The Afghanistan Strategic Review

Amid signs that President Barack Obama is reconsidering first principles in Afghanistan, the Washington Post has published a redacted version of the strategic review conducted by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Most of its principle elements have already emerged since July, but to see them finally gathered and presented in a coherent draft helps clarify the assessment of where things stand.

Curiously, I was most impressed and encouraged by the discussion of the Afghan insurgency’s strengths (pp. 2-5/2-8). I found myself thinking that, despite all of the insurgency’s recent advances, our understanding of its various strands, how they overlap, and their lines of operation seems sophisticated enough to render aggressive kinetic operations effective.

Unfortunately, my optimism was short-lived, since kinetic operations to increase security are only part of the COIN equation, with far greater emphasis placed on establishing the host government’s legitimacy and effectiveness. And the section on the insurgency’s strength was immediately followed by a discussion of the Afghan government’s weakness. This, in particular, is devastating:

There are no clear lines separating insurgent groups, criminal networks (including the narcotics networks), and corrupt GIRoA officials. Malign actors within GIRoA support insurgent groups directly, support criminal networks that are linked to insurgents, and support corruption that helps feed the insurgency. (pp. 2-9/2-10)

Damning, too, is the fact that we seem to know our enemies far better than we know our so-called friends:

ISAF Shortcomings. Afghan social, political, economic and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood. ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population. (p. 2-10)

The Achilles’ heel of the report, and any COIN-based approach to stabilizing the country, is that success continues to be defined as a function of the Afghan government’s perceived legitimacy, which is itself a function of its effectiveness. And it’s obvious to everyone that the Afghan government is both corrupt and incompetent.

The report addresses another weakness of the Afghanistan War, namely that a good deal of the problem emanates from the insurgency’s safe havens in Pakistan. Significantly, although stabilizing Pakistan remains an “essential” objective, the report suggests that because the insurgency is Afghan, addressing the problems on the Afghan side of the border could wither the vine of popular support, thereby rendering the Pakistani safe havens if not irrelevant, then less problematic. (p. 2-10)

As for how to do that, the report adheres to boilerplate COIN principles familiar to anyone who has been following this debate over the past two years, with one major exception. It explicitly calls for radical changes in both the conceptual and operational approach to force protection. In a line of reasoning that will be familiar to WPR readers, it argues that reduced use of armored vehicles and forward operating bases in favor of close contact and familiarity with the people will in turn reduce physical and psychological distance between coalition troops and the Afghan population. The long-term result, it claims, will be enhanced security for both (p. 2-12). The danger lies in the short-term likelihood of increased U.S. casualties, which risks further eroding domestic support for the war.

The report also declares that success will depend on an overall decentralization of both the warfighting and reconstruction effort, accompanied by reduced bureaucracy. However, striking the necessary balance between that and the also-stated need for improved unity of command and effort seems like a tough circle to square.

Finally, in its conclusion, the report states, “A ‘fully resourced’ strategy could achieve low risk, but this would be excessive in the final analysis.” (pp. 2-20/2-21) Obviously, McChrystal has adopted the CNAS’ Triage approach to the decisive 12-month period ahead. And as the lukewarm reception in Washington to the idea of even a modest troop increase demonstrates, that is probably the only politically feasible approach.

This shallowness of political will is identified as one of the principle risks the mission faces, and in large part explains my skepticism regarding the ultimate chances for its success. It might come as a surprise to regular readers of the blog, but I’d not only be interested in seeing what “fully resourced” looks like in terms of a round number, I’d probably be less pessimistic from a purely tactical perspective if it were in fact applied. (Even if I remain unconvinced of the strategic necessity of doing so.)

The incremental application of politically palatable troop increases — always sufficient to avoid collapse but never enough to make progress — has been identified as an inherent flaw of democracies when it comes to waging small wars. But if the Afghanistan War debate is to be carried out in an adult manner, we should be given an idea of what it will take to maximize the chances of success. That way we could actually decide whether such an investment is, in fact, worth the known costs and risks involved. The choice would then be between incrementally guaranteed failure and decisively embraced uncertainty.

Instead, we seem destined to forever prepare the way for further escalation or, alternatively, accusations of giving up prematurely, by postponing the moment when we can say, “We did everything we could and the patient could — or could not — be saved.”

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