CNAS On Afghanistan / Armed Liberal on Afghanistan

So last week, CNAS released its new Afghanistan white paper, by Andrew Exum (Abu Mukama) and LG Barno.

There’s a surprising amount I agree with in it…and some points of contention.

Let’s hit the high notes, and then see what we’re left with.

As an opener, it’s nice to see them reading this blog:

No immediate solution to the war in Afghanistan is likely. The war increasingly resembles a “wicked problem” in which both the constraints and required resources change over time.

First Judith Curry, and now Andrew Exum!! (Actually, it’s a moderately well-known meme, and one I’m a big fan of…it’s nice to see others picking it up)

…but they are misunderstanding it just a bit. The issue isn’t that the parameters are shifting too fast to calculate; it’s that no one can even agree on what the parameters are.

Here I’m using it to talk about Iraq in 2005:

Sadly, reality is, as Rittel and Weber say, a “wicked” problem. They defined a wicked problem as:

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
9. The existence of a discrepancy in representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
10. The planner (designer) has no right to be wrong.

This seems like nitpicking,, but to me, it’s important. To talk accurately about Afghanistan, it seems necessary to embrace Rittel’s (& Webber’s) points as ground rules for discussion. There is no expertise deep enough or model elegant enough to lead you to a solution of this problem (this doesn’t dismiss either expertise or logic as useless – just that they are not in and of themselves dispositive). You need to start with a measure of humility.

Now I’ll sidebar a Niebuhr-esque discussion on what it means to embrace that humility – do we sit at home and tend our fires, as Bacevitch seems to suggest? Or do we simply accept the mess and ambiguity of the world and act nonetheless?

On to the content. The author is are recommending a “responsible transition” which they define as follows:

The United States and its allies should commit to a long-term presence in Afghanistan to safeguard vital U.S. interests beyond 2011 and signal to allies and rivals a continued U.S. investment in the region.

OK, we’ll come back to this.

The United States should focus its residual forces on efforts to defeat al Qaeda throughout the region while supporting a shift to the ANSF leading the continued fight against the Taliban by 2014. Residual U.S. and allied forces will ultimately consist mainly of special operations forces.

So it’s going to be a ninja/Predator war. Right here, we’re walking out onto some thin ice. Someone needs to explain to me exactly how this war is different than the one we fought from 2003 to 2008 – in which we lost control of the political narrative and much of the territory. Now I liked that war – I wanted to keep as small a footprint in Afghanistan as we could, largely because I wanted to focus on Iraq and because I felt that “winning” in Afghanistan was going to be harder than it was worth.

I’d love to discuss this with better military minds, but it sure seems to me that this is a recipe for a reprise; we can’t do development or COIN because we can’t provide security. The population shifts to support the other side, meaning our guys have less and less intel and freedom of action. It’s a feedback loop that’s only negative for us, and one that seems to have one (bad) conclusion.

The United States and its allies should begin a phased transition, starting in July 2011, from a large-scale mission employing in excess of 140,000 troops to a more sustainable presence of 25,000-35,000 troops. This enduring U.S. military presence will be sized to both support and enable sustained ANSF combat against the Taliban and maintain relentless U.S. pressure on al Qaeda.

So I don’t know percentages, but someone’s going to have to fuel the helicopters, and fly them, and bring in fuel and ammo, and cook meals, and build hesco barriers, and so on and so forth and that’ll leave us with that – 13,000 – 17,000 fighting troops on the best possible day?

Again, IANA military genius, but I’d really like to hear how that’s going to work.

The United States should support a successful NATO transition in Afghanistan that enables U.S. allies to return the majority of their forces to Europe and Canada while sustaining a limited contribution of Special Operations Forces (SOF) and trainers to Afghanistan.

Reprise of above – bad editing.

The United States and its allies should shift their direct investment in the government in Afghanistan away from Kabul and toward local governance.

OK, that’s interesting – basically we’re going for the warlords and dumping Karzai. I need to think about that, but one immediate objection is that Karzai gets a vote, and he may simply demand – as the best elected official the country’s got – that we play ball with him or leave. I’ll come back to this…

The United States should use greater political, military and economic leverage over its allies in Pakistan to drive more aggressive action against violent extremist organizations in the region.

