Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Moral Warfare in Southwest Asia Pt 3: Obama's War

A Way Forward: Obama’s War
            On December 1st, 2009 President Barack Obama recommitted the United States to winning the fight over the primary loyalties of the Afghan people. The most publicly debated piece of Obama’s decision involved whether or not send additional troops and how many to send. But the crises that exist and are exploited by the QST today in Afghanistan are as much a problem of strategy as resources. So while the 30,000 additional troops promised by the President at West Point this week could play a critical role securing Afghanistan, it will be the implementation, more than their raw numbers, that will determine success or failure. To that end here is my assessment of what must be done to tackle each of the Afghan crises and in so doing undermine the Taliban’s abilities to exploit weaknesses in Afghan society.
Fixing the security crisis: At the COIN conference hosted by the Marine Corps University nearly every military officer, active duty or retired, pointed to a lack of joint-ness both between civilian and military agencies and between the U.S. and our Afghan counterparts as a serious source of concern. So the first step in any strategy that will improve security must be an increased emphasis on unity of effort between civilian and military operations and Afghan and American operations.
            The first obstacle to this sort of joint effort is to put aside the causality aversion that prevents American officers and NCOs from being embedded in Afghan National Army units. Partnering with local forces – really partnering – putting American and foreign forces in the same barracks with the same weapons eating the same chow and facing the same threats (Marine Corps University , 2009) – was one of the cornerstones of the success of the “surge” in Iraq (West, 2008; Kilcullen, 2009) and will be equally important in Afghanistan. This is the best way to train the officers and NCOs that will someday form the backbone of an independent Afghan army and having Afghan partners nearby is always helpful when conducting operations in populated areas.
            Getting into populated areas must be another part of any successful strategy to improve security. 80% of the Afghan population lives in rural areas, but currently the coalition has their biggest presence in urban areas that are both geographically and culturally separate from the Afghan population (Johnson & Mason, 2009). It’s important to keep in mind that it was in urban areas such as Kabul that young students became convinced that Afghanistan – an agrarian, tribal society with a literacy rate in the low double digits – was ripe for conversion to Marxism. This offers a clue to how far removed from Afghanistan the urban areas can be. In short, we cannot protect the Afghan people nor help them fight back against the QST unless we are out where they are, in the rural areas.
            The model for joint-ness suggested by Thomas Johnson and M. Chris Mason might offer the best hope for success. They propose the creation of 200 District Reconstruction Teams, which may seem like a large number but probably would have been possible even without the surge of troops. The DRTs would be composed of both civilian and military personal and partnered with Afghan forces and stationed throughout the country in rural areas. These DRTs would allow the Afghan forces to focus on patrolling the populated areas 24 hours a day while freeing up American forces to take offensive action against GT groups in the area and provide backup to the Afghans on patrol. Taking offensive action against the GT, ending the ‘free shots’ that the GT has been enjoying for too long must be a top priority (West, 2009). At the same time, USAID and State Department officials embedded with the DRTs can focus on local economic development and on finding jobs for some of the accidental guerillas that could otherwise find jobs with the QST (Johnson & Mason, 2009). The idea of buying off accidental guerillas is already being experimented with in Jalalabad, and early results appear hopeful (Filkins, Afghans Offer Jobs to Taliban Rank and File if They Defect, 2009 ).
            When it comes to non-military police forces, the current national police force has many of the same problems as the military in terms of lack of training and discipline and is also considered extremely corrupt, to the point that most Afghans do not even want the police in their village (Marine Corps University , 2009; Moyar, 2009). Perhaps the best solution to this problem is to accept that there is unlikely to be much of a national police force for some time and turn focus to training local tribal militias to fight back against the QST. These militias provide both employment and honor for local residents and could reduce the temptation to become and accidental guerilla. As with the plan to buy off local fighters, the training and support of local militias is already being experimented with in select regions and is seeing positive results (Filkins, Afghan Militias Battle Taliban With Aid of U.S. , 2009).
Solving the crisis of legitimacy: Focusing on the district, versus nation-state or provincial level, aids the coalition in overcoming another crisis; the crisis of legitimacy. It may be time to accept that the Afghan people are going to find a primary identity with their tribe and in the local district for the foreseeable future, so America’s historical focus on the nation-state (read Karzai and his administration) will ultimately be for naught. As Steven Coll has recently observed in Foreign Policy Magazine, Afghanistan has been most successful with a weak central government and diverse regional power centers (Coll, 2009). The focus on the local level allows the U.S. to work with long held tribal traditions in Afghan society and could allow us to make progress without having to completely reboot Afghan identity, a task which neither the Red Army or the QST could accomplish with far harsher tactics than we would be willing to use.
Solving the crisis of trust, at home and abroad: President Obama probably did little to assuage fears of our eminent departure when he promised to begin withdrawing troops in 18 months (Gall, 2009). On the other hand, the president left himself plenty of wiggle room by phrasing July 2011 as the date the U.S. will “begin to transition out,” (Obama, 2009) rather than as a date certain to leave. In choosing his phrasing carefully, the President seems to understand both the crisis of trust in Southwest Asia and the potential political crisis at home. Already, members of the President’s party in the House are starting to turn against the war in Afghanistan (Karl, 2009). Mitigating the domestic political damage will be tricky, but the President must be prepared to define his mission clearly, forcefully and publicly – as he did in his December 1st speech – when other politicians question his intentions in Afghanistan. It’s worth noting that the President’s December 1st speech appears to have had the desired effect, because a recent CNN poll that 62% of Americans now favor the deployment of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan (CNN, 2009).
            When it comes to mitigating the crisis of trust in Pakistan, the U.S. would do well to focus on more than just the relationship between American and Pakistani security interests. Earlier this year Pakistan asked the President for greater economic connectivity between our two nations (Simon Denyer, 2009) and the President would do well to pursue that path. One of the great sources of mistrust between Pakistan and the U.S. results from Pakistan’s recognition that, in a hypothetical war between India and Pakistan, the U.S. would take India’s side because India and the U.S. enjoy hundreds of billions in trade and economic connectivity whereas trade between Pakistan and the U.S. is minuscule. So the President can promise to send x number of troops to Afghanistan and leave them there indefinitely as often as he likes, but until Pakistan becomes more integrated into the global economy they will continue to focus myopically on their unstable relationship with India and continue to hedge their relationship with America and their relationship with militants on their border with Afghanistan.

