Archive for February, 2009

Out of the darkness emerges a new narrative:

Between 2003 and 2005, the United States and its allies were on the right track in Afghanistan. Under the leadership of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Lt. Gen. David Barno, counterterrorism efforts were abandoned in favour of a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy. Everything was going fine. And then Rumsfeld pulled the plug.

This meme made its debut last week in a speech by John McCain at the American Enterprise Institute:

For a brief but critical window between late 2003 and early 2005, we were moving on the right path in Afghanistan. […] We increased the number of American forces in the country, expanded non-military assistance to the Afghan government and – most importantly – abandoned a counterterrorism-based strategy that emphasized seeking out and attacking the enemy, in favor of one that emphasized counterinsurgency and the protection of the population.

[…] The result was that, by late 2004, governance and reconstruction were improving and long-delayed projects, like the ring road that connects major Afghan cities, were at last getting off the ground. Entrenched warlords were being nudged out of power. Militias like the Northern Alliance were being peacefully disarmed of their heavy weapons, and national elections were conducted successfully and safely. The Taliban showed signs of internal dissention and splintering.

The storyline was duly picked up the next day by Condoleezza Rice’s former speechwriter Christian Brose:

The precedent for what we need to do in Afghanistan in 2009 and beyond is what we were doing in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, under the country team leadership of Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. Dave Barno. So this isn’t exactly unchartered waters.

It will be interesting to see how this thing evolves. My guess is it will become part of the larger story arc of “History Will Vindicate Us” currently being written by Bushian revisionists, who like to present the previous administration’s strategic blunders as ultimate victories.

None of this is to say McCain’s “Golden Years” meme is completely without merit. There was indeed a window of opportunity, from the toppling of the Taleban in 2001 until around 2004, when the Afghans’ hopes were high, attitudes towards foreign assistance were favourable, and the insurgency seemed almost irrelevant. But a troop increase? A strategic overhaul? Warlords being “nudged out of power”? Where are the facts to support this?

I have nothing against politically motivated narratives. They’re often entertaining and sometimes useful in understanding complex processes. But here’s the thing: they’re not necessarily true. McCain in particular has a history of getting his timelines backwards, as when he famously claimed that the surge preceded the Anbar Awakening in Iraq. Also, it’s obvious his new meme is meant to bolster the idea, already gaining strength within the American COIN community, that all was well in Afghanistan until NATO messed it up. Barno himself said as much last week in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee — interestingly, just one day after McCain’s speech.

Needless to say, not everyone shares this view. I for one think that if NATO failed in anything, it was in cleaning up the mess it inherited from the Americans.

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On the eve of Obama’s big Iraq pullout speech, there has been a flurry of criticism from his own party and from scholars and bloggers over the supposedly slow pace of the withdrawal. Marc Lynch sums up the problem:

Just look at the calender. Iraq’s Parliamentary elections have not yet been scheduled and don’t even have an electoral law, and according to a number of senior Iraqi politicians probably will not be held until March 2010 (not December 2009).  That would then give the U.S. about five months to withdraw the bulk of the dozen combat brigades which would reportedly remain.  And then, keep in mind that U.S. officials generally agree (correctly) that the most dangerous period of elections is actually in their aftermath, when disgruntled losers might turn to violence or other destabilizing measures.  So the following month will likely not seem a good time either.  So that would leave four months to move, what — 9 brigades? Did someone say precipitous? Good luck with that. And that’s assuming, of course, that nothing else risky or destabilizing comes up in April or May 2010 (Kirkuk?) which would make a drawdown at that moment appear risky.

Lynch’s argument, paraphrased and simplified, is that the more US troops there are in Iraq, the less incentive there is for the Maliki government to handle things on its own, which will delay the much-needed political reconciliation and let the open wounds rot. As Lynch put it in another FP piece: “Postponing withdrawals would continue to freeze the current situation in place, while squandering the best opportunity the United States will ever have to reshape its commitments to Iraq.”

It is difficult to disagree, and yet I must. My worry is that we have come to see Iraq as somehow separate from the rest of the world, as if the country existed in its own war-damaged vacuum. The result is that while we have paid much attention to the internal dynamics of Iraqi politics and the ebb and flow of the security situation, we have all but ignored outside forces that can quickly become catalysts for upheaval. One such force is the global recession, which has sent oil prices plummeting and has left Iraq reeling from financial shock. This is probably the biggest threat the country now faces, and it’s quite possible that the hard-won security gains will unravel not because of renewed sectarian violence but because of, well, lack of money. Yet this possibility, obvious as it may sound, is nowhere to be seen in Lynch’s list of contingencies. What is even more troubling is that because of our tunnel vision, none of us saw it coming. What else is there that we’re not seeing?

