Archive for September, 2009

Paul Pillar, ex-CIA man and one-time national intel officer for the Middle East during the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, says we should start a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“If general McChrystal [the US commander in Afghanistan, Ed.] gets his way – I understand he wants 45,000 extra troops – then the US will reach the level of the Russians at the peak of their deployment in the eighties: more than 100,000. You don’t want to go there. I’m not saying we need to leave suddenly and in a hurry. I’m thinking of something similar to what we’re now doing in Iraq, where we’re pulling out all the troops by the end of 2011. A phased withdrawal.”

He also wrecks the idea that we should run around the world occupying countries to deny terrorists safe havens.

“Take 9/11. Al Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan did not play a big role in that operation. The real work – the planning by Khalid Sheik Mohammed – was done away from the camps. The preparations were made in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the US. And don’t forget: if a group really needs a sanctuary it doesn’t have to depend on Afghanistan. We already know they are able to operate in Pakistan, and there is Somalia and Yemen too.”

Invasion and occupation was never the right response to terrorism.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting

Apparently I underestimated the U.S. government’s capacity for crazy.

Last week, I said:

The prospects for success of a quick, violent blow are dim.  The hardened core of the Taliban is the Quetta Shura Taliban. It’s called the Quetta Shura Taliban because it’s based in Quetta, capital of Balochistan in Pakistan. That’s where we suspect Mullah Omar and possibly Osama bin Laden hide from U.S. forces. It’s also a major city of 750,000+ people, almost all of them non-combatants. Thus, our ability to strike the “violent blow” that could end the al-Qaida/Taliban threat (assuming we’re not willing to drop 600,000+ troops into Afghanistan tomorrow to suddenly begin a textbook counterinsurgency) would depend on our willingness to repeat the carnage of Fallujah 2004 in a city roughly twice its size. This move would ignite Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it would put their nuclear arsenal on the game board in the scramble.

In the days after my attribution of a modicum of good sense and humanitarian concern to the U.S. government, the Telegraph reported that the U.S. is threatening to launch drone attacks against suspected Taliban targets in Quetta. The story labels this potential move a “major escalation,” and they’re not kidding.

[L]ast week Anne Patterson, America’s ambassador to Islamabad, told the Daily Telegraph that the offensive in Swat was not targeting the insurgents posing the greatest danger to Nato forces in Afghanistan.An official at the Pakistani interior ministry told the Daily Telegraph: “The Americans said we have been raising this issue with you time and again. These elements are attacking Nato forces in southern Afghanistan, especially in Helmand. The Americans said ‘If you don’t take action, we will.'”

US unmanned drone strikes have so far been confined to Pakistan’s federally administrated tribal border regions where Islamabad holds little sway. But attacks in or around Quetta, in Baluchistan, would strike deep into the Pakistan government’s territory and are likely to cause a huge outcry in the country.

This is crazy town, people. An attack on Quetta would cause a phase shift in Pakistan. We’re talking destabilization par excellence. A recent poll by Gallup Pakistan showed that the Pakistanis view the U.S. as the biggest threat to their country, far surpassing India and the Taliban:

When respondents were asked what they consider to be the biggest threat to the nation of Pakistan, 11 per cent of the population identified the Taliban fighters, who have been blamed for scores of deadly bomb attacks across the country in recent years.

Another 18 per cent said that they believe that the greatest threat came from neighbouring India, which has fought three wars with Pakistan since partition in 1947.

But an overwhelming number, 59 per cent of respondents, said the greatest threat to Pakistan right now is, in fact, the US…

That kind of visceral reaction to the United States comes, in large part, from a popular rejection of U.S. drone activity over Pakistan. From a May op-ed in the NYT by Kilcullen and Exum:

[T]he drone war has created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians…the strikes are now exciting visceral opposition across a broad spectrum of Pakistani opinion in Punjab and Sindh, the nation’s two most populous provinces. Covered extensively by the news media, drone attacks are popularly believed to have caused even more civilian casualties than is actually the case. The persistence of these attacks on Pakistani territory offends people’s deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan’s instability.

