In Afghanistan, there are no coincidences.
An outside the box strategy analysis by TS Galpin.
Reprint from July 2nd, 2010
This week we’ll talk about Afghanistan, mainly because current events make it too fun not to. Last week I originally started doing a detail referenced thesis on Afghanistan, but realized that Stratfor has already done that, so I’ll stick to a concise value add here.
A Quick overview
The situation on the ground.
What’s up With McChrystal?
The reality of COIN
The Bigger Picture.
In Afghanistan, there are no coincidences.
In the movie “Ronin” Robert De Niro plays a laid of CIA spy in post cold war Europe freelancing to pay for retirement. It’s a good 90’s spy flick. One simple take away that has stuck in my mind for over a decade now; “There is no such thing as coincidence.” If you Google the quote you’ll see it’s popular in both action fiction and philosophy. It may not be a mathematical fact of the universe, but strategically it’s an excellent habit to question coincidence, or in general when ever something happens have the habit to analyze why. Or be willing to have the why surprise you down the road. If you assume there are no coincidences, it should help you mitigate many potential unpleasant surprises (Hmmmm, it’s midday in a China town street market and there’s no one to be seen, why am I the only person on the street? A coincidence?).
I would hazard to suggest, in Afghanistan there are no coincidences.
A Quick Overview
After the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States quickly unleashed every resource at its command in the prosecution of Al-Qaeda and the Capture of Osama Bin Laden. It started as a very elegant and sophisticated over throw of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the destruction of Taliban and Al-Qaeda strongholds. Leaving both groups on the run.
That was 2001. Since then the western political aim of the Pacification and Stabilization of Afghanistan has been a continuing debacle of political and military inconsistency. No strategy or amount of military force has been able to secure Afghanistan since the 1970’s. Afghanistan is historically a location of geopolitical importance as a crossroads of central Asia on the silk road.
So geopolitically, Afghanistan is relevant to the security and economics of Iran,Russia, China, Pakistan, and India. Please note the first nation on the list is trying to become a nuclear power, the other 4 already are. The West views Afghanistan as a security threat because it is currently the home of international terrorism, i.e. Al-Qaeda. Most of the population is traditionalist and anti modern living a lifestyle that has not changed in 100 years or longer. The Economy is currently based on Opium Agriculture (meaning a largely criminal dominated black market financing our enemies) or foreign aid, though the US Military recently finished a geological survey that identified huge heavy metals and fossil fuel deposits that could transform Afghanistan into the richest mines in central Asia.
That’s the 3 paragraph summary.
What’s up With McChrystal?
Odds are he just wanted out. Consider:
Last week the guy running the campaign in Afghanistan, 4 Star Major General Stanley McChrystal respectful resigned his responsibility for Afghanistan under pressure from President Obama for “Behavior unbecoming of a senior officer,” specifically candid remarks challenging senior leadership attributed to him in a very impressive article in Rolling Stone magazine.
So Who’s Stanley McChrystal? Based on a variety on online sources, mainly Stratfor, the exceptional Rolling Stone article, and Wikipedia (which I confess is known to be dubious at times) — McChrystal is a snake eater — to say he is a very scary, intelligent and deadly special forces warrior. He comes from a military family, served his early career with the 82nd Airborne and 75th Rangers, is a West point Graduate, a Green Beret, gave Pentagon military briefings to the media during part of Iraq, and before Afghanistan was the officer in command of Joint Special Forces command, directly responsible for some the greatest success in Iraq. As a 4 star General he was known to pick up a rifle and go on night patrols in dangerous areas with regular soldiers. Simply put McChrystal is a serious bad ass, known as basically a hard headed, free speaking jock with little patience for politics.
Then general message the popular media has delivered in editorial and commentary was this Patton like warrior was unfairly taken advantage of by a very savvy Rolling Stone journalist. That the poor General with a history of speaking his mind and bucking the system was a victim of the modern practice of behind the scenes exposure in journalism.
Well, if you read the Rolling Stone article, McChrystal was described as a workaholic in Afghanistan who never stopped to eat or sleep for over a year. Then consider the new COIN (counter insurgency) strategy is progressing very slowly; and that Afghanistan is starting to look more like Vietnam than Iraq – to say the US Military tactical dominance is in a strategic quagmire. We never lost a single battle in Vietnam, but we didn’t win that war.
One story in the Rolling Stone article was very telling. A soldier from a forward deployed base didn’t like the new rules of engagement under the COIN strategy, and emailed Gen. McChrystal a challenge to go on a night patrol with the platoon. So McChrystal showed up and went on patrol with them to make the point.
Well, a while later one of the guys in a platoon was killed in a firefight. The good general visited the platoon to pay his respects. While there, in front of a Rolling Stone reporter he spent an afternoon trying to explain and sell COIN to the platoon, but couldn’t get through to them.
