The Korea Solution

At New Atlanticist Bernard Finel proposes an alternative to the counter-insurgency strategy we have now apparently adopted in Afghanistan. His proposal consists of six components:

  1. Withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan.
  2. Provide substantial assistance to the Afghan government as and after we withdraw.
  3. Re-affirm our commitment to removing Taliban or related elements from Afghanistan.
  4. Work to resolve tensions between India and Pakistan.
  5. Implement an asylum program for Afghans that have assisted us there.
  6. Work towards clarifying the obligations of states under international law with respect to terrorist organizations operating on their soil.

I think that Bernard’s prescription relies on a misreading of American political and diplomatic history, viz.:

Apologists for Richard Nixon have long argued that he negotiated a honorable peace in Vietnam that was later undermined by Congress’ unwillingness to tolerate a bombing campaign in support of the South when North Vietnam invaded in 1975. But the fact is that dragging out our commitment until 1973 was what made effective post-withdrawal assistance impossible. If Nixon had gotten us out in 1969, it is possible that enough residual public support for the war would have remained to allow us to continue to use air power in defense of our allies in South Vietnam. In short, the risks of staying until public support collapses completely are significant. The sooner we get our forces out, the more likely I believe we are to be able to sustain an active policy in support of the Karzai regime or a legitimate successor.

Quite to the contrary I think that once American forces have left Afghanistan, American interest in the country will wane, aid will dry up, and, should the Taliban re-establish themselves in the country, it will be very difficult to make a case for a second intervention there.

To understand why that last might be, imagine that you’re President Obama. You’ve already explained to the American people that there’s nothing more our forces can accomplish in Afghanistan. Now explain why you were wrong.

Is there a precedent for Americans, having withdrawn military forces from a country in which we have little or no strategic interest, re-invading? I can’t think of one.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries we repeatedly re-invaded Haiti, even administering the country for a time. I believe this was due to a combination of our interests in preserving Western Hemisphere independence from European interference and the encouragement of business interests there. After the conclusion of the Great War it took a combination of threat to the United Kingdom, the Third Reich’s assault on the Soviet Union, and direct threats to the American mainland to induce us to go to war with Germany again. It required a serious threat to our interests.

I’d like to propose a third alternative: the Korea solution. Perhaps we should maintain a force in Afghanistan with a greatly reduced mission, large enough to be daunting, small enough not to be deemed an occupation. This force would have the dual effect of enabling us to prevent Al Qaeda from establishing itself in the country again while giving us a stake in ongoing aid to the Kabul government.

The American experience, illuminated by the examples of Germany and Japan following World War II and Korea is that we have considerable patience, Sitzfleisch, when we have such a stake and virtually none when we don’t.

The only other realistic alternative I can come up with to a lengthy counter-insurgency, expensive in lives and money, or the decidedly unrealistic one of deterrence without a credible deterrent and aid without a stake that Bernard proposes would be to cultivate support for the acceptability of massive bombing campaigns as a means of dealing with essentially ungoverned areas in which terrorist organizations have found a home.

I think the Korea solution is significantly more humane albeit a hard sell.

FILED UNDER: General, , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. What about a Germany strategy: define some relatively defensible line, build a barrier, welcome fugitives from the Taliban side of the barrier and build a functioning state? Is there a part of Afghanistan we can reasonably hold? I don’t know the geography well enough to know.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I also thought about a Korean strategy in terms of bifurcation of the state.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not sure how you’d go about partitioning a territory without a tradition of statehood. It’s already self-partitioned.

  4. yetanotherjohn says:

    This is something that I have been mulling for some time. Abandon any pretense of trying to produce a unified Afghanistan. Make friends with any warlord who will in return not attack the US or help those who will. Provide air strikes to help our ‘friends’ and hurt our enemies. Distribute special forces/cia out to the tribes with the understanding that harm to them invites massive aerial attacks. This essentially returns Afghanistan to its natural state of warring tribes with the new addition of the 600 pound gorilla which is available for those who are friendly. If both groups are friendly, we don’t bomb. One group is friendly and the other is not, bomb the not friendly. Soon, all should see the advantage of being on the friendly side.

