Planning a Military Campaign to Support Negotiations in Afghanistan

Planning a Military Campaign to Support Negotiations in Afghanistan

by Dr. Bernard I. Finel

Download the Full Article: Planning a Military Campaign to Support Negotiations in Afghanistan

The policy debate in Washington over Afghanistan periodically lurches from irrational exuberance over the prospects of defeating the insurgency there to a sullen "throw the baby out with the bathwater" phase where everyone begins to talk about an "exit strategy" without much sense of what is left behind. In December 2009, the strategy was to defeat the insurgency, end corruption, and train up a viable Afghan national security apparatus. By later spring 2010, pessimism had set in and prominent analysts both inside and outside the government are now talking about much more modest goals focused on counter-terrorism and regional militias. With the firing of General Stanley McChrystal and his replacement with counterinsurgency guru General David Petraeus, enthusiasm is again on the upswing.

Unfortunately, neither the overly optimistic assessments nor the overly pessimist are likely to be borne out. As a practical matter the United States is unlikely to be able to fully defeat the insurgency -- not necessarily because any shortfalls in military capacity, but rather because of the fundamental implausibility of the non-military elements of modern counterinsurgency doctrine. Economic development is hard enough to promote under ideal circumstances; it is virtually impossible under conditions of "opposed development" where an armed group is actively trying to prevent the initiative from being successful. Anti-corruption initiatives are rarely successful as well and anti-drug programs almost always fail. Clearing insurgent controlled areas is relatively easy. Holding those areas against insurgent activities is costly but not fundamentally impossible. But building responsive and resilient local governance is at this point purely in the realm of conjecture.

But if the counterinsurgency model is flawed in its overly optimistic assessment of the non-military tools available, the alternative approach focused on a rapid transition to a smaller footprint in Afghanistan is also flawed. A smaller footprint approach would have made sense back in 2009, and it may be the best long-term approach. But for the next 12-24 months at least the United States is going to have in the neighborhood of 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. The key is to use this deployment to best effect.

Download the Full Article: Planning a Military Campaign to Support Negotiations in Afghanistan

Dr. Bernard I. Finel is currently an Associate Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College. Previously, he was a senior fellow at the American Security Project, a non-partisan think tank located in Washington, D.C. and Executive Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. He holds a BA in international relations from Tufts University and an MA and Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown. His views are my own and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of the National War College, National Defense University, or the Department of Defense.

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I submit that we should revisit our assumptions about Afghanistan's political arena and "spoils system". We tend to focus on the "why" of things rather than contemplating the "how" of things. Afghanistan is not a zero-sum environment. It never has been. There is much middle ground to go around or to be created for that matter. Fighting is a form of negotiation and reconciliation the final phase in a multi-phased ritual. In the end it is all about coalition building and coalition management and not necessarily reconciliation.

Abdulkader Sinno in his essay "Explaining the Taliban's Ability to Mobilize the Pasthuns" highlights the fact that we westerners are good at explaining "why" our attempts at shaping the locals are failing but suck at explaining "how" things actually work. Our explanations for failure point to "causes" but fail to address "process". The generally accepted causes of failure are that the Taliban are receiving foreign support/safe havens (Pakistan is playing both sides); the Karzai government is corrupt and unable to fill a much needed political- legitimacy vacuum in the countryside; locals are morally and physically exhausted from decades of war and ready to support the Taliban. The Taliban has proven itself willing and able to enforce traditional law (eliminate corruption); the Karzai government has not.

The Taliban are engaged in the following process: marginalizing the support of local leaders (whether government appointed or traditional village, district, territorial leadership) and directly appealing to their supporters; capitalizing on Taliban momentum to increase their appeal to local leaders and their followers alike (much gnashing of teeth and lamenting the fact that the Taliban are masters at psyop, propaganda, information operations, miso or whatever the term of art or flavor of the month); exploiting expert knowledge of Pashtun and local ethnic alliance-security-patronage networks and politics and devising appropriate strategies to marginalize/neutralize opposition.

Taliban strategies leave local government administration, indig leaders, or solidarity groups a number of options...

1. The local leadership might choose to push back and retain autonomy and control over local resources.

2. The local leadership/solidarity group might join the Taliban as a client with a degree of autonomy while maintaining its organizational integrity.

3. The local leadership might surrender its autonomy for the right price or it can join the Taliban outright.

4. The local leadership can disband and disappear into the urban areas or abroad.

5. The local solidarity group could fight and be defeated in battle.

6. Lastly, the local leadership could be defeated by losing local support and clients who join the Taliban instead.

We should consider the possibility that social and political practices do not change immediately in the wake of institutional reform; one might therefore assume that these traditional non-zero-sum strategies are in play by both the Taliban and Karzai alliance networks... I just can't bring myself to believe that we have NOT figured out the process by now; that we continue to refuse to accept the fact that this process might be in play or that we just can't bring ourselves to learn the local rules of play.

