Archive for September, 2009

Some great stuff I don’t have time to comment on right now (am putting the finishing touches on a story about a Finnish ISAF soldier wounded by friendly fire in 2006):

  • In the September issue of the CTC Sentinel, Anne Stenersen examines why the Afghan Taliban are unlikely to attack targets in the West. Food for thought: “It should be noted that the Afghan Taliban leadership has not officially denounced al-Qa`ida or its activities, and they have stated that al-Qa`ida and other foreign Muslims are welcome to join their fight in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it appears that the Afghan Taliban leaders themselves do not wish to be associated with al-Qa`ida’s global jihadist strategy.”
  • “Clearly, defending Afghanistan will not eradicate a terrorist network based in Pakistan”, Bruce Hoffman writes in The National Interest. “But failing to defend Afghanistan will almost certainly give al-Qaeda new momentum and greater freedom of action.”
  • “It’s disappointing to see someone with his expertise, access to resources and more importantly influence, put out factually incorrect material”, writes Leah Farrall and proceeds to tear apart Hoffman’s argument. Hoffman responds, but Farrall stands her ground. Way to go!

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Afghanistan: The Limits of CT

I’ve poked fun at Fred and Kimberly Kagan many times in the past, so when they actually come up with something worth our attention, I feel I owe them a nod. Say what you will about the conclusions of their new PowerPoint on Afghanistan, you have to admit they do get down to specifics. For example:

  • Available Western “counter-insurgents” — not counting support elements — currently number less than 40,000. “Most Afghans never see a member of ISAF. Afghans who interact with ISAF forces are generally far more concerned with what those forces are doing and whether or not they are providing security than with how many of them there are. The issue of ‘foreign occupation’ is a propaganda theme, not a finely‐calibrated reality. (Cf. Gulliver.)
  • An effective post-withdrawal Predator campaign in Afghanistan would require bases in either Afghanistan or Pakistan due to the UAV’s limited range. Ditto SOF raids.
  • Adopting a purely CT approach would mean abrogating the U.S. commitment to the Afghanistan Compact. The U.S. would have to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with the Afghan government to continue CT operations following a withdrawal.

Feel free to take it apart in the comments. I’m quoting it simply because I appreciate the effort to see beyond the rhetoric: What would a CT campaign actually entail? What would a withdrawal look like? You want to draw down, fine. How do you do it?

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I’ve been a fan of Steve Coll’s ever since we both covered South Asia in the early 90s, so needless to say, I feel somewhat… what’s that nice English word… vindicated by this:

The United States has a deep interest in the emergence of a stable, modernizing, economically integrated, peaceful South Asia—by which I mean the region that is centered on India, but which also encompasses Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Afghanistan.


The Taliban are a backward-looking threat to the near-term stability of South Asia—in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and, as the Mumbai attacks demonstrated, occasionally in India. The United States has an interest in preventing the Taliban from destabilizing South Asia by acquiring influence in nuclear-armed Pakistan or by provoking a war between India and Pakistan, two still-insecure nuclear powers.

You might recall that I put forward, to much ridicule, pretty much the same argument for stabilising Afghanistan a few weeks back in my post “9/11, American Myopia and Nuclear War”. Now, I have no doubt Coll will be crucified by the “anti-war” crowd as a gutless stooge of the military-industrial complex just as I did, and since this torch-and-pitchfork mob is basically illiterate¹, the fact that he wrote Ghost Wars will probably be held against him. Even so, it’s nice to know I’m not alone.

¹In the immortal words of one blogger I confronted via email: “None of these [objections to the war] require extensive knowledge of Afghanistan.  Nothing I’ve written implies that I am an area expert — or even especially knowledgeable — about Afghanistan.  Nothing I’ve written requires that.”

[UPDATE: And heeere we go: “… the real question for these people is not how they would do it […] but how many people would they kill to achieve it…” “… the dark abyss of their souls…” “…to them the killing doesn’t matter, they would kill everyone…” Wow — I thought you guys were predictable, but this is… wow.]

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Oh please, not this again:

The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.

This meme of Afghanistan actually, really, truly not being so relevant to 9/11 has been doing the rounds ever since John Mueller mentioned the magic word “Hamburg” in Foreign Affairs five months ago (and got his head bashed in by commenters, yet chose not to respond).

It’s utter rubbish and I will deal with it in a later post, but for now, here’s Peter Bergen:

[…] The idea that Afghanistan is not an ideal place from which to launch anti-American attacks is simply absurd. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the first attack by Islamist terrorists against the United States, was led by Ramzi Yousef who trained in the Sadda training camp on the Afghan-Pakistan border. The bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 that killed more than 200 were coordinated and carried out by men who had trained in Afghanistan, as was the attack on the USS Cole two years later.

