Nagging Questions about Afghanistan

An NBC News report last week painted a picture of military futility in Afghanistan. The more recent large operation in Helmand has a more cogent rationale, but it to suffers from viewing the Afghanistan fight as a US operation. Robert McNamara’s death reminds us that we will lose if we view it as our fight rather than as the fight of local (not initially national) partners who we contrive to support.

1) NBC Nightly News last week had a few minutes of a fire fight with a Marine unit. The Marines hiked up to a seemingly deserted unit, saying along the way that they expected to be ambushed because they figured locals would have tipped off the Taliban. Sure enough they set up and were attacked by about ten enemy, of which they thought they killed maybe three, with no US casualties. The Marines and the Taliban fought with essentially the same weapons, though the Marines could call in air strikes if needed. No advanced technology was in evidence on the US side. The US forces were not accompanied by any Afghani nationals. In fact, given that the “Taliban” may have been non-Afghani forces, it’s possible that no one from Afghanistan was involved in the episode. NBC saw this engagement as a success, primarily because of the lack of US casualties but what did it accomplish? Practically, nothing, except perhaps demonstrating that the US did not control the area. Why are we sending US forces to fight for no real tactical or strategic purpose and without any decisive military capability?

2) The large operation of the Marines in Helmand province has an entirely different focus — to move in and protect the people with a permanent US force presence, rather than kill the enemy. This is the counter-insurgency theory that is at the heart of current US military thinking. The Center of a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington DC is a hotbed of this counter-insurgency (COIN) thinking — it’s worth looking at, and particularly the paper by Exum, Fick, Humayun, and Kilcullen entitled Triage: The Next Twelve Months In Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the one by LTC Jim Crider (US Army), entitled Inside the Surge: One Commander’s Lessons in Counterinsurgency, based on his experience during the “surge” in Baghdad. Crider is especially good on recognizing the crux of the issue is the contest for intelligence, which we were bound to lose so long as we did not fully engage the locals.

3) Robert McNamara’s death reminds us that COIN was a buzzword back in 1962 as well, when he thought we were winning in Vietnam. In the end, if there are not indigenous forces that are upright and attractive to their compatriots that want to succeed as much as the insurgents, then nothing outsiders can do will prevail. The outsiders just become the target for nationalist mobilization. In their can-do American spirit, the CNAS folks talk about what “we” should do to win in Afghanistan, and they offer solutions that hinge on improving the capacity of Afghanistan’s central government and its military and police forces, and they want to stay as long as is necessary. What “we” Americans ought to be doing in Afghanistan is helping to identify and reinforce local power structures that can protect their own local people, with (for a time) US forces and (soon) regional police or central government forces providing strike forces to deal with insurgent concentrations that might overwhelm local capabilities.

Update: The July 8 NYT reports “Allied Officers Concerned by Lack of Afhan Forces.” It’s important to note that owing to ethnic and cultural differences within Afghanistan, central forces may not be all that much better than American ones.