One of the themes I have harped about on this blog has been the issue of opportunity costs. When a great power gets itself over-committed in a lot of costly and time-consuming commitments (and when it mismanages its economy in various ways), then it won't have the surplus it needs when an unexpected challenge (or an unforeseen opportunity) arises.
Case in point: the current floods that have ravaged Pakistan in recent weeks. The situation is by all accounts horrific, and could have significant long-term consequences for millions of people. It is precisely the sort of event that calls for a vigorous and generous U.S. response.
As everyone knows, the United States is widely despised among broad swathes of Pakistani society. Some of this hostility is unmerited, but some of it is a direct result of misguided U.S. policies going back many decades. As the U.S. experience with Indonesia following the 2004 Asian tsunami demonstrated, however, a prompt and generous relief effort could have a marked positive effects on Pakistani attitudes. Such a shift could undermine support for extremist groups and make it easier for the Pakistani government to crack down on them later on. It is also the right thing to do, and the U.S. military is actually pretty good at organizing such efforts.
The United States has so far pledged some $76 million dollars in relief aid, and has sent 19 helicopters to help ferry relief supplies. That's all well and good, but notice that the U.S. government sent nearly $1 billion in aid in response to the tsunami, and we are currently spending roughly $100 billion annually trying to defeat the Taliban. More to the point, bear in mind that the United States currently has some over 200 helicopters deployed in Afghanistan (and most reports suggest that we could actually use a lot more).
So imagine what we might be able to do to help stranded Pakistanis if we weren't bogged down in a costly and seemingly open-ended counterinsurgency war, and didn't have all those military assets (and money) already tied up there? It's entirely possible that we could do more to help suffering individuals, and more to advance our own interests in the region, if some of these military assets weren't already committed.
Of course, Obama didn't know that there would be catastrophic flooding in Pakistan when he decided to escalate and prolong the Afghan campaign. But that's just the point: when national leaders make or escalate a particular strategic commitment, they are not just determining what the country is going to do, they are also determining other things that that they won't be able to do (or at least won't be able to do as well).
Thus, another good argument for a more restrained grand strategy is that it might free up the resources that would allow us do some real good in the world, whenever unfortunate surprises occur. As they always will.
Contrary to what many (but not all) commentators seem to think, the firing of Stanley McChrystal and his replacement by General David Petraeus is not that significant. To be more precise, it will only be a significant event if Obama uses this shift as an opportunity to move towards withdrawal. Otherwise, we'll just rearrange some deck chairs and watch the war effort continue to founder.
Until the Rolling Stone article surfaced, there was little sign that Obama was unhappy with McChrystal's handling of the war. (Gareth Porter of IPS reports that there was in fact growing discontent within the administration over the lack of progress, but it hadn't surfaced in any visible way.) More importantly, there was no sign that Petraeus had serious problems with McChrystal's performance or visible doubts about the need to continue the fight until "victory" was achieved. Don't forget that Petraeus's status and prestige is based on his knowledge of and commitment to counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare, and COIN is exactly what McChrystal was doing too. Unlike the "surge" in Iraq, which involved a fundamental shift in U.S. strategy and tactics, there is no reason to expect Petraeus to implement a fundamentally different approach in Afghanistan. The subhead in today's New York Times says it all: "Obama Says Afghan Policy Won't Change after Dismissal." Uh-oh.
There is also no reason to believe Petraeus will achieve significantly different results because the problem in Afghanistan is not the quality of our generals. Bad leadership can hamper a war effort, of course, but it is a fallacy to think that all we need to do is get the right leader in place at the top and then all will be well. (Military history is often written in ways that glorifies the role of the "great captains," but there's a lot more to military success than just a smart and inspired commanders).
The real problem is that our campaign in Afghanistan is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The Karzai government is a liability, not an asset, and we have no way of making it perform better. Similarly, we have no way of forcing the Taliban to sit still and fight us out in the open -- where they would be easy to beat -- when confronted by superior force, they simply melt away and wait us out. Although troop morale seems to be good, our forces have been fighting a long time and burnout is beginning to set in. Our NATO allies are leaving the field, and Americans are beginning to realize that the costs of continuing this fight exceed either the benefits of victory or the risks of withdrawal. "Victory" in Afghanistan -- whatever that might mean -- wouldn't make al Qaeda a lot weaker; and "failure" wouldn't make them much stronger either. Putting a new general in charge doesn't change that calculus at all.
Third, some prominent commentators like Andrew Sullivan now worry that Obama is in effect hostage to Petraeus, because the latter's stature and prestige will make it almost impossible for Obama to overrule him should he ask for more troops or seek to continue the war indefinitely. That is an obvious danger, but that same prestige and stature also makes Petraeus the best person to help Obama sell a prudent decision to cut our losses and get out. Moreover, Petraeus' stature is based primarily on the supposed success of the 2007 "surge" in Iraq, a campaign that achieved the tactical objective of lowering the level of violenace but did not achieve the strategic goal of political reconciliation. If Iraq goes south again as U.S. forces withdraw, some of Petraeus's current luster is bound to diminish and Obama's freedom of maneuver might increase.
In any case, the only important question here is what Obama is telling Petraeus to do. In essence, McChrystal's gaffe has given Obama a chance for a "do-over." He made the wrong choice in the fall of 2009, when he agreed to escalate the U.S. presence despite all the obvious pitfalls. Has he learned from the results of the past nine months? Does he now realize that he is not the master of events in Afghanistan, and that he cannot achieve success there simply by giving inspiring speeches and sending more troops? And has he begun to sense that this war might not be winnable at acceptable cost, and that continuing the fight is putting his entire presidency at risk?
If he has, he'll tell Petraeus that his mission isn't to pacify Afghanistan, build a stable central government there, or even "defeat, disrupt, and defeat al Qaeda" (which isn't in Afghanistan anymore). Rather, his mission is to find a way for the United States to end this futile and unnecessary adventure in social engineering, so that we can turn our attention (and our finite resources) to more pressing problems.
If Obama hasn't learned that lesson, then he will find himself stuck in the Afghan quagmire for the remainder of his time in office. As with Johnson in Vietnam and Bush in Iraq, the war will suck the life out of his presidency and make it impossible to achieve more urgent domestic and international priorities. And because he's now had two opportunities to chart a different course, it will have been entirely his own doing.
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I gave a guest lecture on U.S. grand strategy at the Army War College yesterday, and got some terrific questions and comments from the officers attending the course. One of the most intriguing questions was whether withdrawal from Afghanistan would have divisive effects here at home, including a backlash against the U.S. military and the kind of wrenching experience that the United States experienced after Vietnam.
I said that this was certainly a possibility, but also not inevitable, and that a lot depended on how U.S. elites and commentators dealt with that situation were it in fact to occur. I also reminded the soldiers that defeat in Vietnam was followed by a triumphant victory in the Cold War, a mere fourteen years after Saigon fell. The lesson is that a single setback need not have catastrophic or lasting consequences, if the United States retains the core elements of national power and deploy them wisely going forward.
I thought of that exchange this morning, when I read the already-infamous Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which contains a number of indiscreet comments about the war in Afghanistan and the way that various members of Obama administration are handling it.
Whatever else it might mean, this article is yet another sign that the war is not going well, and the article itself paints a rather grim picture of the situation. Most of the commentary I've seen is focusing on whether McChrystal will or should be asked to resign, but I think the real question is what this tells us about the state of the war itself. When civilian leaders or uniformed commanders (or their aides) start taking pot shots at each other in public, it tells you that they are getting frustrated and that they are looking to pin the blame for failure on someone else. You would certainly not expect to see this sort of article to appear if the campaign was going swimmingly.
McChrystal has already expressed regret for his remarks, but he's still been summoned to the White House for a one-on-one with his commander-in-chief. I don't know if he'll keep his job or not, but this sort of distraction can't be good for either Obama or the war effort. Whatever happens to McChrystal, the real question remains unresolved: What the heck are we doing in Afghanistan, and is an open-ended war there in the U.S. national interest?
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Color me skeptical. The past few weeks have seen a spate of news suggesting that the US/NATO effort in Afghanistan isn't going well at all. For starters, the assault on Marjah last spring failed to achieve any decisive strategic goals. The much-heralded summer offensive in Kandahar has been delayed and downgraded, and U.S. officials have been steadily lowering expectations. We learnt over the weekend that U.S. intelligence is increasingly focused on uncovering corruption, which means we are getting sucked back into "nation-building" instead of focusing our assets on destroying al Qaeda (which is what President Obama said he'd do when he (foolishly) decided to increase the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. The Taliban managed to bomb Afghan President Hamid Karzai's semi-bogus "peace jirga," and Karzai himself is said to be losing faith in our ability to prevail and hoping to cut a deal with the Taliban.
