Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An Afghanistan-Pakistan war? (Or, maybe we all need to learn Urdu and Pashto)

Tony Cordesman, a very dour optimist

Do Congress and the American public want to wage a 15-year war in Afghanistan? If not, it's time for NATO to find an exit strategy and set up a new foreign-policy and military framework for dealing with threats arising from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Anthony Cordesman addresses the situation in Afghanistan in some detail in a 280-page report called The Afghan-Pakistan War: A Status Report (2nd edition) 07/03/08 (Center for Strategic and International Studies [CSIS]). But it's organized like a PowerPoint presentation, so the pages are made up of maps, tables and sets of bullet points.

Just to be clear on the opening question, current plans by the Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan (CSTC-A) as summarized by the Government Accountability Office (GOA) in this chart reproduced on p. 161 of Cordesman's report call for active involvement of "foreign forces" "beyond 2019". ANSF in this chart means "Afghan National Security Forces":


Admittedly, that's not quite as long as Maverick McCain's 100 years for starters in Iraq. Did you know we were signed up for active combat operations in Afghanistan to 2019 and beyond? (The phrase "security assistance" presumably means something like "advisors" in Vietnam in the early 1960s.) Where is Congress in all this? Oh, yeah, they're too busy eviscerating the 4th Amendment to the Constitution to be worried with such matters.


In either case, we need to recognize that Afghanistan and Pakistan present a connected threat. But that in itself doesn't mean we should expand a failing strategy in Afghanistan into Pakistan. It means we need to have a policy that addresses the threats to the US without making ourselves completely dependent on Pakistan, whether it has a democratic or dictatorial government at any particular moment. Cordesman writes:

There is no official reporting that addresses the fact that fact that the Afghan War is essentially a struggle by violent Pashtun Islamist in both countries. It is clear that the war would have a radically different character if Pashtun and Baluchi areas in Pakistan did not act as de facto sanctuaries and support areas for the Taliban, HiG [Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddun], and HQN [Haqqani Network]. ... US experts estimate that the areas under such influence in Pakistan grew significantly in 2006 and 2007.

Pakistan also provides an important sanctuary for Al Qa’ida, which has steadily closer links to the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan and to the Hi[G], and HQN. (pp. 78-82). As a result, all of these movements are having a destabilizing impact on Pakistan and creating steadily greater instability in both the largely Pashtun Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in the East and the Baluchi areas in the south.

Pakistani public opinion does not favor the government carrying out a major campaign to deal with these threats or any form of US or NATO intervention. It is also deeply divided on the impact of Al Qa’ida, the Taliban, and local Jihadis and relatively hostile to the Bush Administration. (p. 92; my emphasis)
To make that a little more clear, Cordesman provides this chart on p. 108:


Yes, according to these polling findings, terrorist/mass murderer Osama bin Laden is viewed far more favorably than our Dear Leader George Bush. And Pakistan is one of our biggest allies in the Islamic world!

The chart on the following page in the report shows overwhelming public opposition to US forces operating in Pakistan against the Taliban and Al Qa'ida, with or without the active cooperation of the Pakistani militarily. Did I mention that Pakistan is one of our biggest allies in the Islamic world?

As for public attitudes, Afghans do not support terrorism, and are largely negative towards the Taliban – although more supportive of Al Qa'ida. They are, however, sufficiently concerned over the course of the war to advocate negotiations between the government and Taliban and a limited majority favor a coalition government. Afghans are also more supportive of the Taliban in the Pashtun south. (p. 72; my emphasis)
Although a mojority of Afghans indicate favorable attitudes toward the NATO troops (including the US) being in Afghanistan, that is in some significat part due to the fact that there are relatively few NATO forces present in comparison to US forces and mercenaries in Iraq, for instance:

There is significant popular resentment [among Afghans] of the civilian casualties caused by US/NATO/ISAF, and of the way they carry out searches and their discipline. There also, however, is gratitude for the security US/NATO/ISAF forces provide and for their role in aid and humanitarian assistance. US/NATO/ISAF force levels are rising, but have not kept pace with the growth in the threat, and force levels remain a major problem in spite of recent reinforcements by the US Marines. Force levels have been very low relative to the population, even by peacekeeping standards. (my emphasis)
In theory, NATO could flood the zone with foreign troops, very few of whom speak Urdu, Pashto, Dari or the other Afghan languages. I hope a President Obama and his advisers will think very seriously about the experience of Britain and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan before they undertake such a course.

The issue should be not "winning" some unconditional surrender of the "bad guys". It's a question of doing what's necessary to protect American interests and security at a reasonable cost in lives, dollars, and US reputation.

This is also one of those situations in which "credibility" becomes something like an ever-receding mirage. The more troops we commit, the more our "credibility" is put at stake. The more our "credibility" is at stake, the more troops we will be tempted to commit. We've been here before. It's not a good place to be.

