Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
GIDEON ROSE: We're delighted to have back with us today Steve Biddle, one of the country's sanest and most knowledgeable defense analysts, to tell us about what's going on in Afghanistan. Steve was just over there and is now back here. He says it's even hotter there than here and he was not referring just to the weather. So, Steve, tell us first what you saw and then we will get into a discussion of what it means.
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Well, with respect to observations, let me start with what I think is the biggest question about the war at the moment, which is whether we can win and whether we're winning. You know, that's behind a lot of the trends in public opinion. And my sense of the debate here has been that there's been a strongly pessimistic zeitgeist over the last couple of months, which I think is substantially overstated. I think we've been on a rollercoaster ride where the command in-theater, for a variety of reasons back in the spring, got substantially over optimistic and led people to expect unrealistically rapid progress.
Then they ran into reality and the result is that now everyone's excessively pessimistic. And I think what would be appropriate is if we all got back on the happy road in between.
Let me flesh that out a little by saying a bit on the security side of things and a bit on the governance side of things, because I think this rollercoaster ride is a response to stimuli on both of those scores.
On the security side of things, we tend to want counterinsurgency to be like painting a house. You start at the lower left-hand corner and make steady, continuous progress. Eventually, the whole house is painted and you've got success. The problem is that is a poor mental model for what's going on. COIN is a lot closer to surgery. It's a long, painful process where indicators of trauma go up before they go down. So the fact that trauma indicators are going up doesn't tell you very much.
It may be that they eventually go back down, the patient is cured, and you win. But patients die on the operating table, too. The fact that trauma indicators are going up doesn't mean that they're going to stay up or come back down. What it really tells you is that the violence statistics aren't worth much.
And in many ways, where we are in Afghanistan right now is a lot like where we were in Iraq in June of 2007, when the surge brigades had all arrived, violence was way up, and not a lot of good had been done that you could see in the casualty statistics. And at the time it was widely interpreted as evidence of failure -- which, of course, it wasn't. But it wasn't a sign of success either. The trouble is that you're in one of those moments where it's dark before the dawn and you don't know whether the dawn is coming or not.
ROSE: So when will you -- and how will you -- know whether dawn has arrived?
BIDDLE: Well, I think it takes at least a year, especially in Afghanistan, to know whether a given village or a given district has been stabilized and whether the model is working or not. The fighting there is very seasonal. So until you've had a whole fighting season and a winter, it is very hard to know.
Now, what that means is that there are places in Afghanistan where you can know something. And we spent some time in central Helmand on this last trip and there are parts where we've been for a year or more -- for example Nad Ali and Garmsir -- where the Taliban have been kicked out. They've tried to counterattack and reestablish themselves but that effort has largely failed and the places are reasonably stable at this point.
The war ain't over there by any stretch of the imagination, but the areas are reasonably stable because, to an important degree, we've been there for 18 months or more.
ROSE: So what I hear you saying is that you have a Potter Stewart definition of success, but not a Potter Stewart definition of failure. In other words, if it is working you'll see the levels of violence come down at some point. You'll see things start to stabilize and then you'll know things are going well. But if that hasn't happened yet, it is hard to distinguish between "It may happen down the road" and "It's not going to happen."
BIDDLE: Yeah. And eventually, there's a statute of limitations on this. I mean, you can't reasonably expect after five or six years to keep saying, "Well, it'll happen eventually." Again, I think about a year to 18 months is a reasonable time frame. You have to live through a whole fighting cycle.
ROSE: So, in effect, you are saying we should have some kind of mental clock ticking but we should have set it for when the new set of policies -- the Afghan surge -- essentially began?
BIDDLE: I think that's right. I also think we have to look at the details of the sequence of things that are happening, rather than just the aggregate casualty statistics -- especially at the national level.
If the model is working, if COIN is doing what it's supposed to do, a series of things should happen, more or less in this order: first you clear the bad guys out, then the bad guys are going to try and counterattack. You have to expect that and resist it. The counterattacks eventually tail off and then you have to build up governance. So there's a series of things that happen.
What I'm advocating in assessing the situation in Afghanistan is that we do it in a much more disaggregated way. We don't look at whether July is the largest casualty month in the history of the war at that national level. That doesn't tell us much. You've got to look at particular places in terms of their own natural history. When did the operation start there? At what part of the process should you reasonable expect a place like Nawa, as opposed to a place like Marjah, to be? And is what you're seeing consistent with what you would expect for this moment in the natural history of that place?
