In The Post-COIN Era is Here, a new essay that is close to epochal, Mark Safranski argues that counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine has been abused and misapplied, and most notably in the course of the Obama administration's quest for a magic bullet in Afghanistan.
The essay couldn't come at a more important juncture in the Long War; it's a 'must read' for policy makers, and for every American who's trying to understand how the Pentagon is approaching the war. Readers who aren't steeped in defense issues will have no trouble following Mark's discussion because he begins with an overview of the phoenix-like rise of COIN from its Vietnam War ashes, which was given a big boost by U.S. successes against the insurgency in the Iraq theater of war.
Afghanistan is not Iraq, however. But because on paper COIN is cheaper and generally less bloody than traditional warfare, and because it has a smaller footprint than an 'overwhelming force' military approach, what is supposed to be an operational tool has been elevated to the status of war strategy. As such, it's appealed to the Obama administration and to Democrats trying the balancing act of supporting Obama's decisions on Afghanistan while maintaining an anti-war stance.
The problem is that COIN has not worked in Afghanistan; my view is that this is chiefly because there's not a classic insurgency in the country. Many of the insurgents are Pakistani soldiers in beards and baggy pants, as Rajeev Srinivasan succinctly put it.
Yet to confront COIN's limitations also means taking on its near-cultic following, both here and abroad. (After spending years smirking at America's COIN approach in Iraq, the British military flipped the other way and now has its own contingent of COIN worshippers.) So, along with praise, I advise Mark to dig a deep foxhole because he could get strafed by the Faithful. And yet, as he observes in closing, "We're all COINdinistas now." His intention is not to damn COIN but to save it from gross misapplications that will once again get it tossed in the Pentagon's dustbin.
All this leaves the question of what COIN should be replaced with in Afghanistan, or at least how it's to be augmented. Washington is not the bastion of intellectual foment, even in the best of economic times. So while the full solution to the problem of Afghanistan resides in a new 'grand strategy' that's yet to emerge, Mark argues that the bottom line will have much to do with shaping ongoing U.S. defense strategy, and that this isn't necessarily a bad thing.
I agree to the extent that grim fiscal realities in the USA will greatly impact the U.S. prosecution of the war. Yet somewhere between grand strategy and budget-driven ad hoc decisions is common sense.
I believe the United States continues to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey in Afghanistan because the 'Get Russia' crowd wants to hold onto Pakistan as a U.S. ally; this, on the chance the Soviet Union will reconstitute someday. When this argument is cornered by logic, the Get Russia crowd hauls out the excuse that we can't let Pakistan's nukes fall into the hands of terrorists.
Does that crowd read the papers? The nukes are already in the hands of terrorists; the terrorists are Pakistan's military and its intelligence branch.
It's time to remove the blindfold and acknowledge the destructiveness of this silly game, which has hurt Pakistan's democratic reformers as much its neighbors and the ISAF troops. If Washington's political class -- the one that's still listening to the Get Russia crowd -- shows just that much common sense, the intractable problems the United States face in Afghanistan will vanish.
That's not to say every problem will be solved, but it will chop the remaining ones to human size. Right now the United States is trying to fight the weight of history in Afghanistan and just digging a deeper hole -- and making the hole even deeper by misapplying COIN tactics that were used in Iraq.
The centerpiece of COIN in Afghanistan is building up the Afghanistan National Army. But former British Army officer Bob Churcher minces this tactic. His solution to Afghanistan -- find a resolution to Indian Kashmir -- is off the beam (and a perennial affectation of the British government) but he's giving the straight goods when he analyzes the ANA:
[...] Made up from the recombined remnants of Northern Alliance militias, held together by British and American money and training, the army has nowhere near the numbers needed nor claimed. Drug addiction and demoralization are rampant among its soldiers.There is more bad news, which Churcher doesn't address in his critique. Illiteracy is so widespread in Afghanistan that a recent nose count turned up only 200 Afghanis who were capable of running a modern government bureau.
