Thursday, January 14, 2010

And this is a defense of our Afghanistan War policy? (1)

Rory Stewart has an article in the 01/14/09 New York Review of Books, Afghanistan: What Could Work (article dated 12/17/09) making a case for Obama's Afghanistan War policy. Stewart makes a Goldilocks argument: not too hot, not too cold, but (almost) juu-uust right. Stewart's article is worth reading for the experience of watching his argument wander here and wander there in seeming contradictory directions before getting to the Goldilocks conclusion. His basic argument is that Obama's current strategy and troop levels create a good chance to reach a reasonably constructive goal in 20 years. For those of you familiar with Tom Friedman's famous series of the-next-six-months-are-decisive predictions about his pet Iraq War, Stewart is predicting that things will be okay in 40 "Friedman units".

He explains that this approach is moderate, wise and "revolutionary". It firmly puts Obama in control of the generals and slaps down the warmongers. And to be a good Goldilocks policy, of course that means that it especially has to slap down those dirty blogging hippie peacenik defeatocrats. The "almost" in the almost-just-right Goldilocks variation is that he thinks Obama has made a reckless, dangerous concession to the hippie peaceniks by establishing and vague goal of starting to reduce the number of US troops in only three Friedman units (18 months). Maybe we should start talking about "Obama units". He declared when he first took office that he would shut down Gitmo within a year. That year has now turned into sometime in an unspecified future but presumably before Hell freezes over. So the 18 months makes 1 1/2 "Obama units", which makes be enough to encompass Stewart's breezy optimism that in 20 years we'll see some positive results. Stewart also carefully avoids saying that when things get good in 2030 in Afghanistan, that US troops can actually start leaving that hellhole.

I'm increasingly seeing the policy questions around the Afghanistan War on two related but different levels. One is the more macro level that people like Andrew Bacevich and Tom Engelhardt having been raising for years, the issue of American overreach and the need to recognize the real limits of American power. From that level, the idea that the United States would commit to another 20 years of active military and political involvement in Afghanistan, on top of the nine years we've been there already, defines the situation as much more than a war. If the United States is going to be a key support for the Afghan regime for 20 years against all enemies internal and external, which is what Stewart describes in more euphemistic terms, that's not a war. That's adopting Afghanistan as a protectorate, which differs 20th century colonialism more in the packaging than in the substance.

Then there's the more immediate level of, given the reality of the current commitment, which proposals are more likely to benefit the US and our allies?

One way in which those two levels of perspective merge is in counterinsurgency (COIN) theory. The more I hear the COIN enthusiasts and our glorious generals - and the serving ones are all expected to be COIN enthusiasts these days - recite the virtues of their warm-and-fuzzy, serve-the-people approach to war, the more I start to wonder if the great Petraeus COIN Doctrine isn't 99% marketing hype. In this SPIEGEL interview with Afghanistan's lead US/NATO commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the general seems to be trying to come off as a cross between Ché Guevara and Mother Theresa: 'Killing the Enemy Is Not The Best Route to Success' 01/11/10. In a war in which blasting civilians to pieces as "collateral damage" in targeted assassination strikes has become routing, the general says:

At the end of the day, a counter-insurgency is decided by people's perceptions and by how people feel. I think any war like this is not a battle between material. It's not about destroying the enemy's cities. It's not even about destroying their army, their fighters. You have to weaken the insurgency. But it's really about convincing the people that they want it to stop and they ultimately will. The most effective way for us to operate is to be really good and effective partners with our Afghan counterparts, because it's not a technical problem, it's a human problem.
What does Gen. McChrystal say about those airstrikes? Why, he's totally against them and it's one of his highest priorities to avoid civilian casualties. But have any of the strikes that have actually occurred been a problem for him? Well, no:

SPIEGEL: Coming from your background in special forces, where targeting and killing people is actually the nature of the business, your tactical directive to avoid casualties which came out in July was quite a surprise. It says that killing the enemy is not effective and therefore needs to be avoided.