And while […] elements of the 9/11 plot were coordinated in Hamburg — where three of the pilots had lived in the run-up to the attacks — the idea of attacking iconic targets in Washington and New York was first hatched in Afghanistan in 1996; the coordination of the attacks took place in Afghanistan over the next several years; the pilots were given their specific orders about target selection and their duties by the leaders of al Qaeda when they travelled to Afghanistan in 1999, and all 15 of the ‘muscle’ hijackers passed through al Qaeda’s Afghan training camps.

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A group of American foreign policy scholars and activists has written a letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to re-focus the U.S. mission in Afghanistan “more clearly on al Qaeda instead of expanding the mission into an ambitious experiment in state building”:

[…] We are concerned that the war in Afghanistan is growing increasingly detached from considerations of length, cost, and consequences. Its rationale is becoming murkier and both domestic and international support for it is waning.

My concern, frankly, is that in this distinguished and highly learned group of 38 fine people, there isn’t one — not one — expert on Afghanistan — not the country nor the area nor even the general neighbourhood. Those who actually know Afghanistan are just as conspicuously missing here as they were from McChrystal’s posse of mostly pro-escalation advisors.

I’m not saying area expertise should be a requirement for opposing the war. But there must be something wrong with the debate when people who have spent decades studying the topic remain absent from the talk shows and op-ed pages.

Then again, perhaps it’s simply because they’d rather focus on their research than engage in a shouting match with people who will call them rats. As an example of the civilised and thoughtful manner in which the letter’s signatories treat anyone suspected of the thought-crime of non-opposition to the war, here’s Bernard Finel:

Well, the problem is… the worse the news, the more imperative the pro-war, pro-COIN side believes its position to be. Only good news can convince them — so they’ll be arguing for war until we ‘win.’ Except that public support will collapse before then, and since a lot of them are just riding on the conventional wisdom, a lot of them will peel off like rats jumping from a sinking ship as the argument falls apart. A few true believers will ride it all the way down, and will indeed spend years explaining how if we have just following their advice, we would have won.

In short, convincing them is not about facts and arguments. They are stuck in an intellectually closed loop and they will only ever escape from it when their instinct for professional self-preservation kicks in.

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In his FP article ”Doubting Afghanistan”, Bernard Finel puts forward 10 questions he believes one must be able to “convincingly answer” to make “a compelling case” for bolstering the Western military commitment in Afghanistan.

To be precise, there are seven questions and three strawmen. And some of the questions come close to being… well, outright inane, like the one that asks (I’m paraphrasing), “How come the Taliban would be hostile to Pakistan now, when they weren’t from 1996 to 2001?” Also, even though the “anti-war” folks seem to be under the impression that they don’t have to make their case with solid arguments and irrefutable facts like us “pro-war” folks do, it would be immeasurably easier for me to take Finel seriously if he would’ve found the time to answer his own questions.

Still, given the current state of the Afghanistan debate, where mobs carrying torches and pitchforks and murmuring “Kill the warmonger!” have overpowered people who actually know what they’re talking about, it’s refreshing to see someone trying to advance the discussion in a civilised manner. So, for what it’s worth, here goes:

(1) Why does the possibility that al Qaeda might establish a sanctuary in Afghanistan justify a multi-year commitment of American forces, while the reality of an al Qaeda sanctuary in Pakistan justifies nothing more than financial support to the Pakistani government and occasional Predator strikes?

Pakistan is a country; Afghanistan is an ungoverned space. Pakistan as a state just turned 62; Afghanistan as a state is a work in progress. Pakistan has a government, a judiciary, a working parliamentary system and a battle-tested army with a long tradition as the country’s most cohesive institution. Afghanistan used to have many of the same but now has only a semblance of government with little authority outside the capital, and an army that has yet to find its feet. Pakistan is perfectly capable of fighting its own enemies if it chooses to; it needs help, not an occupation. Afghanistan, even in its present rudimentary form, would cease to exist without a significant foreign commitment and would revert back to its pre-2001 state as a jihadi sanctuary.

There is also the small matter of whether punitive strikes work at all. In Afghanistan, they certainly haven’t. According to newly declassified U.S. government documents, the Clinton administration’s cruise missile strikes on terrorist training camps in 1998 most likely backfired, helping to forge a tighter alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Similarly, American Predator attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas, even if successful in eliminating some Taliban and al-Qaeda brass, have caused resentment throughout the country and have only served to help the jihadi cause.

