Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Poll: Is the War in Afghanistan a Lost Cause?

With President Obama’s controversial decision to end the combat mission in Afghanistan by mid-2013, rising tensions between the U.S. and the Karzai government, and public relations victories for the Taliban in the form of Koran burnings by U.S. soldiers and NATO airstrikes killing Afghan civilians, the situation in Afghanistan has been growing more and more tenuous.  In this context, last week’s massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier could be seen as the last straw that decisively breaks the back of the counterinsurgency effort and makes it impossible to achieve NATO’s goals in the region (including the defeat of the Taliban and the creation of a stable government).  Take the poll below and let us know what you think.

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The Perils of Counterinsurgency Warfare, Part 2

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales (left) is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians.

Three weeks ago in this blog we considered the implications, for the Afghanistan War, of the Koran burnings by U.S. soldiers and NATO airstrikes resulting in civilian casualties.  The main theme of that blog post was that Counterinsurgency (COIN) Warfare requires a very different strategy than conventional warfare, and that events which would not matter greatly in conventional war may become pivotal events in a COIN campaign.  Since COIN requires “winning hearts and minds” and convincing civilians to support the government rather than the insurgents, the government (and any external forces–such as NATO–seeking to prop it up) must avoid civilian casualties and heavy-handed tactics, must be seen to be on the side of the people–by providing services and security–and must carefully guard their reputation and public image.

These requirements explain why the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier last week–an event of minimal strategic importance (harsh as it may sound) in the context of conventional warfare–threatens to derail the entire U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan. An article in yesterday’s New York Times makes these risks clear:

“The killings have severely undermined longstanding NATO efforts to win support from villages in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, and have shaken relations with the government of President Hamid Karzai, who this week told Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who was on a visit to Afghanistan, that he wanted American forces out of villages by next year.”

It is worth quoting again one of the paradoxes of COIN (as written by General David Petraeus in the U.S. Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual):

Paradox #9: “Many Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals. Successful COIN operations require competence and judgment by Soldiers and Marines at all levels. Indeed, young leaders—so-called “strategic corporals”—often make decisions at the tactical level that have strategic consequences. Senior leaders set the proper direction and climate with thorough training and clear guidance; then they trust their subordinates to do the right thing. Preparation for tactical-level leaders requires more than just mastering Service doctrine; they must also be trained and educated to adapt to their local situations, understand the legal and ethical implications of their actions, and exercise initiative and sound judgment in accordance with their senior commanders’ intent.”

It appears the soldier responsible for this massacre was not merely exhibiting poor judgment or training but may have been suffering from mental illness, perhaps triggered by the extreme stress of war and multiple deployments.  But that doesn’t matter in COIN warfare: perceptions become reality, and if this attack looks like an intentional, cold-blooded attack on the Afghan people by an overbearing foreign occupying power (an army of infidels, the Taliban would argue) then that is what it is, for all intents and purposes.  It is sobering to think of how much lies outside the control of the generals in COIN warfare, and how the actions of a single disturbed soldier can undermine the efforts of so many others.

After a decade of U.S. and allied blood and treasure expended in Afghanistan, is this how the war ends?  With an unceremonious NATO retreat, the collapse of the Karzai government, and the return of the Taliban?   Or can the U.S. and its allies still salvage this war?

Koran Burnings, Air Strikes, and the Perils of Counterinsurgency Warfare

Afghans protesting against the United States after American soldiers burned Korans as part of a garbage pile at Bagram Air Field.

President Obama has apologized for U.S. soldiers’ “mistakenly insulting the Koran” by burning copies of the Muslim holy book, but anger and violence against U.S. troops has escalated over the past several days.  This comes on the heels of a NATO airstrike that killed eight young Afghans, for which NATO offered its condolences.

These developments would be “bad public relations” for NATO and the U.S. in any war, but they take on added strategic significance in the context of counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare–the type of campaign NATO is pursuing in Afghanistan.  Whereas in conventional warfare the objective is to crush the enemy quickly and decisively, COIN warfare is less about military victory and more about “winning the hearts and minds” of the civilian population.  Specifically, the goal is to provide security and basic services to the civilian population so they will support the government and stop supporting the insurgents.  As the U.S. discovered in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, when the government is corrupt, autocratic, or incompetent or military force is used in a heavy-handed way–especially if civilians are killed–the population will tend to turn against the government and into the arms of the insurgents.

American and allied military leaders understand the imperatives of COIN warfare, but these requirements are easier to describe in theoretical terms than to implement in a war zone.  Two key “paradoxes of counterinsurgency” from Chapter 1 of the Counterinsurgency manual written by General David Petraeus seem particularly relevant to the current difficulties in Afghanistan:

Paradox #2: “Sometimes, the More Force Is Used, the Less Effective It Is.  Any use of force produces many effects, not all of which can be foreseen. The more force applied, the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal. In contrast, using force precisely and discriminately strengthens the rule of law that needs to be established.”