An airstrike open-season over Quetta would be the apotheosis of stupid. It would cause public opinion in Pakistan regarding the U.S. to metastasize further while increasing sympathy for the Taliban and al-Qaida. The Pakistani civilian government, already pushed by public outrage into publicly distancing themselves from the drone policy and assuring their populace that it would end soon, would look impotent and consent to their governance could become brittle. In short, we’d succeed in taking on the role we’ve attributed to the Taliban–the destabilizer of a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

In addition to lighting the fuse on the instability mentioned above, there’s the moral repugnance of firing ordinance into such a densely populated area. From a March NYT story on the same topic:

Missile strikes or American commando raids in the city of Quetta or the teeming Afghan settlements and refugee camps around the city and near the Afghan border would carry high risks of civilian casualties, American officials acknowledge.

Drone operators executing strikes in Pakistan tend to rely on spotters on the ground placing infrared beacons near suspected Taliban targets. (Otherwise, the drone operators are firing on people that appear to be moving dots on the ground, indistinguishable from non-combatants.) Those beacons are often placed by paid informants who have financial incentives to place as many of them as possible, meaning there’s no guarantee the missiles will hit actual Taliban. Thus, the drone strikes have killed massive numbers of civilians and relatively few suspected Taliban or other combatants. But, even if you’re fine with the potential for non-combatant deaths, you still need some functional intel coming in to guide the strikes if the purpose is to kill Mullah Omar and/or Bin Laden.

The Telegraph’s story seems to make clear that we either lack actionable intelligence, or we lack confidence that the Pakistanis wouldn’t tip off the targets and allow them to escape:

Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, said the US had so far been unable to provide detailed intelligence to target the Quetta Shura. He said: “We need real-time intelligence. The Americans have never told us any location.”

The lack of trust and/or usable intelligence leads the U.S. to consider even worse ideas, like sending U.S. commandos into Quetta:

Western intelligence officers say Pakistan has been moving Taliban leaders to the volatile city of Karachi, where it would be impossible to strike. US officials have even discussed sending commandos to Quetta to capture or kill the Taliban chiefs before they are moved.

As Joshua Foust noted back in 2008, if we take this belligerent stance of, “Do it or by God we’ll do it,” and then we follow through with boots on the ground or missiles from the air without the authorization of the Pakistani government, it’d be tantamount to a declaration of war on Pakistan.

(Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about civilian casualties caused by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Four): Civilian Casualties, or by visiting

The UN Secretary General today  published the latest edition of the quarterly report, The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security, which reveals that August 2009 was the deadliest month so far in 2009 for civilians. According to the report:

The Mission recorded 1,500 civilian casualties between January and August, with August being the deadliest month since the beginning of 2009. These figures reflect an increasing trend in insecurity over recent months and in elections-related violence. Almost three times as many civilian deaths (68 per cent) were attributed to anti-Government elements activities than to pro-Government forces (23 per cent). As detailed in the UNAMA mid-year bulletin on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, the most deadly tactics used and which accounted for the largest number of civilian casualties in the conflict to date were attributable to planted improvised explosive devices, and suicide attacks carried out by anti-Government elements accounted for 39.5 per cent of fatalities. Air strikes by pro-Government forces accounted for 20 per cent of fatalities.

By comparing the last quarterly report with the year-long totals from this report, we find:

  • From January to May there were 800 civilian deaths, with 33 percent (264) caused by pro-Afghan-government forces (PGFs).
  • From June to August there were 700 civilian deaths. 23 percent (161) caused by PGFs.

Comments made by military officials earlier this month indicated they would use this new UN report to show that their “new” strategy was working, but today’s report shows that such an argument would be a clear case of moving goalposts. During his confirmation hearing, General Stanley McChrystal said that:

American success in Afghanistan should be measured by “the number of Afghans shielded from violence,” not the number of enemy fighters killed, he said.

Several months later, during a month in which American forces had been greatly increased for the purpose of providing election-related security, we stumble into the deadliest month for civilians so far in a year on track to be the most violent year since the U.S. invasion.

It’s not working.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting

The Pentagon expects to receive General McChrystal’s troop request by the end of the week (remember, you heard it here first). If we accept Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell’s remarks during today’s press briefing, Defense Secretary Gates will pocket the document until the Obama Administration completes its strategic review. But, Morrell is clearly working to prevent the document from becoming a “moment of truth” for the secretary and the president, and I would be very surprised if a strategy assessment took place without a cost/benefit analysis. After all, a discussion on strategy not constrained by resource considerations would produce strategies as useful as a retirement plan that included “win the lottery” as a necessary step.

