Petraeus is the New King of CIA

I’m loathe to make predictions about the future, but one that I might stick my neck out for is to suggest that the CIA might change quite significantly with General Petraeus at the helm. Stephen Walt might not think so, but where are we if we can’t disagree once in a while.

My thinking is that, throughout its history, the CIA has ignored significant wrongs in order to advance a specific short term goal. This has led to (sometimes unintended) longer term (negative) consequences.

They have word for it. They call it “blowback”. It nicely euphemizes the situations they create.

For example:

Take the current on-going war in Afghanistan. The country has been in a state of conflict, more or less, since 1979, when the Soviets invaded and proceeded to occupy, and hurriedly install a weak, fragile puppet state that collapsed on their leaving (notice a pattern?).

During that conflict, the CIA (tacitly) condoned the mujahideen‘s growing of opium. This was on the understanding that the Afghans would use the profits from the opium trade to fight the Soviets, stemming the red tide. They subverted a long term goal of limiting and controlling the flow of illicit drugs for a short term goal of defeating Stalin.

Ultimately, the Soviets decided Afghanistan was not really a fun place to hang out. (The locals have never taken kindly to being told what to do. Especially not by Outsiders—to wit: the Anglo-Afghan wars.)

This reliance on opium, developed during the 1980s, has led Afghanistan to become addicted to opium ever since. It’s not as simple as just saying that opium is a high-value crop, or any of that. (There are other, more wholesome, more valuable, and more easily cultivated alternatives.)

Long story short: the CIA is in a small way responsible for the opium situation in Afghanistan at present. (There, of course, many other factors, not least the weather!)

Enter David Petraeus

So what difference will Petraeus make?

I think that he has a more realistic view. In redrafting the American counterinsurgency rule book, he drew heavily on classical ideas that worked. While there is little evidence to demonstrate the success of the Field Manual, especially in Afghanistan*, Petraeus is someone who is not afraid of shaking up ideas.

The Field Manual was a radical departure from previous American thinking on counterinsurgency and counter-revolutionary war (that phrase was quashed by the CIA in the 1970s when they were supporting revolutionaries in South and Central America). It advocates a population-centric approach to matters.

Some have said that this is perhaps too focused on talking to locals. Spencer Ackerman half-joked recently that said that “the man who drinks the most tea with the most villagers will earn the most goodwill.” However, it is right, especially in Afghanistan*, that a more population-centric approach is necessary.

What’s vital about Petraeus is that he appears to be far more focused on the long-term, and the bigger picture.

That can only be a good thing.

Of course, it remains to be seen.

*This is as a result of (among other things) the field manual being too heavily predicated on evidence from Iraq.

Dates (And Their Defence)

A lot of non-fiction books have dates in their titles. Most of the time they do this to confine the study. Because all things are connected; all events in history are causative and effective. Afghanistan is no different. Its history (depending on how you track it) goes back to 1880, 1747, the 15th century, or even further back. Louis Dupree says 3rd century Sasanians were talking about “Abgans.”

This history is fascinating, and I enjoyed writing about it. It’s vital for context. It’s vital for context. I am aware that I wrote that twice. Here it is again: History is vital for context. And context is king.

So I wrote a history of Afghanistan in 8,000 (ish) words so that the ten years or so I’ve chosen to talk about make more sense.

The dates I’ve picked are October 2001 – July 2011.

I don’t think I could get more current than that. To any Afghan scholar, those dates should be pretty well known. To an Outsider, however, they might be a little less so.

October, 2001

Seeing the date isolated like that, it should be easy to see. I’ve chosen this date because it marks the start of the American (and international) efforts in Afghanistan. The Americans invaded to oust the Taliban and destabilize al-Qaeda. It was in retaliation for 9/11.

July, 2011

This date might be less well-known to Outsiders. It’s the date that’s been earmarked for the start of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It’s in the future, but I’ll have most of the work done by the time it comes around. And there should be time for me to assess the differences (if there are any) in the situation before and after.

This is a bit of a nothing post, but I figured I’d put something up here, just so you know what’s going on.

At The Moment

… I’m working on models of international illicit markets, and how they operate. Why certain people choose to get involved and others don’t. How opium (and heroin—internationally) are traded, and the ways in which groups benefit is very important.

I also want to stress the importance of non-human factors. Two in particular: the markets and Mother Nature. These are two things that we like to think we can control, but really we can’t. I want to address the impact that natural causes have on the markets.

For instance, a drought in Southeast Asia in the late 1970s meant that a lot of opium production moved to the Golden Cresent. Opium produced in Afghanistan until then had been low scale, and consumed locally. At the same time, in Iran, the Ayatollah banned of the production but not consumption of opium. Suddenly Afghanistan’s opium had an international market, and demand that meant opium production massively increased.

