Saturday, May 29, 2010

An Honorable Stalement: My Walter Cronkite Moment

Background: The above video is an interview from Walter Cronkite where he discusses the moment he expressed on national T.V. what many Americans were feeling in 1968; the Vietnam war was a lost cause.

Perception versus Reality

Although Cronkite's malaise was brought on by the Tet Offensive, which he, inaccurately, gaged as a defeat of American and ROVN forces [1], the impact of his speech on the American public and political discourse would be difficult to overstate. Cronkite's weariness reflected both a larger popular zeitgeist as well as the default ant-war, anti-imperial, anti-expansion, anti-anything-people-in-the-Old-South-might-think-of-as-a-good-idea position of Greater New England [2]. Coupled with a disastrous accidental president - who lacked the strategic imagination God gave pistachio nuts - and a government wide penchant (left over from the New Deal and WWII) for engaging in pointless and damaging social experiments the weariness expressed by Cronkite contributed directly to the hemming in of Johnson's much more talented and imaginative successors. Eventually, the whole shooting match was brought to grinding halt by a domestic political scandal of Shakespearian proportions , absent which South Vietnam may continue to exist as a viable state in Southeast Asia [3].

Afghanistan and Vietnam

But without re-fighting Vietnam its important to consider what Cronkite said and how it relates to Afghanistan today.

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
Just as Vietnam was an honorable cause[4], so our endeavor in Afghanistan began as an honorable cause in the wake of 9/11. But just as in Vietnam, Afghanistan may be rapidly approaching a tipping point beyond which the continued commitment of American blood and treasure may become futile. I was a big advocate of doubling down on America's commitment in the fall of 2009:

I've made it clear that I believe Obama should support General McChrystal's recommendation and order a full on COIN strategy (based on what I heard at the COIN conference we need ~30 battalions - 30k troops) that both protects the population and begins embedding American forces with their Afghan counter-parts. But I'll admit there are plenty of risks, not the least of which is that the Afghan government could continue to be plagued with corruption and allegations of election fraud which would make it very difficult to counter the Taliban's argument that Karzi's regime is the corrupt tool of the imperialist west. It's also possible that Pakistan could continue to hedge between the U.S. and a Pashtun (read: Taliban) government in Afghanistan which would allow the ISI to continue to build their "farm team" for the coming war with India in Kashmir. Both AQ and the Taliban would love to see another Mumbai-style (or better yet 9/11) attack inside India that will be linked back to the ISI and force America to choose between the two south Asian states.
Knowing what I know now I stand by what I wrote in 2009. I thought then, and think now, that a victory in Afghanistan was worth bearing a tremendous burden. But when it came time to make a decision president Obama decided for a temporary surge and for a slightly longer time horizon over which the U.S. would begin a draw down. In retrospect, its possible that this solution actually represented the worst path America had to chose from, because in signaling our desire for a rapid exit we set off a later day "Great Game" to determine who gets what when we depart.

The Worst of Both Worlds

The United States is currently in the process of the "Afghanization" of the war, which Obama made a key part of the "surge" he approved last year. The problem is the process may not be going very well because Afghanistan is not an "Afghan" problem, but is instead a battlefield in the ongoing, low level war between India and Pakistan. Until we understand the regional issues at play in Afghanistan, and understand that we are currently backing the wrong horse both in Pakistan and in our "partner" in the Afghan government, we will be stuck with a deteriorating security situation in which the Taliban will out administer ISAF and Afghan government forces when they can and simply run out the clock when they cannot. Meanwhile, our quirky little ally -aka Pakistan - is making plans for the day we leave.

When he became president in 1969, Richard Nixon began a "Vietnamization" process which saw the U.S. hand over increasingly larger responsibility to the ARVN. As this process unfolded the U.S. also experienced greater and greater success against the V.C., which eventually saw the V.C. effectively broken as a serious military organization in by late 1969. [5]  At the same time, the government in the South began to stand up in earnest, and, as I stated above, I believe South Vietnam had a real shot at turning into a viable state by the early 1970s. However, South Vietnam was to be done in by the situation in the region, which was not at all amiable to an American-friendly South Vietnam.

