How Things That Don’t Make Sense Can Make Sense

Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy has a brief article discussing questions posed to General Petraeus by Republican senators recently.  Just a few thoughts on this issue…

1) The relationship between the civilian and military sides of government have been highlighted recently by the canning of General McChrystal–particularly the subordination of the military to civilian authority. I think his discussion of the questions posed to General Petraeus reflect a generally poor understanding of the dynamics between these two forces (although perhaps not a poor understanding on the part of the politicians asking the questions).  Institutionally, yes, the military is subservient to the executive branch–specifically the president.  However, I feel that the tendency to emphasize this institutional aspect of their relationship really presents a false dichotomy that carries over into shaping perceptions regarding the military's functional duties.  Rather, it paints a false dichotomy between political and military activity.  Predictably enough, I will now refer to von Clausewitz's comments on the idea that "war is politics by other means." 

That said, I do think that Ricks is right to highlight the fact that the exclusively military component of this war is taking place within a broader set of political components.  While militarily engaging Taliban forces, we are simultaneously engaging them "politically."  In reality, however, this simultaneous application of military pressure and "political" pressure is really just politics, and not the application of two completely separate types of pressure.  Similarly, we find ourselves engaging the Pakistani government, the Afghan government, fellow NATO countries, etc., all in an effort to ultimately resolve the conflict in some fashion.  The deadlines set forth by politicians are aimed at affecting a broad range of actors involved in the dispute.  The military, by virtue of its role in this conflict, is primarily focused on dealing with the military component of the threat posed by the Taliban.  Arguing that the deadline will embolden the enemy may make sense, but only if we are narrowly considering the portion of the conflict that is concerned with the application of military force.  Such a view, however, ignores the possibility that other pressures may be brought to bear on Taliban forces that result in positive net return to the US, as opposed to the strictly negative net returns that politicians are arguing the deadline will lead to.   

2)  By extension, this idea warrants a discussion of how imposing a deadline affects the incentives of the various players involved over the various dimensions of the Afghan conflict (Again I'd like to state, were I a better formal modeler I would draw this out.  Sigh…). 

Time — Clearly one of the central concerns in the debate over the deadlines.  Ostensibly, imposing a deadline limits further US involvement in the conflict to a specified time frame.  Critics argue that the deadline will send a signal to Taliban forces that they must simply outlast US military forces.  However, refraining from the imposition of a deadline may not necessarily solve this problem either.  Simply offering a vague commitment to stay indefinitely is not a credible statement either.  Taliban leaders are in all likelihood very aware of the limitations of popular support for a continuation of the war.  Rather, one of, if not the primary lesson coming out of Vietnam, would probably be the idea that an asymmetric conflict can be won by simply making the costs unbearable to the US' domestic audience.  In either event, there is little reason to believe that "outlasting us" is not a part of the Taliban's strategy.  I think recent issues with Iran, North Korea, and Israel are reminding everyone that the US has a variety of security concerns on which they also need to focus.  Additionally, the attempted Christmas day bombing and the failed Times Square attempt are reminding people that Afghanistan is not the sole country/area from which terrorist threats may emerge.  It may become easier for the domestic populous within the US to come to believe that our security does not rest solely on a victory in Afghanistan.     

Violence — Related to the issue of time is the level of violence.  As mentioned above, I believe the duration of the conflict is, with or without deadlines, a part of the Taliban's strategic calculus vis-a-vis the US.  However, the imposition of a deadline carries some implications for their incentives regarding the level of violence that they will employ.  If a deadline is in place–even a flexible one–Taliban fighters have a set date in mind on which they will be focusing.  Assuming that the US really does withdraw forces on the appointed date, or at least makes a substantial reduction, the Taliban has an incentive to refrain from engaging the US in an effort to preserve their resources for the post-withdrawal period.  Why ramp up the level of violence prior to the US withdrawal?  This would seem to have two effects.  First, it would possibly send the signal to the US that the Taliban is still more of a problem than they believed and might prompt a delay in the withdrawal date.  Although the US may not believe that a lull in violence or a drop in Taliban activity really means that they are less of a threat, it is much harder for the US to provoke confrontation given the comparative ease with which Taliban fighters can blend in with the local populous.  Two, all else being equal, the Taliban would presumably be left with fewer resources for the post-withdrawal period with which to assert their influence.  Maintaining a greater share of their resources for the post-withdrawal round of bargaining with the Afghan national government would give Taliban forces the ability to obtain a greater level of influence.  Thus I think it's possible that setting a deadline would actually lower violence in the short term, possibly making it easier for US forces to lay the foundations for long term stability. 

Sharing the Costs — Ricks notes that one of the primary problems in the Afghan war is whether or not the Afghan government can be seen as a credible partner.  Promising to stay indefinitely gives the Afghan government a strong incentive to free-ride off of the efforts of US-led security forces.  Although they may also realize that a truly indefinite commitment is not a credible promise, they may still believe that there is a sufficiently long shadow of the future to feel secure with the current arrangement for a while longer.  Ideally, imposing a deadline should prompt Afghan officials to devote more resources to the training of their own security forces.  Furthermore, as efforts to co-opt members of the Taliban have been attempted, a deadline could potentially strengthen this effort.  For starters, it may make the idea of working with the Afghan national government more palatable to some Taliban fighters if they believe that US influence is going to diminish in the near future.  Alternatively, it may give the Afghan government an incentive to bargain more seriously with Taliban fighters.  With an indefinite commitment, the Afghan government can opt for a more aggressive and confrontational tack with respect to the Taliban since they are not primarily responsible for supplying, training, and fielding security forces.  Setting a deadline for the withdrawal of US forces may lead Afghan leaders to realize that they must deal with the problems in a more economical manner in order to secure real stability.  As their own security forces are likely to be relatively green and lacking in experience when compared with Taliban fighters, it's possible that this asymmetry in combat experience might make nego
tiation and power-sharing seem like stronger courses of action for Afghan leaders.          

Again, I think Ricks is right to highlight the broader set of concerns.  It seems that those focusing on the potentially negative effects of the deadline are focusing strictly on the military conflict between US forces and Taliban forces.  But not setting a deadline may embolden our allies as well.  That is to say, writing a blank check is equally dangerous, as it may prompt the Afghan government to delay the assumption of an increased share of the risks and costs associated with the conflict.  Or we might view it as making them take greater risks to the extent that they are more willing to antagonize enemies and risk retaliation, whereas if the Afghan government didn't have the backstop of US military forces they might be more cautious of taking such risks.

I'm sure there is a lot more that could be said about this issue, so as always, thoughts and comments are invited.  These dynamics seem like they'd make for a fun game theoretic model as well.

Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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