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Thread: A war that cannot be won or lost

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    Council Member davidbfpo's Avatar
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    Default A war that cannot be won or lost

    An interesting article from the Pakistani paper 'The Dawn': http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/...on-or-lost-579

    We should be careful of what we wish for. For years now, there has been a chorus from the right as well as the left in Pakistan, calling for foreign troops to pull out of Afghanistan. There are indications that they might get their wish before too long.
    Nothing maybe surprising, but from a Pakistani writer of interest, who comments on the Pakistani military stance and the consequences of a NATO / USA retreat on other nations nearby.

    Here is the latest UK statement why: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8169454.stm

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    Last edited by davidbfpo; 07-26-2009 at 10:15 PM. Reason: Add second link.

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    Council Member Dayuhan's Avatar
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    When people talk about "winning" and "losing" in Afghanistan I always wonder what they mean. I guess "losing" is clear enough: if the Taliban end up in control with AQ having free run of the place, that's a loss. But what would be "winning"? I think most of us would agree that if "winning" means withdrawal with a tidy western-style liberal democracy in place, the war is unwinnable. But if not that, then what? What - realistically - is the desired end state? I sometimes get the uncomfortable feeling that those in charge aren't quite sure.

    It's not entirely a matter of semantics either. It's hard to accomplish objectives if you don't know what they are. I've long felt that much of the frustration and sense of failure that accompanies public perceptions of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan derives from unclear or excessively optimistic objectives. Of course if you expected that we'd toss Saddam, install a modern democracy - as if it were a light bulb or spare tire - and withdraw from Iraq, the campaign would look like a failure. But really, is the inability to achieve that objective a consequence of operational failure or was the objective unreasonable from the start? If we'd gone in with the assumption that achieving basic security and stability could easily take a decade and a functional government could need another, we'd be right on schedule.

    We're constantly reminded that the campaign in Afghanistan has already taken longer than WW2... but given the realities of Afghanistan, who would have expected anything else?

    If anyone has a concise description of what a "win" in Afghanistan would look like, you're one up on me... and I'd love to hear it!

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    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Default Nobody 'wins' in any insurgency. That's a misleading term that shouldn't be used.

    The words win, lose, victory and defeat have no place in any such operation (other than at a tactical level). The best one can achieve for the overall effort, lacking using the Roman or Mongol models of total annihilation (frowned upon today) is an acceptable outcome. That's been true of virtually all of them since the end of WW II. Except Viet Nam which was unique in several respects; the insurgency was pretty well curtailed but the North Viet Namese conventional offensive overturned the nominal outcome.

    Comparing WW II to Viet Nam in almost any respect is fallacious; that's tantamount to comparing New York to Pili. They're both cities but that about as close as you're going to get. The COINistas will tell you that insurgencies average about ten years to 'resolve' as you note.

    The issue of what that resolution will be is undetermined -- or at least so far as is made public. I think your comment:
    is the inability to achieve that objective a consequence of operational failure or was the objective unreasonable from the start? If we'd gone in with the assumption that achieving basic security and stability could easily take a decade and a functional government could need another, we'd be right on schedule.
    is on the mark. The initial plan was to topple the Talibs and leave; rightly or wrongly and for reasons not fully known, that got changed and we, the USA in the form of the government of the day, told the Afghans we would stay and 'fix it.'

    Error on our part IMO but they didn't ask me. So we said it. Now, we're honor bound to do it, I think. There is, I gather much back and forth in DC at this time on precisely what that means and I suspect that what the former Administration intended does not square with what the current Admin desires, however, the former Admin stacked some things that cannot be easily undone so the current Admin is trying to find acceptable to them solutions. That's about as clear as Afghan politics -- which are no better or worse than ours, just different...

    Long way of agreeing with you, except I'd say that getting to a decent level of security will take much more than a decade and I doubt we'll stay long enough to do that. An acceptable level will have to suffice suffice...

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    Council Member William F. Owen's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dayuhan View Post
    It's hard to accomplish objectives if you don't know what they are. I've long felt that much of the frustration and sense of failure that accompanies public perceptions of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan derives from unclear or excessively optimistic objectives.
    Concur, but isn't the objective in A'Stan to have a pro-western stable government? Am I wrong?

    That's a pretty easy objective to understand. It may actually be impossible, because we are not prepared defeat the insurgency, but I don't think anyone would quibble with the "idea" or the "dream."
    Infinity Journal "I don't care if this works in practice. I want to see it work in theory!"

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    - If we can double the ratio of kills per contact, we will soon put an end to the shooting in Malaya.
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    Council Member Dayuhan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ken White View Post
    The best one can achieve for the overall effort, lacking using the Roman or Mongol models of total annihilation (frowned upon today) is an acceptable outcome.
    Ok, I'll buy that... but we still need some idea of an outcome that is both acceptable and achievable.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ken White View Post
    The initial plan was to topple the Talibs and leave; rightly or wrongly and for reasons not fully known, that got changed and we, the USA in the form of the government of the day, told the Afghans we would stay and 'fix it.'

    Error on our part IMO but they didn't ask me. So we said it. Now, we're honor bound to do it, I think.
    That decision probably emerged from the assumption that leaving without "fixing it" to some extent would mean the Talibs would return and we'd have to do it all over again. That's arguably true, but still leaves us with the problem of figuring out what we can fix and how much we have to fix to prevent a Talib resurgence.

    Quote Originally Posted by William F. Owen View Post
    Concur, but isn't the objective in A'Stan to have a pro-western stable government? Am I wrong?

    That's a pretty easy objective to understand. It may actually be impossible, because we are not prepared defeat the insurgency, but I don't think anyone would quibble with the "idea" or the "dream."
    That would be an ideal outcome, but probably not an achievable one.