In Marjah, I think you could reasonably expect that we're right smack in the middle of the first major fighting season since the United States showed up. And this is counterattack time. I think that's basically what we're seeing. It is a really bad sign if we're still seeing the same thing next July in Marjah.
ROSE: Okay. You're taking a very sensible, calm approach to this. There's an American political debate that is going on its own course and timetable. And of course, the administration has locked itself in -- at least rhetorically -- to a timetable. How does the sensible course you're suggesting interact with the also sensible -- for domestic political reasons -- course the administration is trying to adopt?
BIDDLE: Well, I think to a large extent that depends on events on the ground and on the way the administration and the command presents them. So for example, I think public support for the war is powerfully shaped by whether people think we're winning or losing. And this comes back to this question of how you assess the way things are going. I think the command and administration need to start establishing the case that we're going about this in a step-by-step way and should judge on the places where we've had enough time. And you know, assess accordingly.
Now, I think that is, in fact, what they are doing. The December 2010 reassessment window that was so much discussed at the time of the president's West Point speech is, as far as I can tell, being down pedaled. I think that is largely a statement that in the places where command (I think erroneously or ill-advisedly) put so much emphasis -- the new offensive actions in Marjah and Kandahar -- they're just not going to know by December, because you won't have seen a full fighting season by that time.
So I think they're trying to say, essentially, that they won't know enough by then to be able to get a good gauge on how the war is going and they're trying to suggest that they are going to make this decision later. If the offenses that we conduct in Marjah and Kandahar bear the fruit that one would hope and expect, then the public will allow a continued extending of the clock. If they don't, if by July 2011 Kandahar is a disaster area and Marjah has not turned, I think it's going to be very hard to sustain public support.
ROSE: Let me take you into two areas that have been much discussed -- in the media at least -- over the last few months. The first is the change of command and the second is the WikiLeaks episode.
What I hear you saying is that the change in command actually didn't have all that dramatic an effect on the war and that what seemed like a dramatic episode -- at least in terms of persons, media play, and so forth -- was not actually that dramatic in terms of the conduct of the war. Is that the case?
BIDDLE: I think that's right. I mean, after all, [General Stanley] McChrystal's strategy had been conducted under [General David] Petraeus's guidance. Petraeus was McChrystal's boss. So the idea that Petraeus would have some radically different idea of how to conduct the war is inconsistent with the idea that he was in a position to give thumbs up or thumbs down on the conduct of the war [previously]. I'm sure you'll see some things get more emphasis at the margin and other things less, but I'd be shocked if there was some major redirection, some transformative moment in the way the war was being waged.
ROSE: And what is your take on the WikiLeaks controversy? "Move along, nothing to see here"? Or something dramatic and interesting?
BIDDLE: Well, I mean, it's damaging in a variety of ways. In part, when you look at the tactical dynamics of counterinsurgency on the ground, you are trying to convince people that they will survive the act of cooperating with you. That's what the troop presence does at the end of the day. And obviously, having the names of people who cooperate with us broadcast to Internet-savvy folks like al Qaeda and the Taliban is not helping us on that score.
Now, by the same token, the proof will be in the pudding as to whether or not we can, in fact, protect these folks after their names have been revealed. That is unhelpful. I don't think it will be decisive in the larger scheme of the war, but it's certainly unhelpful.
Similarly, the politics of it, I think, are unhelpful for those who believe the war is worth waging. But I think it is unlikely to be decisive in the same way that the Pentagon papers arguably were back in Vietnam -- largely because of the content of this thing as opposed to what the Pentagon papers were -- an actual analysis. This is just a data dump. It is a data dump that ended before the [Obama]
administration implemented its new strategy. So the fact that it shows declining fortunes in some extremely sprawling and disaggregated way isn't inconsistent with the administration's own narrative of the war, which is that things were getting worse. Their strategy was redirected and now you should expect that things are on a better path.
ROSE: Of course, that was true with the Pentagon papers as well -- they were Johnson administration papers that came out during Nixon's administration.
BIDDLE: Yeah. But by the Nixon administration, the strategic context of the war was to get out, not to get in and up.
ROSE: You've been very dispassionate and calm. Let me take you out of that for a second. Imagine parents of a soldier going off to Afghanistan. The parents read that there are only a few score al Qaeda operatives left and many of them are in Pakistan. Why in the world is their child being sent off to die for an endless war in some dusty place in the middle of nowhere? What is the high concept, serious rationale for why this continuous expenditure of blood and treasure is worth it for the United States?
