"…it represents a hard look at the challenges involved in implementing Obama's strategy for Afghanistan. The administration has narrowly defined its goal as defeating al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and denying them sanctuary, but that in turn requires a sweeping counterinsurgency campaign aimed at protecting the Afghan population, establishing good governance and rebuilding the economy." Washpost
George will has spoken and he is heard. There can never be enough friends on a battlefield.
My only problem with his thinking on this is that he believes that you can conduct effective counter-terrorism operations from offshore. No, you can not do that on the scale required in Afghanistan. Without a base area onshore you will never be able to obtain the people based intelligence you would need for targeting counter-terrorist operations, the distances will be too great for effective and frequent onshore operations against Al-Qa'ida, and the availability of aerial fire and evacuation support for such operations will be severely limited by the same long distances. In such a situation you would remain dependent on the same armed drones and strike aircraft with which we have been killing many non-combatants. As I have written earlier, the conduct of effective counter-terrorism would require a sizable lodgement or redoubt in the Kabul/Bagram area. Other than that…
That is a minor matter compared to the error outlined in red and blue above concerning the nature of McChrystal's report. Assuming that the Post has gotten this right, it must be said that the logic of thinking that it follows from the goal of preventing Al-Qa'ida's use of Afghanistan as a base that one must rebuild and create a new Afghanistan in a massive and probably unending COIN campaign is totally flawed.
The president's announced goals are essentially negative, "defeating al-Qa'ida and…"
The goals of COIN are essentially positive, i.e., "build a better Afghanistan."
How did this happen? How did McChrystal and his "brain trust" get this so wrong? Ah, it is COIN's "Siren Song" with its soothing aura of progressive benevolence and pseudo-intellectual philosophy.
Once again, the costs inherent in COIN are not worth paying if one does not own the place being fought over.
The president should reject the assumptions underlying the McChrystal Report. Clemenceau was right. Generals should not be allowed to set the agenda for war. pl
I fully agree with Col. Lang on the flaw in the McChrystal plan, and the Wills variation. The question I have is: Where does Gen. Jones stand on this? As President Obama’s National Security Advisor, he is clearly going to have a serious voice. Where does SecDef Gates stand? Judging from his VWF speech a few weeks back, the President is plunging ahead, claiming ownership of the Afghan war, and pushing the idea that it is a war of necessity, not a war of choice. He even invoked 9/11 and asserted that Al Qaeda is still out there plotting another 9/11 attack as we speak.
This is all worrisome, but I hope in all of this that the Gates/Jones group of older hands may see through the flaws in where this is headed. I would very much like to hear from Col. Lang and others in this dialogue re. what alternatives there are to the endless COIN misadventure. Is there a more narrowly defined “negative” military mission, denying Taliban and Al Qaeda a base from which to strike v. USA and allies? What would that take?
Amen. The maxim about wars being too serious business for generals seems to apply doubly to cases like Afghanistan where where what military “victory” means is so hard to nail down cleanly.
I agree, the only thing that an off shore bombing campaign does is keep the Natives fighting mad. But an on shore operations center has the same problem that LBJ faced in the Central Highlands. If the locals can’t protect the air base, then US troops have to pull guard duty. Limiting US troops to the perimeter barbed wire is pointless, so they start patrolling out in Indian Territory. Then, you are back to where we are now in Afghanistan.
The old figures I found for Afghanistan indicates a coalition force of around 30,000 US troops out of a total of 60,000. George Will’s figure of 110,000 is almost a doubling of the force. If the increase is all US soldiers then all the regiments pulled back into their bases in Iraq are going to shortly take the big bird to Afghanistan. The Kagan Family begets another Surge.
On the other hand, maybe they are Afghans but Kabul needs five to ten times as many to control the country side. Who’s paying for it? What if the Afghan soldiers and police really take their orders from their local tribal leaders (The Taliban)? It all seems rather futile when political settlement and withdrawal of foreigners would end it all.
Effective problem solving often requires turning the problem upside down and viewing it from a different angle. Often this leads to a novel and more effective solution. It’s called a paradigm sift.
