Kilcullen Is As Smart As They Say He Is

Here’s the conclusion to his – great – piece in SWJ, “Crunch Time In Afghanistan-Pakistan”:

To conclude, it might be impolite but it’s certainly not inaccurate to say that our policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan have, until early last year, been marked by woolly and wishful thinking, and a tendency to seek quick, neat solutions to intractable, messy and long-standing problems. The vital requirement now is to be clear-eyed about what we need to do, how much it will cost, and how long it will take. We need to be straight with the American people and our allies (including Afghans and Pakistanis) about this.

In Afghanistan, we have an immediate crisis to deal with. We need to stop the rot and regain the initiative before we can hope for long-term progress. That progress will come at a cost, and it will involve the four key tasks of preventing another 9/11, protecting the Afghan people, building sustainable institutions and then handing-off the effort to them.

In Pakistan, we need to stop asking ourselves the question “Is Pakistan an enemy or an ally?” Pakistan is NOT the enemy. But we have enemies – as well friends – in Pakistan. We need to identify those friends and enemies, and empower our friends to deal with our enemies. This is a classic diplomatic strategy, and an essential enabler for it is to build a willing partner in Pakistan – something that will mean, amongst other things, that we need to help Pakistani civilian politicians gain control over their own national-security establishment, and we need to impose a much more stringent set of limitations on strikes into Pakistani territory.

Things aren’t hopeless, but they are extremely serious. This is the critical year: the situation is still salvageable, but we must act now to put the AFPAK enterprise onto a sound footing before it’s too late.

Go read the whole thing, right now.

Then read TM Barnett’s reply.

I’m working on a piece on Afghanistan, but I have a few books to read first.

2 thoughts on “Kilcullen Is As Smart As They Say He Is”

  1. Kilcullen’s SWJ piece is good, but not great. It’s worth reading through the comments that follow for a sense of the weaknesses of his case for “Option A”.

    His big problem is in the segue from identifying a challenge that “we” face to asserting that–though difficult–“we” will succeed in mastering it.

    A lot of challenges really are this way. Most of them have to do with things that are entirely or largely under our control. For example, the Afghan Taliban can’t prevent the US from building more UAVs, or revising its COIN strategy, or urging the Pakistani federal government to take a harder line in Swat.

    But Kilcullen’s list of things to be done in Afghanistan is heavy on us successfully persuading local South Asian actors to adopt certain perspectives. And it’s heavy on these actors having the desire, the will, and the means to accomplish certain tasks.

    Here’s Kilcullen’s Option A,“Prevent, Protect, Build, Hand-Off”.

    * We need to prevent the re-emergence of an Al Qaeda sanctuary that could lead to another 9/11.

    * We need to protect Afghanistan from a range of security threats including the Taliban insurgency, terrorism, narcotics, misrule and corruption.

    * We need to build sustainable and accountable state institutions (at the central, provincial and local level) and a resilient civil society.

    * Then we can begin a phased hand-off to Afghan institutions that can survive without permanent international assistance.

    “We” seems to mean “the U.S.” or “the West” or “COIN specialists put in charge by the Obama Administration.” If these are the people and institutions that are going to accomplish the tasks Kilcullen discusses, that’s essentailly a model of an Afghanistan under American receivership… or imperial domination, if you want.

    On the other hand, to the extent that “we” is meant to include Afghan and Pakistani people and institutions… who, exactly, are they? What are their beliefs, desires, and capabilities? Their strengths and weaknesses, as seen from “our” (Western) desire to have our goals accomplished?

    For instance, yes, we can press the Asif Ali “Mr. 10%” Zardawi government on the importance of Islamabad not caving to the Taliban, and fighting to extend its writ to the Northwest. That is a far cry from convincing them that it is worth the blood, treasure, and popular discontent to follow that difficult path.

