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All The King's Horses

Back To Square One With Questionable Instincts In The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time

By Steve Schippert

General McChrystal said starkly in his Afghanistan assessment that our mission there will likely fully fail within 12 months if we do nothing. That was in September. It is now likely that by the time President Obama finally decides on a strategic direction for Afghanistan, fully three months will have passed while deciding, making it even more weeks or months on top of that before resources show up in theater to do whatever that 'something' ends up being.

There is a fine line between careful consideration and dithering. Most were too quick to accuse the president of dithering. The importance, after all, is in making the sound decision, not the fastest. But that line has now clearly been passed, as the strategic recommendations on Afghanistan both sound and stupid have apparently been cast aside and the entire exercise set to stunningly begin anew. There is little else to be read into the fact that President Obama now wants his war options changed. All of them. Back to square one. This is now disconcerting.

It was bad enough when the leaks changed from President Obama considering General McChrystal's recommendations to some inexplicable middle ground between McChrystal's and Vice President Joe Biden's. "McChrystal Light" or "Biden Heavy" the reader may recall it termed. That Joe Biden was even at the head of the table remains bewildering, what with decades of experience at being on the wrong side of virtually every foreign policy issue and absolutely no experience in nor grasp of counterterrorism or counterinsurgency. But no matter. They are all equally tossed, along with the recommendations of various other commanders and civilian advisors in and outside Afghanistan.

So what are the options in dealing with Afghanistan? To be quite honest, the answer to that question is as elusive as and difficult as holding a handful of water in the palm of your hand. This complexity is why the 'dithering' descriptor was a bit premature. As jay Leno said in imagining President Obama thinking aloud on National Security matters not long after the inauguration, "Wow. This is hard." It is. Especially with what can be described as questionable instincts at best in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But a fine start is to consider what Afghanistan itself is, and what it is not.

The bottom line is that the central government, headed by Hamid Karzai or any other, is a mirage. Ineffectual, corrupt, unpopular and confined, beyond Kabul it is but a picture in a newspaper that never gets printed and no one reads. The results of the election, while the exercise a vital developmental step, matters much less than the act itself in the long run. And everything in Afghanistan is a long, long run. This is why the corruption of the vote was disheartening.

The key to Afghanistan is its tribal leaders throughout the many villages in the incredibly vast Afghan landscapes. More to the point, each key is in each set of hyper-local tribal leadership councils (jirgas). There is no painting with broad strokes.

This point was made quite capably by Major Mehar Omar Khan, a Pakistani officer studying at Fort Leavenworth's US Army Command and General Staff College. He recently wrote a very intelligent paper on Afghanistan in which he poses 'Seven Fundamental Questions.' It is thoughtfully written with some sound thinking. Likewise, the comments at the Small Wars Journal post are as well, and to the point. They always are.

Major Khan stresses, as I have noted above, that to 'win' in Afghanistan America and the West must win the local tribal leaders' trust and confidence. As he describes it, rightly, each village is different and virtually none of them have any faith or stock in the Kabul government. Their concerns are for the security, well-being and advancement of their own respective communities, not grand statements or strategies and surely not handshakes with visitors from Kabul who then skirt off safely back to their "well-heated homes" and high-end hotels.

And security is pre-requisite for all other things. Beheadings and shootings tend to put a damper on visions of the new water well assured by Kabul or NATO forces, to say nothing of greater development. And Khan makes a sound observation in that we cannot be everywhere. So, he suggests, we should focus on key areas and do the job well there first rather than stretched too thin and, from the tribal leaders' perspective, doing little well.

But going through and summarizing all of Khan's thinking is not the intent here. It is, as Small Wars' commenters duly note, from a Pakistani perspective. And Pakistani interests are far from parallel to our own regarding Afghanistan.

However, in reading through the paper, an ever-present thought whispered consistently from beginning to end:

"If only Pakistan's government and military conduct themselves in their own Wild West as Major Khan wishes America and the West to conduct themselves in Afghanistan."

