Marc Lynch makes a very good point:
Suppose the U.S. succeeded beyond all its wildest expectations, and turned Afghanistan into Nirvana on Earth, an orderly, high GDP nirvana with universal health care and a robust wireless network (and even suppose that it did this without the expense depriving Americans of the same things). So what? Al-Qaeda (or what we call al-Qaeda) could easily migrate to Somalia, to Yemen, deeper into Pakistan, into the Caucasas, into Africa — into a near infinite potential pool of ungoverned or semi-governed spaces with potentially supportive environments. Are we to commit the United States to bringing effective governance and free wireless to the entire world? On whose budget? To his credit, McChrystal adviser Steve Biddle raises all of these questions in his excellent American Interest article from last month — but in my view goes wrong by limiting the policy options to either full withdrawal or full commitment to COIN.
Right. It’s not like al-Qaeda is confined to this little sliver of land in South Asia such that, once that narrow stretch of land is magically pacified and completely reordered, al-Qaeda will cease to exist. Thus, as Lynch points out, the game of nation build-a-mole will have to continue in a new setting. And at a couple trillion dollars a pop, we don’t have the money. Further, al-Qaeda (and its viral ideology) has penetrated Western Europe and other regions not in need of nation building. So even if at the end of a century and $50 trillion dollars or so, we managed to purge the globe of potential havens, the problem would persist.
This, for my money (taxpayers too), is the right approach:
Another option which used to be on the table, as I understood it, was a much more narrowly focused policy of keeping the pressure on al-Qaeda while letting Afghan politics sort itself out. But from my distance, at least, it seems that this approach is being overwhelmed by those arguing for a much more expansive mission (as Michael Cohen has been documenting for a while under the category title “Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch”). And that worries me. I see why keeping al-Qaeda on the ropes matters. But I just don’t really see why trying to build an Afghan state is a significant American national interest, or that it can be done at a price commensurate to its significance.
I fear that the escalation of the war in Afghanistan is following a dangerous path of least resistance. Given the assignment to win the war in Afghanistan, of course a military which has been reshaped by its experience in Iraq will turn to COIN doctrine. Once the decision is made to apply a COIN approach, of course the military is going to ask for more troops there, and a long commitment, since it’s always been obvious that really doing COIN in Afghanistan would require vastly more troops than are currently deployed. And then, at each step of the way, there will be a strong tactical argument for expansion and a very difficult sell for any attempt to argue for restraint. Once that iron logic has been accepted, all else follows — and it becomes extremely difficult to reverse course.
But I remain far from convinced that COIN is the right approach, especially when compared not to total U.S. withdrawal but to a more minimalist strategy. The attraction of COIN seems to derive from learning only partial lessons from Iraq — conveniently forgetting that the “surge” and COIN were only one of a number of factors contributing to the changing conditions there, along with the Sunni turn against al-Qaeda which long predated the “surge” and the near-completion of sectarian cleansing in many urban areas, and that its long-term success in Iraq is far from guaranteed. And Afghanistan, as should be obvious, is very different from Iraq. Its advocates argue that this simply means that the approach needs to be adapted to the local conditions and the mission adequately resourced. I’m not at all convinced.
No, neither am I. This is something to think about given a couple other pertinent news items of the day. First, Anthony Cordesman (who is acting as one of McChrystal’s advisors) is recommending a substantial escalation:
Anthony Cordesman, an influential American academic who is a member of a team that has been advising General Stanley McChrystal, now in charge of Nato forces in Afghanistan, also said that to deal with the threat from the Taleban the size of the Afghan National Army might have to increase to 240,000.
If Mr Cordesman’s recommendation reflects the view of General McChrystal, who recently presented the findings of a 60-day review of Afghanistan strategy to Washington, it would mean sending another nine combat brigades, comprising 45,000 American troops, in addition to the 21,000 already approved by President Obama. This would bring the total American military presence in Afghanistan to about 100,000, considerably closer to the force that was deployed for the counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq.
Here’s Steve Hynd on another:
Forty more years of occupation – that’s what the next head of the British Army, General Sir David Richards, is predicting. And he also predicts that US and British troops will be actively fighting there for “the medium term”, i.e. about 15-20 years…
Before American readers dismiss Richards’ prediction as “not invented here”, I’ll remind them that back in 2004 everyone in the U.S. was talking about a possible pullout from Iraq after elections in 2005 – but that the British Army said it was planning to be there until at least late 2008. They turned out to be more honest about prospects then than any American politician, pundit or general. The British Army finally left Iraq in mid-2009.
I expect the same on current timelines for Afghanistan, where American officials have been notoriously averse to estimates of how long the “long war” will actually take. Even now, they’re hedging their bets – but the estimate of David Kilcullen…that the U.S. will be enmired for at least a decade at a cost that will eventually eclipse even the trillion-plus spent on Iraq has become one they cannot ignore.
Imagine how much more incredibly costly in both blood and treasure FORTY years will be. And for what?
And then imagine what it will cost when we have to do it all over again in Somalia, Yemen, deeper into Pakistan, into the Caucasas, other parts of Africa, etc. This is not an efficient or effective way to fight terrorism. But it is what Osama bin Laden had in mind when he set out a strategy to bleed America dry and induce our decline. Maybe we should consider an alternative to Osama’s playbook?