Keeping Me Honest

Gulliver from Ink Spots, has been doing a great job keeping me honest and forcing me to defend my arguments.  It is much appreciated.  In the comments to a recent post where I argued,

…as I keep saying until we get a handle on why it is that our Afghan allies are so ineffective while the Taliban and associates are so effective…

he writes,

1) What do you mean when you say that “the Taliban and associates are so effective”? Why are you certain that this is true?

2) If we do accept your assertion that the insurgents are more effective than the ANSF: isn’t it fair to say that what is required for insurgents to be considered “effective” is considerably less difficult to achieve than what we’d need to see to assign such a label to the ANSF?

3) Wouldn’t you have similarly said, circa 2006, that Iraqi insurgents were more effective than the IA?

4) Doesn’t it follow that there are things that the counterinsurgent can do (to include — but not exclusively — the provision of equipment and training) to shift the relative balance of effectiveness between the combatants?

Damn fine questions.  Let me try to address each in turn.

(1) I’d say that results suggest the Taliban is more effective.  With less money and fewer men that ISAF/ANA they have steadily expanding their reach in the country.  While Joshua Foust is probably correct that the ICSD report that the Taliban has a permanent presence in 80% of the country is likely an overstatement, I don’t think anyone doubts that the Taliban has widening its operational area.  The insurgent forces seem to act with a high degree of self-sufficiency.  They are continuing to function even in areas that are ostensibly under coalition control.  And remember, the Taliban presence in the country was rebuilt after the shattering defeats of 2001-2002.   In short, while we seem to be having an inordinate amount of trouble building reliable Afghan forces capable of accomplishing their assigned missions, the Taliban and associated networks have been able to build a force capable of acting in most of Afghanistan in a disciplined fashion to implement what seems to be a coherent strategy.

I admit this is a subjective assessment.  And I am willing to be convinced otherwise, but on the whole the insurgents seem to more effective that the Afghan security forces.

(2) I agree, and I have indeed argued that “Insurgencies, once established, run downhill.  Counter-insurgencies, always, run uphill.”  But there two caveats.  First, “once established” is a significant qualifier as our good friend Che might have acknowledged.  There was nothing inevitable about the Taliban resurgence.  Having ruled brutally before being been chased from power after having provoked a foreign intervention, it would seem the Taliban would have an uphill battle to become again a significant force.  They are not receiving significant foreign support.  When the history of the Taliban is written far in the future, when passions have cooled, and the issue is studied purely as a matter of military history I suspect people are going to recognize in the recovery of the Taliban an instance of a movement/insurgency that is rare for its resilience.  The point is, that yes, insurgencies have some structural advantages, but nonetheless, I think we have to acknowledge that thus far the Taliban is proving itself to be more effective than most historic insurgencies.

Second, saying that it is easier to be an insurgent does not mean it is easy.  I admit, I don’t wholly understand why the Taliban — and affiliates — is able to operate outside of Pashtun areas.  But I think some observers subscribe to a caricature that portrays the Taliban as just a bunch of thugs and killers.  They are that, certainly.  But from what I can tell — and I happy to be corrected on this score if I am wrong — they seem to using a relatively sophisticated operational concept.  They are blowing stuff up, yes.  And threatening “collaborators.”  But they are also, somehow positioning themselves as an anti-corruption and nationalist movement.   They represent more than just a coercive force.  So while being an insurgent is potentially easier, just as we hope to “live among the people” and build institutions, I think Taliban fighters are also similarly required to balance military and political action.  Indeed, it is this ability that, I think, explains part of what make them such a challenge, unlike, say, AQI which was just a source of insecurity.  Anyway, long story short.  Creating insecurity is easy.  But generating a successful insurgency requires more than that… and I suspect that if we captured Mullah Omar’s IN guidance, it would at least mirror some of McChrystal’s COIN guidance.

(3) Actually, no, I wouldn’t have made that argument and I didn’t.  My view pretty early on was the insurgency in Iraq would collapse the moment we withdrew.  It brought together — sort of — too many disparate interests lacking any coherent strategic concept.  I believed that if just got out of the way, the Iraqi army — a.k.a. Shi’a militias — would brutally and effectively suppress the “insurgency.”  I never subscribed to the notion that the Iraqi insurgency could seize power, and the idea in particular that AQI would seize power always struck me as laughable.   The core of the Iraqi military was going to be loyal and effective in maintaining Shi’a dominance.  The problem with the Iraqi military — in my estimation — was not that they were ineffective, but rather that we were being pigheaded in trying to train them to fight as a western (particularly American) fighting force.  They were an ineffective American-style military, but probably perfectly effective at providing regime security from much earlier than I think we realize even today.

(4) Yes, of course.  And I don’t think I ever suggested otherwise.  Equipment and training can help.  But actually that makes my argument.  We have been training and equipping — not at the level COIN proponents would like, but nonetheless “our Afghans” have received vastly more training and equipment than has the Taliban.  And they have been backed by over 30k ISAF troops.  Our side has outspent the Taliban at least a 100-1 since 2001.  We’ve given “our Afghans” weapons and training.  And yet… at best it seems like the Karzai regime would be able to win a stalemate.   Good grief, imagine what the ANA would look like without American assistance, training, and equipment!

Fair responses, Gulliver?

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