The Corner

Re: Afghan Run-Off

A friend sends this e-mail in response to this post from last week (I’m not sure what I think any more of this old Pentagon-State dispute over Iraq, by the way):

The State Department’s institutional obsession with ”legitimacy” and elections as the only way to get it has been the source of enormous mischief since 9/11.  The greatest failure in postwar planning in Iraq did not come from the Pentagon, but demonstrably came from the State Department’s twisted insistence that no Iraqi leadership could be legitimate unless it was elected, and therefore there was no choice but to establish an indefinite American occupation authority in the guise of the Coalition Provisional Authority. 


In his book War and Decision Douglas Feith talks extensively about the consequences of this September 2003 op-ed in the Washington Post by L. Paul Bremer, the senior State Department official in charge of the Coalition Provision Authority.  The op-ed was not cleared through the “principals committee” as regular procedure would dictate, and many senior Bush officials were stunned by its appearance, chiefly because its insistence on — you guessed it — elections as the only way to get legitimacy, warped the original administration plan, which was for the most rapid possible transition to Iraqi self-rule and Iraqi engagement in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.  You will readily see in the Obama’s administration’s current paralysis, the same State Department insistence on elections as primordial, and with possibly the same disastrous consequences that it had in Iraq, namely to cast illegitimacy on the American presence, defer true local self-rule, and bedevil our counter-terrorism efforts.

The reason why the elections were marred goes to a fundamental challenge of the Afghanistan theater of war, with enormous consequences for strategy and force levels, namely that the Afghan population is much more widely dispersed than in Iraq, and security force simply do not exist to provide the sort of pervasive security presence that we achieved in Iraq; nor, consequently, do the security forces exist to provide security for the polling stations, which then turn into free-for-alls.  This problem is obviously not going to get fixed before the run-off. The necessary forces do not exist. Solving this problem is more properly viewed as a strategic goal, a definition of victory, and a symptom of success, than as a prerequisite of success.  To say that these elections have to come off without a hitch before we can successfully prosecute a counterinsurgency is ridiculous, for the truth is entirely the other way around.  In fact the Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy specifically states that “Legitimacy” is the ultimate objective — not the first step toward victory, but the definition of victory. 

I would offer one further thought: I agree with Gen Petraeus that “legitimacy” is the objective of counterinsurgency.  Now consider this: For James Madison, who drafted our Constitution, the legitimacy of the democratic form of government lay in its representation of “the multiplicity of interests” — a phrase he used constantly in his writings. And the “multiplicity of interests” could only  be represented in a corporate and federal structure of government, and in the balance of powers.  Elections were meant chiefly to solve a different problem — that of succession — and were only secondarily useful in securing representation of the multiplicity of interests, because elections could only tell you approximately what a simple majority of the people might want, whereas the goal of legitimacy required much more than that. In James Madison’s view, the legitimacy of the democratic form of government had much more to do with structure and function than with elections.  I often wonder whether anyone at the State Department bothers to read the Federalist Papers or even the Declaration of Independence, and this is not the only thing that makes me wonder.