What I see in the offing in Afghanistan is exactly what happened in Vietnam, without the defeat of the insurgency. Because not only is America losing the war against the Taliban, but we are also not doing enough to create a regional partnership with a vested interest in Afghanistan's success. We are picking enemies and friends haphazardly, siding with the nuclear proliferating rouge state Pakistan, for example; yet creating tension with non-nuclear Iran over their alleged future nuclear ambitions. We are also stuck in a Cold War mindset of picking Takfiri friendly Pakistan over market and economic development friendly India.

After the U.S. withdraws - and between the president's commitment to a July 2011 time-line and mounting U.S. casualties our withdraw is a near certainty - Afghanistan will suffer a similar fate to that of South Vietnam. Pakistan will play the role of both the Soviet Union and China as they fund, train and run logistics for whatever rough coalition of Taliban forces has the best chance of taking Kabul whole. Meanwhile, I expect the Karzai administration to continue to flounder through one scandal after another while they burn through whatever cash and equipment we leave when we go and ultimately share the fate of Dr. Najibullah at the hands of the Neo-Taliban.

Dr. Najibullah's story is at least as illuminating about a potential future in Afghanistan as the ROVN's example. Najibullah's government, set up in the wake of the Soviet withdraw, proved itself to be remarkably resilient, surviving coup attempts and direct attacks by the mujihaden and eventually seeing some semblance of stability being achieved in Afghanistan's major cities.  Ironically, Najibullah did the right thing (intellectually) by siding with India and it eventually cost him his life at the hands of the Pakistani paramilitaries Taliban. Though less notoriously pro-Indian than Najibullah, Karzai has proved plenty dangerous to the ISI and Frontier Corps Taliban and members of his administration have made no attempt to hide their disdain for Pakistan's behavior.

Planning to Fail in Afghanistan 

All of this leaves the U.S. with only one option: we must plan for a world where we have failed in Afghanistan. The best plan would involve regionalizing a grand strategy for both helping secure and develop Afghanistan with India and China playing the role of key pillars. Unfortunately, I do not believe this will happen because whenever the president gets the key leaders (i.e. the leaders of India and China) in a room he wants to talk about either ManBearPig or Iran, neither of which has killed as many American troops as Pakistan the Taliban in Afghanistan. In any case, it seems that the Obama administration has decided to go for a 100% kinetic failsafe plan in the event we fail to secure Afghanistan. On an A-F grading scale, Obama's all kinetic plan B deserves a grade of C+. It's a passing grade, but we must take note of its complete lack of originality and also note that the plan answers only part of the question - security - while ignoring the far more important (in the long run) geo-political and economic questions at the heart of Afghan instability. Ultimately, Afghanistan is merely one battlefield in an ongoing war between globalizing Asia and Deobanists who wish to see the region thrown back into the 7th century.  

My Walter Cronkite Moment

American forces arrived in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 while the rubble was still smoldering in NYC; this was an honorable thing to do. This was a "good war".  But the results of our endeavors have failed to live up to the lofty heights of our best aspirations 9 years ago . Our troops have performed admirably, operating in the most austere conditions imaginable while upholding the military traditions of honor, courage and protecting those who cannot protect themselves. Our troops did not fail us; the civilian leaders failed them. Our leaders failed to provide the military a grand strategy worth the price the military paid in blood. Our leaders failed to fight the war on the fields of diplomacy and geo-politics with the ferocity and skill the troops brought to the war on the battlefield. And ultimately we have failed the Afghan people; failed to provide them with safety; failed to provide them with effective government; failed to provide them with economic opportunity.

And so today the questions about Afghanistan have moved beyond "failure" and "success" and have instead becomes a challenge to either "lose good" or "lose bad".  We need to plan to fail, by creating a stronger regional coalition that will own Afghanistan when we leave or we must accept that Afghanistan will once again become a large irregular training base for the ISI and Pakistani army. As we wind down our presence in Afghanistan we have to bear in mind the tremendous sacrifice that has already been paid in blood and treasure for what seems to now to be a quixotic misadventure; we must do all we can to salvage a stable outcome for Afghanistan and the region while acknowledging that we have reached the point of diminishing return for our own presence in the region. To do less is to dishonor those who strove to build a future worth creating in Afghanistan.

[1] See: Sorley's A Better War for a fuller explanation of the positive post-Tet changes in America's efforts against both the V.C. and North Vietnam.  

