Tag: COIN

Fred Kaplan on David Petraeus and Counterinsurgency

I have a new blog post up at US News and World Report discussing Fred Kaplan’s latest book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, a terrific book about a very important subject. 

I’m thrilled to be hosting Fred at Cato in a few weeks. I’ve been a Kaplan fan for nearly two decades, since I first read his classic, The Wizards of Armageddon. I also thoroughly enjoyed Daydream Believers, about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. It is an honor to be able to personally welcome him to Cato.

I’m particularly interested in the subject of his latest book: counterinsurgency (COIN). The discussion at Cato, which will also feature comments by Janine Davidson and Spencer Ackerman, hearkens back to several others that I’ve hosted or participated in. 

One in particular sticks out. Back in 2006, Cato published a paper on the American way of war by Jeffrey Record of the Air War College. I thought the paper was outstanding at the time, and, upon rereading it this week, I was struck by how much of what Jeff observed overlaps with a discussion about COIN that Petraeus hosted at Fort Leavenworth in February 2006 (the focus of my blog post at US News). He couldn’t know this at the time he was writing, of course, but it just so happens that many of Jeff’s questions and concerns about COIN were shared by many others within the national security establishment, including those who Gen. Petraeus invited to vet the COIN manual. (Those interested in the subject might also want to watch or listen to the event that we hosted with Jeff, Tom Ricks, and Conrad Crane, one of the principle authors of the COIN manual, FM 3-24.) 

Here are a few excerpts from the paper: 

Barring profound change in America’s political and military cultures, the United States runs a significant risk of failure in entering small wars of choice, and great power intervention in small wars is almost always a matter of choice. Most such wars…do not engage core U.S. security interests other than placing the limits of American military power on embarrassing display. Indeed, the very act of intervention in small wars risks gratuitous damage to America’s military reputation…. 

If this analysis is correct, the policy choice is obvious: avoidance of direct military involvement in foreign internal wars unless vital national security interests are at stake…. 

Avoidance of such conflicts means abandonment of regime-change wars that saddle the United States with responsibility for establishing political stability and state building, tasks that have rarely commanded public or congressional enthusiasm. 

Other elements of the discussion re: COIN were echoed in a paper that I coauthored with Ben Friedman and Harvey Sapolsky in 2008: 

The problem with counterinsurgency warfare is not that its theory of victory is illogical. If you understand the culture, if you avoid counterproductive violence, if you integrate civilians and make reconstruction operations a reward for cooperation, if you train the local forces well, if you pick your allies wisely, if you protect enough civilians and win their loyalty and more, you might succeed. But even avoiding a few of these ifs is too much competence to expect of foreign powers. That is why insurgencies in the last century generally lasted for decades and why the track record of democratic powers pacifying uprisings in foreign lands is abysmal…. 

Another reason Americans will struggle to master counterinsurgency doctrine is that it requires a foreign policy at odds with our national character… 

Americans have historically looked askance at the small wars European powers fought to maintain their imperial holdings, viewing those actions as illiberal and unjust. Misadventures like Vietnam are the exceptions that make the rule. It is no accident that U.S. national security organizations are not designed for occupation duties. When it comes to nation building, brokering civil and ethnic conflict, and waging counterinsurgency, we are our own worst enemy, and that is a sign of our lingering common sense. 

In The Insurgents, Fred Kaplan, summarizing a set of questions and comments from those who reviewed the COIN manual before it was published, asks “whether counterinsurgency was even possible? The question,” Kaplan writes, “had two parts. Was the U.S. Army up to the task? And, at least as uncertain, were the American people?” 

I think we know the answer now, and we could have known it in 2006, before the Iraq surge, or in 2008, well before the Afghan surge. Instead, we chose to believe the opposite of what history and logic taught us. 

What do we have to show for it?

On Veterans Day, Support the Troops by Scrutinizing the Missions

Today is a federal holiday in observance of Veterans Day and we should all pause a moment to reflect on the sacrifices our veterans have made. But today is also an opportunity to reflect on the current state of civil-military relations. In today’s New York Times, Tom Ricks addresses this and notes:

[T]oday, politicians are so fearful of being accused of “criticizing our troops” that they fail to scrutinize the performance of those who lead them.

