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August 23, 2010

How's That Whole Afghanistan Strategy Going?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Today we have several fresh reminders of how increasingly FUBAR our mission in Afghanistan actually is.

First, Dexter Filkins piece on how the Pakistanis used the arrest of Mullah Baradar last February to continue playing their own game in Afghanistan - one that is very different from the strategy underpinning US efforts:

They (Pakistani officials) say they set out to capture Mr. Baradar, and used the C.I.A. to help them do it, because they wanted to shut down secret peace talks that Mr. Baradar had been conducting with the Afghan government that excluded Pakistan, the Taliban’s longtime backer.

In the weeks after Mr. Baradar’s capture, Pakistani security officials detained as many as 23 Taliban leaders, many of whom had been enjoying the protection of the Pakistani government for years. The talks came to an end.

. . . "We picked up Baradar and the others because they were trying to make a deal without us,” said a Pakistani security official. “We protect the Taliban. They are dependent on us. We are not going to allow them to make a deal with Karzai and the Indians.”

The Pakistanis even seem comfortable taking cheap shots at the CIA:

The Pakistanis refused to allow the C.I.A. to interrogate Mr. Baradar or even to be present when they spoke. Another Pakistani official said Mr. Baradar was taken to a safe house in Islamabad, where he was debriefed. It was only several days later that the C.I.A. learned of his identity and were allowed to question him.

The Pakistani official even joked about the C.I.A.’s naïveté. “They are so innocent,” he said.

The thing about this story is that even if isn't true and even if, as one US official claims, the Pakistanis are "trying to rewrite history to make themselves appear more influential" the very tone of this article is basically a screw you to the United States.  But considering the obvious duplicity of the Pakistanis in not going after al Qaeda and in tacitly supporting the Afghan Taliban's insurgency in Afghanistan, which stretches back to 2001, none of this should be a surprise.  How many times are the Pakistanis going to be keep moving the football (a la Lucy) and we fall flat on our ass (Charlie Brown) before we realize that they do not have the same goals that we do in Afghanistan? As long as the Pakistanis are supporting the Afghan Taliban - and providing them with sanctuary across the border - we're just not going to make much progress in a counter-insurgency fight.

Now speaking of unreliable allies - how about Hamid Karzai and his efforts clamp down on corruption in Afghanistan? Well first it turns out that he intervened personally to free a high level aide accused of corruption; next he is establishing new rules to restrict the power of two US-backed anti-corruption agencies and now, according to his spokesman, Waheed Omer the real corruption problem in Afghanistan lies not with the Karzai government, but with foreigners:

Mr. Omer said that much of Afghanistan’s corruption was the fault of foreign contractors spending Western reconstruction money, and called on the international community to do more to help Afghanistan combat the problem, which he depicted as more serious than the problem of Afghan official corruption.

. . . Mr. Omer insisted that the Afghan government remained committed to combating corruption, but that most official corruption was petty, such as bribes to provide services or licenses.

There is even this precious quote from an unnamed US official reflecting on Karzai, "In the end, we’re hoping he’ll do the right thing.”

I tell you, we Americans are adorable - I mean just adorable. Look, even if Karzai does the "right thing" how much more obvious could it be that he has little actual interest in curbing corruption in his government. If it takes another round of US arm-twisting to get him to come around that only puts a band-aid on a gushing wound.

I hate to sound like a broken record on this, but no matter how much the US military thinks it "gets" COIN there are far more important factors that determine success in a counter-insurgency fight.

Strike one is not having strong or even legitimate host country support. Strike 2 is when your insurgent opponent has an unmolested safe haven.

And strike three is when six out of ten of your own citizens oppose the war you're fighting.

The very fact that General Petraeus is talking about extending the US presence and pushing back withdrawals to after June 2011 is mind-boggling. It's like Vietnam all over again. At what point do US policymakers wake up and realize our strategy in Afghanistan simply isn't working?

August 20, 2010

That is no way to make America safer
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan

Stephen Rademaker has a point.  The debate in the Senate over the New START Treaty has been devoid of long, detailed discussions about formal Senate procedures. 

