The Lessons of the Envoy in an Age of Small Wars

The Lessons of the Envoy in an Age of Small Wars

Octavian Manea

SWJ interview with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, author of “The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World, St Martin’s Press, 2016.

From 2007 to 2009, Ambassador Khalilzad served as the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Prior to that, he served as the US Ambassador to Iraq (2005-2007) and US Ambassador to Afghanistan (2003 to 2005). He also served as the US Special Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan (2001 to 2003).

SWJ: Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq showed a US capable of mastering the kinetic phase of a conflict, of winning a conventional fight. Why did the US lose the peace?

Zalmay Khalilzad: Concerning Afghanistan, I do not believe the peace was lost. I think the peace was put at risk, endangered, and the fight for it continues with an uncertain future. From my point of view, in Afghanistan we did implement a good policy to support a government of the Afghans soon after the overthrow of the Taliban. The multilateral diplomacy, putting the Karzai government together and gaining global legitimacy for it, was done well. The Bonn process was done well.

The errors that were made and the problems that arose were twofold. First, we did not pay adequate attention to the emergence of a sanctuary in Pakistan and we did not deal effectively with problems in the Afghan-Pakistani relationship that led to the emergence of that sanctuary and a resurgent Taliban. Second, we came slowly and reluctantly to the idea of building Afghan institutions to maintain security in the country. We did not want to have a large Afghan security force because we thought they could not afford it and we didn’t want to be responsible for sustaining it. At the same time we didn’t want to have a large Western or American force in country.

I think that in the golden hour, if you like, immediately after the overthrow of the Taliban, effective action with Pakistan in the sense of not allowing a sanctuary to develop would have been helpful. Building up Afghan forces earlier and faster or deploying a larger international stabilization force would have been helpful.

I also think that in the golden hour there was an opportunity, perhaps, that some sort of an agreement could have been struck with the Taliban to accept the legitimacy of the new government. I see this as an intelligence failure because I’ve discovered recently that the Taliban did meet with President Karzai before he moved from Kandahar to Kabul to assume leadership of Afghanistan. They offered him a piece of paper in which they presented their terms for pledging allegiance to him and ending the conflict. We were not aware of this - Karzai didn’t pass such a letter to us. I am confident now that such a letter was given to Karzai, he confirmed it to me, and I’ve heard it from sources that talked to the Taliban who were there when it happened.

In the absence of any kind of reconciliation or agreement with the Taliban, we saw the sanctuary develop while we kept the Afghan forces small without a large force of our own.  So the outcome was a highly volatile mix. My judgment is that it is easier to act in the golden hour when you could do things while the adversary is in disarray, on the run, and your credibility is high.

SWJ: It seems that we lost this lesson concerning the “golden hour” in post-Gaddafi’s Libya. We lost the opportunity to consolidate gains through security sector reform before the militias increased their hold on Libya. In the much debated interview published in The Atlantic, President Obama blames the outcome in Libya on the passivity of our allies and on the power of tribal identities. Is acting during the golden hour a must in this type of operation?

Zalmay Khalilzad: In the case of Libya, the US had no desire or intent to get involved in state-building. President Obama has confirmed this. It was believed others would do it. The expectation that others will come and save you from a situation you helped create, without details being worked out, is quite risky. It was assumed the Europeans and others would handle the on-the-ground post-overthrow situation in Libya.  This assumption proved to be wrong.

In the case of Iraq, the golden hour presented a more complex situation. We went into Iraq with a bit of schizophrenia regarding what to do after the liberation. On one hand, there was a strong belief among many people, including the President, that we should not govern Iraq ourselves, that an Iraqi government would be formed quickly - that we would reform Iraqi institutions such as the army and police and carry-out limited de-Baathification. When the invasion occurred the plan changed to one of the United States governing Iraq directly. We declared an occupation authority, dissolved the army, and sought to maintain only a small military force of our own. By dissolving the Iraqi Army we antagonized a large number of people who knew how to use weapons and at the same time didn’t have enough force of our own to establish order. As the result, over time, a significant insurgency formed and we switched our policies and strategies, seeking to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis.

SWJ: Both Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate a tendency to focus on population-centric approaches when it is too late. The golden hour has passed and public opinion indicates a loss of patience. How important is a population-centric approach from the beginning?