So today -- surprise, surprise -- comes news that Afghanistan isn't a poor country whose primary strategic asset is its ability to grow opium poppies. Nope, turns out Afghanistan is just brimming with iron ore, lithium, cobalt, copper, and other strategic minerals. This report -- which comes from "a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists" may well be completely correct, but isn't the timing of the release a mite suspicious? This looks to me like an attempt to provide a convincing strategic rationale for an effort that isn't going well.
As Jack Snyder noted in his book Myths of Empire, the "El Dorado" myth is a common justification for imperial expansion. Great powers often convince themselves they have to control some far-flung area because it is supposedly rich with gold, diamonds, oil, etc., and that physical control is essentially to preserving access to them. In most cases, however, the cost of trying to control these areas isn't worth the resources they contain, and it usually isn't necessary anyway. Gulf Oil used to pump oil from Marxist Angola, and those pesky Iranians would be happy to sell us oil and gas and give us fat development contracts for their petroleum industry if only we were willing to do business with them.
We don't need to control Afghanistan in order to gain access to whatever minerals do exist, because whoever is in charge is going to have to sell them to someone and won't be able to prevent them from being sold to us (even if indirectly) if we want to buy (that's how markets work). And if we want to make sure that U.S. companies have the opportunity to compete for the opportunity to mine these resources some day, it might be a good idea if we didn't spend the next decade blundering around and angering the local population.
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I’ve mostly stopped reading Maureen Dowd, as I’ve tired of her Gossip Girl approach to commentary, but sometimes she really does nail it. Today's column on Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington cuts neatly through the fog of feel-good blather surrounding the trip, and underscores the extent to which the Obama administration is merely kicking this particular can down the road.
The problem is a familiar one. Once a great power commits itself to a weak client state, its prestige is on the line and it loses most of its potential leverage over the people it has chosen to back. Why? Because clients can always threaten to lose -- which is the one thing the great power doesn’t want -- and so threats to pull the plug on them aren’t very credible. Clients are even less likely to reform when their local support depends on patronage networks and other forms of corruption, and when they want to make sure they have enough money in their Swiss bank accounts to finance a lengthy exile should things go south.
Patrons can pound the table and complain, but they soon look rather silly and ineffectual, and its now as though we have an ideal replacement for President Karzai waiting in the wings. So the United States has to try carrots instead of sticks, which is why Karzai is getting love-bombed in DC this week.
Afghanistan is hardly the first example of this problem, of course. The United States couldn’t get its South Vietnamese clients to shape up during the Vietnam War, and key Soviet clients like Egypt repeatedly extorted additional aid from Moscow by threatening to resign or realign with the West.
Virtually everyone agrees that we can’t succeed in Afghanistan without a reasonably legitimate and effective government in Kabul, even if it is running a fairly decentralized state with lots of local autonomy. There is also widespread agreement that Karzai is an ineffective leader, and that corruption is endemic. We’ve tried browbeating him to no avail, and now we’re trying a charm offensive. But neither is going to work, and President Obama is going to face another difficult decision when that eighteen-month deadline expires next summer.
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Winning a counter-insurgency war is hard, and especially when you don't have reliable partners from within the local population. What makes it even harder is when policies designed to accomplish one goal that have the unintended effect of making other goals harder to achieve. When your own strategy contains such internal contradictions, success will be even more elusive.
Case in point: our commander-in-chief flew to Afghanistan last week to pay a call on Afghan president Hamid Karzai, in part to insist that Karzai do more to root out corruption in his government and in the country more generally. A stern lecture from Obama is unlikely to work, however, because Karzai knows a lot more about incentives and constraints he's facing and the various deals he has to make to stay in power. He's betting that Obama won't be willing to pull the plug and leave him on his own, and I'm sorry to say that Karzai is probably right.
But even as we are telling the Afghans to stop corruption, we are contributing to it by pumping vast sums of cold hard cash into Afghan society. According to yesterday's New York Times, part of our strategy in southern Afghanistan consists of flooding places like Marjah with "hundreds of thousands of dollars a week," in an effort to buy the loyalty of the local population.
There are three problems here.
First, as Times reporter Richard Oppel pointed out in his piece, we can't easily discriminate between Taliban sympathizers and other members of the local population, so some of the money we are disbursing is almost certainly going to our enemies.
Second, other recipients of U.S. cash are quickly targeted by the Taliban, which continues to enjoy signifcant support among the local population. If Oppel's account is accurate, we are basically reminding the local population that cooperating with us is really, really dangerous. Moreover, as William Polk argues here, many local Pashtuns actually oppose these various cash-based "aid programs," because they perceive them (correctly) as designed to aid a foreign occupier's campaign against them, and to strengthen the despised central government.
Third, how can we credibly tell Karzai to "end corruption" (i.e., patronage, drug-dealing, payments to warlords, the exchange of cabinet positions for support, etc.), when we're relying on some of the same tactics ourselves? If our approach is to buy political support by doling out money or other benefits, why are we surprised when Karzai and his henchmen employ more-or-less that same approach back in Kabul? Pumping piles of cash into the local economy (no doubt with little or no accounting) is precisely the sort of policy that itself encourages very corruption that we claim to be opposing.
Even though I don't regard Afghanistan as a vital interest (for reasons I've explained before), I would like to think that our overall strategy was working. Remaining bogged down there is costly, and a significant distraction from other policy problems. So it would be nice if we were making genuine progress in weakening the Taliban, encouraging a political process of reconciliation, and fostering a more effective Afghan government. But it sure sounds like our efforts are at cross-purposes right now, which may be one reason why relations with the Karzai government are deteriorating.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
To be completely honest, I don’t know what to make of the 15 point peace plan offered by Afghan warlord/insurgent/former U.S. ally/Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, but my first thoughts are two-fold.
First, this isn’t an offer Karzai or NATO will or should accept. It calls for foreign troops to start withdrawing this summer (not gonna happen), and that “foreign fighters” (e.g., non-Afghan allies of the Taliban, or al Qaeda) "will not remain" after NATO et al leaves. Hard for me to imagine NATO leaving without more convincing assurances that al Qaeda will not be welcome back on Afghan soil.
Second, the fact that the offer was made at all does strike me as significant, as do reports that this initiative has tacit backing from interested foreign powers (e.g., U.S.) The BBC reports that “there is a growing recognition, both within Afghanistan and from its foreign partners, that insurgents have to be part of any peace settlement and that military operations alone will not be enough to bring peace to the country." That sounds right to me.
As for Hekmatyr, he has the reputation of being a pragmatist and he may be trying to position himself at a moment when he thinks the contest is shifting from insurgency to negotiations. Whatever his motives, this is a process we ought to encourage. In the best case, the Afghans negotiate some sort of peace agreement and power-sharing arrangement that stabilizes the country and allows economic development efforts to continue, but also allows us to get the hell out. In the worst case, we get a flawed arrangement that still gives the United States a fig leaf for disengagement, at which point Afghanistan falls apart again.
Since I don’t think the latter outcome would be disastrous from the U.S. perspective (though it is obviously not desirable from a purely humanitarian perspective), I’m open to a pretty wide-range of alternative outcomes, provided that they reflect an Afghan consensus. But like I said, this is just my initial reaction, and I may change my mind after I read more and ponder further.
We've all had the experience of suddenly realizing what we should have said, but long after the opportunity to say it has passed. (On Seinfeld, George Costanza was once obsessed with this problem). Anyway, it happened to me last week, during a seminar with Special Representative for Afghanistan/Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, prior to his public appearance at the Institute of Politics Forum here.
During the discussion, I asked Holbrooke a less-than-inspired question and he gave a perfectly reasonable if not especially illuminating answer. (It was an off-the-record session so I can't tell you what I asked or what he said. But trust me, it wasn't a very good question). And then an hour later, as I was traveling home, I realized what I should have asked him.
Some of you may recall Holbrooke's remark at a conference in DC last August, when he defined success in Afghanistan with "the Supreme Court test: we'll know it when we see it." (The reference is to Justice Potter Stewart's famous definition of pornography). That's a bit vague, as several critics noted at the time. But it raises the question that I wish I had asked: How would Holbrooke identify or define failure? In other words, what developments or events in Afghanistan and Pakistan would lead him, in his best professional judgment, to advise President Obama that our efforts there were not working and that it was time to disengage?
To ask the question is not to hope for an unsuccessful outcome; or even to suggest that one thinks failure is likely. But unless we are willing to stay in Afghanistan forever no matter what, we need to be as alert for signs that our efforts aren't working as we are in looking for signs of success.
I missed my chance, but maybe a reader out there will get the chance to pose the question down the road. I'd love to hear what he says.
