Guest Post by Michael Cohen: The Trouble with Counter-Insurgency

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afgan.soldier.jpg
(Photo Credit: Army.mil’s photosream)
Michael Cohen co-directs the New America Foundation/Privatization of Foreign Policy Initiative.
As I’ve written before, I’m not much of a fan of counter-insurgency doctrine and two events over the past several days lend compelling evidence as to why. Quite simply, it’s the politics, stupid.
First comes word from Baghdad of an outbreak of fighting between US-supported Sunni “Awakening” fighters and the Iraqi government. According to Brian Katulis, “This weekend’s incident was the first crack in a shaky foundation constructed by the 2007 surge of U.S. troops–a foundation that largely glossed over long-standing political rivalries.” This is not meant to criticize the “surge” but simply it is a recognition that for a counter-insurgency effort to succeed it requires not only a significant number of troops, it needs a long-standing time commitment to ensure that this type of violence doesn’t turn into a larger conflict. And it also relies on genuine political reconciliation, which can of course take generations.
Next we have President Obama’s recent announcement of his Administration’s new policy for Afghanistan, which Fred Kaplan calls “CT-plus.” The focus on counter-terrorism versus the broad counter-insurgency strategy advocated by the so-called COIN-dinastas is as Kaplan argues a reflection that following the latter course “could require too many troops, too much money, and way too much time–more of all three than the United States and NATO could muster–and that the insurgents might still win anyway. Better to focus U.S. efforts more narrowly on simply fighting the insurgents themselves, especially in the border areas with Pakistan.”
Now I could offer you plenty of reasons why I think a counter-insurgency doctrine is a bad idea; it doesn’t fit with the comparative advantage of the US military; its not applicable to the threats America will face in the future; its an example of fighting the last war and as Andrew Bacevich brilliantly and pithily puts it, “If counterinsurgency is useful chiefly for digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in, then why not simply avoid the holes? Why play al-Qaeda’s game? Why persist in waging the Long War when that war makes no sense?”
But let me offer another reason why counter-insurgency is the wrong approach; and its one borne out by the experience in Iraq and now Afghanistan – there is simply no domestic political support for the sort of long-standing political, military and financial commitments that are required for counter-insurgency to succeed. There wasn’t that type of commitment in 2003 (and I’ll get to that issue in a second) but after 7 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is absolutely no desire among policymakers to go down this road today.

One of the architects of the military’s COIN strategy in Iraq, David Kilcullen
, argues that counter-insurgency in Afghanistan means a five to ten year commitment aimed at “building a resilient Afghan state and civil society” and extending “an effective, legitimate government presence into Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages.” That is the sort of commitment that very few US politicians are going to be willing to countenance. So not only are the COIN-dinastas preparing for war that we are unlikely to face, but they are preparing for one that the country is unlikely to be willing to fight.
It’s worth remembering that the adoption of COIN strategy in Iraq was not a willful choice by US policymakers; it was a move of desperation by an Administration and a military caught flat-footed by a vibrant insurgency in Iraq. Indeed, it is worth also remembering that the Bush Administration assiduously avoided any discussion of a long commitment to Iraq and aggressively pushed back on anyone who asserted that more not less troops would be needed to pacify the country. The reason was clear: the American people and Congress would never have gone along with such a commitment.
Counter-insurgency only made sense as a strategy once, to paraphrase Bacevich, we had dug a very big hole in Iraq. And as we are seeing in Iraq right now, the surge has been only temporarily effective. We are still in that hole and even with the outbreak in violence one is hard pressed to find any US political leaders calling for more troops to be sent to Iraq. What happens in Iraq, going forward, will be determined by Iraqis, which by the way is the other flaw in COIN strategy – it presupposes a sovereign government is willing to go along with the long-term stationing of US troops in their country. Even if US troops wanted to stay in Iraq, the Iraqi government is not going to go along . . no matter what Tom Ricks says. (This is not to mention the fact that it’s hard to see why it is in the national interest for the US to get in the middle of a civil war between rival Iraqi militias).
With that in mind, it should hardly be surprising that the Obama Administration rejected the COIN approach. And while there are elements of counter-insurgency strategy in the President’s Afghanistan plan this is primarily a counter-terrorism effort. Let’s put it this way, if Afghan security services are up to speed in two years and Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been sufficiently degraded the United States will not be sticking around to make sure Afghanistan’s democracy is vibrant and robust. We’re just going to go home. If you don’t believe me; ask the Iraqis.
The choice made by President Obama represents the fundamental flaw being made by COIN-advocates. It’s a fundamental flaw made also by supporters of bank nationalization; or those who would push for a single-payer health bill – a failure to reflect domestic political constraints. If the Obama Administration can’t convince the American people to go along with a broad counter-insurgency strategy (and won’t even try) in a country where we already have troops and where the 9/11 attacks were hatched what makes people think that this or any other Administration will be able to convince Americans that they should go along with a COIN-strategy in a country we haven’t even invaded and occupied yet? And a military strategy that has no relation to domestic politics isn’t going to be of much use.
Now I realize my example is sort of a straw man, but then not really.
The fact is, COIN-strategy is presupposed on the notion that the US will be getting into intractable conflicts that will necessitate the same sort of tactics used in Iraq over the past 5 years. As an observer of the American political scene, something tells me that simply ain’t going to happen.
What has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past week is only further evidence that COIN is simply not a realistic or easily applicable military doctrine.
— Michael Cohen

