Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a report in December on the U.S. war in Afghanistan, sparing no military kiss-up or diplomatic busybody. With U.S. troop levels past their peak and with post-2014 status of forces agreement talks flirting with the “zero-option,” we’re still being told that everything in Afghanistan is just fine. Unfortunately, Mr. Cordesman concludes, “no amount of inappropriately optimistic reporting of metrics and narrative can actually win a counterinsurgency campaign.”
Mr. Cordesman blames an “analytically illiterate media” for giving a pass to the Pentagon’s “statistical rubbish” and “worse than useless” reports on progress against the insurgency. Yet Mr. Cordesman’s quaint talk of “counterinsurgency” reveals his own blind spot to changing times: What the Pentagon once called “battle space” is now “area of operations”; what were “combat operations” are now “stability operations”; and what was long ago a “counterinsurgency” is now a political-diplomatic attempt to tiptoe out of Afghanistan while avoiding perceptions of American culpability for the Taliban takeover of the south and east that will follow.
Far from being duped, the media and civilians once bullied by “runaway generals” are now getting just what they wanted. A strategy hashed out by Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon could hardly top the current strategy of quietly divorcing counterinsurgency while keeping Afghanistan, with all of its political toxicity, at an Iraq-style arm’s length.
Yet, as suggested by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s authoritarian drift and al Qaeda in Iraq’s resurgence one year after the U.S. troop withdrawal, the arm’s length approach to negotiating the endgame may be good politics, but it does little for counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency is premised on the idea that coordinated political-military operations must earn the population’s trust. Regardless of any moral responsibility America may have for post-2014 human rights abuses and civil war in Afghanistan, there is no reason why anyone should expect an uninhibited insurgency to suddenly reform its tastes for terrorism.
Some rebut that Afghans are forcing our hand. “As we know from our Iraq experience,” says White House adviser Doug Lute, “if there are no authorities granted by the sovereign state, then there’s not room for a follow-on U.S. military mission.”
Yet the real lesson from the failure to extend Iraq’s status of forces agreement, as New York Times reporter Michael Gordon details in his recent book, “The Endgame,” was the United States’ “trouble taking yes for an answer.” President Bush had successfully prodded Mr. Maliki to crack down on Shiite death squads by forging a close relationship, based on the notion that “you don’t put your friends in an uncomfortable position.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has operated differently, and her strategy prevailed over both Adm. Mike Mullen’s troop level recommendations and Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s 2010 prediction: “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the [status of forces agreement].”
What Afghanistan’s status of forces agreement talks are really about is perception. In Iraq, “the critical issue was not the U.S. troop presence,” argues political adviser Emma Sky, “but the U.S. commitment to Iraq — and the building of a relationship that went beyond military support.” Whereas the focus in Afghan talks thus far has been on American perceptions (“We are leaving in 2014. Period,” Mr. Biden has said), there is also the pesky matter of Afghan perceptions.
As one of my former Afghan staffers — a woman who has braved repeated death threats for working with Americans — put it in an email to me recently, “My concern is getting bigger for 2014 when the U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan.”
While the troop-level debate is narrow, the battle for Afghan perceptions is wide open — and the United States seems determined to lose, despite talks of a “soft power” reset. Alas, you go to war with the diplomats you have, and American diplomats are digging in for a “transformation decade” of “silk road” dreams and Taliban co-governance. “In your arrogance, you think you write the script,” says war correspondent Lara Logan. “But you don’t.”
Indeed, as one former U.S. official told American war correspondent Dexter Filkins last summer, “Every plan for the future I’ve seen assumes a deal with the Taliban.” Do we know who we are dealing with? If the U.S. AfPak Hands program is any indication, with its bizarre emphasis on training counterinsurgents to speak Farsi over the Taliban’s Pashto, it would seem not.
“I’d gone to Farsi language training for 41/2 months and I got sent to a Pashto-speaking area,” said one disillusioned AfPak Hand in a testament to America’s botched soft power.
Even within the confines of a stringent status of forces agreement, the United States can exert influence. India, which still harbors counterinsurgency illusions, as evidenced by its recent decision to train hundreds of Afghan army officers at its Counterinsurgency and Jungle Warfare School, is waiting for the day we end our fixation on pleasing our enemies in Pakistan. We could work with Afghans to legalize poppy for medicine. We could redouble efforts to kill Mullah Omar — a symbolic blow that would be more devastating to the Taliban than the loss of Osama bin Laden, who had long worn out his welcome among Pashtuns. Moreover, we could adopt the Bush tactic of building our allies’ trust and confidence via personal relationships and moral clarity.
“Countries don’t ‘end,’” writes Aatish Taseer in his Pakistan novel “Noon.” “They rot away slowly.” For now, the rot continues.
Patrick Knapp, a U.S. Army reserve officer, served as a civilian in Kandahar in 2011.