BIDDLE: Well, the administration has made two arguments for why it is worth it: that Afghanistan should not be allowed to become, again, a base for striking the United States, and that Afghanistan not be allowed to become a base for destabilizing its neighbors -- especially Pakistan.
ROSE: Do you buy either of those?
BIDDLE: Well, they're both reasonable, but the first is not particularly compelling. The second is, I think, the much stronger of the two.
There's nothing unique about Afghanistan as a potential base for attacking the United States. There are lots of ill-governed states around the world that al Qaeda global could use to set up a new base. They could use Yemen, they could use Somalia, they could use Djibouti. There are plenty of alternatives to Afghanistan. We're not going to deploy 100,000 American ground troops everywhere al Qaeda might possibly set up a base. We obviously can't do that.
But Afghanistan is unique as a base for destabilizing Pakistan. And Pakistan is a unique national security threat to the United States. It is a nuclear-armed state with al Qaeda's global headquarters on their border. And it has an ongoing, internal war that -- by lots of indicators -- isn't going very well for the Pakistani government.
If the counterinsurgency project in Afghanistan were to fail and the Karzai government replaced by either chaos and renewed civil war or -- less likely, but still possible -- by some new Taliban restoration, it would be a substantial source of instability and aggravation in Pakistan, which is central and vital to U.S. national security interests.
A government collapse and state failure in Pakistan is one of the very few plausible ways in which Osama bin Laden could get his hands on a usable nuclear weapon. And there aren't a lot of ways for us to affect that prognosis directly. In many ways, our strongest influence over what happens in Pakistan is our ability to prevent Afghanistan from becoming an open sore that makes the Pakistani situation a lot worse.
ROSE: That actually scares me more than if you had given the reverse answer. However relatively minor the Afghan danger seems to be, the idea of fighting a nasty, ongoing, unsatisfying war for a domino theory of what might happen in a neighboring state strikes me as so tenuous a connection that it really is hard to justify. Over time, you might get into a political dynamic where, if the war's prospects don't seem to get any better, the public might not find the justification convincing. Do you worry about that?
BIDDLE: People use domino theory as pejorative wording when they oppose a war. The idea that states worry about the stability of their neighbors is ubiquitous in international politics. One of the central reasons that the United States got involved in the Balkans in the 1990s was the fear that chaos there could spread to our NATO neighbors and trading partners. The Soviet Union was continuously worried about instability on its borders. This is a normal concern in international affairs. It is not an imaginary ghost dreamed up by people who want to do Vietnam War revisions.
I don't think that this is an absolutely transcendent threat to U.S. national security and that we should be willing to pay any price and bear any burden to deal with it. I've argued in the past -- and I continue to believe -- that Afghanistan is close call on the merits because the stakes, while important, are indirect and not unlimited. Obviously the cost of waging this war is high.
So what it boils down to is neither a slam-dunk in favor of waging the war, where any reasonable person would surely think this is worth it, nor a slam-dunk against, where this war is obviously crazy and any reasonable person would think that we should get out tomorrow morning. I think what you end up with is a situation where the costs and the benefits are pretty close and it boils down to a value judgment that reasonable people will make differently.
Now, the threat if the worst-case scenario unfolds is pretty serious. I mean, you may or may not have worried about nuclear weapons in Soviet hands during the Cold War. But bin Laden would probably use the things if he got them. And if an American administration that could reasonably have waged this war with some prospect of success instead decided to withdraw -- if that scenario played out, Pakistan collapsed, and bin Laden got a nuclear weapon and used it on the United States, it would be regarded by generations of historians as the single biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of the nation.
Now, a variety of bad things have to happen in sequence for that worst case to play itself out. That is why I think this is a close call, rather than an obvious one. But, especially with respect to the guy in the Oval Office who has to bear the responsibility for this, I suspect that worst case looms fairly large. But all indications are that the president is pretty ambivalent about this, in part because I suspect he sees the costs and benefits as being closer on the margin than one would, in some ways, like.
ROSE: Very interesting analysis. We have a lot of people chomping at the bit to ask you their questions, so I will stop hogging you and throw it open to the Q&A.
OPERATOR: Our first question comes from Chandrakant Pancholi, with Overseas India Weekly.