So the new strategy in Afghanistan is slow to gain traction. McChrystal has been shooting his mouth off for the past year, usually making the Whitehouse look bad; to the extent that several political analysts are surprised McChrystal didn’t get fired sooner. While hordes of journalists are apologizing to the military, warning to be careful of what you say on the record, they guy who just spent a few months being tailed by a Rolling Stone journalist just got the president to ask him to retire at age 55 from a battle he cannot win, and is enjoying the first full night of sleep, relaxed meal, and time with his family he’s had in years.
You ask me the warrior that didn’t know how to quit instead convinced his boss to reassign him. McChrystal probably has accumulated well over a year of vacation pay under DOD rules, and as a four star gets a very comfortable pension. He’s 55 and can consult for a few hundred an hour as he likes. And every pundit I’ve read agrees that the army has plenty of suitable replacements fir McChrystal. And all they did was take him off of Afghanistan, right now he’s still an active Major General.
One of the most powerful men on Earth, a master strategist, fighting a quagmire war — hires a civilian consultant to bring in and baby sit a Rolling Stone reporter given unrestricted access to the free speaking general. Bringing in Rolling Stone was probably McChrystal’s personal exit strategy. He didn’t quit, he never said never, he simply pushed the politics to a breaking point in a way that won’t reflect poorly on his military career, only his political one.
The reality of COIN
Here’s the Military point. The only known strategic technique that works consistently against insurgencies, i.e. rebellions and civil wars is COIN or Counter Insurgency as developed by western militaries over the past few centuries.
In simplest terms, COIN is a direct marketing campaign to sell a populace that our policy is better than the insurgent’s policy. Basically selling them peaceful modern democracy instead of the current war. Asking tens of thousands of basically trigger happy 20 something’s in full body armor (American soldiers) that don’t speak the local language, to execute a direct marketing campaign to sell democracy to a large scattered population of rural tribes does not exactly have good odds of success.
Now there are a few hundred Green berets over there with college educations and COIN training that speak Pashto and Urdu, and are very capable of making COIN happen.
We just don’t have enough of them. Even then they are trying to sell the dubious Karzai government as being better than the Taliban, when everybody knows the Taliban will win the day after the US Military leaves. Karzai is not an easy sell to the Pashtun people in south Afghanistan. Nobody is willing to take charge of Afghanistan, but the US government is not willing to give up either. McChrystal obviously was getting tired and frustrated, and figured he’d keep pushing the politicians improve the situation until he either got a winnable scenario, or they fired him for pushing too hard. But as a good soldier who wanted to win, unable to control policy, he did the best he could with the options available.
McChrystal did his job – Win the battle or die trying. In this case the job was mostly a political one, and so was the death.
The Bigger Picture
So we have to ask, what is the endgame here? What is really possible?
Well, a quick Google search suggests that we are spending about $100 billion a year on Military operations in Afghanistan, about half of that is “extra cost” and about half is what we’d spend on the thousands of soldiers to do their work somewhere else.
You have to ask, as of this writing a double dip recession is looking more and more probable. The Krugman inspired deficit spending is weakening the federal budget in the name of Keynesian stimulus — and regardless of your economic philosophy, there is a hard road with lots of public and private debt in a weak Global economy ahead. As John Mauldin is fond of writig these days, there are no good decisions left, only pain now or pain later.
So ask you what is the Return On Investment of spending an extra $50 — $60 Billion a year on Afghanistan ? Does it buy us that much security? Does help keep the military strong? Is it good for the people in Afghanistan ?
If the US Federal government is spending $3,550 Billion a year, and is forecast to collect only $2,381 Billion, we might want to think about saving money, instead of throwing good money after bad in a central Asian war that has no end in sight.
Consider According to the Human Development Index, Afghanistan is the second least developed country in the world. How much does it cost to build a nation? And what do we get for our investment? 4 nuclear powers plus Iran effectively if not literally border Afghanistan. Yet they are not invested like we are. But they benefit the most from an economically prosperous Afghanistan. All those heavy metals and fossil fuels will be sold to Afghanistan’s neighbors, if and when they are developed.
So as Americans we probably need to have the discussion. Is a continued quagmire of nation building and terrorist attacks in the North, and a full blown COIN war in the south, is it worth $50 Billion or more annually to the American people?
If the US budget is in trouble, the US economy is in trouble, and we are looking at a long recession; why are we spending billions every year to continue the longest war in US history trying to rebuild a central Asia nation from scratch? Are there less expensive ways, more geopolitically responsibly ways to protect us from terrorism? Can we negotiate with the Taliban sonner than later under a decade of COIN momentum to end this? Can we still get what we want if we do?
These are questions that will hopefully be debated loudly and publicly in the coming elections. As a nation can we afford to be the world police? Can we afford to build nations in the current economy?
Thanks for reading,
Your humble strategist,