Our Afghan problem–and our Pakistan problem, for that matter–is that both countries can become–again–a planning and operation base for activities and people intent on doing harm to Americans. Our current solution is to use our armed forces to fix their head space–or to break their heads if they resist fixing–almost one head at a time. This approach will cost us dearly in blood and gold over a very extended time. And success is not guaranteed.
There is a better way. Bring our armed forces home, starting now, as George Will suggests. Leave a note on the desks of President Karzai and President Zadari, cc’d to local warlords saying “Hasta la vista baby, keep in touch, and best of luck with fixing your country. If you need help other than militarily, give us a call. BTW, if someone or some group from your neck of the woods messes with our homeland like on 9/11, we’ll be back, with a vengeance, and undo all the fixing you’ve done to that point and then some. To quote a famous American movie line: ‘Go ahead; make my day.’”
Take some or all of the money we’re spending over there to improve our awareness and defenses so that no one can sucker punch us again like we were on 9/11.
The reality is, these guys in AfPak are piss ants and should be treated as such: step on ‘em when they decide to be ankle biters
Thanks once more for your insightful commentary (and not just this one)…
I wonder, however, whether a picture of Pierre Mendez-France would have been more appropriate because he inherited the strategic errors that had led to Diem Bien Phu and then found his hands politically tied in Algeria after the insurrection began independently of his management of the withdrawal from Indochina that had been the force behind his election in the first place.
I also wonder whether George Clemenceau could really blame his generals so unambiguously because I seem to remember that the civic scions of French nationalism, not to mention ordinary people, were as supportive of La Revanche as any man in uniform (and though I still wonder what might have transpired if Jaures had not been struck down, I doubt one person or idea could have stopped “La Der des Ders” (sarcasm intended) because it was probably inevitable (imho)…).
It’s not surprising or unreasonable, however, to put Clemenceau and Mendez-France together in the same tragic frame because they were both intelligent and thoughtful individuals who called themselves “Radicals” (without any irony intended) who returned to leadership precisely because of the stuporous crises already well at work…
… and to what degree is President Obama in the same predicament?
Whatever the personality issues, I have a question that has been on my mind for many weeks (especially since you responded to my query so concisely on “your” strategy for Afghanistan): why do you think that 20,000 US troops in a garrisoned Kabul/Bagram city-state would be any more effective than those who took similar stances in Indochina in the 50’s, in South Vietnam in the 60’s, or in Iraq in the past seven years? I mean this seriously because I think your vision is the best option available to the current President (even if he currently seems to have rejected it); in that regard, what is different or new about the Afghanistan theater? Are advances in logistics simply that much better that a landlocked garrison of highly trained forces could endure indefinitely? Is there something different about the “metropolitan” Afghan population that makes Kabul more “inviting” than Saigon or Baghdad?
PS: Thanks for sharing your perspectives concerning Teddy Kennedy… I do not personally identify with all of it, but I can certainly acknowledge and appreciate your kind and yet honest sentiments…
Your various historical analogies are wrong.
Indochina 1950s? What? The French built the De Lattre Line behind which they effectively defended the population in the Red River Delta and then they waged offensive war ourtside that perimeter. That’s what got them in the end. Dien Bien Phu was too far away from the De Lattre Line.They had a lot more than 20,000 men (between the French Union Forces with 190,000 and those of the State of Vietnam with 150,000 they had 340,000 men) and were engaged in a combination of counter-force operations against the Viet Minh divisions and counter-insurgency against the guerillas around the “oil spots” that they held. This is a close analog of what we are doing in Afghanistan. We learned the technique from them.
Vietnam – 1960s? At the height of the war we had over 500,000 men in South Vietnam and the South Vietnamese had over 300,000. We, like the French were doing a combination of COIN and major unit counter-force operations.
Iraq? The various little bands of insurgents were attacking the Iraqi state’s infrastructure. They stayed away from us except for harassing attacks by fire, mortars, rockets, etc., ineffective ambushes against supply lines all the way from Kuwait and roadside bombs. Mothers cry over the result of such attacks but they are ineffective unless the occupiers simply give up, which we did not.