Looking for evaluative tools for the upcoming troop request, I flipped through my copy of The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene and came across this passage:

…Rommel once made a distinction between a gamble and a risk. Both cases involve an action with only a chance of success, a chance that is heightened by acting with boldness. The difference is that with a risk, if you lose, you can recover: your reputation will suffer no long-term damage, your resources will not be depleted, and you can return to your original position with acceptable losses. With a gamble, on the other hand, defeat can lead to a slew of problems that are likely to spiral out of control. …[I]f you encounter difficulties in a gamble, it becomes harder to pull out–you realize that the stakes are too high; you cannot afford to lose. So you try harder to rescue the situation, often making it worse and sinking deeper in to the hole that you cannot get out of. People are drawn into gambles by their emotions…Taking risks is essential; gambling is foolhardy.

The worst way to end…a war…is slowly and painfully…Before entering any action, you must calculate in precise terms your exit strategy…If the answers…seem to vague and full of speculation, if success seems all too alluring and failure somewhat dangerous, you are more than likely taking a gamble. Your emotions are leading you into a situation that could end up a quagmire.

Before that happens, catch yourself. And if you do find you have made this mistake, you have only two rational solutions: either end the conflict as quickly as you can, with a strong, violent blow aimed to win, accepting the costs and knowing they are better than a slow and painful death, or cut your losses and quit without delay. Never let pride or concern for your reputation pull you farther into the morass; both will suffer far greater blows by your persistence. Short-term defeat is better than long-term disaster.

Greene writes these words interpreting the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. They apply equally well to the situation in which the United States finds itself in the same country.

Let’s review how we got here. (Finger-pointing, unless you were one of the brave few who were against a military response to 9/11, is useless. We got here together.) President Bush (backed by almost all of us) acted on our emotions following the attacks without planning all the way to the end. Then, he launched the Iraq war without adequately thinking through the consequences for the endeavor in Afghanistan. While President Obama correctly assailed him for the Iraq blunder (such a small, inadequate word for that crime), he and the Democrats managed a neat trick of being anti-Iraq-war hawks by promising a chest-thumping charge into Afghanistan to “finish the job.” Obama and his allies also failed to plan all the way to the end, to account for things like lost time, sputtering public enthusiasm for another presidential term lost in fever dreams of war and the awful human cost of the tough-guy promises to hit terrorists in Pakistan with drone strikes.

But, damning the torpedoes, we went full speed ahead, and in the period during which President Obama escalated drone strikes over Pakistan, ordered and escalation and then sent the new troops on a push into Helmand, the insurgent influence in Afghanistan went from this:

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Nov. 2008

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Nov. 2008

to this:

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Sept. 2009

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Sept. 2009

The number of insurgent attacks has also followed a steady upward trend since the U.S. invasion.

Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan Jan 06 - Jun 09

Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan Jan 06 - Jun 09

There’s little doubt that we’re in the morass against which Greene warns in the quote above.  It should be useful, then, to examine Greene’s “two rational solutions” to the problem: the violent, crushing blow that ends the conflict quickly, or the rapid exit to prevent a worse catastrophe.

The prospects for success of a quick, violent blow are dim.  The hardened core of the Taliban is the Quetta Shura Taliban. It’s called the Quetta Shura Taliban because it’s based in Quetta, capital of Balochistan in Pakistan. That’s where we suspect Mullah Omar and possibly Osama bin Laden hide from U.S. forces. It’s also a major city of 750,000+ people, almost all of them non-combatants. Thus, our ability to strike the “violent blow” that could end the al-Qaida/Taliban threat (assuming we’re not willing to drop 600,000+ troops into Afghanistan tomorrow to suddenly begin a textbook counterinsurgency) would depend on our willingness to repeat the carnage of Fallujah 2004 in a city roughly twice its size. This move would ignite Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it would put their nuclear arsenal on the game board in the scramble.

In other words, no sudden, violent blow, absent pristine intelligence revealing the precise, time-stamped location of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, can end this conflict quickly without entailing costs we cannot bear.

That leaves us with option 2: cut your losses and quit without delay. So why do we remain?

