Reviewing Obama’s War Part III: Rory Stewart
The Obama administration has proposed a very, very narrow objective, which is counterterrorism, and a very maximalist, broad definition of how to achieve it, which extends to counterinsurgency and the defeat of the Taliban, and basically the fixing of the entire Afghan state. And the whole problem with this strategy is its very narrow aim is connected to this hugely ambitious means.
That’s Rory Stewart, laying out a very precise and well thought out criticism of the Obama administration (and by extension the military generals) in relation to Afghanistan.
Here he gets to the heart of it:
I think what we’re talking about is actually state building, not nation building, which is to say that it’s very blind to politics, to religion, to history, to culture, to context — the kinds of things from which nation [building] is composed.
Nation building could only be done by an Afghan Thomas Jefferson. It’s a job for a founding father. It’s an indigenous project. State building, in the view of the Pentagon, is a very technical, technocratic process where there are certain things just listed off: civil service; legitimate monopoly on the use of violence; good financial administration; the rule of law; a pragmatically regulated free market. It sometimes seems to be a little bit like the recipe for building a garden shed or baking a cake. It’s a management consultancy tool for fixing a state.
The COIN strategy advocated by many in the military (and some in the administration it would seem) talks about clearning, holding, and building. Clearing areas os insurgents, holding the territory (called population-centric warfare), and then building. In many cases building a state. But also building buildings, schools, roads, local government, and a whole host of other things.
But here’s the problem:
Counterinsurgency is the most fashionable thing at the moment because the U.S. military believes that’s what allowed them to turn around the situation in Iraq. Afghanistan, however much people claim otherwise, is really about Iraq. It’s really about the fact that people said it couldn’t be done in Iraq and it was done.
And a lot of the U.S. military think if we manage to pull it off there, we can pull it off again. … What they forget is that what made it work in Iraq is all about Iraq. It’s all about Iraqi politics; it’s all about Iraqi government; it’s all about Iraqi landscape. You try to move the same thing over to Afghanistan, where you don’t have that kind of government, you don’t have that kind of landscape, you don’t have that kind of politics, it’s not going to succeed.
What Afghanistan does not have is a history of a strong central state, a history of a large national army/police force, or a middle class, nor a heavily urbanized existence.
You’ve got all this “clear, hold, build” strategy. It’s the build bit that’s so difficult.
People who have been working in development in Afghanistan for 30 years just say to you again and again everything takes four times as long as you’d imagine, and you achieve half as much as you’d hoped. This is a country where most people don’t have anything approaching a high school education, where about one-third of the population can’t read or write, where the government so entirely lacks capacity to even do things like clear garbage in the center of Kabul, the idea that you would be able to in any realistic time frame get some subdistrict in Afghanistan generating the kind of self-sustaining economic or governance energy … [is], I think, delusion.
In the example of Iraq we still have not seen a real political endgame created. The country is drifting it would seem towards a de facto Shia dictatorship, indefinite Sunni minority status rife with political, social, and economic alienation, and the strong potential for a war between the gov’t in Baghdad and the Kurds to the north. Reconciliation on a political leve never occurred. By that measure, the measure President Bush laid out at the time, the surge was a failure.
How exactly will Afghanistan not follow the same tune? Even if a COIN strategy in the short run helps stabilize various provinces, as Stewart says, the “build” part simply is not going to happen. The Pushtuns were largely left out of the negotiations at the Bonn Conference which created the current Afghan government. What are the chances (a la Iraq) that political reconciliation is likely to occur in Afghanistan?
In other words, if the US military was brutally honest, it would say that the best a COIN strategy can do is (potentially–not automatically) help stabilize certain portions of the country. It would come likely with an initial increase in violence and certainly US casualties.
But whatever effect it may have towards decreased violence in the short/medium term, it will never succeed in the building of a state nor the mass development of the country, particularly in the rural areas.
On that point, Stewart–who actually knows the country from firsthand experience–is spot on. The military establishment currently afflicted with COIN fever do not know the history of Afghanistan and I think may have learned the wrong lessons from the Iraqi surge (though that last point is admittedly open to debate).
