Tag: Stephen Biddle

More Stephen Biddle on Afghanistan

In June I pointed to what I thought was an interesting article co-authored by CFR’s Stephen Biddle that took a rather dim view of the prospects of fighting a counterinsurgency war on Hamid Karzai’s behalf in Afghanistan.

CFR has posted a transcript of a media call from earlier today with Biddle, who’s just returned from Afghanistan, hosted by Gideon Rose, the new editor of Foreign Affairs.  There are some interesting tidbits in there.  Try this, where Biddle has been working to try to push out well into the future any prospective date by which we can judge progress or a lack thereof in the fight:

ROSE: So what I hear you saying is that you have a Potter-Stewart version of a definition of success, but not a Potter-Stewart definition of failure.

In other words, at some point if it’s working, you’ll see the levels of violence come down; you’ll see things start to stabilize and then you’ll know things are going well. But if that hasn’t happened yet, it’s hard to distinguish between “It may happen down the road”; and “It’s not going to happen.”

BIDDLE: Yeah. And eventually, there’s kind of a statute of limitations on this. I mean, you can’t reasonable expect after five or six years to keep saying, well, it’ll happen eventually.

So five or six more years would be too long.  (I should note that Biddle also suggests later in the interview that we need somehow to extend the U.S. presence in Iraq beyond the 2011 deadline in the existing Status of Forces Agreement in that country to prevent a meltdown from happening there.)  Next Biddle restates his argument that al Qaeda “safe havens” isn’t a particularly good argument for continuing the war, but the prospect, which he admits is very unlikely, of a Pakistani collapse and al Qaeda somehow acquiring a deliverable nuclear weapon is.  Rose pushes back:

ROSE: See, that actually scares me more than if you had given the reverse answer, because however sort of relatively minor the Afghan danger would seem to be, the idea of fighting a nasty, ongoing, unsatisfying war simply for a domino theory aspect of what might happen in a neighboring state if the war doesn’t go well, strikes me as so tenuous a connection that it really is going to be hard to justify. And I think over time, you might get into a political dynamic in which the – if the war doesn’t get – the prospects don’t seem to get any better, that the public might not find that convincing. Do you worry about that?

BIDDLE: Well, I mean, people use domino theory as pejorative wording when they oppose a war. The idea that states worry about the stability of their neighbors because they worry about the stability of their own country is ubiquitous in international politics. One of the central reasons why the United States got involved in the Balkans back in the 1990s was the fear that chaos in the Balkans could spread to our NATO neighbors and trading partners. You know, the United – the Soviet Union was continuously worried about instability on its borders. This is a normal concern in international affairs. It’s not like an imaginary ghost dreamed up by people who want to do Vietnam War revisionism.

ROSE: Understood entirely, although –

BIDDLE: I don’t think that this is an absolute transcendent be-all and end-all threat to U.S. national security that we should be willing to pay any price and bear any burden in order to deal with. I’ve argued in the past – and I continue to believe – that Afghanistan is close call on the merits because the stakes, while important, are indirect and are not unlimited. And obviously the cost of waging this war is, you know, clearly high.

So what it boils down to, I think, is neither a slam dunk in favor of waging the war in which any reasonable person must surely think this is worth it, nor a slam dunk in which this war is obviously crazy and any reasonable person should think that we should get out tomorrow morning. I think what you end up with is a situation where the costs and the benefits are pretty close on the analytics and it boils down to a value judgment that reasonable people will make differently about how much cost should you be willing to bear to reduce how much of a threat.

Now, the threat here if the worst case scenario unfolds, is pretty serious. I mean, you may or may not have worried about nuclear weapons in Soviet hands during the Cold War. Bin Laden would probably use the things if he got them. And an American decision by a presidential administration that could reasonably have waged this war with some respectable prospect of success, but decided instead to withdraw – if that scenario played itself out and Pakistan collapsed, bin Laden got a nuclear weapon and used it in the United States – that would be regarded by generations of historians as the single biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of the nation.

Now, a variety of bad things have to happen in sequence for that worst case to play itself out. That’s why I think this is a close call, rather than an obvious “do it” or an obvious “don’t”. But I think especially with respect to the guy in the Oval Office who has to bear the responsibility for this that I suspect that worst case looms fairly large, but I think all indications are that the president is pretty ambivalent about this, in part because I suspect he sees the costs and benefits as being closer on the margin than one would in some ways like.

But what really struck me about the interview was the fog-machine answer Biddle gave to a question from James Kitfield involving Karzai.  See if you do better with it than I did:

QUESTIONER: Hi, Stephen. You haven’t talked about Karzai and his government. The most recent reports were that he’s now pushing back against these anti-corruption task forces, raising the question once again of what kind of a partner he is. I’m just curious what kind of feedback you got while you were in the field about how cooperative his government was being, whether they were doing the things necessary to give people hope that they would fulfill their part of the bargain in counterinsurgency.

BIDDLE: Well – and, of course, it’s a mixed bag. His stated policy is strongly anti-corruption oriented. Lots of his actual behaviors are much less so. I think there’s a tendency in the U.S. debate, though, to want to set the relationship with Karzai up as either he’s a good guy and an adequate partner or he is hopeless and he’s an inadequate partner. We just can’t succeed unless this guy is changed or has some moment of transformation.

