Stephen Biddle’s recent piece on Afghanistan seeks to probe the question asked in the title, Is It Worth It? Biddle’s answer is a tepid, tentative "yes." In his words, our ongoing military campaign in Afghanistan represents "a war effort that is costly, risky and worth waging—but only barely so."
As suggested, Biddle is certainly no optimist about our prospects for "victory" in Afghanistan – although, to his credit, he narrows down the criteria to two modest goals when compared to some of the other more grandiose designs associated with the mission since its inception.
The United States has two primary national interests in this conflict: that Afghanistan never again become a haven for terrorism against the United States, and that chaos in Afghanistan not destabilize its neighbors, especially Pakistan. Neither interest can be dismissed, but both have limits as casus belli.
Biddle quickly abandons the first rationale, however, describing it as the "weakest" reason to wage a war considering the fact that: (a) there is no guarantee that the Taliban would welcome al-Qaeda back if the US departs and the Taliban dominates; (b) we can disrupt so-called safe-havens by taking measures far short of all out war; and (c) there are more attractive safe havens available in several other settings, and waging war to shut them down as they crop up is unrealistic in the extreme (also: a key part of Osama Bin Laden’s strategy of bleeding our resources by goading us into costly campaigns across the globe) – arguments that this site has been making with some frequency.
Which leaves us with the second rationale alone, about which Biddle has this to say:
Pakistani state collapse, moreover, is a danger over which the United States has only limited influence. We have uneven and historically fraught relations with the Pakistani military and intelligence services, and our ties with the civilian government of the moment can be no more efficacious than that government’s own sway over the country. The United States is too unpopular with the Pakistani public to have any meaningful prospect of deploying major ground forces there to assist the government in counterinsurgency. U.S. air strikes can harass insurgents and terrorists within Pakistan, but the inevitable collateral damage arouses harsh public opposition that could itself threaten the weak government’s stability. U.S. aid is easily (and routinely) diverted to purposes other than countering Islamist insurgents, such as the maintenance of military counterweights to India, graft and patronage, or even support for Islamist groups seen by Pakistani authorities as potential allies against India. U.S. assistance to Pakistan can—and should—be made conditional on progress in countering insurgents, but if these conditions are too harsh, Pakistan might reject the terms, thus removing our leverage in the process. Demanding conditions that the Pakistani government ultimately accepts but cannot reasonably fulfill only sets the stage for recrimination and misunderstanding.
If we cannot reliably influence Pakistan for the better, we should at least heed the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm. With so little actual leverage, we cannot afford to make the problem any worse than it already is.
That is a very accurate, objective analysis of the situation: our influence in Pakistan is limited; we are extremely unpopular; the use of our military assets engenders resistance and radicalization; Pakistan is more pre-occupied with India; and the Pakistani government is not fully committed to combating those Taliban elements and radicals that it has used, and continues to use, as anti-Indian proxies in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Given those factors, one could easily see that, since our primary mission should be to "do no harm" in terms of destabilizing Pakistan, we should cease our US-centric (which runs counter to Pakistan’s focus), heavy-handed, military interference in the region. After all, our influence is limited, and due to our lack of popularity, and the radicalizing effects of our presence and military campaign, we aren’t furthering our goals but undermining them. Biddle, however, comes to the opposite conclusion:
If the Taliban regained control of the Afghan state, their ability to use the state’s resources to destabilize the secular government in Pakistan would increase the risk of state collapse there. Analysts have made much of the threat that Pakistani Taliban base camps pose to the stability of the government in Kabul, but the danger works both ways: Instability in Afghanistan also poses a serious threat to the secular civilian government in Pakistan. This is the single greatest U.S. interest in Afghanistan: to prevent it from aggravating Pakistan’s internal problems and magnifying the danger of an al-Qaeda nuclear-armed sanctuary there.
But Biddle overstates the quality of the threat posed by Afghan Talibs in terms of destabilizing the Pakistani state. The Taliban have long been on the receiving end of Pakistani government largess. They have been cultivated as a proxy and ally useful in terms of creating a strategic redoubt in case of conflict with India, and in further establishing an anti-Indian front in the region. In fact, much of their tenacity and success in Afghanistan today (and previously) is attributable to the ongoing support of their Pakistani patrons.
