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).
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
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.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
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."
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
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.
MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images
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
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.