Friday, May 18, 2012

A Rory Stewart Afghan strategy -- on timed release?

In August 2009, as the Obama administration mulled an escalation of its war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Rory Stewart, the Brit who walked across Afghanistan in mid-winter, mused about his consultations with U.S. officials to the Financial Times' Emily Stokes : 
Since arriving at Harvard in June last year, he has been consultant to several members of Barack Obama’s administration, including Hillary Clinton, and is a member of Richard Holbrooke’s special committee for Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. “I do a lot of work with policymakers, but how much effect am I having?” he asks, pronging a mussel out of its shell.

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says ...’”
Stewart's own recommendation, voiced in Senate testimony in September 2009, was for a scaled-down and therefore sustainable -- and long-term -- commitment:

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...

The international community should aim to provide a patient, tolerant long-term relationship with a country as poor and traumatized as Afghanistan. Judging by comparable countries in the developing world (and Afghanistan is very near the bottom of the UN Human Development index), making Afghanistan more stable, prosperous and humane is a project which will take decades. It is a worthwhile project in the long-term for us and for Afghans but we will only be able to sustain our presence if we massively reduce our investment and our ambitions and begin to approach Afghanistan more as we do other poor countries in the developing world .
More than two and a half years later, on the eve of a Nato summit on Afghanistan, compare what U.S. officials and analysts are saying about Afghan policy and goals going forward, as reported by Helene Cooper and Thom Shanker in the Times. Here's National Security adviser Thomas Donilon:
“The goal is to have an Afghanistan again that has a degree of stability such that forces like Al Qaeda and associated groups cannot have safe haven unimpeded, which could threaten the region and threaten U.S. and other interests in the world,” Mr. Donilon said. 
With Afghan forces assuming the lead role in 2013 for protecting the country and its government, Mr. Donilon said the NATO allies hoped to leave behind “a set of security assets that allow it to provide for that modicum of stability” that will allow Afghanistan to protect itself against Al Qaeda and ensure that the United States’ core goal — making sure that Al Qaeda cannot again use Afghanistan as a base from which to target the West — is met.
Analyst Anthony Cordesman, in  a paper titled “Time to Focus on ‘Afghan Good Enough”(cited in the Times article), paints a grim picture of "Afghan good enough" that boils down to salvaging and sustaining areas already under relatively firm government control, joined loosely to other areas controlled by warlords not in league with the Taliban. For the long haul, that requires focusing on a downsized and sustainable Afghan army:
This means a force that can credibly be funded with the money that could actually come rather than relying on promises. It means focusing on the army, knowing that much of the police will remain ineffective or corrupt. It means securing the Afghan government where it is now effective, rather than trying to expand it into vulnerable ink spots than can easily be overrun once U.S. and ISAF forces leave. It also means creating plans for the size of Afghan forces that trainers and partners can credibly sustain, providing more than mere pledges and hopes.
Cordesman also calls for decentralizing aid efforts, channeling aid "only to those who actually use it effectively," inside and out of central government. His bottom line:
Even if the United States, its allies, donors, and the Afghan government do face up to these realities, success will be uncertain and limited. This kind of Afghan “good enough” falls far short of the goals the United States and its allies once set, or claim to be pursuing now. The reality, however, is that it is this Afghanistan that offers at least some hope of holding together and protecting large numbers of Afghans. Pursuing today’s “strategy” and illusions offers almost no hope at all.
That sense of disappointment and failure, of goals radically scaled back, pervades the Times article too, and much commentary.  Yet the current strategy is not far from what Stewart recommended in September 2009. The projecting number of troops to remain post 2014 is about what Stewart recommended too -- in the neighborhood of 15,000. 

The scaled-down goals may seem cynical. But, as Stewart urged in his Senate testimony, they are the opposite:
The best way of avoiding the mistakes of the 1980s and 1990s – the familiar cycle of investment and abandonment which most Afghan expect and fear and which have contributed so much to instability and danger - is to husband and conserve our resources, limit our objectives to counter-terrorism and humanitarian assistance and work out how to work with fewer troops and less money over a longer period. In Afghanistan in the long-term, less will be more.
Obama's strategy has in fact been Stewart's -- on timed release.  This is not 20/20 hindsight.  Stewart himself saw it, in the immediate wake of Obama's December 2009 speech announcing the end-stopped troop surge.  One might have thought Stewart's reaction would be titled "over the cliff."  Quite the opposite.  In a December 17, 2009 article in The New York Review of Books*, he read the surge, and Obama's definition of the mission at that point, as a necessary precondition for something like his own recommended policy:
Obama could not refuse the bulk of the general's requests without being personally blamed for the future of Afghanistan.