You have to remember that the communist Vietnamese had a real army with major re-supply from China and the USSR. Nothing like that exists in Iraq, nor will there be anything like that in Afghanistan.
The French, and we in Indochina were never in any danger of losing control of major population centers. That is going to be even more true in Afghanistan.
Have you ever read anything about all this? Both we and the French were trying to defend the whole territory and population of Indochina. Something similar was true in Iraq once we were allowed to understand that the war was a set of insurgencies.
I am not advocating defending a square inch of Afghanista or one person. Our interest there lies in disrupting and destroying our enemies, not in benefiting the Afghans.
The Kabul-Bagram area can easily be held indefinetely with 20,000 soldiers with appropriate air and artillery support. If the other side would want to try their hand at taking something there, let them try. That way you don’t have to look for them.
Another 5,000 or so SOF strike troops would be based in the redoubt. pl
The notion of American exceptionalism rears its ugly head again, as does the curious lack of knowledge of any history that is not our own.
Afghanistan broke Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union.
I am curious why otherwise intelligent people think that the result will be different this time.
It represents a break with reality to believe we can accomplish what empires before us failed to do. Arguably it was the turning point of the Soviet empire – and they were next door. Perhaps we are exceptional. More likely we are not. It will be interesting to see how China handles it’s turn in the Sun. Sad.
Are our supply lines into Afghanistan safe and secure? There have been alot of attacks on supply convoys. I believe one recently on a NATO convoy. Just curious because that far away, it could pose a real dilemma.
Following up on Vietnam Vet’s comments re the Central Highlands, we had the Korean Tiger Division outside the wire. Is there an equivalent?
We posessed such overwhelming fire support resources in VN that this neve came up except in the case of some unlucky smal; unit for whom proper planning had nt been done.
If you are comparing this to the French at DBP there is not much of a comparison. DPH was at the extreme range of their air force and naval aircraft, Fighter bombers flying off the Arromanches in the Gulf of Tonkin had something like five miniutes over the valley of DBP.
We would never be in a position like that.
I chose a low number to make the possibility of air resupply feasible if necessary. I would anticipate that log convoys would still be possible most of the time using contractors and a liberal distribution of bribes to the tribes. pl
Eh, nothing worse than an echo chamber and group think so I’ll volunteer to be the dissenting voice today.
If this a redux of the great game as some have stipulated, who are we playing against and what are the empire stakes?
As long as we are quoting bad lines from bad movies, I would suggest a better line would be Psycho/Francis Soyer from “Stripes” : “Also, I don’t like nobody touching me. Now, any of you h***s touch me, and I’ll kill you.” So if we leave said note with said people, who are we going to bomb? Sovereign nations? Why? Because of an imperial by us? The Taliban? Which part of the Taliban? How do we deal with the second and third order effects of killing the families of the Taliban. Al Qaeda chose the Taliban and their Pashto-wali code for good reason.
Will spending the funds we are committing to AFPAK for better situational awarness keep us safer? Doubt it. Various parts of the US gvt knew about the coming of 9-11. Where we failed was to get the right agencies to talk to each other.
I would argue that after the Muj beat the Soviets, Afghanistan became an ungoverned space and if we leave, it will become so again. We assume that leaving Afghanistan will make US safer. OK, for arguments sake, lets agree with that. Now, what if a NATO ally becomes a victim of an Al Qaeda attack that originates in Afghanistan and article 5 is invoked by the aggrieved country. Do we simply shrug our shoulders and tell em “sorry pal, your on your own?” I would hope not.
In the coming months, we’ll have to make some hard choices about AFPAK and the facts are sobering to say the least about any success we would hope to garner in that area. As my mentor for the past year was fond of saying, sometimes frozen conflicts are best left frozen. Once you thaw them out, they start to stink. I think that is the best we can hope for, is to refreeze Afghanistan and keep it that way.
Colonel Lang and George Will put things into focus.