First, the strategic complications of the situation boggle the mind. However, the strategic implications of the region have been on our radar for years, but cooler heads without the burden of the 9/11 trauma kept the U.S. out of a heavy military operation in Afghanistan even at the height of the Afghan civil war, and I can imagine that a desire to avoid precisely this predicament played a role in those decisions. But while I do not doubt that the strategic monstrosity of Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan/Kashmir/India deeply concerns the president, I can also imagine that what really keeps him and his advisers up at night are fears of a possible crisis that would fall most heavily on the civilian population of Afghanistan following a U.S. withdrawal. The human, economic and political costs of our military operation are so high that, absent this humanitarian concern, I doubt we’d still be discussing whether to add or subtract troops. We’d be on our way home.

Regular readers of my blog know that I am a Christian whose understanding of Jesus’ teachings prevent me from supporting the use of violence in any circumstances. The far more (nominally) prevalent formulation among fellow Christians, obviously, is my faith’s adaptation of just war criteria. One of the main architects of Christian just war theory, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and tutor to Augustine, articulated the viewpoint that helped drive just war criteria into Christian thought, and it’s exactly this sentiment that keeps well-meaning people of all faiths and of no faith tethered to the moral “necessity” of a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan:

He who does not keep harm off a friend, if he can, is as much in fault as he who causes it.

This is the sentiment that bridges the gap between the Sermon on the Mount and the Christian acceptance of war. And, as much as I disagree with it (note the deftness with which it queues noble sympathy for a friend while avoiding the truly revolutionary call of Jesus to love one’s enemies and to not violently resist an evil person), I understand it. However, the middle clause of the sentence is one of the most important pieces of guidance for the just war adherent: “if he can.” Courage is not the only issue, nor is sentiment: likelihood of success is crucial. That’s why the Catechism of the Catholic Church includes in its explanation of just war this explicit restriction on military actions with poor prospects for success:

1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

3. there must be serious prospects of success;

4. the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition” [CCC 2309].

Desire to keep harm off a friend is insufficient to excuse your use of violence to save him. To be morally permissible, in this view, your violence must have a serious prospect of succeeding. Otherwise one simply adds to the level of violence and suffering already present.

The U.S. lacks a credible, legitimate partner in our attempt to use counterinsurgency strategy as a means of counterterrorism, and in COIN operations you live and die by the legitimacy of the host nation government. The COIN manual goes so far as to call host nation government legitimacy the “north star.” Steadily rising attacks and maps of spreading insurgency are all symptoms of our lack of this fundamental prerequisite for the success of our chosen strategy. In addition, every single troop increase has been followed in the next year by an increased civilian casualty rate and a persistently increasing level of insurgent violence. Insurgents now have a significant presence in more than 90 percent of the country. Finally, evidence shows that even our humanitarian aid funneled through the military fuels violence in Afghanistan. We lack “serious” prospects for success; it is stretching to even say we have “credible” prospects for success. As such, our use of violence in pursuit of even humanitarian objectives only adds to the butcher’s bill in Afghanistan, and we can no longer be excused by our good intentions.

And don’t think for a second that “fewer troops, more drones” is an answer in Afghanistan. Drones have an indiscriminate track record already in Pakistan, and their expansion in Afghanistan would violate any formulation of just war ethics, causing a massive increase in death and suffering caused by U.S. forces. If one accepts the proposition that our purpose in Afghanistan is primarily to reduce the threat of terrorism against the United States, one should carefully consider the following from P.W. Singer’s excellent book on military robotics, Wired for War:

[Mubashar Jawed “M.J.” Akbar concludes] that another unintentional effect must be watched out for. The greater use of unmanned systems, the more likely it will motivate terrorist strikes at America’s homeland. “It will be seen as a sign of American unwillingness to face death. Therefore, new ways to hit America will have to be devised…”(p. 312-313)

Singer also quotes Nir Rosen, who expects:

that the continuing trend will “encourage terrorism,” maybe especially among those not fighting that way now. As he explains…not every fighter is an al-Qaeda terrorist intent on attacking the United States. “the insurgents are defending their area and focusing on troops they see as occupiers. But if they can’t kill soldiers on the battlefield, they will have to do it somewhere else” He predicts that the more we take American soldiers off the battlefields [through robotics], the more it will “drive them to hit back home.” (p. 313)

None of the credible violent options in Afghanistan offer real chances for rolling back the insurgent reaction to our presence and to the corruption of the central government, nor do these options hold the potential for reducing terrorism against the United States. Because we lack a serious prospect for success via military force, we cannot justify its continued use. We should therefore make the only justifiable strategic and moral decision by grounding the drones and bringing our troops home, seeking instead humanitarian, political and diplomatic means to alleviate the inevitable suffering caused in part by our bad gamble in Afghanistan.


Embedded in General Stanley McChrystal’s classified assessment of the war in Afghanistan is his conclusion that a successful counterinsurgency strategy will require 500,000 troops over five years.

Any takers?

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting

General McChrystal’s “new strategy” has been leaked to press in what looks to me like a continued effort to box in the President on troop increases. Here’s the core of the document:

The New Strategy: Focus on the Population

…To accomplish the mission and defeat the insurgency we also require a properly resourced strategy built on four main pillars:

  1. Improve effectiveness through greater partnering with ANSF.  We will increase the size and accelerate the growth of the ANSF, with a radically improved partnership at every level, to improve effectiveness and prepare them to take the lead in security operations.
  2. Prioritize responsive and accountable governance. We must assist in improving governance at all levels through both formal and traditional mechanisms.
  3. Gain the initiative. Our first imperative, in a series of operational stages, is to gain the initiative and reverse the insurgency’s momentum.
  4. Focus resources. We will prioritize available resources to those critical areas where vulnerable populations are most threatened.

The first two pillars seem to have been written while someone was smoking hashish. Let’s take them one at a time. First:

1. Improve effectiveness through greater partnering with ANSF. We will increase the size and accelerate the growth of the ANSF, with a radically improved partnership at every level, to improve effectiveness and prepare them to take the lead in security operations.

While this pillar may look like it’s following the guidance of the COIN manual, when we consider the Afghans’ inability to sustain such a force, it clearly ignores many of the manual’s warnings.Here’s a sample:

Make only commitments that can be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. (p. 172) Establishing activities that the HN government is unable to sustain may be counterproductive. (p. 170)…[Host nation] security forces should…[b]e sustainable by the host nation after U.S. and multinational forces depart. (p. 208)

As has been pointed out many times, even the current ANSF force levels cannot be sustained by the Afghan economy. From a January 2009 CRS report (p. 71):

Senior Afghan and international officials estimate that it will cost approximately $3.5 billion per year to increase ANSF force structure, and then $2.2 billion per year to sustain it. …GIRoA, which contributed $320 million to the ANSF in 2008, is not a realistic source of ANSF funding in the near term.

In addition to the warnings about sustainability, the COIN manual also warns against trying to recreate the ANSF in our own image:

Avoid mirror-imaging (trying to make the host-nation forces look like the U.S. military). That solution fits few cultures or situations. (p. 168)

Once again, the counterinsurgency we have in Afghanistan throws out the doctrine’s manual.

If we left Afghanistan tomorrow, lock stock and barrel…the ANA and ANP would completely evaporate as functioning institutions in much of the country, probably in a matter of days if not hours. They are still very much artificial constructs that we’ve imposed on the country, and wholly dependent on our technology for their survival so long as they continue to use the tactics we’ve taught them….

We’ve taught them to fight the way we do. They’re not as good at it as we are, of course, in part because of issues like illiteracy. We’ve suppressed any way of fighting we cannot support and participate in fully, because to do so could, frankly, end up with more dead Afghan soldiers due to friendly fire and deconfliction problems than dead enemy. And so here we are. What wouldn’t seem to be a profitable strategy right now, in that light, is accelerating the expansion of the ANA even further, which some are advocating.

Ann Jones wrote a great article detailing our mirror-imaging over at TomDispatch:

Their American trainers spoke of “upper body strength deficiency” and prescribed pushups because their [ANSF] trainees buckle under the backpacks filled with 50 pounds of equipment and ammo they are expected to carry. All this material must seem absurd to men whose fathers and brothers, wearing only the old cotton shirts and baggy pants of everyday life and carrying battered Russian Kalashnikov rifles, defeated the Red Army two decades ago. American trainers marvel that, freed from heavy equipment and uniforms, Afghan soldiers can run through the mountains all day — as the Taliban guerrillas in fact do with great effect — but the U.S. military is determined to train them for another style of war.

In other words, we’re training them to be like us, COIN manual guidelines be damned.