CHANDRAKANT PANCHOLI: Hi. About winning the war in Afghanistan, why don't you think that we have to have a war inside Pakistan to take out whatever terrorist camps they have, whatever pockets of terrorist creation are there? They will keep bleeding us to death in Afghanistan because the Pakistani intelligence agency is creating a terror network to be sent to India, sent to Britain, sent to the United States. Why do we think that Pakistan is a sovereign country, so we cannot interfere? Afghanistan was a sovereign country, Iraq was a sovereign country, and it never stopped us from going and hitting the terror networks. So do you think that the war should be inside Pakistan to save Afghanistan?
BIDDLE: Well, there is a war inside Pakistan. By any normal academic definition of war, there is currently a fairly intense war and a fairly intense insurgency going on there. Again, my primary concern in Afghanistan is precisely the prognosis and future conduct of the war in Pakistan.
Now, I think the burden of your question is less about whether there should be a war in Pakistan -- clearly there is one -- and more about whether the United States should be more forceful in unilaterally conducting it. It is reported that we do some military activity, by way of air strikes and training, in Pakistan. Should we substantially escalate that?
The problem here is that the Pakistani government's and public's tolerance for substantially more forceful U.S. conduct of counterinsurgency or counterterrorism operations in Pakistan is obviously very limited. If you do it too forcefully, you could end up causing the very thing you're trying to prevent. We could easily end up with the government there collapsing. That would be a catastrophe.
The United States is strapped trying to wage an effective counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, a country with a much smaller population, probably a smaller insurgent population, and a much smaller economy. Trying to wage a full-scale counterinsurgency in Pakistan would be radically harder. So the notion that the United States could solve the underlying problem by going to war in Pakistan, as opposed to going to war in Afghanistan, is unrealistic.
Now, some -- reportedly, including the vice president -- have argued that what we really ought to do is simply rely more heavily on the kinds of drone strikes against al Qaeda that we are doing in Pakistan and throttle back dramatically on counterinsurgency activities in Afghanistan. The problem here is that plan amounts to taking one piece of ordinary counterinsurgency out of the context of the rest of it.
Counterinsurgency, ordinarily conceived, is a mix of population security, governance reform, economic development, and leadership targeting. There is a lot of leadership targeting going on within Afghanistan -- directed at the Afghan Taliban -- and within Pakistan -- going after al Qaeda.
Within the context of the whole, the pieces mutually support one another. If it is done right, the whole is more effective than the sum of the parts. If you pull one out and don't do any of the rest, especially if you pull one out in a way that undermines the rest -- as I think a substantially accelerated counterterrorism drone campaign in Pakistan could easily do -- it could hinder the Pakistani government's own counterinsurgency campaign. The result could be to make things a lot worse.
If the Pakistan government's own counterinsurgency campaign fails and the government collapses, the problem is going to expand radically beyond the ability of any program of drone strikes to deal with. I don't think drone strikes in the midst of a country that could end up in chaos are a sufficient solution to this problem. It looks more like a band-aid than like a real answer.
PANCHOLI: Can we use influence on the military to find out the [Inter-Services Intelligence] -- these agents who are helping create terror -- and get them dismissed or arrested?
BIDDLE: Well, the U.S. government is working very hard to try and get the Pakistani military, the Pakistani government, and the Pakistani intelligence services to be less tolerant of the terrorist groups within their borders that they have historically been pretty supportive of.
Now, the problem is that, so far, we have been telling the Pakistanis to do something that the Pakistanis themselves don't believe is in their self-interest. Many of the terrorist groups within Pakistan that we worry about were either set up by, or are the progeny of organizations that were set up by, the Pakistanis as asymmetric warfare devices against India prior to 2001. These then turned against the Pakistani government, in part because the Pakistani government aligned with the hated United States after 2001, when the Bush administration went to Pervez Musharraf and basically said, "Either you side with us against the Taliban or we're going to get rid of you."
Musharraf backed down, sided with the United States, and substantially alienated lots of Islamist militant organizations within his own borders. They then turned on the Pakistani civilian government, but the Pakistanis have tended to believe that they can work with them and that they don't want to completely annihilate them because they still could be potentially useful in dealing with the Indian threat down the road.
What the United States has been trying to do is to persuade the Pakistani government that these are now Frankenstein's monsters and are a bigger threat than India and that they ought to clean them out. The Pakistanis prefer to hedge their bets. So what we've got is an intermediate outcome where Pakistan isn't as supportive of them as they once were, but neither do they want to completely wipe them out.
PANCHOLI: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Out next question comes from Trudy Rubin with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
TRUDY RUBIN: Hi, Steve.
BIDDLE: Hi, Trudy.