Come on. I might as well use my “political military and economic leverage” to get Uma Thurman to meet me for dinner in Manhattan this week. If you’re going to wish, wish for something plausible. What – exactly – have the last three Administrations been doing regarding Pakistan? And how well has that worked? Short of throwing in with India, cutting off aid, and daring them to move their nukes out of the bunkers, I’m not sure what we can usefully do about Pakistan except kick the can down the road. I thought Obama’s people meant for the war in Afghanistan to be a part of that

So there’s the opening summary. Substantively, draw down to 30,000 with an emphasis on special operations. I think we have some what – 10,000 total in SOCOM? So how many of them are we really willing to put into this holding action? And in so doing, what other regions will we starve?

So I’m uncomfortable with the substance of what they’re proposing.

But I like the basis of it. Here’s what is to me the nut graf:

The American people must recognize the painful reality that the United States and its allies are locked in a long-term struggle against violent transnational Islamist extremists and their ideology. The syndicate of al Qaeda-inspired violent extremist groups and their animating ideology has not “burned out,” or diminished. The threat of attack, to the homeland or to U.S. interests overseas, persists. This fight will necessitate worldwide commitments of U.S. intelligence assets and special operations forces for years – perhaps decades – to come. However, though al Qaeda and its affiliates reach widely, with a significant presence in places such as Yemen and Somalia, the Afghanistan-Pakistan region remains a powerful center for much of this movement and a critical joint in the nexus among groups such as al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET). Continued military, intelligence, economic and political pressure is required globally to deny these groups freedom of action and eventually degrade their capabilities to the point that they do not threaten U.S. interests. But given the global nature of current and potential demands on the U.S. military, and the high economic price the United States is paying, Americans have the right to question whether the prolonged deployment of tens of thousands of general purpose forces (GPF) to execute a large-scale counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is a sound strategy and whether it is, in fact, making them safer.

Right. On. With one exception, of course – the slipped-in assumption that intel and SOF are the answer to the problem. I hear the proposal, but want to see how they justify it first.

I believe that they correctly identify the regional interests and the larger interests – I think they underweigh the issue of the broader jihadist movement – but can’t fault them for pointing out that denying Al Qaeda a base in Afghanistan – and a huge victory by acquiring one – is a major step, as is preventing a major internal war in Afghanistan from spilling over into a civil war in Pakistan.

And I think that their proposal is driven by one of two desires – a good one or potentially a bad one.

The good one is one which with I wholeheartedly believe; we need a force in Afghanistan that can lean forward against the forces that would make it – once again – a 15th century state, and one whose dominant ideology almost requires that it host and support actors who wish to do us harm. We need to keep pressure on the militant Islamists, and on Pakistan. We need to find a way to do so that costs us fewer lives and much less money than we’re spending now.

The devil, of course, is in the details.

And here I worry.

We don’t have 30,000 special forces troops. We don’t imaginably have enough of them to keep the entire country in play. If we don’t keep the entire country in play, we lose … slowly and painfully.

Karzai isn’t going to just say “OK, you’re focusing on the regions” and quietly let us move revenue and power away from him and his clique. As much as they make claims that

Under pressure from the United States, President Karzai may fall back on alliances with warlords or precipitously sign on to agreements with insurgent groups whose terms are harmful to U.S. interests. A clear narrative that explains to both the Karzai government and the Afghan people that the United States is entering a new and more sustainable phase of its engagement may gradually help mitigate against some of the most erratic potential reactions. Karzai must be convinced that this new approach represents the most realistic and sustainable option for him, his government and the people of Afghanistan. Such an approach may, in fact, be more in line with Karzai’s strategic preferences than the current strategy: This strategy helps fulfill his goal, for example, for a long-term strategic partnership with the United States while significantly reducing U.S. “boots on the ground,” one of his recurrent concerns.47 Given the near decade long commitment to date, coupled with diminishing public support for U.S. involvement at home, the alternative – an exit strategy focused on the United States and allies ending their military commitments entirely – must be seen as even less palatable to the leadership in Kabul.

…wow! that’s Uma on Gchat. Seriously, this is “close your eyes and hope” thinking at best. And it is so reminiscent of an earlier era; one in which began when the Raj decided that Britain would reduce it’s subsidies to the Afghan warlords and ended with the destruction of Elphinstone’s army. Bribing clients is a dangerous activity, because it is likely that they will turn against your interests when the bribes stop.

And in darker moments, I wonder if that’s the fig leaf for a withdrawal. Well, we’ll ramp down, stop bribing Karzai, and when he kicks us out of the country, we’ll shrug and say, “well, the national leadership kicked us out…”

I don’t have a better answer (then again, it’s not my day job to come up with them). And I agree with the broad strokes of what is proposed here – we need to lower our exposure in Afghanistan and make it sustainable for 15 or 20 years while we deal with the rest of the world. On that, I’m firmly in agreement. I called it “right-sizing” the war in my talk with Jimbo last week.

