Exum looks at Af-Pak campaign of the Long War, revealing more about ourselves than the foe

Summary:  Andew Exum’s new report reveals more about America’s defective OODA loop than about the Af-Pak War, esp our myopia (Observation) and insularity (Orientation).  As other posts on the FM website have shown, this is characteristic of our geopolitical experts.  The causes remain obscure.  Perhaps institutional factors, esp the Pentagon dominating the discussion and funding.  Perhaps cultural factors, such as success having made us stupid.

Afghanistan war

This post examines a new report by Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama):  “Leverage: Designing a Political Campaign for Afghanistan“, Center for a New American Security, May 2010.   Exum provides an excellent example of  our smart, knowledgeable, and experienced geopolitical experts writing about what are in-effect theoretical worlds.  Oz, rather than Earth.  Social scientists make unrealistic assumptions (e.g, the rational investor) as intermediate steps, providing analytical rigor to the process of developing accurate theories.  In geopolitics, the author’s political intent encourages unrealistic descriptions and theories — to obscure, to deceive.

For example, note how Exum never describes Afghanistan as a client or puppet regime.  Careful writing and euphemism disguise this important truth.  On page 7 he observes “some Afghans consider Hamid Karzai to be a puppet of the United States and its allies” — but never asks if they are correct.  This myopia is not just Exum’s; it’s ours.  Geopolitical experts, journalists, layfolks blogging about our wars — all tend to write with similar blinders.


Above all, the United States and its allies need a functioning relationship with the elected Afghan government.  {page 5}

On the first page of his analysis Exum goes to the heart of the issue.  It’s never followed up, beyond implying the correct relationship is we command, they obey.

But in many other places – South Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – the United States and its allies have been frustrated by the way in which the interests of the host nation clashed with those of the United States and its allies. Steven Metz recently lamented such “unruly clients,” and Daniel Byman correctly noted five years into the “war on terror” that unreliable allies would be a central problem of U.S. foreign interventions in the fight against transnational terror threats.  {page 6}

Damn those wogs that don’t know their place!  Unruly!  Unreliable!  Whose interests do they consider most important! — ours or theirs?  {update:  Note that the title of Metz’s article, “Unruly Clients”, is irony.  They are “unruly” because we ask they to take actions against their own interests, yet another irrational aspect of our foreign policy.  Metz concludes “But Americans must stop believing they can make allies resemble themselves over time. …Americans would greatly prefer steadfast, lasting alliances based on a deep sense of shared values and priorities. Alas, these tend to be rare and will remain so. A new, realistic, and feasible strategy ought to reflect the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be.”}

When the U.S. military, challenged by difficult low-intensity conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, began to think about how it should develop new counterinsurgency doctrine, it had a wealth of historical experience on which to draw. U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine thus borrows heavily from the so-called “golden age” of counterinsurgency following the Second World War.  FM 3-24 cites operational lessons learned from the French experiences in Algeria and Indochina, the British experience in Malaya, and the U.S. experience in South Vietnam.

Since almost all of those were defeats for the foreign nation intervening in a local insurgency, perhaps the lesson is that generals never learn.  The most-often cited victories are Ireland (not really foreign to the UK), Kenya (UK defeated the Mau-mau insurgents, but lost the colony; Wikipedia), Malaysia (the victory occurred alongside granting independence; Wikipedia).  More generally the pattern is well-described in Chapter 6.2 in Martin van Creveld’s “Changing Face of War” (2006):

“What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s explusion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Ertrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. … Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

“Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.”  {pp 6-7}

Exum continues with a provocative statement, for which he provides no supporting evidence or analysis.

Contemporary counterinsurgency campaigns differ greatly from those of the post-colonial era, but the principles of counterinsurgency remain largely the same.  {page 7}

A major common theme in America’s foreign interventions is our blindness to their colonial (or neo-colonial) aspects (e.g., this presentation by Kilcullen).  We believe our intentions to be pure, and regard the local’s disbelief as irrational — to be cured by information operations.

Political Incentives.  Seymour Martin Lipset defined legitimacy as “the capacity of a political system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate or proper ones for society.”  Although we cannot accurately predict how much of the Karzai regime’s legitimacy would dissolve were the international community to withdraw its support, much of the legitimacy the regime enjoys both domestically and internationally stems from the support of the United States and its allies.    {page 7}

This is odd.  Does a regime have legitimacy if living only by support of infidel supporters?  Or does this describe a fundamentally illegitimate regime?  Again, as throughout this report, Exum’s assumptions are more significant than the conclusions he builds upon them.

The reforms and reconciliation process the United States and its allies would like to see do not come without a great deal of risk for the Karzai regime. Without a strong natural constituency or powerful military to call his own, President Karzai cannot afford to alienate many of his political partners.  {page 8}

Again Exum describes a political regime with little or no legitimacy among its own people, but supported by foreigners — many of whom are infidels.  This is the definition of a puppet regime.  It’s one of the two elephants in the room Exum cannot mention.  Nor does Exum consider if Karzai’s strategy is rational, preparing for the inevitable American withdrawal.

But one advantage the U.S. military has over its civilian counterparts is process. The U.S. military, specifically, has planning templates and strategic and operational planning processes that allow it to consider difficult problems in a systematic fashion and then arrive at solutions. The rest of the U.S. government does not wish to copy the often complex and bewildering military planning process in total.