Zalmay Khalilzad: To defeat an insurgency you need to execute a population-protection strategy, winning the hearts and minds of the population to your side and working with the aspirations of the people for stability, security and services. You also need to deal effectively with the issue of sanctuary. In the case of Afghanistan, we had a good approach because the overthrow had been popular. But our strategy was a light-foot print on the ground, primarily Special Forces, and relying on local leaders – some of them warlords – and air power to defeat the Taliban.  Also, there was a reluctance to do nation building in the initial phase or to take responsibility for security outside of Kabul. It took a while to develop the concept of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, to have some presence in different parts of Afghanistan, and it took a while before a new commander, General Barno, developed the South and East strategy based on counterinsurgency. The attitude of our country politically tends to be negative towards nation building abroad. We are in a similar mood now. But I think that when we identify a strategic territory and we do not want it to be controlled by hostile forces our options are limited. We must do nation building in order to defeat a hostile power and establish a political order conducive to local aspirations and our strategic objectives.  We need to recognize that the golden hour is important.  To deal with armed opposition, you have to do counterinsurgency that has a population-protection element, but you also have to help your local friends build state institutions so they can carry the responsibility burden more and more themselves. In the post 9/11 environment, Afghanistan was a strategic piece of territory, and as we did in post-war Europe, Japan or Korea, we needed to have a template for doing successful nation building. President Bush came into power with a pronounced hostile attitude towards nation building abroad. After 9/11 it took a while to change that mindset. It was changed in stages and reluctantly.

SWJ: We see at the level of “decision makers”, the return of a fatalistic view that nothing can be done to deal with the so-called ancient hatreds, either ethnic or sectarian. Keeping in mind the current state of the Middle East can these energies be tamed and reconciled?

Zalmay Khalilzad: We need to know what the requirements are. We tend to be good as a reactive power when we see a threat. But we are not good at strategically shaping factors that take time to build. Today’s Iraq has become a microcosm of the struggle you see throughout the region as whole - the politicization of smaller identities. On top of that you have a struggle for power for domination of the region. You have three powers that play very big roles regionally - Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. If you look at these two levels what we need, given the intensity of the sectarian problem, a kind of a neo-Westphalian type of agreement between the major groups – the Sunni Arabs (Saudi Arabia), the Shia (Iran) and the Turks (Turkey). Because many of the conflicts have become proxy wars, you need some agreement on the rules of the competition between these three. This is a necessary requirement.

Concerning Iraq, we took over in 2003, with sufficient force we could have kept the regional players out.  We were making progress to get an agreement among the locals on a unity government, on federalism for the Kurds, reducing the extremist threat from both Shia militias and the Sunni Al-Qaeda in Iraq. But as soon as we left or reduced our forces dramatically, the regional competition intensified for Iraq. Given that we are not in the mood of going in and imposing order ourselves then a key requirement for our diplomacy going forward is how to work with local and regional elements to accommodate internally the diverse communities who have become politicized and polarized. This requires power-sharing, decentralization and federalization in places like Syria and Iraq but at the same time a regional compact between Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. And if these are difficult conditions to meet the consequence is that the region will remain problematic and unstable for some time to come.

The fact is that external powers are not going to go in and impose order themselves.  They can defend their interests by attacking some targets like we are doing with regard to ISIS. We can kill the mosquitoes, as the old phrase goes, but in order to drain the swamp, to get rid of it, you have two options. One is that of a Leviathan from outside, maintaining order and creating internal arrangements that can work.  The Leviathan’s influence can be reduced over time when local institutions are strong and trusted.  But this will still require maintaining some presence for a long period of time. If we are not willing to do that because of domestic policy, the alternative option is relying on regional balances of power and on agreements on regulating geopolitical competition, as happened in 17th century Europe among the Catholics and Protestants. Back then, the disastrous consequences of religious wars triggered a rules-based order via the Westphalian system. So in today’s Middle East there must be a balance of power between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, some negotiated rules within the regional competition as well as some internal arrangements that accommodates the diversity of multi-ethnic or multi-sectarian states.  There will need to be unity governments, power-sharing at the center or power-sharing at the center plus decentralization, as well as federal and con-federal arrangements.

If no political arrangements can be reached, the alternative is redrawing maps. If you don’t have an internal arrangement, one that can accommodate diversity, then some group or groups will want to opt out.  Unlike the situation in Afghanistan, there are forces like the Iraqi Kurds who will seek independence.  And that will come about if there is no mutual accommodation and acceptance within a single state.

SWJ: What can be learned in terms of influencing the local host government, in terms of governance reform?

