False Premise May Be Guiding US Strategy

July 1, 2010

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I do think part of the problem with US policy and strategy in Afghanistan has to do with mirror-imaging and untested assumptions.  As this ABC News article points out, one of these assumptions is that the leadership of the insurgency won’t give up or reconcile unless they believe the US and its allies are winning.

Asked how far along the talks were, the Afghan senior official would only say that the talks with the Pakistani leadership and the Haqqani network “are all the way to the top.”

The general U.S. skepticism toward talking to its enemies has become increasingly public. CIA Director Leon Panetta went farther than most American officials recently when he said told ABC’s Jake Tapper on “This Week” that reconciliation efforts were a non-starter until the United States made more progress in Afghanistan.

“We’ve seen no evidence of that and very frankly, my view is that with regards to reconciliation, unless they’re convinced that the United States is going to win and that they’re going to be defeated, I think it’s very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that’s going to be meaningful,” Panetta added.

But Afghan and Pakistani officials dismiss that thinking, with one calling it a “false premise.”

“If you know Afghans, you know that thinking is wrong,” says the Afghan senior official. “If you make an Afghan feel weak, then you end up forcing him to be the opposite of what the U.S. thinks he will become.”

For a Pashtun, losing is simply not an option — honor is at stake.  Reconciliation (Nanawati) is possible when there is mutual respect and an equilibrium — not domination by one side.

We have got to start thinking about these issues from an Afghan perspective, and not our own.


Is This Pop-Centric COIN?

June 29, 2010

The NY Times published an article on the progress of the Afghan War today that I found was interesting in the context of last winter’s debate between COIN and CT advocates.

Despite deepening pessimism back home and disarray in the top American military ranks, officials insist that the buildup of soldiers in Afghanistan is beginning to show results: Commando raids over the last four months have taken scores of insurgent leaders out of action, in a secretive operation aimed partly at pressuring the Taliban to reconcile with the Afghan government.

About 130 important insurgent figures have been captured or killed in Afghanistan over the past 120 days, about the time that commanders turned their attention from the fight around Marja to a much more complex campaign around Kandahar, according to NATO military statistics.

Some senior NATO officers say that military intelligence has picked up initial indications that the increased Special Operations missions aimed at provincial insurgent commanders inside the country have provoked some Taliban leaders to begin internal discussions of whether to accept offers of reconciliation with the government.

The Special Operations raids have caused an unspecified number of innocent deaths that have outraged the local population, frustrated the Afghan government’s efforts to attract more supporters across the nation — and prompted a tightening of allied rules on the use of lethal force.

Military officers acknowledge that these capture-or-kill missions are not an end in themselves, but are meant to establish an elusive strategic advantage at the start of a broad campaign to neutralize the Taliban.

Killing and capturing insurgent leaders is hardly the main focus of population-centric COIN, from my understanding.  In fact, these Special Operations raids are exactly what the proponents of a light-footprint CT approach believed would be more effective in neutralizing the insurgency and inducing them to reconcile with the government.  At a time when the pop-COIN approach has thus far engendered mixed or ambiguous results, it is fascinating to see how quickly “results” have come full-circle to mean body counts and not the various COIN metrics that were developed to track progress in the Obama Administration’s new strategy. In fact, reconciliation and negotiations with the top leadership were never really emphasized when the strategy was unveiled.

Still, as I have previously argued, I don’t believe that it must be an either or scenario between CT and COIN.  Despite the fact that these Special Ops raids can sometimes inadvertently harm civilians, the operations can be used in conjunction with efforts to secure strategic areas, hold these areas, and build.  The problem is that the potency of COIN approach is predicated more so on the effectiveness of the government to do its job and not the military’s ability clear and hold.  And the host government has largely struck out in this regard.  This is precisely the reason that some experts were skeptical that COIN could work at all, let alone be cost-effective.