    Under Bush, State and Defense notably failed to do so. By contrast, State and Defense under Obama are doing no better. “Long War Journal Link.”:

    bq. [The Malakand Accord] he peace agreement calls for the military to halt operations and return to barracks in exchange for the implementation of sharia in the districts of Malakand, Swat, Shangla, Buner, Dir, Chitral, and Kohistan. The Taliban have demanded that its prisoners be released and an amnesty granted for its members. Both sides have halted operations and have begun to dismantle checkpoints. But since the ceasefire was put into effect, the Taliban have kidnapped and released a senior Swat official and prevented a military convoy from entering the town of Mingora.

    bq. The Pakistani government currently has peace agreements with the Taliban in North and South Waziristan, where the Taliban have held sway for years and run a parallel government…

    Kilcullen’s Option A is a clear statement of intention. It is not a usable road map for getting from here to there.

    Given the ground truths of the region, it’s not clear that a strategy for accomplishing his laudable goals even exists.

  2. I posted a comment on Col. Kilcullen at the Small Wars Journal site last week that asked if we have the troops to commit to his four stages and if the Afghans can take over in a reasonable period of time.

    Afghanistan had a functioning government and army until 1973 (see Vanni Cappelli’s 2005 article on Pashtunistan in Orbis for background to the current situation). Almost no Afghans want the Taliban back and the reconstituted Afghan army is popular. In Pakistan, we should also remember that in the last election the extreme religious parties in the North West Frontier Province lost badly, and they are even less popular in the rest of the country.

    But in trying to think out our own policy, I agree with AMac that we are in danger of proposing the outcomes that we need or want and assuming that the means and the time we have available are sufficient to the task. In Afghanistan, that is a formula for protracted war and possible defeat.

    Before returning to this prospect, we need to recognize how much our thinking still reflects the legacy of the Cold War, in which the distinction between war and peace got lost and we became accustomed to thinking of military action either as a short and victorious event or as a twilight open-ended struggle. When Iraq turned from the former into the latter, US leaders embraced the change because it was familiar and made sense in terms of an earlier kind of struggle that we had won by holding on for decades. The fear of finite objectives in Iraq became an obstacle to thinking about how to break a stalemate. When we finally did the latter, a fixed commitment in time looked less like an admission of defeat.

    In Afghanistan, we are now anticipating a long struggle. Only this time we are determined to be “realistic” about our capabilities and what we think are the realities of the country. As a result, there is an almost universal consensus in American thinking now that the chaos in Afghanistan today has always been the natural condition of the social landscape. Granted this premise, our prospects should be bleak. But if the premise is false, does that mean we can succeed?

    This is not to argue for optimism but instead to argue that a limited commitment, between giving up and going in more strongly, could bring us the worst of both worlds. Our choice is to gamble that a major commitment of US ground force could evoke a commensurate response from the Afghan people within the next three years to defend their country against the Taliban, or to gamble that lesser alternatives are sufficient to prevent a return of al-Qaida.

    An escalation will probably fail unless it is massive. The new US counterinsurgency field manual says that there need to be 600,000 security personnel to secure a population of some 30 million. Maybe half this number would be sufficient to secure the Afghan south and east where most of the violence has occurred. But that would still be eight times the size of the present Afghan army, and the US proposes to double its own force only from 30,000 to 60,000, with the help of a few thousand British. Even if we shift 100,000 troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, the combined total would be only half of what we need until the Afghans can replace us. All of these projected needs assume that Taliban and al-Qaida numbers in the war zone remain fixed. The number of first-tier fighters on the other side kept pace with a tripling of our forces from 2002 to 2008. An enemy increase of another one-half or more is not inconceivable if the buildup on our side takes years rather than months.

    With nuclear weapons spreading and great powers like China and India growing stronger, a stand by us in the Hindu Kush may only delay our inevitable transfer of power to India and others who live in the neighborhood. The question is whether the cost of declining to contest a Taliban comeback in Afghanistan would trigger a wider cascade of disasters that cost us more in the end. If we decide that we cannot leave Afghanistan with things in their present condition, we will need a clear sense of what an acceptable outcome in Afghanistan will demand of us. What I do not think will work is an approach that defines only the qualitative stages of a desirable outcome.

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