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Another attempt to justify our Af-Pak war, and show the path to victory

31 August 2009

This morning’s recommended reading:  “How to Lose in Afghanistan“, Anthony H. Cordesman (Center for Strategic and International Studies), op-ed in the Washington Post, 31 August 2009.

Nothing illustrates the essential irrationality of our Af-pak war better than the illogic of the war’s advocates.  They must exist in a self-referential bubble to believe this nonsense.  {This post was expaned on 31 August}

I was going to write about this latest example, but others have done so  faster and better: 

  1. Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch – The Cordesman Version“, Michael Cohen (New America Foundation), Democracy Arsenal, 31 August 2009
  2. Defining ‘Victory’ in Afghanistan“, Matthew Yglesias, ThinkProgress, 31 August 2009
  3. And Still No Definition of What ‘Winning’ Means“, Bernard Finel (American Security Project), 31 August 2009

Excerpts

Cohen’s rebuttal is brilliant and complex. I recommend reading it in full. It’s brillant and brief, so I will quote it in full below. Yglesias has a few pithy observations, which appear in the following excerpt.

(2)  Defining ‘Victory’ in Afghanistan“, Matthew Yglesias, ThinkProgress, 31 August 2009 — Excerpt:

Another note I would offer on the Cordesman piece is that he defines the problems we need to confront in the region as including not only the Taliban, but also the government of Afghanistan … and the government of Pakistan … This of course raises the question of on whose behalf this fighting is happening? The stability of Pakistan is often offered as the reason we need to be fighting the Taliban, but if it’s folly to be treating Pakistan as an ally then how much sense does this make? And if Karzai is part of the problem, too, then who’s side are we on?

Last but by no means least, it seems ridiculous to premise strategy on the idea that we need to somehow get Pakistan to stop trying to manipulate Afghan Pashtuns to Pakistan’s advantage. Are they supposed to manipulate them to Pakistan’s disadvantage? Is Pakistan supposed to become more indifferent to events in an adjacent country than the United States is? As long as Pakistan is stronger than Afghanistan — and it’s much, much stronger—then of course it will try to manipulate the situation there to its advantage.

(3)  And Still No Definition of What ‘Winning’ Means“, Bernard Finel (American Security Project), 31 August 2009 — Text in full:

I am really, really trying to see the best in the Afghan war advocates. But I just don’t know what to do with a op-ed like this:  “A Chance to Avoid Defeat in Afghanistan“, Anthony H. Cordesman, Washington Post. I feel like all of these people — Biddle, Cordesman, Holbrooke, Ricks — whose work I have admired over the years have just lost their way.

I don’t know if it comes from the heady rush of being close to power and wanting to stay there — how many people with good reputations embraced lunacy during the Bush years as well? Or whether they are so closed off from critical assessments that they are stuck in some sort of groupthink loop. Or whether they just think the public would be too dumb to understand the strategic logic of their arguments, so they keep dumbing it down.

Cordesman’s solution to Afghanistan is: throw resources at the problem, eliminate civilian oversight of strategy in the country, and a grand hand wave, “build the provincial, district and local government capabilities.”

To what end? Apparently either the strategic goals are so obvious or Cordesman so doubts our ability to understand them that he does not bother to explain.

So, we’re left with three possible explanations for this sort of essay — strategic incoherence, unbridled arrogance, or inscrutable ulterior motives.

Afterword

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Oblat permalink
    31 August 2009 6:18 pm

    “I did not see any simple paths to victory ”

    Actually he is unable to see any paths to victory.

    I’m sure that a good deal of the US military actually believes that a pashtun Switzerland can be built in Afghanistan where there will be peaceful law abiding citizens and free chocolate for all.

    But the senior leadership must know that it’s rubbish. The plan obviously is Vietnamisation – build up the afghan government forces to a point where they could hold the fort for long enough for US forces to escape without losing face.

    It’s basically immoral something that is completely lost on the military, you end up killing thousands and even millions of people just to maintain the illusion of military superiority. And it’s not even deterrence, everyone else can see what a sham the illusion is, it’s killing simply so that Americans can believe it.

    Like

  2. Mikyo permalink
    31 August 2009 7:41 pm

    From Gladiator (2000 film)”

    Comodus: My Fathers war against the Barbarians, He said it himself, that it achieved nothing. But the people loved him.
    Lucila: People always love victories
    Comodus: Why? They didn’t see the battles. What do they care about Germania?
    Lucila: They care about the Greatness of Rome.
    Comodus: The Greatness of Rome, and what is that?
    Lucila: It’s an Idea, ……the Greatness.. The Greatness is a vision.

    Maybe the victory they want is not a military or political or strategic one. Maybe the victory they want is something emotional, or symbolic. An idea, a vision, a FEELING.

    I wonder what would make Cordesman feel like a winner?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This is another version of my guess that our wars are at some level atavistic throwbacks. As Martin van Creveld showed in “Culture of War”, we love war.