That is the nature of the Afghan Taliban: a local phenomenon benefiting from the generosity of foreign benefactors. As such, the Afghan Taliban enjoys limited reach and power – especially if it were to actually turn on those same foreign benefactors. Along those lines, what exactly are the Afghan "state’s resources" that are supposed to threaten Pakistan (whose military and security forces are far more numerous, vastly better equipped, well trained, etc)? The Afghan state (and various militant factions) have limited economic and military resources – and much of what they have comes from…Pakistan.
This tail is just not capable of wagging the dog, and the Pakistani government knows it. That is why that government continues to support those same Afghan Taliban factions that we are, according to Biddle, supposed to be protecting Pakistan from. Maybe they know something we don’t?
Further, Biddle takes it as a given that our ongoing military operations in Afghanistan serve to stabilize the situation in Pakistan without even acknowledging – let alone discussing – the obvious counterpoint: what if our seven+ year military campaign in neighboring Afghanistan (targeting Pakistan’s longtime ally), with US forces frequently striking Pakistani territory itself, was actually "aggravating Pakistan’s internal problems."
What if, in asking the Pakistanis to cooperate in the neutralizing of their proxies and in the empowerment of a new regime friendly to India, we were "[d]emanding conditions that the Pakistani government ultimately accepts but cannot reasonably fulfill only set[ting] the stage for recrimination and misunderstanding." Is there any chance that bending the Pakistani government to our agenda – which cuts against its own interests – could cause political problems for that same government?
Shouldn’t we at least acknowledge the possibility that wars and occupations often have a radicalizing, destabilizing effect with myriad unintended consequences throughout the war zones? The Pakistani government is certainly sounding the alarm: [more after the jump]
Pakistan is objecting to expanded American combat operations in neighboring Afghanistan, creating new fissures in the alliance with Washington at a critical juncture when thousands of new American forces are arriving in the region.
Pakistani officials have told the Obama administration that the Marines fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan will force militants across the border into Pakistan, with the potential to further inflame the troubled province of Baluchistan, according to Pakistani intelligence officials. [...]
The country’s perspective was given in a nearly two-hour briefing on Friday for The New York Times by senior analysts and officials of Pakistan’s main spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence…The main themes of the briefing were echoed in conversations with several military officers over the past few days.
One of the first briefing slides read, in part: “The surge in Afghanistan will further reinforce the perception of a foreign occupation of Afghanistan. It will result in more civilian casualties; further alienate local population. Thus more local resistance to foreign troops.”
One obvious rebuttal is that the Pakistani government is exaggerating these threats because it is trying to cut short US operations against the Pakistan-friendly Afghan Taliban, and it is wary of an India-friendly Karzai government consolidating power in Kabul. But the implications of that possibility should offer no comfort: it would mean that the Pakistani government is more intent on protecting the Taliban, and preserving its influence via the Taliban in Afghanistan, than it is in advancing US interests (which are diametrically opposed). If that’s the case (and it seems likely), and our success in terms of stabilizing Afghanistan is dependent on the Pakistani government’s cooperation with our agenda instead, then we are pursuing a lost cause.
The Pakistani account made clear that even as the United States recommits troops and other resources to take on a growing Taliban threat, Pakistani officials still consider India their top priority and the Taliban militants a problem that can be negotiated. In the long term, the Taliban in Afghanistan may even remain potential allies for Pakistan, as they were in the past, once the United States leaves.
The Pakistani officials gave views starkly different from those of American officials regarding the threat presented by top Taliban commanders, some of whom the Americans say have long taken refuge on the Pakistani side of the border.
Recent Pakistani military operations against Taliban in the Swat Valley and parts of the tribal areas have done little to close the gap in perceptions.
Even as Obama administration officials praise the operations, they express frustration that Pakistan is failing to act against the full array of Islamic militants using the country as a base.
Instead, they say, Pakistani authorities have chosen to fight Pakistani Taliban who threaten their government, while ignoring Taliban and other militants fighting Americans in Afghanistan or terrorizing India.
Right. And that’s not going to change any time in the near future, or thereafter.