That is a serious problem.

But it goes beyond scrutiny of a military leader’s execution of a particular strategy, which does occur occasionally. More importantly, scrutiny from politicians and others should include hard questions about a given strategy’s likelihood of success, even if the execution is flawless.

Instead, whenever someone raises a point of clarification about how COIN is supposed to work in a country like Afghanistan, or even whether it worked as well as advertised in Iraq, that person risks being lumped together with reflexive critics of all things military.

An angry blogger will invoke MoveOn.org’s execrable General Betray-us ad, and – voila – the person trying to make a point about the wise deployment of strategic assets (and, yes, whether the particular mission in question is worth risking the lives of American soldiers in the first place) is portrayed as somehow hating the troops.

On the contrary, they value the troops more than those who harbor doubts but remain silent.

When politicians step out and ask serious questions, despite the certain counter-assault and character assassination, they deserve respect. It is, after all, their job. And when they duck that responsibility out of fear that a legion of angry bloggers will call them names, they deserve our scorn.

Americans Favor Accelerated Withdrawal from Afghanistan

In case you haven’t heard, the war in Afghanistan is in a tailspin. Following the turbulent events of the past two weeks—including yesterday’s incident on a Helmand runway and the disarming of U.S. Marines before Defense Secretary Leon Panetta—Afghan president Hamid Karzai has demanded U.S. troops withdraw from villages and operate only from large NATO bases. Furthermore, the Taliban announced that it is breaking off peace talks with the United States.

These new developments further call into question the Obama administration’s ability to implement its strategy of a gradual transition of responsibilities to the Afghan national security forces by 2014. And the American people recognize this.

A USA Today/Gallup poll finds 50 percent of respondents support an accelerated troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, while an Washington Post-ABC News-poll shows 54 percent favor a U.S. military withdrawal even if it means the Afghan security forces are not “self-sufficient.” That same poll finds 60 percent believe the war is “not worth fighting.” A majority of Americans rightly understand the futility of staying the course. Leaders in Washington should, too.

The Massacre in Panjwai

In yesterday’s Politico, my coauthor Robert Naiman and I examine the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in the wake of the sad and inexplicable massacre of 16 Afghan civilians—nine of them children, most of them allegedly toddlers—by a U.S. soldier in Panjwai, Kandahar. While we address some of the possible policy implications, it is equally instructive to read what is happening on the ground. On Monday, the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson aggregated reports from local witnesses. I would encourage everyone to read Davidson’s piece in full; below are some of the more interesting excerpts:

First, in the early hours of Sunday, there was noise. “I told my son not to speak because the Americans are here,” an Afghan woman told the BBC. “They went next door and the first thing they did was shoot the dog. And then there was a muffled bang inside the room—but who could go and see?”

A mother using the word “Americans” to scare her child into silence is alone cause for reflection. And “who could go and see”? Despite the dark and noise and confusion—was there more than one soldier? A helicopter?—some Afghans in the village saw something. Here is what another woman told the BBC:

There was one man, and he dragged a woman by her hair and banged her head repeatedly against the wall. She didn’t say a word.

And Mohammad Zahir, age twenty-six, to the AP:

He was walking around taking up positions in the house—in two or three places like he was searching… . He was on his knees when he shot my father… . [My father] was not holding anything—not even a cup of tea.

Abdul Hadi, age forty, to the Times.

My father went out to find out what was happening, and he was killed… . I was covered by the women in my family in my room, so that is why I survived.

Gul Bashra, identified as a “mother,” on Al Jazeera (and the woman who told the BBC about the noises):

They killed a child who was two years old. Was that child Taliban?

Anar Gula, an elderly neighbor, to the Times:

All the family members were killed, the dead put in a room, and blankets were put over the corpses and they were burned… . We put out the fire.

