The War in Afghanistan Goes On

WASHINGTON – The much waited for progress report on the US war in Afghanistan came and went without sparking any significant debate. Beyond the report, but related to the Afghanistan issue, on December 13, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the most senior coordinator for US policy related to Afghanistan and Pakistan, suddenly fell ill during a meeting at the Department of State and subsequently died. In another era, the death of this special envoy who got sick during a working meeting on Afghanistan would have been described as a bad omen: Afghanistan, the conflict that he was trying to resolve, killed him.

Bureaucratic review

As for the official assessment, unfortunately, the review offers nothing of real substance. There are notes of cautious optimism about real progress, yet fragile and reversible and more such anodyne, essentially meaningless, blah, blah. The key novelty to date in the US approach to this endless conflict is not in the review itself but in having changed the projected withdrawal timetable, (essentially moving it from July 2011 until some time in 2014), in order to build a bit of breathing room for US forces, but still telling an anxious US public that, “It may be  a little later; but, not to worry, we are leaving, honest, we are leaving”. And here, in this constant need to remind everybody that “We are going to get out”, is the fundamental weakness of the US posture regarding this conflict.

Dates of withdrawal

The announced July 2011 date as the beginning of withdrawal made a year ago, just as the surge was announced, had nothing to do with the conduct of military operations. It was motivated by the desire to assuage US political opponents who did not like the idea of a large increase of US forces –a surge that might signal, (God forbid!), an open ended commitment. However, be that as it may, that politically motivated –and thereafter endlessly debated– statement was and is strategically idiotic. It confused even the best of friends as to the “real” US intentions regarding Afghanistan, while possibly emboldening Taliban opponents, giving them reasons to doubt US real determination to fight to win.

2014: operational control to the Afghans

Now we have another such statement, this time made by NATO, (this is officially a NATO-led operation), indicating that, in agreement with the Kabul government, the US and its NATO allies will turn control of military operations over to the Afghans by 2014. So, president Barack Obama managed to trade an uncomfortably tight deadline with a looser one. Again, let’s remember that these target dates have no real operational value. Their primary goal is to reassure American political elites and western public opinion at large that, “No, we do not have an open ended commitment. There is light at the end of the tunnel. We have a plan to build up the Afghan forces and mercifully turn the whole thing over to them –sooner than you think!”

But, of course, the seriousness of this pledge is directly related to the preparedness and credibility of the Afghan Government, its military and its police force. At the moment, the reviews are hardly stellar. Which is to say that that the intention to turn things over to a weak and unreliable ally, whatever the real motives, may look like a mere fig leaf in front of the declared intention to quit, no matter what. Once again, this invites all sorts of doubts as to Washington’s steadiness.

American strategic weakness

And right here, in this unconcealed eagerness to declare in advance an exit timetable and thus to broadcast to the whole world the desire to leave sooner rather than later is the fundamental American strategic weakness.

War is serious business. You do not declare ahead of time the length of time you are willing to fight for; even though here the gimmick is that we are not declaring an exit as such but we are declaring when we shall turn responsibility over to the Afghans. Be that as it may, this is not the announcement of a corporate succession communicated to the business media in order to inspire investors confidence in current and future corporate leadership. This is a war. This is not the business world; and the Afghan government, as the new CEO waiting in the wings, for the moment, does not inspire much confidence.

All in all, the notion of fighting guerrilla warfare against a variety of opponents, some of them ideologically motivated, while at the same time giving equivocal political signs indicating that we would rather not do this and that we are going to do our best to turn this to the Afghans as soon as possible and then leave is really dumb.

War is about a credible determination to win, come what may

War is about many things. However, all else being equal, one factor is of oversized importance: the ability to broadcast to all, friends and foes, one’s unequivocal intention to win –come what may. America should escalate a war only if the country means it. Once we are in it, Washington should be able to credibly proclaim that we are in this for the duration and that we have whatever it takes –troops, equipment, funds and all the time in the world– to be relentless.

