The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Petraeus lobby

It is worth drawing attention to this article in the Washington Post, entitled 'Our best chance in Afghanistan'. The key messages are these:

- military progress in Afghanistan is undeniable (and we shouldn't worry about the seemingly increased insurgent presence in the north)
- Islamabad must do more to clear insurgent safe havens in Pakistan and Washington must put more pressure on Islamabad
- we should not rush transition
- counter-terrorism operations (SOF raids, drone strikes) are an integral part of COIN and we should not scale them back

However, the most interesting element of the article is the authors, Frederick and Kimberley Kagan. They are referred to as "independent military analysts who have conducted research for commanders in Afghanistan" which somewhat glosses over the fact that they work closely with General Petraeus and serve as his 'telescopes' - independent, out-of-the-box analysts whose insights reach from the political and strategic levels down to the ground truth at the tactical level.

That being the case, it is reasonable to suppose that Petraeus had some say in this article and that the main messages are in fact his own.

In that light, the description of US strategic goals in Afghanistan becomes especially noteworthy.
"From the Afghan border we have a unique vantage point on the groups that most directly threaten the American homeland and the stability of the entire nuclear-armed subcontinent... The ultimate goal of American strategy in the region must be ensuring that Afghanistan is sufficiently stable and friendly so that we can make the best use of that vantage point. The president's strategy gives us the best chance of doing that."
This is a clear statement that this war is not merely about chasing al Qaida operatives. This is about US geostrategic interests and about establishing a long-term physical presence in Afghanistan and in the wider region.

Furthermore, calling it the "president's strategy" is a subtle way of putting Obama on a hook and ensuring that he does not go back on his commitments. Rather less subtle is the forthright statement that President Obama must "make good on his words to American soldiers in Afghanistan last month: "We will prevail."

In short, the messages conveyed here equate to a clear statement of intent by General Petraeus. In this war, winning in Washington is as important as winning in Helmand and Kandahar.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Winning hearts and minds - lesson 1

Under the code-name Operation Christmas, the Colombian Army are erecting giant Christmas trees in FARC-held territory in an attempt to persuade the guerrillas to demobilise.

A novel idea (and the Colombian government have in fact had some success in demobilising/reintegrating rank-and-file FARC members over the past few years) but probably not one which could be replicated in, say, Afghanistan... for obvious reasons.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Perception is reality

As we approach the end of the year and as the Americans release their Strategic Review of the campaign in Afghanistan, many will take stock and examine what (genuine) progress has really been made as a result of the west's reinforced COIN strategy.

Small Wars Journal features an interesting critique of COIN in which the interviewee, Colonel Gian Gentile, who served two tours in Iraq and is a visiting fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, takes issue with certain premises of COIN, or not so much COIN itself but the perceptions surrounding it... which is an important distinction to make.

The most striking example of this is when Gentile takes issue with "the idea that better tactics can rescue a failed policy and strategy". Many people would undoubtedly agree that such an idea is deeply flawed [insert compulsory Sun Tzu quote here] but Gentile touches on an important problem by stating that "we see this narrative playing itself out in how contemporary memory has been created toward the Iraq War and it shapes action and the creation of the perception of progress today in Afghanistan".

Had Gentile just held that thought, he may well have exposed the truth of the matter but instead Gentile misses the target - although only just - with his next sentence.
"When General David Petraeus talks of the "right inputs finally being in place" he betrays a deep seated adherence to the COIN narrative that better generals and reinvented armies can rescue failed strategy and policy. Unfortunately, upon inspection history demolishes this myth."
There is a considerable argument to be made that this is not 'myth' at all but in fact 'the creation of perception', the intended perception being that COIN worked in Iraq and is working in Afghanistan.

On the former, Tom Ricks concluded in The Gamble that the surge succeeded tactically (in improving security) but fell short strategically (failure to achieve an Iraqi political settlement). Given the extensive contribution of David Petraeus (and his cohorts) to that book and given the intellect of the man it is unthinkable that he will not have seriously reflected on those conclusions. Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that he would have factored this into his thinking with regard to Afghanistan and even concluded that a similar scenario could play out there also. Indeed, when we look at the tactics and measures employed by Petraeus since he replaced Stan McChrystal in July, it is reasonable to conclude that he has decided that 'tactical success/strategic shortfall' is the most realistic of all potential desired outcomes (ie. the best we can hope to achieve) and is actively executing the campaign on that basis.

The most striking tactical example is the extensive - and rapid - formation of 'Afghan Local Police' units. Although Petraeus has never directly compared these to the Sons of Iraq, it is reasonable to make precisely that link given how often he uses the Iraq campaign as a point of reference. However, while many (e.g. Ricks) have pointed out that while the Awakening militias were clearly a major factor in the perceived success of COIN and the surge in Iraq, the variables on the ground in Afghanistan are very different.

The Sunni Awakening militias in Iraq turned against foreign jihadists as a result of the latter's brutal and indiscrimate methods and, furthermore, these militias had relatively strong command and control set-ups. In contrast, the village militias in Afghanistan are intended to protect against the Taliban who, despite the presence of some foreigners fighting among them, are very much an indigenous organisation firmly rooted in Afghan - primarily Pashtun - society and territory. Furthermore, these local police units are nominally under the control of the Ministry of the Interior but, in a country where tribal structures have been badly fragmented by thirty years of war, there are no obvious checks and balances at the village level. There is therefore a real danger that these 'local police' units could very quickly start to function as the private militias of the local warlord and, according to the New York Times, that already appears to be the case in some areas.

