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

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Peter Bergen On Afghanistan

Stanley McChrystal, the COINdinista commander of forces in Afghanistan, still wants to push for more troops despite Obama Administration demurrals. He has jurisdiction over Afghanistan and not the big picture, so it's to be expected that he would argue for more troops to wage his personal war. The President needs to see the full extent of military policy, and must weigh costs and benefits. I personally believe we can do a lot more by reducing the corruption and lawlessness in the current Afghan government (including removing warlords who kill prisoners with impunity) and working toward economic development instead of playing Whack-a-Mole with insurgents that can be brought into the political process and an Al Qaeda faction that can be contained through local law enforcement and intelligence sharing.

That said, I am interested by Peter Bergen's assessment of the war.

But the growing skepticism about Obama’s chances for success in Afghanistan is largely based on deep misreadings of both the country’s history and the views of its people, which are often compounded by facile comparisons to the United States’s misadventures of past decades in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Afghanistan will not be Obama’s Vietnam, nor will it be his Iraq. Rather, the renewed and better resourced American effort in Afghanistan will, in time, produce a relatively stable and prosperous Central Asian state [...]

The similarities between the Taliban and the Vietcong end with their mutual hostility toward the U.S. military. The some 20,000 Taliban fighters are too few to hold even small Afghan towns, let alone mount a Tet-style offensive on Kabul. As a military force, they are armed lightly enough to constitute a tactical problem, not a strategic threat. By contrast, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army at the height of the Vietnam War numbered more than half a million men who were equipped with artillery and tanks, and were well supplied by both the Soviet Union and Mao’s China. And the number of casualties is orders of magnitude smaller: in Afghanistan last year, 154 American soldiers died, the largest number since the fall of the Taliban; in 1968, the deadliest year of the Vietnam conflict, the same number of U.S. servicemen were dying every four days. Estimates of the total civilian death toll in Vietnam are in the low millions, while estimates of the total number of Afghan civilian casualties since the fall of the Taliban are in the thousands.

Nor has the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan been anywhere near as expensive as Vietnam was—in fact, that’s in part why American efforts have not met with as much success as they could have. During the Vietnam War, the United States spent almost 10 percent of its GDP on military spending. Today’s military expenditures are somewhere between 4 and 5 percent of GDP, and of that, Afghanistan last year consumed only 6 percent of the total expenditure, while Iraq sucked up some five times that amount.

I think a lot of Bergen's points are stuck in the world of a few years ago in Afghanistan than in today. He says Karzai is still relatively popular - that has waned. He says that Afghans still welcome US troops - that is less clear now. He says we have not made a major troop commitment - but it's growing, and McChrystal wants it to grow even further. He says that more troops will reduce airstrikes and civilian casualties - but precisely the opposite has happened so far. He says the Taliban don't have the manpower to take over the country - and on this point he's right, but that's not necessarily an argument for staying. Rather, the Taliban have their Pashtun strongholds which will be hard to defeat, and the rest of the country's ethnic factions will be hard for the Taliban to co-opt. That's a stalemate - or in other words, a quagmire.

Bergen does criticize policy toward Pakistan, which is of course the elephant in the room as it relates to Afghanistan policy, but thinks that militants there have made fatal mistakes and are seeing the citizenry turn on them. I actually kind of agree with this, but whether the Pakistani military, a powerful force in the country, is fighting the homegrown Taliban while aiding and abetting the Afghan version is of concern.

I think Bergen's article is worth reading to test assumptions and challenge biases, but I was left unconvinced. If Obama holds firm to a policy against future escalation, I may be persuaded.

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