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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Emile Simpson: This is the strategic narrative we need in Afghanistan now

By Emile Simpson Best Defense guest columnist Afghanistan 2013: time to evolve the strategic narrative (By ‘strategic narrative’ I mean the explanation of actions: the lens that we propose to people through which to view the conflict.) a. We need to adjust the strategic narrative in relation to the 2014 transition deadline. i. Since 2009, ...

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

By Emile Simpson

Best Defense guest columnist

By Emile Simpson

Best Defense guest columnist

Afghanistan 2013: time to evolve the strategic narrative

(By ‘strategic narrative’ I mean the explanation of actions: the lens that we propose to people through which to view the conflict.)

a. We need to adjust the strategic narrative in relation to the 2014 transition deadline.

i. Since 2009, the coalition strategic narrative has successfully toned down expectations of the more idealistic aspects of the campaign, which means that audiences now gauge coalition ‘success’ primarily in terms of the stability of the Afghan state, the credibility of Afghan security forces, and coalition casualty figures. The last one will fade as we pull back, placing increasing emphasis on the first two.

ii. Our current strategic narrative still presents the conflict effectively as a zero sum game: the Taliban will either come back or they won’t. This is closely associated with the proposition, that we mistakenly encourage, that what we are engaged in is a ‘war,’ in which one’s aim is defined against an enemy. By conditioning audiences to expect success or failure to present itself in a binary manner, we hamper ourselves: first, the conflict is not likely to produce a binary outcome, which will make our job in terms of explaining the conflict over the next few years very hard, and we will lose credibility by our failure to match what is actually happening to what we said would happen.

iii. Why is the conflict not likely to produce a binary outcome? The ‘Taliban’ is a franchise movement; most of its field commanders fight for their own self-interest, hence why many simultaneously have connections into the Afghan Government. The dynamics of the conflict are thus kaleidoscopic, with actors competing vis-à-vis one another, not polarised. The bulk of the coalition leaving will accelerate the kaleidoscopic dynamic, as we are the main object against which the Taliban ‘franchise’ can define itself to maintain its cohesion (i.e. less cohesion means more self-interested dynamics). The Soviet experience of transition in 1988-90 supports this analysis.

The likelihood is the Afghan Government will maintain the cities and the roads only (they don’t have the logistical capability or political will to hold more), but neither do the insurgents have the combat power, logistics, or command structure to mass, take over a whole city, and hold it. This will create (and is already creating) a ‘core’ area held by the Afghan Government and a ‘peripheral’ zone beyond. What will result is a patchwork of allegiances, with some villages, and even broad remote areas, controlled by power brokers linked to the insurgency, others to the Afghan Government, or more likely, linked to both. By maintaining a narrative that emphasises a binary outcome, we will be perceived as having failed, when in reality the Afghan Government controls the key areas, and over time, will make pragmatic arrangements with those who control the periphery to maintain relative stability in Afghanistan.

b. We should not invest any coalition credibility in holding the peripheral areas: Over the next three years, the Taliban flag may go up in some towns and villages. In our current narrative, that will be seen as a major victory for them. In reality, to control dusty villages on the periphery, and even remote district centres, means little. We need to adjust our narrative so people expect that, and when it happens, people believe us when, legitimately, we point out that this is insignificant. By so adjusting the narrative, we take pressure off the Afghans to hold the peripheral areas, which they do not want to, only being there because they perceive it as a condition for us giving them support. We also take the initiative away from insurgents by recognising that this is a war for political more than physical space: insurgents are attention seekers — they want us to react to a provocative flag raising because by reacting we show the world that they matter — should they raise a flag in a forlorn district centre and we appear neither to look nor care, they have a serious problem.

c. The narrative needs to allow for maintaining some (but significantly less than today) coalition combat power in Afghanistan beyond 2014: This is the insurance policy that ensures the Afghan Government does not lose the cities and roads. The model should be in extremis back up to the Afghan security forces (airpower based, with boots on the ground as a last resort). This is critical, as the perception (amongst the insurgency, the Afghan people, the Afghan Government itself, and international audiences) that the Afghan security forces will hold the core areas will create space for de facto political settlements on the ground.

d. Moshtarak’ is over — the narrative now needs to emphasise Afghan sovereignty: Ultimately there will remain a real possibility of the Afghan state, which is incompetent and corrupt, collapsing in on itself with little action from the insurgency until it genuinely sees itself, and is seen by insurgents and Afghans, as sovereign. In 2009 ‘moshtarak’ — side by side — was the visual metaphor chosen to characterise the strategic narrative; that made sense at the time. However, side by side means shared responsibility, and that is incompatible with genuine sovereignty. Time now for coalition press conferences to get very dull, as most answers should amount to: "ask the Afghan Government, they are in charge." The litmus test of Afghan sovereignty will be when people stop asking the coalition their questions.

Emile Simpson served in the British Army as an infantry officer in the Gurkhas from 2006 to 2012. He deployed to southern Afghanistan three times and is the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (Columbia, 2012).

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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