Friday, December 4, 2009

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 can and a few willing children. The skills in play are stealth and speed. Like “Hide & Seek,” all but one of the players hides; and then they are sought by the solitary hunter. A caught player must be escorted to “jail” and remain in the detention until all players are captured or a free player breaks from cover and “kicks the can” before being caught himself.

Few kids win this game often, because, as the number of players increases, the odds that one will prevail against many, decreases. The hunter has two handicaps other than numbers; he doesn’t know the location of the other kids and they get to choose when to race for home. The farther a hunter strays from home base, the more vulnerable he becomes. 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 such 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 of the game. In Afghanistan, declaring an arbitrary time limit, not only telegraphs your moves, but does nothing save ratchet up the pressure on the home team. If we can set aside for a moment all the campaign 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 get to control is the number of players by fiat either. The arbitrary designation of just one leader (Osama bin Laden) and a single terrorist organization (al Qaeda) as the “core” of the problem ignores a much 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 of the threat equation 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 Arab state that was a menace to its corrupt theocratic Arab neighbors. Now Iraq is a corrupt Shiite state that in all likelihood will pursue a sectarian alliance with Iran. The truth about Afghanistan is that it is a tribal, if not feudal, mélange besieged by naïve Western apologists. The truth about Pakistan is that it is a corrupt janissary that might be one bullet away from theocracy. The truth about Iran is that it is already the world’s first and largest Shiite theocracy; a so-called Islamic “republic.” We might add that Tehran makes no secret of its quest for the bomb and makes no secret of how they might use it. The truth of all of this is that the threat is not a specific terrorist or a specific terror group; and surely the threat is not a specific Muslim country or a specific state sponsor.

The malignant bloom of jihad and theocracy within Islam world wide is the true threat. This menace is not simply demographic; it is also political. Theocracy is the goal of Islamists of every stripe; to replace secular law with a religious monoculture. And the final and most worrisome truth is the inability or unwillingness of national security specialists, in general, and President Obama, in particular, to recognize any of this.

Tehran is yet another example in the Muslim 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. True pluralism and diversity in the world today might be measured by the numbers of illusions we harbor about those who would make our worst nightmares come true.

Our new strategy announced on 1 December by the President at West Point has two 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, we aspire 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. Our tactics are different; we plan to conquer Islamist fanatics with kindness - moderate on moderate.

As we try to walk the middle way, play the “moderate” game, we should be mindful of what everyone’s favorite moderate over in Istanbul said recently on the subject. Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the adjective “moderate” was an insult to the faith. “Islam is Islam and that’s it;” according to our NATO ally, the Turkish Prime Minister. We must commend Erdogan for his candor and doctrinal consistency. Apparently, being moderately Islamic is a little like being moderately pregnant.

The second component of the 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. We insist that those who say it do not mean it or those who mean it can’t be taken seriously. Yes, they speak about Islam, but the do not speak for Islam; so goes the mantra. The quest for Sharia and Kalifa is dismissed as the fantasies of a Muslim fringe.

Criticizing the general outlines of the West Point strategy is necessary but not sufficient. The specifics of a modest reinforcement, constrained by an 18 month timeline, also deserve some scrutiny. No markers were set in the West Point plan; but military operations analysts have been looking at such campaigns, including Afghanistan, for decades. Military Operations Research (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 of OR have been applied to Afghanistan or similar contingencies; force to force comparisons, force to population models, and most recently, strategy to strategy comparisons. All three reach similar conclusions; force allocations are too small and the strategy will not work in any case. The conclusion of just one of these analyses from the RAND Review speaks for all three.
This analysis concluded that some combination of 500,000 troops or police might be required in Afghanistan alone, not for victory, just for stability. Or in the words of the 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”.

This is the polite way 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. For a government contractor, this kind of candor is rare, indeed. 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 also delusional. The majority of recruits would have to come from the Pashtun tribes and these folks haven’t given up much since Roxanne married Alexander.

In short, General McChrystal probably underestimated the theater problem to begin with - and President Obama certainly didn’t give him what he asked for anyway. We have to assume that the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom, and the White House are aware of the available studies and have chosen to ignore their conclusions and press their luck in the tribal mountains of Afghanistan anyway. Ironically, a previous attempt to control this area was called “the great game”.

As in “Kick the Can,” numbers matter and we appear to be playing a fool’s game; the allied expeditionary force has little or no edge in South Asia. Short of a catastrophe, in 18 months, we will still be asking “what is to be done?” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we may still be playing “Kick the Can” with the larger problem in the Muslim world.


This essay apeared on American Thinker 8 Dec 09. Author also blogs on Jenkins Hill.

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