Thursday, October 22, 2009

Steve Coll vs. Rory Stewart on the AfPak endgame

In almost perfect counterpoise on Obama's excrutiating decision on how to proceed in Afghanistan and Pakistan are two supremely well-informed former sojourners in that country, Rory Stewart and Steve Coll. Stewart sees futlity in what he casts as neoimperialist attempts to shape an alien culture; Coll outlines with great authority the dangers of letting the Taliban thrive, and advocates working to foster an Afghan government that negotiates and governs its way to a measure of legitimacy and adequate authority. They are not quite opposites, since Stewart would not cede the country to the Taliban and Coll is cautious and noncommittal about the degree of military engagement. But they're on different sides of the midpoint.

Considering the linked or not-so-linked goals of neutralizing al Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan, both emphasize the swallow-the-spider-to-catch-the-fly nature of pursuing the latter goal as a means to the former. But Stewart ravels out the chain of goals to mock it, while Coll demonstrates pretty powerfully that the concantenations are real. Here's Stewart's irony:
Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don’t have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed the New Yorker, ‘If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.’
Coll breaks this circularity by widening the chessboard. The key to Pakistani stability, he emphasizes, is peace with India:
American policy over the next five or 10 years must proceed from the understanding that the ultimate exit strategy for international forces from South Asia is Pakistan's economic success and political normalization, manifested in an Army that shares power with civilian leaders in a reasonably stable constitutional bargain, and in the increasing integration of Pakistan's economy with regional economies, including India's. Such an evolution will likely consolidate the emerging view within Pakistan's elites that the country requires a new and less self-defeating national security doctrine. As in the Philippines, Colombia, and Indonesia, the pursuit of a more balanced, less coup-ridden, more modern political-military order in Pakistan need not be complete or confused with perfection for it to gradually pinch the space in which al Qaeda, the Taliban, and related groups now operate. Moreover, in South Asia, outsiders need not construct or impose this modernizing pathway as a neo-imperial project. The hope for durable change lies first of all in the potential for normalizing relations between Pakistan and India, a negotiation between elites in those two countries that is already well under way, without Western mediation, and is much more advanced than is typically appreciated. Its success is hardly assured, but because of the transformational effect such normalization would create, the effects of American policies in the region on its prospects should be carefully assessed.
Against this backdrop, a Taliban insurgency that increasingly destabilizes both Afghanistan and the border region with Pakistan would make such regional normalization very difficult, if not impossible, in the foreseeable future. Among other things, it would reinforce the sense of siege and encirclement that has shaped the Pakistan Army's self-defeating policies of support for Islamist militias that provide, along with a nuclear deterrent, asymmetrical balance against a (perceived) hegemonic India.
More directly to the point of how the U.S. should proceed in Afghanistan, Coll one by one recouples the delinkages of those who suggest the U.S. can 'contain' al Qaeda without working hard to foster a coherent state in Afghanistan. First, most arrestingly, he debunks the notion that chaos or Taliban rule in large swaths of Afghanistan and Pakistan don't matter much, because al Qaeda could find a haven in any of a number of failed or extremist states:
It is simply not true that all potential al Qaeda sanctuaries are of the same importance, now or potentially. Bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, have a 30-year, unique history of trust and collaboration with the Pashtun Islamist networks located in North Waziristan, Bajaur, and the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. It is not surprising, given this distinctive history, that al Qaeda's presumed protectors -- perhaps the Haqqani network, which provided the territory in which al Qaeda constructed its first training camps in the summer of 1988 -- have never betrayed their Arab guests.
These networks have fought alongside al Qaeda since the mid-1980s and have raised vast sums of money in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states through their connections. They possess infrastructure -- religious institutions, trucking firms, criminal networks, preaching networks, housing networks -- from Kandahar and Khost Province, and from Quetta to Karachi's exurban Pashtun neighborhoods, that is either impervious to penetration by the Pakistani state or has coopted those in the Pakistani security services who might prove disruptive. It is mistaken to assume that Bin Laden, Zawahiri, or other Arab leaders would enjoy similar sanctuary anywhere else. In Somalia they would almost certainly be betrayed for money; in Yemen, they would be much more susceptible to detection by the country's police network. The United States should welcome the migration of al Qaeda's leadership to such countries.
Coll also rebuts the notion that the Taliban might not shelter al Qaeda this time around:
It would also be mistaken to believe, as some in the Obama administration have apparently argued, that a future revolutionary Taliban government in Kabul, having seized power by force, might decide on its own or could be persuaded to forswear connections with al Qaeda. Although the Taliban are an amalgamation of diverse groupings, some of which have little or no connection to al Qaeda, the historical record of collaboration between the Haqqani network and al Qaeda, to choose one example, is all but certain to continue and probably would deepen during any future era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The benefits of a Taliban state to al Qaeda are obvious: After the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States gathered evidence that al Qaeda used Afghan government institutions as cover for import of dual-use items useful for its military projects. Reporters with the McClatchy newspaper group's Washington bureau recently quoted a senior U.S. intelligence official on this subject: "It is our belief that the primary focus of the Taliban is regional, that is Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the same time, there is no reason to believe that the Taliban are abandoning their connections to al Qaeda ... The two groups ... maintain the kind of close relationship that -- if the Taliban were able to take effective control over parts of Afghanistan -- would probably give al Qaeda expanded room to operate." This assessment is consistent with recent history.
Coll has a nuanced view of history. He sees the parallels between U.S. attempts to pacify Afghanisan and the Soviet debacle there, but also the differences:
By comparison to the challenges facing the Soviet Union after it began to "Afghanize" its strategy around 1985 and prepare for the withdrawal of its troops, the situation facing the United States and its allies today is much more favorable. Afghan public opinion remains much more favorably disposed toward international forces and cooperation with international governments than it ever was toward the Soviet Union. The presence of international forces in Afghanistan today is recognized as legitimate and even righteous, whereas the Soviets never enjoyed such support and were unable to draw funds and credibility from international institutions. China today wants a stable Afghanistan; in the Soviet era, it armed the Islamic rebels. The Pakistani Army today is divided and uncertain in its relations with the Taliban, and beginning to turn against them; during the Soviet period, the Army was united in its effort to support Islamist rebels. And even if the number of active Taliban fighters today is on the high side of published estimates, those numbers pale in comparison to the number of Islamic guerrillas fighting the Soviet forces and their Afghan clients.
In other words, the project of an adequately stable Afghan state free from coercive Taliban rule for the indefinite future can be achieved, although there are no guarantees.
He also debunks the cliche that a cohesive state in Afghanistan is an impossible dream because it has never happened before:
Nor does the project of an adequately intact, if weak and decentralized, Afghan state, require the imposition of Western imagination. Between the late 18th century and World War I, Afghanistan was a troubled but coherent and often peaceful independent state. Although very poor, after the 1920s it enjoyed a long period of continuous peace with its neighbors, secured by a multi-ethnic Afghan National Army and unified by a national culture. That state and that culture were badly damaged, almost destroyed, by the wars ignited by the Soviet invasion of 1979 -- wars to which we in the United States contributed destructively. But this vision and memory of Afghan statehood and national identity has hardly disappeared. After 2001, Afghans returned to their country from refugee camps and far flung exile to reclaim their state -- not to invent a brand new Western-designed one, as our overpriced consultants sometimes advised, but to reclaim their own decentralized but nonetheless unified and even modernizing country.
The range of Coll's historical perpective - that the U.S. is not the Soviet Union (though prone to some of the same kinds of errors), that a coherent Afghan state is not a pipe dream, that the AfPak badlands are al Qaeda's native environment -- is really priceless. Equally nuanced is his sense of the possibilities and limitations of political pressure informed by goals that are political in the deepest sense: peace between Pakistan and India, inter-ethnic engagement and negotiation by the Afghan government.