Paradox #9: “Many Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals. Successful COIN operations require competence and judgment by Soldiers and Marines at all levels. Indeed, young leaders—so-called “strategic corporals”—often make decisions at the tactical level that have strategic consequences. Senior leaders set the proper direction and climate with thorough training and clear guidance; then they trust their subordinates to do the right thing. Preparation for tactical-level leaders requires more than just mastering Service doctrine; they must also be trained and educated to adapt to their local situations, understand the legal and ethical implications of their actions, and exercise initiative and sound judgment in accordance with their senior commanders’ intent.”

Are the U.S. and its NATO allies on the verge of losing the war in Afghanistan?  With the Obama administration’s decision to end U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan by the middle of next year, is it inevitable that the population will turn back to the Taliban out of fear or necessity?  What, if anything, can be done to turn the tide in favor of the Karzai government and its external supporters?

Poll: The U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

As noted in the previous post, the Obama administration’s new timetable for the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan is controversial. We want to hear your views. Answer the poll question below and feel free to post a comment to explain your answer.

Exit Strategies, the Shadow of the Future, and the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announces that U.S. troops will end their combat mission in Afghanistan by mid-2013.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced this week that U.S. forces would step back from their central combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013, taking on an “advise and assist” role more than a year before all U.S. troops are scheduled to be withdrawn (the end of 2014). The New York Times highlighted the novelty and political significance of this controversial announcement:

“Mr. Panetta cast the decision as an orderly step in a withdrawal process long planned by the United States and its allies, but his comments were the first time that the United States had put a date on stepping back from its central role in the war. The defense secretary’s words reflected the Obama administration’s eagerness to bring to a close the second of two grinding ground wars it inherited from the Bush administration.”

The announcement was immediately seized on by critics of the Obama administration, who contend that setting an arbitrary deadline for withdrawal (rather than making withdrawal contingent on the achievement of key security goals) (1) gives “aid and comfort” to the enemy by encouraging the Taliban and Al Qaeda to just wait out the U.S. and (2) sends a dangerous signal to pro-U.S. Afghans that they had better not cast their lot with those who will soon be much weaker or gone altogether.  As with America’s withdrawal from Iraq, proponents of a clear exit timeline in Afghanistan contend that (1) the U.S. has spent enough blood and treasure in this conflict, and (2) setting a clear timeline will force Afghanistan’s leaders to step up and take responsibility for their own country rather than remaining dependent on the U.S. and its coalition partners.

Even a prominent supporter of a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan (realist scholar Stephen Walt) argues that announcing timetables reduces U.S. leverage since Afghan leaders know America won’t be around to punish noncompliance or reward compliance: a key concept called the shadow of the future.

What do you think?  Is the Obama administration’s timetable for reducing America’s combat role and pulling its troops out of Afghanistan harmful or helpful for U.S. interests?  Is it in Afghanistan’s best interests?  Are Obama’s critics right that the president is being driven by political motives and risks throwing away the hard-won achievements of the last 10 years of war?

Did Obama “Flinch” on Afghanistan?

President Obama announces a timeline for withdrawing forces from Afghanistan in an address to the nation on June 22, 2011.

In President Obama’s speech to the nation on Wednesday night, he announced that he would be withdrawing 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011 and an additional 23,000 by summer 2012.  This would leave the U.S. with 68,000 troops by next summer, and the administration has pledged to withdraw all forces by the end of 2014.  As noted by David Rothkopf, this withdrawal plan is too slow for some critics (most of whom are on the political left), and too fast for others (generally on the political right).

Most of the criticism is coming from the conservative side of the political spectrum, and it highlights some crucial strategic dilemmas associated with counterinsurgency–the type of war the U.S. has increasingly found itself engaged in since 9/11.  Counterinsurgency warfare focuses on providing security for the civilian population and winning the “hearts and minds” of the people so they support the government rather than the insurgents.  Many critics of Obama’s withdrawal plan have suggested that by adhering to arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal–based on domestic political pressure rather than conditions on the ground in Afghanistan–Obama risks undoing all the progress that has been made at enormous cost, in blood and treasure, over the past decade (including Obama’s own “surge” of forces in late 2009).  An oft-repeated concern is that by setting clear timetables for withdrawal America signals the enemy that they can just “wait us out” and signals Afghan civilians that we won’t be there to protect them from these militants, so they had better start hedging their bets.