(2) Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan inevitable without a significant American presence on the ground?  Or might some other form of aid to the Karzai regime be sufficient to stave off that eventuality?

Indeed — Kabul would fall, and no amount of arms or assistance would stop it from happening. In fact, Finel himself has already made the case:

[…] In many ways we underestimate the Taliban. This is an extraordinary movement. It rose from a regional militia to control of 90% of Afghanistan within two years from 1994 to 1996. And while Pakistani intelligence aided at the margins, there is no reason to believe that the Taliban was either wholly or even largely a Pakistani creation. It was a real movement that was very, very savvy in terms of creating a public image and co-opting local elites in Afghanistan.

Even more impressive to me is that the organization is still alive and still under much of the same senior leadership. How many groups have been able to survive a military defeat and being forced out of power with as much cohesion as has the Taliban? I have not researched the issue systematically, but the cohesion of the Taliban post-2001 and its resurgence since 2004 is, I think, close to unprecedented.

Absolutely. The Taliban would fight, cajole, threaten and betray their way from the South to Kabul and all the way to the far North in a succession of events that would look much like Najibullah’s downfall in 1992. Once the Karzai government crumbled from within, foreign assistance would be to no avail.

Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Taliban that would rule Afghanistan after the foreign troops departed would be fundamentally different from the movement that was in power from 1996 to 2001. The new regime would include “non-Taliban” elements closely allied with al-Qaeda, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and his “more dynamic and worldly” son Sirajuddin, and the politically ambitious Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, listed by the UN as an “al-Qaeda associate”. I have met both Haqqani and Hekmatyar and see absolutely no reason to assume that this coalition of Pashtun nationalists, local Islamists and international jihadis would somehow be more rational or benign than its predecessor.

(3) What precisely is the nature of the risk a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would pose to the stability of Pakistan? From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, and yet by most indications, Pakistan was under less threat from Islamist radicals then than now. What has changed to make Afghanistan now the lynchpin on which the stability of Pakistan rests?

This must be a trick question, because the answer is, well, kind of obvious: From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban had good friends in Islamabad. Pakistan supported the movement from its inception and continued to do so well after 9/11, despite Musharraf publicly distancing himself from radical Islamists. On the other hand, an anti-extremist, Western-leaning civilian government, such as the present one in Pakistan, is a natural enemy of the Taliban.

The question isn’t totally irrelevant, though. As Thomas Rid has noted, “There is no simple causal relation between chaos or stability in Afghanistan and chaos and stability in Pakistan.” Still, one can quite reasonably assume that it would be in the strategic interests of a new Taliban government in Kabul to seek a return to the pre-2001 status quo. Obviously, the Afghan Taliban would not march on Islamabad or attempt a coup. But they would be able to contribute to the continuing instability in Pakistan by aiding and assisting the local Taliban. The key player in this cross-border effort would be the Haqqani network (see above), which traditionally has operated on both sides of the Durand Line.

Meanwhile, the re-Talibanisation of Afghanistan would give an immense boost to the powerful pro-extremist elements within the Pakistani army and intelligence service, making it difficult for the weak civilian government to resist a return to the old Pakistani doctrine of “defense in depth”. This is an important yet overlooked point: Instability in Pakistan does not require a jihadi takeover or even a military coup. A much more immediate concern is the strengthening of competing centres of power, such as the ISI, at the expense of the fledgling democratic institutions — in short, a situation, much like Benazir Bhutto’s and Nawaz Sharif’s failed cracks at running Pakistan in the 90s, where the outside world (including India) has no idea who is in charge. As Ahmed Rashid warns in his thoughtful Washington Post op-ed, “Today the Islamabad government is divided between civilians and the military, and as the civilians show themselves more inept, the army’s power is once again ascendant.”

(4) The escalation of our commitment to Afghanistan is intimately connected to the acceptance of population-centric counter-insurgency theory popularized by General Petraeus in Iraq.  How does this sort of campaign actually contribute to the long-term stabilization of Afghanistan? And if the goal is simply to dampen the insurgency to create space for a political process to occur, why is there any reason to assume that the Afghan government would be able to utilize this space more effectively than from early 2002 to early 2005 when there was only limited Taliban activity in the country?

