Week Nine of Operation Dither

At The New Republic, Stephen Biddle asks if there’s a middle way for Afghanistan. The short answer: Not really. The gist:

The reasons vary from proposal to proposal, but the basic problem is that the pieces of COIN are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts; implementing just one or two pieces alone undermines their effectiveness. It might make sense to do less and accept a greater risk of failure, depending on one’s tolerance for risk and cost. But there is no magic middle way between the McChrystal recommendation and total withdrawal that offers comparable odds at lower cost. In counterinsurgency, less is not more.


The pieces of orthodox COIN strategy interact: security enables development and governance, development and governance enhance security, governance facilitates counterterrorism, counterterrorism improves security, security enables negotiation and reconciliation. Each is a valuable complement to the others; none is a viable substitute. Integrated COIN is itself no guarantee of success. Social scientists have estimated its success rate at somewhere between 25 and 70 percent at best. But middle ways are even less promising because they lack the key enablers of an integrated strategy and the synergies that result.

At Small Wars Journal, Tony Corn’s thesis hangs on the phrase that “counterinsurgency is 80 percent political, 20 percent military,” and in that vein he explores the political situation. He approvingly cites a suggestion made by fellow CFRer Daniel Markey:

Washington’s officials and pundits have a tendency to underestimate the importance of politics in Afghanistan, focusing instead on troop levels and budgetary expenditures as the primary measures of progress or failure. This is a mistake; a lasting victory in this war can only be won in partnership with Afghans, and victory over the Taliban will require a combination of state capacity and popular legitimacy. Since Afghan state capacity is likely to be in short supply for the foreseeable future, legitimacy will be all the more necessary to achieve success. It’s now clear that the massively rigged presidential election will neither confer legitimacy on the victor, nor turn the unpopular incumbent out of office-a double failure.

.. Instead of tinkering at the margins, Washington and its international partners should seize this opportunity to press Kabul to organize a second constitutional convention, or loya jirga. Like the last convention in 2003, it would bring together elected and traditional leaders from throughout Afghanistan to ratify a new structure for democratic governance. A second loya jirga offers at least three potential benefits.

First, by reopening the door to nationwide participation in a meaningful political debate, a new constitutional convention might help to reenergize the Afghan public, shift the political momentum away from the Taliban, and offer an alternative to “more of the same” in Kabul. For Afghans who have become increasingly demoralized by the corrupt and ineffective practices of their government, a convention provides a forum for venting grievances that went unaddressed by the flawed presidential election process. And even if a convention is closed to Taliban representation per se, the meeting could still provide an opportunity for the reconciliation and political empowerment of Afghanistan’s most conservative Pashtun tribes — a necessary step for ending the insurgency.

…Second, a convention could address debilitating institutional problems enshrined in the current Afghan constitution. The present system is marked by dominant presidential authority, weak political parties, and limited democratic accountability at the provincial level. Few new democratic states have succeeded with such centralized governing structures, especially in countries wracked by civil conflict.

…Third, a convention might offer a fresh start for the United States and the rest of the international community involved in Afghanistan. A bold new political initiative in Kabul would complement Washington’s new counterinsurgency strategy, new military leadership, and renewed commitment to the war effort. Recent European proposals to pull together another international conference on Afghanistan also suggest a desire to re-engage NATO allies and bolster confidence in the mission.

Makes sense. Better a loyal jirga than an ineffectual president (Karzai, not Obama). But beyond that, I think Corn’s misgivings about COIN are off the mark, in particular his views on footprints (see below on the Marines in Nawa) and that the McChrystal plan is “armed social engineering”. I also think some of the choices he presents are false ones. An example: “Given the choice, wouldn’t you rather see al Qaeda in the Afghan sandbox than in nuclear-armed Pakistan?” Yes, al Qaeda is in Pakistan but that doesn’t mean they are any closer to accessing the nuclear arsenal than they would be if they were in Afghanistan. His conclusion is a sort of hybrid: Go with the surge in forces but follow up with some sort of Kilcullen-Biden plan. However, anyone should be skeptical of a plan with the name “Biden” in it, Republican or Democrat or anyone who isn’t a dumbass, which I’m guessing is one reason why Corn hyphenated the name. The WSJ:

People familiar with the internal debates say Mr. Obama rejected a strictly counter-terror approach during White House deliberations in early October. One official said Pentagon strategists were asked to draft brief written arguments making the best case for each strategy, but the strategists had difficulties writing out a credible case for the counter-terror approach — prompting members of Mr. Biden’s staff to step in and write the document themselves.

