Thursday, August 25, 2011

Clausewitz v. Neo-Medievalism, Part 3.2: Afghanistan as a Westphalian challenge to the United States

General Warner's interview of "C" is followed by "Winning Afghanistan at the Community Level: A Rejoinder to Volney F. Warner and 'C;," by Colonel Christopher D. Kolenda, who states about his authorship of the article: "I do so as a Soldier serving in Afghanistan. The sentiments here are entirely my own and should not be attributed in any way to the leadership of the International Security Assistance Force." (25) My summary of this article is coming next.
Col. Kolenda aptly summarizes C's views, and states that he agrees with the ultimate outcomes that C prefers, i.e, an end to terrorist threats emanating from a poorly or non-governed failed state. He goes on to say that it is the "assessment of the problem and the prescriptions for the way ahead, however, are where we differ." (25)

Col. Kolenda begins with some brief questions (p.26)

"First of all, is Afghanistan truly governable, or must it be governed in an Afghan way?" Here Kolenda points to forty years of statehood in the mid-20th century as evidence that a modern government is possible. However, the author (as I discuss later) also is very convincing on the notion that more recent and persistent conflict over the last thirty years has altered traditional society in many challenging ways; such instability was not the case during the decades of the 20th century Afghan monarchy.

"Second, does one's identity as a member of the Suk-dari clan of the Nuristani Kom tribe, for instance, exclude identity as an Afghan? Or can one hold several identities at once? If not, where does the exclusion begin -- between clan and tribe, between tribe and ethnicity, or between ethnicity and national identity?" Kolenda goes on to cite a survey by the International Republican Institute from 2009, in which "78% of respondents considered themselves 'Afghan' first."

"What evidence do we have that the insurgent forces invade from Pakistan rather than being resident within Afghanistan itself?" This is asked in the context of Kolenda's challenge to the view that a counter-terrorist strategy is preferable to counter-insurgency with its nation-building challenges (a view to which he subscribes "C", though I do not think C uses the exact term counter-terrorist strategy, but the characterization is not unfair).

"Is government by warlords or tribal strongmen actually feasible in Afghanistan?" to which Kolenda firmly replies, "Afghans roundly reject warlord empowerment....Thirty years of warfare and social atomization have crippled the large traditional structures so badly that rule by tribal strongmen is no longer possible. But certainly the governance that will work in Afghanistan must be one that enfranchises, builds on, and adapts traditional systems in appropriate ways." (emphasis in original)

And finally, "Is a CT (counter-terrorist) approach feasible without basic law enforcement, governance, and security institutions, or is it just another example of playing 'whack-a-mole' to no enduring effect?"
He does agree that radical propaganda must be countered, for example, stating that "supporting moderate madrassas inside Afghanistan as alternatives is critically important."

The next passage from Kolenda;s piece is worth quoting in light of my quoting C on his time spent with and affection for the people of Afghanistan:

"Like C, I have grown to love the Afghan people, having spent the better part of the past 2 1/2 years in-country working closely with elders and villagers. That I see things differently than C is not surprising. There are many Afghanistans -- the rich tapestry of the society and culture conveys different meanings to different observers depending on their perspectives, biases, and agendas. Too often, observers see the Afghanistan they want to see and ignore the others that do not conform. This complexity is part of what makes Afghanistan so fascinatingly difficult and so potentially perilous." (26)

Kolenda then offers a very helpful delineation of "five destabilizing and mutually reinforcing factors" besetting Afghanistan: "(1) localized violence, struggles for power, and social unrest fomented by indigenous militants who are exploited by (2) larger insurgent groups whose senior leadership resides in Pakistan, such as the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, and the Haqqani network that are enabled by (3) al Qaeda and affiliated with transnational terrorist networks, all supported and sustained by (4) narcotrafficking, criminality, smuggling, and international financiers. These four symptomatic factors coexist within an ongoing (5) socioeconomic upheaval and political disaffection that form the root causes of attraction to insurgency."(26) Take note of the assured used of the term insurgency in contrast to C's civil war. In Kolenda's formulation above, insurgency is but one set of networked actors and activities in the AfPak region. Insurgent organizations exploit local conflicts while depending on external support from transnational criminal and terrorist organizations in a socioeconomically challenged and wartorn region.

