“The current near-term strategy appears to be to try to kill enough of the Taliban’s leaders to force them to negotiate a settlement on terms acceptable to Hamid Karzai.”
“This war will not be won, or defeat avoided, by fine intellectual distinctions.”
“What Obama needs to do is to take the bull by the horns, and start exploring options for the early departure of Hamid Karzai. This will be a monumentally challenging task. So was D-Day in World War II.”
Current U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan
The bad news from Afghanistan, and about U.S. policy making in Washington, is coming in at a dizzying pace.
Hardly had we recovered from the Wikileaks disclosures, when Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars threw a sharp spotlight on the nature and quality of deicision making in the White House.
At such a juncture, it is useful to reflect for a moment on our strategy in Afghanistan.
The United States developed during the course of the war in Iraq the ability to combine real-time intelligence with targeted killings and special operations. Some military and civilian leaders appear to have concluded that this capability turned the war in Iraq around. They underestimate or forget the significance of other factors such as genuine elections and a real government partner in achieving the turnaround there.
In Afghanistan, U.S. military and civilian policymakers have bought into the seductive allure of this extraordinary targeted killing capability, falling into the trap of rejecting the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine (embodied in David Petraeus’ COIN army manual).
The leitmotif of the Army’s COIN doctrine is that such conflicts are won by protecting the people and gaining their support as a result of providing them with security. This takes a long time.
As now revealed in Bob Woodward’s description of Obama’s drawn-out policy review of last summer and fall, the president has wanted desperately to get out of Afghanistan.
However, he has not come up with a strategy to do so. Somewhat disastrously, he has partially rejected the military’s advice, giving them a deadline of July, 2011 to start handing control over to he Afghans and withdrawing troops. This sent the wrong signal to everyone in the region.
It was, and is, an impossible assignment. The deadline does not allow for even a limited COIN strategy that could show results by the announced December policy review deadline.
Whether because of the strategy review and deadline, or because McChrystal with his background in special operations was a firm believer in that form of counterinsurgency warfare, U.S. strategy in Aghanistan shifted radically away from trying to secure and hold territory and population centers, particularly after the failure of the Marja campaign earlier this year.
The current near-term strategy appears to be to try to kill enough of the Taliban’s leaders to force them to negotiate a settlement on terms acceptable to Hamid Karzai.
What happens in the long-delayed Kandahar campaign, and whether it is possible to hold the region while leaving Ahmed Karzai in place, will reveal whether there may still be a COIN component of an evolving strategy now that David Petraeus is in command.
The War-Fighting Role of the CIA
Now we learn that the military is providing drones and other equipment to the CIA, which has assumed a war-fighting role, presumably because of their ability to locate human targets for drone and special operations attacks.
It should not come as a surprise that with the CIA and special ops forces directing the assault on the Taliban in their Pakistani sanctuaries, considerations of international law have been jettisoned almost entirely.
The Washington Post reports that the CIA (through employees and contractors, we know from other sources), has taken a lead role in the drone attacks. As non-military personnel, these individuals do not appear to be protected by the provisions of the law of war or humanitarian law that might otherwise apply, even under the Bush and Obama Administrations’ extraordinarily broad interpretations of those provisions.
Karzai’s Peace Council
Earlier this week Carlotta Gall of the New York Times reported that President Hamid Karzai had created (out of thin air) a large body to negotiate peace and reconciliation with the Taliban, in total diregard of the Afghan Constitution. She communicated this plan to her readers without so much as mentioning the September 18 elections and the massive fraud that is currently underway.
Keeping our Eyes on the Ball
So, we are trying to kill and intimidate the Taliban to the conference table, at a time when many if not most reports indicate they are gaining momentum against the fatally corrupt government of Hamid Karzai. We are ignoring the impact on the population of Pakistan, and even its military, of repeatedly taking direct military action within the territory of that sovereign state–regardless of whatever “consent” may have been given by the military or even the civilian government.
With a short-sighted focus on exiting Afghanistan as soon as possible, we seem oblivious to the very great risks that our drone attacks may have an impact in Pakistan which, together with the impact of the recent floods, could cause politics in that country to spin out of control.
The president appears to have his eyes on the wrong ball, which is Afghanistan. It is simply not realistic to assume that we can withdraw from that country in the short term, without producing disastrous consequences.
We need to keep our eyes on the nuclear ball, which is in Pakistan. Aghanistan will not achieve stability if efforts to achieve it destablize Pakistan, which is the real ball game in this part of the world.
It is also time to take the war-fighting role away from the CIA, and to leave conduct of this war to the military, under the direction of the commander-in-chief.
On questions of stategy, Obama quite properly will and should have the final word. He would be well-advised, however, to listen most carefully to the civilian and military experts with direct responsibilities and/or experience on the ground, and to ignore the fine intellectual distinctions others around him throw out–such as finding a “more spphisticated” way of fighting corruption in the country.
This war will not be won, or defeat avoided, by fine intellectual distinctions.
What Obama needs to do is to take the bull by the horns, and start exploring options for the early departure of Hamid Karzai. This will be a monumentally challenging task. So was D-Day in World War II.
The Trenchant Observer
Comments are invited.