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Guest Blog: A Dangerous Case for Intervention: A response to the CNAS report on Afghanistan

Gary Owen 9 min

The US-based Think Tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS) has released a report about the current political and security situation in Afghanistan and also looks at the future of US military involvement there after 2014 Afghanistan by some prominent authors, led by the previous ISAF commander General John R. Allen. It would be easy to ignore this as yet another falsely positive assessment of the state of affairs in Afghanistan, our guest author Gary Owen(*) writes, but since it must be read as counsel to the Obama administration, it has to be taken seriously. He finds its political section most concerning because it advocates for direct intervention in the Afghan election process which, he says, is going to lead to further complications, and not improvements, in the Afghan situation post-2014.

Last week’s release of an Afghanistan progress report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) would be notable if only for its lead author: General John R. Allen, United States Marine Corps (Ret.), whose last job was as Commander, International Security Assistance Force (COMISAF). Given his recent experience in Afghanistan, Allen’s name alone on this report makes it worth the read, but its co-authors are notable as well: Michele Flournoy, who served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2009 to 20012, and Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. Collectively, these are people who have been engaged with Afghanistan for several years, and their opinions must be viewed for what they are: counsel to the Obama administration on the future of Afghanistan. It would be easy to ignore this as yet another falsely positive assessment of the state of affairs in Afghanistan, but given the timing of its release and its authorship, its suggestions cannot be dismissed out of hand.

The report breaks its assessment and suggestions down to three focal points: the current security situation, the current political situation and a look at the future of US military involvement in post-2014 Afghanistan. The usual platitudes abound, including the always-troubling assertion that more dead Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are a sign of positive progress. The report also makes some suggestions with regard to a post-2015 “Enduring Force,” and outlines the supposition that the international community needs to take a more direct role in Afghan politics during the 2014 election process. This last bit of suggested US interference in the electoral affairs of a sovereign nation picks up on a co-authored op-ed article by Flournoy and O’Hanlon published on 16 April 2013 in the Wall Street Journal. It is in this section the report moves from banal to troubling, as it advocates for direct intervention in the Afghan democratic process.

An “Enduring Force” 

Even though the report asserts that the ANSF are more capable than ever, it does allow for an “Enduring Force,” referring to the number of foreign troops remaining in Afghanistan post-2014. This portion does little in the way of laying out any revolutionary concepts, but one statement (see p 13) does raise some questions:

Finally, for two to three years after 2014, the United States may need an additional force package of several thousand personnel to help the Afghans finish building their air force, their special operations forces and certain other enablers in medical realms, in counter-IED capability and in intelligence collection.

Using the phrase “may need” avoids the appearance of committing thousands of troops to post-2014 Afghanistan. The reality is that the Afghan Air Force (AAF) and Afghan Special Operations Forces (SOF) are a long way from being able to operate independently. It is true that recent air assault missions have been conducted by the Afghans themselves, but always with US support in the form of Apache attack helicopters and other assets. As a skillset, being able to provide close air support (CAS) or close combat attack (CCA)(1) is far more complex than moving troops and supplies. Training the Afghans for those missions alone is going to take years, and aircraft capable of conducting those missions are only a small part of the weapons’ systems available to the ANSF.

Also worth noting is the buildup of Afghan SOF (see my earlier analysis for AAN here). US SOF are likely to be active in the region for years to come, and acting as “advisers” to Afghan SOF allows the execution of a wide range of counter-terror (CT) missions while operating in that advisory capacity. What is of concern here is the accountability for such forces with the drawdown of a large scale international presence in Afghanistan. Whether Afghan SOF will continue to operate under the same strict guidelines imposed by their American trainers or will conduct themselves as they have allegedly done in Wardak province remains to be seen, but this should concern both international observers and SOF mentors alike.

The Political Situation

In addition to security, Allen and the other CNAS authors are also concerned about Afghanistan’s political future. I have taken exception elsewhere to the viewpoint held by Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) that the US should be actively engaged in the political process in Afghanistan during the 2014 elections. In a recent article, he suggested that ‘the US ambassador, CIA station chief and US military commander in Kabul, acting in close concert with officials in Washington, should pick a favorite among the many candidates manoeuvring to succeed Karzai — the best (or, more likely, least bad) leader for Afghanistan’s future.’

Of greatest concern is foreign meddling in a sovereign nation’s democratic process. The CNAS report is initially more subtle, but still advocates for “engagements.” There are some positive ideas: for example, building the capacity of independent election oversight groups, which would be of tremendous value during the 2014 election cycle.

But then their suggestions veer from passive observation to more direct intervention, tying the future of aid to foreign approval of both a new Afghan President and the electoral process. The CNAS report advocates this course of action for the United States (p 10):

First, it should remind Afghans that Americans and others will exercise their own sovereign rights to determine future aid levels once Afghanistan exercises its sovereign right to choose a new leader. The quality of the election process and the quality of the new president’s leadership will both affect decisions on aid. This is just common sense, not a threat.

The message to the Afghans is simple: if they pick the leader they think should lead Afghanistan, rather than a leader the Americans want, they run the risk of losing out on billions in necessary foreign aid. There is no other way to view this as other than a not-so-subtle threat to Afghan sovereignty and the democratic process. Beyond the possible cutting off of aid, the report goes on further suggests more direct levels of intervention (p 11):

Fourth, the international community should give technical, moral and if necessary financial support to fledgling Afghan political parties – provided they have inclusive, multiethnic memberships and platforms and promise to eschew violence.

There is no way to interpret financial support to Afghan political parties other than insurance that election outcomes will best serve US interests in the region. Apart from the fact that Afghan law bans foreign financial support for Afghan political parties, Karzai and others will see any of this as support for groups with strong ties to the old Northern Alliance, which will do nothing to bring stability to the process.

In keeping with the sentiment behind Boot’s statements, CNAS makes it clear that “American passivity” will not be a good thing (p 11), something that one of the report’s authors, Michael O’Hanlon, has also made clear in the past.

American passivity in the coming Afghan elections could be just as counterproductive as certain aspects of perceived American assertiveness (including some nasty public spats with Hamid Karzai) were last time around. The verdict on the war in Afghanistan may be settled less on the country’s battlefields than at its polling stations next spring.

Beyond the executive branch in Kabul, the report attempts to deal with the contentious issue of sub-national leadership structures, attempting to combine the establishment of good governance with the reconciliation of insurgent fighters (p 11).

One way to give a new boost to reconciliation is to seek out insurgent commanders who are willing to stop fighting in exchange for positions in district-level or provincial-level government.

The solution here, then, is to put the same insurgents in power in those places they are seeking power anyway, but do so legally. Advocating for the empowering of former insurgents would seem to be counter-productive, as the challenge of keeping them loyal to Kabul would be significant. Fortunately, the CNAS has a solution for that, and trots out the COIN adage that “money is a weapons system” (p 11):

Funds for local economic activities could be used by Kabul for subsequent leverage as well. This pocketbook approach to enforcing respect for central authority is of course a time-honored Afghan method.

The only time-honored Afghan method for dealing with a central authority is to try to overthrow said authority: that has always been the challenge with a Kabul-centric approach to Afghan government. Still, for those that would seek to rule, including those groups ostensibly forming “federalist” platforms, the seat of power is in Kabul, and as such it is still very much the “brass ring” in Afghan politics. I would also argue that the “pocketbook approach to enforcing respect” is a more polite way of saying “corruption and patronage,” which theoretically is not a phrase one would want to associate with efforts at insurgent reconciliation.

It is true that the ANSF are more capable now than ever. It is also true that the US has developed a fighting force that relies heavily on aerial support that can (at this point) only be provided by foreign forces. This has led to an innate dependence on foreign forces for military success, and it is for that reason that the US is likely to commit to keeping more troops in Afghanistan post-2014. Given the objectives laid out in the CNAS report, that would mean a larger contingent than the minimal numbers currently under discussion (see also here).

