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John Nagl and Richard Fontaine, Hand-Waving
Posted by Derrick Crowe on October 12th, 2009

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. Learn how the war in Afghanistan undermines U.S. security: watch Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six), & visit http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.

Supporters of a deep investment of American blood and treasure in a long, costly and difficult counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign in Afghanistan have the obligation to clearly articulate how their proposals will lead to success. We deserve honest, well-explained justifications, not hand-waving past foundational considerations when such examinations would be inconvenient to COIN proponents. Instead, in today’s L.A. Times, John Nagl and Richard Fontaine hand-wave past such essential points as:

  • the failure of the Iraq surge;
  • the difficulties posed to COIN specifically by the corrupted elections and generally by the corrupt Kabul regime; and
  • the interplay between foreign troops supporting a corrupt government and the expansion of the insurgency.

Instead of pursuing massive counterinsurgency deployments in Afghanistan, we should begin drawing down our troops so we can lower the temperature and reduce the frighteningly quick pace of insurgent recruiting.

Nagl and Fontaine get off on the wrong foot right from the start, assuming that we share their love of counterinsurgency theory and just want COIN applied the right way:

Counterinsurgency is premised, they argue, on the presence of a legitimate national government that can win allegiance from local populations.

No, gentlemen, that’s the opponents of COIN quoting your argument back to you and accusing you of plowing ahead before you’ve established what you’ve described as a prerequisite for success. A brief reminder: In the preface to the COIN manual that Nagl wrote, Sarah Sewall calls a legitimate host nation government the “north star” of COIN operations. And, in his book, “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife,” Nagl repeatedly cites the Five Principles of Counterinsurgency, which include:

2. The government must act within the law.

It’s awfully convenient to wave away the importance of a legitimate host nation government now that the government is tarred in a massive vote fraud scheme. By writing an op-ed dismissing the rigorous requirements he sets out in his own manual, Nagl handily avoids the central thrust of their opponents: that the presence and constantly increasing numbers of foreign forces in support of a corrupt and illegitimate central government drives insurgent recruitment.

By arguing in this way, Nagl and Fontaine are attempting to bypass the actual debate going on about the future of American foreign policy. Before they’ve exited Paragraph One, they’ve painted their opponents as people who don’t object to counterinsurgency per se, but instead just debate whether this particular situation is suited to it. That way, even if they lose the battle over COIN in Afghanistan, COIN itself escapes unscathed, its assumptions unchallenged. So let me be as crystal clear as I can be: counterinsurgency is a transparent attempt to make war palatable as a foreign policy tool. It is a prescription for decades-long military adventures at enormous cost in lives and treasure. This baby should be thrown out with the bathwater.

The op-ed doesn’t gain integrity as it goes along, unfortunately. Much of the article is consumed in detailing their preferred narrative about how the “surge” in Iraq “worked” and thus provides usable lessons for the Afghan experiment. Of course, they gloss over the fact that, not only did the surge in Iraq fail its stated objectives, but strong evidence exists that the positive impact attributed to it by conventional wisdom–the subsequent drop in inter-ethnic violence–can be more elegantly explained by other factors. Take, for example, a study by Environment and Planning A:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Satellite images taken at night show heavily Sunni Arab neighborhoods of Baghdad began emptying before a U.S. troop surge in 2007, graphic evidence of ethnic cleansing that preceded a drop in violence, according to a report published Friday.

The images support the view of international refugee organizations and Iraq experts that a major population shift was a key factor in the decline in sectarian violence, particularly in the Iraqi capital, the epicenter of the bloodletting in which hundreds of thousands were killed.

Minority Sunni Arabs were driven out of many neighborhoods by Shi’ite militants enraged by the bombing of the Samarra mosque in February 2006. The bombing, blamed on the Sunni militant group al Qaeda, sparked a wave of sectarian violence.

“By the launch of the surge, many of the targets of conflict had either been killed or fled the country, and they turned off the lights when they left,” geography professor John Agnew of the University of California Los Angeles, who led the study, said in a statement.

“Essentially, our interpretation is that violence has declined in Baghdad because of intercommunal violence that reached a climax as the surge was beginning,” said Agnew, who studies ethnic conflict.

From the study’s conclusion:

Our findings suggest that in these terms the surge has had no observable effect, except insofar as it has helped to provide a seal of approval for a process of ethno-sectarian neighborhood homogenization that is now largely achieved but with a tremendous decline in the extent of residential intermixing between groups and a probable significant loss of population in some areas. That is the message we take from the nighttime light data we have presented. Furthermore, the nighttime light signature of Baghdad data when matched with ground data provided by the report to the US Congress by Marine Corps General Jones and various other sources, makes it clear that the diminished level of violence in Iraq since the onset of the surge owes much to a vicious process of interethnic cleansing. This might resume if US forces withdraw. But as the case we have made strongly implies, the massive residential segregation and population loss happened anyway even when US forces were present in increased numbers. Perhaps they are not as central to events in Baghdad and Iraq as US government and popular opinion seems to believe. They certainly have not been over the past two years.

Ethnic cleansing in the magnitude of hundreds of thousands of people is not success, and the surge didn’t cause it. [Side note: The fact that the "surge worked!" myth has become accepted truth is a real problem for the anti-war movement, and we should be more aggressive in combating it. If we don't, it will end up in the history books.] Nagl and Fontaine just hand-wave past establishing whether and how the outcome of the Iraq surge should be considered a “success” and just plow ahead, hands waving, into the lessons we should take from it.

Oh, and by the way, since they brought up Iraq…I seem to recall Nagl saying something about Iraq like

In truth, the establishment of a legitimate, functioning government is the surest means to fostering a lasting peace.

The hand-waving continues as we go along:

This is not to say that a stolen presidential election is meaningless. But our main goal should be helping the Afghan government work at the local level — providing the marginal but tangible improvements in security, governance and prosperity that ordinary Afghans say they want, and stopping the corruption and abuses they personally contend with and resent.

If it’s not meaningless, how does it bear on the situation? They never tell us. And that’s the point. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for, move along. If their readers refuse to be distracted by gesticulations, though, they might find that the most recent UN report on the security situation in Afghanistan said:

The level of alleged electoral irregularities has generated significant political turbulence leading to fears of a return to violence when election results are announced.

Readers might also discover that troop levels and government corruption are two of the main reasons insurgents give for taking up arms. From a recent DFID study:

Religious motivation is only one of several reason for joining or supporting the Taliban or Hizb-i Islami. A religious message does resonate with the majority but this is mainly because it is couched in terms of two keenly felt pragmatic grievances: the corruption of government and the presence of foreign forces.

Readers might also discover that every increase in yearly troop levels in Afghanistan has been accompanied by a yearly increase in civilian casualty rates since the UN started counting and by swiftly expanding numbers of locals taking up arms against the foreign occupier and corrupt central government. Never let on that more troops in more places will mean more fighting and more dead civilians. Wave the hands, distract the audience, palm the COIN.

By the way, Nagl is not willing to say “no” to “year sixteen of Afghanistan.” Are you?

Steve Hynd has more.

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