Best Defense

The FP transcript (IX): Did we really do any counterinsurgency in the last 10 years?

[Here are Parts I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII.] Fastabend : I want to challenge us at the table. I want to give an example of some of the things we lapse into. Half of us have said that the problem of the past decade has been counterinsurgency and that we’ve done it and now ...

USACE Photo by Matthew Rowe
USACE Photo by Matthew Rowe

[Here are Parts IIIIII, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII.]

Fastabend : I want to challenge us at the table. I want to give an example of some of the things we lapse into. Half of us have said that the problem of the past decade has been counterinsurgency and that we’ve done it and now we are all wrapped up about whether we are going to do it again or not. I’m not sure we’ve done it.

You could equally assert that what we have done is brokered two civil wars. And what’s really striking to me about the difference between the two experiences of the last decade and El Salvador: In El Salvador, there wasn’t that — there were many moments that I had in many nights in Iraq wondering about, "I wonder if we are fighting for the right guys here." I think in retrospect we were brokering a civil war, and that’s how we calmed it down, by giving the Sunnis a chance to get it to a stalemate.

I think that civil war is still ongoing. I don’t think Iraq was a success unless we have an incredibly low standard for success. I can’t believe after over 6,000 dead and over 50,000 wounded — not counting what’s happened to the Iraqis — we leave behind a government that can’t stop overflights of arms to Syria from Iran. That counts for success? Really?

Alford: Would it be better to still have Saddam there?

Fastabend: That’s a ridiculous statement, if you don’t mind me saying. Of course not. It would be better to have enough presence and influence in that area to have justified that sacrifice having made it. Or having had a better decision process about whether we are going to make that sacrifice or not. We’d be a lot better off in the coming months in our face-off with Iran if we had two, three brigades around the five strategic air bases in Iraq. It would definitely influence their decision-making.

Alford: So that should influence our decision in two years in Afghanistan.

Fastabend: Yeah, it should.

Ricks: So you think the way that the Obama administration resolved Iraq has fundamentally weakened our position vis-à-vis Iran?

Fastabend: [Response off the record.]

Flournoy: Can I just say for the record, a little bit of a point of fact. I think there was serious discussion of a willingness of having a residual force. What changed the whole dynamic was when [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki made the judgment that he could not bring the guarantee of immunity for U.S. forces through the COR [Council of Representatives] without risking a confidence vote on his government, and therefore he wasn’t willing to do that. Then you’re left with do you leave forces there with no immunities? That was a nonstarter. That’s what ultimately drove us to zero. It wasn’t necessarily a preferred option for the reasons you are describing.

Glasser: So thinking about this in the context of Afghanistan and the decisions that are yet to come, I have questions.

One, has anything changed that has made us take a more strategic approach or to ask the right questions now after so long of somehow not getting to the right set of questions over the next two years? Because that certainly — this is a very reasoned discussion, but I think pulling back you get a sense that there’s just a rush to the exits and that that’s what we are doing. In part because the politics and the public opinion in the U.S. have already gotten us out the door, does that have an increased risk from a military point of view?

Second one: This issue that Shawn raised of what is our post-Vietnam legacy? What is the version of that for post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan legacy? There were obviously crucial decisions that were made in the 1970s after Vietnam about what the U.S. military force was going to be, how it was going to be reorganized. Have we learned the lessons from that? We know we are going into a period of transition. Are the right things happening? Are the right preparations happening? Is there a process to understand what this moment of transition can mean over the long term?

Chandrasekaran: Can I tack another question onto that? Which is, what do we see as an acceptable end state in Afghanistan given the parameters that are on the table?

Fastabend: I like Tom’s light footprint, having a few bases there from which you go out and hunt every night.

Mudd: Just the ability to eliminate the target we went into. [CROSS TALK, INAUDIBLE.] The only way Kabul makes a difference is it affects our capability to protect ourselves. That’s it.

Ricks: David Kilcullen, who couldn’t be here today, maintained you can’t do that because you need the larger presence to acquire the intelligence that gives you the targets.

Mudd: I don’t think that’s true . . .