As Bill Roggio put it:

In case that wasn’t clear, not a single strategist in the Pentegon was willing to draft a paper to defend the Biden plan. No one wanted to put their name on the document. So, members of Biden’s staff — political appointees — had to write the brief.

Steve Coll also addresses the political sphere here. The final paragraphs:

To improve its chances for success, the United States and the international community must bring all of their leverage to bear to ensure the formation of a coalition government in Kabul that incorporates all of the meaningful sources of non-Taliban opposition and sets Afghan political and tribal leaders on a sustained, Afghan-led program of political, constitutional, and electoral reform.

Some analysts have suggested invoking the Afghan institution of a loya jirga to host some or all of this continuous reform process. Whether that specific institution is selected or not, the spirit of this suggestion is critical — Afghans have many difficult but important political and constitutional issues to negotiate, and political business-as-usual will not carry these negotiations forward adequately at a time when the United States is risking blood and treasure in support of Afghan stability. Issues that require discussion and negotiation among Afghan leaders, both formal and informal, include the future of the electoral system, to ensure fraud on the scale alleged in the most recent election cannot recur; political party formation and activity; constitutional issues such as the election of governors and the role of parliament; and issues of national integrity such as the access of different ethnic, tribal and identity groups to government employment and opportunity in the expanding security services.

Political reform and Afghan-led negotiations of this type must be seen as fundamental to American policy in Afghanistan no matter what choices are made about troop levels and deployments. Such a process would be part and parcel, too, of national program of reconciliation and reintegration designed to provide ways for Taliban foot soldiers to find jobs and for their leaders to forswear violence and enter politics.

This emphasis on political stability through continuous Afghan-led negotiation and national reintegration, as opposed to grandiose state-building or policies premised on the pursuit of military victory by external forces, should not be seen as an adjunct wing of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, but as fundamental. It is clear that no realistic level of American and Afghan forces deployable in the foreseeable future can provide security to the population in every village of Afghanistan. Accepting this reality and developing a political-military strategy that best accounts for it will lead, inevitably, to support for Afghan-led political approaches at the national, provincial, district and sub-district level. This is how the late Gorbachev-backed government in Kabul achieved a modicum of stability in far less favorable circumstances.

America’s record of policy failure in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the last 30 years should humble all of us. It should bring humility to the way we define our goals and realism about the means required to achieve them. It should lead us to choose political approaches over kinetic military ones, urban population security over provocative rural patrolling, and Afghan and Pakistani solutions over American blueprints. But it should not lead us to defeatism or to acquiescence in a violent or forcible Taliban takeover of either country. We have the means to prevent that, and it is in our interest to do so.

Concerning the problems of Karzai and the Afghans, Max Boot has some observations:

The worst thing the Obama administration could do is throw up its hands in despair and claim we can’t win in Afghanistan because of Karzai’s problems. In fact, every counterinsurgency effort in history has faced a problem of governmental legitimacy; if the government were generally accepted as legitimate and efficient, there would be no insurgency to begin with. Enhancing governmental credibility is a tough task but by no means a mission impossible — we’ve helped achieve that outcome in countries as varied as Greece, the Philippines, and El Salvador. We can do it in Afghanistan, too, if we work behind the scenes with Karzai to rectify some of his government’s shortcomings.

Andrew Exum from Abu Muqawama offers three scenarios for Afghanistan. An interesting paragraph:

Aid in Afghanistan, meanwhile, should be shifted away from large-scale development projects and toward those projects that address issues – such as irrigation rights and land disputes – driving conflict at the local level. U.S. military units in southern and and eastern Afghanistan have already begun such efforts. But for this reason, conducting a census and building a land registry are more important in many areas than building schools and hospitals. It is difficult, in fact, to overestimate the degree to which these two measures would stabilize the country. Such efforts support the establishment of the rule of law and enable ISAF and Afghan units to resolve disputes the Afghan people currently rely on the insurgent “shadow” government to adjudicate.

