Saturday, December 29, 2012

Clash of civilizations

It's the White House vs the State Department vs the Military vs USAID vs Marines vs Army, vs Pakistan, vs ... oh yes, Afghanistan! A review of Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book about our war in Afghanistan.

Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Little America" is highly painful reading. Almost every sentence is about some stupidity by which we shot ourselves in the foot in Afganistan during the recent surge. (A boiled down version of Chandrasekaran's points.) This was the time when we finally really "got it", when we really understood the lay of the land, had a non-deluded president in charge, and put the right resources in play. Yet the accomplishments have been meagre, to say the least.



The Marines have cleaned up Helmand province for the moment, but Eastern Afghanistan has languished and overall security is little better. And Pakistan? It responded to our surge by egging the Taliban into a surge of its own, while preventing any negotiations. Some ally! More importantly, though, the long game seems nowhere in sight. The (Afghan) government is as corrupt and incompetent as ever, and the Taliban waits in Pakistan to move right back in as soon as the US leaves. The Afghan army and police, which were supposed to be trained and ready to replace the US forces, are nowhere near ready, filled with unmotivated clock punchers (and abusers of their fellow citizens) with little logistical apparatus.

What happened? Well, for one thing we continue to be befuddled by the Afghan culture. The surge was all about installing district-level governance that would provide the services, at least some of which the Taliban was so famed for: quick justice, local policing, schools, and agricultural aid. Is that what the Afghans wanted? Is that what President Karzai wanted?

It turns out, no- that is not what they wanted. The Afghans already had a governance structure in the form of a very hierarchical tribal / warlord system. Each woman has a male who controls her, each family has its male head, or elder, and each family has its tribal council of elders with a commander, and each tribe fights tooth and nail with other local tribes to put its man in charge as the local warlord. Afghans are educated in the school of social power in a way that we in the west can hardly even conceive of any more, despite all our technological power (exhibit A: Obama's weirdly absent negotiating skills).

It is, however, as old as humanity, from ancient Greece and beyond- a life of constant warfare and power struggle. The West has made a long journey through the Roman legal system and medieval constitutions like the Magna Carta (with detours through the Tudors!) to arrive at the Nobel prize-wining EU. Our children are plunged into some of this primitive schooling in junior high, but we diligently try to civilize them out of it as soon as possible.

However Afghanistan has been on a different road, one strangely abetted by the militant bigotry of Islam. And its people (at least those in power, who have the guns and typically the most highly honed conception of how to screw others) were and are apparently not ready to make this fast-forward transition to a non-tribal system of "good governance" as we understand it.

Chandrasekaran presents an interesting example, portraying president Hamid Karzai's brother Ahmed Wali Karzai as Hamid's answer to governing Kandahar, which went quite well, except that the Taliban was all over the place. It was a beautiful bit of corruption, served the local population to some degree, kept a superficial peace, and displayed Hamid Karzai's evident disinterest in taking on the Taliban in any direct way or providing western-style governance. While he vociferously complained about Pakistan harboring the Taliban, he didn't seem to have much problem with Taliban on his own doorstep, and indeed threated to join the Taliban himself in one particularly unhinged press conference.

Why? Perhaps because when all is said and done, Pashtun tribal solidarity, which the Karzais share with the Taliban, trumps the national interest, and certainly trumps the interests of the US. In any case, after working for years to sideline Ahmed Wali for his corruption, putative drug interests, and ineffectiveness vs the Taliban, the US finally started working with him late in the surge, with postive effects, at least until he was assassinated by the Taliban. Who's the boss now?

Another theme of the book is the peace negotiations with the Taliban that Richard Holbrook in particular was keen on, on the theory that our surge gave us the time of maximum power to extract a reasonable peace deal. But the surge also had a deadline, allowing the Taliban to simply wait us out and reap the rewards of what they sensed to be the continuing gross incompetance of the Afghan government, helped along by a few choice assassinations.

This is one place where I think the book goes off the rails. It goes into excruciating detail about why the negotiation idea failed. Holbrook was hated by the rest of the bureaucracy, Pakistan wouldn't let the Taliban negotiate, the military didn't want to hear about it, much rather playing with its toys and killing people. Etc. and so forth. But the basic idea is not questioned, and the distinct impression is given that these talks were some brilliant solution that died a bureaucratic death.

But to me such negotiations were a non-starter, and I agree (reluctantly) with the military on this one. Doubtless Holbrooke had sugarplum-like visions of his personal heroics at Dayton (on the post-Yugoslav war) and the Paris negotiations (on the Vietnam war), which explains his desire to put himself at center stage. But I think the parallel with Vietnam is uncomfortably and instructively close.

We never gained anything by our negotiations to end the Vietnam war. The brutal truth is that the North took over the South, and the US lost about 60,000 soldiers and the local countries well over a million people. The only thing the negotiations proved (by confidence-building measures like bombing pauses and the like) was that the US had civilian control over the military. Which is not an insignificant point, but not one likely to impress an enemy which had a sanctuary from which to attack, an incredibly effective quasi-religious ideology (including a healthy dose of nationalism) that motivated its own citizens and infected those of the enemy, and which faced a terminally corrupt and incompetent government in the South. And which, incidentally, had perfectly effective civilian control over its military as well.