If the mission is limited to exterminating mangy AQ types roving around the place, this would seem a reasonable objective. But we do not need full blown COIN. Rather we would DOWNSIZE our presence — restricting to the Kabul/Valley area — and cloak it from the public which tends not to like outsiders and foreign “invaders” which we appear to be. Then operate “with guile” where needed to include bounties for mangy, but dead, AQ types.
The pro-COIN lobby within the military industrial complex naturally wants a generation of commitment and many billions of taxpayers’ dollars down the rathole.
This is an industry for the large private companies outsourcing services and handling “training” for locals and all the rest. There are MANY contractors on the gravy train, and there are BILLIONS to spend in various programs to hire them. And for think tanks, and centers at major universities seeking lucre from an endless conflict requiring endless consulting and papers and studies and seminars and conferences and etc.
As an exercise, tabulate the companies that are currently contracting services to USG — DOD, Justice, State and whomever. Then take a look at the officers and directors of these companies and identify the “retired” generals and admirals holding these slots. Then, just hypothetically speaking of course, check for links to say Petreaus or his links and associations to some of them.
1. Of interest per McChrystal:
“Completed yearlong fellowships at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1998 and in 2000 at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.”…
Appropriate ticket punches for a servant of the imperial faction one might argue.
2. Anent the Harvard Kennedy School note the Carr center and its AFPak programs…and the relationship of some of the professors to the White House, DOD, and etc. Look carefully. http://www.hks.harvard.edu/cchrp/
Since I am opposed to withdrawal from the contry I guess we agree. pl
Thanks for the reply, but I’m still worried. We need Russia or Iran for overland convoys, in my small,small opinion. No experience in the military, but appreciate your experience. Thank you.
George Will never fails. He gets in a swipe at the New Deal and even brings up Belgian Endive. He’s wrong with both the strategy and the sacrifice, which is not of valor squandered, but lives. But being a good ole chicken hawk he sacrifices nothing but the lives of our neighbors’ sons. “Allen and others of America’s finest are also in Washington’s hands.” This war didn’t start with Obama. Where has George Will been for the past eight years? I don’t think he’s reading your blog, or if he has he’s certainly not reflected upon it.
Thank you for focusing on the key issue “Our interest there lies in disrupting and destroying our enemies, not in benefiting the Afghans.” I hope that Obama knows this and that he reminds McChrystal and others just who commands the armed forces.
For the past couple of decades it’s been obvious that one of the few social institutions in the USofA that kinda works has been the military. Granted, it worked because it’s basically a socialist environment, and one that can kick out its more egregious problems, too.
Unfortunately its track record at secondary activities such as waging war in a judicious and cost effective manner is less sterling.
While there’s still a lot of cracker support for the military per se, its based as much upon the welfare component as a vague idea that somewhere, out there, John Wayne is taking names.
This mentality, similar to the one in Viet Nam, will encourage the stars to push for more troops and the greater strategies that justify them, and it will encourage American families to continue to throw kids into the hopper until the systems — military, economic, political — finally fall of their own inconsistent complexity.
Sad when you think about it. I advise avoiding such activities, they’re about as fruitful as hiring Pashtun drivers in Karachi to haul your Charmin and Pepto Bismol up thru the Kyber and into the waiting arms of their cousins (hi, Jackie!!).
It’s all politics. Every single bit of it. Obama is catering to a constituency that he has defined who he believes will get him re-elected. He is about as interested in anything to do with Afghanistan as he is in why you should wear a bicycle helmet. He just knows that talking tough on Afghanistan and setting a hideously bad example by not wearing a helmet will get him re-elected.
Well, not by me.
Clemenceau, Pierre Mendes-France, and William Pfaff invokes DeGaulle:
The Afghans have already experienced Taliban rule, from 1996 until
the U.S. invasion in 2001. A great many of them did not like it. If
they don’t want the Taliban, with their obscurantism, oppression of
women, and brutal interpretations of Islamic law, to come back again
and install their despotic rule, let the Afghan people defend
themselves. The U.S./NATO intervention simply gets in the way. As a
foreigners’ invasion, it is objectively a source of support for the
Instead of reading ecology and novels on his vacation, the
president should read Charles DeGaulle. He ended the dreadful
insurrection in Algeria that brought him back to power in France in
1958. And Algeria was legally a part of France itself, possessing
energy resources that could have made France energy self-sufficient,
and it had a large colonial population that wanted Algeria forever
So did a part of the French army. A conspiracy of officers tried
to assassinate DeGaulle and overthrow his government. This wasn’t a
puerile problem of armed bullies shouting abuse at congressmen.