This is delusional.  Nobody can look at our Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan Wars — plus the numerous smaller military interventions (e.g., Grenada) — and see an effective strategic planning process.  Much of the rest of Exum’s paper provides evidence that no such effective process exists.  {page 10}

The Obama Administration brought some clarity to U.S. aims through the March 2009 white paper on Afghanistan and Pakistan and the president’s December 2009 televised address to the nation at the U.S. Military Academy.  In the former, the president declared that “the core goal” of the United States “must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” In the latter, the president echoed the white paper, saying, “Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”  {pp 10-11}

First, that al Qaeda attacked the US from Afghanistan is the big lie of this war (details here).  Second, US government sources have repeatedly said for the past year that there is almost no al Qaeda remaining in Afghanistan:

Next Exum describes the military’s strategic process at work.  It does not sound very impressive:

It soon became clear that members of the administration had initially signed on for a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan without understanding how costly such a campaign would be in time and resources. As an administration official told the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “It was easy to say, ‘Hey, I support COIN,’ because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes.”  {page 11}

Now comes some confident boasting:

U.S. and allied militaries understand how to wage a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign that denies militant groups support from the population, addresses drivers of conflict at the local level, and creates time and space to build key institutions such as those in the security sector.  {page 12}

Sure.  That’s why we’ve had such great success in Afghanistan.  At some point an alert reader must wonder if Exum is serious.

The U.S. military and its allies have also learned much over the past 8 years with respect to the most efficient ways to train and equip the security forces of a host nation.  {page 12}

We’re efficient!  That’s why we’re outspending the Taliban 1000-1 with such modest results.

Reversing the Taliban’s momentum and building Afghan capacity, then, are missions the U.S. military and its allied partners have the means to achieve, even when addressed within the president’s time constraints.  {page 12}

Say it often and say it loud!  We’re COIN-aces and we’re proud!  Repeat 10,000 times and perhaps it will become true.  This is the second elephant in the room:  we fought in Iraq until the Kurds, Shiite Arabs, and Iran won.  The Kurds won land; the Shiite Arabs won a theocracy; Iran laid the foundation to become the regional hegemon.

What is needed with respect to a civilian strategy in Afghanistan, then, is less aid and more a coherent political strategy for the United States and its allies to assist the government of Afghanistan to govern in a way that both promotes its legitimacy and allows the United States and its allies to militarily leave Afghanistan within the next five years. This is the political outcome explicitly desired by the peoples of the United States and other troop-contributing nations. The perpetuation of a rentier state in Afghanistan, and aid that fuels rather than alleviates the conflict, are at odds with that political outcome.  {page 12}

As the recipe for elephant soup goes:  First catch an elephant.  After that it’s easy.

To be successful in a consensual or coercive campaign in Afghanistan or elsewhere, the United States and its allies must understand, to paraphrase Thomas Schelling, what individuals in the government fear and what they treasure.  This author discovered, while traveling through Afghanistan in 2009, that while U.S. and allied intelligence officers could often hold forth in great detail concerning the organization and motives of Afghanistan’s various insurgent groups, they were often stumped when asked to describe the activities of local power brokers or government officials. “Who controls the water here?” is an example of a question that would often baffle local commanders and their intelligence officers. It shouldn’t.

In a counterinsurgency campaign where commanders must determine and target the drivers of conflict in a community, these kinds of questions are as important as those related to the enemy’s order of battle. GEN McChrystal’s intelligence chief, MG Michael Flynn, understands this and directed intelligence officers in Afghanistan, in both an internal memorandum as well as a paper published by CNAS, to reorient their efforts to reflect the kinds of questions commanders should be asking.

Here we come to one of the core illusions of COIN.  Like the Mission Impossible TV show, the miracle was not in their wondrous deeds but their near-total information about the people and places of their target.  Similarly David Kilcullen starts his famous “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency” (Military Review, May – June 2006) with …

“Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district.”

It is easy to read this as important but banal. Centurions posted to remote Roman provinces were probably told to “know your turf.” This ignores the depth of Kilcullen’s insight.  Kilcullen here describes the “home court advantage.” It is a powerful advantage in 4GW, perhaps one reason for the consistent victory of locals over foreigners.  This is not a new aspect of war, but it works in favor of our enemies.  To imagine otherwise is nuts.  Ask a policeman how long it took to learn his territory, the players and rhythms.  And that’s starting with a common language and culture.  (for more about the famous 28 articles, see Why do we lose 4th generation wars?)

And so it goes in our long war.  We’re uncertain what and who we fight.  Or why.  With mostly faux history and delusions to encourage us.

Other perspectives on Exum’s report

  1. The Incoherence of COIN Advocates: Andrew Exum Edition… part 3“, Bernard Finel, 7 May 2010
  2. See the comments on this report posted at the Small Wars Journal, esp this one by Ken White.

A few of the posts about the Af-Pak War on the FM website

  1. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust
  2. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
  3. Quote of the day: Our Afghanistan War explained in 22 words, 26 August 2009
  4. The advocates for the Af-pak war demonstrate their bankruptcy. Will the American public notice?, 1 September 2009
  5. The three kinds of advocacy for the Af-Pak War, 15 October 2009
  6. Admiral Mullen sets a high bar for continued US combat in Afghanistan, 18 November 2009 — A long-lost voice of sanity.
  7. We destroy a secular regime in Afghanistan (& its women’s rights), then we wage war on the new regime to restore women’s rights. Welcome to the American Empire., 20 November 2009
  8. A look behind the Afghan mask covering our operations in Afghanistan, 25 February 2010
  9. Update about the state of the Af-Pak war; my forecast was wrong, 1 March 2010
  10. France gives us tips for the Afghanistan War, from their successful role in the American Revolution, 11 March 2010
  11. A clear view of our Afghanistan War strategy (unfortunately, it’s mad), 16 April 2010
  12. A powerful story from Afghanistan, an illustration of our un-strategy at work, 18 April 2010

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