    Cost in manpower is much lower and much more sustainable. As long as Obama is in office, the press won’t mention civilian casualties. The major flaw is that we need forward bases to support the special forces and air force. So that means protecting those basis, etc. Still that becomes a task we could do with 1/4 what we currently have.

  5. Looking at a map and playing the British Colonial role: along ethnic lines? Cede the Pashtun areas? You can more or less use the A1 highway as a line — it follows a valley and connects various cities.

    Again, conceding that I’m pulling that out of my hat.

    Create a Pashtunistan. Use predators to attack Al Qaeda. Keep a robust force in place to hold two thirds of the country. And do all we can to build a model state in the rest of the country and rely on ethnic hostility to limit Pashtun/Taliban advances into “our” Afghanistan?

  6. The Korea solution requires peace. The Korea solution would not have worked had the North Koreans had 10,000 men running around the South, blowing up stuff, firing mortars into American bases, etc.

    Your Korea solution isn’t actually a Korea solution… it is what we were doing in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006… isn’t it?

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Bernard, since the Armistice there have been more than 40,000 breaches of the peace by the North Koreans along the DMZ, including some that involved munitions more substantial than mortars. Peace does not seem to be a requirement.

    I’m envisioning something a little less vigorous than what we were doing from 2002 to 2006, with primary missions of force protection and preventing Al Qaeda from re-establishing itself in Afghanistan.

    My key point: if you are arguing for removal of our forces from Afghanistan you are in fact arguing for the cessation of aid, too. Thinking otherwise is contrary to experience.

  8. Item number one on Mr. Finel’s list is the most egregious example of putting the cart before the horse I’ve seen in quite some time. I mean, nothing could possibly reaffirm our commitment to removing the Taliban or related elements from Afghanistan quite like leaving.

    On the other hand, his faith in international institutions as expressed in item number six on his list is touching, but utterly meaningless unless you think that harshly worded memorandums will actually accomplish much.

  9. Charles:

    Dave mischaracterizes that part of my argument. I make no commitment to remove the Taliban from power… UNLESS they allow anti-American terrorist to operate on their soil. I would hate it, but would not use force to prevent a Taliban takeover if they would content themselves with destroying statues and generally wrecking Afghanistan. On the other hand, if they invite AQ back in, I think we could credibly say, “We kicked you out once, we can do it again.” And under that situation, I think that the Taliban might be willing to just focus on driving their own little corner of the world back to the 12th century and leave global jihad to others. I could easily be wrong… but the fact is that less than 20% of even violent Islamist groups have transnational or global agendas, and less than 3% of even Islamists worldwide support the idea of attacks against western civilians. So, I think there is room to strike a bargain.

    But I don’t think the bargain would be necessary. We’ve maintained a 30 year commitment of aid to Egypt. Our commitment to Israel is even longer. We kept no-fly zones over Iraq for a decade. That’s the model, I think. Keep some UAVs for intel and fast movers for CAS based in Manas, provide generous military and financial assistance. And I think with that kind of commitment, Karzai holds off the Taliban indefinitely anyway.

  10. steve says:

    Under your plan, what motivation does the existent Afghan government have to become competent and less corrupt? In your scenario it looks like we will largely be guaranteeing the safety of weak, incompetent central governments. I am not as familiar with Korea, but with Germany and japan there was a history of a functioning central govt.

    Steve

  11. Bernard, since the Armistice there have been more than 40,000 breaches of the peace by the North Koreans along the DMZ, including some that involved munitions more substantial than mortars. Peace does not seem to be a requirement.

    There were 7,000 violent incidents in Afghanistan last year alone. We’re talking about an order-of-magnitude difference in violence.

