Kicking the Can in Afghanistan


“Kick the Can” is a child’s game familiar to kids from large cities. The only equipment required is an old tin and a few willing children. The skills in play are stealth and speed. Like “Hide & Seek,” all but one of the group hides; and then they are sought by the solitary player.  With “Kick the Can,” all initiative is ceded to the quarry – a kind of fool’s game for solitary hunters.

At the risk of abusing a metaphor, we have now embarked on a national strategy that looks for all the world like a fool’s game; and, in the process, ignores rules even a child might understand.

The first rule is that one side doesn’t get to make the rules. In Afghanistan, declaring an arbitrary time limit, not only telegraphs punches, but does little but raise the pressure on the home team. Set aside for a moment the nonsense about wars of “choice” and wars of “necessity,” we might consider the blowback from Iraq. Having reversed the sectarian poles in Baghdad, might not the “progress” we see there be a kind of prudent economy of force? The Shiite majority may simply wait for the clock to run out now that we have set a date certain for withdrawal. The King of Jordan warns of a Shiite Crescent to the north of Israel. Is he wrong?

One side doesn’t control the number of players either. The arbitrary designation of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda as the “core” of the problem ignores a larger threat with a global reach. Islamic fundamentalism is not limited to Afghanistan or Pakistan. Indeed, the ideology and financing on the Sunni side originates in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, our erstwhile “allies.” The militant threat on the Shiite side originates with Iran – now a nuclear aspirant. If Iraq was a distraction from the real threat in Afghanistan, how is Afghanistan not a distraction from the real threat in Iran?

The truth about Iraq is that it was a corrupt totalitarian menace to its corrupt theocratic Arab neighbors. Now Iraq is a corrupt Shiite state that might pursue a sectarian alliance with Iran. The truth about Afghanistan is that it isa tribal, if not feudal, mix beset by naïve Westerners. The truth about Pakistan is that it is a corrupt, if not duplicitous, janissary that might be one bullet away from theocracy. The truth about Iran is that it is the world’s largest Shiite theocracy; a so-called Islamic “republic.” The truth of all of this is that the threat is not a specific terrorist, terror group, state sponsor, or Muslim state.

The bloom of jihad and theocracy within Islam world wide is the true threat. This menace is not simply demographics or immigration; it is also political. Theocracy is the goal of Islamists of every stripe; to replace secular law with a religious monoculture. The final and inadmissible truth is the inability or unwillingness of national security specialists, in general, and Western politicians, in particular, to acknowledge any of this.

Tehran is yet another example in the Islamic constellation where we presume to make the rules of the game; we assume that the Persians can be jawboned or threatened with “sanctions” to relinquish their nuclear ambitions.

And now there is a new strategy announced on 1 December of last year by President Obama at West Point. The new course has two major components: moderation and denial. With the moderate approach we are neither “all in” nor “all out” in Afghanistan. We have limited our targets to one leader and one terror organization – and a kind of half-baked “nation building.” In Afghanistan, the US aspires to do what the British and Soviets could not. The English used to strap insurgents to the busy ends of cannons and the Soviets used to level villages from the air. American tactics are different; we plan to conquer Islamist fanatics with kindness – moderate on moderate.

As the moderate card is played we should remember what Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan had to say on the subject; “These descriptions are very ugly, it is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam….”

The second component of the President’s West Point proclamation is denial. “Islam is one of the world’s great religions” we are told. We are led to believe that Jihad, Sharia, cultural irredentism, misogyny, and fifty years of terrorism have nothing to do with Muslims in general or Islam in particular. Never mind that prominent Muslims tell us otherwise so frequently that we can not or will not hear what they say.

The modest reinforcement in Afghanistan, constrained by an 18 month timeline, appears to be an attempt to replicate the “surge” strategy of Iraq. Here we should remember what President Obama said about such comparisons, “You never step in the same river twice.”

Military Operations Research (MOR) has been looking at counter insurgent campaigns, including Afghanistan, for decades. MOR is an aggregate of disciplines that attempts to size forces and examine the variables that might lead to victory or stability. These disciplines include: statistics, probability theory, game theory, modeling, and simulation among others.

Three variants have been applied to Afghanistan and insurgency in general: force to force comparisons, force to population models, and most recently, strategy to strategy comparisons. All three reach similar conclusions; numbers and strategy matter.

In Afghanistan alone, 500,000 troops or police might be required; not for victory, just for stability. Or in the words of the RAND Corp. report, “The extremely low force ratio for Afghanistan, a country with a larger population than that of Iraq, shows the implausibility of current stabilization efforts by external forces.” Another analysis, looking at comparative strategy, simply says the insurgents will prevail.

These are polite ways of saying there are not enough US or allied troops in the field to do the job – nor is an adequate force likely to be deployed. This kind of candor is rare, indeed, especially for government contractors. The idea that the allies will fight al Qaeda and the Taliban while training and equipping 400,000 competent Afghan cops and soldiers, in 18 months, is nothing short of delusional. The majority of recruits would have to come from the Pashtun tribes, fighters most closely allied with the Taliban and their Arab sponsors.

In short, General McChrystal probably underestimated the theater problem to begin with – and President Obama certainly did not give him what he wanted anyway. We have to assume that the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom, and the White House are aware of the studies and have chosen to ignore their conclusions.

As in “Kick the Can,” numbers matter and we appear to be playing a fool’s game. The allied expeditionary force has no edge or margin of error in South Asia. In 18 months, if catastrophe does not end the game early, we will still be asking “what is to be done” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we will still be playing word games with the larger problem in the Muslim world.

For the moment, the policy sketched by President Obama at West Point on 1 December 09 can fairly be characterized as an exit strategy with an expiration date.

(Originally published in American Thinker on 08 Dec 09)

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