So, yes — I do think the prudent thing for Obama to do is to go slow. After six years of disaster, the United States owes it to Iraq not to pull the plug in haste. It may not matter that vast areas of the country, such as Nineweh and Diyala, “remain kinetic”, as an Iraq-savvy commenter put it in FP; but it matters a great deal if the whole country goes up in flames while America watches. If you thought the invasion was bad for the U.S. image and ultimately demoralising for Americans, just think what that would do.

In critiquing Tom Ricks’s The Gamble, Stephen Walt makes the case for not staying:

Keeping U.S. forces in Iraq indefinitely means we will continue to hemorrhage our power and wealth on behalf of a government that has 1) already forced us to sign an agreement to withdraw, 2) is openly hostile to Israel, 3) friendly to Iran, 4) lukewarm about us, and 5) increasingly uninterested in Washington’s desires. And this is the regime on whose behalf we should expend more blood and treasure?

Short answer: Yes. Because when you break it, you own it.

One more thing. While I agree that open-ended military commitments are inherently dangerous, try as I might I fail to see any hidden “imperial” agenda behind Obama’s decision. Bush’s neocon backers may have dreamt of an empire, but for the new administration, there simply isn’t any ideological reason to linger in Iraq.

[UPDATE: As always, Judah is worth quoting:

In the context of the ‘you broke it, you own it’ paradigm, Obama has effectively handed back over to the Iraqis what he and American opinion, rightly or wrongly, consider to be a ‘fixed’ Iraq. If it winds up broken again, it will be — politically speaking — their bad.

Yeah — except that Colin Powell’s original Pottery Barn rule doesn’t give you the option of fixing what you broke. The point is rather that once you invade a country and blast it to hell, your fortunes will be forever intertwined. SOFA or no SOFA, the United States is morally responsible for seeing to it that Iraq survives.]

[UPDATE II: I never quite realised it, but it seems I’m with the Arabs on this. Hat tip: Rob, for helping out an illiterate.]

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In a column in The News, Ayaz Amir paints a terrifying picture of the spread of Talebanism to Punjab:

Which are the elements flocking to Mahsud’s banner in Waziristan and Fazlullah’s in Swat? Not the big Khans or Maliks but the have-nots. Beware Punjab’s huge under-class which will be fodder and recruiting ground for the Taliban if the revolt in the north-west, escaping the best ability of the Pakistan military establishment to suppress it, snakes its way into the adjoining districts of Punjab.

Every Punjab town, large and small, has a mosque, if not more than one, sympathetic to the Taliban brand of Islam. So at least there is a handy network — a Ho Chi Minh Trail, so to speak — down which the ideology of the Taliban can travel, whether we like this ideology or abhor it being a separate issue altogether.

And a couple of analogies to boot:

If this were Nepal this would be a Maoist uprising. If this were a Latin American country it would be a peasant or a Guevarist uprising. Since it is Pakistan, the revolt assaulting the bastions of the established order comes with an Islamic colouring, Islam reduced to its most literal and unimaginative interpretations at the hands of those leading the Taliban revolt.

[ht/t FaithWorld. ]

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“I know how to win wars,” John McCain said last July. “And if I’m elected President, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory.”

I still don’t think he has a secret recipe for saving the day. But to his credit, he does have a strategy — or, more precisely, a smorgasbord of different and sometimes conflicting roadmaps. Still, it’s not bad. You can find it here.

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I have nothing but respect for Andrew Exum and the inimitable Abu Muqawama, but today he has a misfire.

In a post titled “Sri Lanka: The Last Battle”, Exum describes the war between the Colombo government and the LTTE as an “increasingly successful counterinsurgency campaign”. If by “counterinsurgency” he simply means a war against insurgents, he’s of course right — the conflict indeed pits an army against a rebel force. But if he means classic COIN, as defined by Galula and his followers and spelled out in FM 3-24, then no — that is not what the Sri Lankan army is conducting. It is waging a conventional war, using air strikes and artillery to hit an enemy hiding among civilians, with inevitably high casualties. Population security? Not so much.

And just so we don’t get too carried away with the “successes” of the war, let’s keep in mind that the 28-year conflict has turned Sri Lanka into a police state, where “journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders are living in fear and need better protection from violence,” according to a recent UN investigation.

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In an excellent LAT op-ed on the Swat truce, Ahmed Rashid walks us through the consequences:

[…] This is the first time the government has surrendered an enormous area of northern Pakistan to extremists, who will govern by a separate set of laws. Moreover, the Taliban is unlikely to stop in Swat. Even Mohammed, who is viewed as a moderate in comparison with his son-in-law, has vowed to impose Sharia across Pakistan and has denounced democracy as an evil, Western model. The psychological blow to public morale has been devastating.

Here’s a little-discussed yet terrifying point:

The Swat crisis will further weaken an already devastated Pakistani economy, which faces increasing joblessness, inflation and capital flight. Moreover, several hundred thousand Pakistani migrant laborers are being forced to return home from the Arabian Gulf countries because of the global recession. Many of these workers are Pashtuns and, with no jobs at home, some will inevitably become Talibs.

