Thursday, April 28, 2011

Larry Goodson and Thomas H. Johnson on US Tactics and Strategy in Afghanistan

(Image from Wikipedia)

As I've occasionally mentioned, I'm on the mailing list of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), so I receive something of interest once every couple of weeks or so. Yesterday, an article by Larry Goodson and Thomas H. Johnson popped into my email box, "Parallels with the Past -- How the Soviets Lost in Afghanistan, How the Americans are Losing" (April 2011). Goodson is a professor of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and Johnson is a research professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, so they should know what they're talking about. Their article is interesting and informative, but I wasn't quite persuaded about the Soviet-American comparison.

Why not?

Their claim is that there are "startling and unsettling similarities between Soviet strategies and tactics in Afghanistan during their Afghan war of 1979-1989 and American coalition strategies and tactics in Afghanistan since October 2001." They focus on "three similarities . . . central to current U.S. and NATO Afghan strategies: the focus on key population centers, reconciliation, and the development of 'Afghan' solutions to a variety of security concerns."

None of these three worked for the Soviets, they point out, so the three are unlikely to work for the US, either. That sounds plausible, except that I recall the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan well. The Soviets employed extremely brutal, scorched-earth tactics of warfare and alienated most Afghans. On this point, the Americans have endeavored to use very different tactics based on a counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategy aimed at protecting the civilian population from the Taliban and other insurgents, nothing at all like the Soviets' scorched-earth approach.

I therefore wondered what someone involved in planning the tactics and strategy used in Afghanistan by the US Military would think of the article, so I forwarded Goodson and Johnson's paper to one of my contacts who had been closely involved in working out those tactics and strategy (and to whom I've promised anonymity), and I inquired about this person's opinion. Here is the reply concerning the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan:
Interesting piece with some good points. I'm probably a little biased, but the article didn't adequately "connect the dots" between the history and the current situation for me. The comparison to the USSR's approach was superficial with cherry-picked, dated examples to draw connections or similarities that don't exist. A more thorough review of the ISAF population-centric approach shows a fundamental difference compared to that of the Soviets'. I suppose advancing such a provocative proposition is the authors' way of getting people to read and discuss their article, and I'm also not sure the authors know what's really been happening there the past year and a half. In the end, the authors actually advocate the approach that General McChrystal and Petraeus have pursued. The authors are correct that the central government is one of the biggest problems, and it undercuts the connection to the population distributed throughout the country with its incompetence and corruption. The outcome in Afghanistan is still to be determined. I think by the end of summer 2012 we should see if the McChrystal/Petraeus approach is successful. Let's hope that all our blood and treasure yield some significant level of success.
I wish that my contact had said more about "population-centric approach," as well as about "the approach that General McChrystal and Petraeus have pursued" -- and these two approaches are complementary, I gather, being two different aspects of the ISAF endeavor. Anyway, concerning the former point, about the "population-centric approach," my memory is that the Soviets really did abandon the countryside and simply hold the cities; the ISAF, however, has not abandoned the countryside -- at least not in my reading of reports from Afghanistan. As for the latter point, about "the approach that General McChrystal and Petraeus have pursued," I assume this approach is a variant on the counterterrorism strategy advocated by Goodson and Johnson:
Counterterrorism is Enough -- A counterterrorism approach does not accept the necessity of nation-building -- or at least holds that such a commitment of means is not justified by the ends. Instead, adherents of this [counterterrorism] approach, increasingly in the ascendance in Washington, believe that the United States and its allies can achieve minimal national security goals through the relatively secretive activities of counterterrorism specialists.
I presume that this is what my contact was referring to in stating that "the authors actually advocate the approach that General McChrystal and Petraeus have pursued." The US approach does seem to have given up on any belief that reforming Karzai's government is possible, so rather than get any deeper into nation-building, if that means setting up a government in Afghanistan that isn't corrupt, the Americans will be content with the lowered expectations of counterterrorism to ensure that Al-Qaeda doesn't ever again obtain a foothold there. This alone may take some doing, however, for Goodson and Johnson note that jihadists are not the most flexible individuals:
History would suggest that secular insurgents negotiate, jihadists do not. Rather, the Taliban that matter most within the movement are jihadists with perceived intense religious obligations (for instance, Mullah Omar, the Amir ul-Momineen, or Leader of the Faithful). "Peeling" such individuals away from the Taliban is virtually impossible because they believe they are following the mandates of a higher calling. Indeed, history suggests that no jihad has ever ended with a negotiated settlement or via reconciliation.
What holds for the Taliban jihadists would hold for Al Qaeda jihadists, too, as well as any other jihadists. A fully successful long-term counterterrorism strategy would have to determine why some Muslims turn to jihad and terrorism and would need to utilize policies that dissuade potential jihadists and potential terrorists from becoming actual jihadists and actual terrorists.

Good luck on that, though, for I'm not too hopeful . . .

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