Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Machiavelli in Afghanistan

A commenter asked a pretty good question in one of my earlier posts about Machiavelli and Afghanistan and I wanted to bring it and my response up to full blog post level (plus, I’m a Gen X slacker and I never pass up on an opportunity for easy blog post content).

Sam asked:  Hi, not sure if you’ll ever get this but I have a question about your response. I don’t really understand why Machiavelli would be hesitant on removing our troops within 2, 5, or 10 years. perhaps you can talk briefly in your own words on this subject? I appreciate your help.

To which I replied:

Sure…although with two provisos: 1) I’m not a Machiavelli expert (as much as I enjoy his work) and 2) see #1.

But, my thinking is that if we asked Machiavelli for his advice about how to best ‘conquer’ Afghanistan (a separate question from the wisdom of such a decision) he’d conclude that since the country doesn’t have governors or satraps who derive their power from a central government they’re unlikely to easily switch their allegiance to an invader like the Persians did for Alexander.

He does present three options for those who conquer a nation (chap 5 of the Prince): ruin the country, demand tribute or reside there in person. I think most people would agree that Afghanistan is pretty much ‘ruined’ already. Demanding tribute really wouldn’t accomplish our security goals and is out which only leaves residing in the nation. Since our political leadership won’t do that sort of thing (could you imagine the U.S. government temporarily relocating to Kabul as a demonstration of their resolve to see this thing through to the end?) we’d have to substitute a military presence. In Chapter 3 of the Prince he argues that you can hold that territory by establishing colonies of veterans or “keep there a great number of cavalry and infantry” in the country. I suspect it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be handing out land grants to veterans (although that would be an interesting idea) so we’re really only left with an extended military presence.

I think he would argue that a military presence would have to be extended (much more than 2 or 5 years) because the only way to ‘hold’ a conquered nation used to living under their own laws is to get them used (at a very fundamental level) to living under someone else’s.

I’m pretty sure he’d caution that history wouldn’t be on the side of the conqueror in this regard but if we were determined to try we wouldn’t have many other options than a lot of troops there for a lot of time.


Afghanistan roundup

I think (and have for some time) there’s an inherent contradiction to our current Afghanistan policy.  We have as our official doctrine, COIN, which has as one of its foundational principles the idea that in order to be successful the counter-insurgents need to have a very long time horizon.  At the same time, we’ve got this policy that we’re going to start drawing down forces in 2011 with a complete pull out around 2014.  I would argue that it is extremely unlikely both of those things can occur (it’s not impossible, just highly unlikely).

So, for several months now I think I’ve seen some preliminary groundwork being laid for the undermining and ultimate abandonment of the time line.  There certainly remains wiggle room to stick with those dates should things get untenable but my prediction is that between 2011 and 2014 some set of policies will occur which will justify continued involvement in Afghanistan on a fairly large scale. In fact, I believe the 2014 date is really just an attempt to kick the can down the road and should not be interpreted to actually mean anything in terms of actual withdrawal of forces.  (apparently this is the same read Kevin Drum has)

I suspect this has to happen because, while tarnished with the resignation of Gen. McChrystal earlier this year, COIN remains an immovable object, particularly under the aegis of Gen. Petraeus (or ‘He who may not be criticized’).  Therefore, the irresistible force of a timetable for withdrawal ends up being not so irresistible after all.

McClatchy’s does a nice job of laying out the pressures on the timetable.  Notably:

  • U.S. military forces claim that Afghan forces will be unable to assume security responsibility by July 2011
  • the 2011 date is interpreted as a ‘walk away’ date by the Pakistanis and was hindering attempts to get them to confront insurgents
  • Republican victories in the mid-terms will lessen legislative pressure for a withdrawal

Paula Broadwell has an interesting and optimistic piece about the development of Afghan security forces.  There are a lot of numbers in there and I’m not sure what they really mean when everything is said and done.  I’m just not sure, for example, what this really means:

Total ANSF growth, starting from November 2009 to present increased from 191,969 to 255,506, an increase of 63,537 (33 percent). The Afghan army has grown from 97,011 to 136,164, an increase of 39,153 (40 percent) and the national police from 94,958 to 117,342, an increase of 22,384 (24 percent).

I’d probably feel a lot better if I knew there was some quality to go along with that quantity.  There may be but increasing the size of your security forces by a third in one year is a pretty big expansion…during wartime…with a notoriously uneducated population.  In the army we generally call that an ‘opportunity to excel’.

One indicator that gives me pause in the piece is the way she describes the attrition (read:  AWOL/desertion) rate.

In the last but not least of the challenges, arresting ANSF attrition is also a serious constraint, averaging 5.39 percent per month over the past 12 months.

While she goes on to say this rate applies only to areas engaged in heavy fighting it’s still a pretty high rate which really hit me only when a commenter discussed it in a slightly different way:

Sixty-five percent annual attrition, worse when they actually get close to combat?