That is not a recipe for long-term stability but perhaps it is not intended to be. Perhaps this is simply a means of dissipating the strength of the insurgency in the villages, weakening their supply chains and reducing their pool of potential recruits. The long-term effects for the country - and the State - of Afghanistan may not be good but if the Afghan Local Police facilitate a number of tactical victories for ISAF across the country, then they will have achieved their goal (from a strictly western perspective).

Another example is the incredible intensity of Special Forces operations against mid-level Taliban commanders, which has caused a fair amount of debate among coindinistas and others over the difference, if any, between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism.

However, this concerted SOF campaign is arguably more significant in the context of reconciliation and reintegration. While reintegration of low-level Taliban foot soldiers is ongoing at the same time as high-level, back-channel discussions are (apparently) ongoing in (apparently) an attempt to 'reconcile' the Taliban leadership, operational-level Taliban commanders are being killed and captured in significant numbers. It has been previously been argued on this blog that serious negotiation with the Taliban - in a conflict resolution sense of the term - is just not feasible and recent farcical episodes such as the involvement of an imposter certainly do nothing to alter that perception.

In short, at the same as we are seeking to 'reintegrate' low-level foot-soldiers and pursuing less than convincing discussions with the high-level leadership, we are kinetically targetting the mid-level commanders in an attempt to break the operational back of the Taliban. Is the objective really, as is claimed, for ISAF and the Afghan government to be in a position of strength when the (apparently) inevitable political process of reconciliation begins in earnest? Or is it in fact intended to hit the Taliban hard enough for them to do the smart thing and lay low for a while, allowing us to declare victory and go home?

So, again, we could argue that these tactical measures are intended to achieve a good enough level of operational success (ie. relative short-term security and stability) to be portrayed as a victory to our publics back home. The second part is achieved through an aggressive strategic communications campaign, aimed at politicians and publics alike and backed up by semi-convincing proof like, for example, this week's US strategic review. Bloggers, academics and rogue journalists may pick holes in these arguments but the point is that the vast majority of people on the home front (for 'people' read 'voters') constitute a very receptive audience.

While Americans and Europeans alike struggle through a financial crisis (not to mention that many European nations have never figured out why they went to Afghanistan to begin with), the notion that we've won in Afghanistan and can begin to draw-down is not going to be a hard sell - quite the opposite in fact. Of course, in reality many western troops will remain and large amounts of western money will continue to be spent for some time yet. However, another lesson from Iraq is that this doesn't really matter as all these problems will very quickly disappear from the front pages.

Gentile is right to warn against placing too much faith in "the idea that better tactics can save a failed strategy or policy" (and Ricks is probably right to assert that Gentile represents the silent majority of Army officers who are less than content with the Petraeus cult) but only from a purely military perspective. In the grander scheme of things, in a political and highly mediatised context, it is absolutely possible to 'rescue' a failed strategy or policy with better, or different tactics, both on the battlefield and on the airwaves and it is reasonable to assert that this is what will happen to the campaign in Afghanistan.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Wikileaks as self-fulfilling prophesy

Much has already been said and written about Wikileaks, not just about the diplomatic cables themselves but indeed about the very notion of divulging such large amounts of sensitive information to the public.

The cable containing a list of vital US facilities has been described as the most controversial of all the leaked documents. Frankly, it's hard to disagree with Malcolm Rifkind, the former British Foreign Minister, that this degree of irresponsiblity borders on criminal.

However, it could be argued that there is another - perhaps greater - danger in releasing this kind of information into the public domain in that it will change peoples attitudes and probably not for the better.

Using the highly publicised example of Arab states urging the US to attack Iran, anyone with a basic knowledge of Middle Eastern politics will probably not be surprised. It is hardly a secret that Saudi Arabia sees Iran as its main rival in the region and vice-versa.

However, when these positions are laid out so starkly in the public domain, is there not a real risk that positions will harden on all sides? Will Iranian hardliners - and perhaps even the Iranian people - see enemies all around them and react like a cornered animal? Will Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab states involved, redouble their efforts to cut off the head of the snake in the fear that the snake will strike first? Will warmongers in the US and/or Israel attempt to use these Arab states to apply even more pressure on their governments and militaries and force them to strike Iran?

In short, by releasing these documents have Wikileaks made a military strike on Iran more likely? Have they created a self-fulfilling prophesy?

Did the people at Wikileaks ask themselves any of these questions before divulging all that information? If not, why not? If yes, then how do they justify their actions which can only cause heightened tensions and reduce the chances of a diplomatic solution?

The truth is that with information comes responsibility. Wikileaks obtain and release masses of information, apparently without thought to the consequences and certainly with no responsibility or accountability. Unlike investigative journalism for example, there are no corroborating facts, no second opinions, no explanations of context. They simply dump huge amounts of information for people to digest, usually through headlines and at-a-glance summaries.

This is not freedom of information or freedom of speech in any real sense and the consequences of such recklessness are not likely to be good.