In Afghanistan, there are no coin­ci­dences

In Afghanistan, there are no coin­ci­dences.

An out­side the box strat­egy analy­sis by Ted S 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,

Ted S Galpin

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