Going Wobbly on Afghanistan
Following George Will’s vote of “no support” last week for Afghanistan, Sunday’s newspaper opinion pages are chock-full of doubts about our conduct of the war there. Tom Friedman wonders whether the Karzai government in Kabul can ever be a functioning ally:
As the military expert Anthony Cordesman, who has advised the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, explained in The Washington Post recently, it requires “a significant number” of U.S. reinforcements and time to do what the Kabul government has failed to do, because it remains “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.”
To put it another way, we are not just adding more troops in Afghanistan. We are transforming our mission — from baby-sitting to adoption. We are going from a limited mission focused on baby-sitting Afghanistan — no matter how awful its government — in order to prevent an Al Qaeda return to adopting Afghanistan as our state-building project.
Nicholas Kristof worries that our tactics there are self-defeating:
President Obama has already dispatched an additional 21,000 American troops to Afghanistan and soon will decide whether to send thousands more. That would be a fateful decision for his presidency, and a group of former intelligence officials and other experts is now reluctantly going public to warn that more troops would be a historic mistake.
The group’s concern — dead right, in my view — is that sending more American troops into ethnic Pashtun areas in the Afghan south may only galvanize local people to back the Taliban in repelling the infidels.
“Our policy makers do not understand that the very presence of our forces in the Pashtun areas is the problem,” the group said in a statement to me. “The more troops we put in, the greater the opposition. We do not mitigate the opposition by increasing troop levels, but rather we increase the opposition and prove to the Pashtuns that the Taliban are correct.
Ahmed Rashid, a long time observer of Afghanistan, writing in the Washington Post urges a more minimalist commitment and hopes for what may be the impossible:
To emerge from this mess with even moderately credible Afghan partners will be difficult, but it has to be done. (The Americans could start by forcing Karzai to create a government that includes all leading opposition figures.) Without a partner, the United States becomes nothing but an occupying force that Afghans will resist and NATO will not want to support. Holbrooke’s skills as a power broker will be sorely tested, with his past successes in the Balkans a cakewalk compared with this perilous path.
The Obama administration can come out of this quagmire if it aims low, targets the bad guys, builds a regional consensus, keeps the American public on its side and gives the Afghans what they really want — just the chance to have a better life.
Doyle McManus, in the LA Times, urges President Obama to show leadership on Afghanistan:
To learn whether the war is even winnable, and to avoid seeing it turn into another Vietnam, Obama needs to do two things. He needs to rally public and congressional support behind another troop increase; that, oddly enough, will be the easy part. And he needs to find ways to make Afghanistan’s government work, by ramping up the civilian surge and getting aid directly to local leaders who deliver services to their constituents — even if, in some cases, they aren’t as clean as we’d like. That will be the hard part.
As I have said before my view on Afghanistan is roughly Rory Stewart’s, who probably knows as much about Afghanistan as any Westerner does. Basically, we need to lower our expectations of what might constitute victory in Afghanistan and along with them our forces to a level that won’t be interpreted as occupation by the Afghans. The mission would be a combination of counter-terrorism, development, and force protection.
After eight years that will be a terribly hard sell but not, I think, as difficult as the alternatives.
Critics are right: we’ve already tried the “off-shore” alternative and it failed. However, I have yet to see clear signs that counter-insurgency could be an effective approach in Afghanistan, large, poor, without resources, and without much support for a strong central government—a prerequisite for COIN. There’s another problem with COIN that I haven’t seen commented on: to implement the approach we’re urging a military on Afghanistan the size of the United Kingdom’s. Is there any way that a military of that size, funded by the resources of the United States, would be seen as anything but a threat by its neighbors?
That leaves an ongoing commitment to counter-terrorism in Afghanistan. That sort of commitment is deeply unpalatable to Americans but, as I’ve said, it beats the alternatives.