Friday, January 11, 2013

Emile Simpson on Afghanistan

Former British infantry captain Emile Simpson has written a book on war and politics in modern times, and includes a section on Afghanistan, where he served three tours. Tom Ricks has a review:
Simpson's core observation on the Afghan war is that when war is simply violent politics, one shouldn't expect it to end, because politics doesn't end. As he writes in his book, "The outcomes of contemporary conflicts are often better understood as constant evolutions of how power is configured." (P. 2)

Once you see the conflict in Afghanistan as political at its core, then just talking about the enemy as a unitary force makes no sense. For example, when in 2005 Helmand's provincial governor was ousted from office and so could not pay his followers, he sent them to work for the Taliban, which was hiring. "Akhundzada and his men did not ‘change sides'; they remained on their own side." (P. 44)

Seeing military action through a political lens, as he advocates throughout the book, also puts coalition operations in a different light. Wresting control of Kandahar city from the Taliban might seem to make military sense if it is the enemy's center of gravity, he notes. But think of it instead as a political problem. "In political terms, to have identified Kandahar city as the decisive point was a bold move; however, for a political consultant in a US presidential election, it would be like the Democratic Party investing massive resources in trying to win Texas." (P. 100)

He also warns that it is easy for the Taliban's leaders to negotiate, because it gives them legitimacy, but hard for them to reach any agreements, because then they would have to enforce them, and they can't. "If the leadership were to negotiate a political settlement only to have it ignored by the groups it claims to control, it would lost all credibility." (P. 78)

He thinks that official corruption is "a significantly more relevant issue than the insurgency" in terms of the future stability of the Afghan state. (P. 152)


David said...

Very interesting remarks, which seem to be apt on Afghanistan. But as a general theory, it seems to me incomplete. I can think of civil wars that seemed to be mainly violent politics but which ended with a decisive military victory: Russia in 1922, China in 1949, Vietnam in 1975 all come to mind. Perhaps it is significant that these were all won by Communists. Perhaps you have to be absolutely thorough and ruthless in that peculiar Leninist way, rather than merely brutal, in order to completely end violent politics (of course, violence continued; but Stalin's purges were not a civil war). In any case, policies like those aren't ones the US is going to undertake anytime soon, and a good thing too.

John said...

Yes, it does not apply to regimes like the Chinese and Vietnamese that were able to effectively end politics. I was thinking that it was a good description of the violence in much of medieval Europe.

Does it apply to the US Civil War, or not?

David said...

It is indeed a good description of medieval Europe, and for that matter of medieval Islam. It would be interesting to know what politics were like in Afghanistan, say, in the 1950s or 60s.

I was wondering too about the US Civil War. I'm not sure about Simpson's thesis per se, but the fact is the whole Reconstruction period in the South was extremely violent, much of the violence involving Taliban-like militias. I've sometimes thought that the question, could the south have pursued a guerrilla war strategy after 1865, misses the point that in fact they did. Southern whites were willing to let the armies decide southern independence, but they fought long and hard to maintain racial hierarchy, and they won (there's another victory that did end the two-way violence, pursued with an almost Stalin-like ruthlessness and thoroughness in altering behavior, though with a much lower body count).

Anonymous said...

I don't believe Simpson has a good understanding on the Clausewitz theory. The 'wonderful trinity' does not simply consist of military strength and focus on military goals. After all isn't the use of the military simply an extension of political will?

Afghanistan is not unique in the internal political turmoil, one could probably look a little closer to Simpsons back yard and look into the Ireland issue...

Clausewitz actually detailed a similar circumstance with the Tartar tribes and the inter tribal instability. Taking a literal translation of Clausewitz theories does not do the writings any justice and misrepresents the validity of these theories. Good points on the internal factions in afghanistan, as a subjective observation, however, not impressed by the shallow knowledge of the incomplete theories of Clausewitz...