As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Liberal Common Ground On Afghanistan

The National Security Network is aiming for a broad progressive strategy in Afghanistan, directly engaging those who oppose escalation into a framework for moving forward. This is a noble effort, but I'm not sure you can find common ground between drawdown and force increase. The NSN document sidesteps the question. They start by asserting that the Af-Pak region is in crisis and national security interests are at stake. That's true, but more so in Pakistan, where the Swat Valley is becoming a permanent Taliban zone with Sharia law. The semi-permanent sanctuary already exists and will bedevil efforts to remove the terrorist threat. This is why the drone attacks are widening (apparently with increased effectiveness because of better human intelligence, though I still think there are pitfalls to this strategy, especially by riling Pakistani locals to potentially overthrow a government sympathetic to bombing its own people).

This part of the NSN document, however, I agree with:

Domestic and Afghan constraints severely limit what we can achieve. In the midst of an economic downturn and weary from years of war in Iraq, Americans are justifiably reluctant to redouble efforts in Afghanistan. Afghan history and the overwhelmingly complex and unpredictable situation in Afghanistan also argue against a US presence that is massive and unlimited in time or scope.

The scale of the challenge demands broad vision but modest objectives. Larger than Iraq, with a population close to 32 million, Afghanistan suffers from one of the world’s lowest development levels, scant economic opportunity, crude infrastructure, and a dependence on the opium trade – interrelated problems that go beyond the near term issue of worsening security. Humanitarian and governance goals to which Afghans and many Americans rightly aspire will be better-served by a smaller-scale effort which can enable local, regional and non-governmental efforts than a massive one which cannot be sustained.

We have to reduce our expectations in Afghanistan, and I think the current Administration is mindful of that. This would return the mission to what is was when Bush invaded Afghanistan in 2001 - to remove the threat of Al Qaeda to project power beyond national borders. But I fail to see how 60,000 troops or more for 3-4 years will align with those goals. Local control means, well, local control, and the Afghan state is not historically who has provided that, either. It's a tribal society that is resistant to Western civic structures.

Here's the strategy part of the NSN document:

Implement a comprehensive strategy that recognizes the limits of military power, with the following objectives:

Stronger governance, balanced between Kabul and traditional provincial power sources;
Greater trust in government to deliver for its citizens and reduce corruption;
An Afghan police force that better protects citizens and enforces laws;
Better economic opportunities for the Afghan people; and
Pragmatic strategies that loosen the stranglehold of the opium trade.

Adopt a counter-insurgency strategy that reinforces, rather than works against, the principles above. Military decisions should be made with an eye to meeting Afghan security concerns; developing an Afghan security force capable of controlling territory and offering protection; and, as many Afghans and some military observers have advocated, phasing out tactics that have increased civilian casualties with questionable payoffs.

This is all great. But it's fundamentally incompatible with a long-term escalation strategy. Over time, we have to reduce the footprint of foreign occupiers in Afghanistan as the support for them decreases among the population. I support efforts at civilian aid and building civic structures, but the military hasn't shown the ability to have an effective state-building capacity. And pretty soon, we'll be running out of bases in the region to project American power from (although it appears a new supply route has been secured through the brutal human rights abusers in Uzbekistan. Not change I can believe in).

I support the NSN effort but don't think it can succeed.

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