Reviewing Obama’s War Part III: Rory Stewart

Chris Dierkes

Chris Dierkes (aka CJ Smith). 29 years old, happily married, adroit purveyor and voracious student of all kinds of information, theories, methods of inquiry, and forms of practice. Studying to be a priest in the Anglican Church in Canada. Main interests: military theory, diplomacy, foreign affairs, medieval history, religion & politics (esp. Islam and Christianity), and political grand bargains of all shapes and sizes.

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10 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    Great post. This all reminds of the Iraq debate around 2003 or 2004 when it became clear we were going to have to try nation building. The idiot brigade staring bill kristol would say, “well we did just fine building nations in germany and japan”, completely clueless to the dramatically different the histories and context of each nation.

    I know I have said this before, but it absolutely boggles me how a country that was founded by through a partly guerilla style insurgency, with the help of foreign countries playing out their own agendas and rebelling against a distant power who didn’t understand the nascent culture and life of the colonies, cant seem to envision how complex and difficult nation building is in other countries.Report

  2. Michael Drew says:

    I’m not sure I understand what you’re proposing with regard to the role of U.S. and NATO forces going forward. Also I think you far too easily write the possibility that a form of central administrative authority that is consistent with significant tribal autonomy can be developed. This wouldn’t have to attempt to enforce a legitimate monopoly on force, though it might need to claim it formally. The key is that such a state-like-entity would always seek to maximize legitimacy while deemphasizing de facto control. I don’t see quite how the outside world can relate to the country without any formal entity constituted of indigenous representatives. If we’re going to have a presence of any kind, we need something to at least pretend to give it legitimacy; even if we were to withdraw completely we would still have need for native eyes-on in the country to have some sense of developments. There’s no way we just look completely the other way.

    The other issue that concerns me in any discussion of Afghanistan without a state is the issue of what happens to command-and-control of any indigenous forces we do raise while we’re still there. Some alternatives to all-in COIN propose a focus on training and building security forces while focusing less on building state legitimacy. That seems like a recipe for a very dangerous Afghanistan, both for Afghans and the world. Full COIN, to the extent it is doomed to fail on the state-building front, or is too ambitious for its support to be sustainable over the required interval by the Western polities expected to maintain it (its most obvious fatal flaw by my lights), has the same problem.

    I’m coming closer and closer to being sure that a middle way of undetermined duration with essentially no exit strategy is the only option here. I don’t think withdrawal is a serious proposal, but I think all-in COIN clearly creates more problems than it is likely to solve. Realizing the formulation in the sentence before last is pretty much the antithesis of a marketable plan, I’d probably associate myslef with the views of this Lt.C. Davis whose views have been batted about a bit of late: go deep rather than go big ( The emphasis there is on a sustainable Western presence and a commitment to achieving realistic goals with regard to an Afghan state/minimally legitimate government. The main thing I would add that, because it is a military proposal, the author neglects is the crucial role that intensive diplomacy
    must play in bringing about an acceptable end state in the region. Our interest in the stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan, after all, has little to do with Afghanistan itself, but is related to the imperative that a track toward regional stability be reestablished. Obviously, a key there is some movement toward alleviating Pakistan’s heightened state of alarm regarding India. Bringing Iran into the fold in some way (a la their 2002 posture vis-a-vis Afghanistan) wouldn’t hurt either.

    I see this as the defining foreign-affairs problem facing the U.S. at the moment (a rising China will still be there when this situation is resolved; what is there to do other than twiddle our thumbs about that in any case?), and to me it obviously demands and merits a decades-long commitment if that is what it takes to get it sorted. The nature of that commitment — military, diplomatic, development — I view as entirely open to informed debate, and I would hope the military component can move on a long-term downward trend. For the moment, I don’t see how the situation would be significantly improved by a sudden (and frankly, panicked) withdrawal on our part right now. But nor do I find the prospects for success of full-on COIN worth the high risks associated with failure. I think this is one that’s just going to be with us a while. A long while.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

      …But these are great posts. There’s a lot going on in each — by the time I get any thoughts together about one, you get the next one up. Tough situation to get a handle on.Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to Michael Drew says:


      Excellent comment, thanks. Here’s a proposal of how to this happen.

      But undoubtedly training people will cause its own sets of problems. But eventually the way we were able to extricate from Iraq was through the buy in of the Sunni tribesmen. Not ideal to put it mildly, but the reality nonetheless. Afghanistan is different to be sure, but that part I think will be constant.

      Like any idea that grew from one experience in a locale, who knows how scalable it is. Also it’s pretty unrealistic given the constraints of our current State Dept and military and foreign policy wiseguys establishment.

