A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Military View of the AfPak Debate, and my Non-Military Comments Thereon

I've pretty much stayed out of the AfPak debate — is it "dithering" or deliberation? — but one of my secret vices is military history, and the distinguished military historian Mark Grimsley, currently at the Army War College, has some thoughts that bring a little sanity to the debate. Read the whole thing, but the short version is: there's no military urgency to the issue, but there may be a political urgency, and the leaks are not helpful and should stop. That, I think, is a reasonable approach. Surely there are some fundamental issues at stake here, and those who say Obama is reversing his own strategy of last spring are ignoring the Afghan "election," which even we admit was blatantly unfair. And then there's the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, in which Afghanistan managed to rank second worst in the world, at 179th.

Ahead, only, of Somalia (180th). Somalia is no longer a country so much as it's a gang war in progress.

Zimbabwe was 146th (tied with several other countries, including Russia [Tolstoy wept]), 33 places above Afghanistan.

Karzai has a problem, and so do we. Let's think hard and do this right.

I always feel guilty pontificating on military matters as I've never served: I'm one of the brilliant strategists of the "82nd Chairborne," and readers should always assume I'm no expert here. (Though there are plenty of "chicken hawks" out there who never served but are ready to bomb.) (And, as a Baby Boomer, I probably tend to draw parallels to Vietnam more than is necessary. Indulge me.)

It's often said by the apostles of counterinsurgency — and I have a lot of respect for them — that if Vietnam had been fought with different tactics it might have been won. But what is winning? If you can't define victory clearly, how can you formulate a working strategy? It's true we didn't lose to an insurgency in Vietnam, we lost to the regular forces of the North Vietnamese Army. Well, no, we didn't: the South Vietnamese Army did. But ARVN generally had better equipment than the NVA, better supplies, better training: but when push came to shove in 1975, they collapsed. Fundamentally, it was an army that lacked the morale and esprit de corps of its enemy. As Sun Tzu, who, for a man who may never have existed, was a lot wiser than many who have, put it:
Strategy without tactics is the slowest road to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise of defeat.
Now at first glance that may sound more like a fortune cookie fortune than a profound thought. Take a second glance. Tactics, after all, are the methods you use to achieve your goal. Strategy is your definition of those goals within the broader sphere of national interests, military realities, political possibilities, and so much more. A good strategy but poor tactics may take forever; good tactics with no overriding strategy has no place to go.

I think the Administration is right to be debating strategy in Afghanistan first. How many troops you send is contingent on what you're trying to do. And that's the question we never clearly defined in Vietnam: what's our objective? It wasn't to conquer North Vietnam (impossible in a nuclear Cold War environment). So what? To defend South Vietnamese independence? Where do you do that? Only in South Vietnam? Inside North Vietnam? How do you define victory. And ultimately I suspect that's the real issue in Afghanistan: how can you tell when you've won?

And the corollary, of course: if you can't tell that you've won, when do you get to go home? Modern war doesn't lead to surrenders on the battleship Missouri, and even when the victory seems complete (e.g. Baghdad 2003), asymmetric warfare can spoil your party.

What is victory in Afghanistan? Conversely, what is defeat? The Taliban won't be rolling tanks triumphantly into Kabul, as the North Vietnamese did into Saigon. And unless we can hang both Mullah Omar and Usama bin Ladin upside down in a filling station Mussolini style, it won't be easy to tell if we've won either. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. But the first definition of strategy has to be a definition of one's objective. As that old lefty peacenik from the Prussian Kriegsakademie (whom I've quoted before), Clausewitz said,
No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. The former is its political purpose; the latter its operational objective. This is the governing principle which will set its course, prescribe the scale of means and effort which is required, and make its influence felt throughout down to the smallest operational detail.
— Karl von Clausewitz, On War (Vom Kriege), Book VIII, Chapter 2
Trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 579
Of course, the key phrase here is "no one in his senses ought to do so."

Let's deliberate (not dither, deliberate) on this one. It's important. I'm glad I'm not the one who has to make the decision.


limabeanium said...

Well said, sir

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Thanks, limabeanium. I really don't have the answers here, and I don't think McChrystal is necessarily wrong, but he's the commander on scene who needs to apply the right tactics to the national strategy, and I'm not clear what that is, and I don't know if anyone is.

If we're looking for a stable, unified, and centralized government in Afghanistan, well, it would be for the first time in history.