Thursday, January 07, 2010

Against COIN, for CT in Afghanistan and Elsewhere


While I mostly use this blog to comment on soft power, sometimes I venture into hard power—and this is one of those times.

Over the winter break I had an epiphany about the interrelation of U.S. hard and soft power: I now oppose a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan and advocate a purely counterterror (CT) strategy (PDF link) there instead.

Blame history—or histories—that I've read recently, starting with Livy's works on early Rome (books I-V) last spring and Donald Kagan's The Peloponnesian War at the end of 2009. I've taken occasional dips back into Robert Kaplan's Warrior Politics and his source materials (Churchill, the Federalists, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, and several others).

What I've taken from that reading is that the U.S. must pull back from its current efforts to remake Iraq and Afghanistan in the image of a Western democracy, or risk long-term political and economic exhaustion.

What follows is not an argument about morality, and readers may find much of it amoral. It is about making cold-blooded political and economic calculations about where U.S. national interests will lie in the next decade. They do not lie in an open-ended COIN mission.

The history of the Peloponnesian War is particularly relevant here. Athens began fighting Sparta with the resources of an empire and thousands of talents of silver in the bank—enough to fight expensive, far-flung naval and land campaigns for three years without lasting financial consequences.

Athens was rich, and if peace with Sparta had come by the end of the third year, Athens would have continued to prosper and rule over much of the Mediterranean. (Athens had a "hard"—conquered or cowed—empire as opposed to the "soft" empire of alliances and treaties the U.S. currently has.)

But the war with Sparta dragged on for decades, despite occasional peace overtures by both sides. By war's end—despite the spoils of battle and increased taxes and tribute extracted from its shrinking dominion—Athens was broke, depopulated by fighting and plague, bereft of its empire, and could no longer project power into the Mediterranean. Where its former interests ranged from Black Sea Turkey to southern Italy, it spent decades as a small-bore power and never regained its former strength or influence.

I worry that the U.S. is similarly locked into an open-ended commitment to democratize a nation that is of regional rather than global importance—a parallel to Athens convincing itself that it had to conquer distant, militarily insignificant Sicily.

"Winning" in Afghanistan
The U.S. could "win" in Afghanistan where victory is defined as a stable, legitimate central government that can project power within its own borders. I don't doubt that the U.S. and its allies could accomplish this given enough time and resources. But I think—as many COIN experts also do—that it will take at least another decade or more of blood and treasure to produce such a result, if ever.

Of course I'd like to see the results of a successful COIN campaign: a stable democracy, women's rights, and general prosperity for Afghans, who among all Asia's peoples surely deserve those things. I certainly want to end al-Qa'ida's ability to operate freely in South Asia and elsewhere.

The U.S. is the only country that would both conceive of these missions and attempt to carry them out. But goals beyond keeping al-Qa'ida on the run don't serve the long-term interests of the U.S., and I am more interested in regaining and preserving U.S. hard power than I am in the rewards that would come from "winning" a lengthy COIN war.

I fear the U.S. people and government becoming exhausted from the costs of a lengthy COIN effort, just as they are already exhausted from (and have largely forgotten about) the Iraq war. I worry that if this fatigue sits in, the U.S. will abandon foreign-policy leadership as it has done periodically throughout history.

This outcome would be worse than a resurgent Taliban, worse than Afghan women and men being further oppressed, and worse than al-Qa'ida having plentiful additional caves to plot in.

Here are some signs of an exhaustion of U.S. power: The U.S. is already overextended, with commitments in Iraq (shrinking for now), Afghanistan (expanding), Yemen (pending) and Iran (TBD). At home, the U.S. economy remains feeble and in the long term is increasingly hostage to other nations for goods and services it no longer produces (and increasingly, no longer can produce).

Even more worrisome is the U.S. credit situation. The wars, and much other U.S. government spending, are now heavily underwritten by other countries' purchases of debt the U.S. issues. It has borrowed trillions from foreign countries and especially China, which continues its steady, highly rational policy of promoting exports while freeriding under the American security umbrella (just as the U.S. once rode for free beneath Britain's).

Over time, those countries accrue enough debt to have a say in U.S. policies that may threaten the dollar's value, which is why you now see high U.S. officials flying to Beijing to soothe PRC nerves and explain why America keeps borrowing money.

At home, there are few resources to apply following a major disaster, such as a Katrina-style hurricane or a major earthquake.

