Playing Nice (And Looking For The Rock?)

Fred Kaplan in Slate:

Hamid Karzai is in Washington for a four-day love fest designed to show the world that, despite the occasional quarrel, the state of the Afghan-American partnership is sound. But not quite beneath the surface, discordant noises are all too evident.


hen Obama meets with Karzai on Wednesday, he has a fine line to walk. On the one hand, he does have to shore up Karzai’s confidence. It wasn’t just Eikenberry’s leaked memo that sent the Afghan president into a tizzy. Vice President Joe Biden had once walked out on a dinner with him (for good reason); U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke had yelled at him (ditto); finally, just before (perhaps prompting) Karzai’s flip-out, the Washington Post quoted a senior U.S. official threatening to kill or capture his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, for drug dealing.

On the other hand, Obama has to continue pushing President Karzai to clean up his act, even threatening him with consequences if he doesn’t. If Obama doesn’t succeed on both tracks, his war strategy is doomed.

The goal of a counterinsurgency campaign, after all, is not so much to defeat the enemy—in this case, the Taliban and other insurgents—but rather to secure the local population so that the government can provide local services and thus gain the people’s loyalty.

As Gen. McChrystal put it in a memo to Obama last September, the war’s focus must be on “the will and ability to provide for the needs of the population, by, with, and through the Afghan government.” (Italics added.) That same month, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Afghan government’s corruption—and, therefore, its “lack of legitimacy”—posed as big a threat as the Taliban. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked, “We could send a million troops, and that wouldn’t restore legitimacy in the government?” Mullen replied, “That is correct.”

This assessment fits a broad historical pattern. A new study by the RAND Corp., How Insurgencies End, finds that weak democracies (and that’s one way to describe Afghanistan) have “a particularly poor record at countering insurgency,” winning only 15 percent of the time. To win such wars requires public support; and public support, the study concludes, “can be won only if reforms are both legitimate and effective.”

If Karzai doesn’t institute reforms—so that he can provide basic services and thus gain the trust of his people, and they don’t feel they have to turn to the Taliban—then the war is a waste of blood and money.

Given Karzai’s track record, it’s tempting to drop him and find somebody else. The problem is, there isn’t anyone else. Karzai is the only president of Afghanistan, and no viable alternative seems to be waiting in the wings. If Obama wants to fight this war (and he decided in December that he does, at least for now), he’s stuck with working “by, with, and through” Karzai. And that being the case, he and his senior officials have to act as if they’re working by, with, and through him enthusiastically. The appearance of ambivalence only emboldens the enemy.

David Ignatius at WaPo:

Diplomats who know Karzai well stress that his style is quintessentially tribal and conspiratorial — traits that have been honed by Afghanistan’s history over the past three decades, when trusting the good intentions of foreigners was not a healthy bet. It was almost inevitable that Karzai would react to public criticism in such a mercurial way, denouncing America and threatening to join the Taliban.

As one diplomat observed some weeks before the Afghan leader’s visit: “When Karzai feels he is on the defense, he goes into a defensive crouch. If we want him on our side, we have to convince him that we are in this together.”

That’s the sort of advice that finally seems to have gotten through to the Obama team: Given that they have no alternative to working with Karzai, whom we have proclaimed the democratically elected president of Afghanistan, the best approach is to stroke him in public — all the better in an elaborate East Wing press conference. Save any criticisms for private meetings.

Not an ideal relationship, certainly, but for the moment a necessary one. Wednesday’s make-nice performance reminded me of the comment by humorist Wynn Catlin: “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.”

Spencer Ackerman in The Washington Independent:

At the White House this afternoon, Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai committed themselves to a “long-term partnership,” in Obama’s words, “that is not simply defined by our military presence.” Both expressed confidence in the ultimate success of a war in its ninth year.