Conformity to the COIN manual should not be conflated with good policy, but when a commander justifies the investment of blood and resources because of the supposed absolute necessity of implementing a given strategy, his failure to conform to the guidelines of that strategy should be a warning that we wander in the wilderness. We’re being asked to invest heavily for the foreseeable future in a program that will not deliver a self-sufficient, effective ANSF. Why should we be expected to do so when the official rationale–counterinsurgency doctrine–warns us against taking this path?


2. Prioritize responsive and accountable governance. We must assist in improving governance at all levels through both formal and traditional mechanisms.

On which planet is the good general living? I’ve never seen a person whose allegedly been in charge of assassination squads play Pollyanna. His own document does a pretty good job illustrating how unrealistic his second pillar is:

The second threat, of a very different kind, is the crisis of popular confidence that springs from the weakness of GIRoA institutions, the unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and power-brokers, a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement and a longstanding lack of economic opportunity.

…There are no clear lines separating insurgent groups, criminal networds (including the narcotics networks), and corrupt GIRoA officials. Malign actors within GIRoA support insurgent groups directly, support criminal networks that are linked to insurgents, and support corruption that helps feed the insurgency.

These GoIRA qualities are bad enough, but the above doesn’t even touch on the potentially explosive political dynamic set up by Karzai’s massive and transparent attempt to steal the election, nor the vows of Abdullah followers to take to the streets “with Kalashnikovs” (you know, the one’s they’ve apparently been stockpiling for a while now) should Karzai declare victory. Afghanistan ranks 176th out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perception Index. How exactly does McChrystal, as someone outside of the Afghan government and without authority to excise corrupt cadres from the GoIRA, expect to adequately take this off the table as a strategic factor within the 12-month window he’s established in which major progress must be made?

I could go on and on about the internal contradictions of this document (for example, how does Stan the Man plan to “decentralize” and “Improve Unity of Effort and Command?”), but the simple fact is that you don’t have to go past pillars 1 and 2 to realize that this isn’t a credible strategy. It’s a wish list of desired pre-existing conditions and a proposed action plan whose success is predicated on those desired pre-existing conditions. That makes it even more distasteful that the military would attempt to use this junk “strategy” to bully the president into sending more troops. For example:

But Obama’s deliberative pace — he has held only one meeting of his top national security advisers to discuss McChrystal’s report so far — is a source of growing consternation within the military. “Either accept the assessment or correct it, or let’s have a discussion,” one Pentagon official said. “Will you read it and tell us what you think?” Within the military, this official said, “there is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration.”

Add to that anonymous posturing, the leak of a conveniently redacted and declassified version of McChrystal’s memo and Mullen’s remarks to Congress, and you’ve got the rough outline of an information op being directed at the American people with the purpose of forcing the President’s hand.

If the president was looking for a signal that the situation had progressed to a stage in which the military could not offer a credible plan to deal with it, this is it.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting

The insistence of a powerful group of policymakers and military commanders on the use of counterinsurgency strategy subverted U.S. humanitarian efforts in service of a corrupt system of violence, according to an op-ed from Feinstein International Center’s Andrew Wilder. The piece summarizes recent research conducted by him and his colleagues on the effect of aid spending in Afghanistan. Wilder concludes that no evidence exists that our “humanitarian spending” is endearing us to Afghan hearts and minds.

From the op-ed on [h/t Steve Hynd]:

Instead of winning hearts and minds, Afghan perceptions of aid and aid actors are overwhelmingly negative. And instead of contributing to stability, in many cases aid is contributing to conflict and instability. For example, we heard many reports of the Taliban being paid by donor-funded contractors to provide security (or not to create insecurity), especially for their road-building projects. In an ethnically and tribally divided society like Afghanistan, aid can also easily generate jealousy and ill will by inadvertently helping to consolidate the power of some tribes or factions at the expense of others – often pushing rival groups into the arms of the Taliban.

The most destabilizing effect of aid, however, is its role in fueling massive corruption, which in turn is eroding the legitimacy of the government. Our research suggests that we have failed to win Afghan hearts and minds not because we have spent too little money, but because we have spent too much too quickly, often in insecure environments with extremely limited implementation and oversight capacity.

Significantly, the main cause of insecurity identified by most Afghans we interviewed was not poverty, or a lack of reconstruction, or even the Taliban, but their highly corrupt and ineffective government

…[F]oreign aid should focus on promoting humanitarian and development objectives, where there is evidence of positive impact, rather than on promoting counterinsurgency objectives, where there is not.