RUBIN: A couple of things I'm curious about from your trip. The whole basis of going into Afghanistan was the idea of shifting the momentum, as you know better than I. Kandahar was supposed to shift that momentum. In other words, it was heavily psychological, sort of like how Mazar-i-Sharif shifted the momentum in the Afghan war in 2001 and then other places came along, people withdrew their support from the Taliban, et cetera.
Do you see any sign that there is going to be some critical mass -- whether one large place or a group of places -- that are going to turn around and shift the momentum? Otherwise, if you just have a little progress in one place, a little progress in another place, it doesn't really matter. And connected with that, as you also know full well, everyone in Afghanistan and Pakistan thinks we're leaving by 2011. It doesn't matter if Obama and some of his team are hedging their vocabulary and are acting accordingly. So how can you shift the momentum if there is an assumption that we're already on the way out?
BIDDLE: I tend not to be a big fan of tipping point models -- of radical change in momentum. Sometimes it happens, the sons of Iraq produced something like that. But I don't think you can rely on that in counterinsurgency. I think what eventually turns the course of the war and causes violence statistics, for example, to come down is the provision of enough security in enough of the country, so that gradually the insurgents have a harder and harder time operating.
I was not particularly comfortable with the analysis of Kandahar that held it as a decisive moment in the course of the war, where if we secured Kandahar the Taliban would, you know, suddenly reevaluate. I tend to think that the Taliban are fairly rational, strategic analysts, and they evaluate the country as a whole. In many ways, what's been going on in Helmand is as important as anything else in terms of demonstrating whether the coalition has the ability to push them out of an area and keep them out.
So, I doubt that one way or another, Kandahar is going to create a situation in which the war is either won or is lost in a period of a couple of months, especially in light of the July 2011 date, which brings me to the other part of your question.
On this trip I was especially struck by just how fixated people in the region are on July 2011. I mean, there were a couple of conversations with Afghan parliamentarians, for example, where someone would try to make the argument that if you look at the degree to which the United States is committed to this war, you have to consider that we are more than tripling our troop strength in the country and that we have just appointed the single most celebrated military officer in the western world to run this campaign. The president has repeatedly, when given a choice, doubled down on this war rather than backing out. In the face of all that evidence, there is one line in one speech about July 2011. Within two weeks, every administration official asked by Congress backed away from it. Yet they ignore all that and just fasten in on the July 2011 thing.
Rightly or wrongly, it's clear that it has had a huge effect on perceptions in the region. I think the only thing that's going to change those perceptions is if we don't disappear in August 2011. The perception of many in Afghanistan is that we're going away by August 2011. Nobody in the administration, not even the most ardent opponent of the war, is saying we're going to go away, and yet that's the perception in large parts of Afghanistan certainly, if not also Pakistan.
As it becomes clear that we are not, in fact, decamping and going home as of August 2011, perceptions will change. In classic counterinsurgency theory it is actions, not words that do the job. You need to use words as well as you can, but it is civilian perceptions that there are security forces around who protect people, who cooperate with them, and who are killing and capturing enough enemy, that do the job. It is direct observation of what the counterinsurgent does that matters. And I think the only way this perception will change, and the only way people's assessment of how committed the United States is will change, is if the United States doesn't just go away in July 2011. I happen to think we won't.
RUBIN: But just to follow up, does that then mean that, in the coming months, tribal leaders will be sitting on the fence because they think we're leaving? Then popular perception is that we won't make much progress by 2011, by that deadline, which then affects what we actually do?
BIDDLE: Well, I don't think you're going to see tribal leaders, for example, swinging to our side by July 2011 en masse for that reason. Again, I don't think you're going to see a Sons of Iraq-like moment in Afghanistan.
By the same token though, in places like Helmand, where operations have been in conduct for a while now, neither are they going to substantially assist the Taliban in areas where the Taliban don't have control. And as the Afghan security forces grow and as the reinforcements that are flowing into the theater get distributed around the country, the Taliban are going to find that in the areas of the country where they've put the most emphasis -- the south and the east -- they're going to have less and less freedom to maneuver.
So I don't think you're going to see a moment of transformation in which people come off the fence and suddenly the Taliban are kicked out of the country. But I think what you are going to see is a gradual restriction of the Taliban's freedom to control places that they used to control. And, I suspect, when we've been there long enough, a reduction in violence will come with that reduction in their freedom to operate in places like Helmand and Kandahar.
And after July 2011 when people see that we're not leaving, my guess is that the move off the fence toward cooperation will build.
