On Helmand: Not Just Wrong, But RAND Wrong

I take exception to something a RAND analyst wrote because I like facts.

According to RAND’s James T. Quinlivan, writing for War on the Rocks, until the Afghans take a page from the Assad model of ceding territory, there can be no peace in Afghanistan. Quinlivan references Assad’s statement at the end of July that it was “necessary to specify critical areas for our armed forces to hang on to,” as Syria’s leadership realizes that they don’t have the military capacity to drive ISIS out of the entire country.

Quinlivan’s main assertion in “How to Lose a Civil War: Lessons for Afghanistan and Syria,” is that it’s time for Kabul to cut its losses in places like Helmand. That thanks to a combination of poor leadership, resupply challenges, and an enemy that’s pretty much the Afghan version of ISIS, Ghani needs to let the Taliban have the further reaches of Afghanistan. Which would make sense, if this were a different kind of war.

After laying out the historical precedents for territorial pragmatism, the article goes on an orientalized jaunt across the analytical landscape, bolstered by the kind of facts that characterize most RANDerific assessments of the graveyard of rigorous research. It ignores the reasons behind Afghan military weaknesses, misapprehends Afghan government processes, throws in a bonus Kiplingesque reference to Taliban savagery, misinterprets the nature and goals of the Afghan conflict, and gives the Taliban far more credit than they’re due.

Other than that, it’s a good read.

Afghans suck at leadership and logistics

According to Quinlivan’s RANDified view, just past the breathless nod to Afghan special ops, “many of the ordinary units are plagued by poor leadership, tactical skills, and morale.” This is alarming, since the Americans focused on teaching the Afghans to fight first, and figure out that logistics stuff later. Which means they should be better at shooting people in the face.

In a 2013 report to Congress, the US Department of Defense (DoD) said Afghan logistical shortcomings were the result of a “deliberate decision made when the plan for expanding the ANSF was formulated, the initial focus for the ANSF was building combat capability and leveraging ISAF enablers to support the ANSF. As the ANSF approaches its end strength goals, ISAF is accelerating development of ANA enablers, particularly logistics capabilities.”

Quinlivan lays no blame at the feet of the Americans, instead pointing out that Afghan forces are “attempting to hang on to isolated district capitals in the south and east, where re-supply, relief, and reinforcement are increasingly difficult.” Which, given the terrain and the Taliban, is true enough. What’s also true is that the short-sighted American plan to worry about that supply stuff some other time made this mess in the first place.

Because the Americans wanted to shoot first and order stuff later, the Afghans “relied on a patchwork combination of contractor maintenance support, organic Afghan maintenance ability, and U.S. and coalition-sourced parts.” It’s 2015 now, so logistics “remains a challenge for the ANDSF that has been exacerbated by diminished coalition presence in the field. Since U.S. and coalition forces historically ordered supplies for the ANDSF, Afghan personnel have little experience doing it themselves.”

If there’s a problem with leadership and tactical proficiency, much of the blame for that has to lie with US mentors. Or if not the mentors themselves, with those tasked with whatever plan the Americans had for Afghanistan. What they’ve left behind is a force that can’t fight, can’t get supplies, and can’t keep its soldiers around. This is the army made in the best likeness of its advisors. And it’s dying.

Do you even Parliament, bro?

Besides a leadership vacuum in the field, Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are also faced with lack of leadership at the ministerial level. Quinlivan addresses this by saying that “the long-vacant position of defense minister needs to be filled with a permanent appointment. Any candidate to fill this critical post should have the competence to instill confidence in the military and the respect of both President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.”

Which would be true. If this appointment was the sole purview of Ghani and Abdullah. Which it’s not. They like him just fine. It’s the Afghan parliament that has the problem, and since they have to approve the appointment, that means everyone has a problem.

Ghani first tried to introduce a candidate to head the Ministry of Defense back in January of this year. Parliament rejected that candidate, and another withdrew his name from consideration in March. So Ghani went with the 2nd runner up, Masoom Stanekzai, in May. That nomination was taken into consideration until July, when Ghani’s third candidate was again rejected by parliament. The main reason? Stanekzai’s role as part of the High Peace Council and Ghani’s intentions to reach out to the Taliban don’t sit well with some parliamentarians. Since quite a few of them still think that the only good Taliban is a dead one.

Stanekzai’s rejection was disappointing to NATO commander General John Campbell, even though Campbell’s reportedly taken advantage of the situation and is acting as the de facto minister in the meantime. According to the New York Times, “no other American commander in recent years has had as much power within the Afghan military establishment and top government echelons…a role that President Ashraf Ghani has welcomed and encouraged.”

Getting the approval of either the Afghan president or his chief executive is irrelevant. Getting the approval of parliament is key to filling this position. And that means building a consensus, which isn’t going to happen so long as Ghani continues to push for negotiated peace. Old Northern Alliance members (Ghani’s vice president, Rashid Dostum, among them) want nothing to do with bringing the Taliban to the table. Unless that table’s in a morgue and the Taliban are on that table because they got pulled out of one of Dostum’s shipping containers. Which complicates any discussion about letting go of places like Helmand.