It may be premature to really assess any of these trends and results,  I am not sure.  All I know is that I was skeptical a CT focused strategy would be successful in neutralizing the Taliban and bringing them to the negotiating table.  And although I thought the July 2011 deadline was strategically counterproductive — mostly due to its impact on Pakistani thinking — and that 30K additional troops was still not enough, I thought that pop-COIN had a better chance of turning the tide.  Once Obama announced the time-line and that he was only sending 30K, I was much more skeptical the strategy would bear fruit — but I was still willing to give it a shot.

If and when it becomes clear that the CT approach is what really brought the insurgency to a stand-still, I will be the first to admit I was wrong and absorb the lessons learned thereafter.  Until then, I’ll have to be patient like everyone else and wait to see how this pans out.

But I will conclude with an excerpt from an article in the Washington Post from September 21, 2009:

McChrystal makes clear that his call for more forces is predicated on the adoption of a strategy in which troops emphasize protecting Afghans rather than killing insurgents or controlling territory. Most starkly, he says: “[I]nadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced.”

UPDATE: Dr. Finel wrote a post that dovetails nicely with this.  When I first read the NY Times piece, my initial thought was, “Damn, Finel may have been right.”  Gotta give credit where credit is due.

What is the Meaning of “Meaningful” Reconciliation?

June 28, 2010

Over the weekend, Al Jazeera reported that President Karzai had direct talks with Siraq Haqqani, in the presence of top officials of the Pakistan Army.  Whether or not this is true — and I wouldn’t entirely rule it out — CIA Directory Leon Panetta rejected the assertion that any of the main components of the insurgency are ready for “meaningful” reconciliation.

Excerpts from the NY Times:

“We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation, where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce Al Qaeda, where they would really try to become part of that society,” Mr. Panetta said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“We’ve seen no evidence of that and very frankly, my view is that with regards to reconciliation, unless they’re convinced that the United States is going to win and that they’re going to be defeated, I think it’s very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that’s going to be meaningful,” he said.

What exactly does “meaningful” reconciliation mean in the eyes of Panetta and other senior decision makers in government?  Easy, it means that even before any formal talks are allowed to commence, the insurgents must simply unconditionally surrender, act like the last 10 years of fighting never happened, and blend amicably back into society.  Thus, meaningful essentially means what the US wants — no ifs, ands, or buts about it.  I am sorry, but that is not a negotiation or anything close to one.

On his blog, Bernard Finel gets this paradox exactly right.

Look, I don’t know that negotiations can work in Afghanistan.  But I do know that if our approach is to demand unconditional surrender, it won’t.  You simply cannot expect the insurgents to lay down their arms and agreed to respect the existing Afghan constitution.  Nor can you exclude powerful warlords — like the Haqqanis — simply by fiat.  Real negotiations are going to require (a) talking to the people with power, and (b) being willing to make real concessions about fundamental governance issues.

We can’t obviously negotiate against ourselves, and we can’t put everything on the table right away.  But to be frank, I have no confidence that there is a more sophisticated view inside the USG.  The insurgents — as far as I can tell — are insisting on two things: (a) an end to foreign military forces in Afghanistan, and (b) a new constitution drafted with input from the insurgent forces.  As a practical matter, that IS where a settlement will end up, whether it occurs by force of arms or at the bargaining table.  The question for the United States ought to be less about trying to force others to pledge loyalty to the existing constitution and political order, and more about ensuring that what comes after continues to ensure minimal U.S. national security interests.


Update: I already received a pretty emotional response from a friend of mine — as he underscored that of the three main factions, the Haqqanis arguably have the closest relationship with Al Qaeda.  True enough.   But virtually every militant group in the region has been in bed, is currently in bed, or is thinking about sleeping with Al Qaeda.  The Al Qaeda ideological virus is unfortunately still permeating through the region like a STD.  Only negotiating with groups that do not have ties to Al Qaeda means we simply keep fighting indefinitely.  We have to come up with a better differentiation tool that can still safeguard our strategic interest in defeating Al Qaeda.

