Errors Piled On Errors

by Dave Schuler on February 26, 2012

I do most of my foreign policy-related posting over at Outside the Beltway but, since I strongly suspect that the particular views I’m going to express in this post would be met with considerable derision by the OTB commentariat and life is too short to submit myself to ill-treatment willingly, I’ll air these opinions here. As I’ve written before if you can’t say what you think on your own blog, where can you?

As I’ve mentioned before I opposed the invasion of Afghanistan. It’s not that I don’t understand the impulse to act or the political necessity. Clearly, some action beyond lobbing a few cruise missiles at the Al Qaeda camps there was emotionally, politically, and even strategically necessary. The problem as I see it can be summarized in two words: what then?

There were any number of alternatives. Special forces attacks (as we in fact employed). A massive and prolonged bombing campaign. Nuclear weapons. We could have melted practically anything in Afghanistan down to the bedrock had we been inclined to do so.

However, once we had invaded and removed the Taliban, NATO became the occupying power with certain responsibilities under accords to which we are signatories including the responsibility to protect the population. Failing to do so would have been a war crime. There was no shadow government waiting in the wings, no liberal opposition, almost no civil infrastructure of any kind.

Consequently, I think that invading Afghanistan was an error. An understandable error but an error. Once we had invaded Afghanistan we could have pursued a counterterrorism campaign utilizing what Ralph Peters characterized as a “compact, lethal force”. The belief that we were capable of mounting a Desert Storm-style massive campaign in Afghanistan has always been fatuous for logistical reasons although I recognize that many Americans, possibly even including the president, believed or may continue to believe that was an option.

We have instead pursued a program of counter-insurgency. I think that has been an error. Subsequent to the experience in Iraq, it’s an understandable error but an error nonetheless. As Pat Lang has pointed out, you can’t pursue such a program successfully with one foot out the door and that has been our posture since the very beginning.

The folly of such a program is revealed by the most recent experience with the violence and rioting following the burning of Qur’ans. As Sam Clemens once put it if you pick up a starving dog and make it prosperous it will not bite you. That is the difference between a man and a dog. We’ve done our best to make the Afghans prosperous. Clearly, they would much rather that we leave so they can go back to killing and abusing each other without whatever hindrance that we provide. The difference between us and the Taliban can be summarized succinctly: the Taliban cuts off young women’s ears and noses and leaves them for dead; we restore those noses and ears and try to heal their scars.

We aren’t perfect. We continue to support the corrupt and predatory Karzai government. Our soldiers have disrespected enemy dead. And we have burned Qur’ans.

By apologizing to Afghan President Karzai, President Obama has compounded the error. If the published reports are to be believed we have nothing to apologize for. Not only were Qur’ans being used to pass messages among prisoners (a war crime, just as hiding munitions in a mosque or using ambulances to transport soldiers would be) but the soldiers doing the burning were not, apparently, even aware that they were burning Qur’ans. Subsequent to the burning of the Qur’ans some Afghan people have rioted and killed American and NATO soldiers. It is the Afghan president who should be apologizing to us not the other way around.

I understand the impulse that lead to the president’s apology but I think it is based on the false belief that counter-insurgency can be practiced successfully in Afghanistan. You can’t correct an error by piling errors on top of other errors.

If we have strategic interests in Afghanistan, we should stay to attend to those interests and do so unapologetically. If we have no strategic interests in Afghanistan, we should leave with all due haste.

Update

See Michael Yon for more on apologies.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Ben Wolf February 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm

1) After everything else this government has lied about, why should we believe the Korans were being used illegally and why should we believe the doofuses burning them (has the pentagon ever consulted an anthropologist) didn’t know?

2) Afghans aren’t just protesting over the burned books: they’re very vocal about their hatred for American soldiers over the repated killings of innocent people, another eight just a few days ago. There’s alos the matter of at least a dozen Afghan protestors being shot dead by U.S. forces since the demonstrations began.

steve February 26, 2012 at 2:59 pm

I think we should have been prepared to keep bin Laden and his guys from getting back to Pakistan. That would have required a larger force, an invasion. I think we then should have set up a government, any kind and left. Afghanistan’s government, such as it was, did support AQ.

What we actually did was the worst of all possibilities. We lingered with no real plan. We came to be another indefinite occupation force, and hated. Could things have gone differently if we had not run off to Iraq? We will never know, but I dont think we could have deliberately handled things much worse.

As to the apology, unless you intend to occupy and conquer by force, you apologize when your troops offend the beliefs and customs of other people. The longer you stay, they more likely you offend, so best to get out as soon as possible.

Steve

Icepick February 26, 2012 at 3:34 pm

[W]hat then?

Depends on what one is trying to accomplish. For example, I thought it a mistake to bring in NATO, or any allies for that matter. It should have been a matter of pure vengenance on our part. Go in, kill everyone that we thought needed killing (not bothering with being too discriminatory in the killing), install puppets (or not) and get out. Everything else was/is a fool’s errand.

As for leaving behind a functioning government – the Afghans didn’t have one before we arrived, so why should we be on the hook for that?

The big strategic misconception has been that the little guy has the advantage in asymetric warfare. That is only true if the side with the superior firepower isn’t willing to use it.

Incidentally, the only major American politician that seems to understand the idea that if you’re going to nation-build you have to COMMIT has been John McCain. I think it is the wrong policy (mostly because I don’t give a damn about Afghans), but his comment that we should stay 100 years if that’s what it took at least avoids the problem of appearing like we’ve got one foot out the door.

Dave Schuler February 26, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Afghans aren’t just protesting over the burned books: they’re very vocal about their hatred for American soldiers over the repated killings of innocent people, another eight just a few days ago.