Of greater concern are the report’s thinly veiled calls for interference in the democratic process of a sovereign nation. While this kind of intervention has been American foreign policy for a century and more, the results have, on the whole, been less than promising. There is no reason to assume that doing so in Afghanistan would result in a different outcome, and moving forward with such a policy is only going to lead to further complications in the Afghan situation post-2014.

(*) Gary Owen is a civilian development worker who has spent the last three years in Afghanistan, working in Ghazni, Gardez, Khost and Kabul provinces. Previously, he spent 21 months in Iraq on two different deployments: in 2004, as an infantry officer in Taji, and, in 2008, as a civil affairs officer in Tikrit. Usually, he blogs here.

(1) Close Air Support (CAS): ‘Close air support is air action by fixed-wing (FW) and rotary-wing (RW) aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces, and requires detailed integration of each air mission with fire and movement of those forces.’

Close air support is indirect fires from aircraft near soldiers that requires detailed coordination to prevent fratricide or civilian casualties. The person calling for fire is responsible for the fire’s effects.

Close Combat Attack (CCA): ‘A hasty or deliberate attack by Army aircraft providing air-to-ground fires for friendly units engaged in close combat. Due to the close proximity of friendly forces, detailed integration is required.’

The definition of close combat attack is similar to close air support; the main difference is the consideration of close combat attack by the Army as a direct fire weapon system in which the aircrew is responsible for their fires.

In a CAS mission, another observer will tell pilots where and when to fire. In CCA, pilots are responsible for their own weapons systems, and fire where/when they see fit. Both are highly complex operations that require years of skilled training. Not only do the Afghans not have aircraft capable of carrying out these missions, they do not have the knowledge to use those systems correctly.

(source here)

(2) Two days earlier, the remains of two other people were found, also near the base. If all four are confirmed to be among the missing victims, it would mean that of the 17 people from Wardak Province whom Afghan investigators said disappeared into American custody, 14 have now been found dead. In an e-mail response to questions on Saturday, an American military spokesman, Col. Thomas W. Collins, said the military was certain that American forces were not involved in any of the deaths in the Nerkh district. The results of internal investigations have not been made public, though. Afghan military investigators insist that the American military at the very least had to have been aware of abuses of suspected insurgent detainees being carried out at the base. The Afghan investigators also say they have proof that at least one Afghan on the base was involved.

(3) Here what O’Hanlon wrote than:

Beyond specific reforms that might be made in the next two years, what was clear from my conversations in Afghanistan this May was that what we need most is a way to influence the 2014 political transition.

The core element of this strategy is to make sure Afghans know, beyond any doubt, that U.S. willingness to support them financially, developmentally, and militarily after 2014 will be a function of the quality of their governance and the character of their leaders. It is inconceivable that the U.S. Congress will sustain up to 20,000 troops in Afghanistan at a cost of perhaps $25 billion a year, and add another $3 billion to $5 billion annually in direct security and economic support to the Afghan government and people, if the next Afghan government is corrupt beyond hope.

If that were to happen, I am confident that the U.S. commitment would be scaled back dramatically — to levels of assistance perhaps one-third to one-fifth the amounts sketched out above, or even less. That would be regrettable.

Some Afghan reformists want us to state a clear preference soon for who the next president of their country should be and promise to cut off all aid to anyone else who might win the election. Such an approach by the United States and other key foreign countries is highly unlikely, as it would constitute excessive meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Not only that, we would quite possibly choose wrong. But what is certainly within our means is to signal that good Afghan leadership will inspire much greater outside confidence and related willingness to stay engaged — whereas the opposite will invalidate the premise for the current hopeful talk about our long-term commitment to Afghanistan. Strategic Partnership Agreement or not, major cooperation and financial help will not be provided to a criminally corrupt or malicious regime. We should probably also be willing to say, by name if necessary, who the unacceptable leaders would be, if they choose to run for president. This could be done privately at first, perhaps, and publicly if necessary.

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