December 8, 2009
Kicking the Can in AfghanistanBy G. Murphy Donovan
"Kick the Can" is a child's game familiar to kids from large cities. The only equipment required is an old tin can and a few willing children. The skills in play are stealth and speed. Like "Hide and Seek," all but one of the group hides, and then they are sought by the solitary player. With "Kick the Can," all initiative is ceded to the quarry -- a kind of fool's game for solitary hunters.
At the risk of abusing a metaphor, we have now embarked on a national strategy that looks for all the world like a fool's game. In the process, we're ignoring rules even a child could understand.
The first rule is that one side doesn't get to make the rules. In Afghanistan, declaring an arbitrary time limit not only telegraphs punches, but does little more than raise the pressure on the home team. Setting aside for a moment the nonsense about wars of "choice" and wars of "necessity," we might consider the blowback from Iraq. Having reversed the sectarian poles in Baghdad (ousting the Sunnis and empowering the Shiites), might not the "progress" we see there be a kind of prudent economy of force? The Shiite majority may simply wait for the clock to run out. The King of Jordan warns of a Shiite Crescent to the north of Israel. Is he wrong?
One side doesn't control the number of players, either. The arbitrary designation of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as the "core" of the problem ignores a larger threat with a global reach. Islamic fundamentalism is not limited to Afghanistan or Pakistan. Indeed, the ideology and financing on the Sunni side originates in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, our erstwhile allies. The militant threat on the Shiite side originates with Iran -- now a nuclear aspirant. If Iraq was a distraction from the real threat in Afghanistan, how is Afghanistan not a distraction from the real threat in Iran?
The truth about Iraq is that it was a corrupt totalitarian menace to its corrupt theocratic Arab neighbors. Now Iraq is a corrupt Shiite state that might pursue a sectarian alliance with Iran. The truth about Afghanistan is that it is a tribal, if not feudal, mix beset by naïve Westerners. The truth about Pakistan is that it is a corrupt janissary that might be one bullet away from theocracy. The truth about Iran is that it is the world's largest Shiite theocracy, a so-called Islamic "republic." The truth of all of this is that the threat is not a specific terrorist, terror group, state sponsor, or Muslim state.
The bloom of jihad and theocracy within Islam worldwide is the true threat. This menace is not simply demographics or immigration; it is also political. Theocracy is the goal of Islamists of every stripe -- to replace secular law with a religious monoculture. The final and inadmissible truth is the inability or unwillingness of national security specialists in general, and President Obama in particular, to acknowledge any of this.
Tehran is yet another example in the Islamic constellation where we presume to make the rules of the game. We assume that the Persians can be jawboned or threatened with "sanctions" to relinquish their nuclear ambitions.
And now we have a new strategy announced on 1 December by the president at West Point. This new course has two major components: moderation and denial. With the moderate approach, we are neither "all in" nor "all out" in Afghanistan. We have limited our targets to one leader and one terror organization -- and a kind of half-baked "nation-building." In Afghanistan, we aspire to do what the British and Soviets could not. The English used to strap insurgents to the busy ends of cannons and the Soviets used to level villages from the air. Our tactics are different: We plan to conquer Islamist fanatics with kindness -- moderate on moderate.
As we try to play the moderate card, we should remember what Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan had to say on the subject:
The second component of the West Point proclamation is denial. "Islam is one of the world's great religions," we are told. We are led to believe that jihad, sharia, cultural irredentism, misogyny, and fifty years of terrorism have nothing to do with Muslims in general or Islam in particular. Never mind that prominent Muslims tell us otherwise frequently, but for whatever reason, we cannot or will not hear what they say.
The modest reinforcement in Afghanistan, constrained by an eighteen-month timeline, appears to be an attempt to replicate the "surge" strategy of Iraq. Here we should remember what the president said about comparisons with Vietnam: "You never step in the same river twice."
Military Operations Research (MOR) has been looking at counterinsurgent campaigns, including Afghanistan, for decades. MOR is an aggregate of disciplines that attempts to size forces and examine the variables that might lead to victory or stability. These disciplines include statistics, probability theory, game theory, modeling, and simulation, among others.
Three variants have been applied to Afghanistan and insurgency in general: force-to-force comparisons, force-to-population models, and most recently, strategy-to-strategy comparisons. All three reach similar conclusions: Numbers and strategy matter.
In Afghanistan alone, 500,000 troops or police might be required -- not for victory, but only for stability. Or in the words of the RAND Corp. report,
Another analysis, looking at comparative strategy, simply says the insurgents will prevail.
These are polite ways of saying there are not enough U.S. or allied troops in the field to do the job -- nor is an adequate force likely to be deployed. This kind of candor is rare indeed, especially for government contractors. The idea that the allies will fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban while training and equipping 400,000 competent Afghan cops and soldiers in eighteen months is nothing short of delusional. The majority of recruits would have to come from the Pashtun tribes, who are most closely allied with the Taliban and their Arab sponsors.
In short, General McChrystal probably underestimated the theater problem to begin with -- and President Obama certainly did not give him what he asked for anyway. We have to assume that the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom, and the White House are aware of the studies and have chosen to ignore their conclusions.
As in "Kick the Can," numbers matter, and we are playing a fool's game. The allied expeditionary force has no edge or margin of error in South Asia. In eighteen months, if catastrophe does not end the game early, we will still be asking what is to be done in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we will still be playing games with the larger problem in the Muslim world.
G. Murphy Donovan is a former intelligence analyst who edits the Jenkins Hill blog on Town Hall.