The thought stayed with me throughout.

The administration seems bent on conducting counterinsurgency (COIN) only to the extent there is a worthy or capable government - and notably, this means Kabul - to hand off to. This was a realistic expectation in Iraq.

But let's be clear: This will not materialize within this president's term. An entire generation of Afghans has been shredded by wars. The society is broken - not by simply our standards, but theirs. There are no institutions to build upon - they must be built from dry, unfertile dirt. Education, the key to any society, is virtually non-existent making every other task demoralizingly difficult.

Furthermore, we cannot build any plan or strategy that hinges on even the most modest assistance from the region and little else from beyond. In fact, there is little compelling interest for a stable, productive Afghanistan from its neighbors. There never has been.

Afghanistan's dysfunction is exacerbated, fed and prolonged by the unmistakable absence of neighborhood friends. The collection of distinct ethnicities, tribes, and clans that makes what we call Afghanistan has no bona-fide enemies either. That is to mean that Afghanistan's neighbors have and do play one group against the other to serve whatever aims present themselves at the time. Is it any wonder that the people of Afghanistan have been embroiled in conflict for as far as memory can recall?

Pakistani and Indian interests are far less about Afghanistan than their own lethal sibling rivalry. Iran supports the Taliban so long as they are killing Americans. But in our absence, the Iranian regime will readily revert to keeping Afghans fighting Afghans, lest the Sunni ire turn fully north to the Shi'a. Russia has no interest whatever in seeing America successfully tame their Vietnam. And China's interests in the region are only as deep as oil, and Afghanistan has none.

Whatever is to be done to stand Afghans up we will do ostensibly alone or it will not be done at all. Not attempting that is, of course, an option.

This alternative, however, creates a greater vacuum than the one which fertilized the ground for al-Qaeda in the late '90s through 2001. The consequences are self-evident.

There are zero palatable options.

More than that, there are no middle grounds. There is no such thing as "McChrystal Light." "McChrystal" is already "Light," with our Afghanistan commander's resource requests already tempered by political expectations. Without sufficient resources it will be impossible to provide significant zones of sustained security to begin building with. And without successfully applied security, and then trust, the whole exercise is academic in its value and not practical.

If "McChrystal-Light Light" is the path to be chosen, it makes oldpapjoe's observation at Small Wars Journal very relevant. Right or wrong about whether "no infidel--no outsider who is an infidel-- will ever win an Afghan Muslim's heart," his challenging comment asking how we can "make ourselves useful to the Afghans" is perhaps one of the most astute I have heard in a long time. It really boils down to that.

And it's hyper-local in its application by the necessity of reality. Kabul is a photograph. It's each Afghan tribal leader (as opposed to "Afghan tribal leaders") and most certainly not the hopelessly corrupt and distant Afghan government, nor its untrustworthy police forces or its heroin-addicted army ranks. The force multiplier has no uniform and wears un-nice, dusty clothing.

And if Pakistan applied itself within its own domestic insurgency as Major Khan suggests for the West in Afghanistan, it would be most helpful. The violence and terrorist resources streaming over the border is rather unhelpful. We'd then be able to count ourselves a couple hundred feet closer to the finish of the marathon barely begun.

President Obama is not in a good position with zero palatable options. This is exacerbated exponentially by two cold hard facts: Warfare is wholly outside his wheelhouse; and there is no evidence he has surrounded himself with capable daily White House advisers between himself and his experienced wartime holdovers, Secretary of Defense Gates and General David Petraeus. The closest may have been former Marine Corps general Jim Jones, at least until he had his 'come to Jesus moment' in order to save his job in a military-averse administration.

And so it seems as if Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall and Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. And now all the king's horses and all the king's men can't settle on a way to try and put the over-sized Afghan egg back together again.

The trick, perhaps, is in recognizing that the egg was never whole to begin with.

One thing is for certain. The egg rots in the sun while the king and his men are astutely scratching their chins in strategy sessions and floating endless streams of conflicting leaks for sensing public approval.