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Today's NY Times has an odd op-ed by "intelligence analyst" Lara Dadkhah (who apparently works for a defense consulting firm), suggesting that the more restrictive rules of engagement the United States is now employing in Afghanistan are counterproductive. Dadkhah may be correct that the restrictions make it less likely that the United States will use airpower quickly against Taliban fighters, but the overall analysis confuses the relationship between tactics and strategy. The purpose of the more restrictive rules of engagement is to cut down on accidental deaths inflicted on Afghan civilians, precisely because such actions make the U.S./NATO presence less popular, diminish support for our Afghan allies, and make it easier for the Taliban to recruit new soldiers. Killing more civilians also undermines troop moral and support for the war back home. Taking the gloves back off, as she suggests, might actually undermine our long-term prospects. Thus, whatever you may think about the wisdom of our engagement there, the new rules of engagement make sense.
The op-ed also contains another line I just don't understand. At one point she justifies heavier reliance on airstrikes by saying that the U.S. military "does not have the manpower in Afghanistan to fight the insurgents one-on-one." This may just be careless writing/editing, but surely she is not suggesting that the Taliban has the same number of troops as the United States? (According to this source, we outnumber them by about 12-1). If we can't take them on "one-on-one," then we're in bigger trouble than I thought, despite the encouraging news of the past few days.
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I've been trying to make sense of the recent news from Afghanistan and Pakistan, so let me share my musings here. There's no question that the news from the past week or so is encouraging. The Marine-led effort to clear the Taliban out of the Afghan city of Marjah appears to be going well (despite some obvious mishaps, like the accidental killing of a dozen Afghan civilians by an errant rocket attack), and the capture of a top Pakistani Taliban commander is likely to weaken those forces and suggests that the Pakistani government is taking this fight more seriously.
These are encouraging signs, and we should all hope that progress like this continues. Whether you supported Obama's escalation of the war or not, the obvious way to end America's costly and distracting efforts in Central Asia is to achieve a rapid victory that enables us to withdraw. I'm still not optimistic about our long-term prospects (or convinced that it is as vital a contest as others think) but I'd be delighted to be proved wrong on this one.
That said, there are several reasons why it's premature to be hoisting the "Mission Accomplished" sign at this stage (and to be fair, I haven't seen anyone doing that yet).
First, most of the accounts we are getting from Marjah are from official sources or embedded journalists, and these initial reports often tend to highlight achievements unless the operation is a complete disaster. In short, there may be a bit of an upward bias in the reports we've seen so far.
Second, it is always difficult to know whether a tactical success is strategically significant, especially in this sort of engagement. There was never much question about the Marines' ability to expel the Taliban, the only question was how much resistance they would face and what the casualty ratios might be. Casualties do not seem to be that high on either side, however, which suggests that many (though not all) of the Taliban have slipped away to fight another day. That problem has always been one of our major strategic challenges, especially given the porous Afghan/Pakistani border. How can the United States and its allies pacify the entire country, when the adversary can flee and wait us out?
Third, as others have already noted, the real issues are 1) will Afghan security forces will be able to hold the area after the Marines move on, and 2) can the various groups and factions in Afghanistan achieve a workable political formula that will stabilize the country and (eventually) permit the United States and NATO to withdraw? Unfortunately, as Juan Cole notes today, there are still good reasons to be skeptical about the ongoing effort to train reliable Afghan police and security forces. And there are still few signs of genuine political reconciliation (or even compromise).
What I can't decide is whether the capture of Mullah Baradar is a step forward or something more ambiguous. On the one hand, it's hard not to be pleased by signs that Pakistan is taking the counter-Taliban campaign more seriously, and equally hard to be displeased when a top Taliban military commander is no longer in the field (and is presumably giving up useful information while in custody). But as the Times notes today, this development may also give Pakistan a bigger voice in the deliberations over Afghanistan, and its past support for the Afghan Taliban hasn't always been constructive (at least, not from the U.S. point of view).
The lesson I draw from all this -- admittedly speculative -- is that U.S. military efforts in Central Asia need to supplemented by even more energetic efforts at regional diplomacy. We don't have the military forces, staying power, cultural insight, or influence to play unilateral "kingmaker" in that part of the world, and we ought to be putting as much of the burden on regional actors as we can. So it may be a good thing if the Pakistanis now have a more credible claim to a place at the table, provided we seize the opportunity and are open to a wide range of possibilities. Paging Ambassador Holbrooke?
The key thing to remember is that we ultimately don't care very much who is running Afghanistan or Pakistan, provided that whoever is in charge isn't giving anti-American terrorists free rein to attack the United States, and in the case of Pakistan, provided they are maintaining reliable control over its nuclear arsenals. Helping the regional actors work out a modus vivendi may be our best strategy, even if the outcome doesn't conform perfectly to our own ideals or political values.
So I see the past week or so as somewhat encouraging, but I'm not breaking out the champagne yet. And neither should anyone else.
UPDATE: In my haste this AM, I mistakenly referred to the captured
Taliban official, Mullah Baradar, as a member of the Pakistani
Taliban. That’s wrong: he is/was of course part of the Afghan
Taliban (though he was hiding out in Pakistan before he was
captured). My bad. And I'm still not sure what it tells us about
Pakistan's overall aims at this point.
A reader also challenged whether it makes sense to refer to Marjah as a city. Wikipedia gives its population as 85,000 or so, swelling to 125,000 if you include the surrounding areas, and Radio Free Europe described it as a "large village." CNN used the term “city” in a recent background story, and the video found here makes it look like either term would be appropriate. So I’ll stand by my original use of the word, but would happily defer to anyone who’s actually been there and has a different and well-informed view.
For additional “musings” on what all this might mean, see here.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
If today's New York Times was reporting accurately, you should be very skeptical of anything that Afghan commander General Stanley McChrystal says. Not because he's inherently dishonest, mind you, but because misleading everyone about the situation in Afghanistan may be part of his strategy for victory.
To be specific, today's Times also contains an article with the headline "Top U.S. Commander Sees Progress in Afghanistan." It quotes McChrystal as follows: "I am not prepared to say that we have turned the corner. So I'm saying the situation is serious, but I think we have made significant progress in setting the conditions in 2009, and beginning some progress, and that we'll make real progress in 2010."
This is nicely hedged, but McChrystal went to describe the war in a way that leads me to question virtually anything he might have to say now or in the future. According to the Times, the general also said that "The biggest thing is in convincing the Afghan people ... This is all a war of perceptions. This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants" (my emphasis).
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I'm still swamped with grading papers and with preparations for our annual New Year's Eve potluck (about which more in a day or two), but I hope everyone takes a look at the Times piece on China's commercial activities in Afghanistan. While we've been running around playing whack-a-mole with the Taliban and "investing" billions each year in the corrupt Karzai government," China has been investing in things that might actually be of some value, like a big copper mine.
As the article suggest, it's not like U.S. troops are "guarding" China's investments. Rather, there's a tacit division of labor going on, where "American troops have helped make Afghanistan safe for Chinese investment."
The rest of the article makes depressing reading, however. Here's what one Afghan contractor had to say:
"The Chinese are much wiser. When we went to talk to the local people, they wore civilian clothing, and they were very friendly," he said recently during a long chat in his Kabul apartment. "The Americans - not as good. When they come there, they have their uniforms, their rifles and such, and they are not as friendly."
The result? According to the Times:
"the Chinese have already positioned themselves as generous, eager partners of the Afghan government and long-term players in the country's future. All without firing a shot."
The point is not that somehow those wily Chinese have fooled us into squandering a lot of money and lives and annoying lots of people in Central Asia, while they make profitable investments. Rather, the broader lesson is that the entire thrust of U.S. policy towards a large part of the world has been fundamentally misplaced for a long time. If we think we are somehow trapped in an endless cycle of intervention in the Muslim world-Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, now Yemen-it is because our policies towards the entire region have generated enormous animosity and to little good purpose. And when that animosity leads to direct attacks on the United States, we respond in ways that guarantee such attacks will be repeated.
To be sure, some of this situation is due to America's position as the sole superpower, which means that it gets blamed for things that aren't always its fault. Plus, a dominant power does tend to end up with a disproportionate role in providing certain collective goods while others free-ride. (If China ever does supplant the U.S as the dominant world power, the same thing will undoubtedly happen to them.) But it also reflects specific decisions that we've been taking for a long time, in the mistaken belief that they would never blow back and affect us here at home. That's why we ought to thinking very strategically about our overseas involvements, and trying to shift those burdens onto locals whenever we can. Unfortunately, the predominant view in Washington still favors an "America First" approach to solving most global problems, even when it's not clear we have any idea how to do that.
Don't forget: we are fighting in Afghanistan because a radical anti-American terrorist movement-Al Qaeda-located there in the 1990s and then attacked us on September 11. Al Qaeda attacked the United States for a number of different reasons, including its support for various Arab monarchies and dictatorships, its military presence in the Persian Gulf, and its "special relationship" with Israel (which is oppressing millions of Palestinians and consolidating control of Jerusalem). Al Qaeda also wanted to strike at the world's strongest power, in the vain hope that a dramatic act like that would win them lots of new supporters. They also hoped that they could goad us into doing a lot of stupid things in response, and that achievement may be their only real success to date. We are also bogged down in Central Asia because our earlier support for anti-Soviet mujaheddin there helped create a bunch of well-armed warlords and religious extremists who proved impossible to control later on.
But the key lesson is that the current situation is not immutable. We don't have to keep implementing the same policies that led us to this situation; instead, we need to start working on strategic approaches that will minimize our involvement in these regions without sacrificing our vital interests (mostly oil) or endangering the security of key allies. One step would be to do what President Obama promised to do in his Cairo speech and then abandoned: namely, get serious about a two-state solution. A second step would be to stop trying to reorganize vast chunks of the Arab and Islamic world, and focus our efforts solely on helping local governments capture or neutralizing violent anti-American terrorists. A related step is to move back to an "offshore balancing" strategy in the region, and rely more on naval and air forces and less on on-shore intervention.
And maybe a fourth element of a new approach would be to remember that the United States rose to its position of great power by letting other major powers do the heavy lifting, while Americans concentrated mostly on building the world's biggest and most advanced economy and building influence with lots of other countries. For the most part, we also kept our fiscal house in order, which gave us the resources to maintain and expand productive infrastructure here at home and made it possible to act overseas when we really had to. This isn't the 19th century and we can't just rewind the clock, but there's still a lot of wisdom in much more selective approach to the use of American power. You know, sorta the way that Beijing seems to doing it.
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As the United States prepares send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, in what I still regard as a futile effort at "state-building," two interesting items arrived in my in-box. The first is an opinion piece by former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami (now vice-president of the Toledo Center for Peace in Spain), who argues that Afghanistan's neighbors have a greater stake there than the United States, and that they are advancing those interests more effectively by relying primarily on diplomacy rather than military intervention. Money quote:
So, while the United States gets to play the "Ugly American" once again, the regional powers promote their interests in that war-torn country with a smiling face and away from the battlefield. America’s difficulties in Afghanistan -- and the serious problems it faces in harnessing Pakistan’s government to a more robust fight against the Taliban both at home and in Afghanistan -- provide an opportunity for these powers to attempt to shift the dynamics of the "Great Game" to their benefit.
In other words, Afghanistan's neighbors have successfully "passed the buck" to the United States -- getting Uncle Sam to do the dirty work and heavy lifting in Afghanistan -- and Washington has been foolish enough to accept that burden. It's too late now, but a smarter strategy would have been for Washington to focus on getting the regional powers to address these problems while it remained in the background, focusing primarily focused tasks (such as the capture or killing of al Qaeda members) for which we were uniquely equipped. My guess is that this approach is where the United States will end up once it realizes that the current "surge" isn’t working, so Ben-Ami's article might even prove to be prophetic.
The second item is a video report from the Guardian in Britain, which shows a group of U.S. Marine trainers working with some pretty hapless Afghan recruits. (One Marine says "I think if they introduced drug testing for the Afghan army, we would lose probably three-quarters to maybe eighty or eight-five percent of the army." It is sort of like watching an Afghan version of Stripes, except that this is in fact serious business and a critical ingredient of current U.S. strategy. The video is consistent with other published reports about the difficulties the U.S. faces in trying to create larger and more effective Afghan security forces, but it is obviously hard to know how representative a single short film might be. So you should view it with some skepticism, the same way you should view any official reports of our progress or anything you read in the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Guardian itself, for that matter. But if it’s even remotely representative, it tells you why everyone from Secretary Gates on down understands that we are facing a multi-year, and maybe even multi-decade challenge there. Good thing we don't have any other foreign or domestic problems to address right now, and infinite resources to devote to this problem.
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Here's my first reaction to Obama's speech, as of 9:30 EST. I may change my mind after I read what others had to say, but we'll see.
news in President Obama's West Point speech on Afghanistan is that he
displayed an awareness of costs and benefits. Obama clearly
understands that external events may impinge on U.S. power, but our
safety and security ultimately depends on prosperity here at home. That prosperity ultimately depends on education, infrastructure,
financial soundness, and domestic tranquility -- not on who happens to be
in power in Central Asia -- and Obama realizes that endless warfare is
threatening these essential foundations of national power. He left
little doubt that his real goal is to "nation-build" here in the United
States, while letting the inhabitants of Central Asia take primary
responsibility for their own affairs. That is a wise judgment, but it
remains to be seen whether he will be able to put it into practice.
The bad news is that Obama's explanation of his short-term decision was neither coherent nor convincing. With no good options before him, he went for the middle ground: We will escalate by sending 30,000 more troops but in eighteen months he'll start bringing them home. The logic here is hard to discern: if the stakes are as important as he maintained, then setting a firm time limit makes little sense. Obama correctly refused to grant the corrupt Afghan government a "blank check," but no serious analyst thinks we can train an Afghan army or create a strong Afghan state in a year and a half. And if he is willing to cut Karzai & Co. off later, then success isn't really a "vital national interest" after all. If that's the case, why invest another $30 billion now? Nor did he explain how dispatching 30,000 more troops for eighteen months would eliminate al Qaeda's safe havens or prevent them from making a comeback later on.
In short, Obama is betting that escalation will improve conditions enough to permit a rapid U.S. withdrawal in June 2011. He is rolling the "iron dice of war," and the incoherence of his position suggests that the decision was driven more by domestic politics than by strategic necessity. In any case, whether one opposes this decision (as I do) or not, we should all hope that his gamble succeeds.
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Readers of this blog know that I think the war in Afghanistan is misguided, and I am disappointed that President Obama is about to make what I regard as a major strategic blunder. That said, here are the 5 questions that I'll be thinking about when I listen to his remarks this evening.
1. Why does he believe that 30,000 more troops will lead to success in Afghanistan, given that the ratio of foreign troops relative to the local population will still be much smaller than the number required for successful military occupations?
2. Even staunch advocates of the war concede that our task is "daunting," and several independent studies and reports -- including General McChrystal's own assessment -- maintain that the United States will have to stay in Afghanistan for at least five to ten years, at a cost of billions of dollars per year. Will the president say this explicitly, or will he try to convince us that these reports are wrong and that it won't take nearly that long or cost nearly that much?
3. How will this new escalation in Afghanistan deal with al Qaeda's "safe havens" in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere?
4. What domestic programs or military expenditures will be cut in order to pay for this escalation? Alternatively, what new revenue sources is Obama planning to exploit in order to fund an expanded war? (I don't really expect him to answer this question, but its one we should all be asking.)
5. How long is he giving the Afghan government to get its act together? Does he set a firm deadline or just some sort of vague benchmark. If the Karzai government cannot or will not reform itself, will Obama explicitly promise the American people that he will disengage? And if he does make such a promise, doesn't that mean that this is not a "war of necessity" after all?
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As most of you probably know, over the past few years the U.S. military has been engaged in an extensive internal debate about counter-insurgency warfare. This is partly a debate about COIN tactics and techniques -- in other words, about how to do COIN better -- but the more important debate is about the priority that COIN should receive in U.S. defense planning. Specifically, should the United States continue to focus primarily on preparing for "great power" wars and strive to retain "command of the commons" through air power, naval power, and other sophisticated warfare capabilities, or should it retool for the various small wars that it seems to have been fighting lately? This latter view dovetails with the idea that United States also needs much greater civilian capacity for nation-building, development assistance, and the like.
Unfortunately, most of the attention seems to have focused on "how to do it better" issue, and much less on the desirability of the proposed shift. Those who argue for radical change invariably point to the various wars the United States has fought in recent years -- notably Iraq and Afghanistan -- and simply assert that we need to get ready to do a lot more of them.
Unfortunately, this line of argument ignores the fact that these wars are the result of past American mistakes. The first error was the failure to capture Bin Laden and his associates at the battle of Tora Bora, which allowed al Qaeda's leaders to escape into Pakistan and thus ensured that the United States would become enmeshed in Afghanistan. Had we captured al Qaeda's top leaders then, we could have declared victory over al Qaeda and come home and we would be far less worried about events in Central Asia today. Who would care about a "safe haven" in Afghanistan if Bin Laden had been killed or captured back in 2001?
The second mistake was the foolish decision to invade Iraq in 2003, which led us into yet another costly insurgency. Not surprisingly, those charged with waging that war eventually focused on COIN, because that was the problem they were expected to solve. But the only reason they had to do so was the fact that the Bush administration decided to wage an unnecessary war in the first place.
In short, the current obsession with counterinsurgency is the direct result of two fateful errors. We didn't get Bin Laden when we should have, and we invaded Iraq when we shouldn't. Had the United States not made those two blunders, we wouldn't have been fighting costly counterinsurgencies and we wouldn't be contemplating a far-reaching revision of U.S. defense priorities and military doctrine.
The obvious question is: Does the United States really want to base its military strategy on two enormous blunders?