None of this deep knowledge and balanced perspective means that Coll is necessarily right about the prospects of in some recognizable sense "winning" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But he's come closer than either Richard Holbrooke or Stanely McChrystal to articulating what success might look like -- and even how the U.S. and international community might help foster it.

Stewart's view is as complex, nuanced and informed as Coll's. He details the unlikeihood that the U.S. can defeat the Taliban outright; the equal unlikelihood that the Taliban could overrun the entire country; the impossiblity of "building" a central government whose writ extends in modern nation-state style across the entire country; and the paradox that a relatively strong state can be a more dangerous haven for the likes of al Qaeda than a weak one. He emphasizes what can't be done more than what can, and Coll does the opposite; but both see a mixed outcome and the possibility for limited cooperation/collaboration with the Afghan government, infused by humility.

But a fundamental difference remains. Coll defends assumptions and ultimately (if equivocally) embraces goals that Stewart sees as delusive:
The fundamental assumptions remain that an ungoverned or hostile Afghanistan is a threat to global security; that the West has the ability to address the threat and bring prosperity and security; that this is justified and a moral obligation; that economic development and order in Afghanistan will contribute to global stability; that these different objectives reinforce each other; and that there is no real alternative.
But why delusive? In the end, Stewart's critique devolves into literary criticism - an analysis of the syntax of two 19th century British statesmen with different world views. His preference for the language and world view of the skeptic is not an argument. He highlights many perhaps insurmountable difficulties of attaining the vision outlined above, but he stops short of really indicating how to attain a messy but viable alternative. Coll, in the end, engages facts on the ground more relentlessly.

