Tag: david petraeus

Protests in Afghanistan: Our Excuse to Get Out

General David Petraeus, the head of American forces in Afghanistan, has emphasized the importance of winning the “hearts and minds” of Afghans by treating them and their culture with respect. Pentagon officials may want to reexamine that assumption, but not for the reason you might think.

Evangelical pastor Terry Jones, author of the book Islam Is of the Devil and head of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, two weeks ago carried through on his promise to “stand up” to Islam and burn a Quran. In response, crowds demonstrated in cities across Afghanistan, with a mob in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif storming a United Nations compound, killing eight non-American aid workers and beheading two of them.

The message from the protests is clear: this is war. Nevertheless, moral ambiguities emerge. When backed by over 130,000 International Security Assistance Force troops and close to 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces operating under foreign command, how are civilian aid workers being perceived by local Afghans? In the minds of the protesters, what crimes were they committing if they genuinely believed that they were defending their religious traditions and customs from infidels occupying their country? None of this should imply that the Quran burning or the grisly violence meted out against innocent aid workers was justified. If anything, they epitomize the war in Afghanistan’s two major problems.

First, they illustrate the discrepancy between the war of perceptions being waged abroad and the fearsome “Islamic menace” that our elected leaders continue to exploit back at home. Second, and perhaps more important, these incidents demonstrate the danger of America trying to forcibly export its liberal values onto illiberal societies.

U.S. policymakers have long believed that people around the world both want to adopt America’s liberal values, institutions, and practices, and that they should embrace them because those values embody the most enlightened and most civilized way of thinking. This universalist belief was aptly summarized by President George W. Bush in his 2002 West Point speech: “Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place…When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations.”

This way of thinking is profoundly flawed. The notion that moral truths should be singularly interpreted implicitly denies the differences between cultures. As prominent political science scholar Kenneth Waltz writes: “The powerful state may, and the United States does, think of itself as acting for the sake of peace, justice, and well-being in the world. But these terms will be defined to the liking of the powerful, which may conflict with the preferences and the interests of others.”

To argue that moral truths and values are the same in every culture allows policymakers to avoid serious questions about the consequences of intervention, including the inherent constraints of operating within a foreign culture. Even simple issues like the burqa—a billowy garment that covers a woman from head to toe—are still misunderstood in America. Whatever one thinks about the burqa (a symbol of oppression, institutionalized intolerance, etc.), it is more than a mere item of clothing; it reflects the ultra-conservative societal norms in which Afghan women live, many of whom do not have the freedom to look and act however they want.

Many well-meaning Americans believe that the United States, with its commitment to individual rights, political and religious freedom, and the rule of law, has a unique role to play in advancing Afghan human rights But the freedom Americans champion also entails one’s freedom to dissent. Does the West have the moral authority to punish Afghan traditionalists who reject our imposition of social transformation? What happens when attempts to reshape Afghan customs and belief systems incite violent rebellions, as they recently did in Mazar?

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.

Social Science Friday

Science!

A few odds and ends from the social science blogosphere:

Robert Wright on Being—and Not Being—“Pro-Israel”

The U.S.-Israel relationship has been in the news a lot lately.  First, Israel humiliates the American Vice President by announcing an expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem during his trip to that country.  Then, Gen. Petraeus states in congressional testimony [.pdf] that the Israel/Palestine imbroglio “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel,” which in turn creates a dynamic where “Al Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.”

For those with interest in the subject, Robert Wright’s piece on the New York Times’ website may be of interest.  Wright looks at how chauvinistically Gary Bauer, Max Boot, and Abraham Foxman define “pro-Israel” and writes

If Israel’s increasingly powerful right wing has its way, without constraint from American criticism and pressure, then Israel will keep building settlements. And the more settlements get built — especially in East Jerusalem — the harder it will be to find a two-state deal that leaves Palestinians with much of their dignity intact. And the less dignity intact, the less stable any two-state deal will be.