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What should we make of the news that President Obama is still not happy with the proposed strategy for Afghanistan, and that his doubts are being reinforced by a skeptical report from retired general Karl Eikenberry, who is now the U.S. ambassador in Kabul?
First, I think it's a sign that deep down, Obama knows he has no good options. He’s figured out that the stakes aren’t as great as he may have once thought, that the commitment is potentially endless, that we have no local partner for the kind of centralized, "state-building" approach that remains at the heart of U.S. strategy, and that going all in will commit him to a war we won't win. No wonder he keeps looking for an alternative.
Second, he's painted himself into a corner with his earlier tough talk, and he’s worried that the GOP and FoxNews and various armchair generals will all accuse him of appeasement if he gives McChrystal anything less than what the general asked for, or if he dares to put a time limit on a continued U.S. effort. So all those recent news stories stressing how seriously Obama is taking this and how much he’s grilling his advisors are designed to convince us that he’s looked really, really hard at all the options. The goal is to build support for whatever decision he ultimately makes, even if everyone secretly knows it’s not likely to work.
Third, this is an issue where Obama's instinct for compromise and his natural gift for reconciling conflicting positions is not serving him well. Given the range of problems that the United States is facing at home and abroad, bold action is badly needed. Not the sort of unthinking, shoot-from-the-hip fantasies that drove Bush's foreign policy during his first term, but rather a ruthless, hardnosed set of choices about priorities. Obama did a little bit of that during his first couple of months -- mostly about the economy -- but well-entrenched interests and conventional wisdom began to take over.
With respect to Afghanistan: it is either a worth a prolonged and costly investment of lives and money or it isn't. Either we go all in -- which in my view is still a very bad idea -- or we should get out. Trying to split the difference on this issue is not leadership; in fact, it is a recipe for failure.
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I'm crashing to finish a conference paper on why "wars of choice" last so long (and how to end them), so blogging will be fairly light this week. In the meantime, you might want to take a look at the CSPAN broadcast of a conference on Capitol Hill last week on Afghanistan policy, sponsored by the RAND Corporation's Center for Middle East Public Policy. Most of the speakers were thoughtful and worth a listen, although I was struck by how even the advocates of "staying the course" did not seem very confident of success. The "outside the box" perspective (in other words, disengagement) was represented by Chris Preble of CATO and yours truly. If you're interested in what we had to say, my presentation begins at about 2:35.00 into the broadcast, and Chris is right after me.
I suspect most of the AfPak attention will be focused on the revelations that President Hamid Karzai's brother has been on the CIA payroll, the Taliban attack that killed six people at a U.N. staff house in Kabul, and the bombing that killed more than 80 people in Peshawar. Plus, there are new reports that the United States is going to adopt a strategy that eschews counterinsurgency throughout all of Afghanistan and concentrates on protecting major cities. These are all important stories, because they underscore just how difficult it has been, is, and will be to do social engineering on the lives of 200 million Muslims in Central Asia.
But I want to focus on somewhat broader question today. Yet another justification for continuing the war in Afghanistan is the belief that the Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and groups such as the Haqqani network form a tight ideologically-inspired alliance that is relentlessly anti-American and dedicated to attacking us no matter where we are or what we are doing. In this view, these various groups are "birds of a feather flocking together." This belief fuels the fear that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would produce a dramatic increase in al Qaeda's capabilities, once their Islamic soulmates provided them with territory, recruits, and other forms of support for attacks on the West in general and the United States in particular.
Such an outcome cannot be wholly ruled out, I suppose, and well-informed experts like Ahmed Rashid apparently think it's likely. But there are several good reasons to doubt it. The first is that we know that there have been intense frictions between some of these groups in the past, as well as intense divisions between Osama bin Laden and some of his own associates. In his prize-winning book The Looming Tower, for example, Lawrence Wright describes the repeated tensions between Mullah Omar and Bin Laden, which nearly led the former to turn Bin Laden over to the Saudis. The rift was reportedly healed after bin Laden swore an oath of loyalty to Omar, but their interests and objectives are not identical and one can easily imagine new quarrels in the future.
A second reason to be skeptical that these groups are tightly unified by a set of common beliefs or doctrines is the fact that the foreign presence in the region gives them an obvious incentive to help each other. In other words, what looks like ideological solidarity may be partly a manifestation of balance-of-power politics, and these groups' tendency to back each other might easily dissipate once the foreign presence were reduced. Afghan political history is one where diverse coalitions form, dissolve, and realign in myriad ways, and similar dynamics are likely to resurface once the the United States and its foreign allies are gone.
A third reason has to do with the nature of certain types of political ideology. Unlike liberalism, which emphasizes the need to tolerate a wide range of political views, political ideologies that rest on a single authoritative interpretation of "truth" are inherently divisive rather than unifying. In particular, ideologies that call for adherents to obey the leadership because it wields the "correct" interpretation of the faith (whether in Marxism, Christianity, Islam, etc.) tend to foster intense rivalries among different factions and between different leaders, each of whom must claim to be the "true" interpreter of the legitimating ideology. In such movements, ideological schisms are likely to be frequent and intense, because disagreements look like apostasy and a betrayal of the faith. Instead of flocking together, these "birds of a feather" are likely to fly apart.
During the Cold War, for instance, hawks repeatedly worried about a "communist monolith" and were convinced that Marxists everywhere were reliable tools of the Kremlin. In reality, however, world communism was rife with internal tensions and ideological schisms, as illustrated by the furious Bolshevik-Menshevik split, the deadly battle between Trotsky and Stalin, and the subsequent rift between Stalin and Tito. China and the Soviet Union became bitter rivals by the early 1960s -- on both geopolitical and ideological grounds -- and the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam ended another yet another period of illusory communist unity and quickly led to wars between communist Vietnam, communist Kampuchea, and communist China.
Such historical analogies should be used with caution, of course, but in this case the logic is similar and compelling. Islamic fundamentalists rely in part on specific interpretations of Islamic thought to recruit and motivate their followers, and disagreements over doctrine and policy can easily lead to bitter internal quarrels, especially once the immediate need to cooperate against a common enemy is gone. We've already seen amples sign of division within al Qaeda and its clones, and more are to be expected.
This is not to say that global terrorists won't continue to learn from each other, to inspire imitators (much as Marxism-Leninism once inspired a wide array of fringe groups who had nothing to do with Moscow) and they may even provide each other with various forms of tactical support on occasion. But there are good reasons to question the facile assumption that they are eternally loyal comrades-in-arms, united forever by a shared set of a deeply held politico-religious beliefs. And if there is considerable potential for division among both the leaders and even more among their followers, then a strategy of divide-and-conquer makes more sense than a long and costly counterinsurgency campaign that gives them every reason to stay united.
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I've been out of town for the past 24 hours and unable to blog, but I did want to alert you to a new piece I've written on Afghanistan. Unlike many of the pundits who are now telling Obama what to do, I think it's actually a rather easy call (assuming, of course, your first priority is the U.S. national interest).
If you want to know why I think so, go here.
I watched the Frontline documentary on Afghanistan ("Obama's War") Tuesday night, and most of my concerns got reinforced. One should watch most documentaries with a skeptical eye, because skilled filmmakers can easily slant the story by omitting any footage that doesn't fit the impression they are trying to leave and by shaping the story in ways that reinforce a particular conclusion.
Nonetheless, the presentation didn't offer much grounds for hope, and even the on-screen advocates of a continued U.S. effort (Gen. Stanley McChrystal, AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke, CNAS President John Nagl, etc.) didn't sound very encouraging. I think McChrystal and maybe even Holbrooke know they've got a loser on their hands, and were operating in damage-limitation mode. As others have noted, the on-screen interviews with Pakistani officials made it clear that they are playing a double-game here; they've been in bed with the Afghan Taliban for years and are even less reliable partners than the Karzai government, no matter how much aid we dump on them. To believe we can eke out something resembling "victory" in these circumstances is like believing one could drain the Atlantic Ocean with a teaspoon. And watching the footage of U.S. Marines attempting to do the impossible made me admire their dedication and raw courage and resent like hell the strategic myopia that sent them on this fool's errand.
Remember that the main justification for our counterinsurgency campaign is the "safe haven" argument: We must defeat the Taliban to prevent Al Qaeda from regaining a sanctuary there. A recent presentation by Richard Barrett, coordinator of the United Nations' Al Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, suggests that this may not be much of a problem (h/t: John Mueller).
Money quotes (from pp. 17 and 23 of the PDF file):
p. 17: "If I could just talk a little bit about Afghanistan and al-Qaida, the link between al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban is a historic one but not a very strong one, in my view. The Afghan Taliban have their own objectives. And their objectives are to take power in Afghanistan. Essentially, it's a local issue for them. Al-Qaida can join the party; fine, they can help them, but to a certain extent, al-Qaida doesn't help them because if – and I think Mullah Omar's made this very clear – if they take over in Afghanistan, they want to consolidate their power. They don't want to be kicked out again like they were in 2001. And to consolidate their power, they don't want al-Qaida hanging around. They want to be able to say we are a responsible government; we're not going to support anybody who meddles in the business of our neighbors or in other international countries or partners.
