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March 19, 2009

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"Are we really going to commit to a series of decades-long societal transformation efforts at a trillion a pop in every locale that al-Qaeda attempts to set up shop?"

Anyone who has bothered to actually read bin Laden's writings knows that's exactly his strategy: to suck the U.S. into endless local wars, not just to inflame the Islamic world around the globe, but to drain the American empire dry financially, and bring it down, just as the Afghan-Soviet war helped bring down the Soviet Union.

If you have never heard of Sarah Chayes, she is someone who our President should be taking advice
from on this issue. Excerpts:

"Afghanistan, once thought of as the “good war,” is on the brink of being lost. But the failure of the US and international effort there is not a foregone conclusion. A thoughtful, wide-ranging shift in strategy on the part of the Obama Administration can still avert Afghanistan’s likely fate as an irrevocable – and dangerous – failed state, with ominous implications for the region and the rest of the world.

Such a shift ought to include the following components.

I. The concept

The United States should redefine its objectives in favor of the Afghan people, not the Afghan government. In a counter-insurgency, the people are the proverbial prize. It is only by supporting the Afghan people – not abusive powerbrokers – in their effort to reconstitute their social, economic, institutional, and cultural fabric, that stability in Afghanistan can be achieved, and the country be durably denied as a sanctuary for terrorists.

[...]

II. Governance

And so, the most critical element of a new approach to Afghanistan must be an urgent focus on good governance. For, the above analysis indicates a paradox. While international officials, especially in the UN, tout the Afghan government as “legitimate” and “democratically elected,” Afghans experience the opposite. They say that the United States imposed the
current government officials upon them. And that it is therefore our responsibility to provide some means of recourse against their depredations.

[...]

III. Security

If the US objective is redefined as above – and if the prize in any counterinsurgency is indeed the people – then certain precepts must guide security operations.

 Do no harm. Despite orders from ISAF HQ, there are still too many escalation of force incidents, or indirect fire, or uses of air assets, in which Afghan civilians are killed. Officers must start considering a rule of thumb: every civilian killed results in 3-5 new Taliban. This calculus may make them realize that it is usually preferable not to engage Taliban at all than to engage them at the price of civilian lives. When civilians are killed, the officer responsible must take personal responsibility, and where possible, engage with the families of the victims.

[...]

IV. Diplomacy

The government of Pakistan has proven to be a powerful force for instability in south Asia. Overwhelming evidence indicates that since the fall of the Taliban, Pakistani officials have not just been turning a blind eye to the re-constitution of the fundamentalist militia, they have been actively orchestrating it.

Currently, the government of Pakistan is bifurcated, engaged in a struggle against itself. On the one side is the military, which for long periods has actually run the state and which is deeply enmeshed in all aspects of Pakistani life. On the other side is the new and still fractured civilian authority, which came to power in the wake of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and thanks to the dynamism of creative and tenacious civil society opposition to the Musharraf regime.

The military will not relinquish its domination of Pakistan’s government and much of its economy easily. There are indications that it is actually manufacturing threats – such as helping mastermind the Mumbai terrorist bombings so as to provoke an Indian reaction – to serve as a rational for its continued hold on de facto power."

There's more, and it is worth reading. Sarah Chayes has written and interviewed often on this topic, and I highly recommend reading more on the ideas of someone who has been living and working in Afghanistan since this war began.

I think it is time for a War on COIN.

At least on the view that COIN is anything close to the panacea presented.

The United States should redefine its objectives in favor of the Afghan people, not the Afghan government. In a counter-insurgency, the people are the proverbial prize.

The reason why I am not opposed to the way Obama is shifting resources from Iraq to Afghanistan is the above statement. It is not about denying a safe haven to AQ, it is about making sure that the Afghan people have the opportunity to live under a government that is at least minimally responsive to their needs. And the Taliban was not that government. I understand when some get upset because Osama has not gone whole hog isolationist, but I have interpreted his actions as saying that the US has an obligation to somehow rebuild Afghanistan society while it doesn't (or at least shouldn't have had to) in Iraq.

COIN sucks. Nobody wants to do it (on the actual military side). It is hard, difficult to measure, takes years (which also subjects the effort to significant home front turbulence), and has a high failure likelihood.

As the post points out it is a way to meet a strategic aim.

In my opinion, the strategic aim had better be vital, rather than nice to do, to try it.

I don't think Afghanistan is vital, and we should find other ways to contain whatever brew is bubbling there.

Maybe legalizing opium products and giving Afghanistan a monopoly? It would provide a market, jobs, and money to Afghanistan.

Could the social costs of legal opium here be any worse than the economic costs of 15 years of occupation follwed by likely failure?

While I do have an original thought now and again, Chayes addresses opium production in the link I posted, as well, so I will just quote her again:

"Financial support for licit agriculture. Direct financial assistance should be offered to Afghan farmers to help them grow something that is not opium. Contract farming of products for which there is a known international market is one among several tools that should be wielded simultaneously. Another example: a massive re-treeing effort could be launched, via private smallholders, who should be offered fruit tree saplings, and should be paid the amount of money they
would earn from the produce of the mature trees for the first five years, while the trees are growing. Fruit brings in significantly more revenue to farmers than opium, but the vast majority of Afghan landowners cannot afford to take large portions of their land effectively out of production for several years. Trees are a better alternative to opium than annual crops such as grain, as opium cannot grow under mature trees, and farmers would be loath to dig them up once they are producing."

LJ: I'm not necessarily opposed to shifting resources to Afghanistan, depending on the underlying mission.

