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December 10, 2010

How Afghanistan Is Like The Ex-Girlfriend That Broke Your Heart
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at abumuqawama, Andrew Exum has just returned from Afghanistan and in his trip report he makes a rather startling discovery

"We have two "Achilles heels" in the current strategy: Afghan governance and insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan."

Huh, you don't say? Calling these two Achilles heels is a bit like asking Mrs. Lincoln,"other than that how was the play?"

Moreover, while these are two of the Achilles heels in our mission in Afghanistan, I would add two more - lack of an effective military and police force as well as a coherent justice system. But these two are insurmountable enough that they are a useful jumping off point for a discussion.

Indeed, Exum follows up on this declaration by making the following depressing statement, "I'm going to be honest and say that I do not see a coherent or otherwise effective strategy for dealing with the sanctuaries in Pakistan."

Couldn't agree more. But here's the problem, Exum is the author of a new report that makes the following recommendation to the US government

"The United States should use greater political,military and economic leverage over its allies in Pakistan to drive more aggressive action against violent extremist organizations in the region." And the report also says this, "The United States must now take a tougher stand with Pakistan – if necessary, in public."

Huh? Why exactly do we think this would be successful when for the past, not two years, but 8 years, we've never been successful in putting pressure on Pakistan to do this. The only times Pakistan has acted against extremist organizations is when they've threatened the Pakistani state (and then only begrudgingly). In other words Pakistan acts against extremist groups when they feel it is in their best interest - not when the US pressures them. The only possible exception being September 2001 - and that is a rather limited, pretty hedged exception.

Only compounding the confusion is that while there is a recognition above that governance in Afghanistan is a major problem the other key political recommendation of Responsible Transition is  . . . . to improve governance in Afghanistan.

Now granted the CNAS solution is to focus on local governance rather than top down governance, but why would that be any easier to carry out? In fact, wouldn't trying to improve local governance be demonstratively more difficult and require a longer trajectory? At the very least it requires a level of sophistication in US operations in Afghanistan that we've basically never witnessed.

So to sum up: governance and Pakistan support for insurgents are huge problems; they don't lend themselves to easy or quick fixes (or maybe any fix at all) . . .

. . . but going forward, with the political clock ticking, let's focus on governance and eroding Pakistani support for Taliban insurgents.

Sometimes when I read this stuff I feel like Afghanistan is like an ex-girlfriend that broke up with you. You're still really in love with her, but she has clearly moved on and you keep coming up with ways to win her back, and maybe for a brief time you patch things up . . . but in the end she kicks you to the road because she just really doesn't think you're the one. So instead of moving on to greener pastures, you keep trying to convince her that she made a huge mistake all the while failing to recognize reality.

Yup, that's my analogy for Afghanistan! We keep thinking of new ways and new ideas to try and do something that simply can't be done there. But instead of recognizing that our new ideas and ways aren't going to work; that Afghanistan really isn't interested in reforming its governance structure, that Pakistan really doesn't want to crack down on Afghan Taliban safe havens we keep hoping against hope that maybe the next time will be different.

Or we come up with a few discrete examples of tactical progress: "things in the Arghandab River Valley are really looking up;" "we're getting really good at COIN," but that have absolutely nothing to do with the obvious strategic roadblocks that are preventing us from making progress.

As Andrew points, "if you are winning "tactically" but losing "strategically," you are ... losing."

Exactly. So that means you should change the strategy and yet for some reason this sort of connection never seems to get made. We keep trying to fix problems that clearly can't be fixed and that have never lent themselves to US-led solutions in the outside hope that again "this time will be different."

At some point you just have to realize that Afghanistan is really not that into you.


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Pakistan is one country that cannot be trusted. This is a country for the army. Army and its intelligence agency manipulates people. Looks at the publication of fake Wikileaks documents. Pakistan army and ISI will always support the Taliban and Islamic extremists. There is growing discontent among the Sindhis and Balochis to seprate from the Punjabi dominated army. Pakistan is an artificial country waiting to disintegrate. We must make sure that the nuclear material does not fal in wrong hands. China is also responsible for sending weapons to Pakistan.

Your analogy falters because we haven't thought of any NEW ways to win this war - we're still plugging away with basically the same strategy as always. If we did what you and Biden originally recommended and went with CT instead of COIN, though, I think we might be in a different, much less costly position.

You realize your analogy makes the US the creepy ex-boyfriend who has something on his ex-gf and won't let her get on with her life? Yep, sounds right.

Michael, that's a good analysis, but you neglected one very large Achilles heel -- the Pakistan support of the Taliban in Afghanistan. General McChrystal mentioned it in his August 2009 report, and wikilieaks has featured it.

The US has as an ally, a "partner", a country which is supporting a US enemy. Gotta be a first (public) arrangement of this kind.

But hey, the war costs are up over two billion a week and there's lots of profits being made. So who cares? I say, give it another four years and half a trillion dollars, plus all the combat deaths and other casualties. It's necessary.

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Richard Holbrooke doesn't agree with you. He belives that Afghanistan is a woman worth fighting and dying for -- so long as he's not doing the fighting and dying (in Afghanistan).

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