Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Strategic Shift Coming

We are not going to be allowed the privilege to read General McCrystal's report on Afghanistan. Maybe in 10 years someone will release it, but until then we discuss what the various folks are saying in the context of the report. I'm a big fan of Dr. Cordesman, so this is hard to ignore, but the comments that caught my attention on the topic come from John Nagl.

America has vital national security interests in Afghanistan that make fighting there necessary. The key objectives of the campaign are preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a sanctuary for terrorists with global reach and ensuring that it does not become the catalyst for a broader regional security meltdown. Afghanistan also serves as a base from which the United States attacks al-Qaeda forces inside Pakistan and thus assists in the broader campaign against that terrorist organization -- one that we clearly must win.

U.S. policymakers must, of course, weigh all actions against America's global interests and the possible opportunity costs. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, low-cost strategies do not have an encouraging record of success. U.S. efforts to secure Afghanistan on the cheap after 2001 led it to support local strongmen whose actions alienated the population and thereby enabled the Taliban to reestablish itself as an insurgent force. Drone attacks, although efficient eliminators of Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, have not prevented extremist forces from spreading and threatening to undermine both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The so-called "light footprint" option has failed to secure U.S. objectives; as the Obama administration and the U.S. military leadership have recognized, it is well past time for a more comprehensive approach.
I read a great book once discussing the less than encouraging record of success in counterinsurgency campaigns, in fact, I think I've read another great book that said something like that too. Look, I get it... what we are doing in Afghanistan isn't working and we have approached a moment of decision, but ineffective efforts and the ability to select alternative options neither suggests the way ahead nor the destination.

My problem with the massive increase towards a new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan isn't that I believe the method couldn't be effective, indeed I believe with enough troops and investment, we have a decent shot at successfully securing population centers. What I don't understand is how that translates into the strategic objectives of preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a sanctuary for terrorists when in fact Pakistan is serving as a sanctuary for terrorists today. It seems to me we have a serious geography problem in strategy execution, and I do not see how any strategic method, counterinsurgency or otherwise, is going to achieve the strategic object of denying safe havens to the enemy as long as the approach includes allowing the enemy a safe haven (in Pakistan).

John Nagl is completely wrong btw, the so-called "light footprint" option has not failed to secure US objectives, at least the objectives as I knew them to be after 9/11. Afghanistan is currently not serving as a sanctuary for terrorists to enact attacks with global reach, which is the specific strategic objective he cited that the US is fighting to achieve. US military objectives have been unclear in Afghanistan for so long that his statement almost sounds accurate. It isn't accurate.

Both John Nagl and Anthony Cordesman are brilliant competitive strategists in my book, but until someone clearly articulates what the ends of strategy are for the US/NATO effort in Afghanistan, the discussions concerning ways and means to execute strategy serve only to distract from the objective, not achieve the objective. Until I see a meaningful strategy that addresses the drug issues, the Pakistan issues, and the NATO combat support issues - count me in favor of whatever liberally violent, low-cost strategy the President comes up with that kills the most bad guys.

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