Imagine this: you’re a fifty-something four-star general in the US Army; you have achieved that lofty summit largely by laboring in the relatively peaceful halls of military academe. You spend 1970 – 1974 learning to be an officer and a gentleman at West Point during the death throes of what the Vietnamese people call “The American War” — which is really too bad, in a way, because the timing robbed you of the chance to see, up close and personal, just how horribly wrong things can go for a military that finds itself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong strategy. Not for you the “fragging, the drugs, the widespread AWOLs and outright mutiny that occurs when young men are asked to risk death for absurd reasons against insurmountable odds.
Nevertheless you are young, smart and enthusiastic so your lack of first-hand experience doesn’t keep you from weighing in on the “lessons learned” from “The American War” when it comes time for you to tender your doctoral dissertation at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International affairs; your thesis, “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era,” is a hit and you are duly awarded your Ph.D.
Now you are on the fast-track for brainy soldiers with political skills that will undoubtedly land you at “Ground Zero” (aka The Pentagon) or — who knows, maybe the Oval Office, someday. So it is that you eventually find yourself a general who has never seen combat — until Iraq. Unfortunately, you don’t get your hands on that command until things are so thoroughly screwed up that all the sensible people are looking for the exits and making their escape plans. But, as you are fond of saying: “just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s hopeless.” Iraq in 2007, however, is more than hard, it’s a disaster — and a disaster of our own making so the US can’t exactly declare it all a big mistake and walk away…
The All-American solution for such situations? — throw more money at it. In this case, more money equates to more troops, along with their fabulously expensive trappings, as a last ditch effort. And we will call it a “surge” which has a confident, manly sound to it and we will give this surge a fresh commander to give it that “whole new ball game” feel. Maybe then the naysayers will shut up about being lied to and Geneva conventions and bad strategies; maybe they won’t notice that having to do a surge means that you underestimated to begin with in order to sell your war; maybe they won’t be so angry that their kids died for Poor Planning more than Iraqi Freedom…
Enter “Super Dave” Petraeus to save the day; surely this military brainiac, with the impressive string of degrees, who’s running out of “shirt” to hang his merit badges on, will be able to make some sense out of the mess his less gifted colleagues have made of Iraq. Long story short, due to a very favorable confluence of external events (and Petraeus’ own extraordinary ability to recognize an “out” and capitalize on it while spinning a compelling yarn about what a great idea he had) — The Miracle of Iraqi Freedom ensued complete with stirring taglines like The Anbar Awakening and the Sons of Iraq to remind disgruntled Americans of our sacred duty to impose democracy on every hamlet, shtetl, village and outpost in the world — whether they like it or not.
No doubt about it, Super Dave is one smart cookie who understands, among other things, the value of dodging bullets. He certainly knows, as well as many of the rest of us, that timing, the existence of an Iraqi government and national infrastructure, society and internal politics played a huge role in the precipitate drop in violence that occurred in spite of, not because of, the “surge” of American troops in Iraq. Petraeus knows that he went through barrels of cash to underwrite field trips to Anbar for Awakening therapy, he knows that he quelled some urban sectarian violence by establishing and enforcing apartheid in Baghdad, he knows that he used Stan the Man’s JSOC death squads to eliminate rabble-rousers but, most of all, I’m sure that the general knows that the “center will not hold” for long. And sure enough, Iraq is steadily devolving into Civil War. Super Dave managed to get out of Iraq before that could happen, though, and collected his reward — CENTCOM command in sunny Tampa — only inches away from a happy and lucrative retirement as a military mentor for broadcast media, a lobbyist for Raytheon or some such MIC concern, maybe even POTUS?
Unfortunately, the general’s superhero status has landed him back in the soup (i.e., Afghanistan) where he is now expected to “do that voodoo that he does so well.” Obviously, “Stan the Man” McChrystal is no dummy himself, because he managed to take a flamboyant shortcut to retired-military fame and fortune, with pension intact, whilst his hapless CO gets a POTUS-designed demotion to salvage another US military fiasco.
In his desperation to pull another rabbit out of the helmet, Super Dave appears to have come up with a particularly hare-brained idea to save our hash in Afghanistan. At least it seems hare-brained, at first glance; but after some careful consideration, I’m coming around to believe that Gen. Petraeus’ new idea has more than a little genius about it. Not that I expect Super Dave’s plan to result in Victory in Afghanistan (whatever the hell that might look like) but I think that it has a damned good chance of getting Super Dave and the rest of us out of that godforsaken dust bowl in short order.
Let me explain myself …
Super Dave still had one foot on the tarmac in Kabul when he first met with, and reportedly pissed off, President Karzai. The issue that Karzai is most sensitive to is the Americans’ idea that Afghanistan needs to establish (yet another) police force to protect the population from Taliban intimidation. But the general still has visions of the Sons of Iraq dancing in his head and probably figures it’s worth a shot. These “new” police forces would be localized and therefore, theoretically, more aware of insurgents in their midst, more inclined to protect their own communities from Taliban incursions and less inclined to shakedown, loot, rape or pillage their own neighbors. Standing up an effective national police force, one of the few clearly stated key milestones for eventual withdrawal of Western forces, has, so far, been an abysmal failure in Afghanistan for a myriad of well-documented reasons; this would be a fresh start not to mention the fact that it would distract any Afghanistan-Watchers who are still waiting for the Kandahar Offensive or for things to turn around in Marjah.
