As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Futility Of Counter-Insurgency In A Corrupt State

John Kerry had some good words in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday:

Kerry sets out a few principles for such refinement. “First it will be the Afghans that will ultimately win or lose the struggle against the Taliban.” The United States is in a “race against time” in a region “suspicious of foreign troops.” Recognize “the decentralized nature” of Afghan politics and society. Be flexible. “What works in Mazar-e-Sharif … is very different from what works in Kandahar.” Be “humble about our ability to bring large-scale change.” Put Afghanistan in a regional context. “Permeable borders are straddled by clans, ethnic groups and militants and what happens in one country can have profound implications for what happens in others.”

Finally: “Set realistic goals. The purpose of the mission is what the president said it was” — a struggle against al-Qaeda. Kerry, who has said the United States is involved in a “global counterinsurgency,” references the commando strike earlier this week against a Somali militant with ties to al-Qaeda. The success, he said, should cause policymakers to ask “how much counterinsurgency and nation-building is required to meet a sufficient set of goals?”

This kind of talk among policymakers is far better than those who demand a "war of necessity" with an unlimited commitment to the Afghan people, lest we leave them on the battlefield or some other such military metaphor. Expecting a democracy to flourish in Afghanistan, especially in the wake of a clearly fraudulent election and a leader who is completely ethically compromised by it, is expecting what will never be, frankly. While the US may want Karzai to run the government for explicitly ethnic reasons (it's just easier to have a Pashto heading the coalition than a Tajik) and may try to bring together a unity government by essentially buying off his rivals, that is unlikely to soothe concerns of stolen elections or inspire any defense of the government in fighting the insurgency. The election has basically sealed the fate of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, and not for the better.

I think Kerry's point about the purpose of the mission being focused on Al Qaeda and not nation-building is extremely important. Even the White House's own benchmarks, according to a document released yesterday, puts that at the top of the list. But from there it moves to a wide-ranging mission creep involving all sorts of tangential activities:

Objective 1: “Disrupt terrorist networks in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan to degrade any ability they have to plan and launch international terrorist attacks.” It directs readers to metrics in a classified annex (not provided to POLITICO).

Objective 2a: “Assist efforts to enhance civilian control and stable constitutional government in Pakistan." It lists six metrics for measuring how progress is being achieved in that objective: from progress towards Pakistan's civilian government becoming stable and free of military involvement, to "demonstrable action by the government against corruption."

Objective 2b: “Develop Pakistan’s counterinsurgency (COIN) capabilities; continue to support Pakistan’s efforts to defeat terrorist and insurgent groups.” That objective is followed by four metrics: 1) Effectiveness of Pakistan civilian, intelligence and military in conducting counter-insurgency operations across the clear-hold-build phases to defeat insurgent groups. 2) Level of militant-initiated violence. 3) Extent of militant-controlled areas in Pakistan. 4) Effectiveness of Pakistani border security efforts.

Objective 2c: "Involve the international community more actively to forge international consensus to stabilize Pakistan."

Objective 3a: “Defeat the extremist insurgency, secure the Afghan populace, and develop increasingly self-reliant Afghan security forces that can lead the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism fight with reduced U.S. assistance.” This is followed by 14 metrics, from “measuring the degree to which security operations are integrated into the overall COIN campaign,” to 14, the ability of the Afghan National Security Foces “to handle their own logistical needs.”

These goals are nice, and so are unicorns. But they ignore the reality of Afghanistan and the region. We need to make whatever deals we can with those who have the guns, shift to a counter-terrorism strategy of ensuring that no extremist can project power beyond their borders, and get out. The very fact that Pakistan factors more into these metrics than Afghanistan - since Al Qaeda actually exists there - points to the futility of a military COIN strategy in the other country in the region.

The President tried to put the brakes on any escalation talk yesterday, but given these wrongheaded metrics I can't see how we're headed for anything but that. The skeptics in Congress need to be encouraged to keep speaking out about this policy, or else another Democratic President will be defined by an increasingly unpopular war.

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