The Incoherent of COIN Advocates: Andrew Exum Edition… part 3

The latest from Exum:

Leverage: Designing a Political Campaign for Afghanistan | Center for a New American Security

This report notes that America’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan has focused more on waging war at the operational and tactical levels at the expense of the strategic and political levels.
Convene another strategic review to assess the civilian strategy, not the U.S. and allied military strategy, in Afghanistan. President Obama should ask the tough questions to his secretaries and envoys that he asked his military commander – General Stanley McChrystal – to answer in his fall 2009 review.

I really just don’t know what to say.  I am really at a complete loss in the face of something like that.  And this isn’t even a blog post.  It is a fully reviewed CNAS report!

Exum keeps using the word “strategy,” but he’s, in effect, asking for the development of a operational concept to guide the use of various instruments of statecraft.  But the essence of strategy is, of course, the thoughtful integration of various instrument in support of a political end.  Exum is either recommending that our political “strategy” be determined to remain in accord with a pre-determined military operational concept, or he’s assuming that our military approach is so flexibility to be consistent with whatever comes out of this review.  But, obviously that does not make sense, right?  It is perfectly clear, is it not, that how the U.S. uses force in Afghanistan has a profound impact on political dynamics.  It can make reconciliation more or less likely, it can increase or decrease the power of the center, and on and on.

The report is also just chuck full of whoppers… I like this one:

Although we cannot accurately predict how much of the Karzai regime’s legitimacy would dissolve were the international community to withdraw its support, much of the legitimacy the regime enjoys both domestically and internationally stems from the support of the United States and its allies.

Really?  Then why does Karzai seem to so often feel he needs to demonstrate his independence from us? He then makes it worse by mischaracterizing the insights from Kalyvas:

Kalyvas, writing about political allegiance in civil wars, notes that we are better off measuring popular support in terms of behavior and actions than in terms of attitudes, preferences and allegiances. When we do so, we find that popular support depends, in large part, on which actor manages to exert more control over the population than competing actors. Without the support of the United States and its allies, the Karzai regime would be able to control much less of the Afghan population and would suffer a decline in popular support.

Here, Kalyvas argues that collaboration follows control, not that legitimacy follows control.  That is the WHOLE POINT of differentiating between “behavior” and “allegiances.” The difference between the two is not semantics, it is fundamental.

Anyway, another issue.  Exum correctly diagnoses a structural problem with our situation in Afghanistan:

United States wages counterinsurgency campaigns, it almost always does so as a third party acting on behalf of a host nation. And implicit in the manual’s assumptions is the idea that U.S. interests will be aligned with those of the host nation.

They almost never are, though.

How do we fix that? Exum’s main focus is on “leverage.” 

Though the United States and its allies at times appear hostage to the whims of President Hamid Karzai and the government of Afghanistan, they do in fact possess significant leverage to influence the behavior of Afghanistan’s various political actors.

So we can bend Karzai to our will? Actually, no.  Exum himself acknowledges that isn’t possible:

The United States and its allies cannot hedge against Karzai by courting alternatives because no palatable alternatives exist. And with the Quetta Shura Taliban and other insurgent groups threatening from the south and east, Karzai can always claim, with some credibility, après moi le déluge. In the end, by having so vocally and materially committed to the Karzai regime, the United States and its allies are tied to its successes and failures.

Well, yeah.  If we threaten to strangle him — in the words of AJP Taylor — he’ll threaten to die.  That is one of the key strategic challenges in our relationship.  So, the answer?

The goal, then, should be to maximize the former [successes] and minimize the latter [failures] through focused application of U.S. leverage.

See the problem?  Exum originally talks about leverage as a way to get Karzai to do what we want/need him to do — to harmonize our interests.  But in the end, Exum acknowledges we have NO leverage.  The political instruments he discusses are not about leverage, they are now bent to achieving operational goals in support of an incoherent strategy that fails to bridge the existing divide between U.S. and Afghan interests.

Anyway, I could go on and on and on, but doing so depresses me.

7 comments to The Incoherent of COIN Advocates: Andrew Exum Edition… part 3

  • Remember the article by COL Gentile a few months back, about tactics driving strategy? A Strategy of Tactics

    Exum just proved Gentile’s point. Here’s the quote…

    Last fall, I sat down with LTG (Ret.) David Barno and asked him what he thought was missing from our research on Afghanistan. He said that while we had done a good job talking about counterinsurgency at the tactical and operational levels, we had not tackled counterinsurgency at the strategic and political levels.

    Oh yeah, that whole strategy and politics thing. We were so hung up on finding ways to make pop-COIN work that we forgot about that.

  • Right. But Exum seems to think that tackling COIN at the strategic and political levels is something you can fix after the fact, when of course, those are the fundamental issues.

  • Eric Blair

    As soon as I got the CNAS email announcement about Exum’s new report, I knew you were going to have a field day with it. Glad to see you didn’t dissapoint.

    Suggested new post: John Rizzo is an idiot.

  • […] ANA troops in their neighborhood to solve a problem that they don't see as a problem.  US COIN doctrine is in shambles and its advocates incoherently insisting that we have not used True […]

  • […] “The Incoherent of COIN Advocates: Andrew Exum Edition… part 3“, Bernard Finel, 7 May 2010 […]

  • Agree it is frustrating, but this isn’t anything new. We’ve been dealing with this lack of strategic coherence for some time. Actually it began imo in 1991 with van Creveld’s “The Transformation of War” and has been continuing apace ever since.

    The idea then was to divorce policy from military action, to make political purpose invisible by making the actual nature of war not one of comflicting political communities with their own positive and/or negative purposes, but of vague anthropological inclinations. “War simply happens” or “they fight us because they hate us” . . .

    Of course the nature of war remains what it has always been, and policy/politics retains its dominate role, at least initially, but we aren’t suppose to see the man behind the curtain or even see the curtain, we’re all “4GW”, or “5GW” or even “6GW” “warriors” now . . . whatever the hell that means.

    Exum imo knows perfectly well what is going on. His reactions to comments like yours (and mine) on his blog indicated that. It was simply something he was not going to address directly since it wasn’t in his interest to do so. Instead he goes through the motions of making a “strategic argument” for an audience who is convinced that the GWOT is part of the give and take of US domestic politics. Politically speaking Exum is convinced that Obama can’t leave Afghanistan, so remaining there operationally and tactically is the only option, even if the strategic outcome has already been decided against us.

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