Lieutenant General Stanley McCrystal has warned Washington that we are losing in our battle against the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan. He has called for an additional 10,000 to 40,000 troops, and he has the backing of his very popular boss, General David Petraeus. There is a parallel to the "clear and hold" strategy employed in Vietnam, but McCrystal would be more careful with firepower and more interested in economic development.
During the campaign, Barack Obama said Afghanistan was the necessary war. Now those remarks are haunting him as he ponders the sad history of foreign involvements in Afghanistan and our unpromising situation there now. Much of latter was due to the policies of the Bush Administration, but voters have short memories, and Obama will pay for lack of success in Afghanistan.
For the moment, Obama is taking time to reconsider our objectives in Afghanistan. Vice President Joseph Biden, after much study and two unpleasant meetings with Hamid Karzai, has concluded that the current regime in Afghanistan will not be a reliable partner for an effort to establish security for the population in Afghanistan. National Security Advisor James L. Jones agrees. Their view is that the US needs to focus less on Afghanistan and more on Pakistan, where Al Qaeda is and where instability makes that nation’s nuclear weapons a potential problem.
With the remarkable exception of George Will, Republicans back the former Special Forces commander. They stand to gain no matter what Obama does in Afghanistan.
A common argument is that any backing away from an all-out effort will give Al Qaeda new energy and attract more recruits to their standard. In truth, American policy in Iraq and our tactics in Afghanistan, which harmed many civilians, were responsible for recruiting people for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Sami Yousafzai’s interviews of Taliban people in the current Newsweek demonstrates how Bush Administration tactics alienated many and strengthened the Taliban. It is unlikely that the salutary change in course under General McCrystal can reverse the damage. Moreover, his turn toward the exercise of soft power and economic and social development are all to the good, but they will require more time than we have. It can be recalled that it took John Paul Vann many years to work economic and social miracles in the Mekong Delta.
A similarly weak argument is that we must prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failed state so that Al Qaeda will not use it as a base of operations. This wrongly assumes that there are no other failed states Al Qaeda can use as a base. Moreover, the terrorist organization appears to be unhampered in its operations in Pakistan.
Republican columnist Michael Gerson eschews the most simplistic arguments and admits the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan. Still, he senses that Obama is in a no-win situation. Gerson redefines the civilian-military relationship a bit by insisting that suggesting that tradition demands that Obama select his best general and get out of the way. He even mentions Harry S. Truman in this respect, though the use of that precedent can be debated. In the end, Abraham Lincoln accepted U.S. Grant’s meatgrinder approach, but he had been involved in many military decisions throughout the war. Another way to look at this is to recall that Lincoln bucked the popular George Mc Clellan and that Truman sacked th4e very popular Douglas Mc Arthur.
Those who insist that Obama bow to Petraeus and McCrystal is that they think that copying the surge strategy in Afghanistan will work. The surge worked best in the urban areas of Iraq, and there are few urban areas in Afghanistan. The surge also worked in Iraq because the United States literally bought off its enemies, paying large amounts to tribal leaders and monthly stipends to their armed retainers. Only Bob Woodward has openly discussed another reason why the surge worked. Special Forces in Iraq, under McCrystal, carried out something like the Vietnam War’s Operation Phoenix and eliminated thousands of the insurgent cadre.
Repeating some version of Phoenix in Afghanistan does not require a huge increase in American forces there. Over seven years, we have spent $38 billion in Afghanistan, with few discernable positive results. Perhaps more of the money sent there should be used to buy off warlords and put their troops on retainer. Its worth a try.
We still come down to whether a large new commitment in human lives, money, and American prestige should be made in Afghanistan. Many Afghans believe that the present regime is hopelessly corrupt. The recent rigged election is one indication of how weak the Karzai regime is. Of course, policy makers recall that in Vietnam the elimination of the corrupt Ngo Dinh Diem resulted in even worse leaders.
The idea that we can, using soft power, somehow win over large numbers of Karzai opponents to support him is fanciful. The counter insurgency strategy has been based upon the idea that we could eventually build a large and effective Afghan army and matching police force. After seven years, we have made little success.
There is also the lesson of Vietnam, where we did build a large, well-equipped ARVIN force that was ineffective and heavily infiltrated by the enemy. There were also many "potted plants," units that existed on paper but not in reality.
Unless Karzai abandons brutality and corrupt practices overnight and becomes a Boy Scout, the prospects of bringing much stability to Afghanistan are slim. The man is a Pashtun and that should have helped him with the nation’s largest ethnic group. Instead, the Taliban, also largely Pashtun, have been able to play on Pashtun nationalism to enlist support.
Effectively ending with Taliban jihadism may be beyond our ability. The Pakistani Army, though secular, has sponsored Islamic jihadism for decades as a means of threatening India and destabilizing Kashmir. The problem is that India is much more powerful and Pakistan needed the counterweight of terrorism. It also needs to have a strong influence in Afghanistan and, with the help of the United States, in the late 1970s and eighties, nurtured jihadism in Afghanistan. Now the problem is that Pakistan has a home grown Taliban, and that it is allied with jihadists in Kashmir and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even worse, the Taliban has infiltrated the officer corps. Elements in the ISI, the Pakistani counterpart to the CIA, believe it is in the interest of Pakistan to help the Afghan Taliban because the US will not be there forever.
Unless Pakistan can be induced to stop its help of the Afghan Taliban, a US counter insurgency program will require far more troops that McCrystal is now requesting.
In retrospect, it appears that most of the billions poured into Afghanistan were a poor investment. The money would have been better spent buying off the Pakistan generals and ISI and bringing greater political stability to Pakistan. Fortunately, Congress has just tripled its appropriation for Pakistan; but the amount is still relatively small.
Biden and Jones suggest ramping down the counter-insurgency effort and focusing on damaging Al Qaeda, partly through Predators and Air Power. Spies and Special Forces and other black ops would also be involved. Of course, the US will need enough stability in some parts of Afghanistan so they can be used as bases to launch all manner of assaults against Al Qaeda. In the long run, it is doubtful that we can put Al Qaeda out of business, but we should make it out top priority inflicting as much damage as possible.
The situation in Afghanistan is very complex and, according to Richard Holbrooke, "Its worse than the Nam!" It is very important that the American people understand what is involved here because a decision to make a long term commitment to pacification and nation-building will require years of commitment, massive amounts of money, and far more troops than we are now contemplating. Even with all that, there will be no guarantee that we can succeed in building a stable nation there. That is why House Minority Leader John Boehner is so angry that President Obama wants to take time making this decision. If thoughtful independents come to understand much of what is involved, they might support Obama in redefining the mission there. Information is , as usual, the enemy of Republican policy here. The more people understand, the less damage Afghanistan will inflict on Obama’s political future.