Best Defense

Exum on a political strategy for Afghanistan and Brooks on COIN

It is axiomatic that good strategy can tell you what are good tactics, but that good tactics can’t compensate for a bad strategy, or compensate for the absence of one. That is Andrew "Abu Muqawama" Exum’s point of departure in his new essay on the need for a political strategy in Afghanistan. Interestingly, for a ...

The U.S. Army/flickr
The U.S. Army/flickr

It is axiomatic that good strategy can tell you what are good tactics, but that good tactics can’t compensate for a bad strategy, or compensate for the absence of one.

That is Andrew "Abu Muqawama" Exum’s point of departure in his new essay on the need for a political strategy in Afghanistan. Interestingly, for a COIN-carrying down-home CNASty, Exum begins with a hard pop at the Army’s counterinsurgency manual, calling it politically naïve:

When United States wages counterinsurgency campaigns, it almost always does so as a third party acting on behalf of a host nation. And implicit in the manu­al’s assumptions is the idea that U.S. interests will be aligned with those of the host nation.

They almost never are, though.

This is, as he notes, a major problem for the United States’ effort in Afghanistan.

A second big obstacle, Ex notes, is that the Americans don’t have their shit together:

The NATO commander, the U.S. ambas­sador, the NATO senior civilian representative, the U.N. senior civilian representative and President Obama’s senior representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan all command the attention of Afghan decision-makers. And while relations between the men are reportedly professional, tensions between their organizations have at times proven poisonous. This is not a recipe for success.

Exum is being polite here: Ambassador Eikenberry and General McChrystal are at odds, and one of them should go. I fault the Obama Administration for not doing something to sort this out. Exum also basically says Holbrooke should butt out: "Trying to forge a working relationship with President Karzai from Washington, as Amb. Richard Holbrooke has attempted to do, is difficult if not impossible." (Tom: I am guessing that Holbrooke will move on by Labor Day.)

Exum also cites a quote from an Afghan student who would make Bernard Fall smile:

If there is a good district chief in an area, there won’t be any bomb blasts or suicide bomb­ings… If you get the right people in place, there won’t be any need for military operations.

That’s one of the best expressions I’ve ever seen of the thought that politics is always primary in counterinsurgency campaigns — and indeed is the way to end them.

Meantime, David Brooks codifies the American COIN narrative in a column today about how the Army changed from 2004 to 2007. I think his account is largely correct (if you see errors, please do let me know), but I can see how it seeing it all smoothly summarized in a few hundred words might strike some as a bit too facile. And having it appear in the New York Times all but carves the thing in stone for a big chunk of America’s elites.

That said, I don’t have a problem with producing a "narrative." That is basically how human beings understand events: This happened, then that happened, etc. People who complain about "the narrative" are being imprecise. What they are upset by is "the dominant narrative," with which they disagree and wish to impose their own "counter-narrative."

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1
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