DeGaulle ordered peace negotiations, stopped the war, brought the
colonists and the army home, and turned to rebuilding France after
its generations of crisis.
Please, President Obama: take a lesson in success. Don’t kill tens,
or hundreds, of thousands more people in still another search for a
useless American victory that ends in defeat, and ruins your presidency.
That’s a bit about the issue of whether “the costs inherent in COIN are not worth paying if one does not own the place being fought over.”
I agree that securing bases around Kabul, Kandahar, and such other places we need to disrupt threats to the rest of the world is the best that can be done there. Afghanistan is not going to be a coherent democratic state.
1. AfPak Contractor performance:
“Guards hired by the State Department to protect diplomats and staff at the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan live and work in a “Lord of the Flies” environment in which they’re subjected to hazing and other inappropriate behavior by supervisors, a government oversight group charged Tuesday.”
2. Neocons etal go after George Will:
“Will’s peers on the right–where he has always commanded more of an elite than a grassroots following–are the quickest to respond, with many acknowledging that the columnist’s defection will be used to galvanize more calls for a pull-out. Will’s throwing of the gauntlet is already being drowned in denunciations.”
3. But the “left” also has its pro COIN advocates:
“… the same factor that allowed Obama the political breathing room for escalation — the tendency on the left to view Afghanistan as the Good War, a war of necessity in contrast to former President Bush’s war of choice in Iraq.”
So “right” imperialists and “left” imperialists join over the COIN approach to the Afghan War….
Your explication is both appreciated and reasonable; in fact, that is why I asked the question! I did read about these matters many years ago but have always been far more interested by the political conditions and actions that lead to the denouement of such conflicts versus the actual operational military strategy and tactics on the ground…
I also agree that each of the contexts in question is unique, but the central questions remain unanswered: is the larger cultural environment in which we would be operating more or less amenable to the long term presence of a “foreign body” even if that entity is relatively benign with regard to local practices… and is it more or less reasonable to expect the American people to durably endorse – or at least not reject – the concrete evidence of local practices that run counter to our own sensibilities and practices?
I don’t altogether understand your response. You have to understand both aspects of war if you are to comprehend the “animal.”
“Local practises” are a big subject. Sounds like the “mission civilzatrice.” Your question implies an inherent belief that people are destined to be like us. pl
Okay PL accepting your premise that the mission however defined by you is a proper one for the US in AF-PAK! Admittedly it may not look much like ours (US) but is there some logistics system that the Taliban have to resupply weapons and ammunition? Is it possible to attack that? Is the Taliban basic strategy MAOIST? Meaning plan in advance but alway retreat in the face of superior numbers and fire power? I see a lot about the strategy, COIN and otherwise but feel that some sense of tactical doctrine would be of help?
What is the role of Iran in this? It seems to me that they must be cooperating with us in some way.
My math shows that to sustain the kind of military operations that we have in Afganistan now takes about 100 shipping containers a day. Bringing in that much by air is not possible on a sustained basis and the Pakistan-Khyber Pass is not easy to defend. Are we currently supplying NATO troops thru Iran??
First, I’m not entirely in agreement that one can or should describe the origins of war in the same terms as its execution, though I fully agree that the two are intimately related. On the other hand, maybe my “mistake” is grounded in my personal experiences many years ago during my short professional career in the realm of defense policy… because I was, for a short time, learning the ropes of M.A.D. and other “unthinkable” scenarios that did not lend themselves to concrete operational analysis except “in theory”…
… and it was perhaps the very fact that I could not find a coherent and concrete frame in which to view the two aspects together that I finally decided that I could not continue down that road.
