Thursday, March 19, 2009

My Occupation's Known, but Not Why I Occupy

In a recent post, I took issue with Andrew Exum's claim that counterinsurgency (COIN) practitioners are reluctant to endorse undertaking COIN-based missions - a skepticism that stems from their first hand knowledge of the enormous costs and decades-long timetables involved, and of the uncertainty of achieving successful outcomes despite the considerable investments. As Fester recently wrote at Newshoggers:

COIN today promises the same type of inputs [as efforts in Vietnam and Algeria] --- ten to twenty year wars, operational costs of one to two points of annual GDP at a time of structural deficits and domestic fiscal crisis --- with the same type of outcomes --- weak, client states in need of continual support in secondary or tertiary areas of interest.

What's not to love? While Exum is perhaps accurate in describing the position held by most COIN gurus with respect to new missions calling for the use of the military, many of the most prominent COIN practitioners tend to show a willingness - enthusiasm even - for applying COIN to ongoing military engagements such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here, Exum might chide me for confusing "operational doctrine with strategy": COIN doctrine merely informs as to the best methods to conduct a military engagement, not whether or not the engagement makes sense/is worth it from a strategic point of view. Thus, COIN practitioners are telling us how to best conduct our current operations, not whether or not it's strategically wise to continue those operations. However, in practice, the majority of COIN experts are rarely, if ever, sticking to the strictly "operational" side of that equation.

For example, in that earlier post, I linked to a CNAS report written by four of the leading COIN scholars arguing why a 5-10 year military/diplomatic commitment in Afghanistan was necessary. It wasn't about operational doctrine - it was a strategic argument for maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan and warning of the outcomes if their plan is not followed.

In that same post, I examined certain claims made by one of the CNAS report's authors - David Kilcullen - in response to Andrew Bacevich's critique of Kilcullen's book, The Accidental Guerilla. In defense of that book, Kilcullen pointed out that he warned that pursuing military intervention as counterterrorism policy "plays into the hands of the[e] [al-Qaeda] exhaustion strategy" that is designed to bleed us of resources by getting us to overreact by using military force in response to terrorist attacks/threats. Further, in response to Bacevich's claims to the contrary, Kilcullen wrote in favor of "containment strategy" over attempts by the US to transform other societies.

Yet those concerns are not evident in Kilcullen's counsel as to the ideal way forward in Afghanistan now. The Kilcullen who took umbrage with Bacevich's review seems to be at odds with the Kilcullen who co-wrote the January CNAS report which happens to bear the title: "Tell Me Why We’re There? Enduring Interests in Afghanistan (and Pakistan)." Furthermore, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in early February, Kilcullen staked out an even more ambitious agenda, with a longer timeline, than that set forth in the aforementioned CNAS report:

We need to do four things – what we might call “essential strategic tasks” – to succeed in Afghanistan. We need to preventthe re-emergence of an Al Qaeda sanctuary that could lead to another 9/11. We need to protect Afghanistan from a range of security threats including the Taliban insurgency, terrorism, narcotics, misrule and corruption. We need to build sustainable and accountable state institutions (at the central, provincial and local level) and a resilient civil society. Then we can begin a phased hand-off to Afghan institutions that can survive without permanent international assistance [ed note: Oh is that all!!!]. We might summarize this approach as “Prevent, Protect, Build, Hand-Off”. Let’s call it “Option A”.

Given enough time, resources and political commitment, Option A is definitely workable. But we need to be honest about how long it will take – ten to fifteen years, including at least two years of significant combat up front – and how much it will cost. Thirty thousand extra troops in Afghanistan will cost around 2 billion dollars per month beyond the roughly 20 billion we already spend; additional governance and development efforts will cost even more; in the current economic climate this is a big ask. The campaign will cost the lives of many American, Afghan and coalition soldiers and civilians, and injure many more. There are also opportunity costs: we have finally, through much blood and effort, reached a point where we can start disengaging some combat troops from Iraq. We need to ask ourselves whether the best use for these troops is to send them straight to Afghanistan, or whether we might be better off creating a strategic reserve in Central Command, restoring our military freedom of action and, with it, a measure of diplomatic credibility in the Middle East. [emphasis added]

As evident in Kilcullen's recitation of the four "essential strategic tasks," his testimony was not solely concerned with "operational doctrine." It was an effort to advocate for a particular strategy. However, one of the larger assumptions underlying that strategy - the notion that long term military occupation is an efficient means to deny terrorists room to operate and prevent attacks - is dubious at best, and mostly rejected by Kilcullen himself in his book.

As Kilcullen the author warns, it is an exceedingly expensive undertaking in terms of both blood and money. Steve Hynd grabs for the back of the envelope for some rough calculations in response to Kilcullen:

The DoD actually spends $2.7 billion a month in Afghanistan right now, but what's a few hundred million either way, right? Over fifteen years that bill comes to $846 billion while "additional governance and development efforts will cost even more." Basing some conservative guesstimates on what the ratio of military to reconstruction and other spending has been, those efforts will cost somewhere in the region of $35 billion, with at least another $17.5 billion to pay VA benefits for the inevitable toll in blood. Add in the $173 billion already spent and the $285 billion or so in debt servicing all that deficit spending will cost and the grand total will come to a cool $1.3 trillion. That's $1,300,000,000,000 for those who like to see all the zeroes. [...]