    Like

  3. anna nicholas permalink
    31 August 2009 8:40 pm

    Hypothesis : Our rulers dont give a t*** about Afghan . Or Iraq . What they do care about , is having large numbers of fighting men , each side of Iran .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I think that is unlikely. The numbers don’t make sense for any substantial (i.e., beyond covert raids by special ops) US land ops in Iran.

    Like

  4. Xiaoding permalink
    1 September 2009 2:29 am

    “What they do care about , is having large numbers of fighting men , each side of Iran .”

    That would be important, if this was WWII. But, this is now. Rather than troops, we have satellites, missiles that really work, and hit a certain spot really hard. So, use the locals for manpower, our job is to supply the missiles, and the coordinates that the missiles need.

    Information, that’s the new warfare! Unfortunetly, we need leadership that realizes that, as well. The tech is a leading indicator.

    Like

  5. Xiaoding permalink
    1 September 2009 2:44 am

    “But the senior leadership must know that it’s rubbish. The plan obviously is Vietnamisation – build up the afghan government forces to a point where they could hold the fort for long enough for US forces to escape without losing face.

    It’s basically immoral something that is completely lost on the military, you end up killing thousands and even millions of people just to maintain the illusion of military superiority. And it’s not even deterrence, everyone else can see what a sham the illusion is, it’s killing simply so that Americans can believe it. ”

    Well, there’s a lot to work with here. I get the idea, from the tone of your comment, that you seem to think we lost the Vietnam war. But, consider another possibility, that we did not lose, but, rather WON, the Vietnam war.

    In this case, Vietnam was a sacrifice. The true purpose of the war, was to contain revolutionary communist China. Once the war was over, China was contained, due to all the money and materials being moved into the region. Vietnam was sacrificed, in order to assuage China, that we were not interested in a direct conflict with them.

    I would agree with your point concerning immorality, but, we live in a world in which small countries get used by big countries, despite the moral aspects. So, if we are indeed, following another Vietnam strategy, the question to ask is, is Afghanistan another sacrifice, and if so, what for?

    I would posit, that this time, the Chinese are involved again.

    We did our job, got the Taliban out, etc. We are waiting for China to step in, and hold the country. We can’t do that, it would require too much bloodshed…but Chinese forces are not so constrained. Look for 150,000 or so Chinese troops to step in to help. They get the oil, we get the out.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Do you have any evidence for this (any of this), or is it just wild speculation? I vote for the latter.

    Like

  6. Xiaoding permalink
    1 September 2009 2:51 am

    Evidence? You must be kidding! :)

    Like

  7. 1 September 2009 3:11 am

    Update: this post has been expaned, with analysis of others added.

    Like

  8. 1 September 2009 5:27 am

    We keep talking about Af-Pak (the Afghanistan – Pakistan connection.) Looming is Af-Chech (the Afghanistan – Chechnya connection.) PAUL QUINN-JUDGE explains in “Russia’s Brutal Guerrilla War“, Foreign Policy, 31 August 2009:

    The absolute worst-case scenario — a gradual linking-up of insurgents in Central Asia with the North Caucasus’ young Islamist fighters — might be remote, but it is now possible. Such a link-up would require at least three factors. First, Russia’s policy of blind brutality in the North Caucasus would have to continue, ensuring a steady stream of recruits to the Islamist cause. Second, the Taliban would have to consolidate along Afghanistan’s frontiers with Central Asian countries such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan, turning the borderlands into safe havens and creating a series of conduits allowing fighters to move from Afghanistan into Central Asia and beyond. Finally, Central Asian jihadists from countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan would have to emerge as a fighting force large enough to exert serious regional pressure. The first is already happening. The second is a matter of time. The third cannot be ruled out. These eventualities threaten to transform the conflict in the Caucasus from a secessionist struggle to something vastly more menacing.

    Note that concerns about Af-Chech do not necessarily mean that we should seek “victory” in Afghanistan. Rather, they mean the situation is even more complex than we have discussed.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This makes little sense to me. Iraq and Afghanistan are primarily ethnic — not religous — wars. Islam on both sides. What is the commonality to unite “Central Asia with the North Caucasus’ young Islamist fighters”? This is IMO another example of what I’ve frequently described, people warning us about their nightmares — without bothering to provide a basis for their fears.

    The author says “The links between insurgents in the North Caucasus and Afghanistan are deep and long-standing.” In support all he gives is weak tea:
    * “Hundreds of Central Asians were trained in Chechnya in the late 1990s”
    * “Reportedly, a small number of wizened IMU fighters has returned to Central Asia — to Russia’s border — this summer. The trend is disturbing.”

    Like

  9. Oblat permalink
    1 September 2009 5:36 am

    Comment #5: “But, consider another possibility, that we did not lose, but, rather WON, the Vietnam war.

    Well I guess we are well on our way to victory in Afghanistan too then. :-)

    It’s easy to laugh at such claims but the fact is that many Americans of all political persuasions have no problem accepting such self deluding nonsense. Once you ask why you are to the way to really understanding why America behaves the way it does. Personally my interest in geopolitics first came about trying to understand how you can have a Vietnam war where both sides are convinced they won.

