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.

(Afghan Outsider is an Amazon affiliate. If you click on the book links and go on to buy the book, we receive a small commission. Thanks for your support.)

Thomas Barnett and the Taliban

I’m a bit of a TPMB fanboy, as I have previously alluded to. I love the way that he thinks about how the world works. Sometimes I think that he is a little too US-centric in his views, but that’s OK. It’s good to disagree.

With this post, however, I wholeheartedly agree. It beings with the story of the Taliban’s “first public executions by stoning since their fall from power nine years ago.”

What’s great about this piece, however, is the way TPMB processes it. “The only way to prevent an outcome we cannot abide … is to convince them otherwise, and that means creating permanent connectivity between Afghanistan and the outside world that keeps the spotlight on such activity and penalizes for it in a way that makes it cost prohibitive to pursue.”

Connectivity is a key part of TPMB’s thesis on how the world operates. It borrows strongly from Thomas Friedman’s ideas in Lexus and the Olive Tree. The more that a nation, or group of nations, buys into other nations, the more accountable it must be for its actions, the more scrutiny it is under from other global actors.

TPMB’s assertion that those who will never buy in to the idea that social justice and equality are good things should be hunted down and killed for “their sheer evolutionary backwardness” brings to mind something that David Kilcullen discusses in The Accidental Guerrilla. That is that many ‘Taliban’ fighters could be co-opted; they don’t necessarily live the core values of ‘Taliban’ leaders. However, there is a relatively small (three or four thousand, according to Kilcullen) hardcore of fighters who must be killed or captured.

TPMB’s solution, then, is relatively simple. It’s one of the reasons that I like his ideas so much. Very big-picutre. Very gestalt. Connect Afghanistan to the rest of the world, economically, technologically (as much as is possible without scaring them off), socially (ditto) and see a more stable (not stable) country for us to leave and watch develop (not descend).