Well, you might say well, they'd say that anyway; why wouldn't they – why shouldn't they say that? But I don't think they lose a lot if they don't say that. They don't gain a lot by saying it and they don't lose a lot by not saying it. So I think that we could possibly think that we might take them at the face value – that they would not automatically allow Afghanistan to become a base for al-Qaida…"
p. 23: "I'm not sure that if the Taliban took over in Afghanistan that they would necessarily welcome al-Qaida back in great forces, particularly if al-Qaida was going back there to set up camps to train people to mount attacks against other countries. I think the Taliban must calculate that had it not been for 9/11 they'd still be empowering Kabul now today, that no one would have come to kick them out. It was only 9/11 that caused them to lose power. So you know, they lost all that time, and if they get back they perhaps don't want to make that same mistake again."
If the Frontline report was mostly accurate and Barrett is mostly correct, there are no good strategic reasons to wage a costly counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. It's no more the "good war" than Iraq was, and Obama is deluding himself if he thinks he can achieve a meaningful victory there.
Postscript: If Obama wants a more promising strategy -- and Lord knows he should -- he should take a look at Robert Pape's op-ed in today's New York Times. Readers here know that I'm in favor of the "offshore balancing" strategy that Pape outlines, and not just in Afghanistan. I believe we will eventually head in that directon, but as Winston Churchill once noted about America, only after "trying all the alternatives."
President Obama has reportedly ruled out a major reduction in U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and is still mulling over the military's request for more troops. The LA Times says he's looking for "middle ground" here, which would be consistent with Obama's decision-making style. In this case, however, it's the worst of a set of bad options. If things eventually go south (as I believe they will), he'll get blamed for not giving the commanders enough to do the job and for incurring additional costs to no good purpose. Yet this approach also means he won't the credit for taking a bold decision to cut our losses and get out. Does the phrase "stalemate machine" ring any bells?
Meanwhile, I've been reading the unclassified version of McChrystal report over the last few days, and it's reinforcing my doubts. It's admirably honest about the magnitude of the task, but after describing all the reasons why winning will be very difficult, it makes a rather breathtaking leap to the conclusion that a different strategy and adequate resources can turn things around (while prudently warning that "no strategy can guarantee success").
This got me thinking.
Imagine that the situation in Afghanistan were exactly what it is today -- a corrupt government in Kabul with dubious legitimacy, the Taliban gaining strength, al Qaeda's leaders still hiding out in northwest Pakistan, etc. -- except that the U.S. military wasn't there. And then ask yourself: would you be in favor of sending 100,000 or so American soldiers to fight and die there?
My views on this subject are clear, so feel free to discount what follows. But I doubt we would be having a serious debate about sending a large number of troops to Afghanistan if we weren't there already. Instead, we would be treating Afghanistan the same way we treat most failed states. We'd express our concern, offer modest amounts of humanitarian assistance, we'd let the U.N. do its best, and if we thought al Qaeda was operating there, we'd go after them with special forces and Predators or other military assets. Just look at how we are currently dealing with Somalia or Yemen or Sudan and you get an idea of how we would be dealing with Afghanistan if were we not there already.
And notice that the scenario I've posited is actually more favorable than the one we are actually in. In this counterfactual, Kabul is losing on its own, whereas in reality, Kabul is losing even though there are 100,000 or so foreign troops already trying to help, at a cost that far exceeds the entire GDP of the country. At this point, nobody should be under no illusions about how hard this really is.
Of course, one can argue that the simple fact that we are already there fundamentally alters the strategic calculus. We wouldn't intervene if we were starting from scratch today, but some will say that allowing ourselves to be defeated by the Taliban will have disastrous effects on our reputation and encourage bin Laden & Co. to believe they are winning.
Robert Kaplan takes this line in an op-ed in today's New York Times, arguing that "an ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan is precisely what would lead to our decline, by demoralizing our military, signaling to our friends worldwide that we cannot be counted on and demonstrating that our enemies have greater resolve than we do. That is why we have no choice in Afghanistan but to add troops and continue to fight."
This is an familiar line of argument, of course, even though the best scholarly studies of reputation and credibility have found that past behavior doesn't have much effect on future credibility. Be that as it may, one could just as easily argue that U.S. credibility will be damaged far more if we squander another trillion dollars in Afghanistan and end up with a degraded and demoralized military and a population that is truly sick of overseas involvements.
Nonetheless, the main thrust of Kaplan's piece is well worth pondering. He points out that while the United States is doing the heavy lifting in Afghanistan, the chief beneficiaries of success will be China (and to a lesser extent Russia and India). He notes that past empires declined "by allowing others to take advantage of its own exertions." And his conclusion is right on the money: "history suggests that over time we can more easily preserve our standing in the world by using naval and airpower from a distance when intervening abroad. Afghanistan should be the very last place where we are a land-based meddler, caught up in internal Islamic conflict, helping the strategic ambitions of the Chinese and others."
Needless to say, that's not an argument for "seeking the middle ground." That's an argument for getting out as quickly and prudently as we can.
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Writing in today's New York Times, columnist and armchair warrior David Brooks offers a spirited defense of the war in Afghanistan. In addition to being an unrepentant hawk with a miserable track record, Brooks is fond of citing academic literature to give his punditry a faux intellectual veneer. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to read these works very carefully.
In today's column, he cites a recent study by political scientists Andrew Enterline and Joseph Magagnoli of the University of North Texas (available here at FP), which supposedly shows that "counterinsurgency efforts that put population protection at their core have succeeded nearly 70 percent of the time." But political scientist Alexander Downes of Duke University, who is a much more careful reader than Brooks, points out on a private list-serve what the article really says (my emphasis):
Unfortunately, Brooks engages in some very selective citation to support his argument in favor of fighting on in Afghanistan. Enterline and Magagnoli collected data on 66 cases in the 20th century in which "a foreign state fought a counterinsurgency campaign to establish or protect central-government authority." The overall winning percentage for the state actor is 60%, but only 48% after World War II. The statistic that Brooks cites is that if the state actor switches from some other strategy to a "hearts and minds" strategy during the course of the war, their winning percentage increases to 75% (67% after World War II).
But Brooks omits two further important findings from Enterline and Magagnoli's article. First, if the state actor switches to a hearts and minds strategy, the average conflict duration after the change is nine years. Switching to some strategy other than hearts and minds generates an average duration after the change of five years. Second, no state that switched to a hearts and minds strategy after fighting an insurgency for eight years (as the U.S. has in Afghanistan) has ever defeated the insurgency. In other words, if history is any guide, the U.S. can expect to continue fighting in Afghanistan for nearly a decade and still not be able to win. That's a pretty different message than the impression that Brooks conveys."
Or as another correspondent of mine put it, "wouldn't the relevant statistic be the number of foreign empires that have successfully occupied Afghanistan and installed their preferred government? That research is much less difficult to do. The answer is 0 for three if we count the Soviets, the British (who actually tried it twice and failed both times), and perhaps Alexander?"
WIN MCNAMEE/Meet the Press/Getty Images News
Yesterday, the New York Times online service hosted a "debate" about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, in response to the leaking of commanding general Stanley McChrystal's memo stating that more troops were necessary to avoid defeat. Unfortunately, the six people they asked to debate the issue (Gretchen Peters, James Morin, Vanda Feldab-Brown, Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, and Kori Schake) all seemed to be open supporters of the U.S. military commitment there. So when asked "how should additional troops be deployed? What types of specialized personnel are needed now?" none of the Times's chosen panel responded by saying "more troops are not the answer." In short, the six panelists managed to avoid the real question that President Obama (and the nation) faces: should the United States increase its presence in the hopes of reversing the situation, or should it cut its losses and get out? Would it really have been so bad to have at least one genuine skeptic of the war included among the respondents?
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If you want to keep up with the debate on Afghanistan, you should obviously be reading FP's AfPak Channel. But here are a few other items of special note:
2. A new CATO Institute report on how to get out.
3. An open letter from the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy on why Obama should rethink his Afghan "strategy." (Full disclosure: I'm one of the signatories).
4. What Sarah Palin and the guys who thought invading Iraq was a good idea think now. For some reason the phrase "caveat emptor" springs to mind.
5. Tom Englehardt is skeptical of benchmarks, but offers a long list of his own.
JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT/AFP/Getty Images
As I've been blogging for months now, things don't look good in Afghanistan. The commanding U.S. general, Stanley McChrystal apparently agrees. He's completed his review and is calling for a radical change in U.S. strategy. He says the situation is "serious," but also that "success is achievable." According to other reports, he intends to make a separate request for more troops in the near future. (And how many of you didn’t see that coming?)
