Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Bing West on Karzai

Must read. Key bit:

The problem with building a new and better Afghanistan is that, above the local level, President Karzai has long held the levers of political power by controlling provincial finances and leadership appointments, including those of police chiefs. Regardless of the coalition’s success at the district level, an obdurate and erratic Mr. Karzai is an obstacle to progress.

The success in Marja, however, changed the dynamics of the conflict. It now seems that the planned surge of 30,000 additional troops will likely achieve progress in “clearing and holding” Kandahar and other Taliban-controlled areas by mid-2011. At that time, the force ratio will be one coalition soldier for every three Afghan soldiers and policemen, and the Afghan Army will still rely upon us for firepower and moral support.

Ideally, we could then begin to withdraw major American units and leave behind small task forces that combine advisory and combat duties, leading to a new ratio of about one American to 10 Afghans. Not only would this bring our troops home, but it would shift the responsibility for nation-building to Afghan forces.

At the same time, we would have to pivot our policy in two ways. First, Mr. Karzai should be treated as a symbolic president and given the organizational “mushroom treatment” — that is, we should shut off the flows of information and resources directly to the national government.

President Ronald Reagan did something similar with another erratic ally, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. In February 1986, Reagan warned Marcos that if government troops attacked opposition forces holed up on the outskirts of Manila, it would cause “untold damage” to his relations with the United States — meaning the aid spigot would be turned off. When his countrymen saw that he was stripped of prestige and support, they forced Marcos into exile.

Second, the coalition must insist that the Afghan military play a primary role in the governance of the districts and provinces, including in the allocation of aid and the supervision of the police. We should work directly with those local and provincial leaders who will act responsibly, and cut off those who are puppets of Kabul.

Do what Bing says!

Roman Britain, the U.S. and 21st Century Iraq/Afghanistan

No one can understand history without continually relating the long periods which are constantly mentioned to the experiences of our own short lives. Five years is a lot. Twenty years is the horizon to most people. Fifty years is antiquity. To understand how the impact of destiny fell upon any generation of men one must first imagine their position and then apply the time-scale of our own lives. Thus nearly all changes were far less perceptible to those who lived through them from day to day than appears when the salient features of an epoch are extracted by the chronicler. We peer at these scenes through dim telescopes of research across a gulf of nearly two thousand years. We cannot doubt that the second and to some extent the third century of the Christian era, in contrast with all that had gone before and most that was to follow, were a Golden Age for Britain. But the early part of the fourth century shadows had fallen upon this imperfect yet none the less tolerable society. By steady, persistent steps the sense of security departed from Roman Britain. Its citizens felt by daily experience a sense that the world-wide system of which they formed a partner province was in decline. They entered a period of alarm.

So begins chapter 4 of Book I of Winston Churchill’s A History of the English Speaking Peoples.
One cannot but be struck, as one reads not only this passage, but the entire History, by the depth and breadth of Sir Winston’s historical knowledge, and his gift for English prose. The fourth chapter, entitled “The Lost Island,” relays to us the closing and somewhat tragic act of Britain’s first appearance in history, in the role of a rustic outlying Roman province.

That story, begins with a first indecisive campaign by Julius Caesar (55 BC), continues with the story of Britain as a relatively secure Roman province, beset by insurgency, political intrigue and external threats, and ends with the onslaught of the Saxons, and the semi-legendary story of Arthur, as the last vestige of the Roman order.

When you read Churchill’s account in the first three chapters of Book I, it is not possible to put aside who it is that is writing the book, when in history he wrote, and what it is he thinks is of value in the story for Britain of his time. Britain was the dominate world empire of the 18th and 19th centuries, as was Rome in its day. As he wrote volume I, in the late 30’s the British Empire was intact but waning, threatened by the impending world war and independence movements. Sir Winston’s approach to his own time was the long view. The British Empire did not last as long as the Roman, yet it did have a similar salutatory historical/cultural impact. Outposts of that far flung empire were in the process of becoming thriving independent nations that carried on the tradition of consensual republican government and individual rights. He saw that evolution and related it to the Roman period. To quote Sir Winston on the theme of his HOESP:

'In the main,' Churchill wrote in a letter to historian Maurice Ashley in April 1939, 'the theme is emerging of the growth of freedom and law, of the rights of the individual, of the subordination of the State to the fundamental and moral conceptions of an ever-comprehending community. Of these ideas the English-speaking peoples were the authors, then the trustees, and must now become the armed champions. Thus I condemn tyranny in whatever guise and from whatever quarter it presents itself.'