    To the facts:
    1) Any war can be a victory if you choose the objective after the war.
    2) There are no historical documents saying that the purpose of the war was simply to bleed the Chinese, nor is there any evidence that it had any real economic impact on China or Russia. If anything the war helped keep in place mao. The defeat was followed by an America with much stronger recognition of Chinese influence in the region and a big effort to be more friendly ie the typical actions of the defeated.
    3) Vietnam and China are traditional enemies with thousands of years of animosity, Chinese influence collapsed as soon as the war was over. There were no conspiracy to take over SE Asia. The domino theory was bunk an the pentagon papers show that it was realized by the US leadership mid war.

    “I would agree with your point concerning immorality, but, we live in a world in which small countries get used by big countries, despite the moral aspects.”

    And yet those moral aspects are not some peripheral issue they are at the core of any insurgency or terrorism campaign. The great desire to convert the war on Al Queada into just another amoral nation state competition is going to lose that war.

    “We did our job, got the Taliban out, etc. We are waiting for China to step in, and hold the country. We can’t do that, it would require too much bloodshed…but Chinese forces are not so constrained. Look for 150,000 or so Chinese troops to step in to help. They get the oil, we get the out.”

    The magnanimity of the American people never ceases to impress me. I’m almost sure they have thrown every military conflict since WW2 out of fairness to the other side. But can we rely on the Chinese (the very authors of revolutionary warfare) to be so stupid as to want to occupy Afghanistan?

    On the other hand I’m sure the Chinese would be more than keen to send 5000 troops to Afghanistan as suggested in the Asia Times. Obviously over the bodies of a dozen state department officials. As it would be a huge diplomatic coup for China to have the Americans so publicly ask for help. And practically speaking 5000 troops is only a symbol that can be withdrawn quietly as the war inevitably goes down the tube.

    Like

  10. Xiaoding permalink
    1 September 2009 3:05 pm

    Comment #9: “saying that the purpose of the war was simply to bleed the Chinese,”

    Oh no, that was not the purpose. It would take a long time to bleed China! The purpose was to build up, not to bleed. build up the economies and governments of the surrounding weak countries so that they could repel chinese Communist revolution. this aim was accomplished…can you say that it was not? Indeed, not only was SE Asia not overthrown by the communists, the commnists have been overthrown within China itself!

    “The defeat was followed by an America with much stronger recognition of Chinese influence in the region and a big effort to be more friendly ie the typical actions of the defeated.”

    Of course! Thereby deflating the Chinese hawks, and avoiding a direct conflict. Once China had been contained, it was just a matter of time. Victory cloaked in defeat.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Enough re-fighting the Vietnam War, esp with wild speculation. Let’s please return to the present one.

    Like

  11. Xiaoding permalink
    1 September 2009 6:19 pm

    FM: “Enough re-fighting the Vietnam War, esp with wild speculation. Let’s please return to the present one.

    Very well, but if we don not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. You may call my history speculation, as is your privilige, but I have the same privilge. If history is to be our guide, we must recognize that history is also speculation, as well as the future. Otherwise, you remove arrows from your quill.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: You misunderstand. History is not speculation. Speculation is wild guessing without providing any basis in fact.

    Like

  12. 2 September 2009 5:10 am

    FM reply: “This makes little sense to me. Iraq and Afghanistan are primarily ethnic — not religous — wars. Islam on both sides. What is the commonality to unite “Central Asia with the North Caucasus’ young Islamist fighters”? This is IMO another example of what I’ve frequently described, people warning us about their nightmares — without bothering to provide a basis for their fears.

    This is about neither religion nor ethnicity; it is about drugs. The links between Afghanistan and Chechnya over the drug trade are well known.

    Eg Wikipedia:

    Chechen criminal groups and guerrilla factions reportedly play a significant part in the narcotics trade in Central Asia, Russia and the Caucasus region. In the First Chechen War guerrillas used funding from a variety of rackets as well as the sale of oil. However in the Second Chechen War the fighters received huge financial backing from Saudi Arabian militant Ibn Al-Khattab, who joined with guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev and became a prominent figure in the war. This marginalized some figures such as Ruslan Gelayev, who turned to the drugs trade full time.

    The Chechen mafia appears to dominate the traditional Russian mafia organizations in the drugs trade. One Tajik drug trafficker stated he preferred to sell his product to Chechen gangs rather than Russians, because of the Chechen’s high-reaching contacts in both the underworld and police force. The Chechen influence runs even so far as to Murmansk, where starting from 1997 the head of the province’s Internal Affairs Administration was actually a puppet for a Chechen named Vaskha Askhabov, who brought with him large-scale heroin trafficking that dominated the local underworld. Eventually Askhabov was arrested but freed in Moscow shortly afterwards, apparently thanks to his connections in the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

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    Fabius Maximus replies: This is weak, IMO. You think substantial numbers in these countries will go to war to preserve the drug trade? Columbia and California grow lots of drugs; will they join the crusade also? Can you provide any evidence for such a theory besides somebody letting their imagination run wild?

    Like

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