Video: Talking Helmand, the Political Officer’s advice for armies campaigning in the Pashtoon heartland.
Ghosts of Alexander points to this very interesting talk by Michael Semple last month at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Abu Muqawama picks up on it too.
Michael Semple received a degree of press attention when working in Afghanistan as the acting representative for the EU. In December 2007, along with a UN official, he was arrested and expelled by the government of Hamid Karzai because of talks he was conducting with Taliban-linked elements in Helmand. From The Guardian:
Semple told the Guardian that he and the UN official Mervyn Patterson, who was also expelled, were victims of local politics. He said a local leader in Helmand province falsely blamed them for talking to what he described as “one of the irreconcilables” in the conflict. They had, he said, opened no such channel to al-Qaida-linked Taliban.In the Carr Center talk, Michael Semple gives a glimpse of his long and colourful past in Afghanistan, then talks about a recent attack in Ganjgal, and how it illustrates the local political complexities that need to be navigated in order to understand events.
“There is a critical difference between what is discreet and what is covert,” Semple said. “What we were doing was simply discreet because that was what was required. But it was totally in line with official policy to bring people in from the cold.”
He looks back at the success and failure of the political officers of Britain’s Victorian forays into Afghanistan, particularly Mohan Lal. He goes on to compare their actions with the work of the current day equivalent of the political officer in Afghanistan, and discusses the wide range of topics that a political officer needs to cover in briefing military units on their way to a place like Helmand.
At this point Rory Stewart of the Carr Center, who introduced the talk, challenges him on why he would want to work for the military, why he would want to help bring about a military victory, and what his wider aim is. Michael Semple responds as follows (edited for repetitions/clarifications):
Why I think it’s interesting today is partly because of the difference between the J2 [intelligence officer] and the political officer. For me the attraction of the political officer is that although inevitably nowadays, because there is a military component in the intervention in Afghanistan, they have some kind of relationship with the military whether they’re working directly with the military as a POLAD, or whether they are meeting with the military like a UNAMA political officer like in my days as a political officer with UNAMA, that for the political officer the military is one small part of our intervention and the preference is for civilian forms of action, and there is an assumption that such goals as we’d like to achieve [..] the political officer believes that it is possible to pursue that through political means, through a process of reconciling rather than pursuing conflicts, of cutting across all different sides in a conflict, and relying on the military for specific tasks.
I feel that with the spread of counterinsurgency doctrine it’s as if the political officer is being squeezed out of existence, and is being turned into this POLAD who’s never really going to be able to get things done. If a political officer really just were a J2, somebody who both is a good intelligence analyst, a reasonable field operator, and can give a few bits of good advice to the commander, I don't think i would have wanted to be one. If I was happy to be one, it’s because the idea that we can pursue politics [while] keeping counterinsurgency sort of intellectually at bay with the idea that an integrated approach to achieve legitimate ends does not mean subordinating all civilian action, either politically or intellectually, to the demands of a counterinsurgency doctrine or the command of the military, but actually in an integrated approach we primarily do politics with political officers giving some ideas on how it should be done, and co-ordinate with the military action.Incidentally, Rory Stewart of the Carr Center who asked that question, and also introduced the talk, is not short of ground level experience in Afghanistan either. He is a sceptic when it comes to General McChrystal’s plan for US-led counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, primarily because he views it as unsustainable over the long term due to American domestic politics, and his main concern is that whatever action is taken, it needs to be long term as the problems in Afghanistan are deeper than deep.
I think Rory Stewart’s analysis as outlined in this interview has a couple of problems.The idea that domestic political resistance is directly related to the scale of deployment seems to me over-simplistic. Factors such as the electorate’s understanding and support for strategic aims, confidence or otherwise in success, perceptions of the effect on the local population, and of course military casualties; all these would seem more important in deciding the strength of domestic opposition.
As well as that, his use of troop number figures seems somewhat selective, leaving out the number of troops already deployed.
Rory Stewart’s colleague at the Carr Center, Tyler Moselle, also argues against McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan in this opinion piece for the Financial Times, maintaining that a counterinsurgency strategy would increase resistance by serving as “a rallying call for global jihadists” and arguing instead for a counterterrorism campaign based on drone strikes and special forces raids. But drone strikes are not the surgical cost-free option they seem, and can also lead to increased alienation and support for insurgents in the population.
As for special forces raids, that is of course General McChrystal’s speciality, and he doesn’t see it as a route to resolution, only to endless killing. The insurgency in Iraq wasn’t subdued by the killing of Saddam’s sons, nor by the capture of Saddam himself, nor by the killing of Musab al-Zarqawi.
Where Tyler Moselle’s argument is harder to dismiss is on the current government of Afghanistan. The military’s purpose cannot be to prop up Hamid Karzai. Hopefully US and NATO leaders understand this. The question is whether they can muster political resources to match the military ones proposed by McChrystal so as to advance beyond the current position.
And this brings us back to Michael Semple’s talk.
The next question to Michael Semple from the audience is on the corrupted first round of the presidential election. He discusses this at length, covering the role of UNAMA, both its leadership and its leading dissenter, the role of the US, the actions of Karzai, legitimate as well as illegitimate, as well as the history of elections in Afghanistan, and what needs to happen next.
He argues that the US has not shown sufficient political understanding of Afghanistan, is “not good enough at applying the non-military tools of influence,” and he argues for more of a political officer approach.
So counterinsurgency in itself will not be enough. Increased political sophistication within the military will not be enough. Kabul-centric deals will not be enough. The challenge will be to find political solutions that reach down to ground level: to implement a population centric political strategy to go beyond the military’s population centric COIN strategy.
UPDATE: follow up post here.