But what you're likely to see before then is something closer to watching and waiting where people don't side with us or the Taliban. And that will restrict their ability to visit violence in large quantities on civilians in those areas.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Yashiv Resin with National Journal.
RESIN: Hi, Steve.
RESIN: Can you talk a bit about how you square the circle when you have -- your point before about the political debate and the pessimism that is part of it potentially outstripping the reality on the ground. I think a large part of that is the seeming disconnect between a strategy that is continually described as anti-terrorist and an on-the-ground reality that, both under McChrystal and Petraeus, appears to be nation building without the term "nation building" attached to it.
How do you square the administration defending it publicly as being focused on al Qaeda and focused on preventing Afghanistan from becoming a base for transnational attacks with the kind of economic development, political development, and the other elements that look much more like nation building than they do strict counterterrorism?
BIDDLE: Well, one of the things that makes this politically very difficult for the administration is that their argument is, at the end of the day, substantially indirect. The strong case for waging counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is its effect on its neighbor.
That's a tough argument to make. I mean, I can do it in settings like this because I get lots of time and patience from thoughtful journalists who are willing to sit and listen to me unfold the story. In a sound bite environment with a highly partisan public square, it is a hard argument for an elected official to make. It is a complicated story to tell and, again, at the end of the day you end up being fairly close on the analytic costs and benefits.
I don't envy the administration -- the political communication task of selling a situation that is A) this complicated and B) this close on the merits. Among the many reasons I'm glad I'm here at the Council -- (laughs) -- is that I don't have to have the challenge of selling a situation that's complicated, ambiguous, and a close call in the public square.
But clearly what they are trying to do is take the argument back to its roots. The reason we're in Afghanistan at the end of the day really is al Qaeda. The trouble is that this leads them into a problem. The indirect argument running through Pakistan is much more persuasive, in my view, than the direct argument that Afghanistan is a potential base for Osama bin Laden and is worth 100,000 troops, whereas Yemen and Somalia are not.
RESIN: And just also to follow up on a point you made earlier, you were talking about how, in places like Marja, for instance, we had to go through a full fighting season to get a sense of conditions there. You had also mentioned that the previous command had been overly optimistic in its public comments about Marja and other parts of the campaign.
RESIN: Where do you think that overconfidence came from and what is likely to prevent the new command, given that the July 2011 deadline is looming even closer, from making those same types of pronouncements?
BIDDLE: At the end of the day, it's hard for me to explain the motives of other people, such as General McChrystal and his staff. I know it sounds a bit evasive, but the best answer is to ask them. All I can do is speculate as to why they were so optimistic.
I was there in January, when it was clear that they were getting pretty optimistic about the spring and summer. At the time, I wasn't entirely sure why. If I were to speculate, the initial results in Marja showed more progress than you would normally expect. I mean, people were starting to cooperate with the Marines within a couple of days of them showing up. Normally you expect it to take a while before they trust that you are going to be there and protect them and before you start getting much in the way of tips or interaction. That started pretty early.
Perhaps they extrapolated too much from something that was happening in the very, very early stages of what we all should have known was going to be a long campaign. I don't know, perhaps they were optimistic because of leadership targeting efforts. This is very speculative on my part.
All I can say from knowledge is when I was there in July of 2009 on the assessment team, my expectation was that this was going to be a long, hard slog and that you shouldn't expect to see a substantial change in the number of populated areas under government control until the reinforcements arrived and the ink spots of counterinsurgency success started spreading and you managed to apply traditional counterinsurgency in more places. None of this could reasonably have been expected to occur until the reinforcements were all in place. They certainly were not last spring.
So I was a bit puzzled by the degree of optimism we saw. I don't think this command group will be comparably optimistic. A standard element of the Petraeus playbook is to under-promise and over-deliver. Certainly the way he talked about the Iraq war very rarely slid into excessive promising and optimism about the way things were going to go.
Instead, we got clichés like "Keep the champagne in the back of the refrigerator." I don't think we'll see more of these roller coaster rides of over-promising, followed by over despair, followed by who knows what. I suspect we're going to be on something less exciting as a public relations trajectory.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from James Kitfield from National Journal.
JAMES KITFIELD: Hi, Stephen. You haven't talked about [President Hamid] Karzai and his government. The most recent reports were that he's now pushing back against the anti-corruption task forces, raising the question once again of what kind of a partner he is. I'm just curious about what kind of feedback you got while you were in the field on how cooperative his government was being and whether they were doing the things necessary to give people hope that they would fulfill their part of the bargain in counterinsurgency.
