Sunday, August 30, 2009

Winning in Afghanistan?

So, I have been posting about part 1 of the two part question: Is Afghanistan important enough to stick around? and Can we win, if we do stick around? I waffled a bit on the first, trying to argue that Afghanistan was important enough due to the regional security implications and also the consequences of departing hastily. Of course, that may be presenting a false dichotomy since another alternative, the Rumsfeldian strategy, exists--doing just enough to keep terrorists out of Afghanistan without really building a stable situation in the country. And, of course, my term for it should bias the reader against this course of action since anything Rumsfeld did turned to poop. At least when it came to strategy and tactics outside of the Beltway.

Anyhow, the focus of the moment is counter-insurgency or "armed state-building" by its critics. Can the US and its allies facilitate the development of a stable, semi-self-sustaining political system in Afghanistan? The standard, to be clear, is not Norway. The obstacles are many, including few economic resources other than poppies, obnoxious neighbors (especially but not exclusively Pakistan), deep levels of corruption, and awful path dependence. By the latter, I mean the choices made in the past structure today's options, including the strength of warlords in the political system and Karzai.

In addition, counter-insurgency is just plain hard. It requires lots of things that governments and organizations traditionally suck at: coordination and patience to just name two.

Uh oh. So far, no progress on arguing that we can win. Ok, so what is working or can work in our favor?
  • The lines between various groups are much less fixed and far more permeable than Iraq or elsewhere. Folks have referred to the group dynamics here like a pickup basketball game--one can be shirts today, skins tomorrow, and then shirts the third day. So, we do not really have fixed cleavages. We here of Pashtun vs. Tajik, but the Pashtuns are divided by tribe and past disputes.
  • Afghanistan has experienced the alternative--the Taliban--and most did not enjoy the experience. Despite the incompetence and corruption of the current government, the Taliban is not really seen as an attractive alternative. They can only coerce, and while that can go pretty far in upsetting the current regime, it is not a formula for popular support.
  • There has been much learning and error correction. Collateral damage has gone down, American units are now more consistently applying COIN doctrine, making them more compatible with those who already operated that way (Canadians). The chain of command has been improved to increase unity of command.
And, as I always want to remind people, COIN only started in 2006 at the earliest and really more the past year or two. The increase in violence this year may mostly be tied to the surge, as was in the case in Iraq.

So, there are more forces operating in Afghanistan with smarter people running and coordinating better. The real tasks ahead are developing the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. The first started a few years ago, and progress is hard to evaluate with wildly conflicting claims. Progress on the police is much, much further behind.

Hmm, still not much progress on arguing that we can win, even less on that we will win if we try hard enough. Ok, let's try another tact--civil wars do end. They end by victory by one side or by some kind of settlement or a stalemate. The Taliban will not win--they just don't have the kind of public support and their strategies are aimed mostly at spoiling. The Afghan government could co-opt enough tribes and fighters to make the insurgency much less significant, reducing it to more of a crime problem.

If the current surge and smarter strategies eventually lead to far fewer casualties (as they did in Iraq, although the conditions are not identical), then there will be more room for the politicians in and out of Afghanistan to build the ANA and ANP and the relevant pieces of the government. Of course, this requires the next President (probably Karzai) to make a few good but hard choices.
And Karzai has not proven to be capable of that. A military coup might also happen, and then the international community would face a very difficult bind.

Crap. I don't think I have come up with a decent argument for NATO winning. No wonder I have procrastinated. Anybody want to take a shot at this?

I guess my stance right now is that we have not been trying that hard for that long (despite the fact that countries have borne significant costs in terms of lives and money) to do this right, that the effort (not so much the outcomes) is more on target right now, and that the uncertainties involved with pulling out mean that we ought to try to continue the effort for a while longer. If the surge does not lead to a decline in violence in the next year or so, then we can and should re-consider.

And to be consistent with my op-ed regarding Canada's participation, I think that Canada should stick around as long as its allies do. If Canada wants out of Afghanistan, it should work with its allies to get to that outcome, rather than just meeting an arbitrary deadline set by a political process back home.

Of course, that leads to an entirely different set of questions--what will the domestic political processes of the members of NATO and other ISAF countries allow?

1 comment:

KathyS said...

We're so used to thinking about war as winning or losing. But Afghanistan isn't that kind of war. We won the Afghanistan war when we went in and smashed the Taliban government and routed their military forces and bin Laden's boys into the hills. It was the short, successful war so desired, even if there weren't enough troops to do the job properly. But now we're in a defensive war where NATO troops are there to defend the Afghan people and government and to help that government train to defend itself. So it's not whether we're "winning" in Afghanistan, it's whether we're solving the problem of the remaining Taliban and sympathizers so that Afghanistan can remain stable, and whether we can broker a peace among Afghan warlords to further maintain that stability. Stability is your measurement as to whether we're "winning" or not. But for most people in the countries who have troops in Afghanistan, that country's stability is irrelevent. Their measurements are whether most of their own troops have left the country (success!) and whether their own media are down to just an occasional story on the country (so we can forget about worrying about it.) Now back to the political scientists' analysis of the situation.