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:
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:
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.