And that’s not normally the way counterinsurgencies go. I mean, you always have an inadequate partner in counterinsurgency. That’s why there’s an insurgency to counter. (Scattered laughter.) If the host government were good at this, we wouldn’t have to be involved in the first place. So you inevitably at least start with a partner that, by definition, has serious legitimacy problems often involving corruption.

If you’re going to succeed, that means changing the behavior of the host government and changing behaviors that the host government doesn’t want to change. I mean, normally the legitimacy problem that gave rise to the insurgency in the first place was some sort of unrepresentative distribution of power or wealth or resources in the country benefitting one subgroup to the exclusion of others who then turned to insurgents for succor and hope.

The people who are benefitting from this normally want to keep benefitting from this and they resist and they push back when the outside counterinsurgent tries to get them to reform because that reform means less benefits for their subgroup. So you normally get pushback, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing and it’s exactly what we should expect.

And if we’re going to succeed, the right metaphor for this, it seems to me, is a tug of war. We can expect Karzai to pull back on the other side of the rope all the time because he believes that his political self-interest requires him to rely on groups that are benefitting from corruption and abuse of power to keep himself in office.

When we tell him to get rid of these people and clean all this up, he thinks it’s a threat to his own tenure in office and he’ll resist. We have to pull him in the other direction.

And in principle, we have plenty of resources with which to do that. We do thousands of things in Afghanistan every day. The Karzai government’s survival is utterly dependent on this, and we can turn them on or turn them off singly or in combination as necessary to generate leverage to gradually win the tug of war. But we’re not going to win it all of a sudden one morning.

I mean, every day, we’re going to roll out of bed and we’re going to have to pull Karzai a little further in our direction and he’s going to pull back again. And so there are going to be periodic episodes where he tries to shut down some anti-corruption agency that we think is doing a great job, and we have to pull him back in the direction of being more forceful in reforming his government than he otherwise wants to be.

I think, in principle, we have the resources to do that effectively, given the enormous expenditure of resources we do in this country. But we have to be very careful with how we do it. We’ve tended to be on this kind of pendulum oscillation between extremes with Karzai.

The Bush administration was much too cozy with the guy. They tended to be something close to a policy of all carrots and no sticks because they thought Karzai was a hero and an ally and shouldn’t be coerced. The Obama administration came into office believing that that was a mistake and crashed down on him with lots and lots of sticks and not much in the way of carrots, and the sticks were delivered publicly in ways that were domestically humiliating to Karzai. That didn’t work so well, and so the administration has changed course again.

What I think we need is a tack toward the center and an avoidance of these extremes, where we don’t give up on sticks. We have to use leverage or we’re not going to succeed in this. If we do not get reform of the host government, this campaign will fail and that’s not going to happen without the use, of course, of sticks, but the sticks have to be private rather than public and they have to be done in a sequence that makes sense.

I mean, for example, let’s take the corruption problem. To fix – to get the corruption problem under control, let’s say, rather than fixed, because I don’t want to imply that the right level of corruption in Afghanistan is zero, but to get the corruption problem under control, eventually it’s going to require some big asks of Hamid Karzai. He’s going to have to accept the removal or prosecution of some senior people in the country, in all likelihood. That’s not the best way to start the process.

A lot of the money that flows into corrupt activity in Afghanistan comes from us. It comes from our own contracting, which goes to fuel malign actor networks in the country that at the end of the day are substantially hurting our prospects by making people in Afghanistan turn to the Taliban for protection. The right way to start the process is by reducing our own contribution to the problem, by reforming the way we do contracting, for example, in a way that causes us to provide less fuel and ammunition to the malign actor networks that are undermining our counter-insurgency prospects to the degree that we are.

As we do that, we in turn weaken the political power of malign actors within the country because we deny them funds. I mean, you can think of money as the hydraulic fluid that enables the political machines that are these malign actor networks in the country to do work. A lot of that money and hydraulic fluid is coming from us. If we shut off the flow into the system, we reduce the hydraulic pressure within the machine and we reduce its ability to do political work. And that in turn makes the eventual ask of Karzai easier.

So I – doing things in the right sequence, and doing things privately and not publicly are both important, it seems to me. And last but not least, doing things in ways that support Karzai’s political future in the country rather than damaging it is helpful. Part of that’s a matter of trying not to criticize him publicly by U.S. government officials, wherever it can be avoided. Part of it is a matter of supporting his own better instincts wherever we can.

Again, Karzai is on public record repeatedly as supporting anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan. Now, obviously, in a variety of ways, the Afghan government’s behavior has been inconsistent on this, but wherever possible, it seems to me, we ought to help Karzai carry out his own stated policies, which are substantially anti-corruption in nature.

Does that do it for you?

Kilcullen Joins the ‘To Hell with Karzai’ Faction?

“No, really—tell him that. ‘Hanging from a lamppost!’”

