factoid from McClatchy, that by 2007 "Baghdad was once 65 percent Sunni and is now 75 percent Shiite." Celeste Ward perhaps puts is best:

So why did the Iraqis stop the carnage and start deal-making by 2007? We don't fully know. A number of accounts give a nod to the Sunni Awakening and the cease-fire by the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Nonetheless, the prevailing interpretations of the surge narrative -- even competing ones, which tend to differ mostly over claims of paternity -- put the Americans in the driver's seat of history. The assumption seems to be that the United States, its leaders and the tactics it employed are primarily responsible for the events on the ground.

But the decisions of the Iraqis themselves surely made a material difference. They stopped fighting, whether due to political calculations, fear or exhaustion. The full story of Iraqi motivations and perceptions has yet to be told.

The fall in civilian casualties was a positive development, but to argue that it was the direct result of the surge - and that it can be replicated in Afghanistan as a metric for success -- is hugely overstated and probably wrong.


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On what basis do you think we have a reachable and realistic chance of seriously degrading the capabilities of those who most threaten U.S. interest?

What are we not doing now that we could suddenly start doing that would achieve this result? More air strikes? Going into Pakistan? Focusing on more conventional strikes against whatever strongholds we can find?

No question, you're absolutely right that the surge didn't achieve its political objectives and the majority of its success can probably be attributed to key Sunnis and Sadr being willing to stop fighting as well as ethnic cleansing. However, the conventional strategy prior to it was really a miserable failure.

I can understand why you think a counterinsurgency strategy is not achievable but what makes you think that there is any sort of alternative strategy that is achievable?

I can understand why you think a counterinsurgency strategy is not achievable but what makes you think that there is any sort of alternative strategy that is achievable?
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It is ironic that Exum would compare those who are against COIN warfare to Jomini because COIN adocates have a lot in common with this nineteenth century French military thinker. According to both Azar Gat and John Shy, Jomini favored occupying geographic positions rather than destroying the enemy. Spreading American forces throughout Afghanistan is very much in the Jomini tradtion of occupying geographic points rather than destroying the enemy. Also Exum claims that he is a firm beliver in Clausewtiz but recent works about the German military thinker should make COIN advocates think twice about using him to support their theories of COIN warfare. Jon Sumida in his recent works about Clausewitz states that the Prussian military thinker believed that the defense always has an advantage over the offense and this is especially true in guerrilla warfare in which the invaded state could mobilize its entire population as opposed the invading state which has political constraints upon it due to domestic opinion that is very fickle in its support of an offensive war. So according to this new view of Clausewitz, the advocates of COIN have a theory of war that does not recognize political opinion not only domestically but also that of the opposing state. Also in these recent discussions about COIN warfare there has not been a mention of the geo-strategic thinker Edward Luttwak's view that COIN warfare is nothing more than a waste of time and effort.

I would like to see your sketch for an exit-strategy, then, sir. Logistics, timetables, all of that jazz. You fail to mention the percieved endstate of a cut-and-run strategy, you fail to mention possible effect on Pakistan.

Peace: Actually, COIN is concilable with Clausewitz, in that its a passive-agressive form for warfare. It builds on the concept of expanding defense, both military and legitimacy-wise.

I think you are arguing much the same that many of us are. Exum's interest is in propagating his approach which will provide him with a job/career for the long-term. Can't blame him for that, but it ain't strategy. Rather, but another example of the collapse of strategic thought in the US since 1992.

I too find the use of Clausewitz to push his argument spacious. When I've (and others!) brought up the glaringly obvious absence of dealing with how the military aim is to support the political purpose in Afghanistan or elsewhere, the thread always ends.

You're in good company btw, Andrew Bacevich, Willian Pfaff and most who refer to themselves as Clausewitzians are arguing the same thing.

You have a good point, but to continue with much of what has been the same doesn't seem like it will work in our favor.

Your mention that the surge's success was probably blown out of proportion because the facts on the ground may have had more to deal with the decrease in violence could give us a window in what to do in Afghanistan. If in Iraq the major success was separating the violent elements from the non-violent ones, then maybe that's what we should focus on in Afghanistan.

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