Thursday, September 24, 2009

Afghanistan: Defining “winning” as achieving something useful and realistic rather than something grandiose

The focus of most of the attention on the release of General Stanley McChrystal's memo assessing the needs in Afghanistan has been the call for 40,000 more troops. The administration is divided over the course the U.S. should take in the war started on October 7, 2001 following the attacks on the United States on September 11th by Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda had encampments in Afghanistan and the stated purpose of the invasion by the U.S. and NATO allies was to destroy Al Qaeda and topple the Taliban government that has harbored them.

The latter was accomplished but the former was sidetracked by the war in Iraq. In the meantime, Al Qaeda has established strongholds or links elsewhere in south Asia and east Africa but the threat to the new government of Afghanistan remains because the Al Qaeda ally – the Taliban – are fighting to regain control. Many are concerned about the U.S. becoming bogged down in another Vietnam in which a first world nation fights an expanding and seemingly unending war to achieve ill-defined goals.

Fred Kaplan considers the portion of the McChrystal memo that seems to be ignored by the media:
Most of the news stories about the memo have emphasized its conclusion that, without more U.S. troops, the war will probably be lost to the Taliban. But the memo (reprinted in full on the Post's Web site) says many other things, too. In fact, high up in his report, McChrystal emphasizes that focusing only on troop requirements "misses the point entirely."

The point that this focus misses, the general writes, is that this is a war against insurgencies and therefore requires "a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign," in which the main objective is not so much to destroy the enemy but rather to protect the Afghan people—to provide them with security so that the Afghan government can deliver basic services.

When it comes to defeating the Taliban, the memo adds, a "responsive and accountable government"—one "that the Afghan people find acceptable"—is every bit as important as a secure environment.

The Afghan people's allegiance is the object of this war. They aren't choosing between the Taliban and the U.S.-NATO coalition but, rather, between the Taliban and the Afghan government on whose behalf the coalition is fighting. As McChrystal's memo puts it, the war's focus, like that of any classic counterinsurgency campaign, is "the will and ability to provide for the needs of the population, by, with, and through the Afghan government." (Italics added.)

At one point, euphemistically referring to troops as "resources," McChrystal writes, "Resources will not win the war, but under-resourcing could lose it." Another way to read this sentence is: Under-resourcing could lose the war, but more resources won't necessarily win it, either.

This latter phrasing is certainly the way that any sensible president—the person who decides whether to commit more of the nation's blood and treasure to a war—would have to read that sentence. His military commander on the ground is telling him that if he doesn't send more troops, he'll lose—but if he does send more troops, he still might lose.

McChrystal's point is that it's not simply "resources," not just U.S. and NATO troops, that will settle the war. It's also whether the Afghan government earns the trust of its people—whether the Afghan president and his entourage of ministers, governors, and warlords are willing—or are willing to be lured—to clean up their act, end their corrupt practices, and truly serve their people.
When Obama says he needs to review the strategy before he decides on troop levels, he almost certainly means that he needs to assess whether a counterinsurgency strategy makes sense if the Afghan government—the entity that our troops would be propping up and aligning themselves with—is viewed by a wide swath of its own people as illegitimate.

Obama committed himself to a new strategy for Afghanistan this past March. He is now wavering, not so much because many congressional Democrats and a majority of the American people have turned against the war. (Congress would almost certainly vote in favor of appropriations, just as it did in the bleakest days of the Iraq war, if just to "support the troops," and a successful battle or two might well turn public opinion.)

Rather, the big new thing that's happened since March—in fact, since McChrystal and his staff prepared their memo over the summer—is the Afghan presidential election, which, it's turned out, was marred by fraud on a monumental scale, nearly all of it on behalf of the incumbent, Hamid Karzai. Even so, Karzai seems to have barely tipped the 50 percent required to avoid a second-round runoff. If he is declared the winner and offers nothing to the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah, popular trust in his government will slide still further—and the prospects for a successful counterinsurgency campaign will slide with it.
Josh Marshall wonders if too much has changed over the past eight years for a continuing the current military policy:
… I was one of those many people who thought, for much of the last decade, that one of the many problems with our involvement in Iraq was that it distracted us from a more serious fight in Afghanistan.

I don't know now whether that was flawed thinking then or whether there's just so much water under the bridge now that it's a different situation. Indeed, I wonder sometimes whether the still relatively broad support for our Afghan policy among Democratic policy types and politicians isn't a matter of remaining on a mental autopilot from a stance that made policy but also a lot of political sense in the middle of this decade.

However that may be, the 'safe haven' argument just doesn't seem to add up. The safe havens or rather the training camps in the safe havens, where so many would-be terrorists apparently did an endless stream of calisthenics on those iconic monkey bars, were neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the 9/11 attacks. They were funded through too loosely guarded global financial networks, planned and organized in cities in Europe and executed right here in the USA. You certainly wouldn't want the Taliban again more or less openly hosting al Qaida or bin Laden and his main associates, which would allow them to operate more openly and presumably more easily communicate with their conspirators. But even if the Taliban again ruled the country, it's difficult to imagine that with our forces in the region and our army of drones, we'd have much problem raining down a ton of ordnance the first time they really put up their head.

In other words, we may or may not be safer than we were ten years ago. But surely the situation in Afghanistan and the organization of al Qaeda is very different.
Mathew Yglesias argues we need to more closely examine our goals in Afghanistan in regards to achieving something useful and realistic:
I don’t think you want to overstate the case against the case against safe havens. Clearly, all else being equal it’d be helpful to al-Qaeda to have an allied group control a substantial contiguous piece of territory in Afghanistan. But still if you want to perpetrate a terrorist attack in a western city a visa to enter a western country or (even better!) a European passport would be a lot more helpful than having an allied group control a substantial contiguous piece of territory in Afghanistan.

It seems to me that we’ve jumped too quickly into a kind of tactical discussion about modalities in Afghanistan. If I want to express skepticism about General McChrystal’s request for forces, I’m supposed to question his military judgment about what is and isn’t necessary. Or I’m supposed to question whether COIN really can or will work in Afghanistan. There are good questions to be asked in those areas, but potentially also some okay answers. But what I really haven’t seen is anyone attempt to seriously lay out some kind of cost-benefit analysis of how important this whole Afghanistan situation really is relative to what I’m being told it would take to “win.” It seems to me not that we should “lose” instead, but rather that we should define “winning” as us achieving something useful and realistic rather than something grandiose and out of proportion to its actual importance.
You can read Kaplan here, Marshall here, and Yglesias here.

1 comment:

PeteinDC said...

We will be acting on Oct. 5th against the U.S. government's costly, immoral and unlawful 8-year-old war on Afghanistan. Join us in DC!