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We’ve Only Just begun ... and Begun ... and Begun

Ann Marlowe

If you thought what Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint
Chiefs, said about the implications of Wikileaks was depressing well,
that pales compared to his inarticulate and unclear statements about the Afghan war on Meet the Press Sunday. They suggest that we have a much more serious problem on our
hands than Wikileaks: a lack of strategic direction at the top:

I dont think that the Taliban being stronger than theyve been since
2001 is, is news. I mean, Ive been concerned about the growing
insurgency there for a number of years. We really are at a time in
Afghanistan, after the presidents review, where weve got the right
strategy, the right leadership, and the right resources. And we really
are in the second year of that aspect of Afghanistan.

Mullen uses one of the Pentagons favorite themes here, Weve only just
begun. Now and a year ago, and two years ago, and three we have
always only just begun to implement the proper strategy, or have the
proper respect for counterinsurgency doctrine or the proper number of
troops or an Afghan partner properly serious about rooting out
corruption . . . it goes on and on.

And what can Mullen mean
when he refers to the second year of the right strategy, the right
leadership when we have changed leadership on an annual basis in
Afghanistan, with General David McKiernan commanding from June 2008 to
June 2009 and General Stanley McChrystal from June 2009 to July 2010?
Either McKiernan or McChrystal or General David Petraeus is the right
leadership, or maybe all of them were, or, possibly, what the admiral
says doesnt make a lot of sense.

When David Gregory turns to
the topic of Pakistan, whose support for the insurgency in Afghanistan
is all over the Wikileaks data, Mullen founders:

GREGORY: But, true or untrue, the big fear is that Pakistan is working against us and not with us?

MULLEN: In many ways, Pakistan is working with us. I mean, their, their
military, their intelligence agency. I mean, weve got a very strong
relationship in the positive sense with, with their intelligence agency. That doesnt mean there arent some challenges

GREGORY: They are actually

MULLEN: with some aspects of it.

GREGORY: supporting elements killing US soldiers.

MULLEN: But they have, they have shared intelligence with us. Theyve killed as many or more terrorists as anybody, theyve captured them. And
certainly the focus on changing the strategic shift, if you will, in
that agency, so that that doesnt happen at all, is a priority for us.

I dont think the George W. Bushworthy grammatical convolutions here are any accident. The admiral is at heart an honest enough man to become
flustered when he has to duck a question. It gets worse when he takes on the topic of what kind of government Afghanistan would have after an
American withdrawal:

Certainly, the long-term goal
is to make sure that the, with respect to the population in Afghanistan, that theres a government, governance structure that treats its people
well. And I, but to say exactly how thats gonna look, and what
specifics would be involved, I think its just way too early.

Too early after eight years of Hamid Karzai to say how that looks and what
the specific are? Or too early to say what the Taliban are like? Or
perhaps too early to finally take a moral stand and say that if our men
and women are dying in Afghanistan, we have the best right in the world
to make sure that theyre dying for a decent government?

Mullen was a good deal more articulate and candid when he testified before the House Armed Services Committee on September 10, 2008:

I am convinced we can win the war in Afghanistan.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Absent a broader international and interagency approach to the problems there, it is my professional opinion that no amount of troops in no amount of
time can ever achieve all the objectives we seek. And frankly, sir, we
are running out of time.

We can train and help grow the Afghan
security forces and we are. In fact, they are on track to reach a
total endstrength of 162,000 troops by 2010. The marines conducting this training are doing a phenomenal job.

But until those Afghan
forces have the support of local leaders to improve security on their
own, we will only be as much as a crutch, and a temporary one at that.

We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from
Pakistan, as I watched us do during a day-long trip to the Korengal
Valley in July.

But until we work more closely with the Pakistani
government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the
enemy will only keep coming.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Foreign investment. Alternative crops. Sound governance. The rule of law. These are the keys to success in Afghanistan. We cant kill our way to
victory, and no armed force anywhere no matter how good can deliver
these keys alone.

But Mullens testimony looks like the lightweight rhetoric it is when compared to the opening statement that day by the 76-year-old committee chair, Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, a conservative Democrat who supported the Iraq War:

Almost all indicators of security and stability in Afghanistan are down this
year. . . . Seven years on, I still do not see a well-coordinated,
comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan that addresses all aspects of the mission there, such as training and equipping the Afghan National
Security Forces, counter-narcotics, reconstruction, improving
governance, and regional issues including the border with Pakistan. Such a strategy needs to marshal all our resources and lay out clearly what
it will take to succeed. The Fiscal Year 2008 National Defense
Authorization Act required such a strategy.

Yet the [Pentagons]
answer was delivered two months late, with four-month old data, and did
not include the required strategy. It also did not include enough on
specific measures of progress, a timetable for achieving goals, or
required budget information.

We also must remember that we can
only stabilize Afghanistan if we are able to handle its complex
relationship with Pakistan. However, in April 2008, GAO reported that
the US lacks a comprehensive plan to eliminate insurgent safe havens in
Pakistans border region, and another GAO report found significant
oversight and accountability problems regarding DOD Coalition Support
Funds, which have been used to reimburse Pakistan nearly $6 billion
dollars since 2002 for support to US operations.

Last week, Skelton was much less impressive. He attacked Wikileaks and
claimed that Pakistans cooperation with the US has improved since the
period covered by the leaked documents, which ended in 2009. He said
nothing about the accounting for that $6 billion, though or the
billions we have spent since. Skelton also echoed Mullens Weve only just begun line:

Under the new counterinsurgency strategy implemented earlier this year, we
now have the pieces in place to turn things around. These leaked reports pre-date our new strategy in Afghanistan and should not be used as a
measure of success or a determining factor in our continued mission

Both Skelton and Mullen seem to me to have
been closer to the truth in 2008 than they are today. This new
counterinsurgency strategy is only yesterdays strategy with a new
general in charge, and it isnt likely to be any more successful now
than it has been in the past.

The parts of Afghanistan that are responsible for the more than seven percent growth in GDP the north
and west are doing well because their largely non-Pashtun population
cares more about improving their families lives than attacking infidel
troops. We didnt need to build schools there because Afghans built
them themselves. And they dont burn them down, either instead they
send their kids there even at considerable financial sacrifice. (Afghans have to pay for school books and uniforms for their kids.) These parts
of Afghanistan are fine, and little thanks to American government
spending. The Afghans did it for themselves.

The parts of
Afghanistan where weve spent enormous sums bribing Pashtun villagers
not to blow up our troops or the Afghan National Security Forces remain
violent they just have better roads and schools than they used to. And theyre still governed for the most part by thugs, drug dealers, and
thieves appointed by Karzai. Some of these provincial and district
governors also have a sideline in the family narcotics business run by
the presidents half brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai.

I have to
admit, I drank the Pentagon Kool-Aid and the COIN Kool-Aid in 2008. It
was hard not to, when I saw progress in the north and west of
Afghanistan, a thriving economy, and the increasing penetration of
mobile phones, the Internet, and ideas from outside. And on embeds in
RC-East, I saw our Army building roads and schools where none had
existed in human history. Commerce was beginning to thrive in remote
areas that had always been poor.

Yes, even in 2008 IEDs and
suicide bombings were also increasing, but I believed the commanders who told me it was a sign that the insurgents were growing desperate, or a
reaction to the forces of order entering areas that had never had a
government presence. All we needed was a little more time, or a few more troops, or a few more costly American development projects, and things
would calm down. Our troops were doing a magnificent job on the local
level in executing counterinsurgency tactics. It was hard not to believe theyd succeed.

Now, with almost 100,000 more foreign troops
in Afghanistan, and steadily growing violene, its clear somethings
wrong with this theory. If you did a graph logging SIGACTS (violent
incidents) against the foreign troop presence over time, youd see a
nearly perfect correlation. American boots on the ground numbers went from an average monthly level of 5,200 in 2002, to 10,400 the next year; 15,200 in 2004, 19,100 in 2005, 20,400 in 2006, 23,700 in 2007,
and 30,100 in 2008. Now we are at 95,000 Americans and southern
Afghanistan has never been so violent.

It isnt way to early
to tell which way the wind is blowing in Afghanistan, its way too late. Wikileaks is a distraction. As Skelton pointed out, we didnt have a
strategy in 2008. Do we have one today? Will Mullen please explain how
doing the same thing we did before could possibly produce different
results now?

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