A Step in the Right Direction

March 21, 2009

Somewhat in line with my last post about the difficulties of counterinsurgency in Afghanstan (and the way in which NATO/ISAF is falling short), along comes the Obama administration to say that they intend to dramatically increase the number of Afghans in the security forces.

From the New York Times:

A plan awaiting final approval by the president would set a goal of about 400,000 troops and national police officers, more than twice the forces’ current size, and more than three times the size that American officials believed would be adequate for Afghanistan in 2002…

While my first reaction is, “Do we really want more guys with guns in this country?” on second thought I am heartened by the possibility of a stronger ANA/ANP.  There are two reasons for this.

First, the Afghan National Army (ANA) consistently ranks among the most respected institutions in Afghanistan, higher than the central government, higher than local and provincial governors.  If any indigenous institution can bring stability to this country, its probably the ANA.

Second, from the standpoint of ISAF/NATO forces, the larger and more professional the ANA becomes, the more they can take the lead on the really nasty counterinsurgency work that needs to be done.  For all of their tactical and technological excellence, foreign forces are always at a disadvantage when conducting population-centric operations.  Locals simply don’t face the same constraints and difficulties.  If we’re ever going to leave this country (that is, leave it better than it was when we got here), the Afghans are going to have to prove that they can handle this fight on their own.  A strong and effective ANA is the first step in that process.

The always-wise Abu Muqawama seems to disagree with my position on this, citing an unnamed defense analyst who questions the long-term financial costs.  I’m all for long-term thinking, but I think that if the biggest problem Afghanistan faces ten years from now is a budget deficit, then at least we’ve done something right.

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Buyers Remorse

March 21, 2009

I don’t normally write about American domestic politics, but I wrote this back in January and needed a place to put it.  So, here you go:

We all know the feeling.  Whether it’s a new car, a home, a computer or a TV, you agonize over the decision for weeks, weighing all the relevant factors, balancing the costs and benefits and convincing yourself that only the right one will do and that anything else will be a disaster.  And then, in a moment of steely determination fueled by soaring anticipation, you make your choice and slap down your credit card (or sign your mortgage) and beam proudly like a new parent.

        For a few days, or maybe even a few weeks, the golden relationship with your newest possession goes well.  You marvel at the clarity of the plasma screen, pontificate knowingly about the importance of torque or wax lyrical on the virtues of a proper garden.  For a while, life is beautiful and all is right in the world. 

And then, it happens.  You wake up one morning, beset by the sinking realization that things are not automatically and irrevocably better.  Somehow, the best decision you’ve ever made, the one you strained and sweated over, the one you just knew was going to make a difference, doesn’t seem to have done much of anything at all.  It’s not that you made the wrong decision; it’s simply that it your choice, for all your effort and anticipation, doesn’t seem to matter.  Your job is still a never-ending stream of drudgery, your co-workers banal and annoying.  The weather is still shit, most of the time, which matter less because you don’t magically have any new vacation days with which to enjoy it.  Your spouse is still numbingly shrill or shockingly dull (and truth be told, just a little too fond of dessert).  Your kids, don’t even start thinking about the kids……

Sound familiar?  Of course it does.  We’ve all done it, made one of those important commercial choices which appear to contain within themselves the seeds of happiness, success, contentment, bliss, only to belatedly discover that while, sure, we have a nice, shiny new toy, it’s only the cherry on a dogshit sundae.  Everything we were implicitly hoping would be swept away by that one magical decision, all the other troubles which we determinedly pushed out of the frontal lobe, the better to listen to salesman’s pitch, are still with us, clamoring all the more to be dealt with after their temporary exile.  Welcome to post-election America, 2008.

I should clarify that I am not opposed to an Obama presidency.  I did not vote for John McCain and, although I refuse to countenance much of the rabid criticism of the last eight years, I am also not a fan of much of what George Bush has managed or intended.  What I am opposed to is the atmosphere of ill-considered optimism (dare I say, messianic fervor?) that surrounds his elevation to leader of the free world.  From London to Cape Town, Mumbai to Madrid, the world appears to believe that Obama’s electoral victory somehow fundamentally alters the nature of American, and by extension world, politics.  This, despite however much it might be desired, will not happen.

The Obamamania that has swept the world in the last six months is as much a reaction to disillusionment with the Bush Administration as it is a reflection of Obama’s character or ideals.  This is a natural result of a campaign based upon the vacuous notion of Change.  Everyone, citizens of the U.S. and the world alike, seem willing, even eager, to imbue Obama with their own hopes and desires.  One need only look at the conflicting identities donned interchangeably by the President-elect to see that his path forward will be fraught with difficulty and disappointment.  To white Americans, he is post-racial, a President who can finally lay to rest uncomfortable allegations of racism and discrimination and demonstrate the ideal at the heart of the American reality.  To black Americans, he is also a harbinger of a new era in U.S. politics.  However, he is one who heralds not the end of racial identity in politics, but the long-sought reversal of the traditional racial divisions, providing compensation for decades of underrepresentation and marginalization.  Both groups voted for Obama in large numbers because of the color of his skin, but with differing underlying rationales that are mutually incompatible.

To the traditional Democractic base of blue-collar union workers, Obama speaks stirringly about the need to protect American jobs and reinvigorate American industry, all the while maintaining an implicit social contract with the common worker.  To the white-collar middle-class, he insists upon economic policies which will return them to a post-meltdown era of prosperity and stability, with access to cheap foreign goods and a competitive educational system.  He says nothing about the impossibility of balancing the demands of unions (especially the powerful teachers unions) against the requirements of globalized capital and labor markets.

