Are the Afghans Learning to Defend Themselves?

Security Force Assistance in Afghanistan: Identifying Lessons for Future Efforts | RAND.

Stripping the politics and the rhetoric out of the question, RAND scholars Terrence Kelly, Nora Bensahel, and Olga Oliker dig into whether and how the Security Force Assistance (SFA) program has been effective in the Afghan counterinsurgency.

The idea behind SFA is getting the Afghans to fight their own internal battles. In some cases, arguably Iraq, that program works, allowing US troops to go home even when there is an active insurgency.

I would not expect RAND to be as caustic in its analysis as other sources, but in a way that can actually be accepted and acted upon inside the E-ring in the Pentagon, what RAND says delivers a punch, and it is read carefully.

Well worth the read for those watching the evolving situation in Southwest Asia.

A Primer for Afghan Peace Talks

An inside view of the old Afghan parliament bu...

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It seems likely that the focus in Afghanistan is going to shift away from eliminating the Taliban to finding a negotiated solution for coexistence between the tribes and factions that have found themselves on one side or another of the current conflict. The concern of all is that history has a tendency to echo, and nobody really wants to return to a state of constant, unmediated civil war.

Part of that challenge is ensuring that those negotiating on behalf of the world’s great powers are well-briefed: an abiding danger in any mediated negotiation is that the mediators are badly informed. Against that challenge, James Shinn and James Dobbins have written Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer. In the book they not only introduce the parties to the talks and the challenges those talks will face, but also a pathway to an agreement, and a draft framework for the agreement itself.

Whether peace can be brought to a region fraught by conflict for the better part of two centuries, where the wounds between tribes remain fresh and deep, is a matter whose answer lies far beyond the tactics of negotiation and whether the outsiders are prepared to engage effectively. Each of the Afghan tribes and the Taliban must believe that their best interests like in cooperation rather than conflict, a matter that speaks to their respective visions of the future and Nashian game-theory more than great power politics.

Yet great power unity is essential for success, and the authors lay out a thoughtful framework of international influence and interests in the process. They recognize that if the U.S., Russia, India, China, or Iran decide that a negotiated peace in Afghanistan is not in their best interests, the conflict will continue. Thus there are really two layers of peace talks: the one in which Kabul and the Taliban agree to peace, and one in which the rest of the world agrees to stand together to preserve the delicate balance.

In breaking these challenges down to their fundamentals, Shinn and Dobbins have done much more than create a briefing book for negotiators: they have given all of us a program and a scorecard that will make the otherwise byzantine maze of Afghan politics much more comprehensible.

Bringing the Bad Boys Home

Kilcullen (Dept. of State) ecosystem of insurgency

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One of the most important aspects of a successful counterinsurgency effort is how the government handles former insurgents once they have effectively switched sides. Simply letting them go leaves them susceptible to the same forces that put them into the insurgency in the first place, but relocation leaves them both disconnected and alienated, once again making them perfect recruiting fodder for the movements they had left.

In Reintegrating Afghan Insurgents, Seth Jones examines the experience in Afghanistan and comes up with recommendations for turning former insurgents into productive members of society, even as the insurgency continues.

Jones’ recommendations are operational rather than political or strategic: to a certain extent he assumes that the insurgency is on the wrong side of history. Nonetheless, what makes this a worthy read is that the conclusions apply not only to Afghanistan, but to any insurgency. Jones keeps his recommendations short and to the point, making this accessible to the layman as well as the expert. Free download.

Rethinking U.S. Policy in Southwest Asia

Immediately before Richard Amitage passed away earlier this year, he chaired an independent task force on Southwest Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The result was U.S. Strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, a book that provides both a nuanced look at the US policy choices in the region and recommendations to fix what is broken.

The book is not a meditation on whether the US and NATO have any business in the region, nor does it offer an endorsement to the Obama Administration’s policies. Instead, the report offers qualified support, suggesting that the problem is not the policy but how we are executing on the ground.

I pay attention to Pakistan and Afghanistan because China does. The next four years in Pakistan and Afghanistan will define the limits of U.S. power and its ability to influence events in Asia. As much as China would like to see American influence circumscribed, having the countries slide into a chaotic power-vacuum or serve as the cradle of a fundamentalist caliphate would threaten China’s stability more directly than it would harm U.S. security.

On his deathbead, Richard Armitage was haunted by fears of chaos in the region. What haunts me is the prospect of a new great game between India, China, Russia, and Iran, all focused on Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the anger of tribes sick to death of living on a battleground. Read this short book: it offers a narrow path away from that future.