No Easy Answers for Afghanistan, Or for Larger Complex Threats Ahead

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From left, Meghan Reddy, Herminia Servat and Helen Menton — part of a human rights group known as Mujeres Buscando Justicia (Women Seeking Justice) at CASA de Maryland — hold up signs urging embassies and diplomats to respect domestic workers during a small protest in Washington's Dupont Circle.Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies doesn’t deal in simplicity — at least not when it comes to analyzing the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and the so-called “war on terror.”

That’s because Cordesman, a former State and Defense Department official, says there is nothing simple about either.

And the sooner U.S. presidential administrations tell Americans there are no cut-and-dry solutions, the better the nation will be able to confront the problem of terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, Cordesman told The Washington Diplomat in an extensive interview.

“There has been a tendency by both the Bush Administration and the Obama administration, in very different ways, to try to avoid complexity and simplify,” Cordesman said. “But you’re not going to simplify your way to victory.

“You’re either going to learn to live with complexity, or you’re going to have complexity known the hard way,” he added. “Complexity basically rams its reality down the throats of political figures involved.”

Judging by his long and distinguished career, Cordesman is clearly adept at embracing complexity. Cordesman — who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and serves as a national security analyst for ABC News — is a prolific writer and one of Washington’s leading thinkers on war and terrorism.

A former director of intelligence assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and civilian assistant to the deputy secretary of defense, Cordesman is the author of more than 60 books, including a four-volume series on the lessons of modern war. His most recent publications include “Saudi Arabia: National Security in a Troubled Region”; “Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Birth of a Regional Nuclear Arms Race?”; “Withdrawal from Iraq: Assessing the Readiness of Iraqi Security Forces”; “Winning in Afghanistan: Creating Effective Afghan Security Forces”; and “The North African Military Balance: Force Developments in the Maghreb.”

During his time at CSIS, Cordesman has completed a variety of studies on energy, U.S. strategy and defense plans, defense programming and budgeting, NATO modernization, Chinese military power, the lessons of modern warfare, proliferation, counterterrorism, armed nation building, the security of the Middle East, and the Afghan and Iraq conflicts.

In particular, he has scrutinized President Obama’s carefully planned strategy in Afghanistan, publishing multiple papers through CSIS on topics ranging from the legitimacy of the Afghan elections to Obama’s leadership on the issue.

In his writings and his Diplomat interview, Cordesman stressed that the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan — sometimes referred to as the Af-Pak strategy — isn’t just about eradicating the terrorist threat of al-Qaeda or the Taliban insurgents. He argues that destroying those enemies won’t eliminate the dangers to the United States, despite official rhetoric that lead many to believe otherwise.

“The fact is that Islamic extremism will be an enduring threat throughout the region no matter how well we do in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Cordesman wrote.

“You are only dealing with a small minority of extremists which are violent,” he elaborated in his interview with The Diplomat. “Many of these groups interact with, or are loosely affiliated with, al-Qaeda — but even if al-Qaeda disappeared tomorrow, all of these social and economic, religious and political forces involved would mean there would still be this type of Islamic extremist terrorist violence.” Cordesman criticizes U.S. leaders for oversimplifying this problem by focusing on one or two threats, or even personalities, leading Americans to be confused about the real mission.

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From left, Ashwini Jaisingh of India, Herminia Servat and Martha Alvarado of Peru, and Adelaide Tembe of Mozambique — who belong to the activist group Mujeres Buscando Justicia (Women Seeking Justice) — sing protest songs during a Christmas party organized by CASA de Maryland in Silver Spring.

“Part of the problem that Americans are having is because we have demonized [Osama] bin Laden rather than honestly say, ‘You are involved in a really complex global struggle and there is no one center of gravity,’” Cordesman explained. “Any given victory, as important as it is, doesn’t mean you somehow put an end to threats and problems involved, which are generational, not tied to any given country or organization.”

To that end, Cordesman said U.S. officials must go beyond the “war on terrorism” and keep abreast of a dizzying array of challenges in myriad nations, each with different agendas that cut across different regions of the world — not to mention small, agile groups of radicals that also tailor their approaches to shifting national circumstances.

Effective U.S. strategies for dealing with each threat must be individualized and different — and Cordesman predicts these efforts will last well into 2020 and beyond. Moreover, direct military intervention is often not the best option, or even feasible.

“The choices are often going to be highly uncertain,” he said. “In some cases, like Yemen, the problem and the scale of dealing with a complex society and set of challenges almost force you to try to aid the host country and [practice] containment. You don’t have the option of direct military invention.”

Iran, for example, poses an entirely different set of challenges than Yemen, though an invasion there is also practically out of the question, according to Cordesman. “You really don’t have that option in the case of Iran,” he said. “It is simply too big, too powerful, and too complex a military challenge relative to the threat it poses.” Likewise, the United States cannot use military means alone to address the range of failed, or potentially failing states throughout the world — not just Somalia and Yemen but a host of nations vulnerable to political instability.

“The Arab-Israeli conflict is now tied to a deeply divided Palestinian movement that risks becoming the world’s first failed protostate,” Cordesman wrote in his most recent CSIS commentary titled “The New War on Terrorism: Yemen is Only a Symptom of a Far More Complex Mix of Threats.”

