February 28th, 2012

The End of Trust Or The End of Illusions?

The hue and cry over the latest Afghan killing of US troops makes one wonder why media commentators do not recognize that supposedly allied Afghans have been shooting American soldiers for years. Nathan Ross Chapman, the first American soldier to be killed in Afghanistan, died in a 2002 ambush near Khost. His killer? A teenager operating on behalf of a non-Taliban warlord unhappy about Americans altering the local balance of power. While portrayed as a new crisis that erodes American trust in Afghan counterparts, it is in fact an old problem.

Since then, the problem has significantly worsened. Afghan soldiers shot 13 of their American comrades in 2011 and are on track to surpass this dubious record in 2012 with 10 Blue-on-Blue killings this year. The author of a red team report on Afghan-American military fratricide blames this on a cultural disconnect between Americans and Afghans, an “quantity over quality” rapid expansion of the Afghan National Security Forces that brings plenty of ne’er do-wells into military service, and the lack of mechanisms for NATO personnel to hold negligent, criminal, or otherwise incompetent ANSF troops accountable. So why the new narrative about a supposed loss of trust?

Fred Kaplan’s response to these unwelcome developments is an interesting case of how many seem to be sleepwalking into a recognition that American-Afghan relations are fundamentally dysfunctional. The browser heading of Kaplan’s latest article argues that the latest killings are “destroying the trust necessary to rebuild the country” and represent a deliberate tactic of insurgency. By showing that not even Americans and powerful Afghans are safe, Kaplan argues, the Taliban demonstrate that no one is safe:

Insurgency wars are usually battles for the allegiance or control of the people. The objective of a counterinsurgency campaign, as Galula and Petraeus and many others have said, is to persuade the local people that we can protect them, and provide them with basic services, more than the insurgents can. If the people don’t believe this, if the insurgents persuade them otherwise, the war is all but lost.

The idea that the killings have “destroyed the trust necessary” to rebuild Afghanistan is presumes that there was some kind of sacred bond between American and Afghan that was tragically shattered by gunshots inside the Interior Ministry. But there was never a kind of intimate relationship with the US and Afghanistan that Kaplan implies with his writing about Galula. Instead, there was a very rickety relationship with Afghan elites that broke down as the US discovered that those same elites, empowered as American proxies, were actually self-interested actors in a society torn by civil war. And those men looked out for their interests rather than Uncle Sam’s. 

In Afghanistan, the US always had a transactional relationship with the Afghan government and a preference for emergency men. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Eazy-E of Kabul, got his power precisely because of the US reliance on local fixers. Hamid Karzai was given unprecedented (by Afghan standards) centralized control over the government. Neither of these figures, though perhaps pliant enough to US interests, really worked in favor of them. As Joshua Foust argues, the American commetariat’s shock and horror over Karzai’s rigged election was emblematic of a refusal to grapple with the structural contradiction posed by empowering a single man and his family and simultaneously trying to build up a broad-based government and security force capable of providing security, justice, and welfare to the Afghan people. The 2009-2010 “It’s the Tribes” fad only doubled down on the mistake by lavishing US patronage on yet another set of predatory local elites.

What little incentive Karzai has, as Foust has also eloquently argued, to govern in a liberal manner is eroded by the fact that his government, though centralized, is actually wholly dependent on a personalized system of patronage to exercise power and authority. Karzai has immense symbolic power, but in order to make it real he must balance a semifeudal underlay of elites with the demands of international patrons. It is not about the character of the man but the corrupt nature of the system itself. Thus, it is unsurprising that a combination of bureaucratic centralization overlaid over a personalized patronage system would unsurprisingly produce—(wait for it)—inefficiency and corruption!

US trust in Karzai eroded when the shock of Karzai’s dubious election drove home the fact that Washington was dealing with an already self-interested man trying to navigate a thoroughly corrupt system. And Karzai, if he ever trusted Washington, certainly doesn’t now. This is a man, after all, who nonchalantly threatened to throw his lot in with the Taliban. If Karzai has read his history (or turned on CNN or BBC in the last year) he also probably tends to understand that the respective fates of the Diem family, the Shah of Iran, and Egypt’s Mubarak do not bode well for his continued survival. Washington is a bit schizophrenic about even longtime clients. So sure, Afghan killing Americans is certainly eroding trust, but there isn’t really much of that to spare of late.

Galula’s bromide about the true objective of counterinsurgency campaigns is also next-to-useless when thinking about what really has challenged the United States in Afghanistan. First, Galula’s description of COIN is a whitewash of what actually occured in the French colonial wars. His compatriots Roger Triniquer and Paul Aussaresses unrepentantly declared (in memoirs and treatises) that they freely and enthusiastically violated the laws of war in their efforts to destroy the enemy. And that was the objective, make no mistake about it. Informers, divide-and-rule tactics with native auxiliaries, a heavily barricaded border, and mobile intervention forces were freely employed, and failed because of the obvious: a militarily significant amount of Algerians did not want to be Frenchmen and a number of Frenchmen (including one Charles DeGualle) were content to let them go in order to save France itself from political collapse and armed terrorism by groups such as the far-right Secret Army Organization (OAS) against the French government.

Second, the objective of counterinsurgency campaigns, like any other military campaign, is to advance the political object with force. It is bizarre that when watching The Battle of Algiers, the primary lesson that seems to be taken is that a better strategy would have worked. The director of the movie, Gilles Pontecorvo, was a leftist who explicitly intended the movie to damn France’s colonial policy to preserve a political order that privileged a few French colonists over the indigenous masses. If a policy is not achievable through force, then the policy itself must be questioned before a state goes to war. Instead, Kaplan and others quoting Galula believe that the same policy should be maintained—with civilian engagement substituted for the engagement of the enemy, the task that an army is ostensibly raised to perform.

Let’s assume, for a second, that Galula is right, and actual empirical examination of insurgencies is wrong. COIN is about protecting the people, gaining their trust, and out-governing an enemy trying to compete for the population’s allegiance through carrot and stick. Actually implementing such an idea would, of course, run the US up against a solid wall: the fact that American liberalism does not mesh with the interests of Karzai’s government or the warlords and fixers that the US has backed. Even if the Taliban did not frustrate the “government in a box,” creating sound governance on the ground would challenge the authority of Kabul and the warlords. And of course, the predictable response by those same Kabul grandees and warlords is to use American money and projects as another illicit revenue stream. The irony is that the success of American counterinsurgency-if designed along Galula-esque lines—would most certainly disrupt the very political system the United States helped to design and implement.

American soldiers being shot will certainly undermine trust. But given the nature of the relationship between US and Afghan elites, was trust really possible? The current media panic is disingenous because it ignores how the politics of Af-Pak created a situation that eroded trust on both sides. And the fact that 10 years’ worth of Blue-on-Blue military fratricides have been ignored up until now is a sad commentary in and of itself.

Loading tweets...


A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng