The primary focus of Obama’s speech Tuesday evening was on the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. The President hopes to counter the gains made by the insurgents since 2002 with the addition of 30,000 American troops, a plan that on the surface seems sensible enough.
However, there are three fundamental problems:
1. The 100 in 80 factor.
Old counter-insurgency wisdom states that it is better to provide 100 percent security in 80 percent of a country than 80 percent security in 100 percent of the country. Since most insurgencies are transnational in character, let’s change the word “country” to “affected area”, because while the United States and its allies may have to respect international borders (well, to the degree that they can’t outright occupy countries they are not at war with ie. Pakistan) the insurgents don’t as they freely and regularly cross between the long and porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. That insecurity in the Afghan-Pakistan border region (the 20%), stands to destabilize whatever level of security the new influx of American and NATO troops bring to the remainder of Afghanistan. As has been proven in insurgencies in Vietnam (see Laos and Cambodia), Communist Afghanistan (Pakistan again), and more recently in Iraq (Fallujah), pockets of insecurity can be the source arms and attacks of a devastatingly effective insurgency. Unless the Afghan-Pakistan border can be closed by this surge of Western forces, a task that a roughly equal number of Soviet troops and an exponentially greater number of Afghan troops could not accomplish in the 80s, the insurgency will not be defeated.
2. Stalling the growth of national institutions.
No matter how positively Afghans may view Western troops (whether they view them positively at all is debatable) there is a fundamental problem with regard to the legitimacy of the central government (wait, they do that well enough on their own with rampant corruption) when the security (or insecurity depending on your perspective) of the country is in the hands of outsiders. This is not a racial issue, its a common sense issue. When the survival of the current regime is dependent solely on the protection afforded to it by non-Afghans it cannot achieve legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary citizens no matter how secure they are. More attention must be paid to the development of an Afghan National Army that follows the will of responsible civilian leadership and protects rather than harasses the Afghan people, an issue Obama made scant reference to. Approaching the security issue with tunnel vision will stall the growth of domestic security forces, prolong the occupation and/or result in failure.
3. Too much security?
A fundamental assumption in Western counter-insurgency doctrine is that the presence of the central government must be felt in all corners of the country in order for an insurgency to be defeated. I believe that this is a false assumption, especially in a place like Afghanistan, where in much of the country less might be more. This whole issue comes down to understanding what the disaffected (those that are violent and those that aren’t) want. Western governments too often (as in always) paint the enemy with a very broad brush. Not everyone opposed to a Western presence in Afghanistan and the Karzai regime is Taliban. True, some are equally bad, namely the warlords and drug dealers seeking to carve out their own fiefdom or establish their own dictatorship (the immortal Gulbuddin Hekmatyar comes to mind). But many Afghans are merely interested in preserving their own traditionally independent way of life. They are not necessarily al Qaeda sympathizers or looking for a government that will throw acid in the faces of immoral women, they merely oppose any strong central government (whether it be under Karzai or Mullah Omar) and desire the ability to maintain an autonomous existence based on local social institutions, tribes or clans. Cowing these people through brute military force would be immoral, and the presence of Western or even Afghan National Army troops would merely create more insecurity. The President and his mandarins must understand the nuances of Afghan’s disaffections and not look at the civilian population with a manichean “with us or against” us disposition. A greater understanding of the insurgency and the nature of the security dilemma that the United States and its NATO allies face is instrumental in creating the proper military-political policy prescription to weaken and defeat this insurgency.