China Hand on Afghanistan Policy Change

One of my favorite bloggers with a long, detailed, and brilliant piece that is a must read.

The context:

The United States and NATO can’t be driven from Afghanistan militarily. Nor, however, can the Taliban be crushed in the foreseeable future.


The US is going to be in Afghanistan for years to come.  The only thing that’s going to change in Afghanistan is the objectives.

General Petraeus as new head of CentCom along with Robert Gates (will he or won’t he stay on as SecDef under Prez Obama?) are working on major reviews of all strategy from Iraq & Iran to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The central core of which will be a call to begin negotiations with the Taliban.  Obama has actually had a quite hawkish hardline stance on the Taliban, so this will get interesting.  The idea will be to buy off and separate as many of the elements of the insurgency as possible, and see if possible to break the Taliban from al-Qaeda.

There are a couple of problems with this theory however as I see it. One, the Mullah Omar wing of the Taliban will never sell out bin Laden.   If they wouldn’t before the war, why now?  They are neo-fundamentalists in Olivier Roy’s terminology meaning they are interested in creating Islamic society not an Islamic state (they were very uninterested in actual governance when in power in the 90s).

Now the newer Taliban or Pashto insurgent groups in the south of Afghanistan can be dealt with it seems to me and realize they will have to get along with the Afghan Army.  But they will be seeking a withdrawal of all foreign troops in order to facilitate a stand down.  Plus, they have no real connection with al-Qaeda who is off in Waziristan.

Petraeus, as China Hand remind us, is a genius of the media age and has at times shown a unwillingness to bend to civilian rule.  The current batch of leaks to US media and from European allies is undoubtedly not accidental.

Ultimately the Taliban do not pose a threat to the domestic security of NATO countries nor to the international order.  They could become a FARC-like naro-terrorist group that will wreak havoc locally and/or a return to a brutal dictatorship but how is that different than say Burma?

How this all breaks down in real time:

It appears that the key job before General Petraeus will be to co-opt the regional impetus toward a negotiated settlement, prevent Saudi Arabia from mid-wifing a power-sharing arrangement favorable to the Taliban, assert American control and direction over the process to assure America’s continued presence at the center of Afghan’s security equation, and spike the loose cannons that threaten his plan.

And of course no discussion of Afghanistan without the broader regional question of which there as yet seems to be no consensus:

Even if NATO, the central Afghan authority, and the Afghan Taliban get on the same page, there is still the question of how much collateral damage to tolerate—or provoke—in Pakistan.

In Pakistan, the same as Afghanistan. The Taliban, what we are calling the Taliban, is actually a series of global guerrilla groups–cellular, fragmented, networked, with fluid membership.  Some attack traditional tribal leaders, some don’t.  Some play by the old tribal customs, some are increasingly bucking them.  So a peace deal can definitely be made with some no doubt, but there is no one person–not even Mullah Omar–who has control over the movement and therefore can sign some treaty and end the conflict of all these various groups.  Particularly when so many fund their operations through crime (drug trade, kidnappings, smuggling, etc.).

What this still leaves open as a question that dare not speak its name in US foreign policy discussion is: how much of a threat really is al-Qaeda?  The Pakistanis don’t see the Pakistani Taliban as an existential threat.  There really is no proof that the Pakistani Taliban want to take over the government.  They basically want to be left alone to create their own idealized Islamic society in Waziristan.

The problem then is the continued hospitality/safe haven given AQ and its leadership in the Pakistani FATA region.  But why would they gain from selling out AQ?  What do they have to fear except some predator drones really at the end of the day?

No one will have this discussion it seems to me, but we need to ask how effective is all of this? How worth it is this attempt to get AQ? I’m not disrespecting the enormity of 3,000 civilian casualties inside the US, but AQ is predicated on more and more spectacular attacks and luring the US into Muslim countries around the world (by rasing the flag of AQ as bin Laden said–often as a decoy mind you)  and bleeding the  US dry.

Their weakness is the need for spectacular attacks and how difficult it is to pull off one always greater than the last one.  Particularly post September 11th.  But Obama is a Democrat and won’t be able to face any possible criticism of weakness, so he is going to charge in there and we’ll continue to muddy along I suppose for some time to come.