I'm not a "whole hog isolationist" or even a "half hog isolationist." Not even a "Strip of Bacon Isolationist." Isolationism is an anachronism in this day and age.

But the question is not whether or not we have a moral obligation to "rebuild" Afghan society. The questions are:

1. Can we?
2. If so, can we afford it?

As I'm sure you've noticed, we don't exactly have an extra couple of trillion laying around to use on nation building in far away lands.

I would also note this: We didn't break Afghan society, so I'm not so sure we have an obligation to rebuild it. I mean, it wasn't exactly "built" when we invaded in 2002. It was already badly broken.

But I'm not advocating wholesale abandonment. Just moderating our goals, and tempering our grandiose delusions about our ability to accomplish such feats, and pay for them should our ability exceed my expectaions.

You occupy because you care about those you've invaded, Afghans and Iraqis right now. You get spirals of violence and the failure of reasonable government when you don't, or if you get lazy on the job like Rumsfeld, Franks, and so many neocons did. It IS, in fact, a "[redefinition of] its objectives in favor of the Afghan people, not the Afghan government."

I do care about them. I think Afghans and Iraqis are people too, with aspirations and worries of their own, who deserve good treatment just like you and I do.

Plenty of successful occupations have been carried out in the past, and plenty will be in the future. Think we shoulda stayed home after WWII, and let Western Europe undergo the kind of cycle of violence Iraq's seen?

Yeah, they're certainly expensive, take many years, and are hard on our soldiers' lives and fatal to some of them, no question. And, plenty have failed - it IS a risk, especially where Bush II's ship of fools've been at work.

Plenty of successful occupations have been carried out in the past, and plenty will be in the future.

Successful counterinsurgencies? Really? I can think of only a small handfull, with many more on the "failed" side of the ledger.

Which successful counterinsurgency operations are you thinking of?

Think we shoulda stayed home after WWII, and let Western Europe undergo the kind of cycle of violence Iraq's seen?

We did not maintain a counterinsurgency operation in Western Europe after WWII, so I'm not quite sure what you're asking. If you recall, no one in Western Europe was shooting at our soldiers, our soldiers were not fighting a multi-headed insurgency that enjoyed the support of large swathes of the underlying population, etc.


You titled your post "My Occupation's Known, but Not Why I Occupy," so that was the question I answered.

And, in fact, it happens to be the right question when talking about COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because the Bush Admin had ruled we didn't need a real occupation, Petraeus could hardly talk about all the occupation-like things done under his orders as occupation, could he? So, COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan has become, in effect, codewords for occupation 101 stuff.

Of course, I'm sure Petraeus didn't mind the resulting boost to CIN's legitimacy. And, COIN IS sexier to sell in the military than telling everybody they're doing military police duty, for whatever reason a looked-down-on kind of duty in the military.

There was a Nazi insurgency in postwar Germany, by the way, but of course its extermination was one of the smaller matters. Though I'd guess the existence of a well-planned occupation also ground against said insurgency.

You titled your post "My Occupation's Known, but Not Why I Occupy," so that was the question I answered.

Fair enough Jon! I'm a slave to my lyrical allusions, and so I sacrificed a tad of accuracy for my poet's license.

There was a Nazi insurgency in postwar Germany, by the way, but of course its extermination was one of the smaller matters.

Yeah, I think you'd be hard pressed to really compare either the Iraq or Afghan insurgencies to the post-war German insurgency. How many US soldiers were killed by that insurgency? I'm asking because I don't know.

So, COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan has become, in effect, codewords for occupation 101 stuff.

Again, the occupations of Japan and Germany were much different animals than Afhganistan and Iraq. Both are closer to COIN than police/typical occupations.

COIN has become the cure-all for those unwilling to give up the warmongering ways of the Bush die-hards and neo-cons. In other words, we can allegedly keep on being bellicose because this is the sure-fire way to win these things. Keep on fighting because we can use COIN! It is utter rot.

COIN first depends on a political goal that is desired by a large majority of the people in the region -- COIN describes how to fight most effectively to bring about that goal. Using COIN tactics on behalf of a goal not widely supported is futility -- COIN cannot fix the misguided politics. For example, COIN doctrine would have been useless in Viet Nam since the larger political goal -- propping up a corrupt post-colonial dictatorship, was an unwinnable political goal. No amount of COIN would have brought about success.

There presently is no larger political goal supported by a large majority of Afghans. Yeah, most do not seem to want the Taliban, but they also do not want Karzai or any other version of central government that we are trying to prop up. The best we can do is communicate that anyone allowing terrorists in their midst is going to get a pounding, but otherwise there is little we can still do to shape the Afghan future. That opportunity ended long ago.

Sorry, I just wanted to say that I wasn't accusing you of being isolationist on this, just pointing out what I think is the dynamic involved. Some are accusing Obama of wed to the idea of an imperial US because he is not withdrawing with all due speed from both Afghanistan and Iraq, and it's those people who I think have a strong isolationist strain. I agree that we should look realistically at what we can accomplish. dm's point is excellent, but I've always thought that the ideal political goal is not to assure that Afghanistan is a pliant client state (an infeasible political goal) but to provide some level of stability and security to the Afghan people so they have the opportunity to develop some larger political goal. This may be impossible, but I think we have to attempt it.

One needs a carrot and stick policy. Legalize opium and similar substances. But tax the stuff in the US and other user economies, The income of the opium growers will go down. Then offer money to grow food, fruit and nut trees. And for those communities which are interested subsidize schools with part-time madrasahs which will not preach hatred. And gradually withdraw the military presence. Without opium the Taliban will be emasculated!

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