It all makes some sense (on paper) and, in the absence of any other bright ideas, it’s at least something that looks different to try. From President Karzai’s perspective, it looks like an invitation to insurrection. Karzai has been solidly against this notion any time that the US has suggested it; he knows that his hold on power is so tenuous that the last thing he needs is a few dozen fractious militias running around in various provinces setting their own agenda. Since the oft-repeated mission of the US in Afghanistan has been to concentrate and solidify power in the Kabul central government, Karzai has a point. No one is going to change the centuries-old provincial and tribal allegiances of ordinary Afghan citizens by deputizing them, arming them and putting them on the government payroll; they may prefer to keep Taliban extremists out of their lives but that doesn’t mean that they are anxious to help Karzai solidify his own bloc and no one knows that better than the Brothers Karzai whose only aspirations are to milk the NATO presence for every last euro and dollar they can before they must depart or lose their heads.
Despite grave misgivings, Karzai finally caved to Super Dave on this point, most likely because he knows that it’s a fool’s errand. Spencer Ackerman wrote a great brief on how dumb this idea is, just in case it escapes the average taxpayer who continues to underwrite this nonsense; here’s what Spencer says which I totally agree with:
“General David Petraeus has persuaded Karzai to set up a new force to supplement Afghan soldiers and police. It’s not really Anbar Awakening 2.0, since it doesn’t involve insurgents switching sides. And don’t use the M-word, Pentagon officials say. “They would not be militias,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters Wednesday. ‘These would be government-formed, government-paid, government-uniformed local police units.’ Specifically, the new units will be paid by the Interior Ministry — or, rather, the foreign money that bankrolls the Afghanistan government will be disbursed to these new units through the ministry.”
“Except, Morell conceded, they wouldn’t be trained, as police units are. (“We don’t have enough trainers to do the fundamental job here,” Morrell further conceded.) In essence, up to 10,000 fighters — as an initial tranche, according to the New York Times — around the country will be rapidly deputized under the auspices of the Interior Ministry, at the behest of the NATO military command, and then relied upon to keep the peace in places with insufficient amounts of Afghan security forces. ‘A useful bridging mechanism,’ Morrell called the program, until the Afghan army and police can move in.”
So, suddenly, into the already toxic Afghan mix, will be added thousands of untrained, armed local defense forces “free to make it up as they go along.” Of course they will technically be government employees, beholden to Kabul for their paychecks and they will have to answer to the Interior Ministry in Kabul (whose Director resigned last month taking with him Interior’s reputation of being one of the only Kabul government departments that was anything like viable and well run).
The fatal flaw in this plan, as Ackerman cogently points out, is this:
“Only the potential for short-term contingencies to overtake long-term strategy is acute. It’s not like there’s some separate pool of potential recruits for this new “Local Police Force.” They’re the same Afghans that the government’s been trying to recruit for the army and the police. The fighters rallied to this new program are most likely to come from local power brokers, whose hold over remote parts of Afghanistan will be accordingly entrenched. Those power brokers won’t easily give up the source of that expanded power to army and police recruiters. And that means the “bridging mechanism” could easily turn the expansion of the Afghan security services — the U.S.’s ticket out of Afghanistan, according to the Obama administration’s overall strategy — a bridge to nowhere.”
Over time, I’ve grown sort of fond of our plucky general, Super Dave. I think that he’s very smart, especially when it comes to politics; moreover, I think he’s at least as smart as Spencer Ackerman and therefore the fairly glaring, obvious downside potential of the localized police force idea will not have escaped him. And that, I believe, is the beauty of Super Dave’s mind.
By now, most have us have had time to appreciate the awesome dimensions of our military and diplomatic failure in Afghanistan – our total ignorance of the region, our reluctance to leave long after al Qaeda was decimated, our adoption of the Taliban as a new enemy, our destabilization of Pakistan, our appalling choice of Hamid Karzai to head up a new government, etc, etc. More and more of us are clamoring to just “own” that failure and get the hell out before our economy totally craters. Super Dave wants that, too, I suspect; but he’d probably like to get out with his career intact and, especially with his COIN theory vindicated. So what could possibly happen in Afghanistan, next, that would create the space for a graceful exit?
I’m thinking that civil war, if not total anarchy, might be just the ticket. Think of it — emasculated warlords with freshly armed militias joining up with the provincial shadow governments to get rid of the Karzais and their Western patrons, once and for all. If that were to happen, COIN must necessarily be suspended because, by definition, COIN requires a strong central government for the population to gravitate toward. I imagine the “post-mortem” conversation would probably go something like this: “Perhaps COIN might have worked in Afghanistan if internal strife hadn’t toppled the Karzai government; but without a healthy central government, all bets were off.”
That’s when things get interesting for the US because we then have the choice of withdrawing while the Afghans have their civil war which, after all, is nothing to do with us and keeps them busy and distracted from other things like harboring al Qaeda (if they ever consciously did so). Or, we could decide to pick a side, stay on and engage in conventional warfare (probably regional) without any quibbling over who’s who. That would probably please the “bomb them back into the Stone Age” crowd.
That’s my idea, anyway. And if it’s Super Dave’s idea, too, well . . . more power to him. At this point, I’ll support just about any program that gets us out of Afghanistan in less than ten years.