Cordesman: Two Winnable Wars

No one can return from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, as I recently did, without believing that these are wars that can still be won. They are also clearly wars that can still be lost, but visits to the battlefield show that these conflicts are very different from the wars being described in American political campaigns and most of the debates outside the United States.

Of the critics of nation building in Iraq, Anthony Cordesman of CSIS [Center for Strategic and International Studies] is arguably the most objective and well-informed. I’ve been reading Cordesman’s studies since 9/11, finding them a good source of insights, generally objective and frank. In this op-ed for the Washington Post he reports on his most recent tour of the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq.

…The military situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are very different. The United States and its allies are winning virtually every tactical clash in both countries. In Iraq, however, al-Qaeda is clearly losing in every province. It is being reduced to a losing struggle for control of Nineveh and Mosul. There is a very real prospect of coalition forces bringing a reasonable degree of security if decisions such as Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s announcement Friday to extend his militia’s cease-fire six months continue over a period of years.

The piece closes with:

…What the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan have in common is that it will take a major and consistent U.S. effort throughout the next administration at least to win either war. Any American political debate that ignores or denies the fact that these are long wars is dishonest and will ensure defeat. There are good reasons that the briefing slides in U.S. military and aid presentations for both battlefields don’t end in 2008 or with some aid compact that expires in 2009. They go well beyond 2012 and often to 2020.

If the next president, Congress and the American people cannot face this reality, we will lose. Years of false promises about the speed with which we can create effective army, police and criminal justice capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot disguise the fact that mature, effective local forces and structures will not be available until 2012 and probably well beyond. This does not mean that U.S. and allied force levels cannot be cut over time, but a serious military and advisory presence will probably be needed for at least that long, and rushed reductions in forces or providing inadequate forces will lead to a collapse at the military level.

The most serious problems, however, are governance and development. Both countries face critical internal divisions and levels of poverty and unemployment that will require patience. These troubles can be worked out, but only over a period of years. Both central governments are corrupt and ineffective, and they cannot bring development and services without years of additional aid at far higher levels than the Bush administration now budgets. Blaming weak governments or trying to rush them into effective action by threatening to leave will undercut them long before they are strong enough to act.

Any American political leader who cannot face these realities, now or in the future, will ensure defeat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Any Congress that insists on instant victory or success will do the same. We either need long-term commitments, effective long-term resources and strategic patience — or we do not need enemies. We will defeat ourselves.

That sounds much like John McCain — and very definitely not what I hear Obama and Clinton saying. I highly recommend the associated 9-page PDF report VICTORY AND VIOLENCE IN IRAQ: Reducing the “Irreducible Minimum”, which supplies important detail absent in the op-ed. In particular, the report notes that:

(1) the “surge” troop levels were still too small, but were able to achieve the level of success we have observed due to the unexpected Sunni Awakening and Moqtada al Sadr’s ceasefire.

(2) the civilian aid/development teams supposed to be supplied by the Department of State never showed up — so DOS continues its near perfect record of non-performance.

(3) disappointment is due those expecting complete elimination of the shocking suicide bombings much-loved by media. Personally I find it hard to imagine a future time when motivated suicide bombers can be completely suppressed [unless Iraq adopts a Saddam, Soviet-style police state approach].

The US needs to accept the fact it will probably have to deal with significant levels of AQI violence for at least several years to come, and quite possibly through the life of the next Administration. We need to be patient enough not to have our policies and position in Iraq driven by residual, low-level attacks. In practice, this means timing further US reductions to match proven increases in Iraqi security force capabilities; using a US presence to help ensure political stability in areas where AQI and other extremists have been defeated; keeping large numbers of embedded trainers in the army and police; and providing continuing support in the form of air strikes, artillery, armor, and sustainability.

…The present successes of the US “win and hold” strategy will be difficult to sustain in the greater Baghdad area and western and central Iraq after the coming reduction to 15 brigades. They will be even more difficult to sustain if US forces are reduced beyond this level before Iraqi forces and political accommodation create the conditions to make such reductions less risk-prone.