We are not, nor were we ever going to create a 21st century model of a nation-state in Afghanistan... have we learned nothing in Iraq?

Change the success criteria to reflect Afghanistan's political arena and spoils system (coalition building and coalition management) and see where that takes us...



The question remains, though: is your negotiation intended to resolve the issues between the government and the populace or the issues between the government and the insurgent leadership?

If the people actually doing the fighting see their fight as resistance rather than insurgency, perhaps we ought to see it the same way. Maybe that's what it is, and has been from the start...

If the issue that drives both the top and the bottom of the insurgency is the perception and belief that the West, through its own actions -- and through the actions of its installed and/or supported "agents" (the local governments) -- is determined to transform the societies in these regions;

This, so that these societies might better service and support -- not the way of life of the indigenous populations -- but, instead, the radically different way of life of a foreign population (that of the West),

Then how might such matters as these be reconciled?


It is the top tier, revolutionary movement, that drives the insurgency. The lower tier is largely a resistance movement. We surge to throw more money and people at the bottom of the problem, yet the bottom fights primarily because we are there. Focus must shift to resolving the issues that drive the top, as it is the top that drives the bottom with ideology, leadership, and funding, to carry on the resistance.

Again, reconciliation is typically cast as reconciling with individual leaders and/or their organizations. By meeting with these groups and working to instead reconcile the ISSUES they build their case upon, you disempower the insurgent and elevate GIROA as a legitimate government that wants to be a better champion for their populace than they have been to date, as well as better champion that these insurgents promise to be.

Some individuals and organizations have burned themselves through the nature of their actions. They will not have a place in Afhanistan's future unless they steal it through violence. Others have the ability to come across and become part of that future. This is what the Karzai regime must sort through, and what the US and the Coalition must stay out of as much as possible.

Difficult? Certainly. But to continue to pour blood and treasure at the bottom of the problem is impossible to do any more than suppress the problem and sustain the illegitimate government for some period of time until it either reforms (unlikely when enable to act as it does) or is ultimately pulled down.

It would seem that the insurgent leadership could gain a lot from negotiating a peace. Principally they could achieve a precipitate withdrawal of foreign forces. They could also get seats in the government. Both results would place them in perfect position to retake the country shortly after the foreigners have departed. Something of a rope-a-dope strategy.


Looking at these two comments...

"Victory" and "defeat" have little place in a struggle between a government and its populace. Perhaps better to consider an insurgency as something to be "resolved."


I personally believe it is the key to any true "resolution" of the insurgency in Afghanistan, as this takes care of the top tier, leadership aspect of the insurgency.

Are we trying to achieve reconciliation between government and populace or between government and the top tier of the insurgent leadership? Are they not two different things?

If we're looking at the top tier, we have to ask whether they have any real interest in reconciliation: it's something that takes two willing parties to achieve. We also have to ask what the government can offer that will mean anything to the leadership tier. After all, as with most insurgencies, the leadership level is primarily after power: we have it, they want it, that's the issue. It's not an easy one to reconcile unless everyone is willing to share; not likely under the circumstances. Of course the insurgent leadership will try to wrap that goal in a variety of issues that it believes will draw popular support, but that doesn't mean the insurgent leadership has any real concern for those issues. They're just a means to an end.

Short of giving them what they want - surrender - I don't know that we'll ever reconcile matters with the insurgent leadership. We might be better off trying to resolve the issues that motivate the rank and file and the popular support base to back that leadership, thus disaggregating head and body. Leaders without followers can't do much.

A couple of thoughts to consider.

"Victory" and "defeat" have little place in a struggle between a government and its populace. Perhaps better to consider an insurgency as something to be "resolved." After all, no one really wins in such a contest.

Also this hot-button issue of "Reconciliation." I personally believe it is the key to any true "resolution" of the insurgency in Afghanistan, as this takes care of the top tier, leadership aspect of the insurgency. The lower tier is principally a resistance insurgency, and will resolve naturally once we back off from the large foreign presence we have in place currently.

The term reconciliation causes a strong emotional response though in those who do not want to be perceived as being "defeated" or to have the insurgent perceived as "winning" this contest. The key, I believe, is that this is not to reconcile with any particular group, or to reconcile with any particular man; but rather to reconcile the issues that are the crux of the grievances between the Pashtun populaces represented by the Taliban and the Karzai government. Also critical in this is to always keep an eye to ensuring that reconciliation of issues with the Pashtun does not inadvertently give rise to new points of conflict with the currently loyal populaces of the old Northern Alliance.

Afghanistan is a classic "Win-Lose" system. Your team is either "in" or "out" and there is little middle ground. Finding that middle ground is what will resolve this conflict to the point that the coalition can return home with its collective head held high.