    There were 164 American combat deaths in Afghanistan last year… which is more than in all the years since the Armistice in Korea… so that is that least a 2 orders of magnitude difference.

    Plus, correct me if I am wrong, but has there been an American killed by a North Korean in the DMZ since the Axe Murder Incident in 1976?

    The most substantial stuff came in a 2-3 year bursts in the late 1960s.

    From 1953 to 1966, a total of 8 Americans were killed by North Koreans.

    I dunno man… I like the debate… but I don’t see how your proposal reflects a better or more nuanced read of American history than mine.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    Bernard, we have strategic interests in Egypt and Iraq and political interests in Israel. What are our strategic interests in Afghanistan as long as Al Qaeda doesn’t have bases there?

    As I see it we’re either going to withdraw from Afghanistan sooner rather than later and let the chips fall where they may which would be sad but wouldn’t particularly upset me or we’re going to find some pretext along the lines I’ve described for maintaining a small force there and continuing aid. I see no way we’ll withdraw our forces and continue to give Afghanistan substantial support. I await your argument that’s a reasonable expectation.

  13. Funny that we’d didn’t know we had strategic interests in Egypt before Sadat went to Israel and in Iraq before Saddam invaded Kuwait. Look, the memory of 9/11 may not be forever sufficient to justify hundreds of fatalities and thousands of wounded per year, but I think it can sustain essentially an indefinite commitment of finite resources — I’m only talking something on the order of $4-5 billion a year… $10b at most… on a plan that I would argue has a better long-term chance of keeping the Taliban at bay than any other.

    There is not a chance your plan will happen. It looks too much like 2002 to 2007. Whether fair or not, your approach will be labeled “tried it, didn’t like it.” Mine has maybe a 1% chance. Ultimately, Obama has locked himself in.

    My guess about likely outcomes: 10% chance the Afghan surge works over the next 24 months, and then we draw down slowly over 5-6 years after that. 80% chance it doesn’t because of structural factors, but we beat our heads against it just out of stubborness until we finally pull out completely, war-weary, and let the chips fall where they may. A bunch of other small things could happen.

    My option is still, I would argue, the best course,and it is possible… if we do it now because residual support for the war remains high enough to institutionalize a commitment (as long as it stays off the front pages).

    But I’m not really in the prognostication game. All I can do is suggest what I think is the best plausible course of action.

  14. Dave Schuler says:

    Sounds like we’re in material agreement on the likely scenarios.

    Just to make myself VERY clear. I opposed the invasion of Afghanistan to begin with because I thought it was dangerous, logistically too difficult, there was no way to make any success “stick” as long as Pakistan maintained an open border, and our interests in Afghanistan (absent Al Qaeda) were too low. Doesn’t look to me as though much off that has changed.

    IF there’s an achievable worthwhile objective in Afghanistan and IF it requires our longterm support I think we’ll need more stake than you seem to.

    But for me this entire discussion is an exercise in third or fourth choices.

  15. Brett says:

    1. Withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan.
    2. Provide substantial assistance to the Afghan government as and after we withdraw.

    I’m guessing you mean money and arms. Keep in mind that there are limitations on our ability to ship the latter into Afghanistan (which is in a really annoying location for logistical purposes. Our various non-Pakistani routes generally have a “no arms shipped” policy (this includes the Manas air base), and the Pakistanis will almost certainly insist on being the ones to give the weapons to the Afghans if we aren’t physically in Afghanistan.

    3. Re-affirm our commitment to removing Taliban or related elements from Afghanistan.

    You said you modified this to say this only applies if radical elements are permitted to use its soil for those purposes. My question is, what are you going to do if they do allow them in? Topple the government again, only this time with a skeptical Pakistan and surrounding countries (Russia actually played a big role in getting us bases in the surrounding central Asian states the first time around)?