In other words, we should help people for their own sake. Who would have thought?

From top to bottom, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan commits the fundamental sin of domination: the valuation of people as means instead of as ends. Counterinsurgency values the well-being of a population only insofar as that population supports our local ally, who in turn is only valuable insofar is (s)he supports our goals in the region. People do not have intrinsic value. Their relationship to the government or to the insurgency renders them an asset or a liability, and nothing more. COIN is not a strategy–it’s sociopathy. (The COIN manual uses a fantastic euphemism on page xxxix for its sociopathy: “Counterinsurgency favors peace over justice.” What they mean is that the well-being and/or grievance of a population suffering under the boot of our allied government does not matter to the counterinsurgent nearly as much as the stability of a government helping us get what we want.)  It should not surprise us that when people discover that they are a target of sociopathic manipulation posing as humanitarian aid, they get angry.

Afghan hearts and minds don’t need to change–ours do.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting

American Public: We want to go to Kabul. How do we get there, Mr. President?

President Obama: It’s 75 miles to Kabul.

Well, we now have President Obama’s benchmarks for Afghanistan, such as they are.  The most embarrassing thing about the document leaked by the administration earlier this week is the way it’s being treated by administration officials, exposing their ignorance about strategy. Said one official interviewed by McClatchy:

“The metrics are the strategy,” he said.

Please, please, please get this through your head, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous Senior Administration Official: evaluative instruments are not strategy. The President should appoint a special prosecutor to discover the source of this leaked quote. He should then remove them from the national security team and reassign them to elephant cage cleaning duty at the National Zoo, because the only thing for which they’re demonstrating talent is shoveling huge piles of crap. If the metrics comprise the “strategy,” we have no strategy.

Using metrics to respond to the question “what is our strategy in Afghanistan?” is like responding to a request for directions to Kabul with the distance to the destination. The information isn’t totally useless, but it tells you nothing about specific steps needed to get there. Should I take a car, bus, train or plane? Should I take the interstate or the back roads? Can I afford the cost of fuel or a ticket? Is the trip worth the cost? If, instead of answering these questions, a person simply suggested you drive around and just check the signs on the highway to see if you’re getting closer, you’d think they were nuts. Yet, that is exactly what the administration is asking us to do in Afghanistan. Again: Evaluative instruments measure the outcomes of a strategy; they are not themselves a strategy.

But, as stated before, these evaluative instruments are not totally useless. For example, if we consider the non-classified metrics, we get a pretty clear picture of just how much trouble we’re in:

Objective 2a. Assist efforts to enhance civilian control and stable constitutional government in Pakistan.

[These metrics include a whole boatload of measures for the political situation inside of Pakistan. Shorter version: under current U.S. policies, we’re screwed in Pakistan. Notably, metric #5 under this objective is “Pakistani public opinion of government performance.” How, exactly, will the nation perceived by Pakistanis as the largest threat to their country be of any assistance to the Pakistani government’s standing with the public? The best thing we could do in this regard is, apparently, to run, not walk, out of Pakistan.]

Objective 2b. Develop Pakistan’s counterinsurgency (COIN) capabilities; continue to support Pakistan’s efforts to defeat terrorist and insurgent groups.

[See prior parenthetical. One wonders whether the massive refugee crisis caused by Pakistani COIN operations in Swat or the grotesque murderous rampages undertaken by the Pakistani counterinsurgents even factored in to this objective.]

Objective 2c. Involve the international community more actively to forge an international consensus to stabilize Pakistan.

[Again, there’s one international community in particular that could cease and desist its activity in Pakistan and get us much closer to this objective. Hint: it ain’t Poland.]

Objective 3a. Defeat the extremist insurgency, secure the Afghan populace, and develop increasingly self-reliant Afghan security forces that can lead the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism fight with reduced U.S. assistance.

[Notable metrics under this objective include: “Level of insurgent-related violence” (Whoops.); “Percent of population living in districts/areas under insurgent control” (Darn it.); “Public perceptions of security” (whoops); and “Ability of the ANSF to assume lead security responsibility” (Ha ha.).]

Objective 3b. Promote a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan that serves the Afghan people and can eventually function, especially regarding internal security, with limited international support.

