Afghanistan Strategy Debate

My friend, CNAS colleague, and Gen. McChrystal review team member Andrew Exum has opened up Abu Muqawama for an online dialogue about the strategic rationale for the war in Afghanistan. Thus far he has posted very interesting comments from Scott Wedman, Bernard Finel, and somebody who thus far lacks a name (Ex, you should identify your contributors!). I'm glad that he's doing so, even if this is a debate which should have happened months or years ago. If you're interested in such questions, head on over there and join the fray.

I very rarely write about Afghanistan or Pakistan, primarily because it lies outside of the Arabic-speaking Middle East areas which I know well -- I don't speak the languages, I don't have fine-grained local knowledge, I don't follow the regional media. I can't help noticing that such constraints don't seem to stop anyone else, though. At any rate, I'm not going to join the new Iraq refugees and refocus on the AfPak policy debate. But since Exum has thrown open the question, Foreign Policy is launching its AfPak channel today, and I'm going to be seeing Richard Holbrooke's team at the CAP event on Wednesday, I'll throw out a few thoughts at least.

I have an open mind on these questions, want the U.S. mission to succeed, and have a great deal of confidence in the Obama national security team. I know that there have been a number of policy reviews at all levels of the government on Afghanistan strategy, and that most of the questions I can raise have already been discussed at one or the other. But at the same time, I find the strategic rationale for escalating the war in Afghanistan extremely thin, and the mismatch between avowed aims and available resources frighteningly wide. What are the strategic reasons for expanding the commitment in Afghanistan? Why should the US be committing to a project of armed state building now, in 2009?

I hope that the argument isn't that it's to prevent al-Qaeda from reconstituting itself in the Afghan safe havens. That's a fool's game. It makes sense to keep the pressure on al-Qaeda, but does that require "armed state building"?

Suppose the U.S. succeeded beyond all its wildest expectations, and turned Afghanistan into Nirvana on Earth, an orderly, high GDP nirvana with universal health care and a robust wireless network (and even suppose that it did this without the expense depriving Americans of the same things). So what? Al-Qaeda (or what we call al-Qaeda) could easily migrate to Somalia, to Yemen, deeper into Pakistan, into the Caucasus, into Africa --- into a near infinite potential pool of ungoverned or semi-governed spaces with potentially supportive environments. Are we to commit the United States to bringing effective governance and free wireless to the entire world? On whose budget? To his credit, McChrystal adviser Steve Biddle raises all of these questions in his excellent American Interest article from last month -- but in my view goes wrong by limiting the policy options to either full withdrawal or full commitment to COIN.

Another option which used to be on the table, as I understood it, was a much more narrowly focused policy of keeping the pressure on al-Qaeda while letting Afghan politics sort itself out. But from my distance, at least, it seems that this approach is being overwhelmed by those arguing for a much more expansive mission (as Michael Cohen has been documenting for a while under the category title "Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch"). And that worries me. I see why keeping al-Qaeda on the ropes matters. But I just don't really see why trying to build an Afghan state is a significant American national interest, or that it can be done at a price commensurate to its significance.

I fear that the escalation of the war in Afghanistan is following a dangerous path of least resistance. Given the assignment to win the war in Afghanistan, of course a military which has been reshaped by its experience in Iraq will turn to COIN doctrine. Once the decision is made to apply a COIN approach, of course the military is going to ask for more troops there, and a long commitment, since it's always been obvious that really doing COIN in Afghanistan would require vastly more troops than are currently deployed. And then, at each step of the way, there will be a strong tactical argument for expansion and a very difficult sell for any attempt to argue for restraint. Once that iron logic has been accepted, all else follows -- and it becomes extremely difficult to reverse course.

But I remain far from convinced that COIN is the right approach, especially when compared not to total U.S. withdrawal but to a more minimalist strategy. The attraction of COIN seems to derive from learning only partial lessons from Iraq -- conveniently forgetting that the "surge" and COIN were only one of a number of factors contributing to the changing conditions there, along with the Sunni turn against al-Qaeda which long predated the "surge" and the near-completion of sectarian cleansing in many urban areas, and that its long-term success in Iraq is far from guaranteed. And Afghanistan, as should be obvious, is very different from Iraq. Its advocates argue that this simply means that the approach needs to be adapted to the local conditions and the mission adequately resourced. I'm not at all convinced.

The best of the COIN-distas have generated tremendously innovative thinking about how to do COIN, and I'm confident that they will do their best to make this work. But that's a very different question from whether COIN should be done in the first place. Exum does a service by providing a forum -- at CNAS, home of some of that top COIN thinking -- to bring these questions into sharper focus. So I'll be following it with an open mind, and hope others do as well. I know what questions I'll have ready for Holbrooke's team if I get called on....

