Why the Handwriting is on the Afghan Wall
New Deal 2.0, Thursday, 01/6/2011 - 10:37 am
[Noter: earlier related posts include and analysis of the flaws in
Obama's first Afghan Strategy Review here as well as related problems in the The Afghan War Question and the Eikenberry Cables.]
The lead editorial in a recent WP article, “Steady in Afghanistan,” claimed the early results of President Obama’s escalation strategy in Afghanistan “are mixed — but promising,” because President Obama “has raised the odds for success by committing U.S. forces to Afghanistan for four more years and by promising to negotiate a strategic partnership with the government of Hamid Karzai in 2011.”
Raised the odds for success? Four more year versus 2011? Consider please the unexamined ramifications of these words.
Three days earlier, a report in the New York Times by Alissa Rubin described internal frictions — particularly the disagreements over withdrawal timelines — affecting President Obama’s strategic review of Afghanistan. While Ms. Rubin’s also did not explore the grand-strategic implications of these frictions, her reporting brought a murky situation into sharper focus: namely, the incompatible goals of senior decision makers are now paralyzing decisive action and exhausting US efforts.
President Obama understands now, if not during the election of 2008, that Afghanistan is a millstone around his political neck. He must at least appear to be beginning an exit from Afghanistan before the 2012 election. To do this in a persuasive way, he must create something that looks enough like success to enable a meaningful reduction in to begin in July 2011, without looking like he is leaving in defeat.
The US Military players, especially General Petraeus, but also the military services, the Defense and State Departments, as well as the NATO bureaucrats (who are trying to preserve their anachronistic institution) want to stay in Afghanistan until they can concoct their own appearance of a military success, but they are not saddled with an election in 2012. So, they stretched the deadline to 2014 and will no doubt stretch it again, when necessary. Nevertheless, General Petraeus also knows that time is running out, so he has moved away from the slow-moving (and ineffective) “hearts and minds” to a so-called counterterrorism strategy.
To this end, Petraeus has increased his reliance on what the Pentagon euphemistically calls “kinetic operations”. In particular, he has escalated the violence by increasing the targeted killing strategy — e.g., many more drone strikes in Pakistan and many more intrusive special forces’ raids in Afghanistan. Petraeus has also taken a page out of the Israelis’ play book by copying their scorched-earth home-demolition tactics, which as Gareth Porter has shown in an extremely important report, “Gains in Kandahar Came With More Brutal US Tactics.” But as Porter argues, correctly in my opinion, this tactic will blow back on itself to exacerbate our strategic weakness, because it will enrage the xenophobic rural Pashtuns in the southern Afghanistan and increase their will to continue the war.
Obama’s strategic review revealed at least four salient factors undermining our grand strategy. The first is that the exit goals of the political and military leadership in the war effort are in conflict with each other. To make matters worse, both sets of goals are focused inward on the decision makers themselves as opposed to being focused outward on the adversary in the external environment. Both are political and symmetrical in that they are aimed more at saving careers and reputations than at achieving military success.
Put another way, Obama’s strategic review revealed that the cohesion of the US war leadership is breaking down and that inwardly focused considerations are displacing the outward orientation that should be shaping the military and political conduct of the war. The late American strategist Colonel John R. Boyd showed why this kind of internal friction is a prescription for an inevitable disaster. (You can find a brief introduction to Boyd’s strategic theories here; book length biographies here and here; and complete copies of his briefings here.)
But there is more to the horror story. Given the extreme divisiveness and inward focus that is now gripping our nation’s domestic politics, it is a virtual certainty that Mr. Obama’s Republican opponents will work overtime to prey on the differences between Obama and the military by favoring the military over the constitutionally designated Commander in Chief. We can therefore expect the friction that is already paralyzing our grand strategy to increase catastrophically over the next year.
Boyd argued that five criteria should underpin a sensible grand strategy — decision makers should shape domestic policies, foreign policies, and military strategies so that working in harmony they serve to: 1. strengthen up our resolve and increase our internal solidarity; 2. drain away the resolve of our adversaries and weaken their internal cohesion; 3. reinforce the commitments of our allies to our cause and make them empathetic to our success; 4. attract the uncommitted to our cause or makes them empathetic to our success; and 5. end conflicts on favorable terms that do not sow the seeds for future conflicts. But it is obviously difficult to define policies that simultaneously conform to and strengthen to all these criteria. The challenge is particularly difficult for the unilateral military strategies and the coercive foreign policies so popular with the foreign policy elite and military strategists. Military operations and political coercion are often destructive in the short term, and destructive strategic effects, however successful in the short term, can be in conflict with and undermine the larger aims of grand strategy, which should be constructive over the long term. With the widening destruction in increasing deaths of non combatants attending to the escalation of the so-called counterterrorism strategy, it is now becoming clear that the destructive effects of military strategy are displacing the long-term possibility of a constructive grand strategy in Afghanistan.