Other than the obvious explanation—it’s dull, boring and painful so no one wants to talk about it— there’s another glaring explanation:  New START is a no-brainer. 

The Secretary of Defense didn’t testify that he would support New START if the U.S. goes back to the Russians and chats some more about missile defense.  No, Bob Gates said, unequivocally, "The New START Treaty has the unanimous support of America's military leadership."

James Schlesinger, the GOP’s nuclear yoda, didn’t say that the Senate should ratify New START after we’ve gotten some things off our chest about our long-range conventional strike capabilities.  No, James Schlesinger said that it is “obligatory” for the Senate to ratify New START.  Full stop.   

Seven former commanders of U.S. Strategic Command didn’t say that they would support New START provided the administration coughs up some more money for our nuclear complex.  No, the men who used to be in charge of all of our nation’s inter-continental ballistic missiles assured Senators, "We strongly endorse its early ratification and entry into force."

Over 70 of our nation’s leading military and national security experts, from both sides of the aisle, have voiced their support for New START and they have done so without setting conditions or recommending that the U.S. go run a few things past the Russians before moving forward. 

After 20 hearings, 3 classified briefings and the submission of nearly 800 questions for the record, Senators have honorably upheld their Constitutional duty to thoroughly review this treaty.  In addition to hearing from a multitude of current administration officials, Senators heard from high-ranking officials from the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43 administrations as well as six former secretaries of state, five former secretaries of defense, the chair and vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, and numerous other distinguished Americans.  The record that has been established throughout this process is truly impressive. 

On top of all of this support, the leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—the committee that is responsible for reporting to the full Senate when treaties are being considered— has been extremely respectful and sensitive to the concerns of its members.  After pushing back the Committee vote to give members additional time to review all of the materials that were submitted along with the treaty, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry told the Washington Post, "If we forced a vote today, I would have won. But I would have angered some people and made them feel they weren't being included," Kerry said. "I think it's important to build a broader consensus."

What’s more, Sen. Kerry wrote to committee members before the August recess and specifically asked for suggestions for the draft resolution of ratification.  “The Committee is currently drafting a resolution of advice and consent, and members who wish to suggest language for inclusion should do so during recess…Your input is welcome as we work to craft a resolution that can enjoy broad support.”

Funny that Mr. Rademaker didn’t mention that.  He also seemed to conveniently gloss over the fact that the person who was most adamantly calling for a committee vote was Sen. Richard Lugar, the committee’s Ranking Republican.  On the day that Chairman Kerry announced he would delay the vote, Sen. Lugar told the Cable, "We ought to vote now and let the chips fall where they may. It's that important."  Aware of the tight floor schedule and of the need to quickly ratify the treaty, Sen. Lugar urged the full Senate to take up the treaty as soon as possible.  "If not [before the election], then whether it works out in December or not is no longer a matter of parliamentary debate, it's a matter of national security," he said, citing the fact that U.S. inspectors have not been able to verify Russian behavior regarding nuclear weapons deployment since the original START agreement expired late last year.

Ultimately, this is where Mr. Rademaker falls short.  Formal Senate procedures are to be respected and utilized properly, but they should not be used as a delay tactic or a political tool, particularly when our national security is on the line. 

Let’s face it, that is no way to make America safer.

The Left's Selective Praise
Posted by Michael Cohen

The other day, my blogmate Shadi Hamid raised a point on his Twitter feed that's been gnawing at me as well; "Why do liberals get excited when politicians defend things that are pretty basic & should be beyond question - like, um, the 1st amendment?"

Shadi was of course referring to President Obama's speech last Friday defending the Ground Zero Mosque and the glowing, initial response it received in the liberal blogosphere.

Glenn Greenwald called it an act "that deserves pure praise"; Mark Kleiman says Obama's remarks made him "proud to be an American citizen" and Greg Sargent said it was one of the "finest moments" of Obama's presidency. And there was even more where that came from.