I am not saying we should simply permit the Haqqani network (and Al Qaeda indirectly) to garner formal influence or power in Afghanistan.  I am just saying that we cannot insist on impossible and impractical preconditions as the basis for “meaningful” negotiations.  Look, if you don’t want to talk to the Haqqanis, just be upfront about it and say we will only accept an unconditional surrender from the group, or any other groups for that matter.  Not that the stance would be at all practical but at least it would be truthful.  But putting on a facade that we are not entirely opposed to negotiating — but negotiations only in name and not in substance — is not productive.  This type of mindset usually leads to the enemy becoming more resolute and hard-line.

If the Haqqanis are indeed completely wedded to Al Qaeda (with no foreseeable divorce in sight), I think the best way to gain insight into this issue to talk directly to the leadership.  And if that is the case, we cut negotiations with the group and find another way to minimize or neutralize their capabilities, most likely by generating the support of the Pakistan Army.  On the other hand, the gaping hole in all of this is whether any of the groups, especially the Haqqanis, can credibly promise to disavow Al Qaeda forever.  If they probably cannot, at least for practical purposes, is the only viable option then to keep fighting?

Overall, what still bothers me is that while the US and its allies incessantly repeat the mantra  that there is no military solution to Afghanistan, it sometimes seems as though they are blinded when it comes to understanding the implications of this fact.  Currently, the US is still putting most of its stock in the military aspect of the war — hoping that we can convince the insurgents to give up or give in using our military’s might.  Even my friend, who I referred to as the beginning of this update, offered the way out of this mess: kill Haqqani and Mullah Omar first, then negotiate.  I simply do not see how that would change much, even if we could pull that off by next July.

I invite my friend to post a reply if he thinks I am still wrong or have misinterpreted the situation.

McChrystal is Gone…But I Am Back

June 23, 2010

To anyone who missed me, I am sorry for completely ignoring the blog the past few weeks.  I will admit the neglect was partly due to the fact that I was jaded not only by events happening in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, but also with blogging in general.  But I am back.

Obviously, the story of the past few days has been General McChrystal’s  highly unfortunate interview calamity with Rolling Stone.  President Obama really had no choice but to relieve him of command, replacing him with one of the main architects of the contemporary COIN machine, General David Patreaus.  This whole situation to me is just mind-blowing.  Here we have a supposedly driven, intellectual, and dedicated McChrystal who suddenly loses all tact, political discipline, and media savvy — at one of the most pivotal junctures in the Afghan War since Tora Bora in 2001?

Although I have a lot of respect for General Patreaus, I simply do not think his leadership will change anything on the ground.  The outcome of Marja is ambiguous at best — and an utter failure at worst — and operations in Kandahar are stalled due to apprehensions about repeating the same mistakes.  Patreaus isn’t going to be able to change either of these realities.

No matter what, the clock keeps ticking and the US has only a year left before it begins to draw down in Afghanistan.  Can we make sufficient progress in the next 360 days, enough to warrant Obama to keep most of our forces on the ground and continue the effort until the Afghan security forces can comfortably take over?  The US military alone cannot single-handedly stimulate such progress.  As the world witnessed with the Operation Moshtarak in Marja, the US military and its allies can undoubtedly sweep through an area and push the enemy out without much resistance — but what really counts is the aftermath.  And that is precisely where we  become helpless and beholden to structural weaknesses in the central and local governments, lack of  infrastructure, and poor law enforcement capabilities.

Those who were solid backers of McChrystal and COIN as the most promising way forward for are already tempering their support.

I still believe that the US can leave Afghanistan in a better and more stable position than it was in 2001, mostly by focusing on negotiating (or at least paving the way for such talks to occur in the near-future) with the insurgent leadership.  But as I mentioned in an earlier post, this can only be achieved if the US changes its mindset — not the commander — toward stabilization efforts in Afghanistan.

Secret Talks Offer Some Renewed Hope for South Asia

June 3, 2010

As a follow up to my last post, yesterday, a fascinating article was published in the American Enterprise Institute’s journal, The American.  Author Apoorva Shah emphasizes that an accord between India and Pakistan was just a “signature away” from transforming dreams of peace between the nuclear-armed states into  reality.