It’s not really a fight between a Taliban government and a Kabul government. I think it comes down to villages which for 30 years have largely run themselves and whose concerns have nothing to do with a Kabul government or the Taliban or even the U.S. forces. [They] have to do with the kind of things that villages think about, primarily, at the moment, security, by which they don’t mean necessarily Taliban bombs. They mean kidnapping, robbing on the roads, looting, these kinds of things — things which actually [have] to do with civilian security and policing more than terrorism and insurgency.
And [then there’s] a village chief or head of a household who’s sitting there trying to negotiate his way through a visit from the Taliban, a visit from the U.S. military, a visit from the police, and trying to work out how on earth to keep back all these external factors, most of which are perceived as generally unhelpful or intrusive.
His point on the centrality of the tribes is so crucial and completely missed in all the back and forth going on now re: Afghanistan in the US political and military circles. Even talking about not uping US forces because of the fraudulency of the elections still assumes the real center of focus should be the central state. It isn’t and it shouldn’t. The state, such as there is one, is basically a mayoralty in the city of Kabul.
John Nagl believes he can have the 500,000 counterinsurgents necessary to meet the 20:1 ratio (population to counterinsurgents) within five years. Let’s assume for the moment he is right. How developed will the country of Afghanistan be in five years? How “non-corrupt” will be its government? How built up will its state be? And at what cost to the US with record budgetary deficits.
Remember Stewart’s rule re: Afghanistan. Four times as long as you expect, half as much accomplshed.
The center of the action is at the level of the tribes not the state nor the state’s history (as it were):
One of the problems of the counterinsurgency strategy, it just assumes that history repeats itself exactly. Somewhere at the bottom of this is some idea that we withdrew our support in 1989; therefore there was a civil war in 1992; therefore the Taliban took over in 1995; therefore Sept. 11 happened in 2001.
And somewhere at the bottom of it, even if it’s dressed up in fancy language, is some kind of idea that if we were to withdraw our support again today, there would again be a civil war, and the Taliban would again take over, and they would again invite back Al Qaeda, who would again attack the United States. …
But the Taliban today are not the Taliban of ’94, ’95. They don’t have the Pakistan army behind them in the same way. They don’t have the same appeal to the public. They don’t have tanks. They don’t have artillery. They don’t have the wherewithal to take a city. …
A much longer view is necessary than US election and generals induced scare-tactics timetables. It will also require a re-definition of the word “corruption” so beloved on various sides in this policy review on the war.
[It] doesn’t matter how much we talk about counterinsurgency. To do development in Afghanistan well requires a level of exposure to the language, the culture and just time. And the best development workers I know in Afghanistan have been working there for 10, 15, 20 years with individual communities. …
And in fact, even worse, often the actual skill set that you’re looking for isn’t even the skill set of a soldier, a diplomat or a development worker. It’s something more like the skill set of a 1920s Chicago ward politician. And soldiers are really not very comfortable doing that kind of political work. You see them come to you again and again and say: “I’m not going to deal with this guy. He’s completely corrupt. He’s totally discredited. I’ve just got information that he’s a bandit and he’s smuggling across the borders.”
“Corruption” is not corruption in Afghanistan. Corruption is the way to live in a premodern society. What Edward Luttwak called “family-ism”. I lived for a year in Micronesia, a society that similar to Afghanistan (though not as poor) was one without a banking system, infrastructure, IRAs, savings accounts, functioning capital markets, that was also filled with slush money (given by the US to prevent them from going communist in the 80s). It created a rainy day economy–or what we in the West call “corruption.” In the Afghan case of course this rainy day economy is fueled by international aid, global drug trade, and donatios from wealthy Saudi/Pakistanis.
The only real to create a state on the top of all that is to put in a strongman–(did somebody just say Zalmay Khalilzad?). But with the legitimacy put into elections that is not going to happen. The only way then is to forego this illusory notion of state-building and focus on the creation of local tribal groups who will do their own clearing, holding, and (maybe) building.