At long last, the Obama administration has provided a draft of its objectives with respect to the ongoing military occupation of Afghanistan, as well as a series of metrics for gauging the success in terms of meeting those aims. Unfortunately, the enunciated objectives are themselves typical of the muddled and contradictory goals, tactics and strategies associated [...]
Despite President Bush’s post-9/11, manichean-tinged attempt to categorize other nations as either “with us or against us” with respect to those terrorist groups that the US government considers problematic, and despite an understandable impulse on the part of the US government to put US interests ahead of those of other states (a tendency that spans administrations from [...]
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: Read more »
Quote of the day material from Rory Stewart who cleverly sums up the mindset of our "strategic class" – an echelon of "experts" that establish a disturbing level of continuity in outlook from one administration to the next, Republican or Democratic:
Since arriving at Harvard in June last year, [Stewart]has been consultant to several members of Barack Obama’s [...]
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:
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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.
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I don’t envy President Obama’s predicament in Afghanistan. It’s hard to think of a region that has been less hospitable to foreign interlopers throughout ancient and modern history (earning itself the moniker "Graveyard of Empires"). And yet despite this foreboding track record, it is unclear that President Obama is willing to deviate from that familiar, if tragic, path traveled most recently by Britain and the USSR. Not that Obama’s options are all that attractive. Bush left him with a mismanaged and directionless occupation to unwind (or not). The exact nature of the hoped-for success via a continued military occupation is hard enough to define, let alone achieve, yet withdrawal has its downsides as well – including the potential for an intense civil war and the return of repressive elements such as the Taliban.
While entirely too much has been made of the importance of Afghan safe havens in terms of conducting successful terrorist attacks (just as too little has been made of the ability to replicate similar safe havens elsewhere and our ability to disrupt any such haven from afar now that we are making such interdiction a priority), there is little doubt that Obama would pay a steep political price if he were to withdraw and an attack occurred that had some traceable connection to Afghanistan. While an attack emanating from hubs in, say, Europe or Yemen may be just as (or more) likely, those connections would not prove as damaging despite the underlying reality of the terrorist threat.
So it is that Obama seems to be trading Bush’s muddled vision of Afghanistan for his own, with a vague yet grandiose (if often contradictory) recitation of implausible goals and exaggerated fears, all buttressed by a refusal to acknowledge the costs of continuing our occupation. As if they were trivial (think trillions of dollars – less than the costs of health care that has Washington in a tizzy, but then wars never seem to count as spending). As Rory Stewart suggests, it’s almost impossible to decipher an actual policy direction from the pomp and flourish:
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