Three weeks ago I observed that Stephen Biddle, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar who previously had emphasized the centrality of Hamid Karzai to the prospects for success in Afghanistan, had coauthored an article in Foreign Affairs on Afghanistan that hardly mentioned Karzai.

Now one of the archbishops of counterinsurgency and close Petraeus confidante David Kilcullen appears to have joined the “To Hell with Karzai” caucus as well.  First, in an interview with Doyle McManus of the LA Times, Kilcullen lamented that Karzai “has been treating us as if he’s got us over a barrel,” and suggested that we might want to remind the Afghan president that “he’s a guy who will be hanging from a lamppost a month after we leave if we don’t protect him.”  Tough stuff!

Today Kilcullen piles on some more in a NPR interview, advising a strategy of bypassing the central government and “empowering” local constituencies to fight the Taliban themselves.  Kilcullen says that the Afghan National Police have been “raping people’s children” at checkpoints and “shaking people down.”  By contrast, Kilcullen says, the Afghan National Army is better but is far too small to take the reins from the Americans any time soon.

The most vexing thing about all this is Kilcullen’s caveat that there must be “safeguards in place so that it doesn’t lead to the creation of alternative power structures that suck the oxygen away from a legitimate government.”  But how is that supposed to work?  It seems like “empowering” local forces to police their own territory and fight the Taliban is a zero-sum diffusion of power away from the central government and into the provinces.  In the LA Times interview, Kilcullen said that “the absolutely critical thing we haven’t done very well is come up with a political strategy to take an illegitimate government and turn it into a legitimate one.”  But it’s hard to see how doing an end-run around Karzai by training (and arming?) local constituencies to fight the Taliban helps achieve this “absolutely critical thing.”  Presumably this is why Karzai reportedly hates the idea.  It seems to me that this reflects an important strategic confusion: Is our strategy to build a viable national state in Afghanistan, or to embrace the diffuse and non-national existing power structures in Afghanistan at the expense of the central government?  If it’s the latter, why do we need a counterinsurgency campaign?  If it’s to do both, I think we’ve got problems.

Alternatively, is this all a big bluff to get Karzai to believe that America may leave if he doesn’t start doing what we tell him?  If so, Karzai should probably call the bluff.  American government officials have made Afghanistan out to be a vital national interest and would have a hard time turning a 180 on that judgment.  Meanwhile, Republican sharks have already begun circling Obama, and a searing and humiliating meltdown in Afghanistan probably isn’t on David Axelrod or Rahm Emanuel’s agenda right now.

Now, I’m no counterinsurgency guru, but I don’t see how you square this center-versus-periphery circle.  Maybe one of my COIN guru pals like Spencer Ackerman or Andrew Exum could help me out here.

Has Biddle Given Up on Karzai?

Stephen Biddle

Stephen Biddle

During the discussions in 2009 over what to do in Afghanistan, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations emerged as an influential voice for staying in the country and ramping up a counterinsurgency campaign.  In a widely-read article titled “Is It Worth It?” the author answered in the affirmative but warned that an expanded war would be “costly, risky and worth waging—but only barely so.”

In support of the administration’s Afghanistan policy, Biddle has argued repeatedly that our cart is hitched to Hamid Karzai’s horse.  In January of this year Biddle declared that winning the war “is going to require, among other things, a conscious decision by Hamid Karzai to…implement reforms. If we cannot persuade him to do that, we are not going to succeed.“  In a 2009 interview making the case for staying in Afghanistan, Biddle had argued that

The key issue is whether or not the governance reform campaign can succeed. I tend to think that’s co-equal with security provision. Both are necessary; neither is sufficient for success.

So Biddle’s basic plan then was to lean on Karzai to support necessary political change in the national government and to support this objective with an expanded population-centric counterinsurgency campaign.

Now Biddle and two co-authors have an article in the current Foreign Affairs promising to “define success in Afghanistan.”  In the new piece, Biddle et al. argue for acceptance of pretty radical decentralization—seemingly marginalizing Karzai, relative to Biddle’s previous writings—and for supporting this decentralized approach with…well, more population-centric counterinsurgency.

Biddle and co-authors sketch out two outcomes they assert are tolerable and achievable: “decentralized democracy,” which would insist on some semblance of democracy but leave considerable authority at the local level, and “mixed sovereignty,” which is an even more decentralized and less democratic version of decentralized democracy.

What’s striking in the new piece is that Biddle seems basically to have given up on Karzai—and with him, on the Afghan state.  But strangely, the Afghan state comes back into the story at crucial junctures and is supposed to assert authority over provincial bodies.  Take the example of revenue.  Biddle et al. warn that under mixed sovereignty, “the Afghan state would have to crack down on the narcotics trade, which if left unchecked could dwarf the revenues provided by foreign aid and and make such aid a less convincing incentive for compliance with the center.”  But how are they supposed to crack down when the reason for the acceptance of decentralism in the first place was because the Afghan central government was so weak?

There’s a real tension in the piece between the acceptance of multiple centers of power across the country and the sporadic demands made by the authors that Kabul assert control over the provinces.  If the reason we’re accepting decentralism is because it’s too hard to consolidate power in Kabul, how can we demand Kabul exercise control over the provinces?