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

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bringing Afghanistan Back To Core Strategy

Yesterday's big bipartisan meeting on Afghanistan hasn't resolved the decision from the White House, although it clarified a few data points:

House and Senate leaders of both parties emerged from a nearly 90-minute conversation with Obama with praise for his candor and interest in listening. But politically speaking, all sides appeared to exit where they entered, with Republicans pushing Obama to follow his military commanders and Democrats saying he should not be rushed [...]

Obama said the war would not be reduced to a narrowly defined counterterrorism effort, with the withdrawal of many U.S. forces and an emphasis on special operations forces that target terrorists in the dangerous border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Two senior administration officials aides say such a scenario has been inaccurately characterized and linked to Vice President Joe Biden, and that Obama wanted to make clear he is considering no such plan [...]

Obama may be considering a more modest building of troops — closer to 10,000 than 40,000 — according to Republican and Democratic congressional aides. But White House aides said no such decision has been made.

The New York Times confirms this. This seems to almost be the worst possible option. If you're continuing a counter-insurgency strategy, all of the literature on it dictates that it needs a certain amount of resources far greater than what exist in the country now. If you're shifting to counter-terrorism, you would necessarily need less ground troops. This just seems like a recipe for muddling through, and shifting really to the same kind of air war that we saw under George Bush. I know there's data that the drone attacks are working to disrupt Al Qaeda in Pakistan, but an air war in more populous areas, where the Taliban is essentially embedded with local populations, doesn't seem like a useful option.

This Quinnipiac poll has fairly good news for advocates of muddling through. While only 30% want to stay in Afghanistan "as long as it takes," 65% are willing to have soldiers fight there, at least for the moment. A plurality believe that the fight will not be successful in defeating any terrorist threat, however. So it's muddled as well. I think there's a base of support for antiwar actions, but that voice has been stilled for so long that I'd say the mass of the public is generally resigned to a seeming perpetual war, and will accept whatever decision the President makes.

It doesn't seem like Obama is seeking out voices apart from Congress and his staff of advisors. You know who he should ring up? Audrey Kurth Cronin from the US National War College, who is focusing on the core question of how the terrorist threat can be reduced.

The history of terrorist groups points to various ways they may decline and end: the destruction of leadership, failure to transition between generations, achieving their stated cause, negotiating a settlement, succumbing to military or police repression, losing popular support and transitioning to other malignant activities such as criminality or war [...]

American use of military force signified Western resolve, killed al Qaeda leaders and prevented attacks, all of which were vital; but force alone cannot drive this group to its end.

A loss of popular support has ended many terrorist groups, and it is a plausible scenario for al Qaeda. Support can be compromised through miscalculation, especially in targeting, and popular backlash. The Real Irish Republican Army and India's Sikh separatists come to mind. Or a campaign can fail to convey a positive image or progress toward its goals, which amply applies to al Qaeda.

While the group continues to be dangerous, the faltering popularity of this campaign with most Muslims provides clear evidence of this dynamic underway [...]

In this regard, it is counterproductive to consider al Qaeda as a global insurgency. This concept bestows legitimacy, emphasizes territorial control, encourages our enemies to join forces and puts the United States into an us-versus-them strategic framework that precludes clear-eyed analyses of the strategies of leverage that are being used against the United States and its allies.

In short, if we are thinking about classic pathways to the end, the secret to undermining this campaign is not "winning hearts and minds" but enhancing al Qaeda's tendency to lose them.

I read this to mean that the dynamic of military force to subdue the Al Qaeda threat is misplaced. They are diminishing of their own accord and we can accelerate that through strategic engagement and public diplomacy with the Muslim world. Obama has a foothold here - his presence has actually lifted the status of the United States to the world's most admired country again. But that can be fleeting. And intensifying a war in the Muslim world will sap at that goodwill. We can use intelligence capabilities to weaken Al Qaeda and allow their extremist rhetoric to play itself out among their constituency. None of this necessarily involves nation-building.

I don't think this framework is part of the discussions in the White House at all. And that's tragic.

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