Rethink Afghanistan: Clinging to guns and counterinsurgency

The problem in Afghanistan is not picking the right or wrong counterinsurgency strategy, but picking any military strategy at all.

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

There’s been a lot of public debate lately about our counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Derrick Crowe looked through the government’s own reports and discovered it’s a giant failure. Steve Hynd wonders if it isn’t stratagem at all, but an ideology. I asked if we even had any idea what’s going on with the strategy. Gareth Porter finds that Pentagon leaders don’t like the Afghan strategy, and Nancy Youssef piles on that the military itself is turning against COIN. And it was in Youssef’s piece that one of the Grand Dragons of the COIN blogosphere, Andrew Exum (Abu Muqawama to the cool kids), appeared to distance himself from the strategy. “I can’t imagine anyone would opt for this option,” he said.

Exum later clarified his statement, sort of, but he had a good point here:

If you continue to have a problem with the fact that we are now pursuing a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, by the way, you should spend less time whining about the generals and think tank researchers and take the issue up with the president. As the secretary of state said today at USIP, while holding forth on the strategy reviews that took place in the spring and fall, “the president reached a conclusion [after the reviews of 2009] that should be respected by Americans.”

Obviously it’s a bit of stretch for Exum to throw all the blame on the politicians, seeing as how he and a host of other COINdinistas built their Beltway careers on aggressively proselytizing counterinsurgency religion to those very same politicians. But our leaders are primarily responsible for the policy failure. For instance, Afghan president Karzai visits Washington with a peace plan, and we just take it as normal that he has to “persuade a sceptical Barack Obama that it is time to negotiate with the Taliban.” Skeptical about negotiating? Obama has a Nobel Peace Prize, and he’s skeptical? And Exum’s quote from Secretary Clinton is equally outrageous. We’ve so completely lost sight of our peaceful capabilities, so misunderstood the point of our civilian foreign policy agencies, that even our diplomats demand our military occupations be “respected.” Our problem is not picking the right military strategy, but picking any military strategy at all.

Why is the Secretary of State out there championing the President’s military strategy? Exum pointed out the President’s stated objectives in Afghanistan and said he couldn’t advocate “in good faith” any other strategy but counterinsurgency to meet those objectives. Fine, no mystery why he thinks that. I’ll even accept that Obama is dense enough to only reach that conclusion. But our top civilian diplomat, she’s fine with that? She saw those same reports, and she came to the conclusion that we needed more COIN? What is it exactly that we mean by diplomacy, and what is it we think our diplomats are supposed to be doing? Here’s Exum again, this time in the Washington Post (h/t Derrick):

Exum, who sensibly proposed that Obama “settle upon one point person for dealing with the Afghan president,” asked: “Is either the ambassador in Kabul or the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan an effective interlocutor with Afghan policymakers? Is the U.S. Embassy in Kabul fully supporting the counterinsurgency campaign?”

Is that what our diplomats are for? Supporting the military? Maybe that’s why we don’t have an “effective interlocutor” with either Afghanistan or Pakistan, because our diplomats are just tool bags for our violent and bloody counterinsurgency. What good is it for the Afghan government to complain about civilian casualties when the people they’re complaining to work for the folks causing the civilian casualties to begin with? “Um, can you ask your boss to stop shooting us?” No wonder they feel like they don’t have an effective partner over here. Here’s more from that WaPo piece:

A pivotal player here is Karl Eikenberry, the retired general Obama appointed as ambassador. Eikenberry’s relations with Karzai are bad; his relations with McChrystal may be even worse. Since January a steady stream of stories has documented their clashes over tactics, including Eikenberry’s opposition to the formation of local militias and quick development projects in Kandahar. Now they are at odds over how to respond to an Afghan request for an upgraded strategic partnership, including a U.S. security guarantee. Here’s another contrast with Iraq: There was no daylight between military commander David Petraeus and then-ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Yeah what contrast, because unlike Afghanistan, Iraq is awesome now. Why is this bad that our diplomat is “clashing” with the military? It’s great! Good for him that he’s not just rubber stamping whatever the generals put in front of him. Those “quick development projects” are the perfect example of what Eikenberry is supposed to do. The author portrays it as a disagreement over “tactics,” like one wants to zig while the other one wants to zag, but remember, we talked about this before. Eikenberry’s plan actually helped Afghans, a lot, by letting them develop energy solutions themselves, while the military’s “quick development project” was just a gigantic fuel burden on the locals and a massive welfare commitment from the already retarded central government. That’s because our diplomats actually know what they’re doing when it comes to development. The military on the other hand, is terrible at it.

And more than being terrible at it, the military also harms other development work by experts.