As more and more people are realizing, the only long-run alternatives to a two-state solution are: a) a one-state solution in which an Arab majority spells the end of Israel’s Jewish identity; b) Israel’s remaining a Jewish state by denying the vote to Palestinians who live in the occupied territories, a condition that would be increasingly reminiscent of apartheid; c) the apocalypse. Or, as Hillary Clinton put it in addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference on Monday: “A two-state solution is the only viable path for Israel to remain both a democracy and a Jewish state.”

So, by my lights, being “pro-Israel” in the sense embraced by Bauer, Boot and Foxman — backing Israel’s current policies, including its settlement policies — is actually anti-Israel. It’s also anti-America (in the sense of ‘bad for American security’), because Biden and Petraeus are right: America’s perceived support of — or at least acquiescence in — Israel’s more inflammatory policies endangers American troops abroad. In the long run, it will also endanger American civilians at home, funneling more terrorism in their direction.

I have been and remain skeptical that Washington could successfully force a deal on the Israelis and Palestinians.  To my mind, neither side seems willing to make the sorts of very painful concessions that would be necessary for peace.  I think that the big problem the I/P dispute presents for the United States is less inherent in the conflict than it is in the fact that the United States has placed itself in a position, as George Kennan wrote, where “each [side] has the impression that it is primarily through us that its desiderata can be achieved, with the result that we are always first to be blamed, no matter whose ox is gored; and all this in a situation where we actually have very little influence with either party.”

But as long as we’re implicated in this sorry affair, we ought to be throwing our weight around to try to push both parties in the directions we think they ought to go.  As Wright writes, smiling and nodding no matter what Israel does isn’t friendship.

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.

David Brooks Is Confused about Counterinsurgency

brooksWould you buy a state-building mission from this man?

Today David Brooks (in the role of Teddy Roosevelt) debates George Will (as Edmund Burke) on the subject of Afghanistan without citing him.  This debate marks a high point of conservative politics where neoconservative ideology appears in concrete clarity.

First, Brooks makes clear that he is not interested in merely managing the problem of terrorism, but rather in “prevailing” in the war in Afghanistan.  He argues that “only the full counterinsurgency doctrine offers a chance of success,” but then proceeds to absurdly define population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine as one in which “small groups of American men and women are outside the wire in dangerous places in remote valleys, providing security, gathering intelligence, helping to establish courts and building schools and roads.”

Either Brooks is being cute here or demonstrating his ignorance.  With one word — “small” — Brooks has utterly mischaracterized what counterinsurgency is all about.

Population-centric counterinsurgency is all about large numbers of American men and women, not small numbers.  The promoters of COIN in Afghanistan have recently taken to including the Afghan National Army in the count of counterinsurgents, but the textbook — and as a result, obviously oversimplified — number of counterinsurgents you’d want in a place with a population, dysfunctional national government, and geography like Afghanistan pushes well up to around half a million.  It is an extraordinarily resource- and labor-intensive endeavor.  If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll take David Petraeus or David Kilcullen as authorities on the matter.

Brooks pushes his argument further, declaring that we possess only two choices in Afghanistan: “surrender the place to the Taliban or do armed nation-building.”  One paragraph later, Brooks writes of the fight against terrorism that “we shouldn’t pretend we understand how this conflict will evolve.”  That Brooks does not recognize the conflict between these views is telling.  See Rory Stewart for more on the swashbuckling certainty like what Brooks is displaying.

Then Brooks borrows from Stephen Biddle the claim that we must conduct a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan not because of the war on terrorism in that country per se, but rather because:

A Taliban conquest in Afghanistan would endanger the Pakistani regime at best, create a regional crisis for certain and lead to a nuclear-armed Al Qaeda at worst.

This is really cranking it up to 11 on the hyperbole meter.  We may recall that in the 1990s when the Taliban was running Afghanistan, Pakistan was arguably more stable than it is today.

