The Mess in Afghanistan

I think it is now pretty clear that the 2009 decision to dramatically escalate the war in Afghanistan was a tragic mistake. A few recent stories highlight this:

Glenn Greenwald comments on a new Sunday Times report about drone strikes targeting rescuers:

As I indicated, there have been scattered, mostly buried indications in the American media that drones have been targeting and killing rescuers. As the Bureau put it: “Between May 2009 and June 2011, at least fifteen attacks on rescuers were reported by credible news media, including the New York TimesCNN,Associated PressABC News and Al Jazeera.”

So, this is a war crime, just to be clear. Unambiguously so. And no amount of “they didn’t have proper Red Cross/Crescent” designations or “anyone coming to the aid or terrorists is a terrorist himself”-type logic carries water. The drone attacks themselves are of dubious legality; attacks on responders and funerals is just beyond the Pale. Despite all the talk about winning hearts and minds, the reality is that war is hell. It corrodes our moral values. And even if you don’t buy the logic of “hearts and minds” as a core center of gravity, it should be clear that this sort of criminal conduct is almost surely counter-productive.

Then we have this NYT story about a new article in Armed Forces Journal:

“How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding?“ Colonel Davis asks in an article summarizing his views titled “Truth, Lies and Afghanistan: How Military Leaders Have Let Us Down.” It was published online Sunday in The Armed Forces Journal, the nation’s oldest independent periodical on military affairs. “No one expects our leaders to always have a successful plan,” he says in the article. “But we do expect — and the men who do the living, fighting and dying deserve — to have our leaders tell us the truth about what’s going on.”

Colonel Davis says his experience has caused him to doubt reports of progress in the war from numerous military leaders, including David H. Petraeus, who commanded the troops in Afghanistan before becoming the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in June.

Last March, for example, Mr. Petraeus, then an Army general, testified before the Senate that the Taliban’s momentum had been “arrested in much of the country” and that progress was “significant,” though fragile, and “on the right azimuth” to allow Afghan forces to take the lead in combat by the end of 2014.

Colonel Davis fiercely disputes such assertions and says few of the troops believe them. At the same time, he is acutely aware of the chasm in stature that separates him from those he is criticizing, and he has no illusions about the impact his public stance may have on his career.

Look, I don’t actually know how to measure success in Afghanistan. But as a practical matter, none of the more obvious metrics seem to support the notion of progress. Violence is up. There is no evidence the insurgency is in retreat or demoralized. Control of territory is a disputed concept.

Indeed, it looks like we are going to accelerate our “transition from a combat role” to 2013. I can’t see how this is anything other than declaring victory and then coming home.

Anyway, a few thoughts on this:

(1) The 2009 surge was a failure, and the cost is likely to be over $300 billion and hundreds of American lives for that experiment. It wasn’t quite as costly a blunder as the Iraq war turned out to be. But it was pretty bad. And worse, this isn’t just hindsight talking. All of the reasons for the failure of the Afghan surge were predictable and predicted at the time:

  • Karzai’s regime is corrupt and ineffective, and neither of those factors was likely to be addressed effectively by our actions. Why? Because the empirical record of “good governance” and “anti-corruption” initiatives is weak. This was not just an issue of competing judgments. This was an issue of bad analysis. Simply put, the people who recommended the surge in 2009 did not do due diligence.
  • Pakistan continues to play a double game with Afghanistan. There was debate on this… but it was a weird debate between well-connected military strategists versus regional experts. As a practical matter, people with actual expertise on Pakistan were skeptical about Pakistan’s ability and willingness to cooperate in Afghanistan. Now, I have argued that regionalists often have too narrow a perspective to be really good strategists. But this was not a debate over strategy writ-large, it was  a narrow debate about Pakistani interests and institutions. And in that sense, the Pakistan experts should have had more clout than a bunch of think tankers who happened to be buddy-buddy with Petraeus and McChrystal.
  • The Afghan insurgency was much more deeply entrenched through ethnic, patronage, and familial ties with Afghan (particularly Pashtun) society than was, say, the Iraqi insurgency. Again, this was not a judgment call. It was a simple, straight-forward empirical fact. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, and was robust enough to survive military defeat in 2001. Comparing it to the hodgepodge of former regime elements, criminals, and foreign fighters in Iraq was just wishful thinking. Even if you were to claim that Iraq validated our COIN model, the reality is the Afghanistan was always going to be a much hard nut to crack.

In short, this isn’t — as one prominent analyst noted to me in a recent email — a case of “mocking” what was a plausible argument at the time. It is rather a fact that clearly knowable facts were ignored in order to promote a flawed strategy. The supporters of the surge in 2009 were not just wrong. They were arrogant and lazy, and they refused to bother to subject any of their claims and assumptions to empirical analysis.

