Once More Into the Breach

First off, I have to address past opinions expressed on these pages. I was against the Iraq surge. Back in an article from December of 2006, I wrote, in reaction to the report of the Iraq Study Group, which advocated withdrawal from Iraq, that the report “...does not advocate defeat, rather, it recognizes that defeat has already happened. Any attempt to pretend otherwise does nothing but extend our folly.”

Soon after, in the same article, in reference to the Bush administration’s planning for the surge, this passage followed: “[President Bush] is still hung up on the unattainable. Anything less than victory is anathema to his character. He has shown a stubbornness of epic proportions. His response to adversity is to refuse to adapt.”

March 19, 2007, saw this declarative statement: “When we finally leave Iraq, it will be in defeat. The civil war will escalate, and we will have been responsible for creating conditions that allowed it to start.”

Three months later, a lengthy article on the 63rd anniversary of the D-Day invasion once again declared that “[a] withdrawal is the inevitable outcome of a war that is already lost. We have the material, the technology, the weapons, and, on a long enough timeline, we should have the correct skills to battle an insurgency. But the most important weapon in battling an insurgency is not killing insurgents...The most important weapon is resolve. In the face of setbacks, or progress too slow to measure in anything less than years or decades, the ability of the nation to absorb slow progress...is the key to defeating an insurgency...

“Does the United States have the capacity to defeat an insurgency? ...[I believe] we are incapable of producing the national will necessary for battling an insurgency on the scale of Iraq.”

Strong words, all. And a good deal of them are still relevant. The job in Iraq is not done, despite the decline in American casualties and the disappearance of news reports from Baghdad on the nightly news. The counterinsurgency operations we are conducting in Iraq are ongoing and are open ended. We could very well be fighting there ten years from now. Thomas Ricks, author of two books about the Iraq war, Fiasco and The Gamble, posited that the war, as of 2009, was only half way over, and that the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered have yet to occur, despite the six agonizing years that have passed since the invasion.

There is no date in the future where real victory can be declared and we can begin a real withdrawal. Even with the success of the surge, three outcomes present themselves as the most likely in Iraq. One, we leave or reduce combat forces too quickly, the security situation destabilizes, Iraq falls into civil war, and we are too disengaged to do anything about it. Two, we maintain significant numbers of troops in country, in excess of 30,000, for decades, in the hope that generational changes bring the stability to Iraq that we cannot. And third, the government of Iraq, they have one, after all, decides enough is enough and throws us out before our military would prefer. Which one of these scenarios is the least likely, do you suppose?

Of all the digs I took against the surge as it was being formulated, the one where I declared President Bush as unable to adapt was the most mistaken. The shift in doctrine that rippled upward through the ranks and into the thinking of officers like Ray Odierno, H.R. McMaster, David Petraeus, and many others, could have died a quick death had not President Bush been willing, finally, to recognize that preceding doctrine and operations in Iraq had not been working. It took him a long time to adapt, but adapt he did, authorizing operations in Iraq that actually have a chance at success.

The surge, while incomplete, has been vindicated. I, along with a whole host of skeptics that numbered at least a plurality, and perhaps a majority, of the American public, have been proven, if not wrong, at least hasty. The United States military confronted and abandoned failing doctrine. This was an unprecedented shift in thinking among the brass at the top of America’s military machine. Once the realities of what we were facing filtered up to General Petraeus (eventually appointed commanding general of Multi-National Force Iraq (MNF-I)) and retired general Jack Keane, their efforts were key in convincing the White House to embrace a new doctrine of counterinsurgency (COIN) and approve its application on the streets of Iraq. Violence initially spiked when the surge began, but then subsided as the new strategies and tactics began to take effect.

The United States military still has a large deployment in Iraq, numbering some 128,000 troops, but the combat mission for these troops has changed. Since July of this year, American forces, unless attacked directly, are operating in a support role, with Iraqi police and army units taking the lead in operations. This is more than just a welcome turn in events. This is what victory, scaled down from the unrealistic fantasies of 2003, looks like. If the Iraqi government is able to keep violence at manageable levels after we draw down, anything else that happens in our favor is just icing on the cake.

The question now, as President Obama orders more troops to Afghanistan, is whether or not we can repeat the successes we have had in Iraq the last two years in a conflict that in many ways is more complicated, more perilous, and more intractable.