(4) the present central government is “corrupt, incompetent, and ineffective in moving money even to Shi’ite areas”.

The associated PDF The Situation in Iraq/ A Briefing from the Battlefield provides more visuals — maps and slides.

Lastly, Cordesman’s recommendations on Afghanistan are summarized in this letter to Gen. Rodriquez.

AEI: Surge now needed in Afghanistan

Navy Times offers a summary of a second round of AEI recommendations – this time a plan to improve security in Afghanistan. The genesis of the proposal appears to be the same Kagan/Keane team that contributed to the Iraq “surge”. Included are recommendations for deployment of three additional brigades, abandoning the idea that European allies with come up with requested troops, and a “a complete overhaul of the U.S. strategic approach to Pakistan”. The U.S. has just recently committed one additional Marine brigade. It will clearly be a challenge to resource two more.

The American Enterprise Institute, the think tank that came up with the “surge” strategy for Iraq, has just completed a re-evaluation of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan and concluded that another surge of U.S. forces is required, this time into southern Afghanistan.

AEI gathered at least “two dozen” experts for three days of discussions that finished Sunday, according to a Washington source familiar with the proposal. The AEI team was headed up by resident scholar Fred Kagan and included “many of the previous participants” from the discussions that preceded AEI’s Iraq surge proposal, including retired Army Gen. John M. “Jack” Keane, the source added.

In a telephone interview, Kagan said AEI did not conduct the study at the administration’s request. While a “core group” of AEI employees worked on both studies, along with a small number of retired Army officers, “otherwise the personnel were [experts on] Afghanistan instead of Iraq,” Kagan said.

“Our goals are just to take a look at this obviously very important issue, understand it and make recommendations about what should and should not be done,” he added.

The Iraq strategy of surging some 30,000 additional troops to conduct counterinsurgency operations in the Baghdad area, implemented by the administration early in 2007, closely tracked the recommendations made in a paper authored by Kagan and titled “Choosing Victory – a Plan for Success in Iraq.” The paper was based on the work of an ad-hoc collection of experts gathered by AEI and called the “Iraq Planning Group.”

AEI is referring to the Afghanistan policy experts who met over the long weekend as the “Afghanistan Planning Group.” Kagan said he planned to publish a report based on the group’s findings in March.

The Bush administration has given signs recently that it is becoming increasingly concerned about security in southern Afghanistan, where North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies provide the bulk of the coalition’s combat power. A Jan. 16 Los Angeles Times article quoted Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticizing those allies — without naming them — for not following proper counterinsurgency approaches.

But the White House has apparently come to the conclusion that trying to shame the allies into providing more troops and fighting harder is not working, and that more drastic steps might be required, according to the Washington source.

“They’ve finally woken up to the fact that all is not well in Afghanistan, and that brow-beating NATO is not really going to do the trick,” the Washington source said. “Then there’s the NATO ministerial [meeting] coming up in April. Basically what you come down to is that this was the moment for contributing good ideas as the administration tries to figure out what to do.”

Driving the process, according to the Washington source, is the fear that the Taliban’s recent gains in Afghanistan have imperiled the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2009.

“The forcing function really in Afghanistan is the ’09 election,” the Washington source said. “It is the judgment of all knowledgeable observers that conditions in some parts of the country are not safe enough to conduct an election in 2009 of the sort that we had in 2005, and that the failure to do so would be a huge strategic setback on a variety of fronts.”

The Afghanistan Planning Group made the following recommendations, according to the source:

* Deploy an extra U.S. brigade into Kandahar and a Marine battalion into Helmand in 2008 and maintain that force level through 2009. Some 28,000 U.S. troops are now in Afghanistan, about half the total coalition force there.

The administration has already announced plans to deploy an additional 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan, including a battalion to be stationed in Helmand.

* Deploy two extra brigade combat teams into southern Afghanistan in 2009.

* Expand the Afghan National Army more quickly than currently planned, using U.S. money if necessary.