All this happens as thousands of U.S., NATO and Afghan forces are moving into the city and surrounding environs of Kandahar. Senior officials in charge of shaping the operation have cautioned against viewing Kandahar as an iconic invasion campaign. Unlike the February operation in Marja, where 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops invaded and a governance structure of unproven capability was essentially airlifted into an area under Taliban control, the approach to Kandahar involves bolstering governance and economic efforts in parts of Kandahar currently under government control and expanding them outwards into Taliban-held territory. That will require intense and persistent coordination between NATO militaries, NATO civilians, their governments back home, Afghan security forces, local Afghan government officials and national Afghan government officials. A source in Kandahar considers it all a pipe dream.

That source passed on the following assessment of how counterinsurgency efforts across Afghanistan are shaping up, over a year after Obama embraced them at the strategic level and nearly a year after Obama tapped Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Amb. Karl Eikenberry to implement them. The source’s reluctant viewpoint, which is making its way through official channels in Afghanistan, is that the coordination necessary for successful counterinsurgency between civilian and military forces is not in evidence.


The source’s assessment, titled “A Counterproductive Counterinsurgency,” is reprinted below in full, with minor interruptions in the text for clarity.

A Counterproductive Counterinsurgency

The counterinsurgency methodology which is currently being employed in Afghanistan is not going to lead coalition forces to victory in this war.

The idea of “counterinsurgency” appears to be a viable way for success on paper. Military units, along with NGO’s [non-governmental organizations], the Department of State, GIRoA [the Afghanistan government], and other government agencies work together to emplace the clear, hold, build strategy in key areas of the battlefield. Like communism, however, counterinsurgency methods are not proving to be effective in practice.

Counterinsurgency methods must make quick and effective use of information. However, the joint environment of the theater of operation makes it difficult for efficient information dissemination. Coalition units are still apprehensive about distributing information to consumers who do not wear the same uniform — and many units still have major breakdowns in following guidance directing the flow of information up to higher decision-making elements; or down to the soldiers on the ground. The result of stove-piped information sharing channels maximizes the amount of time that insurgent forces have to seek out coalition vulnerabilities and exploit them.

The passive approach taken to reintegrate the enemy is also proving to be ineffective. Coalition forces who are using the idea of projects and Provincial Reconstruction Teams to pacify local insurgents are experiencing long delays in getting their recommended courses of action approved, funded and then complete. Additionally, there is often a poor hand-off from kinetic [read: military] forces who relinquish control of a previously hostile area to non-kinetic groups who are empowered to “win hearts and minds.” It is evident that there is little attention to ensuring that the local population is prepared for the transition of combat troops occupying their home one month and then smiling faces knocking on their doors the next. Additionally, coalition participants are not yet capable of recognizing the human terrain of their area once they assume control of it.

The human terrain layer of the battlefield is a necessary component of mission planning and success in a counterinsurgency environment. Coalition forces have become aware of the utility of understanding it but have failed to quantify their efforts in exploiting it. The fact that insurgent groups are still integrated within the population of areas that have been under coalition control for long periods of time is indicative of their ability to more effectively exploit the human layer of the battlefield and mitigate the effects of a counterinsurgency campaign. The adage still holds true today that “we have the watches, but they have the time.” The enemy still has the discipline to outlast our commitment to the area.

As if the breakdown of communication and process methodology in place isn’t enough to negate the effectiveness of counterinsurgency operations, we must also contend with the effects of the media, and a world population that cringes when it is witness to overt aggression and the marginalization of people. In this response, the leaders of this campaign have taken too many precautions to ensure that everyone is content with the tact taken. An effective counterinsurgency can only be waged by an organization that is capable of committing to support only those it empowers, remains quiet until it strikes, and effectively owns the world of information. Once it is capable of identifying the vulnerabilities in core infrastructure before the enemy is able to exploit them—and strikes with precision to seal them up, the enemy will dissolve and we will find the war is won.