According to my reading of C's insights, the multiple, multi-layered and mostly disaggregated conflicts as summarized by Kolenda are indicative of the non-Westphalian nature of "Afghanistan." Indeed, I do not think it's going too far to speculate that C would say that withdrawing western forces (most likely after an uptick in counter-terrorist strikes) would allow traditional governance and justice structures to deal with the criminal market and terrorists in search of safe havens.

Ultimately, I find myself more convinced by Kolenda's arguments, without, however, diminishing respect for C's experience and insight, and indeed I believe the factors that C highlights are important checks on Kolenda's views. I think there are minor problems with Kolenda's rejoinder to specific points made in Warner's interview of C, but overall, his argument about the current status of the traditional structures that C emphasizes is quite convincing. An example, under the subheading of "Problematic Thesis" (referring to C's thesis): "The collapse of social cohesion and fragmentation of tribal integrity in the Pashtun areas make any silver-bullet solution to govern Afghanistan by tribal strongmen and powerbrokers a dangerous anachronism. Many of these individuals have been included in the government in an attempt to gain support among their populations. The fact that their tribal brethren are still involved in the insurgency speaks volumes about the waning power of the so-called strongmen and powerbrokers.." (28)

In sum, I find Kolenda a bit too optimistic about the possibility of success in Afghanistan, defined as "A reasonable degree of security in which insurgents no longer pose an existential threat to the state, and the country can protect its sovereignty...." For one thing, as I'm sure Kolenda would acknowledge, this is a sweeping statement that covers a lot of ground, that is, leaves a good deal unsaid. Still, while acknowledging the difficulty of reaching this end-state, Kolenda clearly feels that staying the COIN course will result in a functioning state; I find this to be a generational question, and have my doubts bout the American will to support it. However, as I said, I do appreciate his analysis of what decades of war have done to traditional structures as a response to C's assertion, or at least implication, that traditional decision-making structures were capable of effective self-governance without continued U.S. counter-insurgency/nation-building efforts. There are many additional variables that make me hesitant to support a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan, or to expect that it will happen, most having to do with regional geopolitics, tossing in American domestic politics a wild card into the mix. For example, the U.S. national security policy community needs to specify American policy towards the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, comprised as it is by seven nations in the region, including Russia and China, with India and Iran on the periphery looking in as well. I don't see why Afghanistan would not join the SCO if invited, and why China and Russia would pass up the chance to annex Afghanistan into their orbit. Energy geopolitics, India-Pakistan relations, and other factors also fog one's ability to envision the United States abandoning its investment in Afghanistan, which has given the United States its first land-locked military foothold in the region.

Returning to more generalized conclusions, long-term considerations should be given to how this murky world condition of non-state empowerment affects U.S. policymakers' ability to accurately interpret 21st century conflicts (barring a return to great power war). When transnational terrorist agendas are combined with shifting identities of populations coming into contact with global forces, whether commercial, conflictual, criminal or otherwise, the predictability of state sovereignty may be lost in a neo-medieval fragmentation of political authority, especially if statehood has traditionally been challenged in the past. Modeling one's response to such events without letting go of a strictly Westphalian/state-centric/Clausewitzian war-as-policy paradigm leads one to establish expectations, priorities and strategies in ways that may leave out vital perspectives and agendas. Fortunately, few situations in the globe, if any, are comparable to Afghanistan beyond general similarities involving some level of ethnic conflict, religious militancy and criminal enterprise as key features. However, one looks at the tribal based society in Libya and wonders what fate the post-Kaddafi era will bring.

There will continue to be a state of Afghanistan, with all the trappings of diplomatic privileges for a few; whether it will be a state that can actually govern, much less survive, and not develop into a threat to American interests, are very open questions. The United States will likely maintain a military presence, though there may be continually evolving status of forces agreements, unless the American people make clear a consensus for full withdrawal.

There is a huge and growing literature on the topics covered in these posts.  Indeed, the current issue of Joint Force Quarterly contains a section of five articles on counter-insurgency alone. The two viewpoints I quoted were mere samples I chose and were intended as representative, not definitive, perspectives.  All comments welcomed.

1 comment:

  1. Re-reading my first post in this series on Clausewitz and Neo-Medievalism, I do see I strayed a bit from the language of my original proposition, but not the meaning. I proposed that Neo-Medieval conditions were responsible for the fog of war (as defined by Clausewitz) challenging western efforts in Afghanistan. The blog posts wound up being more of a dialectic between the state-centric world of a Clausewitzian view and the post-Westphalian, anything goes world of non-state identities. Ultimately the synthesis that results does not play to the strengths of the western powers.