The Pentagon wants you to ignore some inconvenient facts about the failure of the escalation strategy in Afghanistan.
The latest Petraeus/Gates media tour is under way in preparation for the general’s testimony to Congress next week, and they’re trotting out the same, tired spin they’ve been using since McChrystal was replaced in disgrace last year. Despite the most violent year of the war so far, despite the highest civilian and military toll of the war so far, and despite the continued growth of the insurgency, they want you to believe that we’re “making progress.” While they spend this week fudging and shading and spinning, we’ll waste another $2 billion on this brutal, futile war, and we won’t be any closer to “victory” than we are today.
Let me make a couple of predictions about Petraeus’ testimony based on experience. He will attempt to narrow the conversation to a few showcase districts in Afghanistan, use a lot of aspirational language (“What we’re attempting to do,” instead of, “What we’ve done“) and assure the hand-wringers among the congressional hawks that he’ll be happy to suggest to the president that they stay longer in Afghanistan if that’s what he thinks is best. Most importantly, he will try to keep the conversation as far away from a high-level strategic assessment based on his own counterinsurgency doctrine as possible, because if Congress bothers to check his assertions of “progress” against what he wrote in the counterinsurgency manual, he’s in for a world of hurt.
Here’s what Petraeus’ own U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual says about the main goal of a COIN campaign:
“I-113. The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.”
Not by any stretch of the imagination is the counterinsurgency campaign under Petraeus’ direction serving what his own field manual says is the primary goal of his campaign. If we were looking for a legitimate government in Afghanistan, it’s crystal clear that we backed the wrong horse. Hamid Karzai and his family are neck-deep in any number of corruption scandals, the most glaring of which involves the largest private bank in Afghanistan and a sweeping control fraud scheme that has already resulted in unrest across the country. (That scandal, by the way, is likely to result in a U.S.-taxpayer-funded bank bailout for Kabulbank, according to white-collar crime expert Bill Black.) The Karzai administration is an embarrassment of illegitimacy and cronyism, and the local tentacles of the Kabul cartel are as likely to inspire people to join the insurgency as they are to win over popular support.
Even if the Karzai regime where a glimmering example of the rule of law, the military campaign under Petraeus would be utterly failing to achieve what counterinsurgency doctrine holds up as the primary way in which a legitimate government wins over support from the people: securing the population. From the COIN manual:
“5-68. Progress in building support for the HN [“host nation”] government requires protecting the local populace. People who do not believe they are secure from insurgent intimidation, coercion, and reprisals will not risk overtly supporting COIN efforts.”
The United Nations reports that 2010 was the deadliest year of the war for civilians of the decade-long war, and targeted killings of Kabul government officials are at an all-time high. Petraeus often seeks to deflect this point by citing insurgent responsibility for the vast majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but that is largely beside the point. As his own field manual makes clear, reducing the number of civilians killed by your forces is insufficient according to COIN doctrine. If you can’t protect the population (or the officials within the host nation government!) from insurgent violence and intimidation, you can’t win a counterinsurgency.
Petraeus and Gates like to talk around this blatant break in his own strategic doctrine by narrowing the conversation to what they call “security bubbles.” In his recent remarks following his trip to Afghanistan, Gates spoke of “linking zones of security in Helmand to Kandahar.” But those two provinces have seen huge spikes in violence over the course of the past year, with attacks initiated by insurgents up 124 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Today’s New York Times explains one of the main reasons for these jumps in violence as U.S. troops arrive in new areas:
“[G]enerals have designated scores of rural areas ‘key terrain districts.’ The soldiers are creating, at cost of money and blood, pockets of security.
“But when Americans arrive in a new area, attacks and improvised bombs typically follow — making roads and trails more dangerous for the civilians whom, under current Pentagon counterinsurgency doctrine, the soldiers have arrived to protect.”
The military escalations in Afghanistan have failed their key purpose under counterinsurgency doctrine, which is to secure Afghans from insurgent violence and intimidation.
While the U.S. government is failing to achieve its military objectives in Afghanistan, it’s also failing to make good on the other components of counterinsurgency strategy, especially the civilian/political component. Here’s what The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual says on p. xxix, emphasis mine:
“Nonmilitary Capacity Is the Exit Strategy
“The [counterinsurgency] manual highlights military dependence not simply upon civilian political direction at all levels of operation, but also upon civilian capabilities in the field. ...[T]he primacy of the political requires significant and ongoing civilian involvement at virtually every level of operations.”
To meet this prerequisite for a successful counterinsurgency strategy, the administration promised a “civilian surge” to accompany the military escalation. But the March 8, 2011 edition of The Washington Post shows that the civilian surge has so far been a flop that’s alienating the local population:
“Efforts to improve local government in critical Afghan districts have fallen far behind schedule…according to U.S. and Afghan officials familiar with the program.
“It is now expected to take four more years to assess the needs of more than 80 ‘key terrain’ districts where the bulk of the population lives, based on figures from Afghan officials who said that escalating violence has made it difficult to recruit civil servants to work in the field.
“…Of the 1,100 U.S. civilian officials in Afghanistan, two-thirds are stationed in Kabul, according to the State Department.
“‘At best, our Kabul-based experts simply reinforce the sense of big government coming from Kabul that ultimately alienates populations and leaders in the provinces,’ a former U.S. official said.”
As with the military side of the equation, the civilian side of the strategy is so badly broken that it’s actually pushing us further away from the administration’s stated goals in Afghanistan.
The costs of this pile of failure are huge. It costs us $1 million per troop, per year to maintain our occupation of Afghanistan. That’s $2 billion every week. Politicians at the federal level are contemplating ugly cuts to social safety nets, while politicians at the state level are already shredding programs that protect people suffering in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In this context, the admonitions from the White House and the Pentagon to be patient while this misbegotten strategy limps along the progress-road-to-nowhere seem perverse. The American people have been patient for roughly a decade now, but that patience has run out.
Petraeus and Gates want to you to ignore the ugly truths of the Afghanistan War: it’s not making us safer, and it’s not worth the costs. The escalation strategy isn’t working. It’s not going to work. Enough is enough. End it now.