August 14, 2012

Winning the Peace

Several stories have hit ‘the wire’ over the past several days regarding events in Afghanistan with two items most prominent: attacks by Afghan military and police personnel on Americans (so-called 'green on blue' incidents) and growing concerns about the longterm viability of various projects around the country initiated and funded by America.

With regard to the attacks on Americans, we shouldn’t be surprised that they occur even though we will always be angered when they do. Afghanistan is very much in flux with various factions vying for power and all factions trying to find a favorable position in the Afghani power structure that will remain once the Americans are gone. Local alliances are ‘evolving.’ This means our people will be evermore cautious as the U.S. presence wanes and the locals become more aggressive in finding their position in the power structures that emerge. (On a side note, the three Marines killed by local police officials who had invited them to a meal then ambushed them once they were vulnerable were members of the Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC). An old mentor of mine, someone for whom I have the highest respect, is currently the commander of MARSOC and I know such losses hit him and the others of the command very deeply. It is a small, tight community of Marines and just like any unit that loses members in-theater, such loss is felt across the community. If all goes as planned, I’ll be blessed to attend the MARSOC change-of-command in a couple of weeks. I’m sure this incident among others will be cast a bit of a pall over the it should.)

Developing a ‘secure environment’ is among the most difficult tasks facing a military force in a theater of operations. Since the stakes are so high--literally 'life and death'--people don’t trust each other and they especially don’t trust outsiders even if the foreign forces have the best of intentions. Indigenous forces like the Taliban have an inherent advantage for all the reasons you’d assume: they live in and/or are from the area, they know their neighbors, the speak the local dialect and know the multitude of nuances that a newly arrived foreign force will never fully understand. These advantages can be overcome over time but ‘time’ is the critical element. Since the U.S. has announced a withdrawal date and is actively bringing forces, equipment and supplies home, the locals have little incentive to maintain loyalties with U.S. forces since such an affiliation will place them in the awkward position of having sided with the ‘enemy’ in the eyes of their indigenous competitors once the U.S. is gone.

The U.S. is faced with the challenge of making as much progress as it can in establishing a military, police force and local political establishment resistant to corruption and possessing the long-term interests of a stable Afghanistan even while the time available to do so grows shorter. Of course all our efforts are based on the presumption that the Afghan people want something more than what they have and that the ‘more’ will be akin to what we in the West value. A higher standard of living depends on some measure of wealth; wealth is derived from business; business depends on a stable infrastructure; and a stable infrastructure depends on a stable political and social system. In Afghanistan's case all these are in doubt.

Insight into the challenges underlying all of this is provided in the second set of stories recently in the news pertaining to construction/development projects meant to establish the infrastructure upon which a viable economy could be built that would provide the way of life we presume the Afghans desire. (Examples are here and here.) If you weren’t already aware you likely won’t be surprised to learn that millions of dollars have been wasted, that projects are behind schedule, of poor quality, and hobbled by corruption and mismanagement.

I guess the point to all of this is that ‘winning the peace’ is at least as difficult (perhaps more so) as winning a conventional war and in the long-run even more important. While some argue that this should be a key factor at the very outset of going to war (“what do you want to see in place after we win”) I think the immediate threat serving as the catalyst for war in the first place so far overmatches all other considerations as to make them irrelevant until the possibility of victory becomes a reality.

Gaining support for war is enabled by the immediate threat posed by one’s enemy; the public rallies to the flag, money flows, military forces focus on the task, etc. After the battle has been ‘won,’ however, public attention goes elsewhere, other issues gradually take center stage in political discourse, budget priorities shift. The military is inevitably left holding the bag, so to speak, trying to help establish some element of stability, helping the local population restore order, and supporting the long-term security and economic interests of the U.S. that the State Department knows are important but about which the general public and most politicians really don’t care. It is during this period that serious statesmen redouble their efforts to ensure that the compelling arguments are made and sufficient resources are found such that U.S. interests are served. Sadly, I don’t see any such effort happening today. The current Administration appears to have little interest in making a case for U.S. interests in the Middle East/Central Asia. Our domestic economic concerns quite understandably crowd out just about everything else especially in the midst of a Presidential campaign.

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