Major Jim Gant has a 45-page piece on a tribal approach, which I think is worthy for those tribes who have not had their structures trashed by the Taliban, and it’s a worthy counterpoint to Tony Corn’s “solution”. Some paragraphs on the Taliban:

While most of the Taliban are from Pashtun tribes, the tribes themselves are not the enemy. The Taliban, al-Qaeda, HIG (Hezb-e Islami), Haqqani and other insurgent networks are the tribes’ enemy—-our enemy.

The Taliban find many willing recruits among disaffected tribesmen. The Taliban offer fame, glory and the chance to live exciting, meaningful (to them) lives. Many recruits see the Taliban as their only way to survive: Kill as a Taliban or be killed by the Taliban. “By 2006 village jihadists accounted for 15 to 25 percent of the Taliban’s active fighting strength at any given time.” (Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop, Giustozzi, p. 43)

Our Tribal Engagement Teams (TET) can get inside this disaffection/recruitment cycle and show the tribes that our teams (and by extension, the Coalition Forces and the Afghan central government) are there to help them. If we give them a better alternative—show them that we are their friends and are committed for the long haul—they will not only not attack us, but will be more willing to share intelligence and even come back home and fight for their tribe.

Taliban assassination teams have killed more than 120 tribal leaders in the past two years alone, and through intimidation driven many more away from their home districts. The practice of delivering “night letters”—written death threats—on tribal leaders’ doorsteps is extremely effective. It’s gangland, Afghan style. But the tribes are not all taking this passively; many are arming and organizing on their own, without US help.

Along those tribal lines, Max Boot was embedded with the Marines for a short while, and he reports on their endeavors in Helmand province:

Lt. Col. William F. McCollough, commander of the First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, is walking me around the center of Nawa, a poor, rural district in southern Afghanistan’s strategically vital Helmand River Valley. His Marines, who now number more than 1,000, arrived in June to clear out the Taliban stronghold. Two weeks of hard fighting killed two Marines and wounded 70 more but drove out the insurgents. Since then the colonel’s men, working with 400 Afghan soldiers and 100 policemen, have established a “security bubble” around Nawa.

Colonel McCollough recalls that when they first arrived the bazaar was mostly shuttered and the streets empty. “This town was strangled by the Taliban,” he says. “Anyone who was still here was beaten, taxed or intimidated.”

Today, Nawa is flourishing. Seventy stores are open, according to the colonel, and the streets are full of trucks and pedestrians. Security is so good we were able to walk around without body armor — unthinkable in most of Helmand, the country’s most dangerous province. The Marines are spending much of their time not in firefights but in clearing canals and building bridges and schools. On those rare occasions when the Taliban try to sneak back in to plant roadside bombs, the locals notify the Marines.

It looks like Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran was there at around the same time. A key measure of success there will be whether or not the townsfolk give us intelligence on Taliban activity.

Speaking of the Taliban, Peter Bergen writes about their merger with al Qaeda.

Today, at the leadership level, the Taliban and Al Qaeda function more or less as a single entity. The signs of this are everywhere. For instance, IED attacks in Afghanistan have increased dramatically since 2004. What happened? As a Taliban member told Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau of Newsweek, “The Arabs taught us how to make an IED by mixing nitrate fertilizer and diesel fuel and how to pack plastic explosives and to connect them to detonators and remote-control devices like mobile phones. We learned how to do this blindfolded so we could safely plant IEDs in the dark.” Another explained that “Arab and Iraqi mujahedin began visiting us, transferring the latest IED technology and suicide-bomber tactics they had learned in the Iraqi resistance.” Small numbers of Al Qaeda instructors embedded with much larger Taliban units have functioned something like U.S. Special Forces do–as trainers and force multipliers.

Meanwhile, the Taliban, like Al Qaeda, has tried to attack the West. According to Spanish prosecutors, the late and unlamented leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, dispatched suicide bombers on a botched mission to Barcelona in January 2008. Pakistani Taliban spokesman Maulvi Omar confirmed this in August during a videotaped interview in which he said that those bombers “were under pledge to Baitullah Mehsud.” The point is not that the Taliban is going to mount a widespread campaign of terrorism in the West–it isn’t–but simply that the Taliban’s approach to combat has increasingly merged with Al Qaeda’s.