Saideman seems to be indicating that Canada might be walking back it’s withdrawal commitment as well?

The Harper government seems to be reversing months and months of denials of any further military effort in Afghanistan and getting ready to agree to send one thousand soldiers (700 trainers and 300 support folks), and this is causing conniptions in Ottawa.

I haven’t read Asia Foundation’s survey of Afghan public opinion (and, to be honest probably won’t even with a long weekend in front of me as I’ve got a few other reports I want to get to first) but there are some interesting charts I skimmed.  First, it is worth noting that confidence does seem to be improving.

As a side note, allow me to point out the crash in public confidence after 2004 – the year I left the country!  Clearly, I imbued the whole danged country with a sense of optimism and confidence (Gen Petraeus…call me!).

Finally, Wired points out that we’re in the middle of another spike of air strikes.  The official position is that the increased operations tempo means, naturally, that we have an increased number of air missions.  Be on the lookout for a similar spike in assertions by the Air Force that they have a primary role to play in COIN and absolutely need a new 5th generation dogfighter to defeat insurgents with AK-47s.

You heard it here first…

I have a longer post on this coming out tomorrow but just allow me to take a moment to enjoy this minor ‘coup’ (and trust me, I know this is very bad form).  From today’s NYTimes:

The Obama administration is increasingly emphasizing the idea that the United States will have forces in Afghanistan until at least the end of 2014…

And last May in this little corner of the interwebs:

…my impression was that all of the speakers (British, Canadian and U.S.) were operating under the assumption that forces would be in place well beyond 2011.  I heard no discussion about how to conduct any sort of hand off to the Afghans within 18 months, alterations to COIN theory or doctrine or trains of thought about alternate ways militaries could support/conduct COIN without significant numbers of forces on the ground.  I would interpret that to mean that the military has been given the word (explicitly or implicitly) that that 2011 deadline is NOT set in stone.  I would, in fact, go further and predict that barring some unforeseen change in the operating environment we will almost definitely have a significant presence in Afghanistan for some time.

I think the idea of a 2011 end date died almost as soon as the words were uttered and there was plenty of evidence for that for some time now.

A military themed post…

I’m on military duty for the opening part of this week and so it’s appropriate to talk about such matters here.

First (admittedly petty):  I just qualified with my rifle yesterday and I STILL have an M-16A4.  It shoots just fine but given that the weapon is essentially the same one I had when I was in basic training (back in 1986) I feel like I’m carrying around a musket.  I had really hoped to have my own E-11 blaster rifle by now.

Oh…and I think I have some cordite lodged in my sinuses since I keep getting whiffs of gunpowder.

We also did our PT test this weekend.  I had to use traditional running shoes instead of my Vibram Five Fingers but it’s hard to tell if there was a performance difference or not.  I will say that I could tell a big difference in my posture when running.  I felt like a running question mark.

Pretty interesting analysis of a recent interview with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on German TV posted in Foreign Policy.

…it became very obvious that Hekmatyar tried to walk on a political tight-rope. He apparently felt that he had to positively address different audiences. To the West, he projected himself as someone who might be willing to talk peace under certain circumstances although his Palestine remark might not earn him much credibility. To the Taliban who recently criticized him and fought his fighters, he presented himself as a good co-Mujahid with Islamic principles who is not soft at all vis-a-vis the “occupying forces” and Karzai.

It’s hard to figure out what’s going on in Afghanistan right now.  It seems every day you see one report saying we’re making progress and right on its heels is another saying that the first report was overblown.  The NYTimes captures the confusion in this story.  More important than the day to day, however, is that all this may be a campaign to change the narrative here (and maybe in the West more generally).

“It is certainly true that Petraeus is attempting to shape public opinion ahead of the December review,” said an administration official who is supportive of the general.

“He is the most skilled public relations official in the business, and he’s trying to narrow the president’s options.”

But national security officials across Washington are already saying that the December review will only tweak the policy, not change the strategy, and that the real assessment will come in July 2011, the deadline for the beginning of the withdrawal of American troops.

So this may be an attempt to lay the groundwork for a case to delay (or minimize) the 2011 draw down of forces, and walk back the 2014  official mission handover.

The Nordics in Afghanistan

The major Swedish political parties have reached consensus on their military commitment to ISAF and Afghanistan within the past few days.

According to Reinfeldt, Sweden aims to pull its combat troops out of Afghanistan between 2012 and 2014 and will maintain a largely civilian support presence after that.

“Our ambition is that Sweden’s presence in Afghanistan should shift from a combative role to a more supportive role,” he told reporters in Stockholm as he presented a nine-point plan for the pull-out.

“This change to a completely supportive role should be in place by 2014 at the latest.

