The Closet Moderate: Insert Additional COIN(s)

Friday, November 06, 2009

Insert Additional COIN(s)

On a fundamental level, what bothers me about the wars we're embroiled in are the echoes of the "civilizing mission" that surround them. In Iraq, that tone was explicit. We were attempting to transform the country into a modern democracy by force of arms. That idea was rank hubris, but at the time it sounded appealing to a country habituated to the idea of a global crusade a bereft of one for a whole decade.

In Afghanistan, it's more of an undertone. But the objectives and metrics the Obama administration has developed to measure success in Afghanistan and Pakistan are ambitious:
Objective 3b. Promote a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan that serves the Afghan people and can eventually function, especially regarding internal security, with limited international support.
Objective 2a. Assist efforts to enhance civilian control and stable constitutional government in Pakistan.
And some sample metrics from Objective 2a:
1. Progress towards Pakistan's civilian government and judicial system becoming stable and free of military involvement
2. Pakistan's actions to take necessary steps to ensure economic and financial stability, job creation, and growth
3. Support for human rights
The regional transformation strategy pursued by Bush was explicitly missionary: they hate us for who we are, so let's make them like us. With bombs. And while I've highlighted what I consider to be the most ambitious objectives and metrics, they do constitute an attempt to define (no thanks to Holbrooke) what success would look like in the region.

In other words, the Bush administration followed an underpants gnomes strategy of regional transformation:

1. Chaos.
2. …
3. Democracy!

The main difference under Obama seems to be that we think we’ve figured out step 2: counterinsurgency. More after the jump.


I’m just not sure how feasible it is to draw a line between the methods of counterinsurgency and the goals we’re trying to achieve in Afghanistan. If we leave and the Taliban comes back (probable) AND they decide renew their lease with Al-Qaeda (possible) that would be a problem. That said, I tend to think that one of the factors that helped move 9/11 from Bruckheimer plot to terrorist plot was our decision to ignore Afghanistan for a decade after providing the mujahideen with weapons and purpose. Regardless of what particular decision we arrive at, I doubt we’re going to dismiss the threats emanating from that part of world.

I also think the structural realities of the situation have outpaced the strategy. I want to focus on three main problems:
  • Incentives
  • Inertia
  • Integrity
I don’t see what incentives we, as an occupying power, can offer to the regional players. For one thing, our occupation isn’t really of the indefinite variety. We’re not going to be in Afghanistan forever. Someday the Americans will be gone, and I doubt we’ll be offering our Afghan friends the ability to start over in the United States if things go south. Put another way, the downside risk inherent in cooperation is huge and there’s relatively little upside. You get to be a big man while we’re there and hope that after we’re gone, we’ve built a state that can keep the Taliban from coming for your thumbs.

Of course, if we defeat the Taliban that won’t be a problem. Unfortunately, the Taliban is not just an Afghan problem. Because the Taliban has a network of support in Pakistan, we have to add another layer of complexity. In addition to defeating the Afghan Taliban, we have to convince Pakistan to help us root them out on their side of the border. The Pakistani military and ISI both have an established strategic orientation (towards India), and both are extremely powerful institutions in Pakistan. They’re probably not all that thrilled about Objective 2a, either. Beyond that, it’s not clear to me that a strong Afghan state is in Pakistan’s interests. The Afghan War costs the US a lot of money and requires the expenditure of significant amounts of political capital. If you’re a regional player who’s not sold on US war aims, isn’t waiting us out the right call?

But let’s be optimistic for a moment and assume we can generate Pakistani buy-in and defeat the Taliban on both sides of the border. We then have to confront the issue of state building in Afghanistan. Essentially, if those gains are going to stick we’ll need a Afghan state that can co-opt the factions within Afghanistan. That’s why the corruption surrounding Karzai’s re-election is so problematic for COIN in Afghanistan. Without legitimacy, there’s reason to doubt the idea of a cohesive Afghan state taking shape around Karzai. Without effective security forces, there’s no way for Karzai to punish defection. We could witness an effective COIN campaign that stabilizes the country, only to see that situation rolled back after we leave.

Of course, adherence to those metrics necessarily includes the possibility that our efforts in Afghanistan may not measure up. That could be the foundation for “withdrawal with honor,” or however it is we're dressing up failure these days.

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