On the second point, I certainly meant to agree with your suggestion that a very large dose of tolerance of “local practices” (if not abject indifference to) was necessary (though perhaps was not sufficient) in these circumstances… but I still wanted to suggest that Western politicians, journalists, and commentators have become too quick to exploit these “unpleasant” situations as fodder for the easier critique of foreign policy and that the citizenry has often been too quick to follow along to the detriment of sustainability.
I do believe, and think you would agree, that every civilization sees itself as the universal standard by which human behavior should be gauged… but I would also agree that Western-originated secular humanism (of which I am an adept, whether I like it or not) has ironically been far more prone to corrective action based on high-mindedness when compared with other systems such as Confucianism or Islam.
Perhaps that is the price of waving Tolerance and Equality so prominently as the flags of Liberalism: an intolerance for alternative world views is the consequence.
Unless pentagon install the most brilliant political operator of the century in afghanistan by end of this week. That place is about to turn fratricide. It’s about to turn into shooting gallery. (my advice act decisively. take out all bad operators on top. now. declare emergency, then instal competent player. Or afghanistan will turn into the biggest drug cartel operation and war zone known to history. 2 weeks from now, there will be nothing in kabul to save, within 2 months afghanistan will be nothing but dust and refugee, then winter sets in.)
I would also note that the Obama-McChrystal strategy appears detached from regional considerations and any effective regional US diplomacy.
Russia, India, Iran, and China are directly affected by the Afghanistan situation, for example. Where is the discussion of diplomatic arrangements for a regional security approach to the Afghan situation?
The issue is framed as merely a US(NATO)-Afghan-Pak issue which it is not.
Pl! Assuming you are correct and the US should stay in for the long haul what do we now know about Taliban sources of supply for weapons, ammunition and leadership? Trying to learn about an area that I know virtually nothing about! Specifically integration of INTEl into ops, large scale or small scale! He was not perfect in analysis but wish a S.L.A. Marshall look alike would carefully review and post-mortem some of the ops from survivor interviews to documentation. Or would the USA now be classifying such analysis? What are they really teaching after the first decade (almost)at Leavenworth and the various War Colleges?
Afghanistan broke Alexander the Great
Few in NATO Support Call For Additional Forces in Afghanistan. Pew Research Center. Global Attitudes.
this is a very important issue for the USA -on par with Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” – and I do not agree with one previous comment that this discussion is “group think” and “echo-chamber”. It happens to be that the issue can only be seen in ‘binary’ fashion – either the USA must pull out of Aghanistan or it must get in get in deeper. Tertium non datur. And the only reasonable solution to preserve the USA from further military and financial catastrophy is to take the humiliation now and get out with some honor, than be defeated and ruined later.
To cite one of my role models, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” Well, the Taliban has pretty free access to the lower end of the Paki munitions industry and I’m sure drug lords are never short of weapons. With enough $$, airdrops aren’t out of the question. More down home, there are the cottage industries in Landi Kotal & Dara Adamhel up in the NWFP. Those folks can turn out just about anything you ask for (let’s see, I know I’ve got that coach gun I had customed around here somewhere….). Quality ain’t all that good, a Russki & Chinese AK aren’t that far apart, but a homegrown from NWFP … well, I’m just glad I didn’t have to test fire one. They’re loose, and goosey, but they get the job done, likewise the suicide vests & bike bombs.
As to how loving & giving they are to sensitive folks who just drop in for a year or two. Someone passing through gets melmastia, hospitality that’s fairly open handed. If you’re not of the tribe and need help, you can become hamsaya or get nanawateh (“protected” or be granted “asylum”) from the folk, but if you step from the path, well, they ain’t like Tom Wolfe’s NYC liberals.
Re:”it will be interesting to see how China handles it’s turn in the Sun.”
Methinks the chinese understand the rise & fall of nations almost too well. The only thing to look out for is having future leaders within their party (parties?) tempted by the (foolhardy) lures of imperial expansion in the footsteps of Rome or Britain. & to trumpet their intolerance & supposed cultural superiority like some American leaders do.
has anyone considered buying off the afghan teleban a’ la al-suads and egyptians?