In closing, Brooks wheels out a straw man:

When you interview people who know little about Afghanistan, they describe an anarchic place that is the graveyard of empires. When you interview people who live there or are experts, they think those stereotypes are rubbish. They usually take a hardened but guardedly optimistic view. Read Clare Lockhart’s Sept. 17 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to get a sense of the way many knowledgeable people view the situation.

It is curious to hear David Brooks refer to a large number of people who agree with him on policy as “people who know little about Afghanistan.”  Like Gen. PetraeusSeth JonesAnthony Cordesman.  I could go on.

Brooks then undermines his case that the Taliban would certainly be able to set up a national government if we left by admitting that “the enemy is wildly hated. Only 6 percent of Afghans want a Taliban return, while NATO is viewed with surprising favor.”  Even for thugs like the Taliban, having a 6 percent approval rating, men like Rashid Dostum and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar running around your country, and the United States poking its nose in regularly looks a lot darker than Brooks makes it out.

There’s more in the piece, but combined with Will’s piece, it’s a peek through the keyhole where you can see the warring tribes within conservatism thrashing it out.

Update: I was also interested to see the argument Brooks made on behalf of a study I had not read by political scientists Andrew Enterline and Joseph Magagnoli. But Stephen Walt observes that on this score too Brooks is misinforming his readers.

Making Enemies in Afghanistan

Yaroslav Trofimov’s article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal explains how Ghulam Yahya, a former anti-Taliban, Tajik miltia leader from Herat, became an insurgent. The short answer: because the American master plan in Afghanistan required the retirement of warlords. The trouble is that in much of Afghanistan “warlord” is a synonym for “local government.” Attacking local authority structures is a good way to make enemies.  So it went in Herat. Having been fired from a government post, Ghulum Yahya turned his militia against Kabul and now fires rockets at foreign troops, kidnaps their contractors, and brags of welcoming foreign jihadists.  Herat turned redder on the color-coded maps of the “Taliban” insurgency.

That story reminded me of C.J. Chivers’s close-in accounts of firefights he witnessed last spring with an army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley. According to Chivers, the Taliban there revolted in part because the Afghan government shut down their timber business. That is an odd reason for us to fight them.

One of the perversions of the branch of technocratic idealism that we now call counterinsurgency doctrine is its hostility to local authority structures.  As articulated on TV by people like General Stanley McChrystal, counterinsurgency is a kind of one-size-fits-all endeavor. You chase off the insurgents, protect the people, and thus provide room for the central government and its foreign backers to provide services, which win the people to the government. The people then turn against the insurgency.  This makes sense, I suppose, for relatively strong central states facing insurgencies, like India, the Philippines or Colombia.  

But where the central state is dysfunctional and essentially foreign to the region being pacified, this model may not fit. Certainly it does not describe the tactic of buying off Sunni sheiks in Anbar province Iraq (a move pioneered by Saddam Hussein, not David Petraeus, by the way). It is even less applicable to the amalgam of fiefdoms labeled on our maps as Afghanistan. From what I can tell, power in much of Afghanistan is really held by headmen — warlords — who control enough men with guns to collect some protection taxes and run the local show. The western idea of government says the central state should replace these mini-states, but that only makes sense as a war strategy if their aims are contrary to ours, which is only the case if they are trying to overthrow the central government or hosting terrorists that go abroad to attack Americans. Few warlords meet those criteria. The way to “pacify” the other areas is to leave them alone. Doing otherwise stirs up needless trouble; it makes us more the revolutionary than the counter-revolutionary.

On a related note, I see John Nagl attacking George Will for not getting counterinsurgency doctrine. Insofar as Will seems to understand, unlike Nagl, that counterinsurgency doctrine is a set of best practices that allow more competent execution of foolish endeavors, this is unsurprising. More interesting is Nagl’s statement that we, the United States have not “properly resourced” the Afghan forces.  Nagl does not mention that the United States is already committed to building the Afghan security forces (which are, incidentally, not ours) to a size – roughly 450,000 – that will annually cost about 500% of Afghanistan’s budget (Rory’s Stewart’s calculation), which is another way of saying we will be paying for these forces for the foreseeable future.

