Monday, December 21, 2009

Hearts, Minds, or Balls?

This author cautions against thinking two myths of the Iraq surge mean we will win in Afghanistan:

The proposition that a troop surge in Afghanistan would contribute to stabilizing the country, as it did in Iraq, rests on two myths: First, the surge in Iraq caused the population to turn against the insurgents. Second, the conditions that enabled the surge to succeed in Iraq also exist in Afghanistan.

I wish to protest that it is a widely believed myth that the surge caused the Sunni Arabs to flip. I certainly never believed that it was anything other than a well-timed support that exploited the flip. And it had the advantage of having many more Iraqi troops with a minimum level of competence able to support the campaign. Timing was everything, and, as I've argued, it is pointless to speculate on whether we could have surged two or three years earlier to achieve the same results sooner. Timing matters. But the author has a point here. Not all surges are created equally.

Second, in complaining that Karzai is not the capable partner we need because his writ does not extend beyond Kabul seems to imply that Maliki was the Rock of the Green Zone, with a writ extending to the Kurdish north, Anbar province, and Sadrist south. Maliki was certainly not believed to be the capable ally he is implicictly being made out to be back then by contrasting Karzai with him.

It is true that there has been no great Awakening in Afghanistan, but the Awakening in Iraq required the jihadis there to basically run areas with their gentle touch that alienated Sunni Arabs and made America (who dethroned them from their privileged positioin) seem like the better alternative than al Qaeda and their buddies. Are we saying we need the enemy that robust before we can win? And remember, it isn't like the Taliban are popular in Afghanistan. The people do remember Taliban rule before we knocked them down in 2001, and there is no love for the Taliban.

What I worry about is what I worried about in Iraq for many years--if an enemy is committed to resisting as the Sunni Arabs were, especially in Anbar, how do you run a counter-insurgency to win hearts and minds of people whose hearts and minds support the insurgency?

I do worry that we can't win the hearts and minds of Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan. I worry that we assume that the people are ready to support us if only we provide security against the Taliban. What if that isn't the case?

If it is the case that the Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan are determined to resist us, then we can't win their hearts and minds. That means that restrictive rules of engagement don't win us friends but let enemies live to fight another day.

I'm not saying that we should go to a scorched Earth policy or go counter-terrorism rather than counter-insurgency. We shouldn't. It didn't work for the Soviets and we simply won't be that ruthless. I do think that there are many in the south whose hearts and minds can be won. But I thought one part of our Afghan surge strategy was to hammer the enemy resistance to convince the practical Pashtuns that there's no money and no future in fighting a US-backed government and backing the Taliban and drug lords. If we're not hammering the enemy, how do we sway the people who rather like them to abandon them?

If we really need to kill the enemy drug gangs and warlords to discourage resistance rather than just protect the people who don't want our protection and who aren't in the market for giving us their hearts and minds, how do we win?

"Protecting" the people in the broad concept of counter-insurgency does have the advantage of putting our side close to the people to discourage them from working for the enemy even if the people don't learn to love us. But we shouldn't mistake all counter-insurgencies as a battle for people who would love to be on our side but for the evil insurgents who keep the people from giving us their hearts and minds. Sometimes the people will be our enemy.

To repeat, I'm reasonably sure counter-insurgency is the way to go in Afghansitan. But the author is right, we can't just paste "Afghanistan" over "Iraq" in the PowerPoint presentations and think we're good to go.

OK, I've gone on a bit more than I planned so I've rambled a bit. I guess I'm still unsure of the surge given the importance of relying on Pakistan to control their side of the border. I thought our initial surge to 68,000 was more than enough for limited objectives if we had patience (and that level makes me nervous about our supply lines), but that if the military says we need 100,000 to blunt the enemy and win quicker, I'll trust them.

But if not in Afghanistan, we will one day surely face an insurgency that has the hearts and minds of the people. And that requires a different approach to the broad approach of counter-insurgency. As the saying goes, grab them by the balls--their hearts and minds will follow.

UPDATE: An article about 5th Stryker Brigade (2nd Infantry Division) in Afghanistan and the conflict between protecting the people and killing committed insurgents. I don't see the conflict, since you can't just sit in a village and let the enemy roam outside your perimeter to attack at will. Nor can you just sweep the countryside looking for the insurgents while failing to guard the people.

But clearly, setting up in the villages is necessary to make sure any killed (or otherwise removed from the roster) isn't just replaced by a new local recruit (forced or volunteer). If it makes commanders intent on killing the enemy (which is still necesarry in COIN) think of setting up in the villages not so much as "protecting" the people (who may or may not want protection from the Taliban) but as "separating" the insurgents from their recruit pool, source of intelligence and supplies, and refuge.

Remember, "securing" the population doesn't simply mean protecting them. It means keeping the population from supporting the insurgents--voluntarily or under threat.

UPDATE: A reminder that Russia faced the type of insurgency I worry we'll face--one where the enemy and people are one and we won't be able to win hearts and minds. Which is why I support limiting our rules of engagment for air power and artillery even if it risks American lives (subject to adjustments to adapt to enemy tactics and based on experience). We need to keep the generally good opinions of us intact so we can support friendly Afghans in fighting the Taliban, drug gangs, and al Qaeda. If we lose the people to the enemy causes, we will lose the war. Russia was willing to be as brutal as they had to be and still lost. We will never wage war that way and so cannot afford to let the situation deterioriate into such a fight.