The U.S. needs to start rebuilding its reserves—of capital, of credit, of political goodwill abroad, of military force—to be ready for these and more serious crises, for which we currently have few resources to spare. Such challenges may involve humanitarian crises (think Darfur, a Rwanda-style genocide, Indian Ocean tsunamis); Latin American instability (Mexico, Venezuela, post-Castro Cuba); rogue-state nuclear development (Iran, North Korea); or complex challenges from a rising power (China, a reinvigorated Russia).

What a CT Focus Means
Focusing on a counterterror-only mission means admitting that Afghanistan and Iraq—and Yemen and Iran—are not, and will not likely become, threats to the U.S. that require tens of thousands of troops. Individuals from those countries (as well as their alleged British, Nigerian or Virginian lackeys) may be threats, but threats that can mostly be handled by a CT strategy, intensified border protection, and other measures. The countries themselves will remain militarily negligible outside their own neighborhood.

A CT strategy would mean keeping a few heavily fortified bases in Afghanistan and Iraq to maintain the "B-52 effect" of being able to suppress large-scale fighting via airpower, while pulling all our other troops out. We would then keep up Predator decapitation strikes and occasional bombing of insurgent hideouts, while providing air support for the Afghan National Army and police.

We would also do what we could—and no more—to strengthen the Kabul and Islamabad governments. Sooner or later that will mean standing back while an unsavory strongman takes charge in one or both countries—someone who can maintain stability if not a Western-style democracy, although we can certainly pressure them to try.

Benefits of a CT Focus
Pulling the bulk of U.S. troops from the two active wars means military spending drops sharply, freeing up greatly needed funds for other uses: to stimulate the domestic economy, to aid in healthcare reform, or simply to reduce the need to issue more debt and thus begin paying down our current tab. (As an added benefit, China and others who want to extract wealth from a less-secure Afghanistan must then foot their own security bill.)

Perhaps we become less hated in Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps not, but we get out of the nation-building business that President Bush used to deride and can use our political, economic and military assets elsewhere. At that point we begin to rebuild those all-important reserves without which a great nation cannot aid allies, warn off adversaries, and sway those in the middle.

Costs of a CT Focus
A pure CT focus has substantial drawbacks, particularly for those who favor a foreign policy oriented toward human rights.

The U.S. will move from the current twin focus on winning civilian hearts and minds while killing insurgent leaders toward a pure assassination model—not a morally pleasing choice.

Lots of Afghans who have worked with the U.S. will flee or else die when their areas revert to warlord or Taliban control. Women's rights will vanish almost completely, almost overnight. Afghan opium will continue to utterly dominate world markets. Only the B-52 Effect will prevent a resumption of frank civil war along ethnic lines, but myriad "incidents" will occur at the cost of thousands of lives. Brain drain will resume and quickly accelerate.

And the U.S. will still spend billions per year to maintain bases in and supply lines to Afghanistan, and to prop up the Islamabad government and underwrite its occasional punitive expeditions along the Afghan border. (These costs will still be far less than the expense of a full-bore COIN mission, however.)

I believe enduring these stomach-churning tradeoffs is worthwhile because making them enables the U.S. to rebuild its reserves in every area: political, financial, and yes, moral, since it can then use its clout to be a broader guarantor of human rights worldwide than it can by continuing to bleed itself in Afghanistan and Mesopotamia.

To paraphrase the line from Kaplan's Warrior Politics that changed my mind: At the end of the day, America's power to do good is strongest when American hard power is both abundant and largely held in reserve.

I believe the U.S. is of greatest benefit to the world's oppressed overall when it serves as a beacon to the idealists and a threat to dictators and criminals—qualities that the U.S. will not possess as long as it is tied down by one or more land wars in Asia.


Anonymous said...

Nice piece.
Thoughts on State attempting to broker peace along tribal lines in Af/Pak?

Paul D. Kretkowski said...

Don't have a lot of hope there; the majority of Pashtuns seem convinced that a) there is no Durand Line and b) Pashtuns should rule the rest of Afghanistan, not just traditionally Pashtun areas. So there is endless agitation against the AF and PK governments as well as against neighboring tribes--not fertile ground for intertribal peace.

Anonymous said...

Great observations. Gen. Patton begs to differ on the Sicily part, however. And the Spartans: What happened?

Paul D. Kretkowski said...

The Spartans enjoyed a brief bump from leading a successful war against their chief rivals, but they were also exhausted, depopulated and nearly bankrupt. It was all downhill for the next few millennia; when I visited Sparta in 2000 people mainly sat around drinking iced coffees. No more dashing of unfit infants against the rocks for these folks.

Jimothy J. Jones said...

My Comment was too long, so I had to put it here:

Counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency are the same thing. Different words that refer to the same metonym

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