Call me and Shadi cynics, but "meh." It's not that I'm unpleased by what Obama said, but jeez this is what Presidents are supposed to do. Hell, George Bush stood up for American Muslims repeatedly - and, to some extent, in language more forceful than that used by Obama. I understand that the Burlington Coat Factory Mosque doesn't exactly have a great deal of support among the American people, but upholding basic American principles like religious freedom sort of comes with the job description of being President of the United States.

But what I find striking about all this momentary praise from the left is that it seems a bit more effusive than the praise that Barack Obama has received from these same allies for his actual legislative accomplishments. (And in no way do I mean I to focus these comments exclusively on Greenwald, Kleiman and Sargent).

Now I realize that the health care bill didn't contain a public option, which of course invalidated the entire effort (#sarcasm). However, it seems to me that ensuring guaranteed health care for 30 million Americans is a pretty significant progressive accomplishment - in fact, it's a heck of a lot more momentous, and more difficult to achieve, than simply delivering a speech extolling the virtues of religious freedom.

Now granted the health care bill is not perfect and there are legitimate areas for criticism in the final legislation. But for tens of millions of working class and middle class Americans (you know the people that liberals are nominally supposed to be fighting for) this bill is a critical step forward in ameliorating America's growing inequality gap and could literally make the difference between life and death for many of them. In short, it is precisely the sort of landmark, incremental and yet initially imperfect social legislation that has come to define significant progressive, legislative accomplishments throughout American history.

So there is something that tends to rub the wrong way about such unconditional praise for Obama's speech in support of religious freedom, but tepid praise - even anger - for legislation that fulfills what has basically been the policy lodestar of modern progressivism for six decades. Of course, this isn't even to mention the president's efforts to pass various pieces of legislation that improves regulation of Wall Street - including the creation of a consumer protection agency - revamps the student lending program and puts more resources into education reform, public transportation and other progressive priorities.  (And to be sure, praise for these efforts has little to do with Barack Obama; it has to do with consolidating support and mobilizing public opinion so that Congress will not only maintain support for these programs but build upon them. To paraphrase Clemenceau, legislating is too important to be left to politicians.)

Along these lines, in a smart piece in this week's Nation Theda Skocpol makes a good argument about nature of liberal disappointment in Obama's significant policy accomplishments:

Since the 1960s, progressives in the United States have often been more interested in racial, gender, foreign policy, cultural and environmental issues, and not so concerned about socioeconomic redistribution. So it is perhaps understandable that for many upper-middle-class progressives, who cluster on the East and West Coasts, the past two years just look like failure.

This isn't to say that cultural, environmental and foreign policy issues are unimportant (after writing for more than a year about our failed Afghanistan policy the importance I place on these issues should speak for itself). And this isn't to suggest that the left should stop focusing on "unpopular" issues like torture and rule of law abuses where the president needs to have his feet held to the fire. But liberals do great harm to the causes they care most deeply about if they ignores the bread and butter issues that not only animate American politics, but matter so much to lower and middle class Americans for whom progressivism must speak. Because after all, if we don't, who will?

The left should and must applaud the President when he speaks up for religious freedom and against the bigotry and intolerance directed at Muslims that is an all too prevalent part of our national discourse. But when he accomplishes the more difficult task of bringing social justice to millions upon millions of Americans shouldn't the praise from his nominal supporters be even greater and more enduring? 

I fear sometimes that my progressives compatriots lose touch with what it is exactly we're fighting for.

August 18, 2010

Historical Hypocrisy: Paula DeSutter Talks Verification
Posted by Kelsey Hartigan

Puh-lease.  Paula DeSutter’s attempted criticism of the verification measures in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is hypocritical, untrue, and in clear contradiction to her not-so-stellar track record when it comes to verification.

As Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation (VCI), Paula DeSutter was the Bush administration’s go-to person for all things verifiable—which makes her sudden concern for stringent verification measures seem just a teensie bit disingenuous.   

First, her assertion that the Obama administration “could have extended the START treaty,” is well, a lie.  In 2007, it was DeSutter who announced that the United States would not seek to extend the START Treaty.  Check this out:  

While the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or START "has been important and for the most part has done its job," Assistant Secretary of State Paula DeSutter told Reuters the pact is cumbersome and its complicated reporting standards have outlived their usefulness.

In the post-Cold war era, many provisions of the 1991 START accord, which mandated deep nuclear weapons cuts, "are no longer necessary. We don't believe we're in a place where we need have to have the detailed lists (of weapons) and verification measures," added DeSutter.

As someone who thought all of those boring details and provisions in START were “cumbersome” and “no longer necessary” it’s quite ironic that DeSutter is now going after the Obama administration for allegedly agreeing to “gut the monitoring and verification measures and limitations necessary to render [New START] effectively verifiable.” How odd. 

Multiple military and national security experts from both sides of the aisle have testified before Congress that New START—and its strong verification regime— is essential to our national security.  After 18 hearings, three classified briefings, the submission of nearly 800 questions for the record, and an extended review period, DeSutter’s accusation that the administration is seeking to “ram New START through the Senate with minimal examination…” is once again, a bit disingenuous.  Especially when compared to the review process for the 2002 Moscow Treaty (trust me…I’ll get to that in a second) which passed on a 95-0 vote, after just six hearings.   

Finally, let’s not forget that DeSutter has a track record when it comes to verification and arms control treaties.  And it ain’t pretty.  The Bush administration, for whom DeSutter served, repeatedly took long-standing verification measures, threw them out the window, and flipped them the bird as a final farewell.  This much is clear in at least three major instances:   

Strike one:  Verification and the Biological Weapons Convention

Courtesy of my friends at ACA, this little nugget sums it all up:  “Beginning in 1995, states-parties to the BWC began negotiations to fashion a legally binding protocol of verification measures, including on-site inspections, for the instrument…Six months after taking office, the Bush administration announced its opposition to the proposed protocol, sinking it.”

Strike two:  Verification and a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty

Washington had subscribed since 1995 to negotiating an effectively verifiable FMCT, but the Bush administration reversed course in July 2004 and announced that it no longer thought an FMCT could be effectively verified, a reversal that once again, sank any hope for progress. 

Strike three, you’re out:  Verification (or lack thereof) and the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty

Perhaps the number one reason why Paula DeSutter has absolutely no authority to speak on New START’s verification regime is the fact that in 2002, the Bush administration—for whom she served—negotiated a three-page treaty with Russia that contained no verification provisions, no definitions, and frankly, no real substance.  Commonly called the “SORT-of-a-treaty,” the pact relied on the verification provisions of START 1, which as we all know, expired on December 5, 2009. 

DeSutter openly admitted that SORT is not effectively verifiable, but said that mattered little because of the friendlier U.S.-Russian relationship.

So this all begs the question—why, given DeSutter’s flagrant disregard for verification measures in the past, is she suddenly so concerned with telemetry exchanges, re-entry vehicle on-site inspections, limits on the number of re-entry vehicles that can be loaded on ballistic missiles—and all of that other “cumbersome” crap that as of 2007, she said was “no longer necessary?”  

Sure beats me.

UPDATE:  Kingston Reif over at Nukes of Hazard reminds us of all of the lovely things conservatives said about the "simplicity and brevity" of SORT.  Greg Thielmann has also weighed in on DeSutter's commentary in his new piece for ACA. 

August 17, 2010

9-11 -- Then and Now
Posted by David Shorr

Of the many disorienting things on 9/11/01, it was particularly strange to find myself living 1,000 miles away from the two cities where, up to then, I'd spent all but one of my years. As we know, New Yorkers are famous for not being very attuned to the rest of the country. Of course that has been a two-way avenue, too, with plenty of suspicion from beyond the Hudson River looking at New York City as a kind of foreign land (not to mention the nation's capital). That sense of distance may have narrowed during the years since, but as a then-newly transplanted Midwesterner the solidarity was palpable and appreciated.

