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

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Where Is The End In Afghanistan?

The New York Times has a tick-tock on the internal debate leading to the final Afghanistan strategy, and the story presumes a schism between Joe Biden and James Steinberg, arguing for a more limited role for US forces, and Richard Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton, arguing for a more expansive one.

All of the president’s advisers agreed that the primary goal in the region should be narrow — taking aim at Al Qaeda, as opposed to the vast attempt at nation-building the Bush administration had sought in Iraq. The question was how to get there.

The commanders in the field wanted a firmer and long-term commitment of more combat troops beyond the 17,000 that Mr. Obama had already promised to send, and a pledge that billions of dollars would be found to significantly expand the number of Afghan security forces.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pressed for an additional 4,000 troops to be sent to Afghanistan — but only to serve as trainers. They tempered the commanders’ request and agreed to put off any decision to order more combat troops to Afghanistan until the end of this year, when the strategy’s progress could be assessed.

During these discussions, Mr. Biden was the voice of caution, reminding the group members that they would have to sell their plans to a skeptical Congress.

I think this depends on your meaning of the word "limited." Everyone in the room agreed with Biden about narrowing the focus to defeating Al Qaeda and dismantling their safe havens. But surely that is not a limited goal. And the lack of a defined exit strategy doesn't exactly presume some limited commitment. Under the terms of this plan, we will be in Afghanistan and Pakistan for a long time, and we will find it harder to extricate ourselves, as such an exit is based on a very shaky Afghan security force and a buy-in from a Pakistani government that apparently cannot be trusted.

Some in the administration are skeptical that the Pakistanis will meet their commitments under the new strategy. “You have people there who just lie to our face, like Zardari, who just lies to us,” said one official who requested anonymity, referring to the Pakistani president. “Honestly, I don’t believe there’s a war going on in the tribal areas. The Pakistanis tell us that, but they’re just baldfaced lies.” The official believes that U.S. diplomats in Pakistan accept Pakistani claims of maximal warfighting efforts at face value: “They don’t speak Urdu, they don’t speak Pashto, and they eat it all up.”


For what it's worth, both Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai praised the new plan, in particular the emphasis on increased foreign aid and economic development and the inclusion of a regional diplomatic component, with the notable addition of Iran at the negotiating table. Those actually are the positive signs of this plan, in my view. But I agree with Publius that a lot of this makes me a little queasy.

You're all familiar with the phrase "canary in the coal mine." The idea was that miners would bring canaries down into the mines as warning signals. When the air became toxic, the canaries would be affected first -- thus warning the miners of imminent danger.

With respect to the Afghanistan policy, the problem isn't that the "signaling" canaries are dropping dead. The problem is that they're too happy -- they're chirping with excessive mirth. Specifically, when Max Boot, Robert Kagan, Bill Kristol, and the Post editorial board are all excited about the policy.... well, it might be time to get out of the mine [...]

This strategy seems extremely susceptible to morphing into an open-ended, long-term commitment without clear objectives. Frankly, I didn't see any exit strategy yesterday. I saw no verifiable metrics for determining whether we're achieving our objectives (and on that -- is the objective to disrupt al Qaeda, or to stabilize the government?). I've heard promises of benchmarks -- but nothing yet. And even assuming concrete benchmarks emerge, it's hard to believe we'll really pack up and leave if they're not met.

Let's be clear -- this is an escalation. It's a reasonable one, for now. But these things tend to snowball. To echo Robert Frost, way leads on to way. And if things deteriorate, or if our allies depart, it's easier to imagine that additional escalation (rather than minimalism) will follow. It's not that I don't believe in the goal -- I'm just skeptical that increased military efforts are capable of achieving these goals.

While I disagree with Publius that the objective is unclear, I can certainly see Obama getting boxed in if the mission fails - his newfound neocon friends will push him to commit more troops and treasure, operating on the sunk-cost principle, and wanting to be seen as a strong President, he'll do so. They have a word for leaders like that: Lyndon Johnson.

Obama enters into this with a public fairly wary of an escalating commitment to Afghanistan and Pakistan. They support the President personally, and as he explained it on Friday they will support his mission in the short term. But as the days drag on, and the end appears further and further from view, war fatigue and the concern over the economy will make it very difficult to sustain that support at home. Ultimately, some will start talking about "containment" and when we can bring the troops home and turn this into a law enforcement and intelligence mission. And I don't know what Obama's answer would be.

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