Comments

28 comments on “Guest Post by Michael Cohen: The Trouble with Counter-Insurgency

  1. ... says:

    thanks franklin.. i am interested in some sort of dialogue and what you and anyone else has to say.. my comments are meant to shock some into seeing things differently… i am sure they appear offensive to some..
    here is a quote from dan kervick on a thread from yesterday that i think addresses some of the content of your post. “This feeling for the necessity of controlling our economic destiny, and governing commercial behavior, is something that has been lost during the global ascendancy of the American system, with its extremist zeal for the unfettered private economy and its reckless hatred of government.”
    getting out in front of what has been an erosion of the political system in favour of an unregulated economic system that has been slagging gov’t is very necessary at this point… i have faith in the younger generations ability to alter the course of rampant capitalism/consumerism in exchange for something more sustainable… what else have we?
    i will take a look at the link you provided on james madison..

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  2. Franklin says:

    Anonymous, this turned into a constructive dialogue after all. On some of these issues I think we can agree to disagree; on a few we have found common ground.
    What you said about ambition too in your earlier comment reminds me of a quote from one of the leading political leaders from 200 years ago.
    Part of the challenge today is that there is no overriding political authority that checks abuses between people and nations.
    Within the U.S.’s own borders we have a system of checks against ambition; outside the U.S.’s borders the main check is an arbitrary one based on a combination of economic power and the military and economic power of other nations.
    James Madison, the American politician, talks about this in reference to our government. His ideas also have relevance to actions between governments.
    “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. . . .
    This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other — that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.”
    His reasoning is complicated, but worth reading if you find the time.
    http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa51.htm

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  3. ... says:

    franklin – i like what you have articulated in your last post and agree with most of your comments in it…
    i feel strongly many americans are unaware of the pain and suffering their military’s presence in others countries brings to those people.. i believe ulterior motives for being in afganistan like the ulterior motives for having gone to war in iraq are a much bigger factor in why the usa is making the decisions it does… i think the usa has no business being in these countries.. i think the usa is very wrong to be 100% supportive of israel in the israel/palestine dynamic as well, but it is.. these are issues that i feel strongly about..
    i personally believe most americans are unaware of the suffering their political views help support.. if they were more sensitive to the pain and suffering they are promulgating in these parts of the world they might turn away from war and e less willing to continue in the path of war expansion they have been on for the past 60 odd years..
    the build up of the military industrial complex that i talk about regularly is a direct result of americans apathy… the usa is a bully and i have never respected bullies..

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  4. Franklin says:

    Well, Anonymous, I think we can at least agree on a few statements:
    “many of the worlds problems are connected directly to the build up of war and products for war”
    Yes.
    “one could say greed and a lust for power are something many people share in”
    Yes.
    “but it is more honest to see something for what it is – a power grab – then as some altruistic act on the part of the usa”
    No nation, or person acts on the basis of altruism. Every nation, and everyone pursues its self interest.
    That doesn’t mean that the U.S. or most of its citizen actively wish any nation or any people harm.
    In a case like the Peace Corp. no nation has ever been invaded by the U.S. because farmers who learned new techniques or kids who learned math said “thanks for the new skills, now f-ck off!”
    For people who volunteer for the program they sacrifice their health and security. No one gets rich working in the Peace Corp. – and in many cases those who volunteer have college degrees and could make money doing something else. They volunteer out of a sense of obligation to public service – not just to country, but to others.
    As far as the statement about the personal jihad “according to some the enemy is always out there, never right here in the person incapable of reflecting on oneself” — the actions of the military industrial complex, and Al Qaeda should be viewed as irrelevant in both cases.
    In practical terms very few people live that statement. Almost by definition – no one who concerns themselves with politics, geo-politics, or actions in the world – can live that statement.
    Self-reflection does offer the potential of insight into other’s actions, but we also have to live in the world; in politics especially it is necessary to exercise judgment about matters where we don’t always have the benefit of a God’s eye view on events. A person does the best they can with the information that they have available.

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  5. ... says:

    tony, you epitomize what i’m talking about with an arrogant and cavalier attitude that is fully supportive of the expansion of the military industrial complex in any country, other then your own of course…

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  6. TonyForesta says:

    No here is justifying America’s many ills. Most American do NOT support “a military complex that promote killing and murdering of others.” In fact if you review most of the commentarians here, including our humble host, there is strong resistance to the “untoward influence the military industrial complex”, and profiteers wanton profiteering from warmaking. That said, most Americans and I personally fully support “a military complex that promotes killing and murdering” every single jihadist on earth. I differentiate other elements of islam from jihadis. Any who practices or prosyelitizes, or supports, or apologizes for or defends any jihadi freak is an enemy, and fair game. Islam, all muslims must reject jihad, or suffer the fiery consequences, and hopefully those fiery consequences will involve the US military complex killing and murdering every single jihadi on earth.