* Provide NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are strongest, with the necessary “enablers” such as engineers, aviation, surveillance and command and control assets.

* Use Commander’s Emergency Response Program money to build forward operating bases for Afghan National Army units in eastern and southern Afghanistan.

Overall, the group concluded that a “surge” of three additional brigades was required to secure southern Afghanistan: one brigade in Kandahar province, one in Oruzgan province and a third split between Helmand province and the mission to establish border patrols, according to the Washington source.

The group also proposed a complete overhaul of the U.S. strategic approach to Pakistan, the source said.

“You have to go through a pretty rigorous not only internal Afghan but regional geopolitical assessment in order to be able to sort out what’s essential from what’s inessential,” the source said. “Part of the problem is we’ve never had a really consistent, clear, long-term strategic idea for Afghanistan, let alone for Pashtunistan or Pakistan.” Pashtunistan is the name sometimes given to homeland of the Pashtun ethnic group, which straddles the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The AEI study participants concluded that al-Qaida and its allies have established a major safe haven in Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal areas that border Afghanistan. This threat demands a sophisticated strategy aimed at the entire region, not just Afghanistan, the Washington source said.

The Afghanistan Planning Group recommended a series of U.S. policy measures aimed at Pakistan, including:

* Threatening the Pakistanis with unilateral U.S. strikes into Pakistani territory unless the Pakistanis take the initiative to clear al-Qaida’s safe havens themselves.

* Making U.S. military aid to Pakistan — which is largely aimed at bolstering Pakistan’s conventional forces that are focused on the perceived threat from India — contingent on the Pakistani government asserting itself throughout the Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province, as well as in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which have traditionally enjoyed autonomy.

The view of the Afghan Planning Group was that Pakistan was allowing the Taliban to enjoy a safe haven in Quetta, a city in Baluchistan because it had long seen the Taliban as allies, according to the Washington source.

AEI will brief government officials in the days ahead, the source said. But he declined to go into detail about which government officials had requested the study or which specific individuals were scheduled to be briefed. “This thing is extremely delicate,” he said. “The sensitivity of this is pretty high.”


Charlie Wilson's War: the movie

Back in December I wrote a pessimistic note on the forthcoming Tom Hanks film:

…We’ll report back once we see the film. I will be very surprised if the true history survives the Hollywood process. More likely is that Sorkin twists the history around to deliver an anti-US, pro-Soviet lecture.

Well, I have some good news — Tom Hanks has delivered a remarkably accurate film interpretation of the George Crile history. We were frankly stunned at how well the film captured both the facts and the emotional investment of the key characters [Hollywood is typically only concerned with the latter].

If you’ve not seen the film, go soon — the big screen is a bonus. I think the odds are you’ll come out smiling, and hopefully that you’ll be motivated to read the book, or listen to the audiobook.

Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History

George Crile’s book Charlie Wilson’s War is one of the top ten modern history books we have read in the past five years. We learned how the U.S. Congress really works — how the sausage is really made. It’s not a pretty story — though in this case congressman Charlie Wilson and CIA agent Gust Avrakotos changed history. And certainly contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Now we learn via Glenn Reynolds that Tom Hanks is starring as Charlie Wilson in a new Hollywood film based on the book, directed by Mike Nichols, written by Aaron Sorkin. We’ll report back once we see the film. I will be very surprised if the true history survives the Hollywood process. More likely is that Sorkin twists the history around to deliver an anti-US, pro-Soviet lecture.

The Perfect Evil: Coming to Roost

Michael Yon:

Iraq is looking better month by month. But at the current rate, surely we shall fail in Afghanistan…

…A great deal of flak came in for my 2006 reporting from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, that on-the-ground reporting is proving correct nearly to the letter. The following three-part report summarizing my observations and experiences in Afghanistan more than a year ago, warned of the growing threat of a narco-fueled Taliban increasingly able to challenge a national government overgrown with incompetency and choked with corruption.

