Permissible Arms

Maybe we should all go underground

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, pakistan, us military, us politics by Karaka on 7 October 2009

A quick rundown of what I’ve been reading this week:

Sameer Lalwani and Peter Bergen’s op-ed in the NYT last week is both timely and worth noting; as Specrep Holbrooke develops a more active military presence in Afghanistan, as he seems likely to do, this could effectively pay for the training–and eventual security–of the ANA and ANSF in the nation.

Nicholas Schmidle’s article in the Fall ’09 issue of WAJ, Talibanistan: The Talibs at Home. This too is timely, as discussion ramps up about what to do in Pakistan as much as in Afghanistan. More anecdotal than anything, it gives a particularly Western view into the poltics Holbrooke is wading into.

During the two years I lived in Pakistan, on a writing fellowship, I watched this process unfold. In the spring of 2006, I browsed the hashish and gun markets in Dara Adam Khel, a frontier town in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which fell to the Taliban a short time later. When I visited the Swat Valley with my wife in June of 2007, the government was as in control as it ever was; when I returned alone four months later, the Taliban had established checkpoints throughout the valley and scared off the police through a campaign of ambushes and suicide attacks.

KOW had a nice conversation starter, Strategies are Like Sausages, which dovetailed nicely with the essay put out by SWJ last month by Adam Elkus and Mark Sanfranski, Theory, Policy, and Strategy: A Conceptual Muddle. Lots of good stuff in both posts’ comment sections. Both come to more-or-less the same conclusion–that current dialogue about Afghanistan (et al) tends to conflate “strategy” with any number of other things, but most particularly practice and policy. In the case of the SWJ essay, the authors suggest that frequently a strategy is derived from an operational methodology, which is the intellectual equivalent of putting the cart before the horse. In the case of KOW, the author dissects the relationship of politics and policy in light of a given strategy. I don’t have much in response that I haven’t already said elsewhere, but this paragraph from the conclusion of the SWJ paper stuck out to me:

But the basic problem remains that policy elites increasingly lack the experience and cognitive frameworks to create strategy, and in the absence of a clear threat it is likely that the short term considerations of domestic politics and international crisis management will win out over long term strategy. It is difficult for democratic systems to produce grand strategy because of the role of interests and lobbies, the tendency of politicians, to erase the doctrines of their predecessors regardless of their utility, and the paucity of basic knowledge of strategic concepts, coaltion warfare, and strategic history.

This, by the way, is why I don’t think McChrystal was ever particularly out of line in his remarks. He was advocating a policy that took long-term operations into consideration (for a value of “long-term” that is at least longer than any American politican would like to see US forces in southwestern Asia) rather than the politics of a mid-term election process, the political picture of sending more troops, or a short term fix that would allow American forces to withdraw. He was well in line with what he had been asked to do by his superiors, in line with the strategy laid out in March; a strategy which, according to Sec Clinton, has not changed.

Speaking of Clinton, her appearance with Sec Gates at GWU earlier this week was recorded and is available streaming here; transcript here. Well worth listening to. If nothing else–and there is a lot else–this speaking engagement reflects a very different working atmosphere in the Obama administration from that of his predecessor. The candidness with with both Secretaries spoke and their support of one another spoke to that. There’s several things worth review, but here’s one of many I find interesting:

SESNO: But — but my — my question was, what are the things that the military is now doing that should be handled and are better handled by our diplomats?

CLINTON: Well, Frank, let — let me just answer that, because a lot of what happens when our military — and they’ve been doing an incredible job against a really ferocious enemy in Afghanistan, particularly along the south and along the border — without civilians, it’s very hard to make the transition from, you know, the soldier or the Marine holding the automatic weapon who has been trying to route out the Taliban to going and trying to help a farmer get enough yield out of his wheat crop so that he doesn’t want to grow poppies.

I mean, that’s — that’s, you know, an issue that is very difficult for the military to take on a sustained basis. But in the last several years, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it was young lieutenants, captains, majors, they were doing that.

They were trying to do both jobs. And at a certain point, we need to support them. And I appreciate what Bob said about how it affects — trained civilians are force multipliers. They can begin to do the civilian interaction with, you know, tribal elders and others that will help to make the environment more secure that our Marines and soldiers have helped to create.

That is pretty much my essential thesis when it comes to Afghanistan. (Why this isn’t available as a podcast is beyond me.) Use your military to establish security so that civilian presence can be installed more long term. Interestingly, Ricks reports a kind of pilot programme that might be heading in this direction:

Word at the Pentagon is that the Army is going to designate the XVIII Airborne Corps as the permanent headquarters for Afghanistan. This is part of Gen. McChrystal’s long-term plan to create a team of “Afghan Hands” who can build for several years, during multiple tours, on their experience and relationships in the country.

In order to do this, the corps headquarters will nearly double in size. At any given time, about half will be in Afghanistan and the other half back home in Fort Bragg, N.C.

Something to keep an eye on.


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