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)

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.

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