      This could be (as you suggest) aligned with some de facto attempts at building a state. Though remembering Afghan’s only ever existing real state was one that really had no power outside of the cities. In this case “state-building” means basically building up the mayor of Kabul (aka the president).

      It’s COIN without it being the kinda of COIN officially favored by McChyrstal, Nagl, and Petraeus.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        Thanks — likewise on your stuff.

        We’re on the same page completely. It’s not that I doubt we need to build an Afghan force or maintain a semblance of a state (and also big-time humility about expectations for it). It’s just that it has to be done at a pace that can be absorbed by Afghanistan, which itself has to change gradually in order for that to happen I’m wary of an attempt to go in and significantly Americanize the security apparatus, and then try to ramp up Afghan forces in a hurry and rest responsibility for security (and our exit strategy) on them. That seems like it would be transparently vulnerable to delegitimization as an American confection. The only thing we can do, it seems to me, is to stay in relatively unobtrusive numbers and try to protect the population from Taliban domination where possible, but more important, establish some trust and demonstrate some staying power, thereby gaining a bit of quasi-legitimacy (though obviously in the context of being an occupying force). At the same time, we’d be building up Afghan forces at a pace that seems natural to the population, focusing on quality and self-motivation over numbers. Then we would be able to hopefully transfer authority to a force that is seen as legitmately formed.

        I agree that reconciliation is the long-term strategy: outright victory over the Taliban is an inappropriate goal. An Afghanistan scrubbed clean of Taliban or any Islamic fundamentalism is not a natural end state. What I think distinguishes Afgh. from Iraq in terms of a surge is the background condition of the conflict. In Iraq, we had two highly mobilized populations vying for control of a country that had an established state more often in its history than not. In Afghanistan, the conflict essentially arises out of anarchy. In Iraq, the situation was at a stalemate but because of extant forces, could be moved into an equilibrium with a nudge from us. In Afghanistan, essentially the lack of force or will to use it on most everyone’s part (save us and the Taliban, both of whom infuence only very limited parts of the territory to begin with) means that any particular nudge is likely to be swallowed up in the vacuum. We were pushing a precariously-balanced rock off the top of a hill in Iraq, while in Afghanistan, we’re pushing it slowly up.Report

  3. Lev says:

    Wasn’t Zalmay Khalilzad Bush’s U.N. Ambassador? Do you mean Nouri al-Maliki?Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to Lev says:

      Zalmay is Afghan. He was UN Ambassador and before that an Ambassador to Iraq. Prior to Amb. Crocker as I recall. I think as of now he holds dual nationalities. There has always been some background chatter about installing him (instead of Karzai) as Prez of Afghanistan. In the short term, the US/NATO seems more to be backing Abdullah Abdullah.Report

  4. Michael Drew says:

    Not that I haven’t taken ample space to express myself in this thread (thanks to the League for providing diary space!), but looking again at what I wrote, and in light of recent published pieces by Robert Pape, David Rohde, Glenn Greenwald (drawing on Rohde and, entertainingly, Rumsfeld), and Nicholas Kristof, I am struck that while I raise a number of concerns about an Afghan surge, I don’t explicitly focus on the primary immediate and certain effect of greater American forces in Pashtunistan: inflammation of anti-American sentiment and resulting strengthening of the insurgency. Just to reassure myself, I absolutely take this to be the first-order problem with escalation, and it was assumed in this statement: “I think all-in COIN creates more problems than it is likely to solve.” My other concerns about efficacy and consequences of up-paced attempts at statebuilding via a surge are all layered on top of that fundamental in-theater problem, which in turn lays atop the basic reality that a surge in my mind will clearly exhaust domestic support for a long-range commitment (at a lower level of force) to this problem in fairly short order.

    Bottom line, because of the inflammation effect particular to this region, if standard COIN theory would expect a return on investment of one unit of stabilization per counterinsurgent per unit time, the effect of a large surge in this environment would place a multiplier on that expectation of some significant fraction less than 1, say 0.5 or 0.7. That combined with the many other questions raised about the ability of COIN to succeed in this case under any circumstances makes a large escalation an exceedingly bad investment at this time.Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to Michael Drew says:


      I think this is right if the kind of COIN is US-centric population-centric, if you get my drift. i.e. We lead a bunch of our people into forward bases. Some anti-occupation backlash will occur–potentially as Steve Coll suggested major in scale which would end everything. And/or per Richard Engel’s comments, most of the locals will just wonder, “why are you guys here?” and probably just ignore them relative to the build part (Rory Stewart’s argument).

      The alternate I linked to earlier and we will be the basis for my last post in this series offers a potential way around those problems. Maybe. But it certainly comes with its own sets of issues. It might solve one set of problems and only create another.Report