War is heart wrenching, as Afghans surely know. Their country has been in near ceaseless conflict for the last thirty years, and according to the latest U.N. report on armed conflict in Afghanistan, 2011 was the fifth straight year in which civilian casualties rose. Although insurgents were mainly responsible for those deaths, in 2009 the Obama administration adopted a new mission: protecting ordinary Afghans and winning over their allegiance, a case put forward most vigorously by General David Petraeus (ret.), General Stanley McChrystal (ret.), and other military and civilian experts in what now seems like eons ago.

Today, the metric for success is to help Afghans establish some semblance of internal security, a shifting goalpost that was always an uphill battle. During and after the surge, it was clear that the administration’s new strategy did not have enough troops, enough time or enough competent local partners—as called for by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in its counterinsurgency (COIN) field manual—to compete credibly with the Taliban. As a result, officials in Washington and Kabul fed foreign observers stage-managed showpieces like the offensive in Marjah.

Applied according to doctrine, COIN in Afghanistan would have required several hundreds of thousands of troops, ten to twelve years of implementation and local government leaders who were not motivated primarily by personal advancement. It’s difficult to imagine a successful application of COIN in that landlocked country even if the coalition had these essential building blocks. After all, in addition to the oft-mentioned issue of cross-border militant sanctuaries, the cultural chasm between foreigners and rural locals has always persisted—and the Taliban have readily exploited this rift.

As Army Special Forces Maj. Fernando M. Lujan noted in a March 4 article, “One of the first things we learned was the power of a simple narrative, repeated endlessly by the Taliban: The coalition is here to occupy Afghanistan and destroy Islam.” Indeed, right after last Sunday’s massacre and the allegation that the soldier’s multiple deployments may have created mental-health issues, the Taliban issued this statement:

If the perpetrators of this massacre were in fact mentally ill, then this testifies to yet another moral transgression by the American military because they are arming lunatics in Afghanistan who turn their weapons against the defenseless Afghans without giving a second thought.

Although a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 54 percent of Americans believe we should withdraw before the Afghan army is “self-sufficient,” the administration remains committed to withdrawing in 2014. Between now and then, it hopes to set up a minimally functioning government in the middle of central Asia that is resistant to internal insurrection and to foreign invasion. It’s going to be a long two years.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

How to Burn a Quran

In today’s Cato Daily podcast, I talk with Caleb Brown about the fallout from the Quran burning incident in Afghanistan. I also wrote about the situation here. Nevertheless, there is one point I missed in the podcast that I want to address.

One narrative emerging from this whole fiasco is that some Afghan prisoners had defaced the Qurans before their incineration; they were allegedly using the holy books to distribute radical messages. The evidence on this remains fragmentary at best; however, even if Islamic scholars argue that burning is the proper way to dispose a defaced Quran, one would expect that after more than a decade at war, the coalition would have a less incendiary protocol to handle such a situation: hire an Afghan, not a Christian foreigner, to burn the Qurans.

According to this handy informational guide put together by Colonel Chet Lanious, a chaplain at and the director of the Center for World Religions at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, if one decides to dispose of “unwanted religious and Islamic literature,” one either casts it “into a flowing river” or buries it. Alternatively, one can burn it, but “only after erasing the names of Allah, His Angels and His Messengers.” I would assume that NATO did not do that. I’m also prepared to believe that some Afghans would protest regardless of whether NATO followed that protocol.

I’m not a scholar on Islam. So leaving standard operating procedure aside, the fact that the Qurans were defaced would imply that NATO had a motive for having them deliberately destroyed, which would contradict the established narrative that the incineration was a mistake. More to come…

It’s Time to Cut Our Losses in Afghanistan

The mayhem unleashed after the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base outside of Kabul—intentional or not—has likely irreparably damaged the U.S. training mission in Afghanistan. Peace talks with the Taliban—a major policy shift for the insurgent movement—could be off the table, too. This is just the latest incident in the downward spiral of U.S.-Afghan relations. Washington’s policy must now shift dramatically toward an expedited withdrawal. The “hearts and minds” campaign was never likely to succeed in a country that views the United States as guests who have overstayed their welcome.