“A relatively stable Jordan is surrounded by unstable neighbors, and a failed peace process inevitably affects its future stability. Lebanon’s fragile unity is linked to the fate of Hezbollah — which has become a near-state actor within a state, and one that poses its own threat in terms of irregular warfare, and support of attacks on Israel,” he pointed out, adding, “The U.S. faces a decade of succession issues in the Gulf, Levant and North Africa — and in critical regional allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. None currently seems likey to lead to control by Islamist extremists, but ‘unlikely’ is a very different word from ‘impossible.’”

And conditions are ripe for a deep ideological struggle that will continue to test governments for years to come. “Violent religious extremists pose a massive ideological challenge at a time when no secular alternative to Islam has broad credibility with populations alienated by failed governance, failed economies and structural unemployment of over 30 percent, social disruption and the pressures of massive population growth and hyper-urbanization, and the breakdown of education and opportunity for youth in countries where some 60 percent of the population is often under 30,” Cordesman argues.

“What Americans — and all the other populations affected — need to understand is that they have no choice other than to deal with such threats in an enduring struggle,” he concludes. “The challenge is not to deal with Yemen, improved security in air travel, or any other part of the problem with some quick fix. There is no meaningful exit strategy from reality, and there is no place to hide. If anything, the lesson should be that the U.S. does need to rethink its strategy in terms of how best to make an enduring commitment that balances the use of deterrence, containment, diplomacy, aid, counterterrorism, and military force to meet all of this complex mix of threats — and continue to do so over the next quarter of a century.”

Cordesman credited the Bush administration for warning the American people in 2002 that they were in for a long, hard slog in Afghanistan, even if the strategy left much to be desired. By the way, Cordesman supported the invasion of Iraq but openly scoffed at the Bush administration’s notion that the United States would be greeted as liberators.

However, the CSIS expert said the Bush administration never committed to an adequate military effort in Afghanistan because of its focus on Iraq. He also believes it failed to deal in a clear-eyed way with Pakistan.

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CASA de Maryland CASA is a community organization founded in 1985 to fight for equal treatment, resources and opportunities for low-income Latinos and their families, including live-in domestic workers. The group has long argued that diplomats and international financial institutions commit most of the domestic worker abuses in the D.C. metro area.

“The fact is that the administration made a choice not to commit an active military program, not to confront the problems we faced with the Afghan government or our allies, and to not deal with the reality that Pakistan was not a true ally,” Cordesman charged. “Had we done all of those things, we probably would never have faced the level of threat we face today and the cost would have been a tiny fraction of what we are now spending.

“Had we responded effectively and with reasonable levels of resources and proper programming in 2002 and 2003, what we face today by way of a major Taliban insurgency would never have developed.”

Obama is making strides in that direction, Cordesman said, praising the president’s thorough planning for the troop buildup and pointing out that U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan will be nearly three times stronger in 2010 than they were in 2008.

While commending the administration’s recent Afghan military assessment, Cordesman lamented that the State Department effort — the civilian plan — isn’t likely to be nearly as effective.

“The State Department’s normal function has always been diplomacy,” Cordesman said. “At a titular level, it is supposed to be the coordinating group for all operation in American foreign policy. At a practical level, the State Department has very, very little real operation capability.”

President Obama has ambitiously declared that the civilian effort is expected to comprise 50 percent of what the United States eventually does in Afghanistan, but according to Cordesman, the State Department is simply not up to the job.

“People talk rather blithely about smart power or soft power, but the fact is — as we’ve learned the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan — the State Department has no core competence to operate at this level,” he argues. “It lacks the management tools and personnel to do it…. Most of the people who are career Foreign Service officers don’t want to do these tasks and don’t want to take the risks, so we have no clear civilian partner for the military for the kind of missions we’ve had in either Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Cordesman said he also sees a major disconnect between the rhetoric of the administration and the media versus the reality on the ground.

“People keep talking about civilian surges and building-up capability, but the fact is, eight years on, we may or may not get 1,000 people as civilians in Afghanistan, and most of those people are going to be in headquarters or in rear-area functions, not forwards where there are really needed.”

Cordesman added bluntly: “Today, the bulk of the people actually doing this work are in military uniform.”

But Cordesman stresses that in the bigger picture, military might is only one tool in a broad arsenal that the United States must employ to confront a complex, long-term battle.

“In many ways what we face is something very similar to the Cold War,” he said, referring to the ongoing threat of Islamic extremism and terrorism generating from the Middle East and South Asia. “We can solve a problem through containment or deterrence or active military intervention, but we’re not dealing with movements or ideas that can be defeated. Whether it’s in Afghanistan or Pakistan or anywhere else, all we can do is limit the threat or contain it.

“But it differs from the Cold War in one fundamental sense,” he added. “There was some degree of coherence in dealing with a threat largely by the Soviet Union.”

Cordesman asserts that today’s world is far too complex a place to guarantee victory against an enemy as amorphous as “terrorists.” The nation’s leaders will continue to be forced to make decisions about resources and manpower, and should make them as carefully as possible.

“We are constantly forced into a process of trade-off and triage and that isn’t going to go away anymore than it did during the Cold War where we also — superpower or not — could never do everything at once,” he said. So what will “victory” in Afghanistan and other extremist hotspots ultimately look like?

“We have to understand victory is not going to mean some kind of surrender document, and it doesn’t mean that somehow the threat goes away on a global basis,” Cordesman said. “What we [hope to] do is essentially get enough security and stability in Afghanistan so that they do not come under extremist rule and do not become violent centers of terrorist threats.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 2, 2014