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  7. ... says:

    as always there are many ways to look at something… those americans who are unable to visualize themselves in others position while always thinking of themselves as the great liberators for the rest of the globe, doing so much good, they need a wake up call (or to exercise some self reflection as i mentioned previously)… franklin and tony foresta definitely fall in this later category…
    as for the peace corp involvement in afgan prior to 1978 “Kennedy (who signed the executive order that initiated the peace corps) saw the Peace Corps as a means of countering the notions of the “Ugly American” and “Yankee imperialism,” especially in the emerging nations of post-colonial Africa and Asia.” i think it was helpful, while depending on your view of the motive as outlined above, remains open to how moral or ethical it was..
    as for the soviet engineered coup in 1979.. “Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski
    Le Nouvel Observateur (France)
    Jan 15-21, 1998, p. 76*
    Q: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs
    [“From the Shadows”], that American intelligence services began to aid
    the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan 6 months before the Soviet intervention.
    In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter.
    You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?
    Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to
    the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army
    invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until
    now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President
    Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of The
    pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the
    president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was
    going to induce a Soviet military intervention.
    Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But
    perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to
    provoke it?
    B: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we
    knowingly increased the probability that they would.”
    what was moral or ethical about those motives? all the altruistic bullshit from americans who fund a military complex that promote killing and murdering of others – see the image at top of this thread- need to be aware of what there tax $ are doing and how it is destroying the image of the usa abroad..
    franklin i am unwilling to address all the falsehoods in the rest of your post, but i would like to address the one that i have never said and which you suggest of me “Yet all of the world’s evil comes from the U.S.’s military industrial complex?” many of the worlds problems come are connected directly to the build up of war and products for war.. one could say greed and a lust for power are something many people share in, but it is more honest to see something for what it is – a power grab – then as some altruistic act on the part of the usa… the reality couldn’t be further from that… as to the self reflection in the statement i have quoted you as implying of me, indeed their is neither much self reflection, or honesty in your ascribing that statement to me, but then i wasn’t expecting too much else from you at this point…

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  8. Franklin says:

    Anon: 2:11 AM,
    Speaking of the “evil” the U.S. has perpetuated in Afghanistan — let’s review history.
    — Since WWII until the 1973 coup.
    American Peace Corp volunteers from the U.S. assist local Afghan villages in farming, water projects, and with education. Some American tourists — mostly hippies — travel to the country to broaden their view of the world.
    Explain to me — how is this “immoral”?
    The Soviet Union engineered a coup in ’73 and the Soviet Union INVADED Afghanistan in 1979.
    The U.S. provided military support through Pakistan to indigenous fighters against the Soviet Union and its hand-picked dictator.
    The U.S. provided asylum to tens of thousands of refugees during the period of war.
    Explain to me — how is this immoral?
    The Soviet Union withdraws — the U.S. also pulls out of Afghanistan.
    At this stage the Pakistani ISI helps the Taliban assume control over two-thirds of the country.
    During that period the Taliban also hosts foreign fighters who help fight against rival groups in the north of the country.
    For the better part of a decade, in which the U.S. provided no military assistance to Pakistan or Afghanistan, foreign fighters launch attacks against overseas American civilian and military targets; finally the group attacks civilians on U.S. soil on 9/11.
    The U.S. responds by attacking the Taliban and Al Qaeda itself.
    You also say:
    “according to some the enemy is always out there, never right here in the person incapable of reflecting on oneself..”
    Yet all of the world’s evil comes from the U.S.’s military industrial complex?
    Where is the self-reflection in that statement?

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  9. ... says:

    tony – there are many great and well meaning americans who would like to see the usa on a different path then it’s been on with regard to foreign policy for a long time.. unfortunately their view is not in the ascendancy and the usa has gone into the ditch bigtime.. the usa at present is run by people who naively think short term and in very narrow terms, and usually to cover their own ass financially or politically.. according to you this is all about jihad.. instead of seeing how this view is your way of justifying a continued support for military expansion with the murder and death that always follows in its trail, you choose to only see what has to be gotten rid of…perhaps you would like to consider that the military expansion your country was involved in with regard to afgan back in the 80’s was responsible for much of what you are railing against at present – the jihads… that would require a level of honesty and responsibility that you appear unable to provide..
    the recent bubble in the financial markets is an example of expansion based on dishonesty.. i see the expansion of the us military in afganastan, iraq and the middle east generally as more of the same dishonesty that is bound to have a negative and detrimental effect on the usa.. it won’t stop opposition towards the usa’s war machine, but only help create more of it.. instead of ending terrorism, it is bound to make it to the usa with continued military actions like these.. in effect i hate the direction the usa has gone in the past 50-60 years, but continue to hope for the better… however it needs to change the path it is on and obama for all the promise is showing himself to be different in style but the same in substance..
    continue to constantly blather on 24/7 about jihad, but try to acknowledge your continued support for expansion of the usa’s war machine is responsible for killing and murdering others in faraway lands… at some point you need to take responsibility for the death of innocent people along with whatever ‘suspected’ jihads you think have been murdered/killed… that’s the deceit i’d like both you and franklin to consider.. i’m not sure either of you are responsible or mature enough to reflect or consider this…
    according to some the enemy is always out there, never right here in the person incapable of reflecting on oneself.. good luck with that view tony..