Zalmay Khalilzad: The issue of good governance is both very important for success and very difficult to achieve. Our record in bringing about good governance has been poor in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It has to do with a number of factors. Our government instruments are not very well developed in terms of assisting in the establishment or progress of good governance - nor are they well integrated.

Sometimes we contribute to poor governance.  When you have contracting systems to provide services for the US forces, we set an example.  However, the elements that do the contracting to provide water or other sustainment elements (protection to the facilities, transportation services) see their mission as very limited. They are not interested in good governance but on delivering the assigned mission. In Afghanistan my mission was to push the government to control corruption, to weaken the lawless warlords and to expand the rule of law. But the military services that needed help from those guys for their sustainment would deliver a lot of resources through companies controlled by corrupt individuals. The American way of war is very much cash-heavy. We use money as an instrument for success. Money can have unintended consequences especially in these nascent institutions that are not quite developed to get things done. We need to work with those who share the ideas of good governance and strengthen them, whether it is civil society, political forces or leaders. At the same time we need to monitor the processes to make sure we are not unintentionally part of the problem.

Concerning host nation leadership, we need to understand the environment and the priorities in which they operate - their priority is often to remain dominant in their domain – to stay in power. However, you can work with such leaders productively.  I saw that in Iraq and Afghanistan, where you had Maliki 1 and 2, but also Karzai 1 and 2. Initially Karzai was a great partner. We were able to work with him on reform.  But when our relationship with him deteriorated, he became difficult and counterproductive.

In the case of Iraq, Maliki became a positive force at first.  Given the distrust among the communities, between Sunni and Shia, the US was kind of a safety valve, a source of a reassurance that things would not go out of control. We engaged with Maliki and his government, reassuring as well as pressing the government. Once we withdrew and disengaged under Obama, Maliki saw his future as depending more and more on Iranian good will.  He saw Saudi Arabia and Iran competing for influence. He saw the others as working against him as the Turks developed strong relations with the Kurds and Saudi Arabia with the Sunnis. He felt that in order to survive politically he needed to work with the Iranians. The outcome was an increased sectarianism that was boosted by Syria falling apart. In Iraq, we should have sustained a reduced presence of 10-15,000 troops. Recently Maliki told me that he made a mistake by not insisting in keeping the American troops. In the case of Karzai the source of distrust and the fact that Karzai became more and more difficult was the issue of sanctuary, the inability of US to deter Pakistan to host a Taliban sanctuary. To him this was the mother of all problems.

SWJ: Because the demand for small wars types of engagement will increase in the future, how should the US national security establishment be reformed in order to be better postured to handle such contingencies?

Zalmay Khalilzad: I do worry that some of the things we’ve learned, or should have learned, could get lost as the country seems to moving away from these types of operations. A few things are very important that I would like to highlight. We need to do a Goldwater-Nichols type of examination with regard to civil-military cooperation in post conflict environments especially when we need to build state and national institutions. Almost all issues have civil and military dimensions and to a large extent success has depended on the personal relations of the Ambassador and the General in charge. Especially in counterinsurgency operations - integrated civil-military effort is vital. It makes the difference between success and failure. We need to develop some sort of institutionalized answer about how that cooperation will take place. If you look at the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, there were periods in which that relationship was dysfunctional and there were times when it was good. In my book I recommend an integrated civil-military command for expeditionary operations.

A second lesson is that we need to reform the civilian element of stabilization operations if we are going to do this again. The culture of our diplomatic sector is one of observing, reading talking points and reporting. We need diplomats that work to solve problems. We need entrepreneurial minds that facilitate agreements among the locals.

Also, from an economic point of view, we should focus on understanding what a country needs to do to stand on its own feet economically. We don’t have a good theory of economic development. We should have a reservoir of talent able to understand how economies work, how to catalyze economic growth and how to jump start governmental services. We need to develop a standing capability to build effective local security forces. In theory, State Department does police building, but in my experience its ability to do this effectively was very limited. The problem is that without such standing civilian capabilities, the government will continue to turn to the military for these missions.

SWJ: In order to be better postured in regional theaters should the Combatant Commands become truly whole of government bodies? Should we aim for a joint civil-military command at the theater/regional level?

Zalmay Khalilzad: I am not committed to a particular structure for civil-military integration.  We need a Goldwater-Nichols style examination of the question.  It might be that it also requires integration at the regional level.  It certainly is needed at the theater level.

SWJ: How do you see US grand strategy in a world where both great power politics as well as trends in weak and failed states will remain - often in competition? What should be preserved from the past grand strategies and what should be new?