At the very onset Washington should have declared that we shall not stop until we are satisfied that events have irreversibly turned in the direction we want. Whereas, this whole business of deadlines and dates for turning over operations and dates of departure, as we are in the midst of still iffy operations, unfortunately conveys exactly the opposite. It says that, deep down, we are half hearted.

And this “show of determination”, or lack thereof, is even more significant because this is not another 1991 Desert Storm-like “frontal assault” with heavy armor in which the US military advantage was evident. This is not about amassing a huge old fashioned force that would credibly overwhelm a weaker opponent, as it was the case with Saddam Hussein’s tanks.

We win only when the other side admits defeat

This is an insurgency, and we have already learnt a few painful lessons about asymmetric warfare and the inherent advantage of irregular forces fighting on their own turf. Let us remember that in this type of conflict the insurgents have a relatively easy job. By creating chaos, confusion and a general sense of insecurity they can keep the conflict going at will.

Again, let us remember one banal but truly basic truth: in every conflict, as Karl von Clausewitz taught long time ago, it is not the winning power that declares victory. Victory occurs only when one side clearly admits defeat and stops fighting. Then and only then can anybody declare victory.

If the Taliban are led to believe that, at some point, we shall want no more of this and leave, this provides a psychological incentive for them. It boosts their morale by strengthening their belief that ultimately, whatever our technological superiority, we lack the stamina to keep on fighting. To the extent that they’ll keep going at it, the conflict will not be over and maybe not contained either.

Insurgents have an inherent advantage

And let’s also remember that fighting on is relatively simple for the insurgents. In an insurgency in a mountainous, rugged country of about 30 million, unless we can saturate Afghanistan with a lot more than the US 100,000 troops currently deployed, the tactical advantage is generally with the bad guys. They retain the initiative. They usually know the terrain. And their success is not really measured in conquering territory and setting up a functioning administration. Their success is in disruption of whatever we try to build. We help set local governments, they assassinate the leaders. We help train police forces, they bomb recruiting centers. We build a school, they kill the teachers. We build a road, they use it to attack convoys, thus disrupting commerce and logistics; and so on.

We can turn things around, but only if we prove to be reliable

Sure enough, in the long run, the people may turn against all this mayhem; provided, however, that they have enough confidence in the security we may provide to them and enough confidence in the Kabul authorities that we are trying to strengthen. And here is precisely the problem.

How can we convince people that we shall be there for them, no matter what, when we are looking at the calendar and telling everybody that we intend to be gone by a certain date? I know that this is not exactly what we are saying. We are talking about turning operations to the Afghans by a certain date, not about “abandoning Afghanistan”. But these subtleties may be lost on Afghan tribesmen who, by the way, in general do not trust the people from Kabul. And, even if we meant something constructive, why in the world telegraph this game plan so far in advance?

Besides, even with an extended time line to 2014, the pledge of an orderly transition to Kabul is not credible, according to many experts. For example, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, retired General Hugh Shelton, recently estimated that we will not be able to transfer control by 2014. His best guess is that we would need at least 8 to 10 years from now, more than double of what has been announced. So much for a credible exit strategy.

Broadcasting our intended exit is a blunder

Of course, we would want to eventually turn primary responsibility to the Afghans. But why declare dates now? Even if we can all agree that the point is just to reassure US domestic political concerns about an open ended commitment, this is not good at all, as this means that, (remember Vietnam?), if public sentiment turns strongly against the war, there is no way to carry on.

Again, whatever the reasons, all this talk about exit strategies is a bad political foundation on which to build morale and support for a counterinsurgency, especially given the bad US record in the region –a record that nobody there has forgotten. After the end of the Soviet occupation, essentially the US lost interest and let Afghanistan go to hell and ultimately fall under Taliban control.

Another issue: counter terror goals but a counterinsurgency operation

And, if this were not enough, when it comes to the way we are fighting, there is another fundamental problem which reveals deep confusion about means and ends, especially if taken in context with the desire to leave sooner rather than later, as discussed above.

Regarding Afghanistan, America declared publicly a rather modest counter terror objective; and yet we have set up a huge counterinsurgency operation, aided by large institution building and economic development components, to accomplish it.