At the moment, however, the decisive importance of what is fundamentally a mental and moral break down at the highest level of grand-strategic decision making is being masked by narcissistic jingoism about supporting the troops whom the paralysis is keeping in harm’s way; by claims of bringing democracy to an incurably corrupt and mafia-like Afghan government; by making feel-good humanitarian pronouncements like improving human rights of the Afghan people (especially women), while we are killing them inadvertently and deliberately destroying their houses; and most importantly, by fanning the fears of terrorism in the hearts and minds of an increasingly insecure American people with absurdly unprovable claims that taking the war to our enemies in Afghanistan (and Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and god knows where else) will protect us at home.
The second salient factor in this dispute over withdrawal dates is that the divisive goals of the US decision makers have made us prisoners to the decisions and actions of the Taliban — seasoned fighters, who, after nine years, must sense a victory that for them is simply and clearly defined: namely, forcing the foreigners to leave, which has the added moral leverage of being a variation on the conflict over exit strategies between President Obama and his Generals.
The U.S. leadership would be well advised to remember the elements of pride and xenophobia in Afghan culture. The culture has been shaped morally and mentally by the warrior traditions of honor, revenge, and fidelity to religion. Afghans are still proud of the fact that they forced Alexander the Great to leave on their terms. They are proud of the fact that they defeated the British Empire twice at the height of its imperial power in the 19th Century. They proudly believe they were the shock troops who destroyed the atheistic Soviet Union. Now just imagine how the Afghan warriors would view themselves if they managed to pull off the even greater achievement of forcing the infidel Americans to leave.
So it is reasonable to assume that the fangs of the Taliban and its local allies are out and that they think they are winning, a mental state, which as any competitor knows, increases one’s determination to win. Now contrast this kind of strength of will to that of Mr. Obama or General Petraeus: the outcome of their Strategic Review certainly does not sound very triumphal, when decision-makers and pro-war editorialists admit our gains have been fragile, but claim we are making progress toward achieving our goal of leaving. Does anyone really believe the pusillanimity so evident in this kind of language will be lost on the battle-hardened leaders of the Afghan insurrection?
The third salient factor in the dispute over when to leave Afghanistan is that too much water has already flowed over the dam. The Afghan war is now nine years old, and the situation appears worse today than in December 2001, when President Bush and his military minions mistook a strategic dispersal into the hinterlands for a rout. Initially welcomed by the Afghan people, the United States has managed to turn the Afghan tradition of hospitality on its head by imposing our alien ideas of a top-down central government on a traditional bottom-up decentralized tribal vendetta culture, conditioned by 3,000 years of history. Moreover, in so doing, we placed many of the same corrupt murderous warlords in power the Taliban had ousted, and we have escalated the destruction of lives and property attributable to our increasingly unwanted foreign presence. Anyone who thinks we can successfully reverse the deep feelings of alienation and revenge caused by these missteps in a few years time is hallucinating.
Fourth, after nine years of futility, time is also running for Mr. Obama and his strategic minions, because exhaustion is setting in. The American economy is in crisis, thanks in part to the destructive policies of the Bush Administration, but also due to much deeper roots reaching back at least to the 1970s. The great American middle class, the engine of our economic dynamism, is being impoverished as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen to levels not seen since the days of the robber barons. Our economic power is enervated by deregulation, corruption and fraud, particularly in the financial sector, but also in the manufacturing sector, which has been decimated by deindustrialization. Total private debt in relation to GDP stands at a record level. The American population is aging, yet its social safety net is shredding. The infrastructures needed to support a modern economy — education, transportation, sewers, power networks, etc., are either obsolete or in a state of decay compared to those of our economic competitors in Europe and Asia. Sooner or later, the American people will tire of shoveling money overseas, because there is so much to do at home. Recent polls suggest that sooner is more likely than later, because 65% already want to end the Afghan war. Surely, our adversaries in Afghanistan sense America’s growing exhaustion. For inwardly-focused decision makers in Washington to assume otherwise is to deny reality.
In the end, the crisis boils down to a failure of orientation — a breakdown in the mental filter through which decision makers interpret their observations of the external environment. When this happens, decisions and actions become disconnected from reality, which then fold back on themselves to widen the mismatch further.
Mullah Omar recently attributed Richard Holbrooke’s heart failure to stress. Whether true or not, Omar opened a window into his grand-strategic orientation by making this statement — and it is more in tune with his environment than that of his adversaries. In classic Sun Tzu fashion, honed by centuries of experience in expelling invaders, Omar told us his goal is to wear us down by keeping us under constant pressure. As William E. Polk showed in his profoundly important book, Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq, the historical fact is that the only combatants who ever benefit strategically from protracted war of insurrection are the guerrillas who are trying to expel foreign invaders.
In contrast to the outward orientation of Mullah Omar, the dispute over when to leave shows that orientations of President Obama and his military have turned inward toward protecting themselves, their careers, and their reputations.
With differences in outlooks like this, the grand-strategic writing is on the wall for all to see.