Monday, December 19, 2011

Daniel Green, "Reconstructing Afghanistan" At The MMC

Daniel Green, Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spoke recently at the Marines Memorial Club on "Reconstructing Afghanistan."  This was another lecture co-sponsored by the World Affairs Council, where I used to hold a membership until I got too busy with all of my Web blogging action.  I attended and took good notes.  My observations are in italics.

Mr. Green talked about his experiences on a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan, the stomping grounds for Hamid Karzai's early supporters.  His brief description of the topography tells us how hard it is to build infrastructure in parts of A-stan.  The population lives along green belts near rivers in a mostly desert province.  Check out pics online of terraced farms in parts of A-stan.  Then try to imagine the futility of building millions of dollars worth of roads and sewer systems to service an agricultural village whose annual economic productivity can probably be measured in the low five figures. 

Mr. Green mentioned that Karzai's status as head of the Popalzai tribe gave him credibility as a Durrani leader, but didn't go further into A-stan's history.  Here's the significance.  The Durrani Empire was probably Afghanistan's golden age, when it was expansive enough to hold both Persia and India at bay.  A legitimate Durrani lineage helps explain Karzai's staying power.  It also explains Mr. Green's comment that the Oruzgan governor was not necessarily into good governance but remained a Karzai ally.  Their politics aren't like ours, folks, and their standards for good governance are not what we would demand in the Anglo-West. 

Oruzgan province was mostly safe when Mr. Green's PRT arrived in 2005 but only seven months later the Taliban had stepped up activities with more sophisticated attacks.  More foreign fighters showed up to join the party.  The PRT had to shut down its good governance projects due to the violence.  The U.S. didn't understand the importance of village-level engagement and spent little developmental aid on small villages due to its orientation on conventional nation-state governance.  Maybe we should check out the book and movie versions of The Ugly American before we do any more nation-building in countries that don't function as nations. 

One thing Mr. Green wanted to emphasize is that the U.S. drawdown through 2014 is not at all synonymous with a complete departure.  The U.S. is staying in Afghanistan, in some form, for a very long time.  The Afghans interpret White House pronouncements as a departure, so being the survivors they are they will hedge their strategic bets.  Keep that in mind the next time you hear Hamid Karzai making friendly moves toward Iran or India.  He's being more pro-Afghanistan than anti-American and his moves play well with his home audience.  Remember also that the Taliban are primarily a Pashtun movement, and his own Pashtun lineage matters.  Karzai's public comments that may rile the U.S. will give him crucial credibility at the negotiating table if he is to ever successfully disarm the Taliban and re-orient them toward nonviolence.  We miss the nuances of this in the Western media.

America's bad strategic habits in foreign intervention are all to familiar to Mr. Green.  He noted how we tend to underestimate problems and later throw money and technology at them because that's what we understand.  He likes the AfPak Hands program and thinks it needs special management; it can be an antidote to the short-term thinking paradigm the U.S. uses to solve long-term problems.  I for one would love to become an AfPak Hand.  There's no way we can understand that region without a cadre of people dedicated to its permanent study.

The mention of village stability operations caught my attention in the lecture.  This is an effort by NATO/ISAF conventional forces to position themselves inside villages and build tribal-based defense forces around them.  This immediately reminded me of Army Special Forces Major Jim Gant's concept of Tribal Engagement Teams.  If you've never heard of it, read about it in the milblogosphere.  I had the chance to ask Mr. Green afterwards if village stability ops were based on Maj. Gant's ideas; he said the approach was heavily informed by Maj. Gant's work and is spreading rapidly.  Wow, we actually learned something and applied it.  America is number one!

Mr. Green obliquely mentioned that U.S. policy on Pakistan needs review because we are partially subsidizing covert wars against ourselves by supporting Pakistan.  The unspoken limitation of any substantive policy review is the dependence of U.S. forces on a ground line of communications (i.e., a logistics corridor) from the port of Karachi.  Any force footprint larger than roughly a division will need resupply from some direction other than the northern rail corridor, which is inefficient because changes in rail gauges through the 'Stans slow down railcar movement.  Reviewing our support for Pakistan means reducing our force structure so Pakistani logistics doesn't hold us hostage.  This is part of the rationale behind announcements of drawdowns until 2014.  I hear your frustration, Mr. Green. 

He framed a choice comment about fighting with allies very diplomatically.  NATO countries seem to prefer the political benefit of participation in ISAF over actual fighting.  Many NATO forces have immature COIN approaches, learned little from Iraq, and restrict their fighting with too many caveats.  Winston Churchill had a choice quote about fighting with allies, but he assumed allies would actually do some real fighting.  There's a running joke that ISAF stands for "I Saw America Fight."

Here's an observation on the interagency effort that's worth repeating.  Mr. Green was disappointed that USAID had devolved from a competent organization in the 1960s to having too few field agents, little COIN understanding, and a limited focus on contract monitoring.  This dovetailed into his comment about NGOs lacking accountability, staying in the capital too much, and undermining Afghan sovereignty.  This is the logical result of outsourcing government functions.  Governance is the core of an aid effort, and legitimacy comes from government-to-government contact.  Perhaps the U.S. Army should detail some civil affairs troops to USAID, because synching the CMOC doesn't seem to be working if our institutions are that weak.

BTW, there may be a better way to do opium mitigation.  Mr. Green said Marine forces are working this in Helmand province.  The U.S. should give those opium farmers some biodiesel reactors so they can turn poppies into fuel.  Granted, that's only a concept.  It won't be viable unless farmers could sell their biodiesel for more than what they'd make for a comparable opium crop. 

A couple more observations are worth repeating.  Al Qaeda sticks out like a sore thumb in A-stan and may fill the vacuum if the U.S. leaves completely.  The Arab Spring encourages reform without reliance upon Al Qaeda's extremism.  I wonder if Mr. Green knows of the Muslim Brotherhood's extensive network in the Middle East; there may not be much reform with them in charge after elections are held.  Embedding U.S. personnel 24/7 with Afghan forces is effective.  Local police are less educated and professional than the Afghan army.  Having an enduring U.S. ground presence is essential to avoid throwing away what we've gained from our dislodgement of the Taliban and Al Qaeda; ground forces develop intelligence on local personalities and safe havens that enable strike packages against high value targets.  That last comment brings out what a military force does in COIN and also reveals the military's limits.  It takes a lot of nation-building effort to get sufficient intel for even a limited strike on one bad guy's hideout.  The nation-building renders his hideout untenable by making local villages secure and prosperous.  That is why the U.S. will be in Afghanistan, in some fashion, for a long time.  Oh, yeah, there's a lot of very valuable minerals there too.