That’s all for now. Reading to do.

No Fly Zones

I’m reasonably ashamed to admit that most Sundays I buy a copy of the Sunday Express (a conservative British newspaper, only slightly less right wing than the Daily Mail). Although I only buy it for the general knowledge crossword (if anyone can suggest a less inflammatory newspaper from which I might procure an hour or so of entertainment on a Sunday morning, I’d be grateful) I had a flick through the paper itself. There was a cartoon that made me chuckle.

It is entitled “No Fly-Zone” and features David Cameron holding a can of “United Nations Approved” fly spray and a fly swat chasing off a disgruntled, winged Gaddaffi. It made me laugh because it so clearly depicted how easy Western powers thought defeating Gaddaffi would be.

I think it’s best summed up, in this instant, by Think Strat’s Facebook status from a few days ago, which reads:

So, our strategy seems to be: 1) Pass a UNSC resolution > 2) ? > 3) Gaddafi gone! A new Libya!

That seems to sum up the thinking. But, the last time that NATO forces tried to win a war by bombing was in the Balkans, and even there success (defined by long-term stability) has been patchy.

Just Once, Let’s Know How We’re Getting Out, Before We Get In.

I was in a seminar a week or so ago, when the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya had just been “put on the table.” One of the main arguments against the NFZ in the seminar was that, it should not be imposed until the rebels come up with a viable alternative. At present, it seems that Think Strat’s assessment (see above) still holds. We know that we the Libyan people don’t want Gaddaffi in power any more, but (to the best of my knowledge, which is limited) we don’t know what they want instead.

I have never advocated it and, in fact, agree wholeheartedly with Patrick Porter’s assessment of 9th, March. Namely, “[a] widely touted no-fly zone over Libya would probably not be a surgical intervention that would trigger the overthrow of Gaddafi, but the first step towards entanglement, further escalation, and deeper conflict.”

So the question remains: Where does this end? And I don’t mean that it a crazy conspiracy theorist kind of sense. Rather, I mean, how do we know when we can stop bombing Benghazi, and lift the no-fly zone?

Answers on a postcard (or, if you’d prefer, in the comments), please.

Seven PMCs Are Going Home

I don’t claim to be an expert on, well, anything, but particularly Private Military Companies (PMCs).

However, this piece from the Associated Press made me think very good thoughts. Firstly, they have a patchy reputation. Think Blackwater, the PMC that just won’t go away. There are apparently links between Raymond Davis and Blackwater/Xe. PMCs also have a reputation for being trigger happy.

But secondly, and more importantly, this is a great day for wider Afghan development. The article makes reference to Hamid Karzai’s desire to take control of the situation. Karzai “charges that they slow down the development of Afghanistan’s own security forces,” which is probably quite true.

Think about it this way: You are trying to learn a new skill and every time you get to an impasse, someone is there saying “that part’s a bit tricky, let me take care of that for you, I’ll give it back when it’s done.”

And also, it’s allowing the Afghan government to further “our commitment to transparency and the rule of law.”

As a first civilian step in demobilizing foreign forces in Afghanistan, I can only see this as a good thing. It will force the Afghan police to step up and take responsibility, knowing, I think, that if bad things start happening, there’ll be a foreigner there, with his foot up someone’s backside, telling him to get it together.

What are your thoughts?

Complexity, Confusion and Frustration

Ok, so there’s something that I need to get out, before I can get back to my ‘manuscript’:

I don’t have a clue what is going on!

There, I said it.

Every time I read something, there is something (a paper, a blog post, a photo essay, a news article, a book, the list is endless), somewhere else with a different, equally valid view, an equally valid opinion. And at that moment, all progress on the work that I am trying to complete grinds to a halt.

There is no right answer. But I feel like, to admit that in a Master’s thesis (or a Ph.D., if this thing doesn’t drive me bonkers) is to loose some credibility as an academic. After all, we’re prized and praised for stoic defenses of this position or that. But when it comes down to it, no one knows the right way to do things. There is no way to account for everything.

But back to my original question: How do you reconcile all these different points of view?


There are roughly 200 succinct(-ish) words of procrastination. I think that they neatly sum up the final conclusion of this New Yorker piece on a new book, The Thief of Time, about procrastination:

In that sense, it might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which.

Perhaps now I can get back to work.

How Can We Go About Changing the Supra-National World Order?

… Or: NATO Might be Dying, the UN Might be Impotent, But Might There be Another Way?

I was inspired by a quote in this post with the thought that in future, interventions should be unilateral in undertaking, multilateral in mandate.

The quote from Stephen Walt that triggered the thought was this:

If the Afghan war ends in a defeat or even some sort of messy compromise, then more people will ask if the Alliance ought to be in the nation-building business at all.

