Emanuel on TV and Filkins on McChrystal

A. It’s encouraging to see Rahm Emanuel and John Kerry saying that we shouldn’t up force levels in Afghanistan without a reliable partner. But if we shouldn’t send 40,000 more troops to prop up a crooked government, why keep the 68,000 we have there? A focused counter-terrorism mission would require far less than that.

B. According to Dexter Filkins’ article in the New York Times Magazine, the war in Iraq taught General Stanley McChrystal the following:

No situation, no matter how dire, is ever irredeemable — if you have the time, resources and the correct strategy. In the spring of 2006, Iraq seemed lost. The dead were piling up. The society was disintegrating. One possible conclusion was that it was time for the United States to cut its losses in a country that it never truly understood. But the American military believed it had found a strategy that worked, and it hung in there, and it finally turned the tide.

What’s interesting about this claim is its utter confidence in the potential efficacy of US military power – it is not just necessary to solving Iraq’s problems, but sufficient. If this view is right, Iraqis themselves, and their civil war, were unnecessary to the limited political reconciliation that occurred there.

Filkins, surprisingly, seems to agree, depicting the evolution of the war this way:

For four years, the American military had tried to crush the Iraqi insurgency and got the opposite: the insurgency bloomed, and the country imploded. By refocusing their efforts on protecting Iraqi civilians, American troops were able to cut off the insurgents from their base of support. Then the Americans struck peace deals with tens of thousands of former fighters — the phenomenon known as the Sunni Awakening — while at the same time fashioning a formidable Iraqi army. After a bloody first push, violence in Iraq dropped to its lowest levels since the war began.

Note the use of the word “then” preceding the sentence about peace deals. It carries a heavy load. Filkins wants to say that the hearts and mind theory of counterinsurgency caused the Anbar Awakening. But he offers no real causal story about how they are connected; he just says that one happened and then the other.

Another view, one that leaves Iraqis some agency, is that the growth of the al Qaeda Iraq and the progress of the civil war changed the Sunni insurgents’ strategic calculus, such that they decided to cooperate with Americans to gain locally. And that in turn, limited violence. U.S. forces had a role in this – the covert killing campaign that McChrystal led and Filkins chronicles probably pressured insurgents and weakened AQI, for one. But the deals – the awakening – began well before the troop surge and before David Petraeus took command and tried to implement a new counterinsurgency doctrine. The key American decision was willingness to play ball with insurgent groups. This decision had little to do with winning hearts and minds via population security and increased troop levels. And by empowering forces at odds with the central government, it contradicted the goal of state-building in Iraq, at least in the short-term.

I obviously agree with the latter view. Our dependence on local politics limits what we can accomplish in counterinsurgency. We can certainly affect what happens in Afghanistan, but it is hubris to think we control it.

Filkins also quotes McChrystal on Afghanistan’s effect on Pakistan:

“If we are good here, it will have a good effect on Pakistan,” he told me. “But if we fail here, Pakistan will not be able to solve their problems — it would be like burning leaves on a windy day next door.

It’s sensible to conclude chaos nearby is unhelpful to stability in Pakistan, but it goes way too far to say that Afghanistan’s stability is necessary to Pakistan’s, which has been fairly stable for long periods while Afghanistan was not. What’s more, as Robert Pape argues, it is likely that U.S. forces are a cause of insurgency in both countries.