Time To Have The Debate On Afghanistan
This week, a number of bloggers have formed a coalition called Get Afghanistan Right, dedicated to breaking out of the narrow boundaries of the Afghanistan debate and open the discussion about what it means to escalate in a part of the world that has historically proven to be a graveyard of empires. I have seen a shift both in online and offline media over the last several weeks, with writers more willing to challenge assumptions about this war in its eighth year and what can be done outside of military escalation that meets with our national security and foreign policy goals. I've written a lot about Afghanistan, and I think my concerns with a de facto escalation rests on a number of big myths that have proven false:
1) It's not a "good war". Thomas Ricks speaks for me when he says that he finds the notion of a "good war" to be offensive. All wars are painful and cost both lives and treasure. By casting Afghanistan as unimpeachable and just, we hide the consequences, which are becoming greater as the years pass - more coalition forces died there than in Iraq last year. I'm perfectly willing to have a debate about Afghanistan, but not under the terms that it's a "good war," which is tautological.
2) There is something to "win." This has been ill-defined throughout all of Bush's wars, but particularly in Afghanistan. Andrew Bacevich has a brilliant little treatise based on this premise. Once you talk about "winning," you have to define victory, and given our Western biases, we assume that to mean a democratic state able to defend its borders and become an ally in freedom. That is ahistorical to the Afghanistan experience.
Afghanistan is a much bigger country—nearly the size of Texas—and has a larger population that's just as fractious. Moreover, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan possesses almost none of the prerequisites of modernity; its literacy rate, for example, is 28 percent, barely a third of Iraq's. In terms of effectiveness and legitimacy, the government in Kabul lags well behind Baghdad—not exactly a lofty standard. Apart from opium (last year's crop totaled about 8,000 metric tons), Afghans produce almost nothing the world wants [...]
U.S. officials tend to assume that power in Afghanistan ought to be exercised from Kabul. Yet the real influence in Afghanistan has traditionally rested with tribal leaders and warlords. Offered the right incentives, warlords can accomplish U.S. objectives more effectively and cheaply than Western combat battalions. The basis of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan should therefore become decentralization and outsourcing, offering cash and other emoluments to local leaders who will collaborate with us in keeping terrorists out of their territory.
Those who favor escalation have an obligation to define the end state of the mission, as well as how additional troops can accomplish that better than local forces and diplomatic measures.
3) The Afghanistan war is about Afghanistan. Actually, it's about a comprehensive strategy for the entire region. Pushing Taliban remnants and extremists out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan could destabilize a nuclear power. And that doesn't disarm the ostensible goal of US policy, to deny a safe haven for terrorist planning and activity. That requires local law enforcement globally, as well as a strategy of winning hearts and minds that is disabled by violence and chaos far away from Kabul:
More than a thousand Afghans signed up on Thursday to say they wanted to go and fight Israel in the Gaza Strip, many of them blaming the United States which has some 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, for supporting the Jewish state.
Accusations by Taliban militants and some Muslim clerics that Israel and its main ally, the United States, aim to destroy Islam have a strong impact on public opinion in Afghanistan, where Washington plans to almost double its troop numbers this year.
Scores of young men crowded into the library of Kabul's Milad ul-Nabi mosque, lined with banners reading "Death to Israel" and "Death to America," to sign up to fight Israel.
There is a regional strategy that can blunt the influence of extremism globally and increase our national security without a major troop surge. Bringing me to my next point...
4) Surges always work. The cause and effect between the troop surge in Iraq and the modest security gains there, which has been misread as a direct action, colors the potential for throwing troops at the problem in Afghanistan. But the situations are very different. Increasing the footprint of occupation on a country wary of outsiders is perilous. And the Taliban, growing in strength in the country, are not seen as outsiders imposing their views on the locals but locals speaking the language of rebellion and fighting for freedom. Peter Beaumont has more. The top US commander in Afghanistan has said that an Iraq-style surge cannot work.
5) We have to "do something." This is the common lazy style of thinking in Washington, which thinks that actions only have good consequences, and therefore any action must be supported over none at all. Today we saw a tacit admission of this in the Washington Post:
President-elect Barack Obama intends to sign off on Pentagon plans to send up to 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, but the incoming administration does not anticipate that the Iraq-like "surge" of forces will significantly change the direction of a conflict that has steadily deteriorated over the past seven years.
Instead, Obama's national security team expects that the new deployments, which will nearly double the current U.S. force of 32,000 (alongside an equal number of non-U.S. NATO troops), will help buy enough time for the new administration to reappraise the entire Afghanistan war effort and develop a comprehensive new strategy for what Obama has called the "central front on terror."
With conditions on the ground worsening by nearly every yardstick last year -- including record levels of extremist attacks and U.S. casualties, and the expansion of the conflict across Pakistan and into India -- Obama's campaign pledge to "finish the job" in Afghanistan with more troops, money and diplomacy has encountered the daunting reality of a job that has barely begun.
I imagine that the Obama team has seen the assessments and they are dire. The Bush Administration muddled through with no overarching strategy and wasted valuable time. But how do you tell a soldier that you're deploying him to buy time while you can come up with a way out? How does that meet the interests of the military, or our national security?
It's in some ways encouraging that the Obama team does not expect a "surge" to automatically succeed. And they have talked about building a developmental and diplomatic counterpart to the military action, so I am confident that the mission will also be concerned with reconstruction and improving regional ties (the admission by Gen. Petraeus that the US and Iran share interests in Afghanistan is a very good new way to think about this conflict). But just airlifting in troops, without a settled strategy or even how to best deploy them seems unwise.
Afghanistan in 2009 does not lend itself to an obvious solution, and there are arguments for more troops that have a certain logic to them. But these lines of debate should be open, instead of arguments against escalation marginalized as the "unserious" alternative in Afghanistan. Hopefully this effort will go a long way in bringing those viewpoints more into the mainstream.