William Lind on Iraq

One of the foremost theorists of Fourth Generation Warfare on why there is no Iraq:

The defining reality in Iraq is that there is no state. Because there is no state in Iraq, there is also no government. Orders issued in Baghdad have no impact because there are no state institutions to carry them out. Government institutions such as parliament and positions such as cabinet minister have no substance. Power comes from having a relationship with a militia, not a government office. The “Iraqi Security Forces” are groups of Shi’ite militias, which exist to fight other militias. They take orders from militia leaders, not the government. Government revenues are slush funds for militia leaders to pay their militiamen. The whole edifice Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus described exists only as a figment of the Bush administration’s imagination.

This is why Andrew Sullivan’s recent turn to “empirical” possible good news in Iraq is only good news for the Badr Corps Militia.  The government to the degree it exists (which isn’t much) exists to support the militias not the reverse.

Lind again:

In answer to a question before one of the committees, General Petraeus gave a particularly vivid example of how words disconnected from reality can deceive. (In this case the deception is no doubt self-deception.) He said, “We’ve got to continue. We have our teeth into the jugular, and we need to keep it [sic] there.” In a column in the April 13 Washington Post, David Broder wrote, “The general clearly likes that phrase, because he used it twice more during his visit to The Post.”

In Fourth Generation war, non-state opponents, such as those we face in Iraq and Afghanistan, have no jugular. They have no single point of vulnerability an opponent can hit to bring them down. (They may have such critical vulnerabilities internally, but only they can hit them, as al-Qaeda in Iraq seems to have done in alienating its Sunni base.) For outside forces such as ourselves, Fourth Generation war is war of the capillaries. What we have our teeth into in Iraq is a jellyfish.

The strategy of a unified non-sectarian Iraqi state with a strong central government is at odds both with what the Iraqi political actors themselves are doing and the surge/Awakening tactics.

Look at the reality.  The Iraqi Army is in essence The Peshmerga (Kurdish milita that controls/protects the Kurdish autonomous zone) and the Badr Corps (the milita that supports a Shia-autonomous zone in the South thereby disempowering the central gov’t).  The latter of which is trained and funded by Iran and the US simultaneously though those two are in the midst of saber rattling/proxy violence.  The US Army supported the creation of Sons of Iraq/Local Concerned Citizens Groups among the Sunnis–i.e. Militias.  And the Mahdi Army.  Another militia.  Making the US Army a Militia being used by other militias in a militia on militia fight.

The Sons of Iraq (i.e. formerly the Sunni Insurgency, Baathist and soft Islamist tribal) took out (mostly) the Salafi jihadist militia known as al-Qaeda Between the Two Rivers.  Maliki and the Badrists are in full throated intra-Shia civil conflict (which was predicted and inevitable) neither of whom the US should really have a stake in.  Both of whom will realign the second the US starts its withdrawal and the Sunni Sons of Iraq militia goes back after the Shia militias.

The central issue is the political reality does not match the military reality.  The guys who have power are the militias and Provincial Elections only hides this fact.  Namely that the pecking order is militia then government not the other way around.  And the US strategy and policy of keeping US troops in there (like McCain suggests) is predicated on flipping the mentality from militia-tribe-family-clan first to government first.  Get real.  Ain’t gonna happen.

Lind’s recommendations:

What should we do? First, we must understand what “winning” in Iraq means. It does not mean that Iraq becomes an American satellite. That remains the goal of the Bush administration and the neocons, but it is not and never was attainable.

Winning in Iraq simply means that a state re-emerges there. The rise of a new state in Iraq means defeat for al-Qaeda and other non-state entities, who are our real enemies. States don’t like competition, and real states do not permit non-state entities to exist on their territory (unless they are actually proxies the state plans to use against other states).

Second, we must accept the now well-proven fact that we cannot re-create a state in Iraq. We have tried for five years and we have nothing to show for it beyond 4,000 dead, tens of thousands wounded, and an empty treasury. The problem is legitimacy. Any state institutions we create or overtly support will not be accepted by the Iraqi people as legitimate. That is generally true of governments created and installed by foreign occupiers. The local response is, “Vichy ptui.”