Most importantly, the ANA is a largely Tajik army. Tajiks are the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and are based in the north of the country. The Pashtun are the largest group and dominate the south. The Taliban draws its support from the Pashtun. Tajik and Pashtuns are bitter rivals.
In the eyes of Tajik leaders, Karzai (a Pashtun) isn't "their" president, and this isn't "their" war, nor are Tajiks too keen on getting killed in it, as many US soldiers have noticed.
Even if Tajik forces were willing to fight and replace NATO soldiers, sending the Tajik dominated ANA into the south to control the Pashtun would not amount to a "national army" fighting "its own" war. The Pashtun would and do see these Tajiks as invaders.
In short, this is not the force that will beat the Taliban. [...]
Once again this is ignoring differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq under Saddam Hussein had a large literate bureaucracy (and large educated expat community eager to return to Iraq) that while needing modernization was capable of retooling in fairly quick time for the modern era.
The Pakistan military, through its Taliban proxies, made sure that Afghanistan couldn't produce a government in Kabul strong enough to stand against Islamabad in the wake of Russia's pullout. To accomplish this they deployed the same tactic they did against East Pakistanis many years earlier: they murdered off Afghanistan's educated class: the teachers, academics, civil servants.
So it's gong to take a generation of hand-holding before Afghanistan builds up an adequate pool of educated Afghani civil servants.
These are the realities, which call for the U.S. to shove Pakistan back across their side of the line. This requires a major change in the U.S. approach to Pakistan. How to distance the USA from Pakistan without setting off a shooting war?
Again, common sense applies. If you were foolish enough to break the cardinal rule never to become best friends with a co-worker, don't compound your error once you realize your bosom buddy is cutting you up behind your back. Don't stand on the conference room table and announce your former best friend is actually the devil's handmaiden. As you didn't become best friends in a day, don't try to scale Everest in one afternoon. Just stop attending the co-worker's backyard barbeques and don't invite him to yours. And in countless other ways signal if he keeps attacking you behind your back you'll reciprocate.
In the same manner, don't keep handing Pakistan's military a list of grievances. And stop trying to condition their behavior by leaking damaging information about them to the press. That is just making them lose face, and that's making them even angrier. Instead:
1. Call off the UAV attacks on the Pakistan side, which are only angering the Pakistani public.
2. Quietly roll up the CIA station in Islamabad; stop sharing intelligence with them and stop asking them for intelligence. I know this will be met with protests that the Pakistanis are the only U.S. recourse for HUMINT in that part of the world because few Western CIA officers can blend in. No they aren't the only recourse, and the CIA needs to take better advantage of another obvious recourse.
3. Behind closed doors, tell the truth. Explain to Pakistan's military command that since the discovery that Afghanistan is filthy rich in key natural resources, and given that every government on the planet will make a beeline for the resources once the global economy picks up, the United States plans to stay on in Afghanistan for the next thousand years to help play traffic cop.
A rhetorical flourish would be to add that given the long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, there's no need for Pakistan's military to worry anymore that India will invade Afghanistan. That is not a real worry but it's one the Pak military has been trotting out to rationalize their continued support for tribes that attack ISAF troops.
As to what to tell the Americans who still believe the 2011 withdrawal date that Obama gave -- there's no need to tell them anything. Oil, natural gas, copper, iron, you name it; it's there, in Afghanistan, waiting to be developed. China's government is already mining a copper lode. So just start leaking reports to The New York Times and Washington Post that Afghanistan is the world's Cinderella nation. The American public will get the picture, which is already known to Islamabad, New Delhi, Moscow, Tehran, Riyadh -- and, of course, Kabul.
(If Afghanistan can rather quickly develop its natural resources, does this mean they could afford to buy themselves an off-the-shelf bureaucracy manned by foreign contractors? Yes, but that's getting ahead of things.)
4. Quietly 'delay' all aid to Pakistan. Don't say why, and don't lecture them. They're adults; they'll know why it's being done. After a few weeks of silence, mutter to a high-ranking officer in the Pakistan army that it would be nice if the ISAF and their contractors could get supplies through Pakistan without having to pay a toll to Taliban.