Over the weekend, we also learned that the Afghan election results are probably fraudulent, that current President Hamid Karzai is now bolstering his own legitimacy by highlighting his differences with Washington. Got that? The leader of the government we are propping up with billions of dollars of assistance and thousands of troops has discovered he can best make himself more popular by publicly quarreling with us, and by cutting deals with drug-dealing warlords at the same moment that U.S. forces are supposedly trying to crack down on them. Even a rather hawkish panel at the mainstream Brookings Institution was sounding pretty sober last week.
Alarm bells should be going off in your head at this point (and I wish they were going off in President Obama’s). These events all point to the central dilemma confronting our efforts in Afghanistan: we don’t understand the social and political dynamics there, the various actors involved have their own interests, loyalties, and agendas, the "government" -- such as it is -- is deeply corrupt, and we lack reliable instruments of leverage over many of the contending factions. As a result, virtually any step we take inevitably generates all sorts of unintended consequences.
The recent election is a case in point: we worked hard to make it a success, in the hope that it would produce a more effective and accountable Afgan government and demonstrate that external assistance was having a positive impact. Obama was quick to praise the election after it occurred, but the widespread and credible accusations of fraud (plus the low turnout) suggest that the election we labored to bring about in fact made things worse. Instead of receiving a powerful new mandate, Karzai comes out of it looking more like Ahmadinejad. Even if he retains the presidency (still the most likely outcome), Karzai's legitimacy has been further tarnished and his ability to conduct meaningful reforms will be virtually nil.
And please bear in mind that our current difficulties aren't exactly new. The United States and NATO have had military forces in Afghanistan for nearly eight years. True, the outside effort was pretty half-hearted from 2003 to 2006 (due in part to the diversion of effort to Iraq), but increased force levels and attention in recent years hasn't reversed the slide. This situation suggests that either we are pursuing the wrong objectives or we simply have no idea how to achieve them. What is needed is a much broader questioning of what we are doing over there, but questioning the mission itself wasn't General McChrystal's assignment. My guess is that a more fundamental rethinking will eventually take place, but not until more blood and treasure are expended.
For an equally gloomy forecast, see veteran foreign affairs columnist William Pfaff here. And for those of you who like musical analogies, try this.
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I'm clearing off my desk today and working on the opening lecture for my graduate IR theory course, so I'm not going to try to write a detailed commentary. Instead, let me take this opportunity to pass on a few pieces that caught my eye, on a wide array of subjects.
1. From the S Rajaratnam School in Singapore comes an optimistic assessment on the status of the Pakistani Taliban. According to Khuram Iqbal, the Pakistani Taliban have failed to gain popular support, and show no signs of becoming an effective mass movement (akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon). Instead, they are increasingly seen as a narrower terrorist group, reinforced their unpopularity. While they remain a problem to be dealt with, fears that the Pakistani state was on the verge of collapse or that the entire country might be "Talibanized" seem to have been greatly overblown. (Juan Cole: take a bow).
2. There is a fascinating article by Richard Oliver Collin in the latest issue of International Studies Perspectives, entitled "Words of War: Iraq's Tower of Babel." It is a careful analysis of the extraordinary degree of linguistic diversity and fragmentation in Iraq, and it underscores how ill-prepared the United States was to try to occupy and govern the place. Money quote from Collin's conclusion:
It cannot be argued that enhanced language proficiency in Arabic and Kurdish would assure military victory for the United States in its conflict with the various Iraqi insurgent groups. Language capability is a necessary but not sufficient condition for triumph in war and diplomacy. The evidence does strongly suggest, however, that American inability to create a basic communications capability has contributed importantly to the failure of the United States thus far to resolve its Middle Eastern problems at some minimally acceptable level ... Can this historical trend be changed? There is no reason to believe that the present spate of Middle Eastern difficulties is going to be the last chapter in America's involvement in the Middle East ....
The United States historically has attempted to pursue a policy of intense involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, sometimes diplomatic and sometimes military, but without a concomitant commitment to understanding the region's culture, religion, and particularly its languages. Since American foreign policy in the Middle East policy has never been more than sporadically successful, an argument can be made that Washington needs to match its military investment with a serious commitment to language and area studies. Language lessons are cheaper than tanks, and if America's linguists were good enough, the United States might not need quite so many tanks."
Note: he says linguistic competence is "necessary but not sufficient," so please don't assume that training some more linguists would suddenly give us a magical capability to reorder other countries at low cost.
3. If you're just now trying to catch up on the situation in Afghanistan (and why haven't you been reading the AfPak Channel here at FP?), a good short introduction is Thomas Billetteri, "Afghanistan Dilemma," CQ Researcher, available here. (Full disclosure: I'm quoted a couple of times, but so are lots of other people with varying views.) Billetteri takes no position on the policy choices facing us, but the piece is an excellent introduction to the issues.
4. I've also just finished a fascinating paper by two economists from the Universidad de los Andes, analyzing the effect of Plan Colombia on the production and distribution of drugs (e.g., cocaine). The analysis is fairly technical and some of the math is beyond me, but it's clearly a serious attempt to determine the impact of different policies and how the different actors involved (the U.S. and Colombian governments, the drug growers, the drug smugglers, etc.) interact in a strategic fashion. Among other things, the authors (Daniel Mejia and Pascual Restrepo) show that although Plan Colombia's drug eradication efforts have reduced the amount of acreage under cultivation by nearly 50 percent, actual cocaine production has decreased by only 11 percent and the prices of coca leaf, coca paste, and actual cocaine have remained fairly stable. Why? Because growers responded to eradication efforts by adopting more productive cultivation techniques, thereby producing nearly the same amount of cocaine from smaller amounts of land.
They also demonstrate that the Colombian and U.S. governments have conflicting interests in pursuing the "war on drugs." Specifically, the Colombian government benefits far more from every dollar spent on eradication efforts (i.e., against drug production) because that takes money away from the growers (and thus the insurgency). By contrast, the United States gets a larger "bang from the buck" from drug interdiction (i.e., against drug trafficking) because the main U.S. interest is in trying to keep cocaine out of the United States. Here's a summary of their main findings:
We find, among many other things, that a three-fold increase in the U.S. budget allocated to Plan Colombia would decrease the amount of cocaine reaching consumer countries by about 19.5% (about 60,000 kg). We also estimate that the elasticity of the cocaine reaching consumer countries with respect to changes in the amount of resources invested in the war against illegal drug production is about 0.007%, whereas the elasticity with respect to changes in the amount of resources invested in the war against illegal drug trafficking is about 0.296%. In other words, if the main objective is to reduce the amount of drugs reaching consumer countries, targeting illegal drug trafficking is much more cost effective than targeting illegal drug production activities. However, if the objective is to reduce the cost of conflict in Colombia, targeting drug production activities is more cost effective .... Furthermore, we find that the optimal allocation of resources from the point of view of the U.S., whose objective is to minimize the amount of cocaine reaching its borders, implies that all the U.S. assistance to Plan Colombia should be for the war against drug trafficking. From the point of view of Colombia, whose objective is to minimize the total cost of internal conflict, the optimal allocation would imply that all the U.S. assistance for Plan Colombia should go to finance the war against drug production."
I'm sure one can raise questions about their analysis, but this is the sort of work that really ought to be informing the debate over whether Plan Colombia is working and how U.S. assistance should be allocated.
Peter Bergen has taken issue with me on whether the danger of a "safe haven" for al Qaeda justifies an open-ended U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, but his critique mostly misses my central point.
In my view, what has been largely absent from the current discussions of U.S. policy is any serious attempt at cost-benefit analysis, and my original post was directed toward that particular omission. At present, advocates of a heightened U.S. role -- including President Obama -- simply invoke the dreaded words "al Qaeda" and the worrisome phrase "safe haven" as if that rendered any discussion of ends, means, costs and benefits unnecessary. It's an effective rhetorical tactic: we are so mesmerized by the specter of another 9/11 that we are willing to support any policy if it is said to be about preventing that from recurring. In most cases, however, it discourages us from examining how serious the risks really are and whether the proposed line of action will actually lower them.
Bergen thinks the threat is very, very serious, and he is admirably candid about his willingness to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade or more to try to ward it off. He also believes that a large U.S. presence in Afghanistan is the best way to do that, while skeptics tend to think that reducing the U.S. military role is a better long-term bet. And let's not lose sight of just how difficult this is going to be. Consider what the Obama administration's own White Paper on Afghanistan identified as some of the key requirements for success:
These are daunting tasks. They require a new way of thinking about the challenges, a wide-ranging diplomatic strategy to build support for our efforts, enhanced engagement with the publics in the region and at home, and a realization that all elements of international power –- diplomatic, informational, military and economic -- must be brought to bear. They will also require a significant change in the management, resources, and focus of our foreign assistance.
