Fred and Kimberly Kagan, accompanied by Max Boot, have taken a Petraeus-organised package tour in Afghanistan and have arrived at a cheerful conclusion: not only is the war winnable, but it’ll be a cakewalk:
Even without much popular backing, Afghan insurgents are staging an increasing number of attacks, but major cities like Kabul and Jalalabad, which we visited, are relatively safe and flourishing. The civilian death toll in Afghanistan last year was 16 times lower than that in Iraq in the pre-surge year of 2006, even though Afghanistan is more populous.
There is no question that we can succeed against these much weaker foes, notwithstanding the support they receive from Pakistan and to a lesser extent Iran. President Obama’s recent decision to send 17,000 additional troops is a good start. While increased security operations will result in a temporary increase in casualties, that spike should be followed by broad reductions in violence, just as with the Iraq surge.
In other words:
[…] The odds of success are much better than they were in Iraq when we launched the forlorn hope known as the surge.
Now, Fred was one of the architects of the surge, Kimberly has written a book about it, and even if Boot is better known for cheering on while his president commits colossal blunders, it’s not like this trio doesn’t have the credentials for tackling national security issues.
But clearly someone has taken the blue pill here.
Sure, it must be tempting, after the undeniable military success of the COIN campaign in Iraq, to take the surge, make it a model, and apply it everywhere regardless of what locality you happen to be fighting in. But let’s stop for a moment and take a deep breath and listen to what two pretty smart guys, Carter Malkasian and Jerry Meyerle think about this:
Factors that loom large in any counterinsurgency campaign—politics, society, the policies of the insurgents, economics, and outside support for the insurgency—bear only a passing resemblance to Al Anbar or Iraq. Politically, Iraq has been defined by its civil war. Staunching it has been an imperative for US forces. In contrast, sectarian (and ethnic) divides are muted in Afghanistan; a fairly representative government exists. The political problem is that the government has failed to rule fairly or well. The structure of society differs too. The basis of the turnaround in Al Anbar was a social movement—the alliance of tribes who together threw out Al Qaeda in Iraq. In Afghanistan, tribes are highly de-centralized, broken into small bits and averse to coming together. Nor does the insurgency itself look the same. Insurgents in Afghanistan pay closer attention to keeping the support of tribes and the population. There is no obvious analogy to Al Anbar’s rift between the tribes and Al Qaeda in Iraq. Tribes may have disagreements with the Taliban or Al Qaeda but as of yet no major rifts have formed that unite the majority of the tribes behind the government. Finally there are the two most obvious differences between Afghanistan and Al Anbar: the poppy trade, which pumps money into the insurgency, and the insurgent safe haven in Pakistan, which dwarfs anything that Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan ever afforded the Sunni insurgents.
As for the idea that the Taleban are somehow “weaker” than the Sunni insurgents, AQI bombers and JAM guerrillas the U.S. faced in Iraq, here’s some Kilcullen for ya:
On the basis of my field experience in 2005–08 in Iraq, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, I assess the current generation of Taliban fighters, within the broader Taliban confederation (which loosely combines old Taliban cadres with Pashtun nationalists, tribal fighters, and religious extremists), as the most tactically competent enemy we currently face in any theater.
I’ve said this before, and others have said it as well: you don’t succeed in Afghanistan by transplanting a strategy that, partly due to fortuitous circumstances, happened to work elsewhere. What you need is a McMaster or a MacFarland, a creative thinker with the guts of a soldier and the wits of a social worker. And when the field guys start to come up with unorthodox solutions, you need an Odierno or a Petraeus to take the ball and run with it.
So here’s an idea: Maybe instead of Anbar we ought to look at what those lazy-ass Europeans who don’t kill enough are up to in Uruzgan:
Dutch army commanders have pursued an ‘ink-spot’ approach, in which they focus on controlling the three central districts where 70% of the 627,000 population is concentrated. Other areas have been ceded, they say, until they can win popular support by demonstrating progress in the centre. […] Dutch forces fought a long battle in the [Baluchi] valley in late 2007, built patrol bases at either end of it and then stood back for a year, content to study the complex dynamics of the area from afar.
The result? Not bad, considering:
Grudgingly, local people concede there has been some improvement. Haji Zal, a tribal elder in Tirin Khot, the provincial capital, points to better security and new roads, and judges things ‘10%’ better than a year ago.
Sure, other locals say credit should go to the Australian and American special forces operating in the area. Still, the Dutch general has a point:
[…] The Taliban are less of a threat to the tottering structures of the Afghan state than feuding local tribes and predatory warlords. The Uruzgan insurgency is mixed up with a notably vicious tribal war between the Popolzai tribe and minority Ghilzai tribes. Jan Mohammad Khan, a Popolzai warlord and former Uruzgan governor, marginalised the Ghilzais. This seems to have created lasting turmoil which is exploited by the Taliban.
I realise that any armchair general equipped with a pair of extra special nightvision hindsight goggles will chaingun the crap out of this piece of peace-mongering Euro-sociology in no time. But I also think that with options dwindling, we can’t afford to go berserk and do a Ghazni on every solution that doesn’t conform to the time-honoured maxim of “kill ’em all”.
[UPDATE: Spencer has a thoughtful post up on the subject. He complains that the Kagan/Boot op-ed doesn’t define “success”, but I think it’s obvious what they mean. Hint: it smells like napalm in the morning.]