Dubik: Well, you need the intelligence; whether it needs the larger U.S. presence to get that intelligence is a separate issue. You can get the intelligence from Afghans…


Mudd: We can get it in Pakistan.

Dubik: If the relationship is correct and there is enough stability and trust that the Afghans will give it to you. So I think that there’s, for me anyway, a very difficult set of questions to ask yourself.

First, what’s necessary to protect our interests? Apropos of why we went in there to begin with.

Second, what do I have to do in the country to be in the position to make attacking al Qaeda a real capability? For me anyway, when I ask myself that question, that gets to some degree of stability in the country, some degree of relationship with the military and the population, and some propping up of the military in terms of enablers to allow them to do what they can do and, I think, want to do.

Crist: To me a larger issue of defining success in Afghanistan is something that doesn’t destabilize Pakistan. I’m far more worried about the impact of a drawdown from Afghanistan is going to have on Pakistan than I am . . . [inaudible].

Flournoy: I wanted to respond to, "Is this all just a rush to the exits?" I think you’d see a very different set of decisions if it were just a rush to the exits. I think Dale actually described it well when he said that we are at a critical juncture in the whole campaign, which is when you really do put the Afghan forces you’ve built — helped to build — in front. And you still have a hand on the back seat, but you want to do that before you draw down substantially. You want to put them up front while you are there to be able to help and advise and adjust. It’s that milestone that’s being — the judgment is that they are ready for the most part.

Let’s have a year, year-plus, to make sure that this is going to work and make adjustments as necessary and then get to the much more circumscribed mission, which is about securing our counterterrorism objectives long term vis-à-vis al Qaeda in the region and making sure that the Afghan forces can at minimum prevent the overthr
ow of the central government and a return to some kind of safe-haven situation. That’s the critical thing — that does not take a huge long-term U.S. force. It requires some, and I would agree with your point on at least in the near time some of those neighbors ought to be pretty [INAUDIBLE OVER COUGHING]. So it can’t just be advisors. If it were really like wanting to wash our hands of this, you would see a very different profile than what just came out of the White House and the meeting with Karzai.

Chandrasekaran: It’s hard to reconcile the kind of wash-your-hands view with what has been telegraphed — you know, deputy national security advisor talking about a potential zero option even though that was likely just a negotiating tactic — the very real possibility that it could be a presence anywhere between 2,500 and maybe 6,000. That’s certainly sufficient to continue the necessary CT [counterterrorism] missions.

But we’ve built an army there that is going to require an enormous follow-on assistance presence as well as financial support, a part of this that really hasn’t gotten, I think, nearly enough attention. If the bill for the sustainment of the Afghan security forces is somewhere around $4 billion in 2015 and if we only have 3,000 forces there, we can say all we want to about trying to diverge the troop footprint from the congressional appropriation, but our history shows us that those two things are inextricably linked and that the fewer troops you have there the less chances you have of getting the necessary money to support them. And we all know why the communist-backed regime fell was when Moscow stopped funding Kabul. And so I think we are not paying nearly enough attention to the money question.

But we still, I think, are not asking ourselves — our government is not asking — whether this grand plan of building such a large ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] with such complex logistical requirements, with such complex need for enablers, which will likely have to be internationally provided for some years, is at all feasible there, and in the time remaining between now and the end of 2014 should the security force assistance mission be more than just pushing the Afghans into the lead but also one last-ditch attempt to triage this to get to a smaller, more manageable force that has a better chance of holding its own.

Ricks: This actually goes back to the whole issue of, "OK, it might have been a better original decision to go with local forces. Then, what sort of local forces?" I actually think in Vietnam our fundamental error was in ’62, ’63 not emphasizing local forces and keeping our eye on that ball and just "no, we are not putting our national forces in." It might not even need to look like your forces. It might be better to have an indigenous force that looks like an indigenous force. But Jim Dubik is an expert on this having done this. Jim?