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  10. TonyForesta says:

    I know you hate America whomeveryouare, but the sad reality is that America is both the worlds hypersuperior military and the global economic superpower. These vectors may be changing, and moving in negative directions for America, – but today at this hour America is the worlds hyperpower. You make some valid point regarding how far America has fallen, and how much we have compromised our principles in the last eight year particularly, – but over time in general. I share much of your dismay and displeasure at the conduct of the American government. But compared to the perverts, and malignant freaks in jihadist islam America is a shining star, and sexually repressed perverts and freaks a lump of dung. Name one positive contribution islam has given the community of a nations or humanity in the last century. Name one! For all our many warts, and they are legend, – America is also an engine of innovation, invention, technological acheivement, evolution, and excellence. What does islam offer to the world but division, butchery, hate, and martyrs. Jihadist are the most freakish and worthless element of islam. These malignant perverts even kill their fellow muslims without restraint. So given the choice between the lesser of two evils, America is a saint compared to the shaitans in jihadist islam. Pretending you have some moral highground is an absurd joke. Jihadists are malignant perverted freaks and every single one of them must be mercilessly hunted down, capture, or preferably killed.
    For the sake of civilized humanity, and the evolution of humanity as a viable species every single jihadi must be burnt from the face of the earth. Freaks!!

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  11. ... says:

    franklin keep on repeating yourself accusing i or others of reductive intellectually lazy positions.. that is how i view your apologies for the usa’s preoccupation with making war around the globe.. finding others to blame is a sure way to ignore looking the bullshit your country has fostered.. the usa is not the only one guilty, it just happens to be the biggest and most corrupt, with iraq being small potatoes in comparison. when it comes to talking out of one side it’s mouth while acting in direct opposition to it’s stated high ideals and goals, the usa is a master at hypocrisy… the usa is full of shit for the most part…
    lets get down to this: you appear to think it is a great idea to extend the usa’s military presence in afganistan, with an ongoing presence in iraq…perhaps you feel it is necessary to be in the area of pakistan for or for the bigger purpose of preparation for war in iran which you are probably okay as well given your lousy justifications you have shared here previously… while back at the ranch in corporate usa, folks at places like lockheed martin and the various other military contractors can keep working as it is such meaningful highly valued work they do providing smart bombs, cluster bombs, and all the rest of ingredients to war that help make americans sleep easy… much better to spend the money in such productive ways as that, then to consider the plight of your own homeless that continues to grow in tent communities around the various parts of the usa that don’t get to feed off this same trough…
    your position is one of moral bankruptcy as i see it… keep on supporting the military industrial complex and watch the usa continue to spiral downward.. the usa is a lemon at present.. the business of making lemonade isn’t as lucrative as pedaling war merchandise, and of course your military machine demands that it be fed regularly, like the drug addict it is for war and money for more war… what a sick culture the usa has become..

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  12. Franklin says:

    Anon 11:39 PM
    Were the U.S.’s actions against the rest of the world since Vietnam morally justified?
    Simply put: that’s a pretty sweeping generalization.
    Are efforts through the Peace Corp. immoral?
    Was the U.S. intervention during the Kosovo conflict immoral?
    Was the joint U.N. intervention into Somalia in 1992 and 1993 based on an immoral stance and ill-will?
    Was the U.S. involvement in Iraq in 1991 immoral?
    If so, why is the U.S. exclusively responsible for an action that involved multi-lateral involvement.
    Even the sanctions, which entailed multi-lateral support, and which could never have been enacted without wide spread suppport — why should only one country be singled out?
    Why does the Iraqi leadership avoid responsibility in your “analysis”?
    If other nations wanted to circumvent sanctions — and many did simply capitalizing on the oil for food program, rather than providing aid to civilians — is the U.S. responsible?
    Was the U.S. support of Eastern European states during the Cold War immoral?
    If so, why does the U.S. maintain a fairly high reputation in Eastern Europe?
    And on and on.
    Yes, the U.S. has engaged in actions with the ill-justified intentions.
    The U.S. has also been involved in well-intentioned actions that have resulted in suffering.
    The U.S. has also been involved in well-intentioned actions that were both moral, and which advanced human rights and reduced suffering around the globe.
    The U.S. does not act in a vacuum.
    It is not the sole agent of action in the world.
    My main issue with your post isn’t that what you say is completely untrue — it’s that you’re dealing in half-truths and reductive logic.
    In the period since Vietnam has the U.S. been responsible for the majority of the world suffering?
    Regardless of how you measure it — in lives, material suffering, poverty, no, absolutely not.
    Is the U.S. the only nation that engages in war-fare and supports war?
    Is it even close to the only nation that exclusively supports violent actions?
    No.
    To suggest as much is incredibly reductive and intellectually lazy.
    The U.S. has not had a hand in promoting genocide in Africa — other countries bear greater responsibility — as do the principles themselves within those countries.
    More people have died in the 1990s-2000s genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. Those conflicts alone than have resulted in more civilian deaths than in any direct military confrontation by the U.S. during the same time period.
    Yet you seem unperturbed by those other actions and single out the U.S. as the world’s greatest evil.
    That’s just bizarre. Intellectually too it’s incredibly lazy.
    Your excuses and diversions obscure reality.
    In cases where the U.S. has done wrong, I have no problem stating as much. In cases where the U.S. has done right, I have no problem stating as much. In cases where the U.S. is blamed for the action of other principle actors, I qualify my judgment as the matter dictates.
    In your own assessment you make no acknowledgment of any positive contributions that the U.S. has made towards the advancement of human rights.
    It’s not that there aren’t any, it’s simply that you won’t acknowledge the other side of the coin.
    That in itself is telling.
    In your own assessment you do not acknowledge pain and suffering that have been caused by global actors who are not under the U.S. direct influence. That is also telling.
    Your own excuses and diversions — your own lies by omission — are not helping.