It probably goes too far to say this war has become a self-licking ice-cream cone where we create both the enemy and the forces to fight them, but it’s a possibility worth considering.

Pakistan’s Critical Hour

I’m sympathetic to Ahmed Rashid’s arguments expressed in today’s Washington Post. The Pakistani journalist argues that President Obama’s plan to dedicate $1.5 billion annually to Pakistan in non-military spending “will also affect America’s image in Pakistan and the region.” However, I’m having trouble with his previous point: “The speed and conditions with which Congress provides emergency aid to Islamabad will affect the Pakistani government and army’s ability and will to resist the Taliban onslaught.”

For many years, the U.S. government has shoveled billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan (almost $20 billion since 9/11). Certainly in the tribal areas, non-military aid directed to education and comprehensive study programs can help to mitigate the spread of militancy among younger generations. But a coherent distribution mechanism must be in place or else no one in Pakistan will benefit. Given the problems of corruption and mismanagement afflicting the distribution of military aid, why should we expect the distribution of non-military aid to be more effective? Besides, there is very little Washington can do to “affect” Pakistan’s “will” to resist the Taliban. Ahmed Rashid, General Petraeus, and many others are correct to conclude that to be truly effective at combating internal insurgencies, Pakistan must re-orient its military away from conventional threats-such as India-and toward the low-intensity guerilla insurgency the army is presently ill-equipped and poorly trained to fight. But before Pakistan gains the capability to attack insurgents they must first find the willingness to do so.

With regards to the general alarm about militant incursions into valleys outside of Swat, this is certainly warranted. Militants have burned down or blown up over 200 schools, beheaded opponents, and forces tens of thousands to flee. But like I mentioned to my good friend and colleague, Ed Crane, the Taliban have no F-16s, no tanks and no means of taking over a country of 172 million people. India was certainly instrumental in the break up of Pakistan in 1971. But even India failed to conquer a large part of West Pakistan or takeover the country entirely. Granted, these militants are scary folks, but we need a bit of nuance on the whole “Pakistan is imploding” meme coursing through the Beltway. As I elaborate here, “Balkanization” of Pakistan, which I foresee as a distinct possibility, is much different then seeing the complete collapse of civilian and tribal administration.

Also, if America is worried about Pakistan’s imminent demise, U.S. policymakers and defense planners must understand that the coalition’s presence in Afghanistan threatens to further destabilize Pakistan. The vast majority of Pakistanis are not radical. But the spread of tribal militias in the northwest, tens of thousands of refugees (and certainly some militants) fleeing into major cities from aerial drone strikes, and widespread distrust of America’s intentions in the region, all place undue stress on a nation already divided, weak and fragile. As I argue in my recent policy analysis:

President Obama remains unequivocal in his commitment to continue airstrikes. But he and his policy planners must recognize that continuing airstrikes will undermine the authority of President Zardari, as well as Obama’s ability to coordinate policies effectively with Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders. The president’s national security team must understand that the struggle against extremism would best be waged by bolstering Islamabad’s ability to compete with militants for political authority in FATA. If his administration simply increases attacks from pilotless drones, it will only push more wavering tribes further into the Taliban camp, continue his predecessor’s policy of dictation, rather than cooperation, and undermine the perception within the Pakistani body politic that Obama can change U.S. policy toward the Muslim world.

Aside from ceasing aerial drone strikes, another way to help America’s image is in the region is for prominent U.S. decision-makers to stop publicly speculating about the fate of their democracy, as Petraeus did last week. America has a history of sponsoring insurgents, financing coups, and funding internal dissidents against democratically-elected leaders. Regardless of intent, Washington is perceived as being blatantly manipulative and endorsing a military takeover when we make reckless statements like this.