Gariel Kolko gives a good description of this process as it unfolded in the Vietnam War in his book Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (1985):

By increasingly making credibility the overarching consideration in the escalation of the war, America's leaders positioned Vietnam in the world power balance and postwar history, touching the efficacy of its traditional counterrevolutionary policies, and in this manner its symbolic role enormously enlarged the stakes involved there. All the important leaders supported this logic until its deficiencies appeared after the damage had been done. In a certain way this definition was rational. The loss of U.S. mastery in the Third World was a reality, but the changes occurring in the world were not the consequences of U.S. passivity. Rather, they resulted from the normal transformations of all societies ... Weapons might in some places abort this process temporarily; the cost to America was variable. Essential to the counterrevolutionary role is the selection of a war at the right time and at the right place. The dilemma of credibility is that even the slightest error in the application of power must lead to the utilization of yet more force, or else the price to America's reputation mounts. As a basis of foreign policy, it is the highest-risk game any nation can play. If there is no valid sense of the constraints of social reality, then credibility leads to escalation, humiliation, or both. For while the United States could measure its resources and interests clearly, it could not fathom their relevance to the more crucial social, human, and military conditions which existed. Colossal self-confidence made it appear virtually certain that its power could compensate for any surprises. (my emphasis)
Britain and the USSR were also very confident that they could prevail in Afghanistan.

One valuable feature of Cordesman's report is that, beginning on p. 135, he focuses specifically on the air war. He makes the following points there:

  • Steady rise in combat sorties.
  • The rise in Iraq has been driven largely by the surge.
    • 40%rise in fixed wing combat sorties since 2004.
    • 25%rise in CAS/Strike sorties in Iraq since 2004
    • 97%rise in CAS/Strike sorties in Afghanistan since 2004.
  • The rise in Afghanistan has been driven by a far more steady increase inpressure from the Taliban since 2005.
  • In both wars, only a limited number of combat sorties actually dropped unguided or guided heavy munitions. Most only used guns, small rockets or did not use a weapon.
    • Percentage using munitions has increased with the intensity of combat in both wars.
    • Still only 23% in Afghanistan in 2007; 6% in Iraq.
According to these figures, even more munititions are used proportionally in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Because more of the fighting is rural in Afghanistan, that may result in fewer civilian casualties than in the urban fighting in Iraq. But relying as heavily as the US does on air power to fight this kind of war is, to put it mildly, high-risk.

And the total number of air strikes according to Cordesman's figure is significantly higher in Afghanistan than in Iraq. In other words, Afghanistan provides a test case for comparing the effectiveness of using relatively more air power in counterinsurgency operations in relation to the practice in Iraq. Air power zealots always find wonderful results, it seems, without being much distracted by actual results. But the war in Afghanistan is going hardly better if at all than in Iraq.

Drugs are a major factor in Afghanistan. Cordesman writes (p. 200):

The counternarcotics program in Afghanistan has so far be[en] worse than a failure. Opium cultivation has continued to grow, but has shifted into Taliban dominated areas and served a major source of funds to the Taliban. Eradication has done little more than anger those affected. (my emphasis)
The UN reports that Afghanistan circa 2007 is providing 93% of the opium on the world market.

Cordesman isn't normally much given to sarcasm is these reports. But his section on the effectiveness of the central government in Kabul beginning on page 228 is entitled, "Effective Governance Versus Government in Kabulstan". "Kabulstan" is a cynical designation for the fact that the actual power of the central government is largely confined to the capital city of Kabul. (Some of the charts include in the early part of the report indicate some effective central government presence in portions of the country.)

Afghanistan remains what it was in 2001, largely a failed state. Except that the Taliban government had enjoyed some success in establishing central state power and combatting the narcotics traffic.

What Cordesman describes here under "What We Must Do To Win" is something very much like an attempt to establish a colonial government, like Britain did in India, France in Indochina and the US in the Phillipines. In fact, it's hard to imagine that he really thinks the US intends or is in any way likely to undertake the program he describes as necessary "to win". It includes a time horizon of 5-15 years from now. And principles like this: "Never promise success; prepare for failure from the start and accept it if it occurs."

Yeah, that's going to be a rousing slogan to persuade the American public to commit several hundred thousand soldiers to Afghanistan and re-institute the draft.

And can you imagine the real existing generals of our armed services committing to a goal like this: "No denial, cheerleading, counterproductive spin"? ROFL, as they say on the Internet. When you read the things that Cordesman says are essential, it starts to sound like parody. Saying that this stuff is what has to happen to win is pretty much the same as saying, forget ever achieving anything most Americans will see as "a win".

Anyone still enthusiastic for the Afghanistan War should take a few minutes to look through Cordesman's report. It describes a all-but-hopeless mess.

Or, to put it another way, what it would take to fix this mess is way beyond what the United States will be willing to provide.

So why is our government planning to carry on military operations there "beyond 2019"?

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