On Momentum Shifts and their CNAS Messengers

Joshua Foust reacts to Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl’s NYT OpEd about a “momentum shift” in Afghanistan.  I agree with the overall thrust of his argument.  His post makes quite a few points and is worth reading in full.

The overarching problem I have with Fick and Nagl’s OpEd is that it is just one of an endless “we’re winning despite what you read in the papers and see on television and would infer from a passing knowledge of history” arguments which have never stopped as long as we’ve occupied Iraq and/or Afghanistan.  Even if what they say is true and correct, it would take an extraordinary amount of effort to show conclusively that, although past such proclamations were based on lies and utopian optimism, this time they really mean it.  These arguments tend to rely at least implicitly on the logic of American exceptionalism which says that we will win because we must win because we can’t lose because then we wouldn’t win, and we must win.

One of Fick and Nagls’ claims that jumped out at me was,

“The United States certainly can’t kill its way to victory, as it learned in Vietnam and Iraq,”

I find it astounding that such a claim–that the United States learned in both Vietnam and Iraq that it cannot kill its way to victory–could be published in the New York Times.  If the United States had learned that lesson from Vietnam, then Iraq never would have happened.  How is that not transparently obvious?  No, whenever I brought up Vietnam to superiors in the Marine Corps, I was met with rolled eyes.

Until just a few years ago, the only lesson taken from Vietnam by the United States, and the military in particular, is that if only the politicians in Washington wouldn’t have made them fight with their hands tied, they would have gotten the victory they deserved.  Strategy shouldn’t be guided by national policy, they learned, except insofar as kicking ass is national policy.   Only after it became inescapably clear that our pride could not be maintained except through a course change was insurgent math accepted as legitimate. The lesson about not killing our way to victory was then reintroduced in 2006 by General Petraeus as if it was a groundbreaking insight.

The argument in which Fick and Nagl bundle this proclamation–lo, even though we cannot kill our way to victory, our endless fighter sorties are now doing just that–deserves its own refutation.  Foust responds succinctly enough:

“To brag of our body count only to say that we cannot kill our way to victory is either incoherent or dishonest—take your pick.”

Fick and Nagl go on to ignore the history of counterinsurgency for the sake of winning American hearts and minds:

“Slowly but surely, even in Sangin, the Taliban are being driven from their sanctuaries as the coalition focuses on protecting the Afghan people in key population centers and hubs of economic activity, and along the roads that connect them. Once these areas are cleared, it will be possible to hold them with Afghan troops and a few American advisers — allowing the United States to thin its deployments over time.”

This is a classic move used by counterinsurgency cheerleaders: Because the insurgents are being physically reduced and/or destroyed at this point in time, they are forever unable to recapture territory (and the number of square inches held is really important in this sort of thing).  Other things being equal, this position is profoundly ignorant of history. I have no doubt that Fick and Nagl are well aware of this.

Insurgencies are notorious for rising from the ashes of previous defeat both tactically, in a given AO, and strategically, in timelines that can be measured in decades.  Strategically, it is virtually meaningless to say that the Taliban are being “driven from their sanctuaries” without also going into exhaustive detail about what will be done to prevent their return, keeping in mind that the next resurgence may be led by their children and motivated primarily by the memory of their loss a generation ago.  As a strategic mentor related to me last year, “The French (in Algeria) defeated the insurgency the first three times.  It was the fourth time that was a problem.”

The obvious rebuttal is that our strategy deals with this by building the ANSF to make such a resurgence impossible.  As Christine Fair has so wittily pointed out, ultimate projections for the authorized strength of the ANSF delve into the fantastical unless one assumes that the Afghan state will sell poppy as a biofuel.  Afghanistan can’t afford 400,000 soldiers and policemen unless their economic growth remains off the chart for decades into the future.  Either way, if the US military couldn’t defeat the Taliban, what makes anyone think the ANSF will?