McChrystal: Well, the tactical directive was designed not just to give people specific guidelines, but to give them intent. That was to explain that killing the enemy was not the best route to success. If you kill two enemy fighters who are in somebody's house, and in doing so you destroy their house, then the individuals who own the house probably have very conflicted feelings about whether you did the right thing. If you take an action that has the risk of harming civilians, you have to carefully consider that decision, because you can't bring a civilian who has been killed back to life.

SPIEGEL: But what if commanders on the ground do not follow your guidance?

McChrystal: I haven't had the experience of commanders who don't follow guidance. What I've found is that in any big organization, people interpret guidelines or intent differently. However as long as I'm in command here, I will be making some of those same points, constantly.
In this passage, the general is in Mother Theresa mode:

What defeats terrorism is really two things. It's rule of law and then it's opportunity for people. So if you have governance that allows you to have rule of law, you have an environment in which it is difficult to pursue terrorism. And if you have an opportunity for people in life, which includes education and the chance to have a job, then you take away the biggest cause of terrorism. So really, the way to defeat terrorism is not military strikes, it's going after the basic conditions.
Here is where the propaganda aspect of COIN doctrine comes out strongly. Gen. McChrystal is describing a massive social service project in which military force plays a small role. But Obama didn't just add 30,000 new teachers to Afghanistan, he added 30,000 new soldiers. And despite the photos the Pentagon likes to post of nice soldiers talking to smiling children or Marines painting schools are whatever, the war McChrystal is running is a military one. And his emphasis on how the touchy-feely stuff is what will make the difference in the end rather than the military is a pre-emptory excuse: if things turn out badly, it's not because our infallible generals and our invicible military didn't do everything brilliantly and score triumph after triumph; it's because the unworthy civilians back home or in the country we're trying to save didn't measure up to the greatness of our glorious generals. Early in the interview, we see McChrystal saying in Ché Guevara mode:

McChrystal: In a counter-insurgency, your security ultimately comes from the people, because they help deny the insurgents support, then they provide you intelligence. Here is the conflict. To protect yourself perfectly, you get behind big forts, you wear body armor and travel in armored vehicles. But then you can't interact with people. And if you can't interact with people, the people will not protect you ultimately. If you want to swim, you have to let go of the side of the pool. You have to get in and amongst the people and build that relationship. In the long run you will suffer fewer casualties and you'll be more successful.

SPIEGEL: Your intelligence chief, Michael Flynn, just came up with a provocative document claiming that US spies in Afghanistan are totally clueless. They only focus on the insurgency, he says, and do not understand the most fundamental questions of people's lives and their environment. Is he right?

McChrystal: Understanding unconventional warfare is typically understanding the terrain, the physical terrain, and understanding the enemy. In a counter-insurgency the terrain is the people, rather than bridges and hills and forests. You have to understand tribes, leaders and the economic forces at work. Otherwise you can't deny the insurgency. What General Flynn has pointed out correctly is the fact that we need to widen our understanding. We need to understand how the enemy interacts with the people.
But to "get in and amongst the people" to rally the peasants to storm the feudal lord's palace is not what McChrystal is about. The US/NATO approach, despite the warm-and-fuzzy rhetoric, is to assert physical military control of their target areas. It's COIN on the principle of Lyndon Johnson's famous remark, when you've got 'em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow. That core focus emerges in a comment later in the interview:

SPIEGEL: What would be needed for these people to switch sides?

McChrystal: I think they need protection first of all. Protection from the Taliban, protection for their families as well and an opportunity to either go back to the village from which they came and an opportunity to make a living again, to re-enter the workplace in their society. They also need respect. It's important that they are not ashamed as they do this because they are making an honorable decision.
This isn't the language of helping a legitimate government do it's job properly. It's the language of occupation and collaboration.

[Part 2 tomorrow]

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