Peter Bergen penned a piece in the Washington Monthly in which he argues that, with a substantial dedication of time and resources by the United States and the international community, Afghanistan could, eventually, become a "relatively stable and prosperous Central Asian state." In short, Afghanistan is a "winnable" war.
The entire first half of Bergen’s piece is dedicated to shooting down "facile" historical comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam and between the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and ours (Bergen contrasts the tactics and professionalism of the respective armies), as well as correcting the history of other imperial efforts in the region. But Bergen’s is an unnecessary and, ultimately, irrelevant exercise.
Clearly, Afghanistan is not the same as Vietnam, and the argument that they are parallel episodes is as misguided as any prior argument that the Iraq war was a replication of our Vietnam campaign. But so what? The Iraq war wasn’t the Vietnam war, and it didn’t have to be Vietnam in order for it to be a grievous foreign policy debacle whose costs (in terms of human suffering and US interests) are almost immeasurable. Proving Iraq and Vietnam were different did little to inform us of the wisdom of invading or perpetuating the occupation of Iraq.
In fact, the same metrics that Bergen uses to show why our Afghan effort has a better chance of succeeding than our prolonged Vietnam mission (less costly as a percentage of GDP, fewer casualties, no support for insurgents from a powerful foreign benefactor, insurgent force relatively small and lightly armed) could have just as easily been used by those arguing that Iraq wasn’t Vietnam, going on to suggest our prospects in Iraq were thus brighter. They wouldn’t have been correct, of course.
Further, there is little comfort to be had from acknowledging that the US military is more professional than, and tactically superior to, the Soviet version that suffered a crushing blow in Afghanistan decades ago. While this is true, it was the US military, not the Soviet military, that was dropped in the middle of Iraq and asked to do the near impossible to little avail. So a superior military is not exactly a sufficient condition to success as there are just certain obstacles that even the most professional army, employing optimal tactics and rules of engagement, cannot overcome. Pacifying foreign populations is like eating soup with a knife, even if the knives come in different shapes and sizes, and no two soup recipes are the same.
So, points conceded to Bergen: facile historical comparisons distract from the more germane analysis of the scenario at hand, and in general lead to sloppy reasoning by analogy. Oddly enough, after scoring these points rather deftly, Bergen goes on to make a couple of…equally facile historical comparisons!
Skeptics of Obama’s Afghanistan policy say that the right approach is to either reduce American commitments there or just get out entirely. The short explanation of why this won’t work is that the United States has tried this already—twice. In 1989, after the most successful covert program in the history of the CIA helped to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, the George H. W. Bush administration closed the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The Clinton administration subsequently effectively zeroed out aid to the country, one of the poorest in the world. Out of the chaos of the Afghan civil war in the early 1990s emerged the Taliban, who then gave sanctuary to al Qaeda. In 2001, the next Bush administration returned to topple the Taliban, but because of its ideological aversion to nation building it ensured that Afghanistan was the least-resourced per capita reconstruction effort the United States has engaged in since World War II.
But the US has not, in fact, tried this twice. In Bergen’s first example of the US having previously withdrawn tens of thousands of troops from Afghanistan after a 7 year military campaign, the US didn’t actually have any troops in Afghanistan at all to withdraw – just funding for insurgent groups squaring off against the Soviets. So it’s hard to see how this is analogous in even the most strained sense. And withdrawal (or reduction) of military forces does not necessitate shutting off all forms of aid (far from it). In fact, Bergen is using this as a rebuttal to those that merely want to "reduce American commitments" (to quote him), not eliminate them.
In Bergen’s second prior example of the US ending a prolonged military campaign in Afghanistan, the US actually invaded Afghanistan and kept tens of thousands of troops in that country for over 7 years (and counting). Somehow that counts as a military withdrawal? Only in a world in which US military intervention is the norm, and the only question is to what extent and how deep the military commitment should manifest.
In another segment, Bergen seemingly continues under the rhetorical framework of "military intervention as the norm":
Another possible objection to the introduction of more U.S. soldiers into Afghanistan is that, inevitably, they will kill more civilians, the main issue that angers Afghans about the foreign military presence. In fact, the presence of more boots on the ground is likely to reducecivilian casualties, because historically it has been the overreliance on American air strikes—as a result of too few ground forces—which has been the key cause of civilian deaths. According to the U.S. Air Force, between January and August 2008 there were almost 2,400 air strikes in Afghanistan, fully three times as many as in Iraq. And the United Nations concluded that it was air strikes, rather than action on the ground, which were responsible for the largest percentage—64 percent—of civilian deaths attributed to pro-government forces in 2008.
While Bergen might be right that more boots on the ground will lead to fewer civilian casualties from coalition forces because of the reduction in the reliance on air strikes (at least in as much as the increase in overall military operations don’t negate those reductions), there is a third way that is guaranteed to reduce civilian casualties from coalition forces: withdraw coalition forces from Afghanistan. That option, and its impact on deaths by coalition forces, is ignored, however.
Regardless, it is unclear to what extent those same airstrikes will, in fact, be scaled back on an appreciable scale. There has long been talk about the negative impact of these tactics, especially from senior commanders such as General Petraeus who has been overseeing CENTCOM for several months now. And yet the airstrikes have persisted. Not that it’s Petraues’ fault – there are internal divisions, institutional biases and other complicating factors that lead to resistance from various military actors. Yet it is this inconsistent application of counterinsurgency doctrine, as blended with counterterrorism and conventional tactics (which often work at cross purposes), which calls into question the overall likelihood of success.
Cognizant of the importance of the issue of civilian casualties, in his Senate confirmation hearing in June the new commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, testified that their avoidance "may be the critical point" of American military operations, adding, "I cannot overstate my commitment to the importance of this concept." McChrystal, generally regarded as one of the most effective officers of his generation, has now put the avoidance of civilian casualties at the core of his military strategy in Afghanistan, and that message will undoubtedly filter down the chain of command.
Let’s see if it does.
While Bergen does raise some reasons to be encouraged about the game plan (the switch from poppy eradication to targeting the drug lords themselves for one), he saves the biggest obstacle for the very end – the one that renders much of his prior optimism arguably moot.
This brings us to the one skunk at this garden party, and it is a rather large one: Afghanistan’s nuclear-armed, al-Qaeda- and Taliban-headquartering neighbor to the east. The Pakistani dimension of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy is his critics’ most reasonable objection to his plans for the region. It is difficult for the United States to have an effective strategy for Pakistan when Pakistan doesn’t have an effective strategy for Pakistan. There is a set of interwoven problems that the country must face if it is to effectively confront the militants in its own territory. If it fails to do this, the regional insurgency that encompasses both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border will continue to gather strength.
So, in a nutshell, everything that we are trying to achieve is dependent on Pakistan getting its house in order. In order to do so, it must tackle a series of long-standing, fundamental, interwoven and fraught problems that call into question the nature of Pakistani society/government structure, that have withstood myriad prior efforts to address, that have proven resistant to outside pressure from the US (its chief benefactor) and that threaten to plummet the nation into civil war. What could possibly go wrong?
The nuclear-armed unstable Pakistani specter looming right across the border is another way in which our present Afghan war is different than Vietnam. But does that make you feel any better about our chances?