Rather soberly, we say that our US national security objectives in Afghanistan are limited to preventing a situation in which the Taliban would prevail and then invite back al Qaeda and their supporters. We say that we want to deny them Afghan bases from which they would be able to launch more attacks against the US, just as they did for 9/11. Fair enough.

Huge deployments

But, this being the case, why set up this incredibly large apparatus, featuring a full expeditionary force, accompanied now by a much larger civilian operation intervening in almost any area of Afghan society and government — especially in the light of the objective of turning things over to the Afghans rather quickly?

We could pursue a counter terror strategy, if this is indeed our goal, with a much lower profile, relying primarily on intelligence assets and special operations forces and building local Afghan forces, as opposed to the semi-impossible task, at least within the envisaged 2014 time frame, of creating strong and credible national institutions. As I have said before, if we had unlimited time, stamina and resources, then we could set up and carry on a huge operation. Assuming 15, 20 years it may very well be possible to win the insurgency and re-make Afghanistan. But between now and 2014? Very unlikely.

There are alternatives

Of course, the overall stability of Afghanistan does matter even in the context of more limited counter terror objectives. And, even if we downsize, we should still support local forces, (as opposed to building up Kabul), that are willing to fight the most radical, uncompromising Taliban. But is it reasonable to conclude that, given our important but limited “sanctuary denial” goals, a comprehensive counterinsurgency operation, (with a very tight time line, mind you), is the only way to achieve them? How has it been resolved that we need to build up the Kabul government in order to defeat the uncompromising, die hard Taliban in order to eliminate a renewed terror threat down the line? There are plausible, lower cost alternatives to secure our goals.

For sure, by creating this “huge committment but for a short time” approach to the conflict, America set itself up for a long and difficult fight that will go on and on. The notion that we will be able to safely turn it over to a beefed up, credible and resilient Afghan army by 2014, on the basis of the record to date, borders on wishful thinking. We may eventually leave, but the conflict will not be under control.

And if terror is elusive, prevailing in an insurgency against people who seem to believe that time is on their side, is just as elusive. For the occupation force, success is in creating a new sense of security and building a new economic future that will create the conviction among most Afghans that progress is there to stay, that it will endure.

However, for the Taliban to be reasonably successful it is sufficient to be disruptive and to prove that the occupation does not bring the fruits that it promises, while Kabul is still incompetent and corrupt.

An endurance game

In the end, all else being equal, counterinsurgency is essentially an endurance game. Who has more staying power? Who can suffer more setbacks and more casualties and keep pressing on? The United States, (with some but insufficient help from the NATO allies), is doing a lot right now. But we have a huge disadvantage. We do not want to be there and we give every sign of it, by repeatedly proclaiming that we have an exit strategy.

Weaknesses on the home front

And the exit strategy deadlines are largely tied to the fact that in America the war is not at all popular. And here is president Barack Obama who will have to start his 2012 reelection campaign, a year or so from now, with this issue of an endless conflict as a political liability.

Expensive war

And, aside from being unpopular in the US, this war is costing America around 200 million a day. Nowadays these are high figures –even for the US. A protracted military effort whose goals and outcomes are unclear will become a real liability for the anti war Democrats who would want the money spent elsewhere and for the fiscal conservatives who want spending cuts. In this new “deficit reduction” environment in which we will have to deal with the massive federal debt, scarce federal revenue and competing domestic priorities, an unpopular war may very well become a political casualty.

We cannot keep doing this at will

For all these reasons it is obvious that we cannot keep going at it at will, until the other side will essentially stop fighting, having lost confidence in their ability to prevail. Hence the deadlines which however only illustrate the problem of basic lack of political support for this conflict. All in all, these are basic, built in, American strategic weakness.

We have a counter terror goal. But we have created a complex counter insurgency operation to achieve it; and, notwithstanding the visible inadequacies of the Kabul government, we have declared that it will be all under control by 2014. Something here does not add up. The review could have been an opportunity to think this over and make a basic reassessment. But it came and went.

We only know even more than before that this whole Afghanistan mess is truly deadly, as the tragic death of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, literally “killed” by the strains of this impossible mission, sadly reminds us.

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