I have characterized Afghanistan as little more than a hunting lodge for our special operations forces. Since the Afghan campaign has been largely a special forces war from the beginning, we have been able to transition with great secrecy from near victory, to abysmal performance, to what has now become a sustainable human-hunting resort. Our special operations forces are out there hunting Taliban and al Qaeda, outside of public view—although it appears that “the public” is hardly clamoring for news from Afghanistan—while the country devolves into the consummate narco-state.

There are many indicators that the Afghan campaign is at this date a complete failure; how much has anything changed from when The Perfect Evil was published nearly a year ago? At the time of its publication, I intended it as a warning cry that action needed to be taken, and fast, before the momentum of decline reached avalanche velocity.

As with my January 2005 warnings of looming civil war in Iraq, it appears that at least a year or longer is needed before what was initially a solvable problem metastasizes into a Stage 4 disaster. If that experience is a guide, there are 3 phases between First Warning and Hail Mary. In Iraq, it took 6 to 9 months to complete the cycle of “euphemize what can’t be ignored.” The same amount of time was needed to complete the “attack the messenger” phase. Before the “fix it before it kills us” phase can commence, a full and seemingly endless cycle of “blame everyone else” needs to be completed by all the people who could have and should have done something sooner.

The war is finally turning a positive corner here in Iraq. Although some complain that the turn around is behind schedule, if Iraq continues to progress so rapidly, I will leave here in 2008, with plans to go to Afghanistan.

Read on for Michael’s three-part report from 2006.

Hindsight bias distorts political debate

“One of the most systematic errors in human perception is what psychologists call hindsight bias — the feeling, after an event happens, that we knew all along it was going to happen. Across a wide spectrum of issues, from politics to the vagaries of the stock market, experiments show that once people know something, they readily believe they knew it all along. “This is not to say that no one predicted the war in Iraq would go badly, or that the insurgency would last so long. Many did. But where people might once have called such scenarios possible, or even likely, many will now be certain that they had known for sure that this was the only possible outcome.”

An excellent article by economist Arnold Kling, which begins with the above quote from another excellent article by Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post.

Afghanistan and Iraq

In hindsight, most people made the right decision about Afghanistan and Iraq. That is, in hindsight, most people are in favor of invading the former and against invading the latter.

However, go back to 2001. Which country is going to pose more long-term problems for an invader — Afghanistan or Iraq? Afghanistan, with its mountainous territory and history of rebellion against the Soviets, probably would have been viewed by many experts as posing the greatest difficulty. At the time of the invasion, many feared that it would prove disastrous, and in fact in October of 2001 the New York Times pronounced it a quagmire.

In fact, the unexpectedly low cost of invading Afghanistan may have been one of the reasons for the unexpectedly high cost of invading Iraq. The Bush Administration probably based its expectations of the latter on the outcome of the former.

For now, it is not clear what is the best strategy in Iraq. Some argue that the larger the role that Americans take in the war, the less incentive for the Iraqi government to address difficult issues. Others argue that without a major American presence, security will deteriorate and the country will sink into sectarian violence. Years from now, we may know the answer to these and other questions. And with hindsight bias, we will wonder how those who were on the wrong side of the issue could have been so blind. Meanwhile, real decisions have to be made with imperfect information.

Cognitive Blind Spot

Humans have a cognitive blind spot when it comes to making decisions under uncertainty. Steven Pinker’s wonderful new book, The Stuff of Thought, discusses the theory that humans are hard-wired to see the world in terms of substance, space, time, and cause-effect. We are not hard-wired to think in terms of statistics. Pinker writes (p. 85-86)

“When the mind locates one object with respect to another, it is apt to compress the first one into a pinpoint or blob whose shape and parts are no longer discernible, like a thing in a box…I suspect this is one of the reasons people have so much trouble understanding statistical comparisons…[For example] the distributions of talents and temperaments for men and women are not identical…Yet when people hear about this research, they tend [to] mangle it into the claim that every last man is better than every last woman (or vice-versa)…It’s as if people heard the statistic that women outlive men on average and concluded that every woman outlives every man.”

Concerning hindsight bias, this story describes the work of three psychologists who argue that it is a necessary byproduct of the way that we learn.