[Notably, metrics under this objective include “Afghan Government’s institutions at the national, provincial, and local level, including ability to hold credible elections in 2009 and 2010” (D’oh!); “Demonstrable action by the government against corruption, resulting in increased trust and confidence of the Afghan public” (Fail.); and “Public perception at the district level of the Afghan Government’s effectiveness and sustained ability to provide services.” (Whoops.)]

Objective 3c. Involve the international community more actively to forge an international consensus to stabilize Afghanistan.

[Notable metrics include: “Support from allies, international organizations, and other key regional countries in providing resources to Afghanistan” (Peace out, UK, Canada, and Italy); “Prospects for the Afghan Government and international community to fund the development, operations, and sustainment of the ANSF” (Sorry); and “Ability of NGOs to operate independently and freely” (Bzzzzt).]

The benchmarks document also represents an attempt to delay an accountability moment for the administration’s performance on Afghanistan until the end of the first quarter of 2010. From earlier in the document:

Process: By March 30, 2010 and on regular intervals thereafter, the interagency will draft an assessment of progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As a check and balance on the interagency, a separate assessment will also be produced by a Red Team, led by the National Intelligence Council.

This assessment process assiduously avoids an assessment of the administration’s actions until next March. Why? Because they screwed up, big time, by sending the newly deployed troops into Helmand rather than Kandahar. From TIME Magazine:

…last June, General Stanley McChrystal was pretty much presented with a fait accompli: the troops were arriving in Helmand. …Indeed, it would have taken months of planning to change course…The trouble was, the troops would have been better deployed in Helmand’s neighbor to the east…”Kandahar is the center of gravity in this insurgency,” says John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who helped write the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine…

Kandahar is the capital city of Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority…It is where the Taliban began. It has been run, in a staggeringly corrupt manner, by Hamid Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai — who, according to U.S. investigators, has extensive links to the opium trade. As the Karzai government has grown more unpopular, the situation in Kandahar has deteriorated…But the troops who should be securing Kandahar are fighting an elusive enemy in Helmand.

What can be done now? The military will want more troops to paper over its strategic mistake.

So please, folks, ignore the fact that we’ve already failed based on the last set of benchmarks we set for ourselves; ignore  senior advisers’ intellectual dishonesty about “fresh starts”; and please don’t evaluate us before we have time to sweep a massive strategic mistake under the rug. We’ll let you know 15 months into the presidency how it’s going.

A Better Set of Questions

  • What, if any, are the specific strategic developments which will force the core Taliban leadership to capitulate?
  • What are the specific steps needed to force these developments?
  • What are the consequences of these steps beyond their effect on the insurgency?
  • Do we have the resources or strategic freedom needed to take these steps?
  • Are these steps morally justifiable to the American people, the Afghan people, and the international community?
  • What are the opportunity costs for using these resources in this way? Is the overall national interest served by using these resources on this endeavor versus other priorities?
  • What are the specific factors needed for a government that is legitimate in the eyes of the Afghan people generally and the Pashtun communities specifically?
  • What are the specific political developments that could make continued military action on the part of the majority of the insurgents unattractive compared to participation in the civil processes of the government of Afghanistan?
  • Which of  these developments are acceptable to the United States compared with the risks and costs of continued conflict in Afghanistan?
  • What are the specific steps needed to cause these developments?
  • Are those steps possible within the political constraints of Afghan domestic politics?
  • Who has the power to take these steps in the Afghan political realm?
  • Can they be convinced to do so?
  • What are the specific developments that should signal to the United States (including strategic developments and developments in domestic and Afghan politics) that these strategies have failed and that the endeavor should be abandoned?
  • When should we make that assessment?
  • Who is the legitimate assessor?
  • How will pursuit of strategic and political objectives in line with the above affect domestic politics?
  • What are the political conditions needed within the United States for the current administration to maintain control of foreign policy?
  • Do these conditions exist, can they be sustained while pursuing a given policy, and if so, what is the administration’s plan to do so?
  • What are the prospects for that plan’s success?
  • What are the consequences to the overall national interest should the pursuit of this strategy lead to a weakening of Congressional leadership’s and the President’s control of the overall national agenda?
  • What level of political risk is the administration willing to accept in pursuit of their strategies? Congress?

The answers to these questions won’t take us to Kabul. They’ll take us home.