The Narrowness Of The Afghan Debate
The White House, a day after stating that the only part of Afghanistan war policy off the table is ending it, is throwing up a trial balloon that they will pull back on their nation-building project there:
President Obama’s national security team is moving to reframe its war strategy by emphasizing the campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan while arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan do not pose a direct threat to the United States, officials said Wednesday.
As Mr. Obama met with advisers for three hours to discuss Pakistan, the White House said he had not decided whether to approve a proposed troop buildup in Afghanistan. But the shift in thinking, outlined by senior administration officials on Wednesday, suggests that the president has been presented with an approach that would not require all of the additional troops that his commanding general in the region has requested.
It remains unclear whether everyone in Mr. Obama’s war cabinet fully accepts this view. While Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has argued for months against increasing troops in Afghanistan because Pakistan was the greater priority, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have both warned that the Taliban remain linked to Al Qaeda and would give their fighters havens again if the Taliban regained control of all or large parts of Afghanistan, making it a mistake to think of them as separate problems [...]
The White House appears to be trying to prepare the ground to counter that by focusing attention on recent successes against Qaeda cells in Pakistan. The approach described by administration officials on Wednesday amounted to an alternative to the analysis presented by General McChrystal. If, as the White House has asserted in recent weeks, it has improved the ability of the United States to reduce the threat from Al Qaeda, then the war in Afghanistan is less central to American security.
I'm glad that there's at least some pushback on the silly "safe havens" theory, which if allowed to predominate would lead us down a road of endless escalation. So scaling back the mission from one that is simply unachievable to a more achievable one makes sense. The counter-insurgency cult is quite dangerous. The best you can say about it is that it keeps warmongers away from an anti-China defense buildup.
Joking aside, it’s worth keeping in mind when you see arguments about counterinsurgency that there are really two different debates happening. One is the debate inside the military and the defense policy establishment which is really a debate about COIN versus non-COIN military activity. Another is a debate about that pertains to the larger question of the strategic and budgetary priorities of the United States. In my experience COIN enthusiasts tend to have the better of the limited argument about the relative allocation of military resources, but generally decline to engage in a serious way with the larger question of national priorities. In other words, a debate that ranges from “we should fight a series of small wars against Muslims” to “we should prepare for a big war against China” is really seen as “lively” rather than incredibly cramped and narrow.
Perhaps policymakers are coming to their senses about COIN, but not about the overall need to disengage from pointless wars. But they should. New liberal hero Alan Grayson, who's been saying this stuff for a while, effectively articulated the alternative the other day:
"I think that the aid program is a fig leaf trying to make congress and the American people feel better about the war and about killing. I think that diplomacy in the areas of fig leaf to try to make the American people think that there is some constructive alternative to the war when the war itself is destructive and not constructive [...]
If we wanted to rethink Afghanistan in our image, we’d have to destroy the north to save it, and I don’t think the American people are ever going to do that to anybody. So I think that the underline premise is simply wrong.
I’ve been to 175 countries all around the world including Afghanistan, including every country in that region, and what I’ve seen everywhere I go is that there are some commonalities everywhere you go, everywhere you go people want to fall in love. It’s an interesting thing. Everywhere you go, people love children. Everywhere, they love children. Everywhere you go, there’s a taboo against violence. Every single place you go. And everywhere you go, people want to be left alone. And that’s the best foreign policy of all. Just to leave people alone."
President Obama is holding a troop request in his hands and deciding between a big escalation or a small escalation. Nowhere is there a strategy for no escalation, to shut it down, in the words of Charlie Wilson, the original American interventionist in Afghanistan.