    That’s assuming the Taliban (assuming they return to power, and they might, since ISI is still probably sympathetic to them) actually could enforce a ban against such elements. They’re only a militia, after all.

    4. Work to resolve tensions between India and Pakistan.

    That’s one of those Grand “If Only” things, like peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, final status of Taiwan, and so forth.

    There’s little you can actually do on the Kashmir example, for instance. Only the Pakistanis want us involved, and that’s because they want to use us as leverage against the Indians to bring them to the table.

    5. Implement an asylum program for Afghans that have assisted us there.

    Good idea.

    6. Work towards clarifying the obligations of states under international law with respect to terrorist organizations operating on their soil.

    Sounds good, although you need it to be coupled with better enforcement and cooperation.

    I’d like to propose a third alternative: the Korea solution. Perhaps we should maintain a force in Afghanistan with a greatly reduced mission, large enough to be daunting, small enough not to be deemed an occupation. This force would have the dual effect of enabling us to prevent Al Qaeda from establishing itself in the country again while giving us a stake in ongoing aid to the Kabul government.

    Dave, we can’t put down the Taliban and Al-Qaeda right now with the force we’ve got there – what’s a smaller token force going to do? You’ll lose whatever support you have among the population as well, since the force would do nothing for Afghan security, and you’ll be stuck with all the problems (logistical and otherwise) of being stuck in that country.

    What about a Germany strategy: define some relatively defensible line, build a barrier, welcome fugitives from the Taliban side of the barrier and build a functioning state? Is there a part of Afghanistan we can reasonably hold? I don’t know the geography well enough to know.

    We could probably hold the cities pretty easily, and that’s nothing to sneeze at – Kandahar alone is a large fraction of the southern population in Afghanistan. Aside from that, if I remember right, Afghanistan is bisected across the center by some highlands that effectively separate the Pashtun south from the largely-non-Pashtun northeast and northwest. You could probably section off the country there (although you’d anger any Afghan nationalists), and work on the north. They make up most of the army anyways.

    Or, you could finally do what we should have done, and built up a border separation along the Afghan-Pakistan borderline.

    Funny that we’d didn’t know we had strategic interests in Egypt before Sadat went to Israel and in Iraq before Saddam invaded Kuwait.

    That’s not true – the US always saw a strategic need in Egypt in the form of the Suez Canal (plus the fact that Egypt was the de facto “leader” of the Arab states), and you saw repeated attempts to cultivate ties with them in the Eisenhower Administration. It wasn’t really a strategic ally before Sadat, though, mainly because Nasser ended up allying with the Soviets through most of the 1960s.

    Just to make myself VERY clear. I opposed the invasion of Afghanistan to begin with because I thought it was dangerous, logistically too difficult, there was no way to make any success “stick” as long as Pakistan maintained an open border, and our interests in Afghanistan (absent Al Qaeda) were too low. Doesn’t look to me as though much off that has changed.

    What could we have done, though, after 9/11 otherwise? Sit there with the blood on our faces from the attack? That would have been politically impossible at home, and unwise abroad – while part of Al-Qaeda’s goal was to draw the US into a bloodbath in Afghanistan, they were also operating under a belief that the US, when stung severely, would withdraw rather than fight onward. Doing nothing would have been fodder for the “far enemy” jihadists.

    Which is not to say that we should have stuck around after toppling the Taliban the first time, and driving Al-Qaeda into the FATA. Arguably, we should have allowed the exiled king to come back as a figurehead for an Afghan government, or simply promoted a least-offensive warlord as our strongman (and worked to get the Russians and Pakistanis behind him), with the goal of getting out of there by 2003.

  16. Dave — sorry for jumping in on this conversation a bit late, but your line

    “Perhaps we should maintain a force in Afghanistan with a greatly reduced mission, large enough to be daunting, small enough not to be deemed an occupation.” is a bit like being partially pregnant — the Pashtuns will probably consider any foreigners to be occupiers, esp. if those foreigners are shooting at them.