The excerpted opening paragraph of Chapter 4 gives good advice, not only for historians, but for those that would attempt to apply the lessons of history to present day problems. Reading Churchill’s account of Roman Britain, it is natural to think about our grand strategy concerning Iraq and Afghanistan. I can be precise as to exactly where Sir Winston struck that nerve in my case. It was his use of the descriptive phrase “this imperfect yet none the less tolerable society” in regard to Roman Britain. It made me ask:

“Why does Sir Winston use this phraseology?

“What purpose did the Romans have in annexing Britain, and making of it a province?”

“Why did they feel it was necessary?”

And of course, we have to ask these related questions:

“Why is it that the project of making Britain a province ultimately failed?”

“How can we in the 21st century avoid the failures of the Romans?”

And just to be sure I’m not question begging with the last two questions:

“Can we indeed call a 150-200 year period of relative peace and ‘tolerability’ a failure?”

Some further questions:

“Doing as Churchill suggests and “applying the time-scale of our own lives,” what are the takeaways from the Roman experience in Britain, takeaways we can utilize in pacification/COIN efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq?”

And the obvious big question that talk of timescales forces upon us is this:

“Will we be at this for hundreds of years as, were the Romans in Britain?”

And another:

“What can be learned from the approximately 400 year history of Roman Britain that can be applied to our now-approaching-decade old project of state building in Afghanistan and Iraq?”

Provisional Answers for some of this:

Certainly similarities exist between the contemporary case and the ancient. A few:
Despite improved technology, Iraq and Afghanistan remain far flung from the center of our ‘empire’. We have responsibilities all over the world, and are at the center of a world order which consists of sovereign states, of which we are the leader. There are states outside our sphere of friendship that do not wish us well, and work to undermine that world order. They make use of non-state actors.

The Romans had, despite the world-wide reach of their empire, an isolationist outlook, which paradoxically set it on the road to ‘empire.’ In the interest of national security Rome began to expand, not by merely conquering and subjugating (as with Carthage for instance), but in many cases, by showing a great deal of magnanimity, and actually allowing conquered nations a good deal of autonomy, and for those that became provinces, full membership in the empire. In fact, provincials could become full Roman citizens. There were always powers that were not friendly to the Romans. There were always the ancient equivalent of stateless actors, and there was always cooperation of the former with the latter. So, as the empire grew, the Romans always had dealings in ‘far flung’ places at the edge of their growing sphere of cooperation. The provinces and other cooperating nations became dependent upon the Roman Empire to keep the peace, and made contributions toward this, either in money, material or troops. But, because of the hegemony of Rome, they did not have to, nor did they choose to, create and sustain large independent standing armies or navies, hence the dependency.

The United States has not gone as far as offering citizenship, but, in the interest of keeping the homeland relatively secure, has done many of the same things, post WWII. Once again, paradoxically, this grew out of our desire to be left alone. We too have alliances with “dependent states” whose armies are insufficient for self defense. Much of Europe is like this. Japan as well. The exception is that these countries do have standing military, but very much smaller than they were in the early 20th century.

Early in the national lives of both the U.S. and Rome there were rival world empires to contend with, empires of decidedly authoritarian bent. The Romans had Carthage, and we had the Soviet Union. Once these authoritarian regimes were eliminated, the two worlds (ancient and modern) became essentially unipolar.

In neither case, with the fall of the authoritarian regime, was there an “end to history”. The two worlds entered a phase of small conflicts spread around the world, “first” and “fourth generation” warfare.

Despite their distance and relative backwardness, both Iraq and Afghanistan were sources of serious threats to U.S. national security. The latter hosted a trans-national terrorist group that carried out several attacks on U.S. interests. The former was also an active supporter of AQ and other such groups, a proven belligerent and threat to countries with which the U.S. is allied, and was also believed to be in the process of stockpiling especially dangerous weaponry. Given the nature of the regime, it was determined that this could not stand. There was much rancorous argument concerning the legitimacy of the arguments for action.

With regard to ancient Rome and ancient Britain, the threat emanating from the Germanic people of continental Europe was substantial, and placed pressure on the outermost provinces. Primitive though these people were, the threat had to be dealt with. So, in order to effectively deal with the Germanic threat, Churchill tells us, it became apparent to the Romans that they would have to cross the channel into Britain. It was believed that a great many of the fighters encountered in Europe were coming from the British Isles. So, despite the distance, and the lack of a direct threat, the indirect threat was judged sufficient to warrant annexation. That island source of foreign fighters had to be dried up. There was much rancorous argument as to the necessity of this move.

The subsequent history of the ‘occupation’ of Britain is full of ups and downs, infighting and intrigues, self interested characters, both Roman and British, playing each other, making shady deals. All this looks familiar. Yet, for a time, despite this ‘imperfection’ there was a functional level of independence in Roman Britain. Life was tolerable, in fact advanced for the natives, and the island was tolerably pacified, from the point of view of Rome.