NGOs however insist that the international military by definition cannot be seen as a neutral actor. Many NGOs have also refused to go into areas that have recently been ‘cleared’ through operations by international military forces. In a public campaign over the past year, Oxfam, Care, Save the Children UK and other international NGOs with long experience in Afghanistan have said the militarisation of aid is putting ordinary people on the frontlines of the conflict.

“Humanitarian aid has to be independent, neutral and impartial” says Hassan El Sayed of Solidarites. “Can you imagine how we would be perceived if we arrive after US tanks?” Most of the principled NGOs would not be able to go into these areas, he says.

But I thought our military was working on security, making it safer to operate?

Laurent Saillard, the Director of Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), an umbrella body for Afghan NGOs [says,] “What gives the NGOs their capacity to work is the quality of their relationship with the community. What guarantees the security is not the military or their operations. This is a myth. It is complete propaganda. NGOs don’t buy it and have never asked ISAF or the US army for their security.”

So our military sucks at development aid, they’re screwing up development aid that actually works, and the answer to that is? 30,000 more troops, expanding the drone strikes, and night raids, night raids, night raids! Huh? Is the President that ignorant? And more than him, is the military that blind? They suffer enormously for our policy failures, it’s not like they pay any less of a price for this mess. Well, just look at what they’re saying:

The only feature of McChrystal’s strategy which the Pentagon report treats as having proven effective against the insurgents is its most controversial element: the programme of Special Operations Forces (SOF) night raids against suspected Taliban in their homes, which has stirred anger among Afghans everywhere the SOF have operated.

In an indirect expression of doubt about the impact of the McChrystal strategy, the report suggests that the willingness of Taliban insurgent leaders to negotiate will be influenced not by the offensives aimed at separating the population from the Taliban but by the “combined effects” of the high-level arrests of Taliban leaders in Pakistan and targeted raids by special operations forces against “lower level commanders”.

They think the night raids are effective, and very helpful in our negotiations with the Taliban. But how? What exactly do we get from these arrests of Taliban leaders? What does it have to do with negotiations?

[Officials] said [Mullah Baradar] had provided American interrogators with a much more nuanced understanding of the strategy that the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, is developing for negotiations with the government of President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who is visiting Washington next week.

Mullah Baradar is describing in detail how members of the Afghan Taliban’s leadership council, or shura, based in Pakistan, interact, and how senior members fit into the organization’s broader leadership, officials said.

Oh. It’s not the arrests that are so effective. It’s talking to the Taliban! We could skip the brutal special forces raids entirely, it’s not like Afghans are protesting and getting gunned down in the streets over all the sweet actionable intelligence we’re getting. They’re angry because we’re killing them. There’s nothing about a “night raid” that makes it effective, it’s just the basic act of talking to the other side that’s so successful at creating peace. And yet when the military looks at their own strategy, their only conclusion is that “separating the population from the Taliban,” development work, is useless, but the guys bursting into homes guns blazing at 3 in the morning, well they’re a big help! It’s just baffling.

And our elected representatives, President Obama and Secretary Clinton, not to mention newcomers just running for office, they’re getting the same information. They know the casualties they’re causing, they know the trillions they’re pissing away, yet they cling to these absurd ideas about counterinsurgency. Why? Is it because of people like Exum? Is it because COIN is a religion? What is so attractive about occupation? It’s not going to work. We’ll never be able to accomplish any of our goals in Afghanistan so long as the war continues. We have the non-military capability to accomplish both the development and counter-terrorism work, not to mention the countless international agencies providing assistance. But first we have to bring our troops home.

Join us on Rethink Afghanistan’s Facebook page and collaborate with the tens of thousands of others around the country working to bring this war to an end.


  1. There is just one flaw in your argument: IMO, when a party does the same thing over and over, and that action contradicts their stated goals, we can’t assume that their action is a mistake. Rather, we can safely assume that what they SAY they want is not what they REALLY want.

    Look at Obama’s domestic agenda– not his words, but his actions. From warrantless wiretaps to REAL-ID, the Patriot Act, NAIS– he supports them all. He’s firmly in the pocket of Wall Street, to the detriment of natural persons. I don’t see that his agenda is much different than his predecessor’s: he’s using war as a backdrop to continue the rollback of civil rights and implement controls. Big Brother is alive and well.

    Obama talks about making peace through diplomacy, but his actions say otherwise. We must assume then that peace is not his goal. He wouldn’t be the first to strengthen an external enemy in order to consolidate power to the chief executive.

    • From a 2007 post titled “The Advantage of Declaring an Enemy”:

      “Ironically, an opposition candidate who steps into the position of leadership with the promise of change will often find the conflict-enhanced power too seductive to resist— and the new leader will maintain the outside enemy, too.”

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