President Obama has ordered an increase in troop levels of around 30,000. NATO has pledged an additional 7,000. This total is larger than the surge in Iraq, which numbered about 28,000, but will leave troop numbers in Afghanistan lower than those in Iraq. The importance of the troop increase is not in their specific numbers, however, but in how the commanders on the ground choose to use them.

Doctrine is key. Like Iraq before the surge, operations in Afghanistan had been largely adrift for years when it came to tactics and strategy. Also like Iraq, leadership in the theater of operations had already been changed before the troop increase, reflecting the shift to COIN doctrine. In the case of Afghanistan, General David McKiernan was replaced by General Stanley McChrystal, a proponent of COIN, in June of this year, five months before President Obama announced the increase in troop levels. Long before the first fresh troops arrive in Afghanistan, what has worked in Iraq (round the clock patrols, permanent posts among the populace, engaging local tribes and sects in dialogue, and outright bribery, among other tactics) is already being applied, with one major exception.

Whereas in Iraq the Army and Marines were willing to embrace and seek out peace overtures with any Iraqi group not called Al Qaeda, in Afghanistan such openness does not extend to the largest group of antagonists we face, the Taliban.

This voluntary restriction could be a very serious impediment to effective operations in Afghanistan. The Taliban represent quite a swath of the Afghanis. Our military has acknowledged that destroying the Taliban is impossible, and is being cagey on whether or not it thinks the Taliban can be marginalized. I would argue that pounding the Taliban into irrelevancy is indeed an impossibility. We should make every attempt to pacify the Taliban using non-violent means, up to and including the payment strategies that have been so effective in Iraq. If we don’t do this, if all we do in regards to the Taliban is meet violence with violence, this newest surge will not work. There is nothing savory about engaging the Taliban, but bringing down the violence in Afghanistan requires that we explore all options, including talking to these avowed enemies. The limit here, of course, is that there remains no reconciliation with Al Qaeda.

One of the great frustrations of the surge in Iraq is that it is a two part process that, to this day, has only been half-completed. After the violence ebbed, after life returned to Iraq’s streets, after the country was calmed to acceptable degrees of instability by our forces, it was then the turn of the Iraqi government to solidify its legitimacy, something the preceding levels of violence had made difficult. After the effects of the surge had been felt, it became time to schedule and prepare for another round of provincial elections, time to negotiate power sharing deals among the Shias and Sunnis, among the Arabs and Kurds, all the way down the ladder of sectarianism, securing representation in Baghdad for all interests, and a secure place to air grievances without returning the country to chaos. The opportunities for real political progress had never been greater since the invasion in 2003. But the glacial pace of Iraqi government reform foreshadows the difficulties we will face with the government in Kabul should we manage to present them with the same window of security we created in Iraq.

For one, the Iraqi government, under Nouri al-Maliki, was duly elected. Disputes regarding its legitimacy are marginal, at best. Meanwhile, the government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul is widely viewed as illegitimate, the result of rampant election fraud. The circus that was this past year’s presidential election in Afghanistan is an embarrassment to the ideals of democracy, and is something that has to be addressed. Either Afghanistan is a democracy or it is not. Pretending one way or the other helps the situation none.

The Karzai government is also quite corrupt, and corruption can poison effective COIN operations, fostering incompetence and power vacuums that are filled by enemies of the government. For the surge in Afghanistan to be effective, more concentrated effort towards effective governance will be needed in Kabul than in Baghdad, a tough proposition since we cannot pick and choose who wanders the halls of power there.

Another surefire way to hamper our efforts in Afghanistan is to continue to demonize poppy production. The illicit trade in opium is the lynchpin of the Afghan economy. Common sense dictates that the more we try to suppress poppy cultivation, the more support we lose among the populace. If we can embrace those who once directly killed American soldiers and Marines in the name of peace, then we can find a way to bridge the gulf between our moralistic anti-drug ramblings and Afghanistan’s most profitable cash crop.

As noted above, the combat role for American troops in Iraq has changed to one of support for Iraqi police and military units. While not as effective or efficient as we would like them to be (but more potentially effective in wielding power than we would like them to be), the shift in responsibilities to Iraqi units has been smooth enough that we can finally picture an end to the combat mission in Iraq. Had our military been unable to disengage from the fore, all security gains would be for naught, and we would never be able to contemplate leaving Iraq in anything other than a state of chaos.