Some political leaders and military commanders will argue that cooler heads must prevail and that a long-term strategy demands America’s indefinite presence in Afghanistan. They will argue that any drawdown must be based on conditions on the ground. But conditions on the ground do not warrant staying the course, only for narrowing our mission and avoiding further tragedies.

Former 4-star General Jack Keane, who has traveled to Afghanistan four times within the past 18 months, says of the outrage and rioting that America in fact has a good relationship with the Afghan people. “We’ve forged an unusually strong relationship with those people. We’ve done it based on the values of the American people and our sensitivities to their culture. That’s what is so frustrating about this.” With all due respect, General Keane and other like-minded observers are wrong. The mission is a waste of money, effort, and, most importantly, lives.

The former heads of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal (retired) and General David Petraeus, both emphasized the importance of winning the “hearts and minds” of Afghans by treating them and their culture with respect. They believed the most helpful indicator of progress on the ground and the integration of political and military strategy is the protection of Afghan civilians.

But according to a recent report by U.N. mission in Afghanistan, 2011 was the fifth straight year in which civilian casualties rose. Of course, last year insurgents were responsible for 77 percent of Afghan civilian deaths. Despite this fact, after tripling the number of U.S. troops in that country—far fewer than the Pentagon asked for—President Obama made it America’s mission to protect the Afghan people.

A decade into the conflict the Afghan government still remains incredibly weak, widely distrusted, and underrepresented in poorly secured areas of the country. The roughly 180,000-strong Afghan army, whose performance and effectiveness remains questionable, has an officer corps teaming with ethnic fissures and competing sub-national interests. Meanwhile, the Afghan police force has developed a reputation for desertion, illiteracy, and rapaciousness. On top of limited and potentially unsustainable security improvements, the spiraling violence does not instill confidence in our victory.

Too many U.S. government planners forget that for Afghans we are their guests, and it is their country. We forget when back in 2010, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai imposed a crackdown on alcohol consumption and closed a number of expat bars around Kabul because they were deemed offensive to Islam. The Afghan general who carried out the alcohol raids told the Los Angeles Times it was done for “Allah’s sake.” After that, violent demonstrations and inter-cultural hostility increased after Florida pastor Terry Jones promised to “stand up” to Islam and burn a Quran. The recent incident of U.S. Marines urinating on corpses was yet another provocative episode in the erosion of American-Afghan relations.

As I argued months ago, “Recent events in Afghanistan should be a wake-up call to how our 10-year occupation is actually being perceived. Rather than winning ‘hearts and minds,’ America’s civilizing mission has become increasingly associated with a Western cultural invasion.”

Many Afghans see outsiders constantly changing their mayors, their governors, and their customs. They are told how to dress their women, what is culturally acceptable, and what is culturally repugnant. Americans are infuriated when their politicians redistribute their taxes, yet they ignore how intrusive their own military and civilian planners have become to foreign peoples.

It’s no surprise that a report published last May by the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit concluded that negative sentiments about democracy emerge from “the stated distaste among respondents for ‘Western culture’ and the potential threat it poses to ‘Afghan culture,’ traditional norms or values, and an Islamic identity.”

None of this should imply that the Quran burning or the grisly violence meted out against innocent people was justified. But the fact remains that America is widely scorned throughout the region—in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

According to a poll from last summer by the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Americans want a withdrawal from Afghanistan immediately—not two years from now, not six months from now. Immediately. Americans may finally be realizing what George Mason University’s Christopher Coyne has argued, which is that the historical record indicates “that attempts to spread liberal democracy via military occupation will fail more often than they will work.”

More money, more time, and more resources will not change these underlying realities. To continue to train and assist the Afghan national army and police when distrust remains this high risks more violent incidents like this, and this, and this. Rather than become Afghanistan’s perpetual crutch, Washington must cut its losses. The war is fiscally irresponsible and wasteful of U.S. taxpayer dollars. Most importantly, no more American or Afghan lives should be lost in pursuit of a strategy that is not in America’s national interest.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Playing to Our Strengths—and Why COIN Doesn’t

A recent editorial in the Boston Globe noted with some glee that the Obama administration strategy document released last week included the “acknowledgement that America’s brief and unhappy foray into counterinsurgency operations has come to an end.” The Globe editorialists conclude “Given the checkered history of counterinsurgency, and its cost in lives and money, its demise is hardly unwelcome. Even better to read of it in the very document that hopes to guide how the United States conducts wars the next time around.”