Little wonder that some called (in the President's words) "for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort—one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade." How could they ask for any other course when they argued from within a conceptual prison, founded on fears, boxed in by domestic political calculations, restricted by misleading definitions, buttressed by syllogisms, endorsed by generals, and crowned with historical analogies? Yet this is what the President said about full-scale escalation:
I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don't have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I'm mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who—in discussing our national security—said, "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs."
I felt as though I had come to hear a fifteenth-century scholastic and found myself suddenly encountering Erasmus: someone not quite free of the peculiarities of the old way, and therefore haunted by its elisions, omissions, and contradictions; but already anticipating a reformation. Obama's central—and revolutionary—claim is that our responsibility, our means, and our interests are finite in Afghanistan. As he says, "we can't simply afford to ignore the price of these wars." Instead of pursuing an Afghan policy for existential reasons—doing "whatever it takes" and "whatever it costs"—we should accept that there is a limit on what we can do. And we don't have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do.
Stewart elaborated the extent to which Obama wriggled out of the conceptual box in which COIN doctrine, the McChrystal report, and his own campaign rhetoric would have seemed to have placed him:
The simple process of naming our past and present strategies already generates and restricts our response. Thus by naming operations in Afghanistan a counterinsurgency, we may feel compelled to deploy one trained counterinsurgent for every fifty members of the population; by labeling our approach "an Afghanistan–Pakistan strategy," we imply that our actions in Afghanistan are vital to the security of Pakistan; by putting the Taliban in the category of those pursuing a global jihad, we conclude that we cannot negotiate with them; by naming Afghanistan a terrorist safe haven or a failed state, we conclude that failure (or even a light "footprint") is not an option.

Obama deftly avoided all these words and traps in his speech, perhaps because he has become aware of their extreme implications. There was no talk of victory. His aim was no longer to defeat but to contain the Taliban: to "deny it the ability to overthrow the government." He explicitly rejected a long "nation-building project." He talked not of eliminating but of keeping the pressure on al-Qaeda. He did not speak of a moral obligation to the Afghan people. He did not specify any necessary logical connections between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He asserted that "there's no imminent threat of the [Afghan] government being overthrown." He emphasized that "we will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens." He did not draw parallels with the surge in Iraq. And most strikingly of all, whereas he had referred four times in March to insurgency, now he stated that "unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency." [snip]

...this moderate tone gains Obama the leverage that Bush lacked. As long as the US asserted that Afghanistan was an existential threat, the front line in the war on terror, and that, therefore, failure was not an option, the US had no leverage over Karzai.
And the kicker:
But perhaps even more importantly, defining a more moderate and limited strategy gives him leverage over his own generals. By refusing to endorse or use the language of counterinsurgency in the speech, he escapes their doctrinal logic. By no longer committing the US to defeating the Taliban or state-building, he dramatically reduces the objectives and the costs of the mission. By talking about costs, the fragility of public support, and other priorities, he reminds the generals why this surge must be the last. All of this serves to "cap" the troop increases at current levels and provide the justification for beginning to reduce numbers in 2011.
Indeed, the downsizing of goals in Afghanistan began much earlier -- in the first week of the Obama presidency. Here's Robert Gates on January 22, 2009, as reported by Joe Klein (his emphasis):
I think one of the — one of the points where I suspect both administrations come to the same conclusion is that the goals we did have for Afghanistan are too broad and too far into the future, are too future-oriented, and that we need more concrete goals that can be achieved realistically within three to five years in terms of reestablishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after al Qaeda, preventing the reestablishment of terrorism, better performance in terms of delivery of services to the people, some very concrete things. 
Today, the terms in which Obama describes both the condition of Afghanistan and the west's commitment to it closely track Stewart's:
I never believed that America could essentially deliver peace and prosperity to all of Afghanistan in a three-, four-, five-year time frame. And I think anybody who believed that didn’t know the history and the challenges facing Afghanistan. I mean, this is the third poorest country in the world, with one of the lowest literacy rates and no significant history of a strong civil service or an economy that was deeply integrated with the world economy. It’s going to take decades for Afghanistan to fully achieve its potential...