This (I think) is a shift from the position of the center-right alliance (which is in power) and more closely resembles the position of the Social Democrats and Greens who recently suffered their second consecutive defeat in parliamentary elections..  The Red-Green coalition wanted everyone out by 2013 with a withdrawal starting in 2011, but that was really to keep the Left (former Communist) party happy who wanted an immediate withdrawal.

Karl Bildt’s (the Foreign Minister) position as of May this year was:

“Exit dates are first wrong and second dangerous and I don’t want to send the message to the Afghan people that we are going to abandon them at one point in time,” Bildt, who had just returned from a three-day trip to Afghanistan, told reporters in Stockholm.

“That is not going to be finished in the next few years,” Bildt said.

I’m no expert in Swedish politics but this might have been a deal the center-right was hoping to make.  Their policy up till now has been pretty close to the U.S. policy, if not a bit more ‘hawkish’, refusing to discuss withdrawal dates and having an apparently open ended commitment.  The policy was increasingly unpopular among the Swedish people but (like here) there seemed little way out without appearing to be a ‘flip-flopper’ and after stating how important the mission way numerous times, it’s hard to walk that back.

But now, the center-right alliance can appear to be willing to compromise, gets out of (or at least gains co-conspirators in) the existing Afghanistan mission and manages to do that while still refusing to work with the far right wing Sweden Democrats who achieved just enough seats in the parliament to prevent everyone from gaining a majority.

Finland, who is operating jointly with the Swedes, appears to have to a similar policy.  In part that’s because the two countries are so enmeshed in their mission that the Finns (195 soldiers in country) would have difficulty continuing without the Swedes (500 soldiers in country).

So, it looks like whatever ISAF is planning to do regarding COIN in Afghanistan it better do it quick as everyone is going to be heading for the doors in about 3 years.

And while it may not be Nordic, Saidman raises an interesting point about Canada’s decision to end their combat mission in Afghanistan in July of next year.

…leaving in July 2011 is just an abysmal choice.  That is going to be the high point of fighting season.  It would have been nice to leave in winter, either this one or the next one, so that the folks filling in the hole that the Canadian departure will create would have time to settle in and prepare.  Instead, the Canadians will be focused on leaving in the spring of 2011, just as things get busy again…


Afghan Roundup

Ok…this is total confirmation bias here but after such a long period of bad news about Afghanistan how can’t one link to a story with a headline that says:

Coalition Forces Routing Taliban in Key Afghan Region

‘Rout’ has a nice ring to it.  Now we just have to hope it’s true.  I’m not sure entirely why, but this statement makes me a bit nervous:

Some of the gains seem to have come from a new mobile rocket that has pinpoint accuracy — like a small cruise missile — and has been used against the hideouts of insurgent commanders around Kandahar.

Really?  So the answer is rooted in better military hardware?  Hmmmm…Is this how the NYTimes is making ends meet in these tough economic times?  Product placement ads to arms manufacturers?

Two paragraphs below that we see the sort of thing we would hope to hear in a COIN environment:

Unlike the Marja operation, they say, the one in Kandahar is a comprehensive civil and military effort that is changing the public mood as well as improving security.

Good news/bad news:  Recommending talking to insurgents is no longer automatically grounds from hysterical charges of treason but the much ballyhooed talks with the Taliban aren’t much to get excited about at this point.

Alex Strick van Linschoten, an expert on the Taliban and co-editor of a recent autobiography of a top Taliban official, Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, is skeptical about all the hype. He calls it a “blunt force PR campaign” released by the U.S. military and certain government officials, hoping to prop up flagging enthusiasm at home for what more and more Americans see as a losing battle.

“Certainly, what’s going on is nowhere near as exciting or progress-filled as the media are making it out to be,” he said. “If you dig down deep into the sourcing on a lot of these stories, it’s all still rumors and shadow-play.”

The inherent contradiction and confusion inherent in publicly supporting a COIN campaign and talking about withdrawal in a relatively short time frame leads to statements like this from insurgents:

“Now many people are travelling to Afghanistan because they hope that the Western troops will soon pull out of our country and a new future will start.”

Swedish casualties near Mazar-i-Sharif

A Swedish soldier was killed in Afghanistan on Saturday in some sort of combat action.  According to the military spokesperson via Radio Sweden:

“There were two platoons, around 50 soldiers, patrolling an area about 40 kilometres of Mazar-i-Sharif. One platoon, including a Combat Vehicle 90 armoured car, was involved in combat and called for back up. The second platoon, with a pansarterrängbil 203 armoured car, came to rescue them. And when they came to the scene, they drove over a home made bomb, and the soldier who was killed was in that vehicle.”

Since the center-right coalition just won reelection it and has committed to an open ended mission to Afghanistan it seems unlikely that this news will result in any changes in the short term.  The opposition coalition has been split regarding Afghanistan with the Left (former communist) Party demanding an immediate withdrawal and other parties that want to remove Swedish forces at some future date (2013, I think).