5. Yank Richard Holbrooke. I don't suppose he would strike most Americans as a bigot but my Sahib-0-Meter is set to hair trigger. There are subtle giveaways that Mr Holbrooke has contempt for people in that part of the world. Because of this he substitutes a patronizing attitude for real dialogue. One giveaway is his public use of the conflation, "Afpakia," and unnecessary insistence in public that he was the first to use the term -- even though that's not true.
6. As to a substitute for Mr Holbrooke -- If I could wave a wand, I would impose on (Ret.) General David D. McKiernan to act as special envoy to Pakistan. Yes, this is the same General McKiernan SecDef Bob Gates fired to make way for two COIN-oriented commanders in Afghanistan.
And find a career foreign service officer to act as special envoy to Afghanistan; the idea here is to build up a long-term relationship with Kabul that outlasts a couple U.S. presidential elections.
These moves would irritate the Pakistan military, which viewed McKiernan as too sympathetic to Hamid Karzai when McKiernan was in command in Afghanistan. That would be the point: another signal that the U.S. was writing a new chapter in relations with Pakistan.
In any event, disentangle from the ungainly position of having one envoy deal with both governments, which means the envoy has to expend too much effort trying to make a show of not playing favorites, and making too many opportunities for serious gaffes.
7. Never again send a high-ranking U.S. military figure, such as General David Petraeus, to Pakistan. Never again send the Secretary of Defense. This advice has to do with Pakistani society; believe me when I say that such visits are perceived as slavish.
8. Never again send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Pakistan. She showed extraordinary courage by going there, but her welcome to Pakistan was a horrific bombing of a market that was exclusively reserved for women and children. Only someone who is studiously naive would believe the ISI had no foreknowledge of the attack.
One must know some things about Pakistani society to understand why Clinton's visit was seen as a very deliberate insult by the U.S. government, particularly after her highly symbolic tribute in India to victims of the Mumbai massacre.
The same things explain why Benazir Bhutto's in-your-face politicking in Rawalpindi, the bastion of Pakistani masculinity, got her killed after she signaled that she and not the military would run things in Pakistan once she was in office.
The difference is that Benazir knew what she was risking and believed she could pull it off. President Obama did not know what he was risking by sending Clinton to Pakistan. If he didn't learn the lesson after studying photographs of the carnage at Mina Bazaar, he should be forcefully told to sit on his fantasies about Islamic culture in Pakistan, which is not Indonesia.
From here forward do let's try to get as few innocent Pakistanis slaughtered as possible, eh?
In all dealings with Pakistan, the U.S. military, intelligence, political and diplomatic establishments should be wise and bow to certain realities because the U.S. objective is to stabilize Afghanistan, not reform Pakistan's society. Any questions about the fine points of the realities -- ask India's Ambassador to the United States.
9. Send signals to Pakistani tribes that are furious at the United States for supporting Pakistan's regime that the support is being scaled back. Tell two tribal leaders who really want the U.S. to stay on in Afghanistan that we're there for the long haul and be sure to finish with, "Now please don't tell anyone."
10. Don't expect a miraculous turnaround by Pakistan's military within a couple weeks. Do expect rage and threats, and a spike in attacks on ISAF troops. But just keep repeating steps 1 through 9 and don't back down. If they get really nasty remind them that two can play at the beard and baggy pants pantomime, and start giving donations to tribes that want to overthrow Pakistan's government.
However, much of the current situation is Pakistan's military seeing how far they can push the envelope, then pushing more each time Washington pretends they're not already way over the line.
There are tactics that obviously follow from the above ones, but that's enough to get the ball rolling. As for al Qaeda: If you just keep falling back on common sense, they might be so stunned the Americans have wised up they'll head for somewhere else. If not, first things first: restructure the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Then see what's left of al Qaeda and the insurgency in Afghanistan.
And be sure to read Mark Safranski's essay.
This entry is cross-posted at RBO.