The author of this paper clearly accepts several of the premises of counterinsurgency theory — in particular, the recognition that the sentiments of the local population are what McChrystal called “strategically decisive.” I asked what the author meant by the “core infrastructure” he identified as the key objective for operations in the memo’s last paragraph. The answer? All of the relevant considerations that shape an Afghan’s assessment of whether to side with the Taliban or with the Afghan government — the economic environment, the local power structure, and so forth. Spoken like a true counterinsurgent.

But the problem, in this individual’s view, is that NATO and Afghan forces are insufficiently and inconsistently contending for those key counterinsurgency prizes. Which is another way of saying the strategy is not succeeding on its own terms.

Andrew Exum:

I am just back from a ten-day trip to the Arabian Peninsula, so expect posting to remain lighter than usual for the next few days. I want to highlight, though, the unclassified U.S. government assessment on the war in Afghanistan which the executive branch is required by law to submit to the Congress every six months. The bottom line:

The continuing decline in stability in Afghanistan, described in the last report, has leveled off in many areas over the last three months of this reporting period. While the overall trend of violence throughout the country increased over the same period a year ago, much of this can be ascribed to increased International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) activity. Polls consistently illustrate that Afghans see security as improved from a year ago. At the same time violence is sharply above the seasonal average for the previous year – an 87% increase from February 2009 to March 2010.

Translation: We have halted the Taliban’s momentum. Violence is up, but we expected this to happen as we escalated our activities.

The president’s December 2009 speech, we should note, explicitly called for halting the Taliban’s to be the #1 goal of our military efforts. So that’s good news. But for me, this report is not nearly as important as the one that will be delivered after the next Friedman Unit. The next FU will really and truly be important because a) we will be able to actually assess the full effects of the as-yet-incomplete Obama surge of troops and b) we will likely use that assessment to decide how fast and in what way we will begin to withdraw U.S. and allied units beginning in June 2011.

That having been said, if you are one of those — and I have heard this the most from military officers — who complains we do not have a strategy for the war, this report is instructive because it lays out, in detail, the strategy. You can then turn around and argue that the assumptions underpinning the strategy are faulty or that counterinsurgency is a poor operational choice, but you can’t argue that folks have not thought about ends, ways and means.

Tim Fernholz in Tapped:

On the occasion of Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington and the beginning of a broad new counterinsurgency operation around the major city of Kandahar, two assessments of the conflict in Afghanistan have emerged that are worth perusing.

One account, provided by Spencer Ackerman, is a description from a Kandahar-based source of a counterproductive counterinsurgency that won’t result in victory, concluding that “the enemy still has the discipline to outlast our commitment to the area.” A second, provided by CANS’ Andrew Exum, is a declassified government assessment; Exum translates the bureaucratese: “We have halted the Taliban’s momentum. Violence is up, but we expected this to happen as we escalated our activities.”

The differing accounts reflect both the challenge of trying to create a coherent picture of what is going on in that region and whether America is actually using the right policy levers — be they military, political, or developmental — or even has the right levers to change the situation on the ground. (It’s a challenge I ran into reporting this story, from earlier in the year, on the problems of the U.S. strategy in the country.) Given the challenges of prediction and even measurement of success, Exum’s conclusion — that it will take another six months to assess the results of the surge in Afghanistan, and particularly how that affects the withdrawal calendar — is probably accurate. But even then it will be hard to answer whether the mission is worth the cost.

Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:

Two major events loom now–or perhaps not. One is Karzai’s peace jirga, scheduled for June, which won’t be much more than a futility festival if there isn’t some sort of Taliban presence. The other is NATO’s planned Kandahar offensive, another futility festival if Karzai’s government continues its history of corrupt and pathetic governance in the province. I have a nagging doubt about the latter event; unless there’s something I’m missing–entirely possible, by the way–the absolutely crucial civilian side of this operation is in disarray. But, again, the coming events in Kandahar will determine the future of the Obama Administration’s commitment to this effort.


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