Please Make a Case for Afghanistan
I haven’t commented on Afghanistan for the last few weeks, partly to allow the debate to coalesce, partly because I’d said my piece. However, two items, an op-ed from Anthony Cordesman in the Washington Post and an item from The Guardian on Gen. McChrystal’s long-awaited review of the situation in Afghanistan, have moved me to comment again.
In his op-ed Dr. Cordesman urges additional troops, money, and time for Afghanistan:
I do not know what resources Eikenberry or McChrystal would seek if given the chance. Eikenberry has indicated that funding of the civil side of the U.S. Embassy effort in Afghanistan is about half of what is necessary: Some $2.1 billion more may be sought to meet a $4.8 billion total need. He will almost certainly need far more civilians than the token “surge” that is planned (and that will not produce its full results until the spring or summer of 2010).
McChrystal has not announced a need for more U.S. troops, but almost every expert on the scene has talked about figures equivalent to three to eight more brigade combat teams — with nominal manning levels that could range from 2,300 to 5,000 personnel each — although much of that manpower will go to developing Afghan forces that must nearly double in size, become full partners rather than tools, and slowly take over from U.S. and NATO forces. Similarly, a significant number of such U.S. reinforcements will have to assist in providing a mix of capabilities in security, governance, rule of law and aid. U.S. forces need to “hold” and keep the Afghan population secure, and “build” enough secure local governance and economic activity to give Afghans reason to trust their government and allied forces. They must build the provincial, district and local government capabilities that the Kabul government cannot and will not build for them. No outcome of the recent presidential election can make up for the critical flaws in a grossly overcentralized government that is corrupt, is often a tool of power brokers and narco-traffickers, and lacks basic capacity in virtually every ministry.
In Dr. Cordesman’s view a commitment of years, billions more, and as many 40,000 more troops may accomplish victory; failure to make such a commitment will result in defeat:
We have a reasonable chance of victory if we properly outfit and empower our new team in Afghanistan; we face certain defeat if we do not.
Gen. McChrystal reiterates his support for a counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan:
The west must change its strategy in order to prevail in Afghanistan, the top US commander in the country said today as he handed over to US and Nato commanders a sweeping review of operations that may lead to a demand for more troops.
“The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort,” General Stanley McChrystal said. His findings will be submitted to President Barack Obama, who faces a public increasingly restive over a war that has lasted eight years.
Key components of a counter-insurgency strategy include protecting the civilian population, supporting the central government, and reducing insurgent forces. David Kilcullen adds:
Another leading counter-insurgency expert said Afghanistan’s government must fight corruption and deliver services to Afghans quickly, because Taliban militants were filling gaps and winning support. The Taliban were already running courts, hospitals and even an ombudsman in parallel to the government, making a real difference to local people, said David Kilcullen, a senior adviser to McChrystal.
“A government that is losing to a counter-insurgency isn’t being outfought, it is being out-governed. And that’s what’s happening in Afghanistan,” Kilcullen told Australia’s National Press Club.
As I see it there are fundamental problems with a counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan. First, as long as the insurgents are able to flee to bases in Pakistan they will be difficult if not impossible to reduce and the Pakistani government despite brave talk has shown little inclination to eliminate these bases.
Second, there is no central government in Afghanistan to support. There is a Kabul government.
Third, there are no prospects whatever for Afghanistan itself shouldering the bulk of the burden of the counter-insurgency effort for the foreseeable future and our NATO allies have shown little enthusiasm for increasing their own commitments to the effort.
But most importantly the case has yet to be made to the American people that victory in Afghanistan is either achievable or even worth pursuing at least not in the time or at the cost that would be required. Commenters as diverse as Matthew Yglesias and Dennis the Peasant have pointed out that neither Dr. Cordeman nor Gen. McChrystal nor the Obama Administration have defined victory in Afghanistan. It’s darned hard to convince people that something is worth sacrificing for if neither you nor they know what it is. I suspect the American people are increasingly skeptical that what’s going on in Afghanistan is the war they signed on for.
MY makes a good point in that binary choices—victory or defeat, maximizing our force or withdrawing—don’t exhaust the possibilities in Afghanistan:
His [ed. Cordesman's] failure to do so is part of the annoying trend toward defining Afghanistan strategy debates in incredibly stark, binary terms. Either we need to commit maxim resources to a maximalist strategy, or else we’re going to admit “defeat” and cut and run. Realistically, though, there’s a broad middle ground of options between “eliminate all US support for Afghan government and let the Taliban run amok” and “engage in decades-long effort to remark all of Afghan politics and society.”
That withdrawing our forces after having campaigned on advancing the war in Afghanistan could be politically embarrassing to the Obama Administration isn’t enough to justify either increasing the commitment there or withdrawing. What I’d like to see from the Obama Administration is a clear, unambiguous, straightforward declaration of its intentions with respect to Afghanistan. I want President Obama to make his case and I’ll give it a fair hearing. I think the American people deserve as much.