Sound familar? But instead of working with the time-honored governing structures of Afghanistan, such as they are, (and they are typically extremely corrupt), our armed forces cleared areas in horribly painstaking fashion, only to wait for a "government-in-a-box" that never arrived, or if it did, was an ineffective token, ignored by all. Nor did pouring money into the zone alter the fundamental situation, since the long game was always about politico-military power.

The Counter insurgency (COIN) strategy was a fundamentally political strategy, aiming to turn the resident populations away from the Taliban and towards the government. But we had in mind a fundamentally different government (something from Switzerland, perhaps!) than the Afghans themselves had, and fundamentally different from what they are willing to provide on the long term. Perhaps we were spoiled a bit by Iraq, which, while tribal in significant areas, also has a long-standing central state and bureaucratic tradition (several millennia old, indeed) that enabled us to eventually hand off power to someone, despite our many blunders.

In Afghanistan, however, that someone is Hamid Karzai, who has proven himself to be a disaster, solidly in the Afghan tradition of tribal politics and small-minded corruption, utterly uncomprehending of the possibilities of western-style governance where power is heavily restricted so that it can be channeled into lawful, productive, and legitimate pursuits, not zero-sum feuds and wars. Our neglectful treatment of him during the Bush administration also left him with little choice but to run his country the old-fashioned way, rather than through a modern state system that had some chance to appeal to the lowest and most populous rungs of the society, rather than the warlord caste.

In any case, here we are, at the end of the surge, with the Taliban bloodied, but convalescing peacefully in its Pakistani resorts, with the Afghan government hated almost as much as the Taliban, and with the Afghan army a shell of whatever it was supposed to be, to conduct the coming civil war.

Chandrasekaran is most enamored of the advice of one of his well-fawned sources, diplomat John Weston, who thought the surge was misguided in its temporary nature. Better to commit smaller forces for the long term- as long as it might take to protect the core of the Afghan state and wait for the Taliban fires to burn themselves out. The Afghans have been whipsawed so often by one strategy after another, from boots on the ground to light footprints to no-nation-building to yes-nation-building to surges to COINs, etc.. they are exasperated and sick of us, not to mention their own civil wars.

But this assumes that the Taliban were not winning the war and were not gaining territory, and that some modest level of special forces, advisors, and a few other coalition forces could do what they had spent the previous decade not being able to do, which was to put the Afghan government on its feet in some form. The surge has surely helped that process, mostly by increasing the Afghan army and police (another long story of bumbling, waste, and incompetence...). And perhaps also by clarifying all around what each side really means by governance.

It is horrifying to read about the wasted lives, wasted limbs, wasted time, wasted money, ignorance, and mismanagement that has been brought to bear on Afghanistan. That is not to say that other institutions of the West, like finance, or our political system, are paragons of good management. But in Afghanistan we are faced with the most elemental contest of power with extremely experienced and ideologically strong adversaries, which deserves much better from our Western intellectual capacities than what we have so far deployed. We were plunged into a maelstrom of political complexity, and bringing along only one tool- EU-style governance- while admirable in some respects, was also deluded.

Our capability to change foreign cultures is limited. If we really wanted to set up a democracy with women's rights and secular governance for all in Afghanistan, we would have had to shave off the entire top of the social system and sit on the county with about 3 million soldiers for a decade or two (for a country of ~35 million) till our bright new modern generation of Afghans came of age. Social revolution takes work. Pursuing the same aims with fewer resources was doomed, unless there was a local mechanism to sponsor it. That was not Hamid Karzai, or anyone else we were working with who had any power.

On the other hand, just tipping the balance of existing social dynamics, (and blowing things up), as we did for the Northern Alliance to let it topple the Taliban ... that was easy. But then we decided that despite the light footprint, (lightened even more by our diversion to Iraq), we didn't want the Northern Alliance to rule the country outright, and indeed wanted the trappings of a democracy, women's rights, and modern administration. But didn't want to do nation-building. It was completely incoherent, with only the excuse that powerful Afghans were happily lying to us the whole time about how they naturally shared our aims if only they could share our money for a little while.

It is a country whose national sport is civil war. Pakistan knows this well, and happily encourages more to keep Afghanistan weak. A cynic would say that we should do the same, except that weakness in the last instance equates with Al Qaeda sanctuary, given the history and remaining strength of the Taliban. So we need to pick and choose what part of the social system to support, and which to combat (very little of it, necessarily). We also need to be better at knowing whom to trust and how far- a difficult job when we (still) know so little about the culture, fatally undermined by our one-year-and-gone tours of duty for virtually all the relevant personnel.

We have been schizophrenic in this task, as we fatally over-estimate what we can accomplish and continue to have precious little appreciation of the true aims and capabilities of the Afghans. I hope this book helps make these points to our policy makers, though at this point the die is mostly cast, as we await the coming battle between the Afghan government and the Taliban this year or next.


"He assiduously cautioned FDR to eschew a course of action that many economists have suggested Japan dolefully followed in the 1990s. “If we spend some every year, but not sufficient to give the required stimulus to private expenditures,” Eccles wrote in a prophetic memo in early 1935, “we can build up a large debt and still not be out of the depression.”"

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