And how about that cost in blood? Well, so far the war in Afghanistan has cost 667 US soldiers their lives. But the pace of casualties has been accelerating. 155 of those deaths were in 2008 alone and 2009 is set to be even deadlier. Afghan civilian casualties have been accelerating too - up over 40% in the last year - and somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 have already died, along with more tens of thousands wounded or simply displaced as refugees.

Extend those casualty rates onward for another 10 to 15 years. That's the butcher's bill.

To state the obvious, terrorist attacks on US civilians are horrible, horrible events that we should seek to prevent. Disrupting terrorist safe havens is a legitimate and worthwhile objective. But like all such objectives, the costs cannot be ignored. Again, that's stating the obvious, but then, the obvious is frequently absent from our foreign policy discourse.

Considering that the economic costs and death toll from even the most horrific of terrorist attacks (9/11) were lower and comparable, respectively, to the projected costs associated with ongoing operations in Afghanistan, the argument to pursue this strategy doesn't make much sense from a strictly cost-benefit computation. Some possible rejoinders are that the next attack could be bigger, attacks could occur more frequently with a safe haven in place and there is a value to the peace of mind of the civilian population that should be factored in (as a resident of lower Manhattan, I'm certainly sympathetic to the last prong).

But those responses all operate under some doubtful assumptions: (1) that there is no way to deny a safe haven absent the Kilcullen approach; (2) that terrorists require a safe haven as a base from which to launch attacks; (3) other than Afghanistan/Pakistan, there are no viable safe havens; and (4) despite our increased focus on the threat of terrorism, a safe haven in Afghanistan would enable future large scale terrorist attacks on US soil.

(1) There are other options worthy of discussion - but they would require more space than this already lengthy post allows and I will instead attempt to address some in follow up pieces (though part of my response to #4 will address a couple of the applicable issues).

(2) Would-be terrorists do not require a particular "safe haven" to carry out attacks. As Marc Sageman points out in Leaderless Jihad, the most recent wave of terrorists are mostly from a diffuse group of "wannabes" spread out over the globe and linked together, at least initially, through the Internet. That's the insidious beauty of terrorism: it's the low-tech, low cost alternative to large scale military operations, and thus its devotees can make-do with only limited room to operate (like those groups that conceived, planned and carried out operations while "based" in England, the United States, Spain and Germany, i.e.).

So, even if we succeed in eradicating all terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan (against long odds after 10-15 years), we could still suffer terrorist attacks from the decentralized "leaderless jihad." Granted, a sanctuary complete with extensive training facilities and unfettered range of motion would help the efficacy of terrorist operations, there is reason to believe that we can disrupt such an ideal version of a safe haven from afar via air strikes even if we can't make the region 100% terrorist free.

(3) Not only can terrorists operate without a safe haven, but even if we seal off Afghanistan/Pakistan from would-be terrorists, the world offers other prime real estate: say, Somalia or Yemen. Are we really going to commit to a series of decades-long societal transformation efforts at a trillion a pop in every locale that al-Qaeda attempts to set up shop? Again, I ask, is that the most efficient use of resources?

(4) We should not underestimate the fact that our increased focus on the threat of terrorism post-9/11 has made America a much harder target to hit. Our intelligence operations, law enforcement capacity, increased international cooperation and general awareness are the most effective means to prevent attack. Unlike during the 1990s, when Clinton was dealing with Congressional push back and concerns over creating international incidents by targeting al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, the US can and will be much more willing to use military strikes to destroy those camps should they spring up in the future.

While we might not be able to eradicate safe havens altogether in so much as al-Qaeda operatives will be able to hide out in the rugged frontier lands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it should be noted that al-Qaeda operatives are currently hiding out in those same regions, and that level of "sanctuary" hasn't led to a series of attacks on US soil.

Finally, we should not ignore the fact that our presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan will aid the recruitment efforts of al-Qaeda, even if we adopt ideal COIN practices. Our presence in Afghanistan/Pakistan radicalizes elements of the local population (creating "accidental guerillas" as Kilcullen calls those motivated by our military presence to pick up arms against us), attracts recruits from afar inspired by the call to defensive jihad, and motivates those third wave self-starters that Sageman described. With respect to Pakistan, our heavy-handed, US-centric interference is not stabilizing the situation by any stretch, but rather tainting leaders amenable to US interests and boosting the popularity of those that oppose us. So while we might be making life harder for extremists groups in some respects, we are also providing boons in other areas.

Given the costs, the requisite dedication of time and resources, the grandiosity of the goals and, relatedly, the uncertainty of the outcomes, as well as the inefficiency of the long-term occupation model as a means of preventing subsequent terrorist attacks, I'm tempted to simply quote Andrew Exum: "No one who really understands COIN wants to do it." Seriously.

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