This is the first of Finel’s strawmen. I see no such “intimate connection”. In fact, I have repeatedly argued that the U.S. COIN campaign in Iraq has yet to prove its worth, and that even if it did, it would be a fool’s errand to try to transplant any of the lessons into Afghanistan. I certainly don’t see any Surge-like plan to “dampen the insurgency to create space for a political process to occur”. All I can see right now is an effort by various actors, including the U.S. and NATO, to formulate a working Afghan strategy. To be sure, it will most likely include elements of the “Petraeus-popularised” population-centric way of war, but to what extent, we simply do not know.

In any case, to say that no political process occurred in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2005 is a pretty sweeping dismissal of a whole bunch of stuff the Afghans are rightly proud of. Sure, the international community made a mess of it, but Afghanistan did have relatively successful elections and took other steps in the right direction.

(5) Is it possible to conceive a political process in Afghanistan that will provide lasting stability that does not require some negotiations with the Taliban? And if not, what sorts of concessions might be acceptable given the stated American interests in the country?

Yes. With time and perseverance, by protecting the population and making its life better little by little, and by exploiting any cracks in the insurgency, it is possible to make the Taliban irrelevant as a military threat, forcing some elements to join the political process and marginalising the rest. Factors outside the control of the international community may also contribute to this kind of shift: strategic overreach, with the Taliban attempting a truly national, multiethnic insurgency, and fracturing in the process; or, following some violent excess, a local uproar that transforms into a wider anti-Taliban movement.

This meme about negotiating with the Taliban is curious – okay bizarre – and needs to be put to rest. At the very least, Finel and his fellow “realists” (I’m using quotes because I fail to see what any of this has to do with actual realism) should read Christian Bleuer’s cautionary tale of how an attempt to strike a deal with the Taliban would end.

(6) Many proponents of escalation in Afghanistan highlight the American moral obligation to the Afghan people, in particular to Afghan women certain to be oppressed by a Taliban resurgence and the large number of men and women who have worked with American forces who would likely be targeted for retribution. What is the nature of this moral obligation? It is absolute? Are there steps we could take to mitigate the consequences short of providing a permanent guarantee of human rights in the country?

Another strawman. Who are these “many proponents”? And where on earth would this “moral obligation” stem from? I don’t get it – is Finel suggesting this is a serious pro-war argument that needs defending?

(7) Many of the steps we are encouraging the Afghans to undertake imply tremendous long-term costs. Increasing the size and capabilities of the Afghan army, institutionalize government control and services over the whole of the country, rooting out corruption and drug trafficking are all costly measures. How will the Afghan government pay for all these commitments in the future? Will the United States be required to continue to fund Afghan government operations to the tune of several billion dollars annually indefinitely? Are we, in short, encouraging a gap between increased Afghan government obligations and likely Afghan government revenues?

In his “alternative strategy for Afghanistan”, Finel proposes:

[…] We should offer the Afghan government a wide range of assistance as we depart and after.  This should include generous development and military aid, offers to continue to train Afghan forces, mechanisms to share intelligence, diplomatic support, and even potentially some commitment of air power.

Whoa — slow down there, hoss. Surely committing oneself to propping up an unpopular and failing regime for years to come would be just as expensive as “funding Afghan government commitments” mentioned above? Seriously — why is keeping a comatose government alive by infusions of cash and guns preferable to trying to make the government work better now that we’re still physically present to make sure our contributions don’t go to waste?

(8) What is the difference between the likely future risk posed by Afghanistan versus that posed by Somalia or other states with active violent Islamist movements?

The difference is that although a spillover of extremism from Somalia may pose a risk to Kenyan stability, there are no regional flashpoints for the jihadis to exploit, and try as I might, I can’t find two nuclear-armed rivals in the neighbourhood, either. In short, no matter how much terrorism it exports, a failed state in the Horn of Africa does not increase the risk of nuclear war.

(9) How significant is the assumption that regardless of the strategic logic for American involvement, we will likely remain because an attack on the United States emanating from Afghanistan would be a disaster for any incumbent president’s political standing? In other words, must we plan to remain in Afghanistan because of strategic risks or understandable domestic political risks?

Oh boy – the strawmen just keeep on comin’. While we’re at it, how about this: “How significant is the assumption, shared by many in the United States and Europe, that the Taliban are the personification of evil? In other words, must we plan to remain in Afghanistan because of theological considerations?”

(10) How significant is the fact that the “big three” — Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Mullah Omar — remain at large and that an American withdrawal from Afghanistan might allow them to return? If all three were to die, would that change the calculus about American interests in Afghanistan?