It’s the specifics of the plan that make me shake my head.

Let me mull a little more and see what I find.

4 thoughts on “CNAS On Afghanistan / Armed Liberal on Afghanistan”

  1. At the heart of every wicked problem is a Gordian Knot of assumption, usually political.

    That isn’t to say that the problem is _easily_ solved by some deft stroke, but that is _potentially_ solvable with the right stroke. The illusion is that the execution is physically impossible (it generally isn’t), but the underlying truth is that the course of action is so politically unappealing (to the people making the decisions) that it is best to pretend it cannot be done rather than argue over whether it _should_ be attempted.

    Our problem is in Pakistan, yet we continue to fight in Afghanistan. That is a losing proposition in any counterinsurgency, and our inability to come to terms with that unpalatable truth creates the appearance of our Wicked Problem.

    Karzai wants us out interdicting the enemy streaming in from Pakistan, _and he may be right._

    So yes, the border is rugged and unforgiving. But the Taliban grip on the Pashtun tribe, straddling the border in established safe haven in Pakistan, dwarfs the terrain in tenacity and strength.

    One great truth of warfare is that physical obstacles, no matter how monumental, are far more simple to conquer than human obstacles.

    I’ve been saying for 10 years that in both Iraq and Afghanistan we have neglected our unparalleled engineering might, and we continue to do so.

    Our best course right now is to abandon our heavy footprint altogether, allow our allies and the Afghanis to deal with the interior (for better or worse), and go out and deny that border to the Taliban, no matter what the cost. Bring down the mountainsides down on goat trails, bulldoze, use sensors and uavs, remake the landscape and funnel the enemy into kill zones. Use special forces to ally with locals and track and kill, gather intelligence on both sides of the border from close at hand.

    Closing the border with Pakistan is merely impossible. Defeating the Taliban with its camps and safe havens in Pakistan, on the other hand, is worse- its irrational. Accomplishing the impossible is what the military does, lets not force it to pursue the irrational.

  2. “Someone needs to explain to me exactly how this war is different than the one we fought from 2003 to 2008 – in which we lost control of the political narrative and much of the territory.” (Armed Liberal)

    An effective Afghan army did not exist between 2003-08 and the report predicates its recommendations on the assumption that one will develop between 2011 and 2014.

    The report is too honest not to recognize that the Afghan army may not be up to the task. But then the report only suggests that a US residual force with a CT mission could move north and operate from Mazar-e-Sharif surrounded by a friendly population. It is hard to see how such a force could focus effectively on CT (with whatever special forces we have to do so) after a US withdrawal that doubles the population on which the Taliban can draw. The truth is probably that if the Afghans cannot defend the south and east between now and 2014, there is no real point in pondering the alternatives.

    “This fight will necessitate worldwide commitments of U.S. intelligence assets and special operations forces for years – perhaps decades – to come.”

    Given the limited nature of what spies and commandos can do, a US strategy centered on these kinds of operatives would be inherently self-limiting, and I’m not sure we will expand our capabilities in these fields unless another major terror attack revives concern. In that case, the danger is that we will simply repeat the last decade.

    Our strategy should be to transition not only Afghanistan but every other officially friendly country to a state of affairs in which they can carry the main burden of defeating al-Qaida cells operating in their countries. The question we have yet to confront is how long we can or should compensate for deficiencies that other countries can and should remedy themselves. But economic difficulty and concerns about Iran and China seem likely to make this decision for us in the coming decade.

  3. “Accomplishing the impossible is what the military does, let’s not force it to pursue the irrational.” (Mark Buehner)

    Agreed. I’m afraid that the time for a border closure strategy to get underway was early in the war (just as it was in Vietnam). For the future, I hope these experiences finally convince the Pentagon that there needs to be a proper grasp of geographic and technical possibility before we commit forces to war again.

  4. *For the future, I hope these experiences finally convince the Pentagon that there needs to be a proper grasp of geographic and technical possibility before we commit forces to war again.*

    Hits the nail on the head. There is a political component also. There needs to be a move away from our perceptions of ourselves as a quasi-omnipotent player, both politically and militarily in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan (Somalia being another example)to one of just another tribe in the political structure, albeit one whose alliances are by definition weaker because we are the invader.

    I doubt that a 50 year presence in Iraq or Afghanistan will change very much politiacally in either place.

    The best we can do is follow the British policcy of indirect rule and the use of clients within these areas to do the fighting.

    The Brits learned a lot in Afghanistan. We should learn, as they did from their mistakes. form their mistakes.

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