“any feedback or correct information a person receives after he has given his initial judgment automatically updates the knowledge base underlying the initial judgment. If a person cannot remember this initial judgment, he will reconstruct it from what he currently knows about the situation. And what he currently knows is the updated version of what he used to know. So while feedback does not directly affect a person’s memory for the original response, it indirectly affects the memory by updating the knowledge used to reconstruct the response. Rather than thinking of hindsight bias as a flaw of human cognition, as previous research suggests, Hoffrage, et al. argue that it’s a by-product of an adaptive mechanism – one that makes human memory more efficient.”

Suppose that I have faced a decision between driving and taking an airplane, and the airplane turned out to be the better choice. What the authors are suggesting is that it is easier for me to remember “I knew that I should have taken the plane” than to remember all of the data and probability calculations that I was making ahead of time.

Economizing on memory may be useful more often than not. Next time I am near a hot stove, it is better for me to make a quick and automatic decision to keep my hand away rather than make calculations of the probability of getting burned based on how far my finger is from the heating element.

However, for complex issues involving uncertainty, hindsight bias is very deceptive. We think that we can stop terrorist attacks without collecting any unnecessary information. We think that we can get a “free lunch” in health care by simply willing doctors to make better decisions about when to use expensive procedures. And we think that the President makes poor decisions about foreign policy, because we always remember ourselves as agreeing with the choices that worked well and disagreeing with those that proved disappointing.

A related excellent Kling article is The Constitution of Surveillance.

Afghanistan update

A very interesting dispatch from Ann Marlowe — some reality perspective and some optimism. Not all of Afghanistan is subject to Taliban turmoil. And while among the very poorest nations, there are a number of positive economic developments:

…I spotted similarly hopeful trends in three heavily Pashtun provinces — Nangarhar, Laghman and Khost — in eastern Afghanistan.

But first, it’s important to note that to talk about “reconstruction” is the biggest lie in Afghanistan. Before the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan was long one of the poorest countries in the world and has never had a lot of infrastructure. There are ruins in the country, of course, but 95% of them are in or near Kabul itself. Most of Afghanistan lives much as it always has, subsisting on small-scale farming and trading.

We can do nothing about many of Afghanistan’s barriers to development. For starters, 86% of its land area is non-arable. It has also never had a broad distribution of income or land. According to Afghan-Australian historian Amin Saikal, up until the early 1920s when King Amanullah gave crown lands to the poor, only 20% of peasants worked their own properties.

This is why many foreign development experts working in Kabul say privately that if in a couple of decades Afghanistan reaches the level of Bangladesh — which in 2006 had a per capita GDP of about $419 per year, one of the lowest in the world — then they will judge their time in the country a success.

But I am more optimistic. Jalalabad, the largest city of eastern Afghanistan, with 400,000 people, is now just a three-hour drive to Kabul on a good road recently built by the European Union. Another hour’s drive brings you to Mehtar Lam, capital of Afghanistan’s Laghman province, on another good road funded by USAID.

"Brave New War" reviewed

…these new groups are not seeking to take over their countries the way 20th-century guerrillas did. …They merely seek to weaken states, so they can prosper in the lawless space created by collapse of law and order. That way the groups don’t have to construct anything or assume responsibility for anything.

…they’ve learned… it’s better to weaken target governments, but not actually destroy them. When nations don’t feel existentially threatened, they don’t mobilize all their resources to defeat their foes. They try to fight wars on the cheap, and end up in a feckless semibelligerent state somewhere between real war and nonwar.

David Brooks reviews John Robb’s new book “Brave New War”. The publication date is April 20, 2007, so we’ve not read the book yet. The behind-the-wall review is quite interesting — a non-walled version is here:

The war on terror has shredded the reputation of the Bush administration. It’s destroyed the reputation of Tony Blair’s government in Britain, Ehud Olmert’s government in Israel and Nuri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq. And here’s a prediction: It will destroy future American administrations, and future Israeli, European and world governments as well.

