Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Too Big to Fail

Even their own generals doubt their own ability to collect intelligence.

At least according to Major General Michael Flynn, deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan for the U.S. military and its NATO allies:

"Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy...ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced ... and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers."

Is Afghanistan – just like Vietnam before it – too big to fail?

Made me think about an interesting post on dumb-as-rocks aid/development in Afghanistan. It is stating the numbingly obvious when I say that the constantly changing and deteriorating security climate in Afghanistan is a significant impediment to aid and development or “nation-building” as the US/NATO counter-insurgency effort terms it. The whole chicken-egg riddle of you can't have development without security (and vice versa) is nonsense too. It's a conversation that sucks in oxygen for no good reason at all. In a fragile security environment you can have stability interventions. Usually such interventions are highly contextualized. Contextualization means understanding the context – social networks, local/tribal solidarities, patterns to ethnic and cultural dynamics, and the recent historical calculus that has led communities and their allegiances to where they are now.

Hard to do when your bombing them out of the sky. Doubly hard when there are not even pilots flying the planes.

One of the pillars of effective counter-insurgency, or “COIN” as it is called at the moment, that of intelligence-gathering, is losing its burnish. The tragic events last week in which seven CIA officers only underscores that the Taleban are not really on the run. In fact, they are taking advantage of the poor intelligence-gathering practices of US/NATO.

Ready-made interventions that conveyed well in other contexts frequently don't work in complex conflict-riven contexts. This is because interventions need contextualization. This means that the success, fleeting or otherwise, in Iraq in 2007 cannot be super-imposed on a fundamentally different context.

Where are the precedents for the touted military-led nation-building that the US insists will work?

Aside from WWII and parts of the Balkans, the US government (and NATO by extension) simply cannot point to a reliable or sustainable precedent for their much vaunted military-led nation-building. If you doubt the substance of what I am asserting check out Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index; all the bottom-order countries are post-conflict.

154 Yemen (ok, not yet – but coming soon!)
158 Cambodia
168 Haiti
176 Iraq
176 Sudan
179 Afghanistan
180 Somalia (the very bottom)

Another way of grouping them together is “post-US-conflict”.

The question is whether armed or military organizations are well placed to contextualize their interventions and achieve civilian objectives through the use of force?

The argument the buzzcutters will contend is that other organizations (invariably citing wooly NGOs and their fluffier comrades at the UN) are far too process-oriented to be able to realistically make meaningful aid interventions in fragmented and rapidly shifting contexts.

Interestingly, at odds with many of his colleagues and contemporaries, Major General Michael Flynn, senses that no matter how intricate their analyses (if and when they can get it right), no matter how swift their feedback cycles, no matter how attune their leaders are to the context; the chilling reality looms. NATO/US can’t win this war. Their keen sense of denial is akin to a consciousness of guilt.

Just like in Viet Nam.

Billions of taxpayer dollars later, after the expiry of so many young lives, and at the behest of a local population with almost no say in what is happening to them; what will be left?

Afghanistan reinvented for the Nth time.

Why does the current debate and approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan bother the Artful Aid Worker so much?

Simply put, ‘the Surgettes’ are already gathering the evidence for Viet Nam Redux. No manual or doctrine – no matter how many copies it has sold or how media savvy its authors are – can paper over the debacle that is already the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Their so-called “population-centric” approach is symptomatic of a military mindset that is dominating a rapidly deteriorating space.

For an aid-worker who works on post-conflict recovery and reintegration, albeit not in a war zone (for reasons obvious to me, but not to the Surgettes) the way that “nation-building” projects are described and implemented always presumes military objectives as part and parcel of “the process”.

Take for instance, road-building; we are told that “the process is the outcome”. This is to say that the road itself is a secondary objective – what happens during the road construction is the primary objective. The processes the Surgettes applaud are “permanent presence”; bringing “the fight” to US/NATO troops on favourable terms, winning local support in order to precipitate an intelligence-cascade, and “integrated campaign management” which appears to suggest that government is a participant-spectator not really running anything important. Many of us are left with the unambiguous conclusion that the nation-building approach is clear, hold, build, KILL. And at least from where I look at it, that’s enemy-centric.

Furthermore, the entire corpus of contemporary counter-insurgency theory with respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan relies on the alignment of too many fundamental/critical/key/must-have/important requirements.

For instance in his intriguing book The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, prominent COIN expert David Kilcullen, prescribes the following conditions-precedent for his COINtastic solution to work:

"Priotization is critical"

"our strategy must seek first and foremost to build... an Afghan state capable of managing its own problems"

"Effective COIN requires security forces who are legitimate in local eyes"

"Population-centric...human-security 24 hours a day is critical"

"Integration with Pakistan strategy is also fundamental"

"Building the planning and oversight capability of the Afghan government is key"

It just goes on and on. From a technical viewpoint, the presumption of so many enabling factors being in place or created concurrently for this approach to work is fanciful in the extreme. I have never experienced such a celestial alignment of enabling factors in difficult working environments.

Military agencies should be trying to get out of there (Afghanistan and Pakistan) as soon as possible, and not being tasked with whatever their toxic strain of “nation-building” is supposed to mean. Counterinsurgents and military types don’t really understand what socio-economic reintegration and community stabilization involves, and even if they did, they can’t do it because their are the wrong agents of change.

If they are truly population-centric, then they would understand – they’re really not winning the hearts and minds. In fact, their approach is having the opposite desired outcome.

Leave it to USAID, DFID, and all the other international and non-government agencies that, despite their wooliness and many shortcomings, actually know what and how to develop and work within fragile and difficult spaces emerging from conflict.

Links again:
http://mobile.reuters.com/mobile/m/FullArticle/CWOR/nworldNews_uUSTRE5BF2TR20091216 http://mobile.reuters.com/mobile/m/FullArticle/CTOP/ntopNews_uUSTRE60403V20100105 http://aidwatchers.com/2009/09/good-news-aid-agencies-are-beginning-to-catch-the-dumb-as-rocks-projects/
http://mobile.reuters.com/mobile/m/FullArticle/CPOL/npoliticsNews_uUSTRE6042Q720100105 http://www.nationalinterest.org/Article.aspx?id=20932

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