I think the Afghan people are in a very sad, nearly nihilistic position. They don’t like us but they like Karzai less than that and the Taliban even less than that. I don’t see any way that the situation there resolves itself in a way that will improve their well-being or sense of well-being.

michael reynolds February 26, 2012 at 7:21 pm

Dave, you saw further and clearer than most, including me.

I made the mistake of believing that we were serious. The same mistake as in Iraq. Occupation is always possible — even in Afghanistan — but a humane, 21st century occupation? Not so much. And a half-assed effort was doomed from early on.

As for apology, I think it’s a non-issue. Brits apologize for everything, and I tend to follow in that style. It’s a social lubricant. If it would help these medieval throwbacks to calm down and stop killing people, then apologize. Big deal.

I also agree with Ben, above, that after a decade of occupation it is incumbent on us to have some sort of clue about the cultural realities. I don’t have any magic books, myself, but if I accidentally burned someone’s bible or torah, I’d apologize. And I wouldn’t burn one to begin with because I’d know damned well it would offend someone to no purpose.

Dave Schuler February 26, 2012 at 7:28 pm

In answer to Ben’s question, why, yes, we’ve consulted anthropologists. Lots of them. So, for example, I think that David Kilcullen certainly qualifies.

As a side note something I’ve mentioned before. I’ve never met Kilcullen but I’ve seen his picture, cradled in his parents arms at his baptism, for the last 30 years. His godmother is an old friend of ours and the picture rests on her mantle.

Ben Wolf February 26, 2012 at 7:34 pm

@Dave Schuler

If they have experts on the payroll, then I can’t understand why the military keeps making these sorts of inflammatory mistakes. Someone, somewhere isn’t listening and isn’t bothering to ask.

Ben Wolf February 26, 2012 at 7:37 pm

@Dave Schuler

According to Kilcullen’s bio he’s a political scientist, not an anthropologist and certainly not a cultural anthropologist. What am I missing about the guy?

Dave Schuler February 26, 2012 at 7:50 pm

His doctorate is in political anthropology. Many of his articles have been published in anthropology journals.

Andy February 26, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Ben,

Like any large bureaucratic institution, there will be people who didn’t “get the memo.” I don’t know the details in this case though.

Dave,

The belief that we were capable of mounting a Desert Storm-style massive campaign in Afghanistan has always been fatuous for logistical reasons although I recognize that many Americans, possibly even including the president, believed or may continue to believe that was an option.

It was an option and it was discussed after 9/11. There are some articles about the details I can’t find links to at the moment. President Bush rejected that for several reasons not least of which it would have taken months to get a big force into place and ready to invade.

Once we had invaded Afghanistan we could have pursued a counterterrorism campaign utilizing what Ralph Peters characterized as a “compact, lethal force”.

and

We have instead pursued a program of counter-insurgency. I think that has been an error.

Actually we did do counterterrorism early on, but few seem to remember it. We had 10k troops or less in Afghanistan up to 2003 and less than 20k up to 2006. That was intentional and there was never any plan to do counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency didn’t really get going until 2009, though there was some small-scale stuff going on in specific areas, mainly by Army special forces, who specialize in that sort of thing. But there was nothing that was really coordinated on a national scale. And at the time, there didn’t need to be since there wasn’t’ much insurgency until 2003 and from 2003-2006 the insurgency was confined to specific areas (though it grew over that time period).

Just to give you an idea of how different it was back then, I deployed to Afghanistan in 2005 as part of a medevac unit and we did. We did a handful of missions every week and most of those were local nationals. That same unit was in Afghanistan last year and was doing 4-5 missions a day.

In short, the Taliban and their allied movements (like AQ) were beaten quickly – at least we thought they were beaten. We had about 2-3 years where there wasn’t much opposition in Afghanistan except for a few areas of the country. During that period, we (the US) concentrated on going after the last elements of resistance as well as AQ and associated movements, but most of those had fled to Pakistan.

NATO was originally brought in for a specific and limited purpose – demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR) of the militias, demining, and some “nation building” and security assistance through the provincial reconstruction teams and training/mentoring the national army, police and ministries. Mission creep and pressure from the US put them in a bigger fighting role in recent years.

By apologizing to Afghan President Karzai, President Obama has compounded the error.

I don’t think it really matters, personally. It’s more pretending that the Afghan government is our partner and friend. Just ask MG Peter Fuller and then note what his boss, Gen. Allen, had to say about our great partnership with the Afghans.

steve,

I think we should have been prepared to keep bin Laden and his guys from getting back to Pakistan. That would have required a larger force, an invasion. I think we then should have set up a government, any kind and left. Afghanistan’s government, such as it was, did support AQ.

All very, very much easier said than done.

Dave Schuler February 27, 2012 at 7:18 am

It was an option and it was discussed after 9/11.

As I said the problem is logistics. There’s no good location for staging such an operation. Imagine D-Day without Britain. Once it’s under weigh there’s no good way for supplying the troops, particularly with fuel. Getting enough fuel into the country through Pakistan now is a major burden. Bringing supplies in by air for a force of the size required is impractical.

I didn’t explain sufficiently why I think that apologizing was an error. Apology at best just confirms pre-existing opinion. At the margins it may convince those not favorably disposed to us that we’re weak.

Dave Schuler February 27, 2012 at 7:23 am

That was intentional and there was never any plan to do counterinsurgency.

I thought that the Bush Administration had lurched uncontrollably into the only practical post-invasion plan. IMO the changeover to counterinsurgency was an error and, yes, mostly after 2009 (although I interpret the Bush Administration’s increase in force strength the previous year as a sign that was the way the wind was blowing).

Icepick February 27, 2012 at 7:38 pm

Hmm, oleaginous …. That was a new word for me. I’ll have to drop it in a conversation soon, just for practice.

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