As a COIN skeptic from well before the publication of FM 3-24 (when COIN was called nation-building), I am inclined to claim some vindication. Often with Justin Logan in the lead, I have probably written more about this subject than any other (including here and here). More broadly, Cato has been a hospitable venue for skeptical views of nation-building as a cure for terrorism, including these two fine papers that explained why we didn’t need to repair/reconstruct weak or failing states in order to defeat al Qaeda, and this paper by Jeffrey Record on why COIN/nation-building was inconsistent with America’s strategic culture, and therefore likely to fail.

But I expect that some COIN advocates will push back, and a few quite vociferously. Some might admit that, yes, Afghanistan has been an unholy mess, but we need to give it more time. The public has soured on the war there, and is now turning against the dominant strategy, COIN, but those attitudes, they will say, could be turned around with concerted presidential leadership. And then they will launch into their full-throated defense of COIN, which might go something like this:

COIN is still useful in particular situations, especially when the operations are in support of a credible local partner, when we are able and willing to apply the necessary resources to have a reasonable chance of success, and when we are prepared to remain for the long haul. And once we have committed to the COIN mission, we must ensure that we execute the mission properly, as spelled out in FM 3-24, which means that the troops must accept greater risk in order to minimize civilian casualties.

My response, and I think that of other COIN skeptics, is that those key ingredients are almost never in place, hence COIN almost never works.

  • If there was “a credible local partner” there likely wouldn’t be an insurgency in the first place. Insurgencies come about and grow in strength because the government they are rising up against is not serving the best interests of some segment of the population.
  • Applying “necessary resources” means, in practice, a massive number of foreign troops and vast sums of money, far more even than most COIN advocates admit in public. They are especially loathe to do so when those resources are desperately needed at home. (Equally troubling is the application of a massive, costly, long-term effort in one place when those same resources could be applied in pursuit of different – or even the same – national security priorities elsewhere.)
  • Remaining in country “for the long haul” means decades, not years, another bridge too far for most Americans. We are not inclined to lord over others for decades or longer as past empires did.
  • Executing COIN tactics “properly” means limiting the use of force such that you only kill the bad guys but never kill the good guys, or the indifferent neutrals. One unfortunate accident, involving the inadvertent killing of innocent bystanders (who the insurgents will very cynically shield behind) can undermine weeks or months of effort in building trust. We are foreigners in their country, and the locals will be disinclined to give us the benefit of the doubt, or to trust in our good intentions. Though I admire and respect the professionalism and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, I don’t think it realistic to expect them to be perfect.

Afghanistan, by itself, does not prove that COIN can’t work. COIN might be the appropriate strategy in other cases or other places. But a football analogy is relevant here. Think of the upcoming AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens. A team with two-time MVP Tom Brady at quarterback doesn’t choose to pound the ball into the teeth of a run-stopping defense like Baltimore’s, especially when New England’s running backs are pretty average by NFL standards. Meanwhile, the Ravens’ Ray Rice is one of the premier backs in the league, so we can expect the Ravens to favor the ground game, run time off the clock, and keep Brady on the sidelines. In other words, each team will likely play to its strengths.

COIN skeptics said that Team USA should do the same. Although the COIN advocates claimed that there was no viable alternative, there was more than one way to win the game in Afghanistan, and we should play to our strengths. Our political culture and available resources, combined with the facts on the ground, advise us to avoid open-ended nation-building missions, generally, not just in Afghanistan. That means an air game (including air power from the sea), not a ground game.

I am pleased that the administration’s strategy seems to reflect these lessons. We’ll see, perhaps as early as next week, if their budget does as well.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.