[2] For a brief on the anti-foreign proclivities of New England and the Upper Mid-West see Lind's Vietnam: A Necessary War.  

[3] This is a bit of counter factual history based on the facts on the ground, as described in the two volumes referenced above, and assumes that South Vietnam would have been able to hold back the North in 1975 with American air and logistical support.

[4] Lind's (1996) argument in favor of Vietnam can be summed thusly: There is no strategic rationale for fighting the Cold War that does not demand we fight in Vietnam as well. 

[5] Again, I refer to Sorley.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Time for the PLA to Dissolve the KFR

It's official.

The ROK has confirmed that North Korea attacked and sunk a ROK naval vessel last March.

This act of aggression tops off years of increasingly abhorrent and belligerent behavior on the part of the KFR, including the kidnapping South Korean and Japanese citizens, detonating two nuclear weapons (although at least one was probably a fizzle), helping Syria build a nuclear reactor, being the worst regime in the world WRT proliferation of nuclear and ballistic missiles and attacking a South Korean vessel last fall. All of this in spite the KFR's udder lack of respect for their own citizen's well being and North Korea's continued existence only as a criminal enterprise - wholly owned by the Kim family- masquerading as a real state.

This attack should be viewed by the U.S., ROK and Japan as the last straw. For too long we've acquiesced in the face of intimidation from the KFR; each time reassuring ourselves that if we just give in, just this once, just give them a bit more aid or a bit more time the regime will surely collapse under the weight of its contradictions and North Korea can follow its ideological predecessors into the dust bin of history.

But this assessment appears, increasingly, to have overlooked key features of the North Korea state-religion known as Juche. Juche, as B.R. Myers agues in the book The Cleanest Race has more in common with late-era Japanese emperor worship than with more Europeanized versions of Marxist-Leninism or Chinese Maoism. This is an important point to consider, because the Japanese, when faced with the loss of their empire, did not engineer a peaceful "soft landing" but instead lashed out in a wave of suicidal violence more fitting to a the death a cult than to a nation-state. Eventually, Japan had to be beaten into submission, because their death cultish state-religion prevented them from accepting a less destructive alternative.

With this in mind, and given the KFR's recent behavior, it stands to reason that eventually North Korea will choose to go down swinging, rather than negotiate a peaceful end to the regime. The main question that remains is how to tell the difference between North Korea's normal, brutish behavior and beginning of the end of the KFR? Given that Kim is in poor health, that North Korea's economy very nearly collapsed last year and that there is a likely a battle brewing over who will take the reigns once Kim is gone, I think its a good bet that we should consider this latest escalation an indication that the end of days for the KFR has begun.

Apocalypse! Nowish

So what should we do? Should we join China in postponing the inevitable by propping up the regime with food and fuel oil? Or should we take direct action against North Korea's military, hoping that a defeat of North Korea's army allows us to undertake an OIF style "regime change?" Alternately, how do we pressure China to take a greater interest in restraining or even dissolving the KFR?

A direct military strike should be a last resort. The KFR is China's version of Frankenstein's monster, and they should bear the brunt of both blood and treasure lost in its eventual disposal. Having said that, China should get to dictate peace terms. They get to pick the next generation of North Korean leadership and design the new North Korean political system. The ROK and the U.S. should publicly proclaim that reunification is a goal for the distant future, and not something that must be set in stone at the dawning of any post KFR end state. It is reasonable for China to want to mitigate the risk of humanitarian crisis on their border by maintaining some semblance of order in North Korea and it is in the interest of the whole world for North Korea's weapons systems to be peacefully secured and disassembled rather than be looted by hungry peasants - or, worse - greedy former DPRK officers seeking a "severance package".

China's takeover of the DPRK could take any form, but I'd give preference to a Romanian style "Ceausescu" scenario whereby the DPRK military disposes of the KFR and then surrenders the country whole to the PLA in exchange for cash settlements for high ranking officers and whatever immunity deals may be appropriate vis-a-vis Japanese, South Korean, Chinese, American and ICC legal systems. China would then be free to mine the DPRK for all the natural resources it can grab while slowly opening the DMZ to allow controlled visitation and eventual immigration into the South. Call it "humanitarian reunification"; allow families to reunite and eventually allow cross border travel while fire-walling the political and economic systems of the South off from the worst after effects of an extremely messy and expensive full on political reunification. Over 1 or 2 generation the people of the former DPRK will have to make their own decisions WRT independence, reunification or some sort of quasi-union with China.

