Measuring Success In Iraq And Afghanistan

This WaPo article suggests that US military officials are viewing the Marine-led coalition initiative in Marjah, Afghanistan, as a success in that "

US army Iraq_1c6cd.jpg

This WaPo article suggests that US military officials are viewing the Marine-led coalition initiative in Marjah, Afghanistan, as a success in that "a significant number of Taliban forces" are leaving the battlefield.

"It's clear that a lot of individuals with the Taliban decided they did not want to stay in this stronghold and have left," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, describing the hour-long meeting Wednesday in the Situation Room.

In other news, Teh Surge 1.0 in Iraq is finally subsiding, and for the first time in years, there are less than 100,000 US troops in that country. With good luck and continued progress, there may be 50,000 US troops in the late summer. Combined with the recent capture of Mullah Baradar (and others), there may be some high-fives going on in the White House as they demonstrate that Democrats can in fact be successful in national security affairs.

However (you knew there was going to be a "however," right?), it is too early to start the celebration party. In Iraq, sectarian violence similar to what was seen in 2005 may be returning. This shouldn't be an excuse to keep US forces in Iraq, but rather to encourage the Iraqi government to get its security forces in a position where it can take responsibility for the issue. It does, however, contradict the established story that Teh Surge 1.0 was a "success" - it did succeed in protecting American troops, but it failed in that the Iraqi government didn't use the opportunity to stabilize its political and military control.

Similarly, it's too early to say that the offensive in Afghanistan, powered by Teh Surge 2.0, will be a success. If there is one solid rule that insurgencies live and die by, it's that insurgency groups don't believe in stand-up battles with superior numbers of trained and ready government forces. Mao Tse-tung knew this:

Obviously those are two extremes when comparing the "Western Way of War" which focuses on a fast and decisive battle to decide the outcome of a war, and the guerrilla tactics of Mao Tse-tung which focus on the continuation of war and the avoidance of any military decision. This explains the reasons why tactics such as hit and run, fight and live to fight for another day are being used by guerrillas around the world. The guerrilla can afford to run when he cannot stand and fight with a good chance of winning, and to disappear and hide when it is not safe to move. "A guerrilla", according to Mao Tse-tung (1937), "can always sink back into the peaceful population which is the sea in which the guerrilla swims like a fish". The space for time formula is well conceived but the importance of time is that it has to be used to produce a political result which translates into the raising of a revolutionary consciousness or the will of the people. In fact, the population is the key to the entire struggle. Without the consent and active aid of the people, the guerrilla would be merely an outlaw and could not survive for long. Without the support of the population, the guerrilla would not exist because there would be no war in the first place.

So what's the point of a strong military offensive, broadcast days in advance, driving into the heart of enemy territory? There is no D-Day here, no single battle that's going to change the nature of the conflict. Seydlitz provides some insight:

[T]he Marjah offensive could be simply a military action in support of diplomacy, that is the US/NATO negotiation process to remove themselves from the conflict, in effect leaving the Afghan state to its own devices. Up till now the Taliban have been operating/negotiating from a position of political strength. By presenting them with a military defeat in Marjah, the US/NATO side turns the tables on the Taliban and allows themselves a better position in which to bargain. ... An operation meant to help cover a strategic withdrawal, or a radical reformulation of the political purpose as presented to the various US/NATO publics.

This makes a lot of sense. The Taliban will take a loss, knowing that they can easily disperse and come back after the Marines leave the province (I'll bet that the Taliban are counting on an ineffective "hold" effort by the Afghani forces who are following the Marines). But a strong military success might, in theory, be seen by the Afghani population as a reason to stop aiding the Taliban and to support the Karzai government's initiatives. It's a stretch, but it's a better explanation than thinking that continued military operations are going to succeed anytime within the next two to five years in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration has set some goals that support extracting US forces out of the tar pit that the Bush administration placed them. With good fortune, it may be that the number of US troops in the Middle East will be far less in 2011 than it is now. I'm hoping that this is going to be the case - my fear is that if Obama does not demonstrate a solid effort toward reversing the Bush administration's inertia in the Middle East, it's going to come back hard against him in 2012. And for some reason, I do want to see President Obama get a second term.

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