Sidebar: And then the savages come

Nestled amongst the RANDomness is a sidebar that hints at the savagery of your average Afghan tribesman. In referencing the Times article, Quinlivan speaks for those who will not: “An unspoken additional worry is mutilation of the dead, an Afghan practice that Winston Churchill described as adding ‘to unphilosophic minds, another terror to death.’” Nothing like Orientalized speculation about the acts of savages to underscore premises about why the Afghan government should cede some territory. Makes one miss Kipling a bit.

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
An’ the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your right an’ blow out your brains.
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Welcome to the graveyard of Western enlightenment.

Helmand matters

Quinlivan depicts Helmand as an unnecessary backwater, a part of the country the Afghans could afford to lose, since it’s not easily defensible. He argues that Helmand is a total loss, and holding it is the result of international pressure. He worries that the “emotional investment of outside sponsors predisposes Kabul to defend all that was once held. But only a few places in Helmand are important in their own right, and many are simply killing grounds, places never secured by the government as a result of the Taliban’s ability to mass fighters in Helmand on short notice.”

Except that Helmand is terribly important in the perception war. Holding Helmand is consequential to making the case that the Afghan government can not only keep the Taliban at bay, but they can push it back. Which is the kind of war being fought here. It’s an unfortunate fact of modern war, that one gains and loses the same hill several times over because some general decided that this should be so. It’s true for Afghan forces, for coalition forces, and it’s also true for the Taliban. What Quinlivan doesn’t explain is why Helmand isn’t all that important.

If one is measuring it in terms of strategic ground the holding of which means you can choke off Afghanistan, then no, it’s not that important at all. As one of the key centers of the insurgency that the Kabul government needs to prove it can clear and hold? You’re going to want to hold on to it. Could the Taliban be brought to the table if they still held Helmand? Not likely. If they can still hold the seat of the insurgency that caused all the trouble in the first place, why should they come in from the cold?

Syrianistan? Not a country

In so many ways, the situation in Syria is nothing like what’s happening in Afghanistan. Quinlivan’s analysis depicts two governments facing nearly identical situations. Except that the Taliban are in no way related to ISIS, beyond being a fighting force that wants to overthrow current governments. And they both hew to a certain intolerant interpretation of Islam. It’s there that the similarities end.

ISIS has proven remarkably adept at holding the ground it clears. And is putting some effort into building even more. The Taliban have demonstrated no such capabilities, and nearly every territory they’ve taken from the Afghan government, the Afghan government has then taken back. Of course as soon as the military leaves to go fight Taliban elsewhere, they return. It’s a simple formula: clear, hold, build. While the Taliban are busy clearing out Afghan forces, they’re finding it terribly hard to hold and impossible to build.

Drawing parallels between the two groups is intellectually disingenuous, the kind of analysis that populates Soldier of Fortune op-eds. Assad’s decision is based on being faced with a determined foe led by professional military minds, the ghosts of interventions past. While the Taliban love to show off the Hiluxes and Humvees they manage to seize, that doesn’t mean they’re a cohesive fighting force on par with the Islamic State. Just because you think Islamic militants are all the same, doesn’t make it so.

Someone unblock the Googling machine

Friends don’t let friends read bad analysis. Analysis like this is obnoxious on a good day and dangerous on a bad one, when someone reads the tea leaves all wrong and we invade the wrong country. Twice. If this were a matter of opinion, I’d let this go. I read a lot of Afghanisan-related stuff, and I’ve learned over time to let the op-eds drift by.

This kind of thing is different. It’s not an opinion, it’s reasoned analysis done by someone who does such analysis professionally. It’s published in an online forum that appears to be respected by folks who know about these sorts of things. And I like to think they’re better than this.

Analysis this wrong is how we screw up places like Afghanistan. And Iraq. And Syria. And Liberia. And Libya. And Nicaragua. And El Salvador. And the Philippines. And Vietnam. I’d like to think that our decision makers are basing their actions on something other than 50 Shades of Kipling. Our collective experience has not borne that out. We like our analysis like we like our beer: simple and easy to swallow. Great for booze, bad for interventions.

If we’d never set foot in Helmand in the first place, Quinlivan’s spot on, at least about giving ground to gain a win. We made Helmand part of the plan too long ago to turn back now. What needs to happen now is a concerted effort by both the coalition and their Afghan counterparts to bolster forces in Helmand. Which means a greater involvement than a few air strikes in support of Afghan troop movements.

Chances are we’re too late in a timeline-driven war to do that. Unless Obama can spin this as a counter-terror mission where we have a chance to counter ISIS in Afghanistan (which he will), little is going to change in terms of the American withdrawal here. Afghanistan stands a chance of becoming the “good war” again if the US is able to stop the Daesh threat here in the graveyard of kinetic surges. As it stands now, Helmand is just going to be another meat grinder where halfway efforts by the coalition will only lead to more Afghan deaths. The intervention is dead, long live the intervention.

Also published on Medium.