The Afghani police and military are a long way from being able to take on the mission of American and NATO forces should the escalation bear fruit. The tribal and ethnic fractures in Afghanistan are greater than that in Iraq, giving the national police and military even more dubious legitimacy among the populace. Add the pervasive corruption at all levels in Afghanistan to the mix, and building and training Afghan forces capable of following our lead will be quite a challenge for the mission.

But the most difficult impediment to success in Afghanistan is the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A line on a map that only the governments in Kabul, Islamabad, and Washington seem to recognize, our fealty to its absolute nature is something both the Taliban and Al Qaeda exploit.

The Taliban are mostly Pashtun, and Pashtun territory straddles that aforementioned border, forming a country in its own right. This is evidenced by the inability of both the Afghan and Pakistan central governments to exert their authority in this wide-ranging area. Meanwhile, our military is only fighting in one half of this Pashtun country, that half that lies within the borders of Afghanistan, while operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the other half, within Pakistan, are carried out by the Pakistani military, Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), and CIA unmanned drone missile strikes. Our operations are hamstrung by this split nature of the mission, but there is nothing we can do about it. More than any other factor, this could be the downfall of our efforts in Afghanistan.

Pacifying the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan is impossible as long as the Pakistanis cannot replicate that feat on the other side of the border. Their ability, and willingness, to do so is a greater unknown even than our own. Additionally, one aspect of the troop increase is a planned increase in drone missile strikes in Pakistan in an attempt to make up for the lack of American and NATO boots on the ground. This could be an outright disaster.

COIN doctrine, and our experiences in Iraq, show that there is no substitute to real, human presence. From the reduction in violence to the increase in intelligence assets, nothing beats mingling with the population. In contrast, drone strikes bring no human face or presence to a conflict. Worse yet, they bring nothing but death, using armaments that have a high incidence of inflicting collateral damage. Collateral damage loses counterinsurgencies. Collateral damage, when the sterilized language is removed, consists of destroyed homes, mutilated children and slaughtered families. There is nothing good and everything bad about collateral damage. It is hard to see how increasing the possibility of such grim outcomes serves our purposes in Afghanistan.

Outlined above in broad strokes are only some of the problems we face moving forward in Afghanistan. If the surge in Iraq had a fifty-fifty shot at success, this new effort in Afghanistan, in the most optimistic assessment I can make, can’t be any higher, and is likely lower.

So what is victory in Afghanistan? Victory is government stability and a reduction in violence for a long enough window to withdraw, coupled with the destruction of Al Qaeda. What we can’t afford is Afghanistan circa 2000. Or, we can, as long as the lens of violent extremism remains focused solely inward. The problem with this, of course, is that is what we thought we had in 2000.

Why try at all? If the ultimate goal of the escalation is to calm the situation enough for us to leave, then let the region fend for itself once more, why wait? Why not leave now and save American lives and money? There probably aren’t many people in the United States government who would paint our strategy in such a cynical light. But, there has yet to be an honest accounting of the time commitment that would be necessary in conducting successful operations in Afghanistan. Eighteen months is a fantasy. Nor is there any way to predict what peace, pacification, or stability would bring to Afghanistan because it has never had all three at once for extended periods for hundreds of years.

Nothing changes the fact that we are engaged in Afghanistan today. After the successes of the surge and application of COIN in Iraq, it becomes more difficult to pull out while we have finally developed strategies and tactics that could work. We don’t owe the architects of the Iraq surge a chance to prove their worth once again in Afghanistan, especially as the job remains undone in Iraq. But of the options President Obama weighed before coming to his decision, three are regarded as insufficient to prevent chaos from spreading, and only the fourth, the 30,000 troop increase, has an unpredictable outcome. That is what we are down to, when the option whose success is murky and irresolute is also the best option.

One final note about politics in conflict with reality. The White House and the Pentagon have pegged July 2011 as a date when troops could begin to come home from Afghanistan. This is disingenuous. Once counterinsurgency begins to take hold, violence comes down, but presence, the most important aspect of the operation, is still required for long periods. That is why we still have so many troops in Iraq two years after the surge began. We could (but won’t) keep them there in strength for another decade. The time commitment for effective COIN is its most frightening aspect. Most frightening to politicians, that is, as evidenced by the unwillingness, from both Democratic and Republican administrations, to even broach the subject. After all, what person gunning for votes wants talk about a bustling and thriving Camp Victory circa 2020?