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  13. ... says:

    franklin
    Were usa’s actions against the rest of the world since vietnam morally justified?
    Simply put: No.
    Did the usa provide rationalizations for its violence?
    Sure they did.
    i’m willing to wager not a single american who has been involved in all the murder, killing and mayhem they have wrought on others in faraway lands didn’t have a friend or family member murdered directly.. regardless, your logic and rationale for supporting a war machine is very weak…
    franklin quote “As far as being the “world’s military supplier” show me some hard credible evidence on sales. What is the total volume of arms sold amongst all countries in material and dollars?”
    i never said the worlds only military supplier, but it is known that the usa is spending much more on it’s military industrial complex by far then the closest competitor – china – which devotes much less financially to this same end… what does that say about the pathetic level the usa has dropped to morally and ethically? to me it says a lot, especially when you have a dumbed down american public thinking it is all okay… the war in iraq and the general ignorance on the part of an ordinary american was and continues to be appalling…
    your excuses and diversions are not helping anything either.. go ahead and address other issues all you want… the usa is front and center is all the military build up that continues to go on globally as it tries to hang onto its once glorious position with less glorious means – specifically its penchant for war and more war at present… be an apologist all you want, but you aren’t doing your own country any good in the short and long run… the usa is toast… it will probably take the next 50 years for many folks like yourself to see it though, as you continue to apologize for the usa’s present and past military exercises around the globe… murder more innocent people and continue to destroy whatever reputation you might have had as a country a very long time ago…

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  14. Franklin says:

    Anon 2:29 PM
    Were Al Qaeda’s actions against the U.S. on 9/11 morally justified?
    Simply put: No.
    Did Al Qaeda provide rationalizations for its violence?
    Sure they did.
    I’m willing to wager that not a single one of the 9/11 terrorist had a friend or family member who was murdered directly by a single person that they killed on 9/11.
    Most of the guys saw kids dying in Iraq and Palestine on Al Jazerra and blamed the U.S. for it.
    They were frustrated with their inability to enact change on the home front; they were failures at enacting positive change in Afghanistan; so they lashed out at the U.S. Of course there are always reasons, but my sense is that the real reason isn’t some kind of moral question — it’s simply a question of power.
    The U.S. is viewed as the top Alpha Dog; and the marginal players want to be that Dog. It’s the same deal with baboons. That’s what this comes down to.
    One difference is that the U.S. withholds a large portion of its military capacity.
    We could “solve” some of the complexity in the Middle East pretty easily without proxies; without exposing our soldiers to harm; and for a lot less money. Yet we refrain from using the capacity, because the U.S. doesn’t practice collective punishment as a matter of state policy. In time maybe that attitude will change.
    As far as being the “world’s military supplier” show me some hard credible evidence on sales. What is the total volume of arms sold amongst all countries in material and dollars?
    The U.S. wasn’t providing the military capacity for the Rwandan genocide; or the Darfur genocide; or the Bosnia genocide. The perpetrators weren’t using M-16s or F-4s; F-15s; F-16s; or even American made machetes.
    The world is a complicated place — and no one person, or one nation pulls all the strings.

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  15. ... says:

    it is hard for many to get out of the tit for tat approach towards relations with others… it is especially hard when you have a military industrial complex which is designed to take advantage of these very things…
    9-11 was done to the usa… was anything done by the usa to precipitate it? apparently some folks think these things happen in a vacuum…
    keep up with the tit for tat killing and murdering innocent people in faraway lands, support your m.i.c. and expect more and more of the same… is that really what you want???
    first it was the war on communism… then it was the war on drugs… now it is the war on terrorism… the usa at war perpetually… whose interest does it serve? this is an observation grounded in reality… it doesn’t serve anyones interests other then those who want war, or want to support the merchants of war… use any excuse or lipstick you want to make it appear more digestible – that is what you folks are supporting…

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  16. Franklin says:

    Don,
    In response to an attack such as the one on 9/11 what do you believe is an appropriate response that will eliminate the prospect of future attacks?
    In the case of Vietnam our involvement wasn’t based on an attack on the American homeland. We also didn’t have a multi-national commitment — including the support of Vietnam’s neighbors (implicit and explicit) — the odds were not only long, but the cause was based on a flawed premise (e.g. the Domino Theory).
    As far as Michael Cohen’s point goes about politics too — what does he believe the alternatives are in reference to Afghanistan?
    My sense is that the 9/11 attacks created conditions in which it would have been politically untenable not to respond militarily — especially once we determined that a foreign based organization had helped facilitate training and planning involved with the attack.
    There are political risks involved with withdrawing if a person believes there is a reasonable probability that future attack will be launched from the same area; there are also concerns about Pakistan’s stability in relation to Afghanistan. Neither of these questions can be ignored. It’s fair to say that COIN won’t work, but what are the alternatives that are more likely to yield a favorable outcome?

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  17. ... says:

    tony foresta quote “Intelligence and police operations”… tony, packaging your military industrial complex in any other way then the mass murderers they are is not something those foreigners are going to buy… i don’t buy it either… you have an excuse for your own home made terrorists, but want to go after the so called ‘terrorists’ in other countries.. i say bullshit…

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  18. JohnH says:

    This is one of the more thoughtful posts I seen here in the last few years. Congratulations!
    US policymakers should pause and reflect on why there is so little domestic support. And why in Europe there is even less. NATO troops, with the exception of the US and UK, are keeping their combat profiles very low because there is simply no fierce urgency of now.
    If the US had a truly compelling reason for doing whatever we’re supposed to be doing in Afghanistan, it would not be hard to drum up support a la Iraq 1991.
    The fact is that Western civilization faces no existential threat from Afghanistan. It is an occupation of choice, an expensive, colonialist venture now being taken during US bankruptcy. Worse, it is being underwritten by our great rival China, who one day may be forced to make the US into a protectorate to save its investments. The whole venture is a total farce.
    Megalomania has never been a popular feature in the US body politic. It’s time for the craven leaders in Washington, starting with Obama, to renounce their megalomaniac tendencies and become a constructive force.

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  19. jhm says:

    “[C]ounter-insurgency in Afghanistan means a five to ten year
    commitment aimed at “building a resilient Afghan state and civil
    society” and extending “an effective, legitimate government
    presence into Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages.” That is the sort of
    commitment that very few US politicians are going to be willing
    to countenance.”
    I would say (and paraphrase many commenters above) that a
    “resilient” government cannot form while an occupying power
    had not yet left. It might be possible, as in Japan, where a
    strong national identity and central authority are extant, but it
    could be argued that this runs counter to the definition of an
    occupation. In essence, most legitimate government formation
    would either be outside the control of the occupier, and
    therefore highly likely to be considered “insurgent;” or they
    could be under the umbrella of the occupier, ergo likely to be
    suspect in the eyes of the population, i.e., illegitimate.

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  20. TonyForesta says:

    The bushgov conjured the neverendingwaronterror with the single intention and goal of wanton profiteering on warmaking. I’ll the direct complicity in the massmurder operations of 9/11, and the bushgovs rape, dismemberment, and reengineering of the Constitution until another thread, focus here of the Wanton profiteering as the exclusive reason we were and are decieved into conducting war and warfighter operations.
    4th generation, asymmetrical threats require police and intelligence activities NOT warfighting tactics or strategies. Placing thousand of troops in uniform in armor with clear US markings on their uniforms and transports parading around hostile lands like legionaires is stupid, impotent, and suicidal – though extraordinarily lucrative for the warprofiteers in the bushcrimefamilycabals. Only idiots and warprofiteers would pursue these insane and impotent tactics and strategies against 4th generation asymetric warfare threats. Our humint assets must look, speak, and act like our enemies, blend in, and infiltrate their cells, target those cells, – and kill them.
    Intelligence and police operations – NOT NEVERENDINGWAR and warfighter operations are the only solutions to defeating jihadist and talibani threats. We put bulls eyes on our soldiers so the shaitans and wanton profiteers in the bushcrimefamilycabals can profit wantonly from war and warfighting operations.

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  21. Mr.Murder says:

    Pull the troops out. Place a billion bounty on the top bad guy. The market will shape a favorable outcome.

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  22. ... says:

    you have a pit bull and you have to periodically take it for a walk… you can’t just leave it chained up at home or it becomes even more unstable… that is you usa military machine… some here think it is good to send it on missions, like the crusaders thought it would good to convert everyone to christianity…
    keep on supporting war in other peoples homes and eventually you will have it in your own and you will think differently about it…
    i agree with the writer of this article with regard to counter insurgency..
    as for bank nationalization, i think it is better then having a really corrupt gang of ripoff artists having free reign, which is what the usa has at this point..
    i really hope that the usa doesn’t have to face any of the bullshit they perpetuate on other countries, but i think it is bound to happen.. the usa is an empire in decline and it can’t happen soon enough for me… the arrogance and hubris coming out of the usa is outrageous…

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  23. Don Bacon says:

    It’s not rocket science, and you don’t need a bevy of highfalutin’ military jargon like COIN to understand it.
    The US military overthrows a government, brutally occupies the country, engineers a replacement government and then attempts (unsuccessfully) to defeat the occupation resistance and build a new nation with a new army. It doesn’t work. It didn’t work in Vietnam, it hasn’t worked in Iraq (now with unending military occupation) and it won’t work in Afghanistan. Call it (erroneously) counter-insurgency, or COIN, or whatever–it won’t work.
    In other words, the US military are the insurgents and the natives are the counter-insurgents with their own “COIN doctrine” which basicallly is to kill the intruders who haver entered in their country.
    We’re now told that a bird named David Kilcullen argues that counter-insurgency in Afghanistan means a five to ten year commitment aimed at “building a resilient Afghan state and civil society” and extending “an effective, legitimate government presence into Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages.” Who the frig is he? Some kind of expert on the Hindu Kush? I don’t think so. Maybe it’s 40.030 villages, and whatever the number maybe none of those villagers want the death and destruction the US military is going to bring them–destroying their villages to save them.
    It won’t work, any better than Captcha works.

