Friday, March 18, 2011

Afghanistan war demonstrates limits of US power

Reaching out

Afghanistan is where the US military's shiny new counter-insurgency doctrine -- COIN in military-speak -- was supposed to show its stuff. Journalist Nir Rosen brings what he learned in Iraq to bear on that war in Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World.

Since he really makes an effort to report at least in part from all sides, he did attempt to embed with the Taliban. You can read about Rosen's slightly over the top adventure at the link.

But more important, watching and talking with the US military in Iraq prepared him to observe COIN in action in Afghanistan. He wasn't having any of it.

... Both Washington and the military came to believe that COIN just might be the magic formula in Afghanistan. While ignoring the right lessons from Iraq such as the use of community outposts, there was much talk of bribing Afghan tribes, which misunderstood why Sunnis stopped resisting in Iraq [they had lost the civil war] and gave way too much importance to tribalism in Afghan society. The Americans were unable to grasp that material benefits were not the only thing that could motivate people. ...

The American military and policy establishments were institutionally incapable of doing COIN. They lacked the curiosity to understand other cultures and the empathy to understand what motivated other people. In the military in particular, Afghans were still viewed as "hajjis."

Alternative viewpoints were not considered. Many journalists failed to understand that when you're with the military you're changing your selection bias. By showing up with the white guys with guns, you are eliminating all the people who don't want to talk to the military or talking to those who have an interest in engaging the foreign occupier. Regular people won't relate to you in a natural or honest way. For the U.S. military, seeing something from a reporter's or Afghan's perspective is an exception. Even the media were perceived as the enemy. Military officers had been talking for a long time about being good at complex operations, providing aid while engaging in military operations, but they still made it up as they went and hoped that the previous unit had learned something.

... COIN inevitably required military action against a major segment of the Afghan population, and in doing so it undermined the project of state building and national consensus that the international community was simultaneously involved in.

With the arrival of Obama in the White House and his various strategy reviews, the military seemed to internalize the fallacy that they could have a new start in Afghanistan, a do-over. But that's not how the world works.

... past American actions have consequences. Opinions were already formed. The Taliban were·gaining power thanks to American actions and alliances. Warlords were empowered by the Americans. No justice was sought for victims. The government and police were corrupt. The president stole the elections. The message was that there was no justice, and a pervasive sense of lawlessness and impunity had set in. Afghans who had been humiliated or victimized by the Americans and their allies were unlikely to become smitten by them merely because of some aid they received.

And the aid was relatively small compared with other international projects, like Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, and East Timor. The Americans thought that by building roads they could win over opinion. But roads are just as useful for insurgents as they are for occupiers. The Americans had failed to convince Afghans that they should like them or want them to stay, and they certainly had not been convinced that Karzai's government has legitimacy. You can't win hearts and minds with aid work when you are an occupying force.

...With Petraeus, Obama had appointed the one general with the clout to ask for more troops and more time, but also the one sufficiently respected by all parties to be able to declare Afghanistan a lost cause. The Americans had won in Afghanistan when it was merely a punishment campaign. Once they lingered following the flight of bin Laden they began to flounder. And when they turned it into a war against the Taliban, an indigenous movement, they lost.

Rosen seems to believe that the only way Afghanistan can end for the United States would be to declare victory (regardless of whatever on the ground reality exists) and get out. Petraeus would have to respect to pull that off -- but instead he was in Washington this week talking up a dubious record of "success."
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This is the second of two posts about Rosen's Aftermath. A post on his view of Iraq is here.

Photo from US Army Flickr feed. Caption: Staff Sgt. Christopher Herndon of 623rd Engineer Company, Task Force Gridley, Nebraska Army National Guard, hands out wooden toys to village children in Paktika Province, Afghanistan on March 9. Photo by Staff Sgt. Anna Rutherford.

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