30 July 2009

Counterpunch: Should Obama Escalate the War in Afghanistan?

Reprinted with permission of editors of Counterpunch
A Thought Experiment
Should Obama Escalate the War in Afghanistan?
30 July 2008

In a recent essay, entitled “Obama’s Politics of Change: Afghanistan & Gore’s Transformative Vision,” I noted in respect to the early phase of our war against the Taliban that --
“In the fall of 2001, intel reports said there were between 40-60,000 Taliban, but when we quickly “defeated” them, the intel folks could only account for 6-8000 captured, wounded or killed. Nevertheless, the Pentagon brass and Bush quickly declared victory, even though it was clear at the time that the Taliban headed for the hills in classical guerrilla/Sun Tzu fashion -- when faced with superior force, disperse! That’s a no-brainer in some circles but not those inside the Beltway. Now we are saying the Taliban are “regrouping” when is not clear they ever degrouped.”
Some people objected to my characterization of of the Afghan War as being a loser, saying the Afghan war is a morally good that must be prosecuted to a victorious end. While tautological reasoning may be comforting, particularly when it is other people’s blood that is being spilt, it is important to ask oneself how a victory might be achieved. Is this merely a question of throwing more troops and bombs at at the problem, or is there more to it than that?
This article references two documents which may help the committed escalator determine whether it is a good idea to ramp up our efforts in Afghanistan with more troops, more military force, more “precision” bombing, which means more collateral damage, including more innocent civilian deaths, and is likely to breed more resentment, and more radicalization. Or whether the inept Mr. Bush and his neocon henchmen have created the conditions for another classical guerrilla war in Afghanistan, not unlike that created by the Soviets in the early 1980s which created misery for them in the late 1980s.
In this regard, readers would do well to remember that (1) Soviets had an easy ride for the first few years, while the Afghan guerrillas leaned how to fight them through a process of trial and error; and (2), that the Soviets reached a point where it became clear that pouring in more Soviet troops and increasing the firepower created more problems than it solved. Which begs the question: Is escalating the war in Afghanistan becoming a yawning trap, into which Mr. Obama and the Democrats seem eager to plunge?
At the heart of this question is the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan, specifically the question of whether or not it has mutated into something that is more akin to a classical guerrilla war as opposed to being part of a Fourth Generation War against al Quaeda. The two attachments below may help the reader to appreciate the different dimensions of this consideration.
A recent report in Newseek entitled “The Taliban’s Baghdad Strategy,” offerss a well-informed description of the Taliban’s approach to the conflict in Afghanistan. It describes how the Taliban are pursuing a strategy to systematically undermine the authority of the government of Mr Karsai, a man who, it should be remembered, the West, particularly the United States, put into place as the President of Afghanistan, and who, according to some reports, might be receiving financial support from Pakistan’s rival India. Is this Taliban strategy something new and peculiar to the so-called Global War on Terror -- a war that Mr. Bush, the Pentagon, and now apparently many of Obama’s defense advisors, seem to think they can prosecute successfully by relying on more boots on the ground coupled to more “precision firepower?”
Or is the Afghan War more in the nature of a modern guerrilla war, wherein a government established and propped up by unwanted outsiders with their own agendas usually becomes a critical losing vulnerability?
I have also attached below portions of a briefing that may help some of us to understand these latter questions. It contains three slides #91, #92, & #108 from the late Colonel John R. Boyd’s legendary briefing of the philosophy and conduct of war, Patterns of Conflict, which was written well before the Taliban even existed. Boyd’s aim in Patterns of Conflict was to synthesize a unified understanding of the fundamental nature conflict by examining the history regular and irregular war. Boyd was not a warmonger, but he recognized war is often unavoidable, and his aim was to understand it in a way that it could be prosecuted successfully at the lowest possible cost to society and in a way that reduced the possibility of future conflict. The three slides of his 193-slide briefing describe part of his understanding of the nature of modern guerrilla warfare (i.e., #91 & #92) as well as the nature of a successful counter guerrilla operations (i.e., #108). I picked them because they are the most pertinent to the simple exercise described below.
I want readers to perform a little thought experiment by comparing the information in Newsweek article to that in Boyd’s Boyd’s generic observations about the conduct of a guerrilla campaign in Slides #91 and #92. If you agree that the information in the Newsweek report mesh at least enough with the ideas in these slides to warrant further thinking, then ask yourself if Mr. Obama and the Democrats, together with their Afghan and Nato allies and the American public are willing and capable of undertaking the kind of counter-guerrilla campaign that meets ALL of the conditions of Boyd’s Slide #108?
And if the answer is NO in either of these two steps, maybe it is time for the US to leave. BUT if you still want to escalate the war and the hemorrhage of blood and treasure in Afghanistan, then you owe it to yourself to come up with some more realistic ideas than those in Slide #108 about how to successfully escalate this war. Simply saying it is a GOOD war may be comforting but it is not enough. Simply saying it is a question of WILL may work as a substitute for thought, but it is no strategy. If staying the course is your choice, then what is needed is a strategy that will work in the real world.
There is one point in this simple exercise that serious readers ought to bear in mind: While these three slides give the essential gist of Boyd’s understanding of the guerrilla warfare, he would be the first to warn that one must be very careful not to think of them as an isolated modules or checklists -- they exist in a larger strategic and grand strategic fabric, but I think they are sufficient to get this thought experiment going, at least as a first cut. The venturesome, particularly those who answered NO to the comparisons of this thought experiment, can download Patterns of Conflict in its entirety here.
Franklin “Chuck” Spinney (born 1945, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio) is an American former military analyst for the Pentagon who became famous in the early 1980s for what became known as the “Spinney Report”, criticizing what he described as the reckless pursuit of costly complex weapon systems by the Pentagon, with disregard to budgetary consequences. Despite attempts by the his superiors to bury the controversial report, it eventually was exposed during a United States Senate Budget Committee on Defense hearing, which though scheduled to go unnoticed, made the cover of Time Magazine March 7, 1983. Chuck Spinney retired from the Pentagon after 33 years and currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean.