Afghanistan: McCain vs. Kissinger
Within the space of 24 hours, both men have elaborated their thoughts on how to turn around the war in Afghanistan. In short, they disagree. As a former McCain staffer, I’m no impartial judge, but I think I can make a pretty compelling case for why McCain’s approach is better.
The foundation of McCain’s approach is the core principle of counterinsurgency doctrine: secure the population. As he explained it in his speech yesterday at AEI,
Effective counterterrorism operations rely, among other elements, on accurate intelligence provided by the local population, which has no incentive to cooperate in the absence of sustained security or the promise of a better life…the way to provide enduring security is by applying the same basic principles of counterinsurgency tailored for the unique circumstances of Afghanistan, backed with robust intelligence resources and a sufficient number of troops to carry it out.
In the WaPo, Kissinger contends that,
Heretofore, America has pursued traditional anti-insurgency tactics: to create a central government, help it extend its authority over the entire country and, in the process, bring about a modern bureaucratic and democratic society.
That strategy cannot succeed in Afghanistan — especially not as an essentially solitary effort. The country is too large, the territory too forbidding, the ethnic composition too varied, the population too heavily armed.
Kissinger sets up a strawman by saying that our existing strategy has been to create “a modern bureaucratic and democratic society.” For good reason, the US and NATO have made an effort to give Afghanistan some bureaucratic capacity. We’ve also supported free and fair elections, because the Afghan government needs a measure of legitimacy. Instead of confronting that reality, Kissinger tries to suggest that “traditional anti-insurgency tactics” rest on a foundation of delusional idealism. Yet as McCain stated succinctly, the core principle of counterinsurgency doctrine is to secure the population
Kissinger makes several arguments about why the traditional approach can’t work in Afghanistan. First the country is too large and its terrain too rugged. According to the CIA Factbook, Afghanistan is about 50% larger than Iraq. Given the extraordinary mobility of our forces, I’m not really sure that’s a problem. Nor have we struggled until now because of the terrain.
As for Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic composition, why is it any different than the ethnic and sectarian divides that plagued Iraq? A traditional counterinsurgency strategy turned around the war in Iraq in the midst of a Sunni-Shi’a bloodbath. As McCain pointed out, Afghanistan hasn’t descended to those depths:
The situation in Afghanistan is nowhere near as dire as it was in Iraq just two years ago – to cite one example, civilian fatalities at their peak in Iraq were ten times higher than civilian deaths at their peak in Afghanistan last year. But the same truth that was apparent three years ago in Iraq is apparent today in Afghanistan: when you aren’t winning in this kind of war, you are losing.
Finally, Kissinger says the population in Afghanistan is too well-armed. In Iraq, most homes have assault rifles. But the real question isn’t how well armed the average citizen is. It’s whether the insurgents have access to heavier weapons. In Iraq, the insurgents had access to vast stockpiles kept by Saddam Hussein, and Shi’ites brought in extensive weapons shipments from Iran.
But you don’t win guerrilla wars with firepower (of which American forces have plenty). You win guerrilla wars with intelligence and popular support, as McCain emphasized.
Strangely, the one part of Afghanistan where Kissinger favors a McCain-style approach is the crucial region adjacent to the Pakistani border:
Military strategy should concentrate on preventing the emergence of a coherent, contiguous state within the [area] controlled by jihadists. In practice, this would mean control of Kabul and the Pashtun area. A jihadist base area on both sides of the mountainous Afghan-Pakistani border would become a permanent threat to hopes for a moderate evolution and to all of Afghanistan’s neighbors. Gen. David Petraeus has argued that, reinforced by the number of American forces he has recommended, he should be able to control the 10 percent of Afghan territory where, in his words, 80 percent of the military threat originates. This is the region where the “clear, hold and build” strategy that had success in Iraq is particularly applicable.
This exception to Kissinger’s general rule changes his argument entirely. If he favors a classical counterinsurgency in the most strategically important regions with the most violence, then he is effectively on the same page as McCain. In more peaceful areas, you don’t need that kind of effort.
Ever the diplomat, Kissinger seems inclined to agree with everyone. Or disagree with them, depending on your perspective.