Excerpts from the article:

According to an interview in the Indian newspaper with former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, India and Pakistan in 2007 were days away from reaching a comprehensive accord on their territorial dispute over Kashmir, the axis of the countries’ six-decade-long rivalry and casus belli of three wars between the two nations

The accord was slated to be signed during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s scheduled visit to Islamabad in February and March of 2007, but before the trip ever occurred, a country-wide lawyers’ protest in Pakistan had turned into a broader opposition campaign against General Musharraf. The rest of the year would be one of the most tumultuous in Pakistan’s history, marked by the siege of the Red Mosque in July, the return of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in October and her subsequent assassination in December, and the return of popular leader Nawaz Sharif from exile in September. By August of the following year, public opposition had peaked, and Musharraf was forced to resign his post as president, ending his decade-long tenure as leader of Pakistan. After Musharraf’s ouster, it appears that the deal had lost much of its momentum.

It is a sign of hope because, despite the outward appearance of discord between the countries, internally, leaders on both sides have—at least at some point in recent memory—wanted to move forward on a resolution. As Pakistan continues its domestic offensive against terrorists and India pursues closer economic engagement with its northern neighbor, wanting change may be the best sign that change is on the way.

Perhaps sustainable peace between India and Pakistan may not be such a lofty, long-term goal after all?  If this deal was close to success just three years ago — albeit three especially chaotic years within Pakistan itself as well as in regards to Pakistan-India relations — then there are glimmers of hope that trust building efforts and behind-the-scenes talks could engender the environment necessary to set the stage for the long-awaited signatures.  Would this mean the end to any and all disputes between India and Pakistan? Hardly.  But such an accord would be absolutely integral toward regional security, undercutting the most substantial source of enmity between the two states, and would also pave the way for a more stable and prosperous Afghanistan.

As always, however, there are moving pieces in this game.  Just as was apparently the case in 2007, a number of factors could derail a potential agreement even when it was about to be signed.  But I think what gives me the most hope is, as Shah underscores, the vast majority of key stake holders on both sides — even the Pakistan Military — were on board and wanted the deal to happen.

An Afghan’s Perspective on Why Afghanistan Matters

June 1, 2010

I came across an interesting article by a former Afghan diplomat, Masood Aziz, in the Daily Beast over the weekend. As I am all for encouraging debate on Afghanistan and other issues, I urge readers to check out the entire article — as it is too long to cut here.

One point Aziz made that I thought was especially right on the money was this:

• We are not addressing the heart of the matter—which is attainable, contrary to some experts advocating against it: taking away the underlying reasons for the existence of institutionalized sanctuaries in Pakistan. Certain elements of the Pakistani army have justified the need to maintain an “asymmetric warfare” capability for “national security” reasons because they say that India may invade Pakistan any day. This tactic is used to defend the need to extend support to extremist groups like the Taliban or Panjabi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, the alleged perpetuators of the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Without removing the reasons for such a perceived need, the existence of the Taliban or other extremist groups will never end. The U.S. has neglected this core aspect of the conflict for far too long and is now attempting to catch up to decades of inattention and lack of action.

Although it is undoubtedly a long-term process, the US is doing little to really get the ball rolling on this issue.  Increased diplomatic pressure and other tools must be employed in order to initiate a sustainable pacification of the India-Pakistan conflict.  Of course, militant groups will resist and undermine these efforts.  Even the Pakistani security apparatus will certainly obstruct measures that would inevitably diminish its power, influence, and resources.  But these obstacles should not be complete barriers toward a lasting solution to the deeply ingrained underlying issues that are fomenting conflict across the region and beyond.

The Blame Game Between Pakistan and the US

May 26, 2010

Two articles caught my eye today, both touching on a similar issue from different angles. 