(2) The situation in Afghanistan is now likely to worsen. As I argued in 2010, if we wanted to get a negotiated outcome, our best hope was pursue one vigorously at a time when our position in Afghanistan was weak, but improving, or at least potentially improving, rather than relatively strong but weakening. I am not sure we ever got to “relatively strong,” but now that we’ve hit the highpoint of our commitment, our position will continue to weaken, day-by-day, month-by-month. Whatever concessions we’re willing to make now, we’ll need to make more later. Time is now clearly working against us. We dawdled too long in trying to lock in whatever benefits the Afghan surge might have brought. It was a flawed strategy and now we’ve squandered away the one potential benefit — that is, the uncertainty that the surge might induce in our adversaries. Again, a case of no one bothering to think through what — at time — was a predictable strategic dynamic. Yes, had we “won” it would have been different. But given the structural impediments to “victory,” pursuing that best case amounts to a reckless gamble. Anyway, the point is, there is still, I suspect, a negotiated settlement out there, but every month we’ll have to make more and more concessions to get it, and as a practical matter, I suspect our negotiation strategy will inevitably lag behind on-the-ground assessments. In other words… don’t hold your breath for a negotiated solutions.

(3) I believe that by surging and failing we have also set into motion yet another predictable consequence. Despite the caricatures of some of my critics, I was never a “cut and run” guy on Afghanistan. I always felt that the danger of a surge was that it was not sustainable, and that trying it would lead to such a complete collapse of will, or resignation, that we would fail to maintain even a minimal presence in Afghanistan. I would have a liked to see a long-term training, aid, and counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan to mitigate some of the very real risks that emanate from that country. I think we’re now on the glide path where a Colombia-style model may no longer be viable, where the momentum to withdraw, to cut ourselves off, will take hold and be irreversible. I think there is still room to affect this, but it is going to take some aggressive and pro-active positioning. We’re going to need a solid SOFA, MOUs on various activities, basing and transit rights in the region, and so on. We need to define what the post-combat situation will look like, and we need to aggressively pursue the conditions that will make our vision possible.

I wish I could say that we’ve been chastened, that we’ve now got our heads screwed on right, and are taking the necessary steps to salvage something from the Afghan war… but I fear we just are not. Afghanistan has become a hot potato, and you can already see attention and analytical energy draining away from it.

3 comments to The Mess in Afghanistan

  • Bernard,

    Really good post overall, one of your best I think. Since I’m a contrarian, however, I’ll take issue with this:

    So, this is a war crime, just to be clear. Unambiguously so. And no amount of “they didn’t have proper Red Cross/Crescent” designations or “anyone coming to the aid or terrorists is a terrorist himself”-type logic carries water.

    I don’t think this is unambiguous. The incidents describe attacks on combatants in the midst of noncombatants. The presence of civilians has never been an unambiguous obstacle to attacking an enemy, and such a standard is impossible in war anyway. Taliban collecting their dead are legitimate military targets. The presence of civilians helping is not an unambiguous obstacle to attacking the remaining Taliban (or AQ, or whoever).

    <a href="http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/WebART/470-750073?OpenDocument"Here the law regarding civilians. “All feasible precautions” and what constitutes an attack which “would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated” are not defined. What is a feasible precaution? What, exactly, is “excessive” with respect to a specific military target? There is not an unambiguous definition.

    Secondly, the requirements regarding designations for medical personnel and uniforms to distinguish combatants from civilians are part of the laws of war. It seems to me you can’t simply wave that part of the law away and, at the same time claim unambiguous violations of other parts of the laws of war. The designation and uniform requirements are there for a reason. You can’t simply ignore the fact that decisions about whether a target is legitimate and whether an attack is appropriate are much more difficult when an enemy doesn’t distinguish themselves from the civilian population. That added burden doesn’t excuse indiscriminate killing by the US, but you have to at least admit that it greatly increases the likelihood that civilians will be mistakenly targeted.

    Now that I’ve said that, let me backtrack a little. I do think these attacks are excessive, at least based on what I know, and I do believe that more measures could be taken to protect civilians. But I think that’s something quite different from declaring these incidents to be unambiguous war crimes.

    Finally, to reiterate, I agree with almost all your other comments here on Afghanistan. Well done.

  • 1st Geneva Convention: “Article 24. Medical personnel exclusively engaged in the search for, or the collection, transport or treatment of the wounded or sick… shall be respected and protected in all circumstances.”

    Yes, there are limitation if they are armed because in those cases the medical personnel could constitute an immediate threat to military personnel operating nearby. But, that is not the case here.

    You’re right. It isn’t wholly unambiguous. But I think the principle that aiding the wounded provides immunity is pretty clear.

  • [...] The Mess in Afghanistan « BernardFinel.com In short, this isn’t — as one prominent analyst noted to me in a recent email — a case of “mocking” what was a plausible argument at the time. It is rather a fact that clearly knowable facts were ignored in order to promote a flawed strategy. The supporters of the surge in 2009 were not just wrong. They were arrogant and lazy, and they refused to bother to subject any of their claims and assumptions to empirical analysis. (2) The situation in Afghanistan is now likely to worsen. As I argued in 2010, if we wanted to get a negotiated outcome, our best hope was pursue one vigorously at a time when our position in Afghanistan was weak, but improving, or at least potentially improving, rather than relatively strong but weakening. [...]

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