The Taliban has borrowed more than just violent techniques from bin Laden’s group. The Pakistani Taliban has an active video-propaganda operation that mimics Al Qaeda’s video wing. In fact, the output of the two is often interchangeable–indicating that Taliban and Al Qaeda operations are conducted jointly. Ben Venzke of IntelCenter, a government contractor that closely monitors jihadist propaganda, reports that “a growing number of Pakistani Taliban people are showing up in Al Qaeda productions.”

One of the key leaders of the Afghan Taliban as it surged in strength in 2006 was Mullah Dadullah, a thuggish but effective commander who was quite upfront about his close links to Al Qaeda. “Osama bin Laden, thank God, is alive and in good health,” he told CBS in December 2006. “We are in contact with his top aides and sharing plans and operations with each other.” Dadullah would later claim that bin Laden himself had supervised a Taliban suicide operation targeting Dick Cheney during his visit to Afghanistan in February 2007.

This summer, Mustafa Abu Al Yazid, one of Al Qaeda’s founders and a current member of its leadership council, described his group’s rapport with the Taliban during an interview with Al Jazeera in Afghanistan. “We are on a good and strong relationship with them,” he explained, “and we frequently meet them.” He also said that his organization continues to regard Mullah Omar as the “Commander of the Faithful”–in effect acknowledging that the Taliban leader is Al Qaeda’s religious guide, a position he has enjoyed for the past decade.

Bergen cites none other than al Zawahiri as to why they’re embedded with the Taliban:

But it isn’t just a safe haven that Al Qaeda wants; it is a state. As Zawahiri explained shortly after September 11 in his autobiographical Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, “Confronting the enemies of Islam, and launching jihad against them require a Muslim authority, established on a Muslim land that raises the banner of jihad and rallies the Muslims around it. Without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.” No wonder Al Qaeda remains so committed to Afghanistan–and so deeply invested in helping the Taliban succeed.

Herschel Smith discusses the Taliban-al Qaeda alignments, quoting NYT journalist David Rohde, who was kidnapped by Talibaners:

Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of “Al Qaeda lite,” a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.

Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.

Last Saturday, Bill Roggio wrote about a drone strike in Bajaur that killed 27 Taliban and al Qaeda. There is no doubt that these strikes are effective militarily, but what about politically? To me, they are a net setback. Marc Ambinder touches on the issue here.

Meanwhile, in the western world, NATO approves the McChrystal plan while General George Casey has his doubts. Left unsaid was Casey’s opposition to the surge strategy in Iraq.

As part of Operation Dither, the Pentagon is war-gaming a couple of scenarios. So why still the dither meme? Partly because when senior people in the Obama administration said that the Bush administration had no plan for Afghanistan, they were lying.

In fact, the Bush administration did ask those questions. From mid-September to mid-November 2008, a National Security Council team, under the direction of General Doug Lute, conducted an exhaustive review of Afghanistan policy. The interagency group included high-ranking officials from the State Department, the National Security Council, the CIA, the office of the director of national intelligence, the office of the vice president, the Pentagon, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Its objective was to assess U.S. -policy on Afghanistan, integrating a simultaneous military review being conducted by CENTCOM, so as to present President Bush with a series of recommendations on how best to turn around the deteriorating situation there. The Lute group met often–sometimes twice daily–in a secure conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. (The group used the room so frequently that other national security working groups that had been meeting there were required to find other space including, occasionally, the White House Situation Room.)

The Lute review asked many questions and provided exhaustive answers not only to President Bush, but also to the Obama transition team before the inauguration. “General Jones was briefed on the results of the Lute review, and that review answered many of the questions that Rahm Emanuel says were never asked,” says Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley. Jones and Hadley discussed the review, and Lute gave Jones a detailed PowerPoint presentation on his findings. Among the recommendations: a civilian surge of diplomats and other non-military personnel to the country, expedited training for the Afghan National Army, a strong emphasis on governance and credible elections, and, most important, a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy.

