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

Friday, August 08, 2008

Most Dangerous Trouble Spot In The World Update

The US military lost its 500th soldier in Afghanistan in July, nearly seven years after the initial invasion. The increasing deadliness of the war has finally moved it somewhat into the national consciousness, as Taliban remnants combined with tribal villagers have reformed to offer strong resistance to the Afghan government and coalition troops. Increasing use of roadside bombs and suicide attacks presage a new reality, with insurgents resisting a foreign occupation rather than extremists seeking to overturn the government.

The question is, where do we go from here. Bob Gates wants to throw $20 billion in aid at the problem, mostly to transform the Afghan military. Both Sen. Obama and, more recently, Sen. McCain have asked for additional US brigades to be deployed to the region, which smacks of posturing. Of course, it's very possible that Obama honestly believes that Afghanistan is the right war and Al Qaeda must be denied safe haven to project attacks at Americans and the West. Of course, the question is how to best achieve that objective.

Over the past few weeks, as progressives have driven a conversation on this policy, there have been some very good studies written about what to do over there. Two of the best are Rory Stewart's piece in TIME...

So what exactly should we do about Afghanistan now? First, the West should not increase troop numbers. In time, NATO allies, such as Germany and Holland, will probably want to draw down their numbers, and they should be allowed to do so. We face pressing challenges elsewhere. If we are worried about terrorism, Pakistan is more important than Afghanistan; if we are worried about regional stability, then Egypt, Iran or even Lebanon is more important; if we are worried about poverty, Africa is more important. A troop increase is likely to inflame Afghan nationalism because Afghans are more anti-foreign than we acknowledge and the support for our presence in the insurgency areas is declining. The Taliban, which was a largely discredited and backward movement, gains support by portraying itself as fighting for Islam and Afghanistan against a foreign military occupation.

Nor should we increase our involvement in government and the economy. The more responsibility we take in Afghanistan, the more we undermine the credibility and responsibility of the Afghan government and encourage it to act irresponsibly. Our claims that Afghanistan is the "front line in the war on terror" and that "failure is not an option" have convinced the Afghan government that we need it more than it needs us. The worse things become, the more assistance it seems to receive. This is not an incentive to reform. Increasing our commitment to Afghanistan gives us no leverage over the government.

Afghans increasingly blame us for the problems in the country: the evening news is dominated by stories of wasted development aid. The government claims that in 2007, $1.3 billion out of $3.5 billion of aid was spent on international consultants, some of whom received more than $1,000 a day and whose policy papers are often ignored by Afghan civil servants and are invisible to the population. Our lack of success despite our wealth and technology convinces ordinary Afghans to believe in conspiracy theories. Well-educated people have told me that the West is secretly backing the Taliban and that the U.S.'s main objective was to steal Afghanistan's emeralds, antiquities and uranium — and that we knew where Osama bin Laden was but had decided not to catch him.

A smarter strategy would focus on two elements: more effective aid and a more limited military objective. We should target development assistance in provinces where we have a track record of success. Our investment goes further in stable and welcoming places like Hazarajat than it can in hostile, insurgency-dominated areas like Kandahar and Helmand, where we have to spend millions on security and the locals do not contribute to the project and will not sustain it after our departure. We should focus on meeting the Afghan government's request for more investment in agricultural irrigation, energy and roads. And we should increase our support to the most effective departments, such as education, health and rural development; they are good for the reputation of the Afghan state and the West. Creating more educated, healthier women and men and better transport, communications and electrical infrastructure may be only part of the story, but they are essential for Afghanistan's economic future.

... and Vikram Singh in World Politics Review:

Afghanistan is in trouble but far from lost. Less than one-third of the country is really unstable and only about 10 percent of Afghan districts are under significant Taliban sway. But a surge of all types of effort -- military and civilian -- is needed to turn the tide. The mini-surge of 3,000 marines into the south and east of the country will soon draw to close after some success clearing insurgents, but the U.S. and its allies have little ability to hold and build those areas without capable Afghan security forces and Afghan and international civilians.

U.S. forces should only surge into Afghanistan with a workable and comprehensive strategy and the right civilian counterparts. The renewal of interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan offers a real opportunity. The presidential candidates -- or indeed President Bush in his remaining months -- should craft a strategy that ensures money and personnel for a civilian and military surge tailored to Afghanistan.

These two writers have little in common ideologically but they understand that a straight military solution is completely misguided. I think Stewart makes a lot more sense, having spent time in the country and having internalized its dynamics.

Of course, no discussion of Afghanistan can be divorced from Pakistan, where insurgents live and train and receive support from even the country's intelligence services. Robert Kaplan's piece in The Atlantic framed Pakistan's interest in Afghanistan in the proper context of a larger struggle with India. This also argues against additional troops, as the politics are far more substantial that two brigades can counteract. The new secular government has paid lip service to rooting Taliban sympathizers out of the ISI and against to prevent safe havens for insurgents along the border, but that is unlikely, to be honest.

The Bush administration and its allies are pressing Pakistan to end its support for Afghan insurgents linked to al Qaida, but Pakistani generals are unlikely to be swayed because they increasingly see their interests diverging from those of the United States, U.S. and foreign experts said [...]

"The fact that we're reduced to trying to send messages to the Pakistanis by putting stories in (newspapers) tells you we don't have any good options," said a former senior intelligence official knowledgeable about South Asia. "It also suggests that the high-level, face-to-face contacts haven't worked so far. The trouble is, these kinds of public threats are likely to backfire."

For one thing, the Taliban and other groups allied with al Qaida could respond to any Pakistani crackdown by stepping up attacks inside Pakistan, which is battling Islamic extremist violence, U.S. officials and experts said.

Furthermore, they said, Pakistan's nearly dysfunctional, feud-riddled civilian government has little power over the Army and the ISI. The latest evidence was a botched attempt under U.S. pressure to put the agency under the Interior Ministry before Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani's three-day visit to Washington this week.

Pakistani generals and other leaders are also infuriated by President Bush's pursuit of a strategic relationship with India, their foe in three wars, as embodied by a U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation pact that won United Nations approval Friday, the U.S. officials and experts said.

"One thing we never understood is that India has always been the major threat for Pakistan," said former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlain, now the president of the Middle East Institute.

That is an almost unthinkably stupid statement, but it does seem to underline our missteps in the region.

Now, the fractious government does seem to be coming together around impeaching Pervez Musharraf, but that could only increase tensions with the military and lead to internal chaos, at which point they would be little help on the border.

Brian Katulis from CAP is really knowledgeable on this stuff, so his report on Pakistan is worth reading. The region is incredibly complex, with interlocking battles and jockeying for power that can be exploited by extremist elements. Our goal is to suck out the ability for those extremists to prosper, to the extent that we can. Bombing civilians doesn't help. Neither does antagonizing the Waziris. We need to get this right, but it's very precarious.

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