BIDDLE: Well it's a mixed bag. His stated policy is strongly anti-corruption. Lots of his actual behaviors are much less so. I think there is a tendency in the U.S. debate to want to see Karzai as either a good guy and an adequate partner, or as hopeless and an inadequate partner. We just can't succeed unless this guy is changed or has some moment of transformation.
And that's not normally the way counterinsurgencies go. You always have an inadequate partner in counterinsurgency. That's why there's an insurgency to counter. (Laughter.) If the host government were good at this, we wouldn't have to be involved in the first place. So you inevitably at least start with a partner that, by definition, has serious legitimacy problems -- often involving corruption.
If you are going to succeed, that means changing the behavior of the host government and changing behaviors that the host government doesn't want to change. I mean, normally the legitimacy problem that gave rise to the insurgency was some sort of unrepresentative distribution of power or wealth or resources in the country, which benefit one subgroup to the exclusion of others who then turned to insurgents for succor and hope.
The people who are benefiting from this normally want to keep benefiting and they resist when the outside counterinsurgent tries to get them to reform because that reform means less benefits for their subgroup. So you normally get pushback, and that is exactly what we're seeing and it is exactly what we should expect.
If we're going to succeed, the right metaphor, it seems to me, is tug of war. We can expect Karzai to pull back on the other side of the rope all the time because he believes that his political self-interest requires him to rely on groups that are benefiting from his corruption and abuse of power.
When we tell him to get rid of these people and clean all this up, he thinks it is a threat to his own tenure in office and he'll resist. We have to pull him in the other direction.
In principle, we have plenty of resources with which to do that. We do thousands of things in Afghanistan every day. The Karzai government's survival is utterly dependent on this, and we can turn them on or turn them off singly or in combination to generate the leverage to gradually win the tug of war. But we're not going to win it all of the sudden one morning.
Every day, we're going to roll out of bed and we're going to have to pull Karzai a little further in our direction. He's going to pull back again. And so there are going to be periodic episodes where he tries to shut down some anti-corruption agency that we think is doing a great job and we have to pull him back in the direction of being more forceful in reforming his government than he otherwise wants to be.
In principle, we have the resources to do that effectively, given our enormous expenditure of resources in the country. But we have to be very careful about how we do it. We've tended to be on this kind of pendulum, oscillating between extremes with Karzai.
The Bush administration was much too cozy with the guy. They tended to use something close to a policy of all carrots and no sticks because they thought Karzai was a hero and an ally and shouldn't be coerced. The Obama administration came into office believing that the Bush policy was a mistake and crashed down on him with lots and lots of sticks and not much in the way of carrots. The sticks were delivered publicly and in ways that were domestically humiliating to Karzai. That didn't work so well, and so the administration has changed course again.
What we need is a tack toward the center and an avoidance of these extremes. We can't give up on sticks. We have to use leverage or we're not going to succeed in this. If we do not get reform of the host government, this campaign will fail and that's not going to happen without the use, of course, of sticks, but the sticks have to be private rather than public and they have to be done in a sequence that makes sense.
I mean, for example, let's take the corruption problem. To get the corruption problem under control -- rather than fixed, let's say, because I don't want to imply that the right level of corruption in Afghanistan is zero -- eventually it's going to require some big asks of Karzai. He is going to have to accept the removal or prosecution of some senior people in the country, in all likelihood. That's not the best way to start the process.
A lot of the money that flows into corrupt activities in Afghanistan comes from us. It comes from our own contracting, and goes on to fuel malign networks in the country that, at the end of the day, are substantially hurting our prospects by making people in Afghanistan turn to the Taliban for protection. The right way to start the process is by reducing our own contribution to the problem, for example by reforming the way we do contracting to limit the fuel and ammunition we provide to the malign networks that undermine our counterinsurgency prospects.
As we do that, we weaken the political power of malign actors within the country because we deny them funds. I mean, you can think of money as the hydraulic fluid that enables the political machines of these malign actor networks to do work. A lot of that money and hydraulic fluid is coming from us. If we shut off the flow into the system, we reduce the hydraulic pressure within the machine and we reduce its ability to do political work. And that in turn makes the eventual ask of Karzai easier.
Doing things in the right sequence, and doing things privately and not publicly are both important, it seems to me. And last but not least, doing things in ways that support Karzai's political future in the country rather than damaging it is helpful. Part of that is a matter of trying not to criticize him publicly, wherever it can be avoided. Part of it is a matter of supporting his own better instincts wherever we can.
