The Limits of Afghanization (Updated)

Add Chuck Hagel to the chorus of voices rising in opposition to the escalation of our military commitment to Afghanistan:

No country today has the power to impose its will and values on other nations. As the new world order takes shape, America must lead by building coalitions of common interests, as we did after World War II. Then, international organizations such as the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and GATT (now the World Trade Organization) — while flawed — established boundaries for human and government conduct and expectations that helped keep the world from drifting into World War III and generally made life better for most people worldwide during the second half of the 20th century.

Our greatest threats today come from the regions left behind after World War II. Addressing these threats will require a foreign policy underpinned by engagement — in other words, active diplomacy but not appeasement. We need a clearly defined strategy that accounts for the interconnectedness and the shared interests of all nations. Every great threat to the United States — whether economic, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, health pandemics, environmental degradation, energy, or water and food shortages — also threatens our global partners and rivals. Accordingly, we cannot view U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan through a lens that sees only “winning” or “losing.” Iraq and Afghanistan are not America’s to win or lose. Win what? We can help them buy time or develop, but we cannot control their fates. There are too many cultural, ethnic and religious dynamics at play in these regions for any one nation to control. For example, the future of Afghanistan is linked directly to Pakistan and what happens in the mountains along their border. Political accommodation and reconciliation in this region will determine the outcome.

But what about the Al Qaeda leadership that were believed to be holed up in the ironically named Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan? There are now reports that at least some of the Al Qaeda remnants in Pakistan have fled to Somalia or Yemen. If your objective is truly to pursue the Al Qaeda leadership, we won’t be able to stop in Afghanistan or even in Pakistan.

The current strategy in Afghanistan appears to be one of pursuing counter-insurgency through a combination of increased troops on our part and building up the native Afghan military to make up the rest of the forces needed for a successful counter-insurgency operation. There are no prospects whatever for Afghanistan itself to support an Afghan Army of the size and abilities necessary to pursue such a strategy. That means that supporting a sizeable commitment of U. S. troops in Afghanistan for, perhaps, a decade and billions in support for the Afghan Army for the foreseeable future.

Are we prepared to make similar commitments in Somalia, Yemen, or anywhere else that harbors takfiri terrorists?


The Washington Post editors come out in favor of a “stay the course” approach in Afghanistan:

The Democratic left and some conservatives have begun to argue that the Afghan war is unwinnable and that U.S. interests can be secured by a much smaller military campaign directed at preventing al-Qaeda from regaining a foothold in the country. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) has proposed a timetable for withdrawal — the same demand the left rallied around when the war in Iraq was going badly. Its most cogent argument is a negative one: that the weakness of the Afghan government and the general backwardness of the country mean that the counterinsurgency strategy, with its emphasis on political and economic development, can’t work.

That might prove true. But the problem with the critics’ argument is that, while the strategy they oppose has yet to be tried, the alternatives they suggest already have been — and they led to failure in both Afghanistan and Iraq. For years, U.S. commanders in both countries focused on killing insurgents and minimizing the numbers and exposure of U.S. troops rather than pacifying the country. The result was that violence in both countries steadily grew, until a counterinsurgency strategy was applied to Iraq in 2007. As for limiting U.S. intervention in Afghanistan to attacks by drones and Special Forces units, that was the strategy of the 1990s, which, as chronicled by the Sept. 11 commission, paved the way for al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington. Given that the Taliban and al-Qaeda now also aim to overturn the government of nuclear-armed Pakistan, the risks of a U.S. withdrawal far exceed those of continuing to fight the war — even were the result to be continued stalemate.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan is not Iraq. It’s a significantly larger, landlocked country without significant resources and in which we have no strategic interest absent Al Qaeda’s presence there and Al Qaeda has no presence there. It’s decamped. Today we’re fighting the Taliban, native Afghans who oppose the Kabul government.

We can’t legitimize the Kabul government and plow billions into it at the same time. The billions intrinsically delegitimize it. And I know of no precedent for our making this level of commitment to a country in which we have so little interest.

There are middle grounds between doubling down in Afghanistan with a significantly increased force and an essentially permanent commitment to fund its government and huge army on the one hand and complete withdrawal of our forces and support on the other. Imperfect as that may be it may well be the best that we can do.