You mean if by some miracle a Predator would get them all at once? Okay, supposing it did happen, I’m sure it would be a devastating blow to both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. However, in the more likely event of all three dying in the space of, say, a year, I really don’t think it would make that much of a dent to the motivations of those left behind. And I don’t see how it would change the calculus about American interests in Afghanistan. After all, the idea according to the White Paper is to deny the jihadis a sanctuary, not just to effect a change in their leadership, right? However, knowing the mounting political pressure Obama faces over this war, the death of the “big three” might very well provide the U.S. the excuse it has been looking for to extricate itself from that godawful mess called Afghanistan.

By all accounts, Finel’s is a keen strategic intellect, and his blog is among the finest around. But his “10 questions” betray a surprisingly poor command of Central and South Asian history. And for a man who has suggested that should the Taliban return to power, the West should — wait for it — “credibly communicate our commitment to again remove them from power if they in any way tolerate the establishment of anti-American terrorist networks on their soil”, he is awfully quick to call other people’s writing inane. I mean, who’s daydreaming here? In a convoluted but widely syndicated rebuttal of an argument Josh Foust and I have made – namely, that Afghanistan as a failed state would destabilise a region with two nuclear powers, and that this should be a factor in the West’s strategic considerations – Finel conveniently forgets that no one has suggested this is the only rationale for a foreign military presence in Afghanistan but merely a facet, albeit an important one, of the larger picture.

There is an even more fundamental flaw in Finel’s thinking (and that of his fellow “realists”, including Marc Lynch and Stephen Walt): using anti-war arguments to advocate withdrawal. While these arguments – aid and assistance from afar instead of hands-on reconstruction inside the country; targeted killing of the enemy’s top echelon instead of boots on the ground, etc. – might make a reasonable case against an invasion, they make little sense in a case for pulling out. For example, one could easily oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq by arguing that the Iraqis themselves would take care of Saddam in due course; but once the war started and the forces of sectarian and ethnic hatred were unleashed, only naifs and retards cynics continued to advocate a swift departure and “letting Iraqis handle things”. Similarly, “losing face” or “damaging one’s image” might be ridiculous arguments for attacking a country, but to dismiss them out of hand as arguments against withdrawal, as Lynch has done, shows an alarming lack of understanding for the dynamics of armed conflict. To withdraw 100,000 troops (and, consequently, most civilian personnel) from a country after nine years of international effort, without resolving the conflict in any way or even agreeing on an end state, carries its own set of enormous problems, none of which Finel et al. address. By invading a country you become part of the equation, and like it or not, things won’t just go back to how they were if you suddenly decide to bring the troops home. There is a reason it’s called a footprint: if you pull the boot out carelessly, a vacuum will form, and the departing power will have little control over who or what fills it.

This is why I don’t like these military interventions: sooner or later, the international community becomes obsessed with some other thing and loses interest, and some dork guy will say it’s okay to leave now because nothing bad will happen, and he will be joined by other dorks guys, all of whom eagerly supported the war when it was still “good”, until finally, facing elections and shrinking budgets, the leaders who took us there decide it’s time to cut and run, and no one will be listening to the expert sitting in the corner puffing on his pipe and muttering that the next catastrophe is already in the making.

[UPDATE: I have emailed the following note to Bernard Finel:

Dr. Finel,

since I don’t seem to be able to log in to your blog, I wonder if you could kindly post the following as a comment:

First of all, apologies for the naifs, retards and dorks. I am unfortunately prone to this, while at the same time eagerly pointing out ad hominems when other people use them — admittedly not a very admirable personality trait.

As for my use of the words ‘inane’ and ‘ridiculous’, they were meant as humorous references to your own characterisation of some of my blog posts and those of Josh Foust.

But again, I shouldn’t take my exasperation out on someone who is actually trying to build a civilised argument as opposed to just spewing paranoid accusations as some do.

Regarding the strawmen, you have a point: I tackled your questions in the larger context of ISAF, not just the American debate. The mistake was mine, though I have to wonder why you would want to restrict the discussion to what is, after all, just one contributing country. Sure, the U.S. contribution has been sizeable, but Afghanistan is by no means solely America’s war. I would also like to point out that until 2007, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and, in fact, interest in the country was negligible given your vast resources and the importance of this theatre. I think this fact gets easily lost in the debate: has the U.S. contribution to Afghanistan since 2001 actually been adequate?

You’re correct in saying that my arguments are mostly just assertions. But so are yours. This is the nature of the debate — we’re not talking about what is, but what will or might be, if this or that happens. All we can do is extrapolate and hope for the best.

From my point of view, the bottom line regarding Western military interventions in third world countries is this: Either leave them be, or prepare to finish what you started. There’s no middle ground.

Best regards


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