With regard to Afghanistan and Iraq, we have seen troughs and valleys in our hopes of successfully pacifying the violence, and setting up functional governments. We are set on a course of eventual withdrawal of all or most U.S. and coalition troops, and have always had a goal in mind of “garrisoning” Iraq and Afghanistan mostly with natives. But before we feel comfortable in doing this, we want assurance that the two governments are not only effective, but truly independent of the less than savory countries that surround them. We also do not want to leave behind governments that lack domestic legitimacy, because of corruption. Very public battles in this regard now rage between Washington and Kabul, and similar battles were the norm in pre-surge Iraq, but are less so today. Iraq is closer to ‘tolerability’ than is Afghanistan. The two nascent states are surrounded by countries that have interest in either toppling the governments or controlling them. These countries may or may not resort to military action. Some of these states have an ambiguous relationship to the U.S., others are straightforwardly hostile.

The Romans also had in mind the eventual goal of garrisoning Britain with native troops, but also wanted, by dent of the obvious advantages accrued by being a province, to create genuine consent to annexation, thus stabilizing local governance to the point that Rome itself would not need to maintain a costly presence. There was an initial phase of resistance, and insurgency (Queen Boadicea was an insurgent on steroids, wiping out the populations of three different Romanized town, last one being “Londinium” a rather large port/trading post.) After an equally merciless response from Rome, the insurgency was quelled. There followed a relative calm highlighted by an effort for hearts and minds, an ‘imperfect’ general consent took root, an imperfectly loyal local government stabilized, intrigues continued, worries in Rome about readiness levels for other parts of the empire were consistent, a drawdown of garrisoned forces was undertaken, there were resurgent insurgencies, inadequately answered, followed by a slowly developing phase of dissolution as the locals were not able to maintain the level of garrisoning necessary to protect themselves. This was due to the Empire’s requirement for troops elsewhere. Rome took native troops as well as garrisons that had been imported from other areas of the empire into Britain (to man Hadrian’s Wall for instance). Infighting did not bode well for the long-term stability of Roman Britain.

The Roman order (Republican and Imperial) lasted for about a millennia. This is a time period impossible for us to fully comprehend. So, taking Churchill’s advice, the history of the Roman political entity is often described in terms of an individual human life, the late empire compared to a fat, pampered and well to do aristocrat, who once was a fighting youth (during the Republican and Early Empire phases), but in his dotage was somewhat corrupted by the wealth he created by his earlier exertions. The parallel is drawn between the old well to do wealthy individual and the late Roman Empire, which had grown into something of a welfare state, luxuriant, and populated by citizenry typically unwilling to fight for the Empire’s survival.
The economic reality of increased spending on entitlement programs and increased spending on the interest and financing of that deficit spending puts us in a position not unlike the late Republic, even though, in many respects, we are not world weary and retiring with regard to our military presence around the world. Be that as it may, our politicians may come to the decision that we cannot but retire, or face economic catastrophe.

I’m not an economist, so I don’t pretend to know just how close we are to ‘dire’ in that regard, nor how much a global drawdown would do to forestall the catastrophe, but we can see that such withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan will have similar security repercussions to the Roman failure in Europe and Britain, not only for local stability, but also for U.S. national security. The modern equivalent of the Saxon and Germanic tribes would move in and seize control of the two countries.

So what? We lose face, but in the big scheme of things, is that really all that big a deal? One may say that there is significant disanalogy between the two cases, due to our favored geographical location and technological superiority. Unlike the Romans, we run no risk of an invasion of the home country by the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Iran, Syria etc... The Romans, on the other hand had them coming from all sides, and did not have the manpower to defend all their frontiers. We are lucky enough to have vast oceans, and border countries that present no threat. So, we are much better off than the Romans of the late Empire. Even the Chinese are unlikely to invade. They seem intent on disabling us with cyber attacks. That may be all they need to do to gain the upper hand economically. Who knows? Even if they succeed, you might say that it would hardly be a catastrophe. So we become an economic equivalent of France. Big deal.

But, that possibility shows that the disanalogy between ancient Rome and 21st Century America is not quite as disanalogous as this argument contends. The spate of Chinese cyber attacks are just the latest in at least a decade’s worth of such activities. The 9/11 attacks show us that non-state actors not only have global reach, but can bring on large scale carnage. Add to this witch’s brew just a few state sponsors, chemical, biological, and nuclear capabilities, along with a globalized economy, completely dependent upon computer technology, and it is not too hard to envision a successful coordinated attack designed by our enemies (both state and non-state) that could send us into a dark ages, either temporarily or over a longer term. Is that not a catastrophe, given that the same witch’s brew of technology would then be available in a world that lacked the global policeman? Who would be the 21st Century Augustine, witness to the end of an era, and looking into the face of centuries of a balkanized yet technologically dangerous new dark period?