Marc Lynch

Tough times for the Awakenings -- crisis or opportunity?

 Like most people who follow Iraq, I've been watching the mounting tensions surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence with some concern.   I don't think that we're seeing the "great unravelling" quite yet, nor that we're yet seeing a return to higher levels of violence, insurgency and civil war.   But the increased violence and the growing chorus of complaints about the failures of political accommodation should be a cautionary note to the Iraqi government and to the major political players that time is running out to make the crucial political power-sharing agreements necessary before American troop withdrawals pick up their pace.

 The arrest of a leading Awakenings figure by Iraqi Security Forces which led to a highly-publicized military standoff a few weeks ago is only one instance of a wider pattern.  Tensions surrounding that arrest were exacerbated by an inflammatory blizzard of statements by Maliki and others warning that the Awakenings had been infilitrated by Baathists and al-Qaeda.  A series of attacks by unknown groups have added to the tension.  It all adds up to a general sense of apprehension, with members of the Awakenings worried about their future and many others worried that the security situation may be on the brink.

 The situation is extremely murky, and it's hard to really know anything with confidence.  What I've been seeing in the Iraqi and Arab media, and hearing from the people I've spoken with, is a wide range of competing interpretations and arguments over everything from the identity of the attackers (al-Qaeda? rival Awakenings groups? Shi'a militias looking to stir things up?) to the intentions of the Iraqi government (eliminate the Awakenings?  weed out the 'bad elements' within them? force the U.S. to take sides, and test the U.S. implementation of the SOFA?).  The high level of uncertainty and confusion is itself a significant point -- the impact of fear and uncertainty on strategic calculations should never be underestimated.

 Given all that uncertainty, it would be unwise to offer a confident assessment of what's really going on.  But the emerging crisis surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence do both seem to be primarily driven by the continuing refusal of Maliki and the Iraqi government to make meaningful political accommodations and their decision to move against at least some of the Awakenings groups at a convenient moment.  

 The official moves against the Awakenings look like salami tactics, divide and rule rather than a full-scale assault. Maliki, as in the past, seems quite happy to work with parts of the Anbar Awakenings (talk of a political deal with Ahmed Abu Risha is in the air again) even as he moves against Awakenings elsewhere.  Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are.  They are likely gambling that this fragmentation creates such intense coordination problems that they can take out a few of their most dangerous potential enemies here and there without triggering a widespread Sunni uprising.  Watching the reaction of the various Awakenings thus far -- as some protested angrily but others cheered -- suggests that they are right.  It's a dangerous game, though.  The question would be whether there is some tipping point, at which a large number of uncoordinated and self-interested small groups suddenly switch sides (as arguably happened in the other direction in the spring of 2007).

 It would not take a revolt en masse for a change in the status of the Awakenings to have an effect on security.  In a recent interview with al-Arabiya, Salah al-Mutlaq warned that the government's failure to deliver on its promises of security and civil jobs to the Awakenings and the arrest of a number of Awakenings leaders were spreading fear and uncertainty through their ranks. Members who aren't getting paid, see their leaders targeted, and see diminishing prospects of future payoffs could begin to fade away. They could stop performing their local security functions, allowing violent groups easier access to areas which had been off-limits for the last year or two.   Or some could return to violent action in an individual capacity -- and even if only 10% went that route, that could put 10,000 hardened fighters back into play (in addition to people recently released from the prisons, another issue which factors in here).

 The crackdown on the Awakenings has regional implications as well, particularly with the ever-skeptical Saudis who have generally supported the Awakenings movements.  The Arab press has taken careful note of their reversal of fortunes, which Adel al-Bayati in al-Quds al-Arabi calls Maliki's coup against the Awakenings.  Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (which usually reflects official Saudi thinking), complains bitterly today that recent events have made his warnings from last August about the coming betrayal of the Awakenings come true.  The Awakenings were not bearing arms against the Iraqi state, argues Homayed, but rather were protecting the Iraqi state against al-Qaeda and assisting its stabilization ahead of the American withdrawal. But, he warns, narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences. 

 This reflects a theme which extends beyond the Saudi sphere. Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accommodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings.  The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the "true Shia sectarianism" of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq.  

 I'm obviously worried about all of this.  I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due.  But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action. 

 That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence.  It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken.  Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress.  President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011.    Maliki and everyone need to take deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't.