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

Friday, March 06, 2009

From The People That Brought You Zombie Banks...

Come zombie wars.

I don't know how else you can react to this assessment from military leaders in Afghanistan, pushing for a commitment of 100,000 troops for up to a decade.

Called a 'conceptual document,' the plan, authored by CENTCOM Commander Gen. David McKiernan, is based on a vast pacification scheme that would involve deploying large conventional U.S. forces to prevent the seizure of Afghan villages and towns by the Taliban while the United States and its allies strengthen support for the Afghan central government through a broad range of civil action programs, land reform, village autonomy, and expanded political participation by the populace, these sources said.

"It's a huge undertaking," said a former senior U.S. official who had reviewed the plan. "It would take 20-25 infantry brigades to implement."

He added that implementation of the plan would require a U.S. presence in Afghanistan for "at least a decade or more."

This is a pittance compared to Jack Murtha, who is saying that it would require 600,000 troops to stabilize the country. And that's if you even think the country can be stabilized - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper thinks we are never going to defeat the insurgency. Hoo-boy. This must be why nobody who understands counter-insurgency wants to do it - it's too labor-intensive, too costly, too difficult.

Obama is not stupid, and surely he knows that this kind of outlay is not feasible, both from an international relations standpoint and an economic standpoint. And even a manpower standpoint - we don't have the forces to undertake endless, multiple occupations for 15-20 years. Yet there seems to be a strategic drift in Afghanistan. The commanders aren't offering anything new, the policy reviews aren't yielding fruit, but everyone seems to know that "something must be done" so a bunch of troops are being thrown into the situation without a sense of mission. Meanwhile those troops are increasingly targets (a major US base was attacked this week) as the Taliban-aligned insurgency are uniting to fight the expanding occupation. Joe Klein's story on the situation is increasingly grim:

Obama's civilian advisers fear a quagmire. But they know that some middle ground, between a "Central Asian Valhalla," as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, and the current slide into chaos, has to be found. "We have to stabilize the military situation," said an Obama aide. "Continue to build up the Afghan army, and help the government to become more effective." In other words, hope that the disintegration of Afghanistan can be prevented while waiting — and hoping — for the Pakistanis to take effective action against the al-Qaeda and Taliban safe havens.

Taken together, the emerging Pakistan and Afghanistan policies sound ... impossible, but unavoidable. They will also be politically treacherous. Already, John McCain has made it clear that his position on Afghanistan will be the same as it was on Iraq — in favor of more troops. Obama could easily find himself in the same sort of hawk-vs.-dove debate that has boggled American Presidents from Vietnam to Iraq. Traditionally, Presidents favor more troops — and precipitously lose public support. In this case, Obama's margin for error is minuscule, given the enormity of the economic crisis. He simply can't get bogged down in Afghanistan. And he simply can't allow al-Qaeda and the Taliban free rein. And every option in between seems either a gamble or a fantasy.

As we get a sense of Obama's vision for the way forward in the region, we see only two things that are encouraging. One, he understands that Harper is right, we're not ever going to "defeat" the insurgency, and we need to lower our goals to somewhere in between chaos and a shining beacon of democracy. That is why he is skeptical of Hamid Karzai, whose bid to subvert the elections by moving up the date was rebuffed this week by the election commission, revealing further fault lines and an inability for Karzai to manage what little of the country he controls.

The other sign is that Obama understand that Pakistan is where the real battle is being waged. That understanding does not necessarily equal a solution, however.

The fourth policy review was ordered up — this one conducted by Bruce Riedel, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. The Riedel review won't be done until the end of March, but it has already achieved some clarity about U.S. goals and priorities: "Afghanistan pales in comparison to the problems in Pakistan," said an official familiar with Riedel's thinking. "Our primary goal has to be to shut down the al-Qaeda and Taliban safe havens on the Pakistan side of the border. If that can be accomplished, then the insurgency in Afghanistan becomes manageable."

That sounds reasonable enough, except that historically it has proved to be impossible. "People talk glibly of 'the total disarmament of the frontier tribes' as being the obvious policy," wrote the young Winston Churchill, who gallivanted, a bit too gleefully, with a 19th century British expeditionary force through the areas where al-Qaeda and the Taliban are now ensconced. "But to obtain it would be as painful and as tedious an undertaking as to extract the stings of a swarm of hornets, with naked fingers."

Through sheer brutality, the British were able to manage the area — now called Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province — but never quite subdue it. The chances of subduing it today are even more remote. "Obviously, we're not going to invade Pakistan," said a senior member of the Riedel review. "We have to convince the Pakistanis to do the job. But we haven't had much luck with that in the past." In fact, the Pakistani army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency have supported the Taliban as a counterforce against India's influence in Afghanistan, just as they supported jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the Mumbai massacre. "Our hope is that the Pakistani army is beginning to understand that the Taliban represent an existential threat to their country," said the Riedel team member. "Certainly, President Zardari understands that. The Taliban killed his wife, Benazir Bhutto, and he's now target No. 1. But does he have any influence over the army? And is the army really concerned about the threat? I'll believe it when I see it."

Since this went to press, Sri Lanka's national cricket team was brazenly attacked in broad daylight in Lahore. The Indian government compared Pakistan to Somalia, a lawless, anarchic state (this is actually the GOOD news, as India may tone down the rhetoric and stop approaching Pakistan as a military rival). Taliban militants in the northwest regions blew up a Sufi shrine, with echoes of the destruction of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan years earlier. And today, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Pakistan is under a mortal threat:

Mr Miliband told the BBC that politicians must unite to face a "very grave situation" that was worsening.

He was speaking as Pakistan continued to probe this week's attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore.

Mr Miliband told BBC Radio's Today programme that Pakistan's internal instability was "a grave situation and... it has got worse".

He pointed to the fallout between President Asif Ali Zardari and former PM Nawaz Sharif, who was last week banned from elected office by the Supreme Court.

Mr Miliband urged politicians to unite, saying: "I think that the degree of political disunity that exists at the moment is only contributing to the problem."

He added that country's economic decline in the global credit crunch was also a major factor.

This is our "partner" upon whom success in Afghanistan rests.

Perhaps we will get a handful more NATO troops involved. And maybe those Afghan security forces will snap to it and become a superior fighting unit. And perhaps Pakistan will stabilize, the military and intelligence services will effectively neutralize the Taliban, and the border crossings will stop. And through regional diplomacy, an uneasy peace will commence.

Do you really believe any of that?

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