Dubik: I think there’s still some learning to be done on both our part and the Afghan part on exactly what the ANA [Afghan National Army] is. And I’ll just focus on ANA and not the greater. We certainly, I think anyway, made exactly the right decision in 2009 to expand the Afghan army and at the same time to disintegrate the development effort, to take the combat forces and to accelerate them as fast as we could and to allow the enablers to grow at what is going to be a really slow pace. I think that was the right decision, and I think it got us to a better point than we are now. The enablers, though for me, is really going to be a very — it’s not a settled question, let’s put it that way. For me, anyway, in the near term, the set of enablers they need are pretty well known and have to be externally provided.

But we’ve never really asked the Afghans in a way that is meaningful. To say, "OK, how do you really want your army to be organized?" We have asked them, so I don’t mean to say we haven’t. But we’ve asked them in our presence, and that’s like asking your younger brother, "You want to go to a movie with me?" or "Oh, yeah, I’m going with you." When you’re not there, the answers might be different. The set of enablers that we assume now — and I’ve written about them and drank some of that Kool-Aid myself — but the enablers that we ask now may not be, after the question is settled in, say, 2015, which I think is probably the right time frame, the enablers that they really need or want. And the current organization of regional commands probably will stay, but in our absence the arrangement and relationship of those regional forces and how they’re — that I still think there’s some learning to occur in 2013 and 2014 when our presence is diminishing and their sovereignty and judgment increases.

We saw a good bit of that in Iraq in 2009, ’10, ’11 when they started making more independent decisions about their own force. Now I know the two cases are significantly different, but there are certain commonalities.

Chandrasekaran: On paper what was done starting in 2009, I think, made sense. There was a lot to be said for it. But it just didn’t fundamentally take into account the political realities that we face here. It made assumptions about the willingness of the U.S. government to continue sustainment, and it assumed that there would be a robust U.S. security force mission. I don’t think 2014 was on the table in ’09, but it made assumptions about robust U.S. support — physical support — for many years.

Dubik: No argument. But those assumptions, as questionable as those were, were better than the assumptions of 2001 through ‘9, when we were going to grow the army at such a slow rate that we would be there for 150 years before we were done with it. Because we were growing it at the rate of its slowest — we integrated the force, so we weren’t going to put a force out until all elements were ready.

Ricks: I remember reading somewhere that we couldn’t start training the Afghan soldiers until they were literate. 99 percent of soldiers in world history have been illiterate. Why can’t we have a few illiterate soldiers here?

Blake Hounshell: Are the Taliban literate?

Alford: Don’t you think they’ll evolve back after we leave in ’14? There’ll be an evolution back to their history and natural tendency?

Dubik: There’ll be a shift. I don’t know if it’s evolution back or forward. And that’s what I mean by learning. We are going to learn what actually works and what’s actually sustainable.

Glasser: I’m raising that point actually only to get us to this question of clearly there is a broad consensus around this table that the civilian-military dysfunction was a key part of what got us to where we are. All I was trying to do was to suggest how can we isolate what are sets of decisions or strategic choices that do fall more on the military side of the ledger.

For example, Shawn started us off with his question about rotation. Why wasn’t there ever a decision? I don’t know and I may be wrong with this, but my guess is that is not so much coming from the civilian leadership as this is how our Army works, this is how our system works. So, yeah, we have to have a new commander in Afghanistan every year.

Dubik: I have a different opinion. It certainly is a major component of the military decision. But if you make the assumption that the war is going to last X amount of time and [so] you don’t need to grow the size of the ground forces, then you’re kind of left with a de facto rotation decision. Or you’re not going to allow policy-wise to go there and stay because that’s not an acceptable policy.

The nexus of those kinds of decisions is by its nature civil-military. And in fact in my other comment about autonomy, that’s why we have the wrong model. These are shared decisions, and they have to be shared decisions. The commitment of resources in a military campaign is not merely a military decision.
This is, and necessarily will be, an important civilian component of the decision. The rotation stuff — in Iraq for example — if we are going to leave by 2004, then you don’t have to grow the size of the army, and, well, we’re not really 2004. Maybe it’ll be 2006: "OK, we’ll just rotate our way through this."

(One last installment to come, about Iran, of course.)

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 @tomricks1

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