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The Missing “X Factor” in Afghanistan

December 19, 2009

This particular piece was written when  the  strategy to adopt for Afghanistan was still being debated in the White House. The concerns expressed, however,  remain pertinent as the policies adopted by President Obama are being implemented in 2010.

The Missing “X Factor” in Afghanistan

Absent from our Afghan policy debate is what was missing in Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara’s thinking about the Vietnam War. In 1962, McNamara asked my old boss, Brigadier General Edward Lansdale to look at a chart McNamara had designed to measure progress in that war. It was all numerical factors such as enemy killed and weapons captured. Lansdale said, “You forgot the X Factor.” “What’s that,” McNamara asked? “The feelings of the Vietnamese people,” Lansdale replied. McNamara couldn’t measure the idea with numbers so he ignored it. .

Deeply involved in Vietnam and in Washington as a top ranking official in our Saigon economic aid mission in 1962 and lasting until 1968 as a State Department consultant, I saw that our way of waging war in Vietnam was based largely on our own egocentric views and hardly ever took into account Vietnamese perceptions and feelings — the critical political and psychological side of the war.

After spending a month in Afghanistan in July and August, I began to feel something was missing in our understanding of the psychological and political dimension of this war. I had volunteered to help the Afghan non-partisan Fair and Free Elections Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) monitor the presidential elections. While publicly stating how important a fair election was, the U.S. failed to intervene to brake illegal campaign activities, having turned over election supervision to the UN. I saw what a mistake that was when FEFA’s reports of campaign violations received no corrective sanctions from the UN dominated Election Complaints Commission. The Commission had the enforcement authority but failed to exercise it during the campaign phase thus leaving the door wide open for Election Day fraud. Only when forced to do so later would the Commission act to throw out votes when the election had been irreparably marred. .

When General McChyrstal’s assessment became public in September I was reassured, not only because he proposed a full bore population-centric counterinsurgency campaign,  but also because he paid so much attention to the importance of Afghan perceptions and state of mind, citing particularly the existence of “a crisis of confidence among Afghans in both its own government and the international community.” At last it seemed an American field commander was recognizing the importance of the “X Factor” even if the term itself was not used. I also found his assessment to be  the toughest and most realistic military commander’s view of such a complex and difficult situation as I had ever seen, particularly compared with the over-optimistic and unrealistic assessments typical of the Vietnam era.

After much discussion of the so-called Biden option (relying mainly on offshore-based counterterrorism operations using missiles and drones), or the “middle way” advocated by others (deploying less troops thus suffering less casualties defending only the cities), we  have Senator Kerry’s recent view, that McChrystal’s troop request “reaches too far too fast?” Before more troops, we must first put in place a fully ramped up U.S.civilian effort, Afghan government reform and adequate Afghan troops. Besides ignoring that this is no linear process and will take at least a year, probably two, Kerry’s thinking completely overlooks the psychological effect on the Afghans of seeing the Taliban advance as inevitable. This only reinforces the Afghan impression that we are continuing a holding action with a history of defeat, that our heart is not in it and we are really seeking a way out at their expense. If we fail to turn the psychological tide within the coming year my Afghan contacts tell me it will be too late to hold most of Afghanistan no matter how many troops we ultimately send.

As in Vietnam, we seem so wrapped up in our own perceptions we fail to understand that what really matters in the end are the actions and perceptions of Afghans on both sides.

The political as well as military momentum currently lies with the Taliban as General McChrystal has pointed out. His judgment that reversing Taliban momentum in the coming year is critical is based not only on the Taliban’s military capabilities but on the population’s state of mind.  How the troops needed to do this could be postponed without risking an irreversible trend is not clear.

Beyond stopping Taliban momentum, the real question is do we have the determination to effect the reform needed for the long run; not just from the bottom up but from the top down. In Afghan minds we share the blame for the Karzai government’s vices and failures. After eight years of a war fought one year at a time, we are only beginning to make a sustained effort to help provide security, development and functioning governance down at the local level in partnership with Afghans. But this does not address the weakest link in McChrystal’s plan, the continuation of a corrupt and ineffective Afghan government from the top down, incapable of being corrected by an election runoff no matter how clean it may appear.  .

An unflinching and sustained effort, not managed from Washington, must be made to corral President Karzai, the almost certain runoff winner. Ambassador Eikenberry and General McChrystal should double team the Afghan president in much the same manner that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker worked with and pressured Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq. Beyond consistent behind the scenes advice mixed with arm twisting we should focus on the removal of at least one important but corrupt provincial governor as a test case (remembering the Afghan president appoints all governors). If persuasion has no effect, a dossier on his behavior could be leaked to the local and international press as a first step among other not so nice means. The recent Times report on the CIA connection with President Karzai’s brother and the brother’s behind the scenes corrupt running of Kandahar represents an opportunity to make a point if we have the savvy and guts to do so. This is tough gritty work which has to be undertaken. The entire effort will fail without it.

Charges of foreign interference are sure to come but a majority of Afghans will applaud if they see our influence being used to uphold their laws and further their aspirations for decent. We should be there not merely to protect our own interests but to take Afghan feelings and perceptions into account by seeing that a reformed Afghan government is protecting their rights. We and the Afghans cannot achieve the first without the second. This is the ultimate lesson from Vietnam.

By Rufus Phillips, October 29, 2009