Fast-forward to the current political circus over a neighborhood I'll always remember as the site of my first job after college. Which prompts a new version of the question about the relationship between "The City" (sorry) and the country. How much first-hand knowledge do these people have of Lower Manhattan, with their passionate views about its real estate should be zoned?  I don't mean this as a question of what gives someone the standing to have an opinion about the mosque. Instead my point is about the relationship between all this intense symbolism and an actual place where people work and live. What do those streets really represent? What should they? As I point out in a post over at TMPCafe, the poet Andrei Codrescu addressed these issues much more eloquently (not to say presciently) back in September 2002.

[Update: There was more to say about the Cordoba opponents' slippery relationship with basic constitutional rights and religious liberty.]

August 16, 2010

Politics of National Security: Five Juicy Stories We're NOT Following
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Instead of Newt Gingrich comparing American Muslims to Nazis, here are five stories that meet the August demand for tabloid-style reporting AND are of profound significance to our national security (ok, yeah, Newt is of profound significance to our security, but in the same way hurricanes are.)

How 'Bout those North Koreans?  A shadowy new candidate to succeed Kim Jong Il.  Nuclear weapons, Kremlinology, and weird personal habits... doesn't get much better than that.

Where In the World Is Hosni Mubarak?  Speaking of father-son transitions, we give you the healthwatch on one of the US' longest-lived allies in the Middle East.  Egypt's President is finding new ribbons to cut every day, as his health is rumored to be poor and his son rumored to be ready to assume the presidency.  

The General Petraeus Show.  'Nuf said.  With added bonus report that General Stan "he said what?" McChrystal will be lecturing at Yale next year.  Maybe he'll help out with labor disputes, too.

Related item: The Secretary Gates Show.  "Sometime in 2011," he tells Fred Kaplan, but not very convincingly.

And, oh yeah, then there's China's growing economy.  I guess I should be glad that's not being subjected to Ground Zero-style demagoguery.  So never mind, nothing to see here.

Why I Miss George Bush
Posted by Michael Cohen

Honestly, these are words that I never thought it possible for me to type. But in my latest column for AOL, I argue that as America slowly descends into a vicious spiral of bigotry and fear over the fact that Americans Muslims want to build a cultural center near Ground Zero . . . I kind of miss the guy's rhetorical defense of religious tolerance:

Now to be clear I don't really miss the George Bush who "won" the 2000 election; who plunged our country into the worst foreign policy disaster in American history in Iraq; who sanctioned the use of torture and other rule-of-law abuses; who believed in intelligent design but not the science behind climate change; and who largely fiddled while the U.S. economy burned. Him, I don't miss all that much.

 . . . But, for all of Bush's faults; one of the good things he did as president was to ensure that the country did not engage in a witch hunt against American Muslims, simply because it was a radical Islamic group that attacked America on 9/11. As president, Bush spoke consistently and effectively about the importance of respecting religious differences in American society and not turning hatred of al-Qaida into a broad-based attack against all Muslims. And for the most part, other Republicans begrudgingly followed his lead.

Just a few days ago when President Barack Obama spoke up in support of the basic notion that religious freedom for Muslim-Americans is an unimpeachable American ideal he was, ironically, following in post-9/11 rhetorical footsteps first trod by Bush.

If only we had a Republican Party today that could live up to the example set by Bush. There is literally no one in a position of power within the GOP willing to stand up for the ideal of religious freedom in America and against the naked bigotry that defines the opposition to the ground zero mosque.

Read the whole thing here!

August 13, 2010

The Craziest Thing I've Read In A Very Long Time
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at the Atlantic Council blog there is a wrap-up of Stephen Biddle's recent trip to Afghanistan - and it features this utterly head scratching quote from Biddle:

Now, the threat if the worst-case scenario unfolds is pretty serious. I mean, you may or may not have worried about nuclear weapons in Soviet hands during the Cold War. But bin Laden would probably use the things if he got them. And if an American administration that could reasonably have waged this war with some prospect of success instead decided to withdraw -- if that scenario played out, Pakistan collapsed, and bin Laden got a nuclear weapon and used it on the United States, it would be regarded by generations of historians as the single biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of the nation.

Now, a variety of bad things have to happen in sequence for that worst case to play itself out. That is why I think this is a close call, rather than an obvious one. But, especially with respect to the guy in the Oval Office who has to bear the responsibility for this, I suspect that worst case looms fairly large. But all indications are that the president is pretty ambivalent about this, in part because I suspect he sees the costs and benefits as being closer on the margin than one would, in some ways, like.

I read things like this and I really start to believe that the entire foreign policy community has completely lost its mind. Stephen Biddle is a smart guy - and I simply can't fathom the notion that he actually believes this (except of course for the fact that he said basically the same thing last year). 

Ignoring the fact that the notion of Pakistan collapsing is deeply far-fetched; does Biddle really think that a cratered al Qaeda, on the run in NW Pakistan, with about 200 key operatives has a snowball's chance in hell of getting a nuclear weapon. And even if they did, that they would be able to transport it to the United States with no one finding out - and then exploding it. This isn't the one percent doctrine. It's the 0.000001 doctrine.

Now granted Biddle sees this as a close call (which is itself gobsmacking) and actually criticizes the Obama Administration for not being more concerned about it. As for how our leaving Afghanistan makes this one in billion scenario a bit more possible . . . well your guess is as good as mine. But the very notion that we need to keep 100,000 troops in Afghanistan to guard against this remote possibility (and I use the word "possibility" guardedly) is . . . well words fail to describe how insane this actually is.

Statements like these are perhaps further evidence that we have lost any and all perspective on the actual threats facing this country - and that there are practically no discernible limits applied by members of our foreign policy elite on when and how we utilize our armed forces to "protect" American security.  (The nuclear bogeyman, notwithstanding, it's insane enough already that we are maintaining a 100,000 troop presence in Afghanistan just to combat al Qaeda.)

The very fact that $100 billion a year wars can be justified on this sort of microscopically thin reed while far more significant challenges - like catastrophic climate change basically go ignored by our elected leaders- is as clear a sign as imaginable that the US isn't just entering a period of imperial decline. We're in complete free fall.

August 12, 2010

Another COIN Myth - "We Get COIN"
Posted by Michael Cohen

So a few weeks ago I wrote a post titled the Afghanistan Exist Strategy Watch about how I was beginning to believe that the US was turning the corner in Afghanistan - away from trying to win there to preparing to get out. 

Um . . . never mind:

American military officials are building a case to minimize the planned withdrawal of some troops from Afghanistan starting next summer, in an effort to counter growing pressure on President Obama from inside his own party to begin winding the war down quickly.

With the administration unable yet to point to much tangible evidence of progress, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who assumed command in Afghanistan last month from Gen.Stanley A. McChrystal, is taking several steps to emphasize hopeful signs on the ground that, he will argue, would make a rapid withdrawal unwise. Meanwhile, a rising generation of young officers, who have become experts over the past nine years in the art of counterinsurgency, have begun quietly telling administration officials that they need time to get their work done.

“Their argument,” said one senior administration official, who would not speak for attribution about the internal policy discussions, “is that while we’ve been in Afghanistan for nine years, only in the past 12 months or so have we started doing this right, and we need to give it some time and think about what our long-term presence in Afghanistan should look like.”

"Only in the past 12 months or so have we started doing this right" is such a laughable quote that the senior Administration official who recounted should have started guffawing afterward.  

It's one of the essential COIN myths that the military didn't "get" counter-insurgency in Afghanistan until 12 months ago; just as it's an essential COIN myth that we weren't doing counter-insurgency in Iraq before the surge and that once we did, everything turned around there. As a friend said to me last night. "It's the Better War Part 2: Even Betterer!"

But in reality we've been doing some variation of these policies since 2003 and actually after 2007 what we were doing in Iraq looked very little like what is popularly described as COIN today. The turnaround in Iraq had far less to do with the surge and a change in US tactics than it did specific events on the ground (in particular Sunni militias turning on AQI and a general decline in the ethnic slaughter that had defined the country in 2005 and 2006).