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  24. Franklin says:

    Tough questions, questions. Great post too David.
    It’s hard to see how a modern democracy can come about without the growth of a substantial middle class. It’s equally hard to envision a society transforming from a feudal state to a modern one without conflict. In the development of western democracies almost every nation underwent a period of violent transition (e.g. the English Civil War, the French Revolution, two world wars for German, Russia transitioned from a feudal state following the 1917 revolution, but remains authoritarian in its political organization).
    Even in the case of the U.S. there’s an argument that can be made about the Civil War having been a conflict between a feudal order and a more modern state.
    Iran is somewhere in the middle of the cycle right now. It had a brief flirtation with representative rule after WWII; however, between the imposition of a dictator from the outside thanks to the Brits and the U.S., and the 1979 revolution, Iran has not made the full transition to a fully representative state. (David highlights this).
    In the case of Japan, we have a state that effectively had modernized before WWII. The last vestiges of an authoritarian order disappeared during the U.S. occupation after the war.
    The challenges in the case of the Middle East are overwhelming. This is one reason that long-term the U.S. needs to gain energy independence – the problems in the Middle East won’t sort themselves out without significant growing pains, and the U.S. doesn’t want to be caught in the middle of a regional conflict.
    In the case of former British colonial possessions, those former colonies have tended to transition into modernity with fewer pains than other former colonies, because the British allowed some degree of local administration by native populations. The French, Spanish, and Italian colonial legacies have typically resulted in much more painful transitions.
    No easy answers.
    Machiavelli’s view was that a Republic came into being through the administration of a reform-minded dictator. Turkey is one case off the top of my head that actually seems to have played out along Machiavelli’s lines. However, the American experience and the experience of the past couple hundred years show that a reform-minded dictator isn’t the only way for a country to transition to a representative political system.
    In the case of a country like Afghanistan I think it might be possible in the context of a generational effort — but it would require an international commitment and buy in from other regional stakeholders – and reform-minded partners within Afghanistan. Given the level of distrust between regional players, internally, and western powers this represents a massive undertaking. The absence of natural resources could be a mixed blessing in terms of economic development (e.g. the absence of oil reduces the temptation for outside interference, the nature of a petro-economy is one that tends towards easy wealth and power concentration – it is not a labor intensive industry. On the other hand, the absence of natural resource wealth removes a potential source of economic growth. Tourism too won’t be sufficient to generate needed economic growth; it will be necessary to develop industries from the ground up). Economic development is part of the equation, but there can be no economic development without security. There will be no security without the existence of a political authority that is seen as legitimate and that exercises its authority in a manner that isn’t corrupt or arbitrary. Not an easy task.

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  25. David says:

    Some intelligent thinking going on here. One of the thoughts that haunts me regarding Afghanistan is that there is no way to know what Afghanistan might have become had it been allowed to find its own way. It has been a pawn in the “great game” for so long, and subjected to such brutal war gaming, as well as the joys of being a major source of opium, with all the attending insecurity inflicted by drug warlords, that any attempt to apply a western template becomes an exercise in futility.
    I am not at all certain what we should be doing, but things that have proven not to work, and things which inflict further suffering on innocent Afghanis, damned sure aren’t it.
    Same goes for Iran, which was on its way to a decent democracy when the Brits got Dulles to get the CIA to engineer the overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh because he wanted the Brits to pay Iran what they were paying others for oil, all of it in the name of stopping the “communist menace” in Iran.
    Between the blowback on a grand scale and the horrible geopolitical karma that have resulted, and more importantly the suffering inflicted and the possiblities for improved societies denied by major power foreign policies, we really need to get an actual clue and face what we have done. Maybe then we can begin to look for solutions to the actual problems we have either created or exacerbated, or else just leave these people the ef alone.
    Specific acts of self defense, clearly defined and limited solely to transparently arguable self-defense, and nothing else, unless we are genuinely willing to lend a helping hand for the sake and the benefit of these people.
    A summary overview of the actual history of the past hundred years is all that is required to see what has been done, and is the only legitimate starting point for what to do now.