Update 2

The Wall Street Journal urges President Obama to take a stand on Afghanistan:

President Obama may not want to spend any political capital on Afghanistan, but he has no choice. The main job of his generals should be to win the war, not also to have to sell it, especially when the main opposition so far is emerging from the President’s own left-flank. The opposition will also grow on the right if Americans conclude he isn’t providing the forces or personal leadership needed to win. Now is the time for Mr. Obama to give his generals everything they need to defeat the Taliban, or leave and explain why he’s concluded that Afghanistan is no longer worth the fight.

Although it has a somewhat more truculent tone, that’s not too different from what I wrote earlier this week.

I believe there’s a strong analogy between the way in which President Obama seems to have allowed his generals to define the Administration’s policy WRT Afghanistan and his handling so far of healthcare reform, the energy bill which appears stalled in Congress, and the handling of the financial crisis. I don’t know whether, as Michael Reynolds suggested, it’s an ingenious approach based on his background as a community organizer, it’s because he’s a technocrat strongly inclined to rely on the expertise of those who are supposed to know something, it’s because he’s inexperienced, it’s because he’s a weak manager, he’s trying to deflect political criticism from himself onto others, some combination of the above, or some other reason entirely. I genuinely don’t know.

Update 3

Raymond Pritchett at New Atlanticist articulates the case that COIN isn’t appropriate for Afghanistan very succinctly:

Counterinsurgency theory applies a population centric military strategy for promoting an existing credible governing body in a weak state where the government is facing an armed rebellion or occupation. Counterinsurgency is not the establishment of credible governing authority in a failed state where no credible governance exists. How does a counterinsurgency approach work in a failed state? I thought COIN was for weak states?

We are being told that Afghanistan is a weak state because there is an elected government in power today. How much control does that government have over the people even without the Taliban influence? The Taliban has not been the only problem in Afghanistan over the last eight years, and the governments authority didn’t exist over much of the country even when the Taliban wasn’t the main problem. I am having trouble digesting the suggestion that what we see in Afghanistan is a classic insurgency. Show me the evidence. Can someone please explain why the conditions are that of a classic insurgency, and not the chaotic soup one finds in a country suffering from 30 consecutive years of war caused primarily by foreign power influence compounded by centuries of tribal conflict and mistrust.

I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t a case of when the only tool you have is a hammer every problem begins to look like a nail.

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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.


  1. Rick Almeida says:

    We can’t legitimize the Kabul government and plow billions into it at the same time. The billions intrinsically delegitimize it.

    This is a very interesting argument, Dave. If the Kabul government were able to take our billions and turn them into infrastructure and security, wouldn’t that legitimize that government?

    I am not saying they can, but if they could, that wouldn’t build legitimacy?

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Only if the interference of foreign devils, e.g. us, isn’t a barrier to building that legitimacy.

  3. Rick Almeida says:

    That’s not intrinsic, it’s contingent.

  4. steve says:

    We have already poured in billions and the Karzai government has done little with it except spread it among themselves. While I am generally a COIN advocate, I have a hard time seeing it work in Afghanistan without a legitimate, competent government for us to support.

    I am more and more inclined towards the opinion that COIN will grow to be seen as a useful bridge strategy useful in areas with specific geography or political limits.


  5. mike says:

    a few billion dollars here and a few billion dollars there and a seemingly endless war – that starts to add up. I think the American people are done with this war as well. the afghan gov’t had a chance to step up and they did not except to enrich themselves.

  6. Mr. Prosser says:

    I need to ask; Who does have a strategic interest there? Would it not be better to have the Iranians, Paks, Russians be more concerned with the instability? After all, the Taliban are a local threat. The longer we pick up the slack the less the adjoining countries have to do and on the Islamic stage look much more acceptable. It seems to me our resources would be better used tracking and killing organized terrorists wherever they set up shop, and I don’t mean contracting it out to Blackwater/Xe mercs.

  7. DAK says:

    When Bush made his speech in 1991, the House Majority Leader, Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), said “The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the president, it should be helping us to produce smarter students.”

    Apparently it is now allowed (if you are Obama).