Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I want to avoid being a one-issue blogger, but I have received several requests for more details about my pessimism in Marjah, and Afghanistan more generally. 

Let’s say you want to build a house. You have the funds to hire everyone you need, and you’re a lucky person, because you happen to know the very best carpenter on earth – Norm Abram. Norm agrees to work on your house, but after erecting a few frame pieces you immediately have him switch to painting unfinished rooms. After a delay, you finally allow him to return to carpentry – but only on one single bedroom. Meanwhile, in all the debate about Norm’s role, you neglected to hire a real contractor to lay the foundation. Instead, you just poured some concrete that you had lying around and called it a day.

This is clearly not the way to build a house. Anyone who has ever picked up a hammer can predict how this project will end, and it won’t be a pretty sight. Unfortunately, if you’ll forgive the somewhat strained Friedman-esque analogy, this is exactly what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan.

Norm, our master carpenter, is the U.S. military. Just like Norm, they are the best in the world at what they do – fighting. But in Afghanistan they have been engaging in nation-building (even though nobody in Washington is willing to use that term). And as good as the military is at fighting, it is not trained or equipped for development work. Having troops do nation-building is akin to taking your master carpenter and asking him to paint. Not only is it outside his core competencies, there are other people who specialize is doing it the right way. Instead of professional painters, consider professional aid workers – the people who work for international NGOs or government organizations like USAID. They have spent their lives studying and practicing development, and are clearly more qualified to undertake those tasks in Afghanistan. Yet instead of utilizing our aid workers, or professional painters, we are letting the military and Norm do unfamiliar work.
The foundation is the Afghan government in Kabul. As I have written previously, President Karzai is a corrupt, illegitimate leader who appears more interested in consolidating his own power than improving the country - witness his recent takeover of the Election Complaint Commission. I refer to his government as the foundation because the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is entirely predicated on creating a functioning central government. Every aspect of COIN doctrine emphasizes the need to provide security and governance to the population, but by pinning all hopes for governance on Karzai the U.S. is dooming itself to failure.

Which brings us to Operation Moshtarak in Marjah. The U.S. is finally using the military properly – as a blunt fighting tool. I have no doubt that the Marines will be able to defeat their Taliban foes, either directly in battle or by forcing them to flee. Here, Norm is finally allowed to build. However, Norm is only allowed to build one room. I understand that the military is eventually scheduled to conduct similar operations in Kandahar and elsewhere, but for now all efforts are focused on Marjah – just one small room in a very large house. Furthermore, Norm is not getting the help he needs. He can build the room himself, but to finish it correctly he requires help - electricians, painters, and heating experts. Just like Norm, the military needs additional expertise from aid practitioners, rule of law specialists, and others from the development community. But they are not receiving that help. Instead, they are being asked to do the job themselves, and everything else will be trusted to the foundation.

The result of the Operation Moshtarak will be one extremely well-constructed room with faulty wiring, streaky painting, and undependable radiators in an unfinished house resting on a creaky, hollow foundation.

In short, this is an example of getting the tactics mostly right but the grand strategy wrong. You can win the battles but lose the war, as the U.S. once discovered in Vietnam, and this happens when your grand strategy is misguided. All the technological superiority in the world cannot overcome a faulty strategic base.

The foundation in Afghanistan continues to show cracks. The U.S. must reconstruct it, using the proper methods, or bear the consequences. A house built on an insecure foundation will inevitably collapse.


homelesseus said...

Your pessimism is well-deserved, but this analysis is dubious on several levels. The metaphor is definitely strained, its components not nearly as interchangeable as you assert, and no one who wants to talk seriously about Afghanistan or anything else would bring up Friedman, not even in a jiving jest. He gets enough press for a man who is consistently wrong and a simpleton to boot. In fact, it's the tidy stupid metaphors that limit his thinking, so it does no good to serve up the same. On the other hand, I can see you might have felt pressured to throw a nod toward the patriotic blog followers. If that's not what transpired, then there's not much hope.

homelesseus said...

Moreover, Norm would have to be embarrassed to have his tradecraft compared with the tradecraft of death, and not nearly as "MASTERFUL" at their discipline as Norm is at his.

Dave Reidy said...

homelesseus - I'm sorry you didn't like this piece. While I agree that the metaphor is strained, as I acknowledged in the piece, I do think it does the job of presenting my concerns with the Afghan campaign. I wrote this post as a response to requests from readers and fellow bloggers to clarify my opinions on the situation. I can understand if you dislike my metaphor, but I'm more interested in your opinion of my analysis. Do you agree that the U.S. grand strategy in Afghanistan is flawed?

Jeff Schneider said...

homelesseus -- I think you may be losing the forest in the trees a bit here in your response. I think that while we bloggers always run the risk of belabored metaphors, Dave may have latched on to a functional one here. While I may (and do) debate Dave on his worthy criticisms of the Marjah campaign, his views and arguments are sound. Focusing on his mention of Tom Friedman (who, is a weighty commentator -- whether we like the "mustache of wisdom" or not), and attacking his metaphor do not really add much to this debate. The content of Dave's post here is incredibly relevant -- and should spur valuable debate. Furthermore, of any offensive in American military history, Operation Moshtarak is perhaps the most civilian centric -- the rules of engagement being in line with modern COIN discipline, focused solely on protecting non combatants, and the essentialist labeling of "trade craft of death" is, I think, out of line here. I think our goal here at Demagogues is to spur debate, and we hope that that debate will be both enriching, respectful, and evaluative -- and I hope that your future posts will be in that spirit. Bring the criticism, but make it about the ideas and issues.

homelesseus said...

Jeff, go to it. I have to agree with what you said about my comment with an addendum.

The metaphor needs someone living on the plot of land Norm and his fellow carpenters are trying to build a house around. Norm himself would have to decide to paint a window here and something else there, or delegate those jobs to someone. But Norm's crew is too small for that. And the people camping where the house is to be built are taking potshots at Norm and his skeleton crew. And Norm, far from being a tested carpenter--he's only been building doghouses for decades (Grenada, Panama, etc, etc all the countries that fell almost at the mention of a US attack)--is trying to build a palace where no one knows if anyone wants it.

I'm saying that the metaphor is not incidental to how things are understood.

Where Friedman has credibility as a "thinker" is no place I've ever visited. He's a journalist, not a scholar. His record is poor at best.

Essentialist it may be, but I'm not sure what else to call it--warriorcraft sounds like videogame--in the allegorical world of Norm and his wonderful craft.

Enjoying the reads. And thanks for the critique.

homelesseus said...

Dave, I do believe that it is flawed. In fact, it's unfixable for a thousand historical and institutional reasons. I feel bad for the dead, theirs and ours, because when all this is finished, no amount of rhetoric will hide the catastrophic consequences of the hubris and amateurism that has permeated the Pentagon and the State Department. They don't even have a hundred Americans that can speak Pashtun. The military is not up to it, either militarily (without enormous additional resources) or diplomatically or in terms of rebuilding. Rebuilding what? The eight year record so far is pitiful.

In fact, I'll make a gentleman's wager: in less than two years, the Taliban will have taken over Afghanistan. The idea that we can win by creating a government that cares for its people and doesn't enrich its own kith and kin, where girls and boys have equal opportunity, where people enjoy religious freedom: pipe dreams. History is merciless with pipe-dreamers.

As far as the operation in question, you raise legitimate questions, see the writing on the wall.

No offense intended with my earlier comment.

homelesseus said...

By the way Jeff, I'm focused on the forest not the trees. What would COIN be if not a tree in an enormous forest. And while your description of that tree is sound and accurate, it's still only a tree.

feathers said...

Dave, I generally agree with your pessimism regarding Marjah, but I want to push your argument and (forgive me) your metaphor one step farther. Operation Moshtarak is approaching its building project as though Marjah exists in a vacuum - the assumption appears to be that if the U.S. can just get its "government in a box" strategy off the ground, it will be self-replicating. This strategy has its roots in some pretty conventional wisdom about good governance: it says that establishing localized good governance has a mushrooming domino effect both horizontally and vertically. There may be some places like that. Afghanistan is not one of them, and cannot be one because the political system the U.S. helped establish and has supported for five years is one of the most centralized in the world, and was designed to be resistant to bottom-up initiatives.

To return to your house-building metaphor: it isn't just that Marjah's house is being built in the wrong order, with shoddy materials, on top of a shaky foundation. It's also being built without a plan to connect it to local water, power, and sewer lines (in this case, provincial and national government). Good practices in Marjah can't be replicated at the provincial level without buy-in from the provincial leaders (I haven't heard that they were even consulted), and lessons learned won't migrate upward. The internationals are trying to circumvent the Karzai problem by ignoring the central government in a constitutional system where all rivers flow to the center. No matter how successful the project is locally, if it can't scale up its success because it has been built completely off the grid, then it will never generate the kind of wins both the U.S. military and the Afghan people desperately need.

Andreea Zugravu said...

Excellent points. The US has an amazing ability to wage war, but it does not have a Department of Everything Else. Currently it's trying to do both things using the same tools. BIG mistake. Armies are not and should not be engaged in nation-building. My solution: "a menage-a-trois" of governments/international organizations providing funding, contractors executing the work, and NGO's for integration, and oversight.
Here is a link to some of my thoughts regarding this :

homelesseus said...

When has nation building ever produced anything but politically-challenged offspring? The idea that nation-building has a right and wrong way is a deeply flawed meme that grips foreign policy wonks regardless of political party. What an arrogant POV. Nation-crushing is what we do best. In order to embrace the ideology of nation-building, you'd have to ignore nearly 90 percent of the reality (pick your own number). It hasn't been done and it won't be. Getting suckered by the "problems" and their possible solutions is truly missing the forest for a few trees--which I've been accused of doing. No amount of analysis is going to reveal how to turn seawater into gold, and it's the same for nation-building. Forget you are Americans for five seconds. Were someone to suddenly parachute into Boston, regardless of how oppressive the Massachusetts regime had become, ostensibly to "show me the light of modernity", to "give the gift of universal rights", and to "liberate" me, I might give them a chance. But after 8 years, I'd be bombing them for my daughter and son's sake, and my son for his, etc. It's too obvious to even talk about. Get out of the cave and forget about the shadows!

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