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  26. questions says:

    Maybe it’s a good idea to spend some time reflecting on why stable countries and stable constitutions are actually stable, since Afghanistan is the opposite of all of these. Legitimacy stems from a variety of sources including a sense of the long ago-ness and far away-ness of the foundations (the US Constitution is long ago and far away and is rarely to be altered, the Bible is even longer and farther as an underpinning of deity and natural law, and natural law is itself long and far.)
    Legitimacy also requires a generational recommitment to the political order. In the US, this recommitment comes through a variety of civic exercises, through being allowed to carry on with one’s own life without much interference (in a sense the very absence of a government is its legitimacy), and through a complex identification process that makes us feel “American.”
    I would guess that there are numerous other legitimation processes the basic purpose of which is to create a feeling that the government is yours and you are the government’s.
    Creating legitimacy in the now is a more difficult proposition because first there is no long ago and far away and so people really have a sense that if they don’t like the now, they can change it. After all, one might reason, there was a different government only last week. Second, identification can take a fair amount of time to develop. One might take pride in one’s own accomplishment, but the accomplishment of another (especially if it diminishes your own status) is not a thing we tend to thrill about. Third, generational recommitment may well be unlikely to happen because disgruntlement on the part of the parents could lead to more resentment on the part of the children (see Books VIII and IX of the Republic for a full working out of this point.) Further, a new generation takes time to develop and so the habits of recommitting haven’t developed.
    The substitutes for actual legitimacy are multiple and undesirable. Fear of a tyrant will lead to temporary stability and even a weird kind of legitimacy. Fear of an outside invader can do the same for a time. Deep religiosity can make the state seem to be the work of the local deity. Deep commitment to some idea or other can work, but it requires an idea and the commitment. And if the idea isn’t a great one or if the execution fails to live up to the idea, then there’s room for a significant power struggle.
    Finally, legitimacy requires that challengers have some place else to go. (Aristotle talks about the need for ostracism for those too too too great to be part of a democracy for precisely this kind of reason.)
    With all of the troubles there are in creating legitimacy, one wonders why the US would think it can get into the nation-building business. Clearly the world does better with stable states that serve their people well, but turning failure into success may simply not be possible.
    Political development theory addresses this issue in greater specificity than I have done here, and as I recall from reading bunches of this material, the main arguments at the time were, do countries develop the way the US did, or do they do so on their own schedule? Do countries want to be like the US, or like themselves? And why do we use the language of “development” anyway since it’s so ethnocentric?
    Fanon addresses some of the psychological issues underlying colonialism and the recovery from colonialism. This material is crucial as nations struggle to overcome the influence of malicious outsiders.
    Putting all of these ideas together, I would suggest that the US needs stability around the world, isn’t going to get stability the way it wants, is going to have to compromise deeply on the religion front, is going to have to encourage local and sustainable economies, is going to have to allow oil wealth to support local populations rather than enrich MNCs, and more than anything else, is going to have to be patient as people come up with local solutions to their very own power issues.
    Maybe it’s worth making up a list of countries from most recently created to oldest and see what the strategies are for establishing stability in the more recent nations. What level of ethnic purity, religious purity, dedication to documents, buildings, land, ideas, history, what level of mutual suffering, what level of hatred of others and so on supports successful nations. Is there a line below which you never get a country to form and above which you always do?
    (I’m guessing that others have gone over this kind of thinking before, but as I haven’t kept up with development theory, I can’t give citations.)

    Reply

  27. Franklin says:

    In the case of Iraq, we never had a fully implemented COIN strategy.
    We implemented the military component, but we didn’t have a full civilian complement (e.g. 20 percent military, 80 percent political). State doesn’t have the capacity or training to deal with a full COIN strategy. The UN has some capabilities, but we failed to provide the UN with sufficient protection and resources in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Baghdad.
    The military component achieved short-term objectives in 2007.
    However, the failure to enact the strategy in 2003 in concert with regional diplomacy means that whatever gains we have made in Iraq since 2007 remain tenuous.
    I agree with the idea that our military needs to have the capacity for dealing with conventional threats and that there has been a trade off due to the emphasis on COIN. There also needs to be a capacity for dealing with asymmetrical threats.
    We also need better diplomacy and regional cooperation.
    No easy answers as far as Afghanistan goes.
    Iraq is a huge challenge as well.
    I don’t see a parallel in the case of COIN, bank nationalization, and single-payer.
    As far as bank nationalization and single-payer go, the limits on domestic politics are due to insufficient organization and public pressure on the ground level. Clearly the special interest lobbies inside Washington have an inside track and an advantage in scuttling reforms, but most of the public polling — especially with respect to single-payer is behind a Medicare for All approach as opposed to a continuation of a patchwork system. The failure to enact the reform is due to the fact that the issue doesn’t register yet as a top 3 priority for most voters.
    Will this continue to be the case if the financial crisis and the health care crisis remain unresolved? I think there’s a chance that public support will build behind those initiatives tempering the influence of Washington lobbies.
    There may be a public groundswell against the Afghanistan war, but I don’t think it will be a backlash over the implementation of COIN, or any other strategy — it will be a question of whether the investment is worth any military commitment by the U.S.

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  28. A.Citizen says:

    Has this sort of ‘plan’ ever worked. Cannot seem to find any historical evidence of any time in human history that it has.
    Frankly if a ‘plan’ comes out of West Point or Annapolis you can be pretty sure it won’t work.
    Lincoln found that out the first two years of the Civil War. We are now going on sixty four years, since the end of WWII without a successful military campaign, or ‘war’, and one wonders…
    …will the American citizenry ever notice this fact.
    Of course our ‘defense’ and our ‘wars’ are not about winning. They are about feeding the insatiable appetite the MIC has for Ca$h.

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