Conclusion: Known Unknowns and Hope Without Guarantees
            When considering Southwest Asia and America’s future there it’s important to consider what Donald Rumsfeld used to call “known unknowns,” meaning situations which we think could happen but do not know where or when. These situations represent tremendous variables to everything I have written about the war in this paper, and they include a successful attack by QST forces upon Pakistani nuclear bases, a QST or AQ attack on the scale of 9/11 on India or China, an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities and, perhaps most important, a major terrorist attack inside the U.S. Any one of these situations could significantly change both the stakes and the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and would require a readjustment of American strategy in the region. That being said, there are five main points American policy makers must consider if they wish to leave Afghanistan a stable country within the next half a decade or so:
1.     Security efforts must be joint efforts, meaning they must involve both American and Afghan forces and both civilian and military personnel of both countries.
2.     Securing the population is essential and that means the coalition must locate the labor near the problem, security forces must be permanently stationed in rural areas and as close to the population as possible.
3.     The coalition must recognize traditional sources of authority in Afghan culture and work within these traditional boundaries as much as possible. Building an Afghanistan that does not respect the traditional tribal district or woleswali level of organization will prove as futile to the coalition as turning Afghanistan into a socialist utopia proved for the Soviets.
4.     The coalition must make every effort to cleave the “accidental guerillas” from the true takfiri believers. To this end, payoffs, amnesties, and standing up local security militias should all be experimented with on a district level.
5.     Security is 90% of the problem until it isn’t, and then it becomes 10% of the problem. So while security is an immediate and urgent problem putting Afghanistan on a sustainable pathway to stability will involve more than just killing bad guys and posting guards. To this end, the U.S. must include China in any plan that hopes to succeed, because the Chinese are already sinking billions in Afghanistan’s mining industry and even taking token steps to help with security force assistance (Page, 2009; MacWilliam, 2007).
      In closing, I believe that Afghanistan remains a salvageable situation, but one which could still turn out very badly for the United States. In Lewis Sorley’s A Better War (1999) the author recounts a number of victories the U.S. experienced in Southeast Asia between 1968 and 1975, including the virtual destruction of Viet Cong and the repeated defeats of attempted North Vietnamese invasions of the South. But at the end, the U.S. simply could not maintain a domestic political consensus strong enough to continue to support the South. Vietnam is a powerful lesson of the need for a leader to remain focused on maintaining public support for operations overseas. And in understanding that sometimes we can do many things right and still wind up with a bad outcome.

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