UPDATE 11/1: In retrospect I don't think I did justice to Stewart's argument here, which is cleaner in his Senate testimony. His case for why Afghanistan is unlikely to achieve a reasonably unified national government any time soon is at least as detailed as Coll's to the contrary, as is his policy recommendation -- 20,000 troops, aid targeted to selected projects.

I do think that there's a logical flaw in one of Stewart's syllogisms: a) Afghanistan is 30 years behind Pakistan in state-building capacity; b) Pakistan is a worse danger to us than Afghanistan, precisely because it's a cohesive enough state to preclude full-scale US military engagement in its tribal havens for the Taliban and al Qaeda; c) we're actually better off with a weak Afghanistan than we'd be with a relatively strong one. That sequence ignores the fact that Pakistan is so dangerous in large part because of the long Afghan Civil War and Pakistan's engagement with (creation of) the Taliban. Stewart lampoons the chicken-egg nature of arguments for counterinsurgency-as-counterterrorism, the interchangeability of alleged cause and effect But his attempt to pull the cause and effect chain straight is no more convincing than that of the counterinsurgency theorists.

More to come on this.


  1. "Equally nuanced is his sense of the possibilities and limitations of political pressure informed by goals that are political in the deepest sense: peace between Pakistan and India, inter-ethnic engagement and negotiation by the Afghan government."

    --> Thanks for the compare and contrast. I tend to take the side of Stewart because he seems to have a better handle on the difficulties in the region.

    Peace between India and Pakistan is difficult for a reason. They are expressions of 2 different ideas, a state espousing a religion (Pakistan) versus a state espousing multiple religions (India). Kashmir is a symptom of that divide. Unless the tension between those 2 ideas is clarified, peace between India and Pakistan will be short term.

  2. What's a concrete difference in policy between the two? I'm having trouble connecting their frameworks with large action. Does Stewart think we should essentially get out completely?

  3. Bryant: Stewart recommends "muddling through" (his term) with about 20,000 troops. From a TNR profile (at

    Stewart believes the foreign-troop presence in Afghanistan should actually be reduced--all the way down to 20,000. Those troops would then be used exclusively to fight Al Qaeda terrorists; the Taliban would no longer be an enemy. At the same time, while Stewart’s plan envisions continued aid to Afghans to support electricity, water, health, education, and agriculture development, the United States would cease with its state-building project and essentially leave the Kabul government to its own devices.

  4. Thanks for the reply.

    Wouldn't it be a problem that the 20k troops wouldn't consider the Taliban an enemy but the Taliban would consider them an enemy? Or would they (the Taliban) be preoccupied with fighting the Afghan govt?

  5. Here's Stewart, in Senate testimony, on how a 20,000 troop presence would work. I'm thinking now that the above post, based on his Times Review of Books article, does not really do justice to his position:

    The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer – perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state or winning a counter-insurgency campaign. A reduction in troop numbers and a turn away from state-building should not mean total withdrawal: good projects could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development and in other areas favoured by development agencies. Even a light US presence could continue to allow for aggressive operations against Al Qaeda terrorists, in Afghanistan, who plan to attack the United States. The US has successfully prevent Al Qaeda from re-establishing itself since 2001 (though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.). The US military could also (with other forms of assistance) support the Afghan military to prevent the Taliban from seizing a city or taking over the country.

    These twin objectives will require a very long-term presence, as indeed is almost inevitable in a country which is as poor, as fragile and traumatized as Afghanistan
    (and which lacks the internal capacity at the moment to become independent of Foreign aid or control its territory). But a long-term presence will in turn mean a much lighter and more limited presence (if it is to retain US domestic support). We should not control and cannot predict the future of Afghanistan. It may in the future become more violent, or find a decentralised equilibrium or a new national unity, but if its communities continue to want to work with us, we can, over 30 years, encourage the more positive trends in Afghan society and help to contain the more negative....
    full testimony at

    p.s. Is it true that Bryant is finally getting rid of the fashion show after this Jan.?

  6. Thanks.
    I think he understands the"traumatization" of Afghanistan better than most, so I'm inclined to agree with him.
    Obama is in a tough spot though since he campaigned that we neglected Afghanistan because of Iraq.

    Bryant park: I have no idea! I was just there when I posted