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September 08, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Round Up Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

So the AMCW is on a bit of a hiatus this week - vacation and funding proposal crunch is keeping me a little too busy. Blogging will be sparse.

However, there are a few things from over the weekend that bear reporting on. First, the situation in Kunduz, where an ISAF airstrike killed approximately 90 people, both insurgents and civilians. I'm having a hard time getting a clear sense of what really happened here, who is to blame and what it all means. One thing does seem clear - the Germans, who were responsible for calling in the airstrike, screwed up - big time. Or so says Foust AND Exum. And if those guys are on the same page, I'm guessing there is something to it. Thomas Rid thinks McChrystal screwed up and may have cost the coalition the continued support of German troops. But is that an altogether bad thing?  Not necessarily says Foust.

If the Washington Post is to be believed, McChystal handled the post-airstrike PR game pretty effectively. You got to give the man credit, he plays the optics game well.

My take, for the penny that it's worth, is that for all our talk of protecting civilians, we should hardly be surprised when these types of things occur. We can only do so much to protect civilians, particularly if as some reports seem to indicate the Taliban were using civilians as cover in this particular incident in Kunduz.  Civilians die in war, particularly in insurgencies like this one. We can talk all we want about protecting civilians, but in the end "war is cruelty, you cannot refine it." It's a lesson we should never forget - and as I've argued her repeatedly if people think that COIN doesn't involve coercion and violence, well they just don't know COIN.

So while I think it's wonderful that the US military is going out of its way to preventing civilian casualties, I'm less convinced that this actually helps us win the war or defeat the Taliban, which ultimately is the goal. Protecting civilians is not the end-all, be-all; it's a means to an end - the end being defeating the Taliban (well actually it's defeating al Qaeda, but don't get me started on that). But what if doesn't get us any closer to the ends; or what if we lack the resources, the coordination or the Afghan support to achieve it? What if the problem is the means not the ends?

Right on cue, the always astute Gian Gentile had a very smart piece up at Small Wars Journal a few days ago about the need for an enemy-centric approach to the fight with the Taliban:

Perhaps the way ahead in Afghanistan, at least the immediate way ahead to stabilize the situation
is to not focus on hearts and minds but in killing the enemy.  This is not so radical of an idea,
mind you.  Earlier this year two infantry lieutenants and one of their sergeants, fresh from hard
combat experience in Afghanistan, made the argument that the American Army was losing its
ability in Afghanistan to conduct basic infantry combined arms warfare.  Their solution was not
better population centric counterinsurgency tactics and processes but improving infantry platoons
and companies ability to close with and kill the enemy through fire and maneuver.  What they
were calling for was a reinvention of the American Army’s approach in Afghanistan in order to
regain the initiative.  And in war, whether it is counterinsurgency war, conventional war, hybrid
war, whatever, the INITIATIVE is everything.  In Afghanistan we have lost the initiative
because population centric counterinsurgency is basically a symmetrical, reactive tactical and
operational measure. History shows that focusing on killing the enemy works in a counterinsurgency campaign. 

I'm not necessarily convinced that what Gian is advocating is feasible (which is perhaps the point), but I continue to believe that unless you put military pressure on the Taliban we're not going to have a lot of luck with counter-insurgency, for reasons that I elaborate on in this FP piece (short version: we lack the resources and the support).  We're betwixt and between here: trying to do a counter-insurgency without the proper resources, but perhaps afraid to take an enemy centric approach for reasons of optics (well in fairness that Pakistan safe haven for Afghan Taliban doesn't help much either).

But as always Gian gives us much to think about (check out the comments section too on this post; they are pretty rich).

It would be impossible to do a write-up on the current situation in Afghanistan without referencing the recent presidential election in which according to Afghan officials President Karzai has received 50% of the vote and thus will avoid a run-off. None of this should be a surprise either, especially after reading Dexter Filkins take on this:

Afghans loyal to President Hamid Karzai set up hundreds of fictitious polling sites where no one voted but where hundreds of thousands of ballots were still recorded toward the president’s re-election, according to senior Western and Afghan officials here.The fake sites, as many as 800, existed only on paper, said a senior Western diplomat in Afghanistan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political delicacy of the vote. Local workers reported that hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of votes for Mr. Karzai in the election last month came from each of those places. That pattern was confirmed by another Western official based in Afghanistan.

“We think that about 15 percent of the polling sites never opened on Election Day,” the senior Western diplomat said. “But they still managed to report thousands of ballots for Karzai.”

Besides creating the fake sites, Mr. Karzai’s supporters also took over approximately 800 legitimate polling centers and used them to fraudulently report tens of thousands of additional ballots for Mr. Karzai, the officials said.

The result, the officials said, is that in some provinces, the pro-Karzai ballots may exceed the people who actually voted by a factor of 10. “We are talking about orders of magnitude,” the senior Western diplomat said.

Oy vey! What a ginormous clusterf**k! So now the United States is going to be defending and extending the legitimacy of an Afghan government that is anything but legitimate or democratic. How does this not precisely play into the hands of the Taliban and disaffected Afghans?  I'm not really sure what to say about this, but this really does seem to fly in the face of our counter-insurgency strategy, don't you think?

Actually, I take that back, here's what I think you SHOULDN'T say about the Afghan election, particularly if you are a high-ranking US diplomat whose name rhymes with Sick Folbrooke:

"During that process there are going to be many claims of irregularities; that happens in every democracy . .  We recently had a senatorial election in Minnesota which took seven months to determine the outcome, there were so many charges of irregularities. It certainly won't take that long in Afghanistan, but that happens in democracies, even when they are not in the middle of a war."

You know this unnamed diplomat also served in Vietnam where there was this little thing called a "credibility gap." When I hear him say things like this and then I read things like this . . .

Mr. Karzai’s home province, Kandahar, where preliminary results indicate that more than 350,000 ballots have been turned in to be counted. But Western officials estimated that only about 25,000 people actually voted there.

. . . I begin to formulate uncomfortable historical analogies in my head.


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With all due respect, Gian Gentile is barking up the wrong tree in this instance. He'd be better off referring back to the mid-60s literature on cost/benefit approaches to COIN that were developed as a response to the limitations of 'hearts and minds', such as Rebellion and Authority by Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf Jr. These problems have already been thought through in great detail by individuals of an earlier generation who were much more on the ball than anything the current crowd has to offer.

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