April 27, 2010

Red Flags Flying Over Afghanistan

Though red flag theory is an emerging economic and social indicator, it makes for an equally effective political and military barometer.

The idea is that no one factor is responsible for a trend or can predict future trends. For instance red flag theory is deployed as a lie-detector test by counting the number of physical ticks. Several or no flags may simply mean a good liar, not a truth teller, but a row of flags can often prove conclusive.

The same principle is applicable to counterinsurgency.

An interesting partner joins our negative outlook in Afghanistan. As we defined US military operations in Kandahar as a bleak reality, so has RAND, the central US government think tank, concluded, “If we look at the Taliban insurgency in light of our findings, a rather stark picture emerges.”

The mystery continues as to why Washington doesn’t follow its own advice - a red flag from the start.

After a more thorough reading we still find RAND’s study too basic (though exhaustive), but those less familiar with COIN literature may find the study useful. And since RAND is somewhat fair in confessing to the subjective nature of its study, we will reciprocate in kind.

“The assessments of insurgency endings are inexact,” it writes at the beginning of Chapter 3. “Even though functional-area experts carried out the study, the somewhat subjective nature of this research exposes How Insurgencies End to legitimate criticism.”

Our criticism lies with convention, as RAND makes clear that strategic breakthroughs and unconventional thinking aren’t forthcoming. While criticizing RAND when they own up may be unfair, our appetite for an unconventional study on Afghanistan is nevertheless unsatisfied. RAND expends relatively little focus on the Taliban for how immediate and perilous the war is.

Though we must tend to the warnings at hand, our intention is to create an unconventional COIN study to compliment conventional thought. Such a project is necessary considering that the Taliban is the essence of unconventional.

To begin with RAND found that most insurgencies last 8 to 16 years, but if the insurgency survives that long. “the likelihood of an expeditious conclusion from then on tends to decline.” The Taliban accumulated throughout the 1980’s, officially formed in 1994 and have years ahead of it, putting it well into its third decade of existence.

Though RAND found that time generally favors the government, “contrary to conventional wisdom, ” it also states, “Once an insurgency starts its third decade, the government takes longer to win it than to lose it.”

Theoretically the tail end of the Taliban insurgency, win or lose, could be equal to its rise. The war is likely to last another decade or two, possibly three or more.

Due in large part to its longevity the Taliban holds advantages in Kandahar that reflect the overall battlefield: weak national and local government, unstable foreign support, established history of national insurgency, and internal and external sanctuaries. These elements are the primary building blocks of a successful insurgency and shape RAND’s study.

The final tally doesn’t add up in America’s favor.
“Based on decided cases, voluntary sanctuary theoretically gives the Taliban an unweighted 2:1 advantage, and external support a slightly greater than 1:1 advantage. The Afghan government is receiving direct external support, a 5:4 advantage for the Taliban. The Taliban has learned to discriminate in its use of terror, statistically reducing its exposure to popular backlash and shifting its odds (with this correlative factor only) from 5:11 to 14:8. The Taliban is fighting an anocracy (fake democracy) in the Afghan government, a 6:1 Taliban advantage. No matter how one interprets the insurgent organization—hierarchical or mixed—the outcome is quantitatively null. And, finally, the Taliban is operating in one of the most impoverished rural areas in the world. Both low income and low urbanization imply an advantage greater than 2:1 for the insurgent.”
RAND also found, not surprisingly, that unpopular governments lose outright more than half the time (23 out of 42 decided conflicts). Hamid Karzai’s government probably qualifies there as well.

That the Taliban holds nearly every metric RAND categorizes underlines President Obama’s fundamental flaw. Though we’re often harsh on US COIN operations in Afghanistan, neither are we are saying these operations are D grade. Certainly wrong decisions have been made, but they’re being amplified by the fact that America is warring the most advanced insurgency on Earth.

This leaves no margin for error, and yet Obama is pushing his surge through rows of red flags.

Two among the many stand out in RAND’s report. While voluntary sanctuary in a foreign state has proven overwhelmingly decisive in the insurgent’s favor, and equally destructive if denied, RAND concludes (as we do), “Sanctuary alone cannot keep the Taliban afloat.”

Few matters are more immediate. US officials seemingly believe the war would be headed towards victory if only Pakistan denied the Taliban access to Balochistan and the FATA.

RAND continues to list every Taliban’s advantage: “strong grassroots support from a Pashtun community that feels alienated from both the Afghan and Pakistani governments, some rural Afghans who have learned to respect the group’s toned-down religious message, and on drug-related income and other external support.”

Thus even if Pakistan shuts down the FATA for good, a prospect either unlikely or too far out of America’s timeframe, the loss is unlikely to create a true tipping point against the Taliban.

Another of RAND’s grave predictions is the paradoxical nature of external support to the government. Whereas insurgents thrive on external support, governments naturally tend to grow accustomed to handouts and bailouts. Supporting a government’s counterinsurgency, RAND argues, is primarily a matter of timing:
“Why does outside intervention not confer greater benefit to the counterinsurgent? Qualitative analysis of the 30 cases of intervention points to the challenges in achieving just the right balance of support and in providing that support at just the right time. In practice, the quality and consistency of the support provided to the government in each of these cases varied considerably.”

1. Providing too little or the wrong type of support risks failure, while providing too much risks creation of a weak, dependent state security apparatus.

2. Timing of the intervention is critical. Step in too soon and the government can lose credibility or the insurgents might seek sanctuary before they can be engaged; step in too late and the insurgents may already have effected a tipping point.

3. Just as the withdrawal of external support to an insurgency can cripple the insurgents, inopportune withdrawal of support for a government can, and very often does, lead to defeat or at least a mixed settlement.”
Many observers believe America missed the timing and see Afghanistan already suffering from these symptoms. The last is especially concerning as Obama set what we believe is a premature withdrawal deadline at July 2011. Whereas funding Karzai for years is unlikely to bring an end to the war, withdrawing support could lead to rapid destabilization.

Though the real outcome may be otherwise, all of these red flags predict futility in Kandahar and ultimately Afghanistan if not radically and ingeniously corrected.

It is perhaps most disturbing that the few green flags that do exist are being ignored. RAND states, “If insurgencies, to paraphrase Clausewitz, are politics by other means, it may be helpful to know that more than half of all insurgencies (40 out of 73) have been settled through negotiations.”

Despite what they say, US officials continue to demonstrate an unwillingness to engage in negotiations with the Taliban. Yet we must conclude, no matter how long America avoids it, that its mission will end on a political agreement with the Taliban. This will likely occur at the point when the Kandahar campaign stalemates.

Unconventional thinking will be of the highest necessity.

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