I realize that my responses to such claims are often wanting for deeper analysis.  It’s something that I’m working to correct.  My tendency is to spend a great deal of energy trying to wrap my head around the persistent use of logical fallacies and omissions of history in such justifications of the policy of the day.  There is just so much spinning of the same debunked wheels over and over again.

In this final quote and response, I’ll try to provide more analysis and less aphorism:  Fick and Nagl claim that,

“NATO is not collapsing because of Afghanistan.  In fact, the International Security Assistance Force continues to grow, with one-quarter of the world’s countries on the ground in Afghanistan with the United States.”

I’m not sure how they could confidently argue that ISAF is growing.  They could be referring to the Czech commitment of a whole 200 more troops–the equivalent of a single Marine rifle company–last December.  That’s barely enough to replace the U.S. Army wounded for a single month (177 in December–which is in Afghanistan’s off-season).

According to the ISAF placemat archives, ISAF force levels have remained static at ~130,000 since last October, with the US providing 90,000 troops and the remaining 47 troop contributing nations supplying the other 40,000.  That’s the last meaningful increase since last August, when there were ~119,000 troops of which 78,000 were American.   More importantly, Fick and Nagl’s assertion clashes with the continued lack of qualified trainers who are central to ISAF’s strategy of handover to the ANSF.  A December 2010 report from Anthony Cordesman noted that

“The current shortfall in…institutional trainers is 920, with 896 trainers in-place and 980 confirmed pledges for trainers.

For the fielded ANSF Force, the current shortfall is 16 Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) and 139 Police Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams (POMLTs). This shortfall is compounded by the recent departure of the Dutch Forces operating in Uruzgan Province under RC-S.

In 2011, the shortfalls will increase with the departure of the Canadian brigade in Kandahar and the additional growth of the ANSF. By 2011, the shortfall is projected to be 41 OMLTs and 243 POMLTs.”

Note that Cordesman is generous enough not to include pledged trainers, who may never arrive in theater, in his calculated shortfall (The shortfall of 243 POMLTs is particularly heartbreaking because nationwide ANP corruption is the source of much Afghan misery.  The only functioning justice system in large parts of Afghanistan is administered by the Taliban).

Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, CSIS, December 2010

Even if we concede that force levels are at their highest ever, there is certainly little enthusiasm in Europe even for remaining at current force levels. While NATO did convincingly reaffirm its commitment to Afghanistan in the Lisbon summit, the German Marshall Fund’s 2010 TransAtlantic Trends survey found that the percentage of EU respondents optimistic about stabilizing Afghanistan fell nine points to 23% since 2009, while the percentage who thought that their country should reduce or withdraw troops rose 7 points to 64%.

German Marshall Fund, TransAtlantic Trends 2010

How much influence EU populations have over their respective foreign policies is open to question, but it certainly seems that decreasing European support for the war will only make it harder for EU governments to maintain force levels. Similar sentiment in the US is, one can only surmise, why Fick and Nagl start their OpEd by reassuring Americans that,

“It now seems more likely than not that the country can achieve the modest level of stability and self-reliance necessary to allow the United States to responsibly draw down its forces from 100,000 to 25,000 troops over the next four years.”

German Marshall Fund, TransAtlantic Trends 2010

None of this is to say that I agree with Foust on every point.  He may have fallen into the trap of reading into an opposing argument every flaw contained in all opposing arguments.  For example, I take reservation to the notion that Nagl and Fick should have supplied much analysis with their OpEd, because that’s not how OpEds work.  They are, by necessity, compromises–distillations of a complex array of issues which can each be only glanced upon.  They must also, in order to sway the opinion of a broad readership, save some room for emotional appeals even though it is analytical anathema to do so.  Nothing’s impossible, but it’s very hard to fit meaningful analysis and the requisite layman’s explanation into a 700-word OpEd.  What Fick and Nagl could have done is provide a link to the systematic CNAS analysis on which one would hope their OpEd is based.

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