by Eric Martin
One of the unfortunate side-effects of the overhyping of the "success" of The Surge in Iraq, and the counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine that supposedly facilitated that success, has been the belief that we can fix what ails our effort in Afghanistan by replicating that approach: applying COIN doctrine coupled with a troop surge. What gets left out of this can-do-COIN discussion are a few of the essential, if inconvenient, facts, as well as the contradictory evidence from Iraq. That, and the fact that COIN's most dedicated proponents claim that, as a rule, it is exceedingly difficult to pull off, has a very small chance of success and is as time consuming (multi-decade horizons) as it is extremely expensive (multi-trillion dollar price tags).
With respect to Iraq's COIN-borne "success," violence in that country has not ceased, although it has declined considerably (hundreds of Iraqis are still dying each month, down from thousands). But a large portion of those gains is attributable to several unrelated developments: the coopting of the majority of the Sunni insurgency (Awakenings), the Sadrists decision to lay low, walling off of entire neighborhoods and the fact that many neighborhoods had already been cleansed along sectarian lines, thus removing potential combatants from close proximity.
Further, even the heretofore reduced levels of violence have begun to increase again, highlighting The Surge's most glaring failure: it was supposed to be a vehicle for delivering lasting political reconciliation, compromise and accommodation such that warring factions would be content to pursue their objectives via elections rather than violence. This broad-based accord has not materialized, and the Sunni groups that had held fire for a time are beginning to return to violent resistance, clashes along the borders of the disputed Kurdish regions are heating up, civilian bombings in various areas are occurring with a familiar regularity and a new Shiite coalition with maximalist sectarian underpinnings has emerged to challenge Maliki.
Given the fact that The Surge/COIN doctrine has only delivered a qualified and possibly fleeting success in Iraq, and given the confluence of extenuating factors needed to bring about even that modicum of progress, it is highly doubtful that this doctrine will succeed in Afghanistan - a considerably harder nut to crack. In fact, even the Afghanistan optimists - the COIN doctrine gurus that believe the mission should be pursued and can be achieved - believe that if all goes incredibly well, we will still need to maintain a robust troop presence in Afghanistan for the next 10-15 years at a price tag of a couple trillion dollars. Oh, and even then, we will only succeed if we can also stabilize the situation in Pakistan and clear out all potential Taliban redoubts in the border regions.
So it is with a skeptical eye that the situation in Afghanistan should be viewed. Afghanistan will need a skillful application of COIN doctrine as well as its own extenuating factors/good luck helping the cause, and even then, if Iraq is any indication, these efforts will only result in partial achievements.
At the very least, success hinges on building up a government that is legitimate in the eyes of a vast majority of the people, efficient in delivering vital services and effective in terms of providing security. Hearts and minds must be won in droves (and kept secure), or the whole edifice will collapse.
This has been a constant struggle in Afghanistan given the corruption rampant throughout all levels of the Karzai government - provoking some elements of the population to pine for the return of the Taliban which, for all its innumerable flaws, had the virtue of imposing order and cutting down on graft. Not to mention the taint associated with Karzai by virtue of his being propped up by a Western occupying power whose military causes hundreds of innocent civilian casualties with some regularity.
Considering these long odds, and the delicacy of the mission, the blatant electoral fraud in Afghanistan's recent election may prove to be a fatal blow. The perception that the elections were rigged has only served to emphasize the illegitimacy of a government that was already unpopular with large swathes of the population. And the fraud was blatant:
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.
The widening accounts of fraud pose a stark problem for the Obama administration, which has 68,000 American troops deployed here to help reverse gains by Taliban insurgents. American officials hoped that the election would help turn Afghans away from the Taliban by giving them a greater voice in government. Instead, the Obama administration now faces the prospect of having to defend an Afghan administration for the next five years that is widely seen as illegitimate.
“This was fraud en masse,” the Western diplomat said.
Andrew Exum, the blogosphere's preeminent COIN practitioner (and supporter of ongoing military operations in Afghanistan), minces no words:
Before the Afghan elections, every assessment you could read and every opinion you could solicit from policy-makers was the same: the worst outcome of the Afghan elections would be one that, in either the first or second round of voting, delivered the election to Hamid Karzai with a narrow margin of victory amidst wide-spread allegations of corruption and ballot box-stuffing. The overwhelming fear was of "another Iran" -- only with our fingerprints all over it.
Due to the complexity and tenacity of the multi-layered, multi-faceted conflict that we are seeking to address as an outside presence with limited resources and staying power, we are forced to bank on a miraculous combination of luck, good fortune and skill in order to pull off an outcome that, if all goes well, might come to fruition some 15 years and a couple trillion dollars down the road (with many thousands of NATO soldiers lost in the interim). But all is not going well, far from it. One of the most crucial political watersheds has played out in worst-case scenario terms. COIN will not fix this. It's well past time we abandoned what George Kennan called the "stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives."