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A Roadmap to Folly in Afghanistan

The Arrogance of Ignorance

by FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY

Nisos Kos, Greece.

A report by Jonathan Landay and Dion Nissenbaum for McClatchy Newspapers provides important insights into our rapidly diminishing prospects for success in Afghanistan, some direct, others inferential:

First, the direct: the Qandahar operation that General McChrystal began trumpeting in late February is clearly going wobbly before it begins. The promise to demonstrate progress (i.e., to see light at the end of the tunnel) in Afghanistan by this summer is being bow-waved at least into the Fall, during the height of mid-term election season. The scope of the looming operation is also being scaled back, and its goals are being redefined in more ambiguous terms.

The Qandahar offensive always strained credulity: According to Landay’s sources in the Pentagon, the original concept assumed 20,000 troops could pacify the urban/rural region with 800,000 inhabitants. This level of effort always appeared grossly insufficient, especially when compared to recent Marjah offensive, which used 10,000 troops for an operation aimed at pacifying a rural region with one-tenth as many inhabitants. And the success of the Marjah operation to date has been problematic, to put it charitably. McChrystal can not rely on the Afghan forces to protect the Marjah “ink spot,” so he still needs the presence of Marines to pacify the region, which means less troops for spreading that ink spot of security to Qandahar. Moreover, a key component of McChrystal’s strategy — the so-called ‘government in a box’ that McChrystal bragged he would put into place in Marjah — has turned out to be a sham that has proven unable to protect the people. Given (1) that Qandahar is second largest city and the only major city in Afghanistan with an overwhelming Pashtun majority, (2) the fact that Qandahar is the spiritual home of the Taliban, and (3) the fact that the local ruler is the unmanageable, obscenely corrupt half brother of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, the task of permanently cleansing Qandahar of the Taliban on a permanent basis will be far more difficult than failed effort to clean out Marjah. Even if one were to assume that our counter insurgency strategy is a blueprint for success, achieving this object with confidence would require far more troops. But those troops are not available, and the probability of General McChrystal successfully squeezing the President again for another “surge” of reinforcing troops is close to nil.

More important in my opinion, however, is the information that can be teased out of the McClatchy report. This is embodied in the mindset revealed by the words General McChrystal used to explain his strategy: "It’s important that we engage the population so that we shape the leaders, the natural leaders, the elders, political and economic leaders so that their participation helps shape how we go forward," [emphasis added]. This statement reveals why our current strategy is a roadmap to folly.

Landay et al did not say much about this comment, except to say that our forces have “made little headway in building a foundation for a respected local government capable of winning the confidence of the nearly 1 million Afghans who live in and around Kandahar,” a point expanded on in greater detail by Patrick Cockburn in an excellent report in today’s edition of CounterPunch. McChrystal’s verbiage is not casual milspeak — the idea of “shaping” is deeply rooted in the US military mindset and derives from the doctrinal concept of shaping a battlefield prior to doing battle. In this case, however, the ‘shaping’ has been mutated into a cultural imperative, which is a far more subtle thing. The statement assumes we can “shape” the outlook and behaviour governing the minds of the natural leaders of the Pashtuns, or more precisely, that we can manipulate the all important Orientation function in the Observation – Orientation – Decision – Action or OODA loops of the traditional leaders.[1]

Just who are these leaders?

For starters, they are the leaders of the most xenophobic, historically-minded, proud tribal cultures in the world. McChrystal’s theory of shaping the OODA loops of these “natural” leaders reveals a contemptuous sense of superiority that is not just arrogant but also appallingly ignorant of the culture it assumes it can manipulate.

In the Pashtun culture, leaders at all levels (sub clan, clan, tribe, and tribal group) are not picked by primogenitor or god, they emerge out of an arduous process of consensus building among the members of the group. Leaders rise naturally, by consent, like cream in milk, based on demonstrated wisdom, bravery, and especially, the strength of their personal character, which is always ascertained in accordance with the Pashtun moral code, known as Pashtunwali. They have reached their position by demonstrating their worthiness to lead by adhering to and exemplifying the values of this code, which just happens to be one of the strictest and most demanding tribal codes of personal honor ever to have evolved. They are not easily manipulated, especially by outsiders.

When Pashtuns are left to themselves, the code of Pashtunwali is strong enough to limit the internecine quarrelsome behaviour of the members of the largest tribal vendetta culture remaining in the world. Being a vendetta culture means that Pashtuns have long memories, that affronts to honor are of paramount importance and must be avenged. Pashtuns also have a tradition of hospitality and sanctuary. Yet, they are united by hatred of foreign invaders and they often put aside internecine fighting and vendettas to expel invaders. And they are extraordinarily proud of their ability to expel invaders, which they have done with considerable success over the last 2,300 years. Pashtuns may have a wild and woolly culture from our perspective, but it would be a mistake to think of it as primitive or lacking a coherent moral center; it is highly evolved value system, well-tuned to the harsh conditions of the natural Afghan environment. It is also a culture that is very alien to the western European and American traditions, and therefore difficult for outsiders to comprehend.

It is the leadership of this culture that McChrystal and his fellow COIN travelers think they can turn into puppets

That the leaders in the United States military believe they can construct a successful strategy based on the premise that outsiders like themselves will be able to manipulate Pashtun leaders like puppets descends into transparent absurdity, when one juxaposes McChrystal’s ambition to the fact, well known among Pashtuns if not Americans, that the United States has contributed directly or indirectly to the murderous horror that has been Afghanistan since 1979.

The American complicity in this horror goes back at least to 1979, when the US National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, established the policy of inflaming Islamic fundamentalists (via the CIA) to destabilize Afghanistan in the hope that the threat of fundamentalist instability on Soviet Union’s vulnerable Central Asian flank would induce the Soviets to invade Afghanistan. Brzezinski’s aim was seduce the Soviets into entrapping themselves in their own Vietnam-like quagmire. The plan worked like a charm, as Brzezinski proudly admitted in a still little appreciated interview in the influential Parisian news magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur (15-21 January 1998, translation here). When asked if he had any regrets, Brzesinski dismissed the question in a tone that dripped with condescension, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?” [see the last two paragraphs of the interview]

Now, ten years and a lot of stirring later, the details of the script may have changed, but the arrogance of the ignorance shaping the outlook of our leaders has not. That is why we now have an Army General concocting a “shaping” strategy based on the assumption that the American military can manipulate the behavior of millions of stirred up Afghans like puppets.

Don’t count on it.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

Note.

[1] For readers unfamiliar with the theory of the OODA LOOP and its inventor, the American strategist Colonel John Boyd: A brief introduction can be found in my essay Genghis John. More comprehensive but accessible descriptions can be found in the books by Robert Coram and James Fallows, and Chet Richards, among many others. For those readers who are interested in heavy intellectually lifting, see Franz Ozinga’s analysis of Boyd’s strategic thought or even better, they could study Boyd’s original presentations, which can be downloaded from the folder labeled “Boyd Briefs” in my Public Folder.

 

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