From the perspective of our security interests, I think we can accomplish our goal, which is to make sure that Afghanistan is not a safe haven from which to launch attacks against the United States or its allies. But the international community — not just us; the Russians and the Chinese and the Indians and the Pakistanis and the Iranians and others — I think all have an interest in making sure that Afghanistan is not engulfed in constant strife, and I think that’s an achievable goal.

As with other messes that Obama inherited, the fair measure of his conduct is whether he found the least bad strategy, or something reasonably close to it. The best argument against that claim in this case is that he wasted three years of blood and treasure without increasing the odds that Afghanistan won't devolve into total civil war or total Taliban control. Michael Hastings makes that case:
After Obama made what many around him now privately acknowledge was a mistake to escalate the conflict three years ago — essentially creating a new war of his own, tripling the size of U.S. forces after he caved under intense pressure from the Pentagon — the White House has been desperately searching for a way out. Ideally, one that couldn’t be spun as a full on retreat.

The administration didn’t find it at the last NATO Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, two years ago. The U.S. still had to pretend they were in it for the next decade. There, NATO Secretary General Anders Foghs Rasmussen boldly committed the U.S. and Europe beyond 2014. “One thing must be very clear: NATO is in this for the long term,” he told reporters at the time.

Today, the calculus has changed completely, while the strategy’s failure is nearly impossible to deny. Bin Laden’s killing — which, for what it’s worth, had zero relationship to the counterinsurgency plan we adopted — gave Obama the political cover to pull it off. Finally, Obama could overrule his generals (which he did a month after the Osama raid) whose plan called for 130,000 troops to stay for years more to come...

One thousand nine hundred and fifty six NATO soldiers have been killed since President Obama decided to escalate the war in Afghanistan in 2009, the majority of them American. That’s almost double the number of soldiers who’d been killed in the previous eight years of the conflict. About 362 billion U.S. tax dollars, likely to hit half a trillion the next two years, has been blown in the wastelands of Helmand and Kandahar and Kabul....

The peace negotiations that could have started three years ago have now finally begun in earnest. But not with us in a stronger negotiating position, as was the plan. The hardliners with the Taliban — and the hardliners within the Republican party — will do their best to scuttle any peace talks. That being said, everyone is more or less sick of this war — Afghans and Americans alike — and hawks on Capitol Hill and in the Quetta Shurra alike are likely to lose this debate. 
 Hastings' bottom line:
The tragedy here, however, is not so much that the strategy didn’t work, it’s that it never had a chance of working. Obama and many of his advisors knew or suspected this all along. The summit in Chicago will be the latest reminder of a very unfortunate mistake.
One response to that conclusion: it depends what your definition of "work" is.  Does "Afghan good enough" have any meaning, or is the country headed for civil war/Taliban takeover? Does anyone know? Will the U.S. in fact sustain a Stewartesque strategy over ten years -- 15,000 troops, modest targeted aid, prevention of big-city Taliban takeover?

A second question: could the administration have achieved as good or better results if it had scaled back -- followed Stewart's advice -- in 2009?  Could such a strategy have worked politically back then? Even Hastings admits that both the hardliners at home and "in the Quetta Shurra" have less leverage to scuttle a scale-down of hostilities.

Is it obscene to consider anything short of civil war or Taliban takeover a result 'good enough' to justify the blood and treasure spilled that Hastings chronicles? I don't know.  The sense of failure on the ground does seem pervasive. But perhaps it's too early to tell.  Of "Afghan good enough," perhaps the best that can be said is that those who are engaged will know it when they see it -- or know its absence when they see it.

One thing that does seem clear, though: there was wisdom in Stewart's call for both low expectations and long-term commitment.

 * Excerpts here, with annotations, are lifted from my own Jan. 2010 post responding to Stewart's article.

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