    I think one of the problems that emerges over and over again in these discussions of objective is the home-front assumption that democratic governments are necessarily stable. In the long run I'd agree that democratic governments are more stable, but in the short to medium term, the early stages of democratic transition often yield governments that are extremely unstable and in many cases virtually dysfunctional. This is especially true in countries facing ethnic strife and other long-running internal divisions, very common in areas where "nations" are defined by anachronistic colonial-era boundaries. All too often Americans seem to feel that once we've had an election everything will be ok and we can withdraw... a fairly optimistic notion, at best. We also have to deal with the reality that a democratic government may or may not be pro-western... and if it turns out anti-western, there isn't a whole lot we can do about it.

    This isn't to say that we shouldn't have elections or try to assist nations down the road to democracy, but we can't view those moves as some sort of panacea that is certain or even likely to produce pro-western stability.

    So if "stable, pro-western government" is not achievable, what would be both acceptable and achievable? Personally, I could live without "pro-western": neutral would be fine, or even rhetorically anti-western, as long as the rhetoric isn't translated to action against the west or (more to the point) refuge for those who take action against the west.

    Of course that's probably not achievable either... I never claimed to have The Answer, just trying to get a better handle on The Question!

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    Council Member William F. Owen's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dayuhan View Post
    That would be an ideal outcome, but probably not an achievable one.
    Maybe and certainly not till the opposing the forces are taken out of the picture.
    I think one of the problems that emerges over and over again in these discussions of objective is the home-front assumption that democratic governments are necessarily stable. In the long run I'd agree that democratic governments are more stable, but in the short to medium term, the early stages of democratic transition often yield governments that are extremely unstable and in many cases virtually dysfunctional.
    Wallah! Tell me about it. Thailand is an excellent example of country just not/almost unable able to make "democracy" function.
    How India does it is amazing, and some countries cannot be democracies given the current state of their societies - something a lot of Political theorists choose to ignore.
    Nothing wrong with a one party state, as long as it is a party committed to the well being of it's people, supported by the people, and prepared to change with the people. The problem is the people!!
    Infinity Journal "I don't care if this works in practice. I want to see it work in theory!"

    - The job of the British Army out here is to kill or capture Communist Terrorists in Malaya.
    - If we can double the ratio of kills per contact, we will soon put an end to the shooting in Malaya.
    Sir Gerald Templer, foreword to the "Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya," 1958 Edition

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    There is too much money in the opium that runs too high up in governments for there to be any desireable 'win' scenario. Bottom line. Exit and in 6 months the taliban and AQ have control again. I haven't been able to really find solid estimates on the value of the Afghan poppy output.

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    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Default I'm with you...

    Quote Originally Posted by Dayuhan View Post
    Ok, I'll buy that... but we still need some idea of an outcome that is both acceptable and achievable.
    . . .
    So if "stable, pro-western government" is not achievable, what would be both acceptable and achievable? Personally, I could live without "pro-western": neutral would be fine, or even rhetorically anti-western, as long as the rhetoric isn't translated to action against the west or (more to the point) refuge for those who take action against the west.

    Of course that's probably not achievable either... I never claimed to have The Answer, just trying to get a better handle on The Question!
    I think your solutions are right on track and either is probably achievable. The problem I think lies not so much with the American people but with those dipwads in the Congress who must preen and profile on one issue or another and make pseudo-moralistic noises about "the rights of women" or "democracy is a requirement."

    I can agree that the treatment of women is an issue but it also is none of our business in the sense that they must do as we do. Not to mention that we also could improve on that score a bit...

    Democracy is good, wouldn't change it -- but it does make things difficult in setting and following clear and rational policies.

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    Council Member Dayuhan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ken White View Post
    I think your solutions are right on track and either is probably achievable.
    I'm not sure they are achievable, at least not now. Even if we're willing to omit "pro-western", "democratic", and "living up to western values" from our wish list for an Afghan government, that still leaves us looking for a reasonably stable government that can actually govern. If there was a coherent leadership on the other side it might be possible to offer a deal: they keep their agenda in their country, we stay out. As of now, though, to whom would you offer the deal, and what are the chances that they can hold up their end?

    Only option I see now is to suppress the insurgency to the greatest extent we can and hope that some kind of functional government emerges before the political will on our side runs out. I can't muster too much optimism over the chances of that equation working out favorably.

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    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Default Depends onwhat you mean by stable. If you mean UK or US

    stable, not likely to ever happen. Nor, IMO, does it need to. Just needs to be stable enough to fulfill your condition of neutral or rhetorically anti-western but no bad guys. The government can change through mechanisms of other than elections as long as they do that...
    Quote Originally Posted by Dayuhan View Post
    As of now, though, to whom would you offer the deal, and what are the chances that they can hold up their end?
    Bad move to try to deal there -- they haggle and deceive for sport and we're not at all good at either. They can also be ruthless and we generally, unless really aroused, are not.

    So they need to deal among themselves and we leave with a very powerful and focused threat in the 'Don't make me come back' vein.

    Their country -- they need to work out among them selves what they will do and we need to support it. I believe we may be headed to that. We'll see...

    In my personal view, all our attempts at military foreign internal development are ill advised. Better to increase the Intel and Diplomatic efforts, crank USAid (and USIA) up again and let the SF boys go in small numbers if necessary. Commitment of large forces is generally counterproductive. Plus, when you do those, you more often than not end up with a multi-year large foreign aid bill after departure. All that money can be better spent defusing things before it gets to crisis level. Only real problem with that approach is that our political system makes it difficult. Not impossible, just difficult.

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