Again, Karzai is on public record repeatedly as supporting anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan. Now obviously, in a variety of ways, the Afghan government's behavior has been inconsistent on this. But wherever possible, it seems to me, we ought to help Karzai carry out his own stated policies, which are substantially anticorruption in nature.
KITFIELD: Could I just follow up? The McChrystal firing and Rolling Stone interview created this perception that there was a divide between [Ambassador Karl] Eikenberry and McChrystal on Karzai and how reliable he was. Did you get any sense whether the relationship between Petraeus and Karzai and Eikenberry has been squared, where everyone is at least operating off something like a similar page?
BIDDLE: I did not see the men together.
KITFIELD: Okay, thanks.
ROSE: Steve, we're getting close to the end here of a fantastic session and one of the things we always do is end on time. Let me just take one final question to get you on the record about Iraq. As we go forward in Afghanistan, you might say the best-case scenario is that we have strong late innings, which give us the chance to extricate ourselves without leaving too much disaster behind -- as we are supposedly are going to be able to do in Iraq. So what do you see happening in Iraq? Do you think we will be able to continue to draw down American forces there and essentially get out without disaster following?
BIDDLE: I think if we withdraw U.S. forces on the schedule that the Status of Forces Agreement requires, there is a substantial danger that you could end up with things turning around in Iraq and violence returning. The Status of Forces Agreement calls for a really remarkable drawdown in U.S. military presence. No American forces, period, of any kind, performing any function after the end of 2011.
Now, if you view Iraq in the right context, which, it seems to me, is the context of intense ethno-sectarian civil war -- which is what Iraq was by 2006 to 2007 and what the Balkans were -- rarely do intense ethno-sectarian civil wars simply resolve themselves overnight, where people forget about the past, get over their fears of genocidal attack by rivals, and suddenly just live together under a benign political process.
Fears of this kind subside, but they subside slowly over time. And often when intense ethno-sectarian civil wars resolve themselves through a negotiated agreement and stay peaceful, it is because there are outside peacekeepers there that reduce the degree to which the former rivals feel threatened by one another while they gradually get used to co-existing.
In the Balkans, large initial peacekeeping forces were eventually substantially drawn down. There are about five percent as many peacekeepers in Bosnia today, for example, as there were in the initial aftermath of the settlement there. But the drawdown was progressive, incremental, and slow. It had no transformative moment at which suddenly everything was going to change because all the peacekeepers were going to go home. And the result was that it enabled the peacekeeping forces to decline roughly in parallel with the mutual fears of the formerly warring groups.
I'm worried that the drawdown in Iraq, if it proceeds according to the tempo in the Status of Forces Agreement, will be much faster than that, and will have a declared, well-known endpoint that constitutes a focal point for still-wary former combatants. I would prefer to see a substantial drawdown, but a gradual, progressive, incremental drawdown.
And in that sense I worry a lot more about the end of 2011 than I do about August of 2010. All the focus recently has been on the end of combat operations in Iraq. Well, there are still 50,000 U.S. troops in the country. We call them "advise and assist brigades" and their mission is no longer combat. But in fact they have a very substantial combat potential.
I worry more about the total withdrawal coming quite soon and the effect it could have in a situation in which it is unrealistic to expect that Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi Shi'a are just going to suddenly get over long-standing fears of one another, which were fueled by actual experience in a very, very bitter war.
ROSE: Do you think that those concerns are shared by the U.S. administration and that they might, therefore, be headed off?
BIDDLE: Well, let me speak to the related issue of what the Iraqi administration thinks about it.
I think there has historically been substantial sympathy among Iraqi decision-making elites for a U.S. troop presence in the country for exactly this reason. Not all -- obviously Moqtada al-Sadr and others don't share this view. But among a substantial range of mainstream Iraqi political figures, there has, in the past, been a lot of acceptance of the need for an ongoing U.S. military presence, albeit a smaller one.
The trouble is that domestic partisan political incentives within Iraq, driven by presidential and parliamentary elections there, have made it impossible for anybody to say this in public. And so Iraqis have ended up competing with each other to get the anti-American flank because they know that the American presence is unpopular among voters on the street.
My suspicion is that once the partisan dust settles and we get some months or a year between an election campaign and a decision -- or between a government formation process, as we're seeing now, and a decision -- the decision could very well be a lot more accepting of the idea of negotiating a follow-on to the Status of Forces Agreement that foresees some continued U.S. presence which ramps down more gradually rather than so suddenly. But we shall see.
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