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The Failure of Phantom Victory in Afghanistan

Escalation in Afghanistan means more military deaths, 9 coalition fatalities in 48 hours. This is the war we did not fight, which has festered. Iraq and Afghanistan were planned on the "1 1/2" conflict doctrine, that the US could face two strategic conflicts at the same time by a "fight – hold – fight" strategy. When it was introduced, it was called the "fight lose fight" strategy; and Iraq and Afghanistan show the problem with it: it is enough to tempt military minded Presidents to over-reach, but not enough to win. It is too small for massive response; but too large for the US economy to afford, as Wesley Clark’s classic short polemic Winning Modern Wars pointed out. Any military country with an economy that can build this kind of military can’t afford it.

Earlier this year, I told people that escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan was a done deal because the supply chain was already planned for it. Now the second part of that is coming into play, a strategy based on "chomp and stomp," that is massive application of firepower in set piece strike attacks that produces a high nominal body count, but low effective control. The US has not committed anything close to the resources needed to engage in an "isolate, concentrate, annihilate" victory; nor has it produced the economic wins required for a "COINS" strategy; and it has no negotiation prong for the "hammer and anvil" strategy pursued by Britain in its late colonial wars in Kenya and Malaysia: that is kill those you can’t do business with, and do business with everyone else as a way to get out of the country. The UN has been calling for negotiations for sometime and now has broadened its call. The UK, stricken by budget crisis, and fin de la regime weakness, and mounting ugly casualties is headed for the door.

It is worth taking some time to review the fundamental problem that these two prongs create. On one hand, the United States is in a situation where all growth in durable manufacturing is in the military, or military support, or sectors where military research acts as a subsidy. All. This demand is for equipment designed to produce a fast, low casualty invasion. The United States military is designed to "decapitate" a target country as fast as possible, with as few deaths and casualties to US service personnel as possible. The US provides the mass umbrella, and contracts various specialties to other nations. US forces have a low reputation as individual combatants, which is why virtually all offensive operations are entrusted to a very small number of units, including the marines and a few Army units. While we have a huge military; in fact, the edge of the sword is very thin.

However, colonialism, nation building, and geopolitical intervention are exercises in occupation. The United States has not fielded an occupation oriented force since the end of occupation in Europe and Japan almost two generations ago. The United States has little historical experience with actual occupation as a minority among inhabitants. Reconstruction lasted only from 1865 to 1876; thus, the US occupation of the Philippines is the only long-standing example of US minority colonialism. The United States does not have the colonial doctrine. Instead, the US doctrines applied are two fold. One is COINs in its original incarnation, that treats an insurgent zone such as West Virginia circa 1920 with more guns: that is the problem is primarily one of convincing the local population that life is better in a developed more liberal state; the other is the conservative version of this doctrine, which focuses on creation of suppression tactics.

Where there is development, COINs can work tolerably well; however, generally there is the perpetual temptation to fund military repression; because, it is cheaper in the short run to sell weapons to regimes and attack insurgent areas than it is for development, particularly in areas where the insurgency has a ready made cash economy in the form of the drug trade. The cold reality is that successful anti-American insurgencies don’t want to join the neo-liberal system; because they are already in a neo-liberal free trade environment. They are already exporting a good that the US demands and will pay heavily for. They are exploiting comparative advantage already. Why sell your cow in order to drink water from a corporate well when you can sell the cream?

The COINs ecosystem description is confused, often mislabels groups, and in Afghanistan has driven people into the Taliban in search of "law and order." Much of that law and order, as my activist friends remind me when we speak of this, is dislocated males fearing the results of an educated female population, as well as engaging in terrorism, such as acid attacks on school girls. This is almost proof of the failure of COINs as a paradigm, in theory and in practice. In theory, because if there is pressure, it should be for an acceleration, not a retardation, of growth; and in practice, because the existence of such extreme dislocation is proof that whatever strategy to implement growth exists, it isn’t working.

The present administration has duplicated the mistake made by the first year of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s administration: by placing excessive faith in a global war apparatus that was not working when it took office; and doing so even though there is an economic downturn that makes such expensive methods untenable. It has wasted valuable months and invaluable lives in pursuit of a phantom victory.

The United States must realize what other countries are realizing: the present economic crisis does not permit such luxuries as wars to garden the social conditions of other countries. It must further realize that the COINs doctrine is a failure in intervention circumstances, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The reason here is simple: if the situation is bad enough to call for an invasion and occupation, it is probably too degraded to allow for the development required. Since the United States cannot afford the massive response of ICA, it should refocus strategic priority on a Churchillian "Hammer and Anvil" doctrine, which more precisely identifies those who cannot be relied upon in negotiations; rather than spattering firepower across the country side in hopes of deterring anyone from fighting. 

We lost Iraq to a failed state, we have lost Afghanistan to being a failed state, we may yet lose Pakistan. The failure is that one cannot bomb a nation out of the stone age, no matter how many drunk and smug warbloggers think it so, simply because the perception of risk of a person living in a safe developed country; and the perception of risk of someone who bivouacs in dust storms just to gather crops and herd animals, is very different. One sees a bomb as like a bullet aimed at them, and is afraid; the other sees a dust cloud no worse than any other.

It is time to realize that war reduction is forced by budget circumstances, and by the facts on the ground. Open up negotiations, and leave open the option of military force only for those who will not accept any negotiated framework. That local peace can be reached with various elements in Afghanistan shows that negotiated peace is possible. Then a framework of liberalized areas can be created.  However, it is far more likely that the administration will double down; hoping for a surge type victory in the air, with defeat on the ground.

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