Zalmay Khalilzad: Planning and strategizing are extremely important. We are entering a time where a major strategic review is required.

The US should ensure a favorable balance of power in three critical regions – Europe, Asia and the Middle East. As an ultimate balancer, the US should focus on normalizing the geopolitics of these core regions while trying to reconcile differences among the big regional competitors. In short, this is a strategy of “balance and reconcile.”

For the US, this means we must preclude hegemony in any of these regions by a hostile power. We can achieve this by shaping regional balances of power. At the same time, in all of these regions we need to develop cooperative structures that can build confidence, are able to manage crises, encourage reconciliation and make these regions rules-based.

Europe faces problems from the East, particularly from Russia.  I believe that the United States must pursue a policy that combines steps needed to ensure a balance of power, strong American engagement, and at the same time strengthening the OSCE.  Together with the Europeans, we also need to develop a concept for how to deal with Putin’s Russia, a special case of a power that is economically weakening but geopolitically very active.

Asia is a different challenge.  It is not as institutionalized as Europe.  Managing the rise of China requires the US to work with partners to preclude Chinese hegemony.  This means working with all of the powers of the region – from India to Japan to South East Asian countries.  We need to network these countries together.  As part of this effort, the US needs to maintain its own presence to the degree needed to maintain a balance and motivate others to cooperate.

In the Middle East, we need to develop an architecture that balances the regional powers while seeking a potential agreement among them to stabilize the region. 

SWJ: How should the US and other Western powers prepare for a world where hybrid/political warfare is increasingly becoming a problem? What kind of capabilities and approaches are needed to deal with this?

Zalmay Khalilzad: We have to improve our capabilities to compete politically and geopolitically and to operate militarily at levels lower than major combined arms operations.  Historically, we have been able to do so – think of the Marshall Plan, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and so forth.  Our intelligence services and Special Forces have capacities to operate unconventionally and in support of paramilitary forces.  However, what is lacking is a concept of operations that enables us to integrate those capabilities into a regional campaign plan against adversaries, such as Russia and Iran, who are expert at this form of conflict.

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Throughout his explanations and discussion in this interview, Ambassador Khalilzad fails to address the central underlying problem re: the U.S./the West's efforts in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere; this being that:

a. While the U.S./the West may wish to transform other states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines (our definition of nation/state-building),

b. These states and societies themselves, targeted as they are (in their eyes) for transformation along alien and profane lines; these such states and societies (for obvious reason) do not want to be, thus, transformed.

This being the case, then it becomes easy to understand:

a. Why "winning the conventional phase of the conflict/winning the conventional fight," is somewhat meaningless/of no great moment.

b. Why blaming failure on such things as the "emergence of a sanctuary" misses the point.

c. Why focusing in such things as "the golden hour" is misguided.

d. Why whether we, or the Europeans, undertake a nation-building project (in, for example, Libya), the negative outcome is likely to be the same.

e. Why a "winning hearts and minds"/"population-centric" approach to counterinsurgency is something of a ridiculous notion. (This, given that what you are requiring the population to accept, to wit: your unique, alien and profane ideas, notions, institutions, values, attitudes and beliefs; these are more likely to confuse, alienate and repel, rather than attract, the population.)

f. Why "ancient hatreds," "the politicization of smaller identities" and the "struggle for power and domination of the region" cannot be resolved by the West (and specifically via a "transformation based on universal western values" effort).

g. Why "good governance" (Western-style) is impossible (it is an alien concept) and why "development" (in the Western sense) does not work and can do more harm than good. And,

h. Why "reforming the US national security establishment, so at to be better postured to handle these contingencies," will only be effective if we do so with our "premise for transformation" changed from: (a) "universal (western) values" and (b) a welcoming population to: (c) diametrically opposed values and (d) a repelled population; one willing to fight and die so as to preserve/return to its ancestral ways.

(I could go on and on, but I believe you get my drift.)

Bottom Line: Our "soft power" has failed us. Thus we avoid -- at our greatest peril I suggest -- acknowledging the blatantly obvious, to wit: that "universal (Western) values" do not exist/have not obtained throughout the world. Accordingly, should we persist in our determination to "transform" outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines (our grand political objective), then we must accept that this will be much more of an (a) "uphill"/tumultuous/ contested battle and not so much the (b) "downhill"/smooth-sailing/welcoming run that we expected post-the Old Cold War.

(Thus, to gird ourselves accordingly -- both as to the Greater Middle East -- and, indeed, as to Russia, China, Iran, etc., also.)