Saturday, March 29, 2014

AFG "impossibly ambitious?" No, at one time it wasn't.

Over at WaPo, Bing West reviews Ann Scott Tyson's new book, American Spartan.

If you are interested in the book, I think Bing does a good job hitting the high & low points. I have my opinions on Gant, Tyson and the book - mostly because the meat of the AFG story takes place right after I and other McKiernanites left it, but I'll let others pick at it as I have yet to read the book.

Here is a point Bing makes in his review that I want to pick at a bit.
Our overall strategy failed because we lacked sufficient control over the feckless Afghan leaders we placed in power. It’s a wonder the exuberant Gant didn’t lead a coup attempt against Karzai. Fortunately, his excessive risk-taking and unbridled devotion did not end in tragedy.

“Catch-22” was a satirical novel, sprinkled with gritty vignettes of real combat during World War II. “American Spartan” is the real-life story of living a fantasy, sprinkled with allusions to an impossibly ambitious strategy.
A few points I've made over the years that I would like to repeat for new readers, and a reminder to the regulars. I want to repeat them because this year and those that follow, there will be a lot of ill-informed commentary about why we failed in AFG (which, depending on how you define "fail," I put the odds of failure north of 67%).

1. In line with Bing's theory of original sin of, "the feckless Afghan leaders we placed in power." There was a huge initial error entered in to the post-2001 AFG rebuilding, and that was the Bonn Agreement. This agreement combined the worse tendencies of European bureaucrats soaked in their own failed theories, and the US Department of State's faculty lounge/think tank view of what the world should be. In a nation in Central Asia, the most dysfunctional one at that, this group put Germany (who punted later to EUPOL) in charge of building a national police system, Japan to disarm "illegally" armed groups, GBR counter-narcotics, and for the love of Pete - Italy the judiciary.

2. No one could see the future, but Karzai looked like a good start, but not for that long. As someone I worked with for a short period, Sarah Chayes, outlined in her 2007 book, The Punishment of Virtue, Karzai was a known problem by the middle of the last decade. We've worked with sub-optimal, 3rd world cleptocrats before, so he wasn't a huge obstacle. A big one, but not one you couldn't work with/around.

3. In spite of all that, there was still a plan, though one that had a false start. In late '05 and early '06, we turned over operations to NATO. In less than 2 years of failure to supply the forces they promised and many of the forces sent there so laden with caveats to be almost useless, by mid-07 it was clear that the USA had to take the keys back. To do so without tearing the alliance asunder, was going to be a challenge. By late 2006, NATO's own Regional Command structure had degenerated into a quasi-tribal structure in itself; a Germanic-Nordic North, Mediterranean West, Anglospheric-Dutch South, and Americania in the East. The Star Wars bar scene that was Regional Command Capital was a story in to itself.

As we worked on taking the keys back, General McKiernan developed the "Shape, Clear, Hold, Build" that district by district had a plan that brought together NATO military, Government of Afghanistan, along with those International Organizations, Governmental Organizations such as USAID, and Non-Governmental Organizations to work together that only needed strategic patience to give AFG a fighting chance. It ran parallel with the ongoing counter-terrorism operations.

4. All of that was thrown away one evening in December 2009 in a West Point speech given by President Obama. You can search this blog archive for the details if you wish, but in summary - we announced our withdraw under fire - first summer of '11 and then a more sane summer of '14 - but the signal given that day set the course. We were leaving, the Taliban were staying - those who lived there would have to find a way to make peace with what was to follow. Hedging bets, husbanding forces, and preparing to adjust facts on the ground was all that mattered. We told everyone that we would be a factor for a few years, but then we would leave them to their own devices. A strange, but rough parallel to what the Soviets did.

Back to Bing's quote,
"...impossibly ambitious strategy."
Yes. I agree. Everything after DEC 2009 was all based on hope and luck. Nowhere in thousands of years of military experience showed where such a withdraw under fire achieved any type of "victory" for those who withdraw. At best, you can hope to just disengage and lose fewer of your own. More likely, you just encourage your enemy to, in their own time and schedule, follow you back to where you retreated to.

Victory after DEC 09? Close to impossible, indeed.

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