December 14, 2010

Today's essential Afghan reading: FRI

Two more choice quotes from FRI:

A Marine LCol in Helmand: "Iím not lighting up an area where families we know and support are living in order to suppress a couple of idiots who were shooting a few long range, ineffective rounds." Bingo.

From Tim himself, on how to do COIN in the nearly unpopulated border province of Nimruz, presenting the problem, the solution, the problem with the solution, and the solution to that problem all in one tight three-inch group:

I ask one of my brother Marines what he would do were he given this problem to solve under the historical constraints normally faced by Marine commanders fighting a small war. He replied immediately ; Q-cars, fire force and pseudo operators [references to Rhodesian COIN TTPs --B.]. Which is exactly the same thing I would say as would all of my friends who are in the business. But the only way a regimental or battalion commander could even think of doing that now would be if we sent a vast majority of the troops deployed here (along with every colonel and general not in command of troops) home.

Yes, yes, YES.

The sheer untapped potential of ANSF platoon houses with embedded enablers (not Western companies with a few doorkickers) in the cleared areas, combined with modern ISR- and CAS-enabled Rhodesian style pseudo-operators and fireforces replacing large-scale sweep ops in the uncleared Pashtun areas, with the highways patrolled by mine-resistant vehicles in the IED zones and Q-Cars (a land derivative of the Q-Ship) in the ambush zones simply boggles the mind.

One should probably remember, though, that the best the Rhodesians could do (because of unassailable safe havens in neighboring countries and the inability of the government to be seen to serve the black majority's interests... hmm, where have we heard those before?) was hold their insurgents to a draw until they lost the fight for world public opinion and conceded in 1979. Sure, maybe our tactical COIN approach has been really unimaginative compared to the Rhodesian experience, but ultimately these things are won or lost on strategic considerations; at best good tactics only maximizes the value of one's strategic choices, and there's no reason to think Afghanistan would be any different in that regard.

Posted by BruceR at 10:39 PM

Additional Afghan reading: Junger

I still haven't seen Restrepo yet, but Sebastian Junger's War was brilliant, I thought, as a portrait of young men at war. His article here on the response he received is also very much worth reading:

I donít have a son or daughter over there, I donít have anything personal at stake in this miserable affair, so I feel completely unworthy to answer the question of whether the United States should keep fighting or pull out. As a journalist, the only thing I can do is try to guess the likely consequences of each choice and explain them to people who canít go over there to see for themselves. If NATO remains in Afghanistan, it can probably maintain the current level of stability and prevent Taliban and al Qaeda forces from reestablishing a base in that country. If NATO withdraws, those forces will almost certainly sweep into Kabul and precipitate another protracted civil war.

This is exactly right. I don't understand why anyone would assume that the Tajiks and Hazara and Kabuli Pashtuns who still hate the Taliban will not fight for their homes if we left. They're not going to be so easy to roll the second time, and the fact the ANA make poor doorkickers in our concept of ops does not mean they'd do just fine against similarly armed Pashtun insurgents, especially if we left a SOF/FID/CAS/Fires thumb on the pro-government side of the scales.

We shouldn't confuse a lack of Afghan army enthusiasm with being cannon fodder in the south with a lack of determination to fight for the north when the time comes; just like we shouldn't confuse the Karzai clan's determination to hold power as long as possible with their extensive and obvious preparations for a Plan B when Western support begins to dry up. Yes, some of them will just escape to those millions they socked away in Dubai, assuming it's still there, but the fight will continue without us.

If we were really focussed on our best interest, our strategic choice would be managing this to a stalemate situation, one favourable to us, over the decade it's going to take, using the minimal footprint possible. I don't mind the CNAS or Afghan Study Group reports that guide the transition of ISAF forces out, but to me they're still taking too short-term a view. We should be assuming we will leave a civil war in our wake, or one will crop up shortly thereafter, and that we will have to manage that, and configure our forces now and in future to do so.

But this is not Vietnam, where the U.S. withdrew its support and the other side did not. As mentioned below, this is now a self-licking ice cream cone kind of war... reducing the international presence reduces the resources available to both sides in Afghanistan, and the anti-Western hostility in equal measure, and no country is sitting by ready to give the Taliban tanks just to fight other Muslims in the same way they were for the Hanoi regime. And yes, it would be better for Afghans if we could keep it from falling back into that war somehow, but years of strategic mismanagement have all but ruled that out now.

But that doesn't mean the arguments of morality, justice, and utility are not still on our side. When I deployed, I remember looking at this pretty analytically. I had a contempt for the Taliban I no longer have quite so much, and the reports from the field were rosier than even my bullcrap filter could compensate for, so it's fair to say I was of a more optimistic cast than now. But when I could look at it coldly and logically, I basically saw what Junger saw... that, worst-case, fighting in the south bought time in the north, and ISAF's presence could give those people after 20 years of war an indeterminate number of years of relative peace while we were there. Worst case, we could give them a shot at normalcy. To me that was enough of a humanitarian argument to justify my serving in ISAF. Still is. I don't know how many years of Afghan peace is worth how many Canadian or American lives, but in terms of the personal sacrifice, as a tiny part of a huge military operation, and comparing that operation as a whole to the most likely alternative, I don't regret a thing, then or now. Yes, we could have fought smarter, better, more economically, with less loss... those sorts of realizations are often regrettable. And the cost to our nations' economies has been huge and unsustainable. But Junger is right. To not do what we did would have been to make things worse in the immediate now for the majority of Afghans. And while I happen to agree with Nir Rosen below that you cannot say the same thing about Iraq on the whole, I happened to serve in Afghanistan, not Iraq. And the same analytical reasoning that convinced me three years ago when I stepped up that ISAF, collectively, at least would not be making things any worse while I was with them, to my mind remains valid today.

All that changes nothing as far as the most-likely prognosis for Afghanistan now, though. And I could be wrong; I have been quite clear why it is still too early to tell; but the evidence has been mounting that we are approaching the finite limits of how much impact military force alone can have on this particular insurgency, and continued commitment of resources at the current level is going to be firmly in diminishing returns territory. But again, I still think we're still about six months too early to tell for sure. If the violence starts ramping up again in the summer of 2011, as it has every year higher than the year before, than we really need to start digging the fallback positions and figuring out what ANSF with ISAF enablers can realistically hold onto in the years to come. Because the only alternative will be an indefinite, fruitless Western commitment.

Posted by BruceR at 12:30 AM