If recent policy decisions and proposals and the firestorm of criticism and dissent they have produced are any indication, the balancing act that will be required for the next four years may be more than even this president can handle.  Better men have been broken by less.  Unfortunately, there’s a nearly ironclad no-return policy on politicians, especially presidential ones.


Same Shit, Different Decade

March 18, 2009

In clearing out the War College folder (a place for various military-related papers) of my laptop’s hardrive, I came across an interesting document which relates directly to our current difficulties in Afghanistan.  I have decided to quote it at length here (slightly edited) in order to illustrate a interesting dynamic.

From the document:

 a. The social revolution underway in Afghanistan is primarily identified with the Taliban, a communist dominated organization.

b. A popular, political base for the Government of Afghanistan does not now exist.

c. The regular armed forces, the paramilitary forces, the reconstruction cadre and the administrative cadre are politically inarticulate, and lack sufficient, positive motivation.

d. Resource utilization by the Afghanis is haphazard at best, deliberately sabotaged at worst. It is characterized by waste, redundancy, misapplication, and the absence of valid priorities.

e. A chain of command exists principally on paper. This is applicable to both the military and civilian hierarchies.

f. Assistance from the United States, both military and economic, is used to perpetuate a regime that despite its lip service to the contrary, has not demonstrated a sincere interest in bettering the lot of the rural population.

g. The centralization of administrative and financial authority at ministerial level has hampered the development of local responsive government, and has often provided an excuse for inaction by those dealing directly with the population.

h. The existing system of administration promotes inefficiency, prevents management by exception, creates confusion, and encourages corruption.

i. Gadgetry, air power, and artillery continue to be substituted for the discriminate ground actions required to prosecute the military side of this war without unduly alienating the civilian population.

j. Emphasis is placed upon the use of physical obstacles to provide population security rather than the fostering of a spirit of resistance.

k. The bulk of the Afghan grounds forces are not effectively utilized; their most habitual employment is for defense or in reserve, and neither of these two missions is performed effectively.

l. The advisory concept has failed, not through lack of effort and dedication, but because it has been an instrument of a US policy of nonintervention in the internal affairs of the government of Afghanistan, even though much intervention has been needed and desired by knowledgeable and concerned Afghans.

On the face of it, this is a comprehensive list of the difficulties we currently face in the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan.  It covers all of the standard concerns of population protection, governance, foreign military training, reconstruction funding, etc.  It appears to be a useful guide to the things we need to fix in our Afghan strategy.

See, here’s the thing.  The quote above doesn’t come from a recent think-tank analysis or Pentagon report on Afghanistan.  It actually was written in 1965 by Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, senior advisor to USOM and CORDS in South Vietnam.  All I did was replace the references to South Vietnam with Afghanistan, the National Liberation Front with the Taliban, and communism with Islamism.

The paper, entitled Harnessing the Revolution, was an attempt by Vann to reconceptualize the advisor mission in Vietnam and create an effective and responsive organization that could reverse the gradual slipping of the American war effort in the rural provinces.  Vann believed that in order to be successful, the commanders at MAC-V need to rethink their approach and adopt a population-centric military strategy with more robust political, economic and social goals.  He was a tireless prophet for this more nuanced approach, an early COINdinista, as they’re called today.  Needless to say, he didn’t succeed, although he never stopped trying, staying with the advisor mission long after most Americans had decided that South Vietnam was lost.  John Paul Vann was killed in a helicopter crash in 1972.

Four decades later, the U.S. military in Afghanistan is beginning to recognize the value of Vann’s advice and the folly of conducting a counter-insurgency with a conventional force.  There are a host of energetic young officers, converts to the cause of COIN warfare, who are struggling to put ideas like Vann’s into practice.  One wonders what could have been different if the predecessors of those officers had understood the critiques leveled at them by John Paul Vann.  Perhaps the U.S. Army wouldn’t have waited through seven costly years of war to write an official counterinsurgency field manual.


Change of Venue

March 14, 2009

I certainly didn’t intend for over a month to pass between my introductory post and my second attempt. Life, such as it is, intruded rather rudely into my blissful realm of unemployment and forced me to reorder my priorities and reconfigure my schedule.  In short, I got a job.

Not just any job, in fact, but a potentially interesting (one hopes) and extremely challenging (no doubt) job.  After spending a few weeks dithering in London and attempting to sort out some visa issues, I have begun my new employment with a private security company in Kabul, Afghanistan.  Just goes to prove how one can never be sure where one’s life will lead.

I haven’t settled in enough yet to determine exactly what kind of experience this will be, but it is certainly a long way from the comfortable halls of academia which I had begun to grow fond of.*  Kabul is not London, not a long stretch.  Hell, it’s not even Swindon or Manchester.  This city is considerably more screwed up than any of those places.

*Perhaps “fond” is not the right word.  I had become comfortable, which is not the same thing.  Nor is it a good thing, in my opinion.  One of the reasons I accepted this position in Afghanistan is to break out of the not-entirely unpleasant rut that I had fallen into.

So, I intend to continue this blog and maintain the focus on IR in general and security studies in particular.  I may be somewhat divorced from the latest scholarship, but the practical experience in a conflict zone should hopefully make up for that.  And I promise to do better than one post a month.  Really, I promise.