Unfortunately, it seems China wishes to maintain the status quo for the time being. Like the scene in Goodfellas where Tommy and Henry "bust the joint out" (h/t Tom Barnett), China seems to plan on using their proxies in the DPRK to keep the people in check while the PRC carts away everything that isn't nailed down. If they're sending food and cell phones to the people it's not the worst deal ever, but if North Korea becomes a defacto colony of the PRC then China will have to take full responsibility for the actions of the DPRK's military.  That means they owe the ROK an apology and monetary damages to the families of the sailors killed. If China ins't in control of the DPRK's military, then they better take control, and that is why a PLA sponsored coup is the best solution for everyone.

So what if China refuses? China seems less than enthusiastic when it comes to dealing with reality on the ground in the DPRK, as though if they just keep wishing maybe the KFR will morph into Deng Xiaoping. This is unlikely. As I said above, Juche is militant state-religion cum death-cult, and I don't see a true soft landing for the KFR in the offing. So the choice comes down to what type of "hard" landing the powers that be (U.S., PRC, ROK, Japan) desire. Do we want to bide our time, waiting for the other shoe to drop - possibly on Seoul, Beijing and Japan - or do we want to conduct a "controlled burn", so-to-speak, collapsing the KFR at the time, place and pace of our choosing, allowing the world the opportunity to prepare before D-Day?

Secretary Clinton is in China this week, and whatever else is on the agenda should be pushed aside so that she and her Chinese counterparts can focus on a single question:What is to become of the DPRK? Clinton should begin by handing Hu a map of the DPRK and a pencil and asking him to draw a line to indicate how much of a "buffer state" China would ultimately like to keep  between themselves and the South. This meeting has one rule: whatever Hu asks for he gets, period. If he wants to keep the 38th, fine. If he wants to move the border far north to some small rump-state DPRK, well, that's ok too. As long as Hu is ready to pull the plug on the DPRK's military, he gets what he wants.

And if Hu says no, the U.S. should be prepared to really turn up the heat on the both the DPRK and the PRC. Hillary should be prepared to tell Hu that we're prepared to lose Seoul to collapse this regime, and that in two weeks the U.S. Navy will begin regular exercises just outside DPRK territorial waters. She should be able to tell him that we're re-listing the DPRK as a state sponsor of terrorism and ending all humanitarian assistance to people of the DPRK, save a daily messages blasted, in Korean, from south of the border letting the North Korean people know that if they rise up to overthrow their government we will support them. Clinton should warn the PRC that the U.S. will be getting very aggressive with our exercises, pressing closer and closer to DPRK territory each day and that the president will be giving a public address in two weeks where he offers full American assistance to any DPRK general who participates in a coup against the regime. The U.S. should also dump counterfeit North Korean currency into their economy anyway we can. These are all things the U.S. can do, by ourselves, and should do if China refuses to play ball.

Beyond unilateral action, the time has come for Japan to make one of their periodic cryptic statements about their nuclear program. Only this time, they should do it with defense ministers from South Korea and Australia present. And it should be followed by all three countries formally stating their intentions to withdraw from the NPT and conduct a joint test of a prototype nuclear weapon in the Australian outback if the KFR is still in power in 12 months.

This leaves China with two choices, take the DPRK down - and set up a situation where the PRC still gets to profit - or let the chips fall where they may and see what those crazy Americans do. If the DPRK decides to blow itself out in a blaze of glory, China is likely to suffer as much as anyone. Large Chinese cities, probably including Beijing, are almost certainly in range for North Korean missiles, and both Japan and South Korea are protected by sophisticated ABM systems, whereas Beijing is a fairly soft target. Even if somebody takes out the KFR's ability to launch missiles, China will surely face a massive influx refugees, some of whom may be KFR special forces on a suicide missions.

Collapsing the KFR is one of those global public goods that would benefit the whole world for decades to come. I've predicted that collapsing the KFR could make Clinton the best SECSTATE since Kissinger and Obama the best foreign policy president since Richard Nixon. Doing it the right way, on positive terms, would not only bolster Obama and Clinton's legacy but could also be remember as the moment when China stood up to take a responsible position on regional security. This historic mission is cause worth undertaking.