Into the Great Unknown in Afghanistan

After flagging this very valuable post by Tim Lynch on conditions inthe southeast of Afghanistan, Joshua Foust observes, “[T]here is afundamental disconnect between what we are doing in Afghanistan andwhat we expect to happen.” Lynch’s post is a long but essential read,and I second Foust’s assessment. The question is, Will the added troopsand vaguely hinted-at shift in operational priorities be sufficient torecouple what we’re doing with what we expect to happen?

With that question fresh in my mind, I clicked through tothe new CNAS report (.pdf) on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which offers proposalsfor metrics and operational priorities on both sides of the border. Inall fairness, the CNAS authors (David Kilcullen, Nathaniel Fick, Andrew Exum and Ahmed Humayan) chose to title the report “Triage,”meaningthey know that there’s more job to do than resources to do it with. And between the principle authors and the analysts they got input from (Joshua Foust, Nicholas Schmidle and Christian Bleuer), it’s a high-powered braintrust that is both well-informed and intellectually honest.

But there’s something about the report that’s vaguely un-nerving, especially after reading Lynch’s narrative. Clearly Kilcullen and Exum are advocating for a particular approach to waging the war. They are, after all, proponents of COIN doctrine and tactics. But the report seems to paper over the fact that the very COIN methods they’re advocating for do not suffer prioritizing on the cheap. As a result, though they acknowledge that progress is urgently needed, their proposals read as much like a recipe for creating a positive feedback loop for measuring it as they do a recipe for actually achieving it.

The argument, for instance, comparing civilian casualties in Iraq to those inAfghanistan as a metric of progress is apples and oranges. In Iraq,violence against civilians was the end, in Afghanistan, violenceagainst civilians is a means. So while the goal articulated is a validone, I’m not convinced it qualifies as a useful metric. Instead, shifting operational priorities might very well achieve the objective without significantly advancing our strategic position. (On the otherhand, districts under government control, spontaneous tips fromcivilians and defused-to-casualty ratios on IEDs all seem like sensibleways to measure progress.)

Their proposal to focus limiteddevelopment resources not on the outcome (e.g., a new schoolhouse tomeet needs), but on the process (e.g., how the contract to build it was awarded topromote transparency) is both creative and intriguing. That certainlyseems necessary, but I’m not convinced it’s sufficient, especiallygiven the one-year time horizon they give for showing results. Also, inlight of other reporting, I’m not sure how realistic it is.

I’mhesitant to critique the operational recommendations for the problemson the Pakistani side of the border, mainly because I’m not convincedthey’re solvable. What’s more, I’m not convinced that they pose thekind of threat that the authors assume, and even if they do, I thinkthat trying to contain them is preferable to trying to eliminate them.

That said, the proposal to de-emphasize Pakistan’s military, comparedto its other security forces, in the fight against extremism makesplenty of sense. The paramilitary Frontier Corps might be a betterplace to start than the police force, but then again, a stronger policeforce would meet the demand for law and order otherwisefilled by the Taliban’s Sharia courts.

As for the great debate over drone strikes, I’m agnostic. I don’tthink we’ll end up stabilizing the FATA or Afghanistan, so I don’tshare the operational concerns raised in terms of COIN doctrine. Itseems obvious, though, that there are quieter, more effective ways togo after the high-value targets, and that implementing them is a majorpart of what Gen. Stanley McChrystal will be spending his time overthere doing.

Other than that, the metrics for Pakistan all strike me as spot on.Unfortunately, they also strike me as reasonably certain to reflectvery little progress in Pakistan. Now pessimism isn’t the same thing asanalysis. But I’ve yet to read anything that suggests it’s realistic to expect a marked increase in civilian oversight of the Pakistani military over the course of a year. What’s more, I’ve yet to read anything that suggests convincingly that it would make a difference in terms of our COIN priorities in FATA.

A more significant problem with the report is that, to paraphrase Foust, there is a fundamental disconnect between what we’ve said we will do in Afghanistan and what the CNAS report expects to happen. The political/strategicgoals articulated by President Barack Obama (quoted in the report, noless) are “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safehavens inPakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” That does not support the authors’ operational prescription for Counterinsurgency with a big”C”, as opposed to tactical counterinsurgency with a small “c.”

Neither the strategic mission articulated, the resources invested, nor the partner government in Kabul make a Counterinsurgency campaign a realistic goal. What we’re left with is counterinsurgency tactics, spread thin, with a one-year time horizon for shifting the momentum in the war.

Triage implies tending to problems upon which our intervention will have a determinative impact, under the assumption that some are beyond saving, while others can get by on their own. I don’t see too much of the third category in Afghanistan, and after reading Lynch’s narrative, I’m not sure how the CNAS report’s proposals can definitively enlarge the first. That leaves us with the second, which is not an encouraging prospect.

More World Politics Review