Monday, July 12

General Petraeus and the tar baby

"The Obama plan was to surge, bribe, declare victory and run like hell. They have done the surge part, and are in the process of bribing (usually the ISI and its pals), but it's not going well. The 'bribees' are not acting as expected -- Afghans seem to be taking the bribes and merrily continuing what they were doing anyway. ... The Americans may have to accept they are in it for the long term: Afghanistan may not be another Vietnam, but a tar baby. They simply cannot cut and run. They have to clean up this unholy mess of their own making."

The above quotes are from Rajeev Srinivasan's June 21 op-ed for Rediff (one of India's top ten website portals) titled, Is the US considering a long-term stay in Afghanistan?. It was published just ahead of the controversy that led to General Stanley McChrystal's resignation from the worst job in the world.

At first the uproar caused by published remarks attributed to General Stan diverted press attention from the devastating critique of the ISAF campaign he'd presented earlier in June, when he'd briefed NATO defense ministers and ISAF commanders. But on June 27 the (U.K.) Independent reported on the leaked briefing:
... General McChrystal said progress in the next six months was unlikely. He raised serious concerns over levels of security, violence, and corruption within the Afghan administration. Only five areas out of 116 assessed were classed as "secure" – the rest suffering various degrees of insecurity and more than 40 described as "dangerous" or "unsecure".

Just five areas out of 122 were classed as being under the "full authority" of the government – with governance rated as non-existent, dysfunctional or unproductive in 89 of the areas. Seven areas out of 120 rated for development were showing sustainable growth. In 48 areas, growth was either stalled or the population were at risk. Less than a third of the military and only 12 per cent of police forces were rated as "effective".

A strategic assessment referred to in the presentation revealed just how close the strategy in Afghanistan is to failing. It stated that the campaign was "on track temporarily" – but this was defined as meaning that there was "a low level of confidence that positive trends will be sustained over the next six-month period". ...
From the above I'd venture that the crafty General Stan was once again playing Chicken with Secretary of Defense Bob Gates -- this time to bargain for an extension of the July 2011 deadline. If not for the intervention of fate, in the form of volcanic ash and a Rolling Stone magazine reporter of perhaps less-than-sterling ethics, he might have won a second time, and again with no more than a slap on the wrist.

COIN in Afghanistan: Baghdad Bob couldn't have told it better

All things considered it was a good thing fate intervened because the tar baby is not exactly Afghanistan; it's this:

What you're looking at is a reduced-size PowerPoint slide titled Afghanistan Stability/ COIN Dynamics (here is the full-size version); it was produced by the U.S. military to convey the complexity of the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan. When General Stan was shown the slide last summer in Kabul he quipped to a roomful of colleagues, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

The slide took on a certain infamy within the U.S. military and when NBC reporter Richard Engel got hold of the slide he showed it to the public. Since then the slide has been used as a prime example of the Pentagon's obsession with PowerPoint presentations, and it served as the inspiration for an April 2010 New York Times article titled, We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint.

Engel introduced the slide in the course of his December 2, 2009 blog post about the troop surge that President Obama announced the day before:
KABUL, Afghanistan – Despite the fact that President Barack Obama's speech on Afghanistan was broadcast in the middle of the night for troops watching from the war zone, there was a sense of excitement among U.S. troops watching the announcement at Camp Eggers, a NATO training base in Kabul.

There is an almost universal feeling among those in uniform that this surge is the United States' last chance to turn around what is increasingly seen as a failing war.

But how can the United States turn the war around?

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, believes the way forward is to implement what the military calls its counterinsurgency strategy or "COIN" for short. COIN has become an almost sacrosanct buzzword among military thinkers and strategists, but it is relatively unknown to most Americans.

Now that more Americans troops are going to war, perhaps the public should take a look for itself at what exactly the United States is getting into in Afghanistan. What is the strategy? How do the most senior commanders plan to "get it right" in Afghanistan?

According to an unclassified military document from the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff obtained by NBC News, the COIN strategy has a basic goal. The document says to successfully conduct a counterinsurgency, U.S. and NATO forces "must accomplish three tasks simultaneously":

"Influence insurgent-minded individuals to adopt a neutral disposition."

"Influence neutral-minded individuals to adopt a supportive disposition."

"Retain supportive individuals."

In other words, COIN's goal is to convince militants to stop fighting and to persuade Afghans sitting on the fence –- those unsure whether to back the Taliban or President Hamid Karzai's government –- to throw their support behind the U.S.-backed government and its security forces.

It sounds simple. But an attempt to visualize the strategy reveals how immensely complicated it is for U.S. forces to accomplish.

Below is the military's schematic, a map of the counter insurgency strategy, that shows what U.S. troops hope to accomplish in Afghanistan.

[Engel introduces the slide]

The slide is undoubtedly overwhelming. For some military commanders, the slide is genius, an attempt to show how all things in war -– from media bias to ethnic/tribal rivalries -– are interconnected and must be taken into consideration. It represents a new approach to war fighting, looking beyond simply killing enemy fighters. It underscores what those fighting wars have long known, that everything matters.

But for others, the diagram represents a fool's errand that the United States has taken on in the name of national security.

Detractors say the slide represents an assault on logic, an attempt to jam a square peg into a round hole. They say the concept of occupying a foreign nation to protect security at home is expensive, time consuming, ineffective and ultimately leads to the "spaghetti logic" of the slide. They say this slide is what happens when smart people are asked to come up with a solution to the wrong question. ...
Four months later, excitement among the troops had collapsed into confusion about the mission and anger about the draconian rules of engagement McChrystal imposed to minimize civilian casualties.

By June it was evident, even without McChrystal's briefing, that there was such a vast gulf between the COIN plan on paper and how it was actually working out that the effect was reminiscient of Baghdad Bob's press briefings on the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

While the U.S. command explained how COIN was protecting the population and establishing functioning local governments in Afghanistan, Taliban blew up ISAF development projects and executed any Taliban they could find who might make an effective local leader.

Can Washington disengage from a tar baby of its own making?

Well, Uncle Remus explained that the more Brer Rabbit tried to pummel the Tar Baby into better behavior the more tarred he got, until he delivered himself effectively hog-tied into Brer Fox's clutches. Yet a subsequent tale revealed there was nothing like the imminent prospect of being skinned and roasted for dinner to propel Brer Rabbit's brain cells.

Remarks General David Petraeus made during his confirmation testimony to replace General McChrystal gave ample indication that neither he nor President Barack Obama, Admiral Mike Mullen, or secretaries Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton had reached that point of extreme desperation where creativity seizes on common sense. It seems they remain determined to pummel their tar baby into better behavior.

My question is whether their determination has veered into the realm of treason. I examine the question in more detail in today's second post, titled, U.S. confidence-building measure for Pakistan's military: If it looks like treason and it quacks like treason.....