The conceptual problem with the "we get COIN" argument is that it presupposes what the American military does from a tactical perspective actually matters - and that the enemy and our allies has little actual agency. For example, let's say that in Iraq every military officer memorized FM 3-24 in 2003 (an impossibility I know but work with me). It wouldn't have made things any easier as far as stabilizing the country then - because the challenge in stabilizing Iraq went far beyond what the US military was possibly able to accomplish on a tactical level. In other words, a COIN-led surge in 2004 would not have succeeded. 

Same goes for Afghanistan today. It doesn't matter if we've started doing COIN right in the last 12 months or the last 12 years. What influences the long-term effectiveness of the mission there has to do with a set of factors completely out of the control of the American military: things like the performance of the Afghan military and police, the inclination of the Afghan government to crack down on corruption, the continued presence of Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan, the level of political and popular support in the United States and yes, even the ability of the Taliban to adapt to US and NATO's tactical changes.

Whether the US gets COIN or doesn't get COIN is not relevant to the much larger question of whether the US mission - as currently formulated - can hope to succeed. And if the last year has taught us anything it is that it cannot. That's the question that the White House needs to be addressing; not the silly proclamations of military officers that they suddenly get counter-insurgency.

Of course, it would help if the President would actually address these issues and make clear to his national security team what he believes the the US commitment to Afghanistan should be and what is his timetable for achieving US goals.

It's something that he continues to fail to do. With such questions seemingly remaining open-ended it's small wonder that military officials are doing what they always try to do - ask for more troops and more time. It's up to the Commander-in-Chief to set limits; so how about it Mr. President?

August 11, 2010

Another COIN Myth Exposed - Protecting the Population
Posted by Michael Cohen

One of the more pernicious myths of the modern COIN fad is the focus on protecting civilians as an end goal in itself for COIN operations. As the argument goes, by protecting civilians counter-insurgents are able to shift the balance of popular support toward the government and away from the insurgent forces. The more people feel protected, the better chance they will reject the insurgent force and ally themselves with the government. The population is the center of gravity we are told.

For example, last spring here is how General McChrystal defined the fight in Afghanistan: 

“Central to counterinsurgency is protecting the people,” he said. . . Effectiveness is measured in “the number of Afghans shielded from violence.” 

The New York Times endorsed this view, making the argument:

Protecting Afghan civilians, and expanding the secure space in which they can safely go about their lives and livelihoods must now become the central purpose of American military operations in Afghanistan.
According to a new UN report, more than a year later, things are not working out too well:

In its midyear report, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said the number of civilians wounded and killed had increased by nearly a third in the first six months of the year, as coalition forces raised the level of military action against insurgents. In that period, 1,271 civilians were killed and 1,997 wounded, the report said, with more than three-quarters attributable to what it called “antigovernment elements.”

So what we have here is compelling evidence that our COIN strategy has been an dramatic failure; the US has largely been unable to protect Afghan civilians. In fact, their lives are now at greater risk than before we began to carry out a policy specifically geared toward protecting them.

None of this should be a huge surprise. As I noted last year, "By making civilian body counts the top metric you are waging war on the enemy's terms - and you are allowing them to dictate how you judge the success of your operation. If anything, you are actually giving incentive to the Taliban to kill more civilians."

This isn't to say that the Taliban are purposely targeting civilians, but it does suggest that the Taliban can easily undermine US strategy by placing civilians at greater risk. Indeed, violence against civilians has a multiplier effect because it cedes fear and uncertainty among the civilian population and convinces them not to take sides in a conflict.

The simple truth is that we have a fairly good sense - from studying COIN history - how you protect civilians from insurgents: you forcibly separate them. A tactic used to great success in Malaya and Kenya and to a different degree in Iraq. The current US strategy in Afghanistan of using a carrot, rather than a stick is not the path to success. In fact, if anything it seems to be causing more harm than good. 

None of this, of course, is to suggest that protecting the population is a bad thing or should be discouraged. Instead the experience of waging so-called population centric COIN in Afghanistan provides compelling evidence that military escalation, in general, is a poor means of achieving that goal. 

One would hope that the consistent failure of COIN theory when it is put in practice would lead the military to shelve the pseudo-science and unsupported arguments underpinning modern COIN doctrine, as described in FM 3-24. But to be honest, I'm not holding my breath.

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