Friday, March 13, 2009

The Bush Doctrine: DOA at DOD? Part II

As discussed in Part I of this two part series, Defense Secretary Gates enunciated a new, more circumspect and evidence-based standard for judging the advisability of deploying military force in the future. The approach outlined by Gates represents a welcomed shift away from the Bush Doctrine's grounding in preventive war theory. However, that approach to new military deployments does not address how and in what ways the Obama administration plans to deal with ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thus far, there have been encouraging statements from Obama about his intention to withdraw US forces from Iraq within the SOFA timeframe (by 2011). While I would prefer a slightly more accelerated pace - and think a downpayment on withdrawal would be prudent - the basic contours of the plan outlined by Obama are commendable. Regarding Afghanistan, however, our path going forward is less clear. What we know is that Obama has ordered an additional 17,000 troops to join the 35,000, and that he is conducting a strategic review of the mission.

My hope is that those troops are meant to tilt the battlefield in our favor temporarily, and add extra protection to the Afghan population, as part of a last ditch effort to create an advantageous position from which to negotiate with those Taliban factions that can be brought into the fold - and convince those factions that gravitate to the strongest power. Further, and accompanying this, it would be advised that Obama attempt to establish a comprehensive and realistic regional framework, enlisting the support of Afghanistan's neighbors by showing a willingness to consider competing interests. Along these lines, Les Gelb is right on the money with his list of recommendations, as well as his strategic assessment:

I don’t know whether the power extrication strategy sketched out here would be less or more risky than our present course. But trying to eliminate the Taliban and Qaeda threat in Afghanistan is unattainable, while finding a way to live with, contain and deter the Taliban is an achievable goal. After all, we don’t insist on eliminating terrorist threats from Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. Furthermore, this strategy of containing and deterring is far better suited to American power than the current approach of counterinsurgency and nation-building.

However, I'm worried that Obama will be too heavily influenced by the counterinsurgency enthusiasts that are being brought into the administration under the leadership of under secretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy - co-founder the CNAS think tank that whose roster reads like a who's who of counterinsurgency practitioners. This isn't necessarily problematic, as there are many well-informed individuals with sage advice on transforming our military to a more sensible posture.

Further, as informed by COIN doctrine, attempting to train soldiers to be more knowledgeable and respectful of local populations, customs and peoples is a positive, as is the emphasis on securing the population over more kinetic operations. Paying attention to winning hearts and minds is desirable and if military intervention is necessary at any time, we would be better served with COIN doctrine as the norm. However, the risk is that Obama might overestimate the efficacy of COIN doctrine - based in part on the supposed success of the Surge - and be overly influenced by the many practitioners filling out the ranks in the Pentagon.

One of CNAS's experts, David Kilcullen (whose work I admire), recently wrote a book entitled The Accidental Guerilla, which wasn't treated very kindly in a review by Andrew Bacevich. Reacting to Bacevich's review, Andrew Exum (another CNAS expert and proprietor of the Abu Muquwama blog - whose work I also admire) had this to say:

One of the things I have always maintained is that realists of the Andrew Bacevich school and counter-insurgents of the David Kilcullen school have more in common than they realize at first glance. No one who really understands COIN wants to do it. Liberal interventionalists and neo-conservatives are likely to be much more enthusiastic than the practitioners themselves. [emphasis added]

Like Matt Yglesias, I'd like to believe this but can't quite commit. While Exum is right that liberal interventionalists and neo-conservatives are more enthusiastic about the use of the military option, I'm not as certain that COIN practitioners are really all that reluctant in some settings. For example, it seems that many of those same practitioners that claim not to want to practice COIN are in favor of applying COIN in the Afghan theater over the next 5-10 years in order to accomplish the following modest goals: create a stable Afghanistan, eradicate Pakistani safe-havens, wipe out the poppy crop and stabilize the region. That's a funny way to show your aversion.

In fairness to Exum and the COINdanistas, most would argue - plausibly - that COIN practitioners show greater reluctance to initiate a conflict, but the Afghanistan situation is different because we are already committed - that COIN is the way to dig us out. Nevertheless, there tends to be a lack of appreciation of the enormous costs involved in making such a COIN-infused push in Afghanistan (and Iraq), as well as a certain level of overconfidence that such audacious goals can be met through the application of the favored doctrine.

Interestingly, people like David Kilcullen seem to grasp the magnitude of the costs, and the detrimental effect these commitments are having on our overall strategic outlook, yet he can't seem to bring himself to follow the path he blazes when it leads out of Afghanistan and Iraq. These excerpts from Kilcullen's response to Bacevich's review are illuminating:

[Bacevich] also writes, in one of the best parts of his review: “If counterinsurgency is useful chiefly for digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in, then why not simply avoid the holes? Why play al-Qaeda’s game? Why persist in waging the Long War when that war makes no sense?”

Again, I couldn’t agree more. That’s what I said in the book -- on the middle of page 269: “we should avoid any future large-scale, unilateral military intervention in the Islamic world, for all the reasons already discussed." A few pages earlier, in the middle of page 264, I write: “Our too-willing and heavy-handed interventions in the so-called “war on terrorism” to date have largely played into the hands of this AQ exhaustion strategy, while creating tens of thousands of accidental guerrillas and tying us down in a costly (and potentially unsustainable) series of interventions.” I do, however, make the point (at the top of page 284) that “This will be a protracted conflict. Because the drivers of conflict in the current security environment…lie predominantly outside Western governments’ control, our ability to terminate this conflict on our own terms or within our preferred timeline is extremely limited.”

So on the one hand, we have played into the hands of this "AQ exhaustion strategy, while creating tens of thousands of accidental guerrillas and tying us down in a costly (and potentially unsustainable) series of interventions," but on the other hand, we shouldn't stop with those interventions. Just not start any new ones. Why not go all the way though?

Meanwhile Mr Bacevich writes: “When it comes to dealing with Islamism, containment rather than transformation should provide the cornerstone of U.S. (and Western) strategy.” Again, I find myself in violent agreement with Mr Bacevich and…um, myself.

Starting on page 280 there is an entire section entitled "understanding the limits of our influence" (which quotes Mr Bacevich at length, by the way, one of two lengthy and favorable mentions of him) and argues against a series of interventions in the Muslim world. The book considers the option of containment strategy (in Chapter 1, at the bottom of page 19), criticizes the policy of direct intervention, and shows how containment would have been a valid strategic response to 9/11, though it notes that containment would have been extremely difficult to achieve, given the effects of globalization. The book also quotes Senator John F. Kerry, in Chapter 5, page 277-78, and describes his proposal of a containment strategy as showing "evident good sense".

But if containment would have been a valid strategic response to 9/11, why not now after al-Qaeda's network has been severely disrupted, our targets have been hardened, and our intelligence and law enforcement communities considerably more focused? Why not if, as Gelb says, we're willing to go with containment vis-a-vis Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen?

It is an unmitigated positive that Gates has enunciated a new, less interventist standard to apply when assessing the wisdom of committing troops in the future. And Andrew Exum is right that people like David Kilcullen and the other COIN practitioners are much more reluctant to use force than liberal interventionists and neoconservatives. The question is, will these reluctant warriors succeed in convincing Obama to commit to 4-8 years of intensive and extremely costly, if regrettable, military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq?

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