Jones asked Hadley not to release the results of the Lute review so that his boss would have more flexibility when it came time to provide direction for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Bush officials reasoned that Obama was more likely to heed their advice if he could simply adopt their recommendations without having to acknowledge that they came from the Bush White House. So Hadley agreed.

The Obama team had a strategy right out of the starting gete, and they were briefed on it prior to inauguration. They could’ve easily adopted it, and put a few wrinkles in it so they could call it their own. But they didn’t. Why? Perhaps ego? Here’s what a Pentagon spokesman said about the Lute review:

Yeah, again, I think this may be best directed to the White House, but I’ll give you my sense of it, because we are obviously a stakeholder in all this. That the — the only review, as I’ve said to you before, that I believe counts is the one the president has asked for and that is being chaired by Bruce Riedel. It’s being co- — vice-chaired by our undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy, and the new envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Holbrooke.

They, as you may have noticed from the different honor cordons and dignitaries that have been walking around this building over the past week or so, have been reaching out to — in particular lately to the Afghan and Pakistan leadership. We had Minister Wardak, the Defense minister of Afghanistan, in town. We had Minister Atmar, the Interior minister of Afghanistan, in town. General Kayani, the chief of staff of the Pakistani army, was in town. And they worked for a number of hours with the — some members of the policy review team, providing their input to this process.

I noticed that the White House announced that Vice President Biden is traveling to Brussels next week to talk with NATO about the Af-Pak review. This is all part of these ongoing efforts to make this as inclusive and collaborative as possible.

So in terms of where we stand in that process, I can tell you the secretary got his first briefing on sort of this — the status of it today, this morning. As far as I know, I don’t have any news for you in terms of when this will be unveiled, other than the fact, I think, that everybody has made clear that by the time the president goes to the NATO summit in Strasbourg, that the expectation is that he will be able to lay out to the allies the way ahead in Afghanistan. But I think there is considerable work to be done between now and then.

I don’t know if that’s helpful — oh, in terms of where General Petraeus’s efforts and the Lute efforts fit into all this, as you know, General Lute was the point person in the Bush White House or the Bush NSC for Iraq and Afghanistan. He worked closely with our former assistant secretary of Defense for Asia, Jim Shinn, and our assistant secretary for SOLIC, Mike Vickers, who remains in the job, on formulating that plan for the Bush White House.

It was never unveiled. And it was passed on to the Obama folks and they, I assume, have evaluated it and are making judgments about what, if any, of it they wish to incorporate.

The Petraeus CENTCOM review, I think, has come to completion. I think it’s in the process of being briefed and ultimately being wrapped up. And I think that review will inform the Riedel- Flournoy-Holbrooke review. It is another means of improving that product.

But I think, ultimately, the product that will steer the policy of the United States of America with regards to Afghanistan will be the White House review.

So the Lute review was basically discarded because it came from the previous administration. Kristofer Harrison was involved in the Lute review, and he had this to say:

I was involved in the the Bush administration’s 2008 Afghanistan review and it was every bit as in depth and serious as the one several years earlier for Iraq. It involved many of the same people who helped conduct Gen. McChrystal’s recent review and included Democrats, Republicans, our British allies, Afghans, etc. The strategy put forward was sound and competent, and carbon-copy similar to the one that President Obama announced in March.

It is also true that team Obama was briefed on this review before assuming office. In fact, we began briefing both campaigns even before the election. I don’t remember the dates, but well before the election we began bringing together the national security teams from both campaigns for in-depth briefing sessions under the auspices of the Aspen Institute. These were long events where Bush administration cabinet-level officials spent days — yes, days — briefing the two candidates’ advisers. After the election we began spending hours with the transition team on the details of the plan and the situation on the ground.[/b]

It is also true that Obama’s transition team asked us to hold the Afghanistan review findings, a request to which President Bush acquiesced because (as it was relayed to me) he did not want to box the new president into a narrow set of options. In March, when Obama announced his new Afghanistan strategy, I did not notice a single change from the new plan that we had given him…only Obama did not resource it with enough troops.

Obama had a plan on hand on Day One if he chose to take it, but he wasn’t ready.