I’ve been following the “Decline of NATOdebate, off and on, for a while, since researching a paper on the possibility of the EU becoming a military superpower.

It’s been difficult for NATO to maintain a coherent and cohesive message (something that is vital in counterinsurgency) throughout its mission in Afghanistan. The mission is, according to Bob Woodward’s account of the debates within the White House around the situation in Afghanistan, becoming increasingly ‘Americanized’. Were it not for America’s ability to be largely self-reliant in terms of manpower, weapons systems and, crucially, strategic lift, there would be more call for NATO writ large to have a presence in Afghanistan.

As it is, according to NATO/ISAF’s ‘Placemat’ which gives the locations (by province) of ISAF deployments, helpfully very recently published, US troops out-number their British counterparts (who have the second most troops deployed) by almost 10:1, and account for 69% of all international forces in Afghanistan. Certain nations contribute infinitesimal numbers of troops, Austria (3), Iceland (5) and Ireland (7) to list just a few. Their commitment is clearly not present. I’m not suggesting in any way that this is a bad thing, or meaning it as a slight against them as nations. But counterinsurgency requires the full commitment of a large number of troops, operating under on exclusive mandate, and set of instructions.

Cultural Difficulties, Added Complexities

This hasn’t been happening. There are plenty of stories of the differing attitudes of the soldiers of NATO countries, embodied in this Telegraph article:

The Dutch approach to the war in Afghanistan is focused more on winning hearts and minds through development and diplomacy than on killing insurgents linked to the hardline Islamist Taliban regime, which was ousted in 2001.

That can make life a little complicated for the troops, some of whom suggest only half-jokingly that they envy US soldiers who, they believe, have more licence to “kick ass”.

Further to these individual cultural differences, there are also more institutionalized cultural discrepancies between NATO’s member states. They are known, rather charmingly, as “caveats”. They are limitations on the activities in which a given nation’s troops may be put to task. This piece (PDF) puts the problem very well. David Auerswald and Stephen Saideman suggest that “caveats have shifted the burden-sharing debate within NATO from budgets in the 1980s to body bags in the 21st century.” And Arnaud de Borchgrave points out in this article for UPI that the Americans, “British, Canadian and Dutch are the only national contingents under NATO command that are not handcuffed.”

Some of the caveats are inconsequential. Some of them are more serious in terms of the mission in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most pressing is that expressed in the concerns of former Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General John Craddock, quoted by de Borchgrave as saying, “[s]ome governments say their troops cannot take part in any counter-narcotics operations.” This, of course, hamstrings NATO’s efforts as a whole in dealing with a problem that supplies the Taliban with “about $400 million a year from its opium poppy crop.” While insurgency is, according to Robert Taber at least, only occasionally economically focused, the narcotics trade still constitutes a large part of the problem in Afghanistan. Also, it is one that is specific to that country. Without these cultural differences (indeed, the nuances of individual countries should decide how they are deployed to intervene) contained within one entity, like NATO, a great deal of unity of direction could be achieved.

Imagine if the job of assigning interventions was multilateral, thereby offering a check against imperialism. Imagine if the job of intervention was then strictly unilateral, thereby discarding any issues of ‘caveats’ or ‘cultural differences’, even the language barrier would disappear. (Although the latter problem was delightfully parodied in No Man’s Land.)

With this thought, bringing together many of my other thoughts, the myriad pieces of the puzzle, I might be formulating something of a TPMB Grand Strategy. It is just the germ of an idea at present, and I don’t know that it would work. I would love to have you spread this idea around and pick holes in it, make it stronger and see if it doesn’t gain some traction.


As a brief post-script to this, I didn’t have time to read it before I posted this piece, but I remembered the headline: Sweden Plans to Start Withdrawal of Troops in 2012. When the Obama administration has announced a date of 2011. Is this not a clear case-in-point of the problems that exist in a multilateral occupying force? Surely for the draw-down date to be believable, although it is not really feasible or sensible, there must be agreement on when it will take place?

Lorenzo Zambernardi and the Theory of COIN

Definitely Difficult

Counterinsurgency is difficult. There’s no denying that. Counterinsurgency is complex. I’ve said that before, and will say it again.

Lorenzo Zambernardi’s analysis [pdf], however, is concerning. He attempts to apply an overly simplistic framework on counterinsurgency; to ‘theorise’ it into existence. TPMB’s post attracted me because of its title: “COIN: It may work in the real world, but does it work in theory?” To my mind, counterinsurgency theory is sound. Get involved with the people. Get out of your big scary trucks and helicopters. Demonstrate that the Afghans will be better off under a less restrictive government. Clarify the pay-offs for the emancipation of women and the benefits this can provide.