That’s because setbacks in the war on terror don’t only flow from the mistakes of individual leaders and generals. They’re structural. Thanks to a series of organizational technological innovations, guerrilla insurgencies are increasingly able to take on and defeat nation-states.

Over the past few years, John Robb has been dissecting the behavior of these groups on his blog, Global Guerrillas. Robb is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and Yale University, and he has worked both as a special ops counterterrorism officer and as a successful software executive.

Robb observes that today’s extremist organizations are not like the P.L.O. under Yasir Arafat. They’re not liberation armies. Instead, modern terror groups are open-source, decentralized conglomerations of small, quasi-independent groups.

There are between 70 and 100 groups that make up the Iraqi insurgency, and they are organized, Robb says, like a bazaar. It’s pointless to decapitate the head of the insurgency or disrupt its command structure, because the insurgency doesn’t have these things. Instead, it is a swarm of disparate companies that share information, learn from each other’s experiments and respond quickly to environmental signals.

For example, the U.S. has spent billions trying to disrupt attacks from improvised explosive devices, but the I.E.D. manufacturing stream has transmogrified and now includes sophisticated metallurgy, outsourcing and fast innovation cycles. The number of I.E.D. attacks has remained pretty constant throughout the war.

Superempowered global guerrillas — whether it’s Al Qaeda, Iraqi insurgents, Nigerian oil fighters or the Brazilian gang P.C.C. — specialize in what Robb calls systems disruption. They attack the networks that support modern life. In one case, Iraqi insurgents spent roughly $2,000 to blow up an oil pipeline in Southeast Iraq. It cost the Iraqi government $500 million in lost revenue. For the insurgents, that was a return on investment of 25 million percent.

Robb is pessimistic (excessively so) that top-heavy, pork-driven institutions like the Defense Department or the Department of Homeland Security can ever keep up with open-source insurgencies. Since 9/11, he believes, big government institutions have engaged in a process of hindsight re-engineering designed to reduce future risk, when in fact, the very nature of the threat is that it’s random and cannot be anticipated.

He thinks democratic nations need to build their own decentralized counterinsurgency networks, though he goes over the top in imagining local squads of grass-roots terror fighters.

…The people now running for president will find themselves in bigger heaps of trouble than the current one now is — trouble that this presidential campaign hasn’t even dealt with.

Islamists always believed the U.S. was weak…

More recent developments, and notably the public discourse inside the U.S., are persuading increasing numbers of Islamist radicals that their first assessment was correct after all, and that they need only to press a little harder to achieve final victory. It is not yet clear whether they are right or wrong in this view. If they are right, the consequences–both for Islam and for America–will be deep, wide and lasting.

Scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis reminds us how the Islamists view the weak horse. The Democrats behave as if they are just in a TV studio – but their actions have real consequences.

During the Cold War, two things came to be known and generally recognized in the Middle East concerning the two rival superpowers. If you did anything to annoy the Russians, punishment would be swift and dire. If you said or did anything against the Americans, not only would there be no punishment; there might even be some possibility of reward, as the usual anxious procession of diplomats and politicians, journalists and scholars and miscellaneous others came with their usual pleading inquiries: “What have we done to offend you? What can we do to put it right?”

A few examples may suffice. During the troubles in Lebanon in the 1970s and ’80s, there were many attacks on American installations and individuals–notably the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, followed by a prompt withdrawal, and a whole series of kidnappings of Americans, both official and private, as well as of Europeans. There was only one attack on Soviet citizens, when one diplomat was killed and several others kidnapped. The Soviet response through their local agents was swift, and directed against the family of the leader of the kidnappers. The kidnapped Russians were promptly released, and after that there were no attacks on Soviet citizens or installations throughout the period of the Lebanese troubles.

These different responses evoked different treatment. While American policies, institutions and individuals were subject to unremitting criticism and sometimes deadly attack, the Soviets were immune. Their retention of the vast, largely Muslim colonial empire accumulated by the czars in Asia passed unnoticed, as did their propaganda and sometimes action against Muslim beliefs and institutions…