The firing of General McKiernan in Afghanistan and his replacement with General McChrystal has prompted some interested debate and discussion. Three of the arguments that emerged are of particular interest and deserve further comment.
First, posting at Foreign Policy, analyst Kori Schake argues provocatively that “McKiernan may become the General Shinseki of Afghanistan.” She writes:
The danger for the administration in having relieved McKiernan will come if their Afghanistan strategy does not produce the desired results on the expedited timeline the administration has committed itself to. McKiernan is on record as having asked for at least 10,000 more troops than the administration provided, and given his military judgment that the political objectives military force has been enlisted to help achieve would take a decade. If Afghanistan does not turn, the Obama administration will have just created this war’s Eric Shinseki.
The reason Shinseki became a poster boy for the mistakes of the Iraq War was not because Iraq went badly. Rather it was because he was correct on a key matter of strategy. Shinseki was ultimately highlighting a fundamental weakness of the Iraq war plan, namely its lack of focus on providing a stable post-conflict security environment. By contrast, it does not seem likely that McKiernan has actually raised any fundamental strategic concerns in the handling of the Afghan conflict. Yes, like Shinseki he has suggested a larger deployment, but asking for more forced to implement the same mission is not quite the same as Shinseki’s assessment that an entire mission — post-conflict stabilization — was being ignored. In short, the situations are quite different.
A more fundamental critique of the decision to fire McKiernan was provided by Celeste Ward in Sunday’s Washington Post (Countering the Military’s Latest Fad). Ward takes on the increasingly dominant counter-insurgency paradigm. She argues:
Washington’s ultimate objectives in Afghanistan remain unclear. The United States has spent six years, more than 4,000 American lives, mass quantities of psychic and political energy, and untold billions on the effort in Iraq — a project that has to date yielded little in a strategic sense. Iraq had an urban, educated population, infrastructure and bountiful natural resources, whereas Afghanistan has none of these. If “counterinsurgency” is merely a more palatable stand-in for “nation-building,” that politically freighted but strategically more illuminating term, then our terminology may be obscuring the true extent of our predicament.
Ward’s decision to conflate counter-insurgency with nation-building will likely elicit some spirited rebuttals from the counter-insurgency community. Nevertheless, Ward does make a significant point — providing good governance and security in Afghanistan may very well be a bridge too far.
Unfortunately, Ward’s op-ed fails to address a larger and more fundamental weakness in the counter-insurgency literature, namely the assumption that if an insurgency exists it demonstrates ipso facto a gap in governance. Ultimately, it is unclear whether lack of governance causes insurgencies or whether insurgencies cause a collapse in governance. The direction of these causal arrows is strategically significant. A simple glance at the world today raises significant questions about the counter-insurgency paradigm because there are many, many parts of the world with very low levels of effectives governance, and only a small number of these are wracked by significant insurgent movements.
In short, Ward’s critique of the counter-insurgency paradigm is not that it is wrong, per se, though she argues that it has tended to oversimplify complex events like the dynamics of the “surge” in Iraq, but rather her main concern vis-a-vis Afghanistan is that the goals of a counter-insurgency strategy may be unachievable given conditions in the country.
It is also possible, however, that the counter-insurgency paradigm encourages a more fundamental strategic error in Afghanistan, namely an overemphasis on underlying conditions and an underemphasis on the goals, actions, and capabilities of the insurgents themselves.
In Saturday’s New York Times (Death From Above, Outrage Down Below), counter-insurgency theorists David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum apply the logic of their argument to the use of Predator airstrikes in Pakistan. They write:
The drone campaign is in fact part of a larger strategic error — our insistence on personalizing this conflict with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Devoting time and resources toward killing or capturing “high-value” targets — not to mention the bounties placed on their heads — distracts us from larger problems, while turning figures like Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban umbrella group, into Robin Hoods.
In their view, it is better to provide services to the population — notably security — than it is to hunt down insurgent leaders. They are unquestionably correct that eliminating “high-value” targets provides few long-term benefits. In war, only a vanishingly few leaders are genuinely irreplaceable. There is little evidence to suggest that any of our targeted killings has done more than buy a few days or perhaps weeks of advantage.
But, again, there is a bigger issue here. The problem with the Predator strikes in Pakistan is not so much the opportunity costs, but rather than political costs associated with giving the Pakistani government plausible deniability about its role in authorizing these strikes. It is an open secret that our strikes in Pakistan are launched from Pakistani territory with the approval of the Pakistani government. It is a terrible mistake of the United States to be complicit in the dissemination of the notion that U.S. strikes are a unilateral initiative undertaken without the knowledge — and indeed in the face of public opposition — of the Pakistani government. It feeds into every negative perception of the U.S. role in the world.
Indeed, many of the negative political consequences of the Predator strikes could be mitigated if they were undertaken in response to public requests for assistance from the Pakistani government. But in order to limit the political pressure on the Pakistani government, we are deliberately channeling the anger and rage of the Pakistani population on the United States. It is a terrible bargain in the long-term.
In short, we need to be careful to think through the strategic issues associated with the now-dominant counter-insurgency paradigm. The COIN framework is now so pervasive that most of our debates are wedded to the framework. So instead of asking whether it even desirable to nation-build in Afghanistan, we debate the secondary issue of whether it is possible. Instead of considering how Predator strikes fit into our broader strategic posture of foreign intervention, seemingly often in opposition to the wishes of allied governments, we focus on the opportunity costs of various tactical initiatives. It is likely that as a consequence, we are missing the forest for the trees in many of these discussions.
Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the American Security Project. This article was originally published at ASP’s Flash Point blog. General McChrystal photo credit: AP Photo.