The concepts behind COIN are timeless, in the same way that the ways in which people interact is timeless. Everybody loves, everybody hates. Everyone is scared, everyone feels safe. It is vital for governments to establish their authority, that they may viably maintain a monopoly on violence. It is important that government operates with at least a degree of transparency, that the people trusts it enough to make decisions on their behalf.

To continue the analogy: The concepts behind life are as timeless as those of COIN, because both are enacted by the same people. Therefore, sometimes mistakes will be made, sometime irrevocably. However, generally the precepts of COIN are sound.

Zambernardi apparently doesn’t think it’s that simple, and that we must make difficult, dangerously mutually-exclusive, choices if we are to make progress in Afghanistan. He invents an “impossible trilemma.” This relies on, he says, the notion that “it is impossible to simultaneously achieve: 1) force protection, 2) distinction between enemy combatants and noncombatants, and 3) the physical elimination of insurgents.” Essentially his argument is that a counterinsurgent can’t pursue two of these aims without ignoring the third.

You can’t, in Zambernardi’s world, do force protection, distinguish between combatants and non-combatants and eliminate the enemy all at once.

COIN is messy; life is messy

I think that he is wrong to suggest this. Yes, COIN is messy. War is messy. Yes, COIN is dangerous. War is dangerous. Yes, COIN can impact non-combatants. War has huge impacts on non-combatants. Scenes like this are inevitable. We are fighting a war. This may seem like a cynical and easy point of view to take, but I think, and so does Max Boot, that troops “should never doubt that they can call on all the firepower they need to win a fight—but they should never use firepower so promiscuously or inexactly that they will alienate the population and thus lose the war.”

You can make mistakes, as you can in life, but, you can also rectify mistakes. You must persist. You must work hard. You must accept what happens, and work around it.

Obviously, as perhaps the key tenet of counterinsurgency, (and, incidentally, why the Tamil Tigers might be making a comeback: “Ironically, the [Sinhalese] soldiers might now themselves be fomenting a renewed Tamil resistance”) the support of the people and their support of the government is vital in establishing the government’s authority. As Joshua Foust points out this is not being helped by an international community, particularly the US, that “should look at the structural and institutional reasons for his failed presidency,” rather than placing all the blame in Hamid Karzai’s lap.

Zambernardi’s view seems highly ill-informed, and is also tremendously cynical. He suggests that “[t]he current attempt to increase the number and the efficiency of the Afghan national security forces might certainly overcome the Western problem of casualty aversion [Edward Luttwak had a couple of great articles, in Foreign Affairs, outlining this issue (1995 and 1996)] in the long term, but it can solve it only when these forces will be fully reliable and efficient, which will take a few years.” It seems he is suggesting here, after eulogizing on the sadness of soldiers’ deaths, despite acknowledging that “[t]hey are an instrument to be used,” the lives of Afghan soldiers are worth less than the lives of Western soldiers.

It’s just this sort of Western-centric view that puts people off the idea of counterinsurgency, and the mission in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the Outsider, it’s important to remember that, while the deaths of soldiers is tragic, it is a function of their function, as it were. They have submitted to be used by the state as instruments of policy, and that means they implicitly agree to kill and be killed. (I should read The Soldier and the State.)

COIN is a valid strategy for Afghanistan. It will take time. It will take patience. It will take consistency of focus and consistency of mission. But a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, led initially by NATO, handing over to a well-trained and just Afghan military, is possible. A question asked by a listener to an NPR programme that I caught the other day, has inspired something in me, and will likely be the focus of many more blog posts here. I wrote a paraphrase of his question on an index card, so that I could use it focus my mind.

“What kind of government can we install that the Afghan people will support?”

Zambernardi does have a fair point when he dresses down Rupert Smith for ignoring the wider political implications of the need for “fewer heavy weapons and more light infantry.” This shift of focus requires a different relationship between civilians and the military. He continues that after the move away from heavy weapons and back toward more sophisticated technology, “the burden of war moves from advanced technology to foot soldiers.” However, soldiers are, and will remain instruments of the state, as Robert M. Gates recently pointed out. Gates’ argument is that “in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.”

Disconnectedness Defines Danger

It’s fair to say that this ‘disconnect‘ between the public at large and the military is damaging to the overall war effort. It’s something that I have established as a personal belief, and part of the raison d’être of this blog. It is vital that the public at home understand the purpose of the NATO presence in Afghanistan. I think that this is a large part of what is detracting from the mission and making the civilian leadership antsy about the situation. (I just ordered Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars from Amazon, and I’m excited to start reading it. Although Max Boot seems less than enamoured by him.)

There is little in Zambernardi’s article to teach us about counterinsurgency. It strikes me that he is simply trying to add his own scholarly weight into the mix, where the theory and, under the guiding hand of Classicist counterinsurgent David Petraeus, I think NATO forces have a great opportunity to create a more successful future.

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