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A metaphor currently in vogue among national security pundits goes like this: The “Af-Pak” problem is like a balloon. If you squeeze it too hard from the “Af” side, it will burst on the “Pak” side, which is way worse than it bursting on the other side, because “Pak” has nukes, and a burst balloon would mean a Taleban finger on the red button.¹

My question is this: Have you guys ever actually handled a balloon full of water? I doubt it, because if you had, you would know that it doesn’t matter how you squeeze the damn thing, it will always burst where you least want it. Even if you try gently opening it to let the water out, you’ll most likely end up wet.

The problem isn’t the balloon. It’s the fact that some jerk decided to turn it into a water bomb in the first place.

As you can probably guess from my ever so subtle sarcasm, I’m getting pretty sick and tired of the analogies and metaphors and armchair nitpicking over what is going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan, what is going to happen, and what “we”² should do about it.

Sure, I’m as guilty as everyone else. Even so, I have to ask: Is there no limit to the absurdity of this quibbling? One blogger says the kill-capture model of warfighting now being taught to the Pakistanis violates Petraeus’s counterinsurgency tenets; another one says no, it’s okay, because it’s not COIN, it’s CT. You think this is a meaningful distinction to a person whose house and family a Hellfire just demolished?

¹ I know I’ve peddled this threat scenario just as passionately as everyone else, but I’m still waiting for someone to explain how exactly the Taleban/AQ takeover of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is supposed to happen.

² I use the quotes here because even though there are some legitimate reasons for Americans to call it “their” war, we have taken to condescendingly talking about these countries as if they had no say over their own affairs.

[Judah’s eloquent reply here. He also answers my question about the threat to “Pak’s” nukes. I kind of knew the answer, but being me, didn’t bother to think it through. More importantly, though, he defends his water bomber bona fides like a true warrior. Oh, and for the record — I didn’t really mean the metaphor is stupid, I was just being ratty. And stupid.]

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“One of the ways weak states try to slow the spread of a rapidly spreading open source insurgency is to embrace it,” writes John Robb, who sees an upside to the Swat truce:

  1. Open warfare will slow, curtailing the bad effects of a unpopular guerrilla war on Pakistan’s military.
  2. These groups can now be negotiated with, since it is likely that by giving these Islamic groups local control, it forces them into a position of defending gains.  They now have something to lose.
  3. Internal opposition will mount as these Islamic groups over reach with their application of Sharia.

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Judah Grunstein stumbles across a 30,000 rifle “Sons of FATA” program that sounds so misguided I will probably have nightmares about it. John McCreary sums it up:

This is the Pakistani counterpart of a similar program in Afghanistan. A danger is that these programs upset traditional power sharing arrangements for local problem solving. In most farming and shepherding societies, men with weapons are managed carefully and not ex officio members of decision-making councils. Access to weapons and ammunition changes village and district bases of authority forever, whether the guns support local religious authorities or secular power holders; the wise or the skilled, or the hereditary elite. The introduction and empowerment of weapons wielders always upset pre-existing power balances with the consequences that are serious and difficult to predict for everyone.

The Dutch colonial authorities in the Dutch East Indies, the French in Indochina and the British in Malaya learned after World War II that the local resistance forces they armed against the Japanese became the core of armed independent movements against the providers of arms. Pakistan already experienced this boomerang effect under earlier governments.


Creating local militias might help stabilize the tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There might not be other good or quick options at this time, but proponents of the tactic should also prepare plans for the follow-on consequences. Disarmament is never effective; warlordism is almost unavoidable; arbitrary local decision-making backed by guns is common; armed insurrection against the warlords is a usual long term result.

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Foreign Policy has yet another excellent blog up, this one a “book club” called In Other Words. The first book they’re discussing is Tom Ricks’s The Gamble, with posts by Christian Brose and Marc Lynch, who provide welcome dissent. Lynch wraps up by asking a crucial question:

[…] What if there had been no surge?

None of the current crop of Surge Literature really grapples with this counter-factual, though Ricks comes the closest (see his chapter seven). Most simply assume the worst-case counter-factual, that without the surge Iraqi civil war would have escalated to genocide and the United States would have fled with tail between legs. But this is simply not a sure thing. By the time the surge brigades arrived in Iraq, the Sunni Awakening’s turn against al-Qaeda had long since taken place (in the fall of 2006). The sectarian cleansing of Baghdad was far advanced (and continued through the surge). Moqtada al-Sadr’s calculations vis a vis Iran, competing Shia groups, and the United States were already changing. Strategic exhaustion may already have been setting in. Had the Iraq Study Group been heeded, would Iraq today look much as it does now — only with half the U.S. military presence and a much faster track towards political reconciliation?

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