A new state can only arise in Iraq independently of our efforts and indeed opposed to foreign occupation. We have to get out of the way and let it happen. It may not. There is no guarantee. There is, however, a guarantee that we cannot make it happen, so getting out of the way is the more promising road to victory. Strategy dictates that we come home, not as an acknowledgement of defeat but as a final bid to win.

Third, we must face the fact that a real Iraqi state is likely to be close to Iran. The solution is not to bomb Iran but to settle our differences—what diplomats call a rapprochement. Tehran has offered us a general settlement on quite generous terms. We should take them up on it. If the U.S. and Iran are no longer enemies, the fact that a new Iraqi state is allied with Iran is not a problem.

Petraeus Testimony

Watching the testimony, one thing is clear Petraeus and Crocker are a lot more honest than McCain or Lindsey Graham or Joe Lieberman (although not sure that’s a compliment so much as an abysmally low threshold).

Petraeus took on the job of Iraq voluntarily because he believed in the mission and wanted to serve and no doubt wanted to make a name for himself. (He’s known as quite ambitious which doesn’t bother me but it is part of the mix). That is to say he is more or less a straight shooter as the saying goes but clearly is highlighting elements that serve his overall vision. Petraeus at least is honest enough to admit it will take a 10 year effort at the current levels–of troops and bloodshed–to achieve victory.

That is at the very least far more realistic than McCain’s tomfoolery (he mistook al-Qaeda as a Shia group today—again!!!) and sloganeering. McCain somehow believes the US is going to get to some spot where our troops aren’t being killed in some Korea-like DMZ in Iraq. This guy could legitimately be President of the United States–and under the label of a National Security Expert? “How Long O Lord?”

In the real world (as opposed to whatever Fantasyland the Arizona Senator resides in), as long as US troops are in Iraq they will be killed at the current rate (if not worse). And wounded and scarred permanently, and continue to undermine the military. Even Petraeus concedes as much.

Petraeus has been given responsibility for Iraq and only Iraq. Therefore by design his job is not regional nor yet global strategy. That was the job of Admiral Fallon who correctly stated that the US Army & Marines can not sustain the halt and period of “assessment and consolidation” Petraeus calls for. For that, Fallon was canned (also because he made that knowledge public).

Where Petraeus can be legitimately criticized seems to me is either beating the drums himself or not preventing the war drum beat on Iran. But again that gets back to the central issue. He’s there for Iraq and the strategy of Iraq was a failure and Iran always had as Thomas Barnett said, a veto in Iraq. Iran made clear to the US that they would support the invasion so long as they got to be part of the calvary and if they weren’t, they would leave the US holding the bag, make their life hell, and exercise their veto. Which is exactly what has transpired.

At least we didn’t have a replay of the God awful General Betray-us stuff. Look the issue is always has always been the President. Gen. Petreaus, Ambd. Crocker are not there to set US policy. The President is. He like LBJ does not want to be the guy who lost Iraq (Vietnam), so continues an escalation (not a surge, never was as is clear now from the call for a stoppage of the troop reductions), and therefore hands off the problem to his successor. He abdicates his responsibility. The President. The guy who claims he identifies with Harry Truman. He is rather the anti-Truman who fired a famous general you may recall for promoting an unwinnable escalation of the then conflict. As in Harry “The Buck Stops Here” Truman. The Buck Never seems to stop at the White House now.

Forget Petraeus, forget Iraq even for a second (if you can)–pull back the curtain and the answer stares you right in the face. Bush has no strategy. There is no strategy. There is no global strategy. Good guys versus bad guys may work in Cowboys and Indians Films but they don’t work in the world of 21st century geopolitics.

All of the criticism should be aimed at the President. All of it. That is where it belongs. He is the Commander in Chief; he is to set policy and strategy not General Petraeus. That the opposite has happened is to be laid on the doorstop of a failed and feckless President. Period.

Published in: on April 8, 2008 at 3:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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