The first, was an article published in the NY Times:

Americans may think that the failed Times Square bomb was planted by a man named Faisal Shahzad. But the view in the Supreme Court Bar Association here in Pakistan’s capital is that the culprit was an American “think tank.”

“They have planted this character Faisal Shahzad to implement their script,” said Hashmat Ali Habib, a lawyer and a member of the bar association.

Conspiracy theory is a national sport in Pakistan, where the main players — the United States, India and Israel — change positions depending on the ebb and flow of history. Since 2001, the United States has taken center stage, looming so large in Pakistan’s collective imagination that it sometimes seems to be responsible for everything that goes wrong here.

“When the water stops running from the tap, people blame America,” said Shaista Sirajuddin, an English professor in Lahore.

Juxtapose that with another article, in the Daily Beast:

It’s been hard, even after all this time, for many people here to accept that radicals have grown up among them. Americans who once asked of extremists, “Why do they hate us?” may be surprised to learn that some people here turn the question around, asking why America hates Pakistan.

This month I met members of a Pakistani sugar mill workers’ union. They work in a vast rural factory that resembles an old steel mill and smells like molasses. I asked about their daily lives—their wages have gone up, but not nearly as much as the price of sugar—and never mentioned Shahzad. But as I stood to go, several men stopped me to ask a question. Why did Americans say Shahzad was a Pakistani? He was an American citizen.

“I’m not a spokesman for my government,” I began, a phrase that produced howls of derision, “but I think Americans were concerned because Shahzad came to Pakistan for training.”

“There’s no proof he had training!” they insisted.

Another young man, Mohammad Saied, jumped in. Americans “basically hate Asian people, right?”

He explained that he worked for two years in a call center, answering complaints about satellite TV service. “I just spoke with a simple accent, right?” he said. “So if your accent is Asian, right, people don’t want to talk, they hang up the call… They don’t want to talk with Asian people, right? That’s why I have changed my accent,” he said, in a flat tone that would have made him hard to place.

In fairness, many Pakistanis do accept that their country has become a major source of militants, even if they blame America, too. America supported militant groups before the 9/11 attacks and then “made a U-turn,” said Shahi Syed, a Karachi businessman and politician. “Our government also made a U-turn. Our military? They made a 50 percent U-turn.”

Still, it leaves people in Pakistan wondering what the world must think of them.

These articles underscore the intense disconnect that results from Pakistan not entirely trusting the US and the US also not fully trusting Pakistan — even when the two states are ostensibly the closest of allies in the fight against violent extremist groups.  People in both countries are in many ways rightfully confused. Pakistanis see the (nine year and counting) war across the Durand Line, a barrage of drone strikes in their own country that the US does not publicly acknowledge, and largely true rumors that Blackwater and other clandestine entities are operating freely.  It comes as no surprise that Pakistanis would second-guess a true alliance with the US.  On the other hand, many Americans are wondering how Pakistan can actually be an ally of the US when it still tacitly supports many of the militant groups that are threatening US interests abroad and increasingly on its home soil.  Or when essentially every major terrorist operation in the West since 9/11 has had some element that traces back to Pakistan. 

And despite all the confusion and distrust on the part of the people of both countries, the US and Pakistan continue attempting to foster closer ties. 

This odd and confusing alliance cannot legitimize some of the absurd conspiracy theories running rampant in the country, which absolve Pakistan of all blame and deflect everything from the Taliban to problems with running water onto US shoulders.  Pakistan must accept and take responsibility for its own woes before it can ever hope to progress out of this particularly chaotic phase in its history. 

But we have all heard the phrase “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”  Unfortunately, it seems like many Pakistanis percieve that the US is indeed adhering to this popular idiom.  Even more problematic, the more the US tries to allay Pakistan’s concerns, by giving billions in non-military aid, for example, the more this infuriates large segments of Pakistani society.  On the flip side, no matter how much blood and treasure the Pakistanis invest into combatting militants within their borders, the US is not satisfied — from our perspective, rightfully so, but from their point of view, not so much. 

And so the blame game continues.