Michael Waltz, a former special forces officer with multiple tours in Afghanistan, raises these concerns in an ominous piece in Foreign Policy:

“What this administration doesn’t fully realize is that the Afghans, their government, the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Iranians, and the rest of South and Central Asia aren’t listening to the policy nuances of Wednesday’s announcement. All they hear is U.S. withdrawal and abandonment. More disturbingly, all the Taliban and al Qaeda hear is that they have survived the worst of it and they only need to last a few more years until 2014. Three and a half years is nothing in that part of the world. Although Obama attempted to emphasize that significant U.S. forces will remain after the withdrawal of the surge, their very mission to win over the populace will be severely undercut by the message he sent Wednesday night. The entire region is now hedging against the United States rather than siding with it.”

Similarly, the editors of the conservative publication National Review take issue with Obama’s strategy in a piece entitled “Obama Flinches”:

“There’s a reason Gen. David Petraeus opposed this kind of drawdown and that, apparently, no general supported it…It’s Obama’s prerogative as commander-in-chief to make whatever strategic judgment he deems appropriate, but the lack of military support for this decision highlights its essentially political nature…[the Afghan] government is a mess and — to one extent or another — always will be.  Afghanistan is a poor, tribal society.  We should have no great expectations for it.  The question is whether it is fated to be ruled by (or at least provide safe haven to) the Taliban and other extremists.  President Obama just made it more likely the answer to that question will be ‘yes.'”

The counterarguments provided by Obama and Congressional Democrats include (a) we are winning and we will keep the pressure on the Taliban and Al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan (e.g., through drone strikes), as we withdraw our ground forces, and (b) setting clear deadlines for withdrawal forces Afghanistan’s government to step up, “grow up,” and take on the roles of providing security and providing basic services instead of remaining dependent on American assistance.

Who do you think is right?  Is Obama’s withdrawal schedule too fast, too slow, or just right?  Does it ignore the realities of counterinsurgency warfare, the commitment of our adversaries, and the politics of the region, or is it a sensible policy for ending this costly war and beginning, as Obama declared in his speech, to “focus on nation building here at home”?

The Troubled Road to Democracy

The toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, 2003 was an iconic image but only the beginning of a difficult transition to democracy.

With the historic changes of the Arab Spring many observers have concluded that “people power” has finally begun to triumph over autocratic regimes in a region that had seemed strangely resistant to the waves of democratization that swept over other parts of the world in previous decades. And while there are indeed many hopeful signs throughout the region for those who value democracy, it is worth noting that the road to democracy is often fraught with setbacks and challenges that the pictures of falling statues, cheering crowds, and jubilant voters don’t communicate.

Scholars such as Fareed Zakaria have distinguished between electoral democracy and liberalism (the presence of civil liberties that limit the government’s reach). While liberal democracies enjoy both free elections and broad civil liberties, illiberal democracies combine (at least nominally) democratic institutional structures with serious deficiencies in the area of civil liberties.  Countries undergoing transitions to democracy sometimes get “stuck” in this halfway zone and find it hard to progress the rest of the way toward full liberal democracy.  Consider Russia, a country that began its transition with the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991.  It holds regular elections (although the degree to which they are free and fair has come into serious doubt), but as noted in this Freedom House report, individual liberties including freedom of speech, assembly, association, and religion are lacking. 

America’s recent “democracy projects” in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced nominally democratic regimes that have a very long way to go before they can be called mature democracies.  Not only do serious questions persist about the freedom and fairness of elections (particularly in Afghanistan) but basic democratic norms such as respect for minority rights and nonviolent resolution of disputes have not yet permeated these societies. 

Despite the stagnation and setbacks associated with so many democratic transitions, Daniel Drezner’s recent thought-provoking blog post on trends in global democracy and autocracy suggests that the future for democracy remains bright.  Drezner cites the analysis of Jay Ulfelder, who explains the deepening authoritarianism of certain nondemocratic regimes as increasingly desperate attempts to contain democratic aspirations that will ultimately prevail: “[It is] evident that these regimes are increasingly struggling to contain the same forces that have propelled the diffusion of democracy elsewhere in the past two centuries. What I learn from the trajectories of prior transitions is that those forces cannot be contained forever. The processes of political change spurred by those forces are often choppy, frustrating, and even violent, but the long-term trend away from self-appointed rulers toward elected government is remarkably strong and consistent, and the forces driving that trend are already evident in many of the world’s remaining “hard” cases of authoritarian rule.”

Are Drezner and Ulfelder simply putting a rosy spin on some very harsh realities, or is there reason to be optimistic that freedom will ultimately prevail in countries such as Russia, Iran, and China? What signs are there that the newest revolutions, in Egypt and Tunisia, will result in democracy? What signs are there that these embryonic transitions have already stalled?