We must engage the Afghan people in ways that demonstrate our commitment to promoting a legitimate and capable Afghan government with economic progress...
A strategic communications program must be created, made more effective, and resourced...
a complete overhaul of our civilian assistance strategy is necessary...
The international community must assume responsibility for funding this significantly enhanced Afghan security force for an extended period...
A dramatic increase in Afghan civilian expertise is needed. . . The United States should play an important part in providing that expertise, but responding effectively to Afghanistan's needs will require that allies, partners, the UN and other international organizations, and non-governmental organizations significantly increase their involvement in Afghanistan."
And if we do our best and some of these "daunting tasks" go unfulfilled, what then?
Of course neither Bergen nor I know for certain how likely a Taliban victory is or how dangerous it would be for U.S. interests. But note that his assessment still depends on a number of unproven worst-case assumptions. He assumes that absent large-scale and lengthy U.S. involvement, the Taliban will gain power again, even though the conditions that enabled them to consolidate power in the 1990s no longer exist. Among other things, many Afghan now know what Taliban rule is like, and non-Pashtuns aren't going to accede to Taliban control, which is why the fighting is mostly in the Pashtun south.
Bergen also assumes that the Taliban and al Qaeda are still inseparable ideological soul-mates and that the Taliban would quickly revert to the same supportive policy that led us to drive them from power once before. It's possible, of course, but hardly a certainty, especially given that the Taliban itself is not a homogeneous group and that most of its cadres don’t share Al Qaeda’s commitment to global jihad.
Bergen also assumes that a "safe haven" in Afghanistan would add a significant additional increment to Osama bin Laden’s capabilities. I'll concede that this might be preferable to huddling in a cave, but it's not clear how much it would really increase their ability to plan or train. Even if some hypothetical Taliban government did let Bin Laden & Co. have a hideout somewhere inside Afghanistan, he would be little better off than he apparently is today. He could hardly start operating openly, of course, because we would be certain to go after him if he did. And given that al Qaeda has metastasized into different groups that are already operating in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere (including sympathetic cells in Western Europe) the incremental value of a re-established presence in Afghanistan would be modest. Bergen points out that various plots in the past were conceived in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but it hardly takes a "safe haven" to sit around and conspire -- terrorists can do that virtually anywhere. In other words, making Afghanistan an "al Qaeda"-free zone is only a small part of the problem, and one could even argue that large-scale Western military involvement in these regions is precisely the sort of thing that gave rise to al Qaeda in the first place and continues to win it sympathizers today.
The real questions to ask are: 1) how much blood and treasure are the United States and its allies willing to invest in Afghanistan, and 2) is the way we are currently investing those lives and money are going to make things better or make them worse? Bergen thinks the danger is bigger than I do -- so he's willing to spend a lot more -- and he thinks a combination of counter-insurgency against the Taliban and massive external assistance to strengthen the central government is the best way to head his nightmare off. I have no objection to our using special forces and other assets to go after al Qaeda wherever it might be, and I don't object to foreign aid programs designed to repair or improve Afghanistan’s woeful infrastructure (building roads and expanding electrical grids is something we do know how to do, whereas designing a legitimate and minimally effectve central government are tasks we seem singularly ill-prepared for). So I'm with those who believe that trying to "defeat" the Taliban and create a strong central state in Afghanistan is a fool's errand.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
At an appearance before the Veterans of Foreign Wars yesterday, President Obama defended U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, calling it a "war of necessity." He claimed that "our new strategy has a clear mission and defined goals -- to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies," and he declared that “If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people.”
This is a significant statement. In effect, the president was acknowledging that the only strategic rationale for an increased commitment in Afghanistan is the fear that if the Taliban isn't defeated in Afghanistan, they will eventually allow al Qaeda to re-establish itself there, which would then enable it to mount increasingly threatening attacks on the United States.
This is the kind of assertion that often leads foreign policy insiders to nod their heads in agreement, but it shouldn't be accepted uncritically. Here are a few reasons why the "safe haven" argument ought to be viewed with some skepticism.
First, this argument tends to lump the various groups we are contending with together, and it suggests that all of them are equally committed to attacking the United States. In fact, most of the people we are fighting in Afghanistan aren't dedicated jihadis seeking to overthrow Arab monarchies, establish a Muslim caliphate, or mount attacks on U.S. soil. Their agenda is focused on local affairs, such as what they regard as the political disempowerment of Pashtuns and illegitimate foreign interference in their country. Moreover, the Taliban itself is more of a loose coalition of different groups than a tightly unified and hierarchical organization, which is why some experts believe we ought to be doing more to divide the movement and "flip" the moderate elements to our side. Unfortunately, the "safe haven" argument wrongly suggests that the Taliban care as much about attacking America as bin Laden does.
Second, while it is true that Mullah Omar gave Osama bin Laden a sanctuary both before and after 9/11, it is by no means clear that they would give him free rein to attack the United States again. Protecting al Qaeda back in 2001 brought no end of trouble to Mullah Omar and his associates, and if they were lucky enough to regain power, it is hard to believe they would give us a reason to come back in force.
Third, it is hardly obvious that Afghan territory provides an ideal "safe haven" for mounting attacks on the United States. The 9/11 plot was organized out of Hamburg, not Kabul or Kandahar, but nobody is proposing that we send troops to Germany to make sure there aren't "safe havens" operating there. In fact, if al Qaeda has to hide out somewhere, I’d rather they were in a remote, impoverished, land-locked and isolated area from which it is hard to do almost anything. The "bases" or "training camps" they could organize in Pakistan or Afghanistan might be useful for organizing a Mumbai-style attack, but they would not be particularly valuable if you were trying to do a replay of 9/11 (not many flight schools there), or if you were trying to build a weapon of mass destruction. And in a post-9/11 environment, it wouldn’t be easy for a group of al Qaeda operatives bent on a Mumbia-style operation get all the way to the United States. One cannot rule this sort of thing out, of course, but does that unlikely danger justify an open-ended commitment that is going to cost us more than $60 billion next year?
Fourth, in the unlikely event that a new Taliban government did give al Qaeda carte blanche to prepare attacks on the United States or its allies, the United States isn't going to sit around and allow them to go about their business undisturbed. The Clinton administration wasn't sure it was a good idea to go after al Qaeda's training camps back in the 1990s (though they eventually did, albeit somewhat half-heartedly), but that was before 9/11. We know more now and the U.S. government is hardly going to be bashful about attacking such camps in the future. (Remember: we are already doing that in Pakistan, with the tacit approval of the Pakistani government). Put differently, having a Taliban government in Kabul would hardly make Afghanistan a "safe haven" today or in the future, because the United States has lots of weapons it can use against al Qaeda that don’t require a large U.S. military presence on the ground.
Fifth, as well-informed critics have already observed, the primary motivation for extremist organizations like the Taliban and Al Qaeda is their opposition to what they regard as unwarranted outside interference in their own societies. Increasing the U.S. military presence and engaging in various forms of social engineering is as likely to reinforce such motivations as it is to eliminate them. Obama is hoping that a different strategy will eventually undercut support for the Taliban and strengthen the central government, but it is still an open question whether more American involvement will have positive or negative effects. If we are in fact making things worse, then we may be encouraging precisely the outcome we are trying to avoid.
Sixth, one might also take comfort from the Soviet experience. When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the mujaheddin didn't "follow them home." Were the United States to withdraw from Aghanistan and the Taliban to regain power (or end up sharing power, which is more likely), going after the United States won't even be on their "to do" list.
One can of course make a moral argument for an extended commitment in Afghanistan, but that's not the argument Obama made (and it probably wouldn't sell very well here at home). For a realist, the "safe haven" argument is the only possible rationale for a large military commitment in Afghanistan. But the case is actually quite dubious, and somebody in the administration really ought to take a hard look at it. I doubt anyone will, however, because Obama is now committed, and his administration is filled with "can-do" types who never saw an international problem they didn't think the United States could fix.I sure hope they're right and I'm wrong, but I also wish that I didn’t have that feeling quite as often as I seem to these days.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
For those of you who worry that the Obama administration doesn't have a clear strategy in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or even a clear sense of what our overall objectives are: relax. You needn't fret, because Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke knows how to define success.
Speaking at a panel at the St. Regis Hotel, Holbrooke was asked what success would look like in Afghanistan, and whether U.S. interests could be met with a weak central state, the reintegration of Taliban elements into Afghan politics, and the continuation of Predator strikes against al Qaeda forces in the region. His response, according to Spencer Ackerman, was that while the U.S. had to be "clear about what our national interests are," ultimately, success would require taking a "Supreme Court test" -- "We'll know it when we see it." (This is how Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography).
So I guess those elaborate benchmarks the administration has been trying to develop don't really matter. Holbrooke will just let us know when we've won. Or lost. Until then, you critics can stop asking those pesky questions.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.