After this post, Yohanes will follow with a response, which will close the conversation on Afghanistan. Our next conversation, beginning sometime within the next two weeks, will address the issue of American grand strategy during the Obama administration. This is something that has gotten quite a bit of press over the last several weeks, with many pundits and bloggers suggesting that Obama’s responses to the Middle East uprisings are evidence of a nascent grand strategy about world politics.
The last part of our present conversation will focus on America’s military and strategic role in Afghanistan. To an extent, we have touched on these topics in previous posts in this conversation, but here I want to explore them more explicitly. In short, this post will be guided by two fundamental questions: Should the U.S. remain militarily engaged in Afghanistan? And how best can America protest its strategic interests there?
Let us first start with the obvious: The U.S. military is doing a great job in Afghanistan. To the point, as more forces have poured into the country over the last year, as a result of the so-called surge, more areas have been secured and rendered mostly free of terrorism and violence. By many current accounts, the Taliban and AQ is on the run and demoralized. These events mirror what happened in Iraq. Strictly in a military sense, the surge worked in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But in Iraq, the U.S. was able couple its military successes with fruitful political dealings with various Sunni groups. This led to the Awakening Councils that were so crucial in getting Sunnis to buy into the idea of putting down their arms and reconciling with the Iraqi state. In Afghanistan, we only have an progressively effective military effort; the political path has been stalled, for reasons already discussed in this conversation (the role of Pakistan, an ineffective Afghan government, poor U.S. leadership, the nature of Afghan society, and so on). Hence, as it currently stands, the only way the U.S. can ensure that Afghanistan is heading in the right direction is if it occupies country indefinitely, which is a preposterous solution. The best the U.S. can hope for now is a prolonged stalemate, which might buy Karzai (or any successor) enough time to cobble together a more effective government that can win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans gradually over time.
But if this is the greatest and best outcome for the U.S., it is by no means a certain one. Depending on decisions made by Team Obama and the Pentagon, and on various unforeseen responses and adaptations by the Taliban and its allies, all of the military gains can be undone. And unfortunately, American casualties can quickly pile up. And besides, hitching its wagon to Karzai, who has done little to inspire confidence in his governing abilities, probably ensures that U.S. will not come anywhere close to achieving its objectives. Which begs the following questions: Are the stakes in Afghanistan worthy of continued loss of blood and treasure, in addition to any potential hits to America’s reputation and credibility down the line? Should the U.S. continue its military intervention, even though we know there is a good chance it might not succeed?
These questions form the heart of a heated debate taking place in Washington and around American kitchen tables and classrooms and coffee shops. Some believe that the stakes justify a continued effort. Others are doubtful. They believe it is time for the U.S. to bring its troops home. Interestingly, this difference in opinion has little to do with partisan politics, as both the right and left are represented in large numbers on both sides of the debate.
The doubters have put forward a number of arguments in favor of troop withdrawal (virtual jihad, the costs of war, the probability of an American loss, etc.), but I am not convinced that completely leaving Afghanistan is the best course of action. If the U.S. leaves the country en masse anytime soon, Afghanistan–with such weak and corrupt governing and military institutions–will struggle mightily against the twin forces of the Taliban and AQ. These groups might not take over the country, at least in the sense of seizing and establishing political power over all of Afghanistan, but they can cause considerable death and destruction. Furthermore, it is entirely plausible that the Taliban and AQ would carve out safe havens on Afghan soil, where they can reconstitute themselves, creating the semblance of a state within a state. And on these swaths of Afghan turf, both groups can impose their harsh vision of Islam on local Afghans. Under these circumstances, the fate of women and children, subject to horrific treatment by extremist, misogynist males, would be in continuous peril.
Just as troubling, this series of events could very easily trigger momentum for the Taliban and AQ. Both groups can claim victory over the powerful Americans and progress in their struggle against more secular elements in Afghan society, thereby creating the perception of inevitability to their efforts. Which in turn can offer a substantial morale boost to the foot soldiers in both groups and aid recruitment efforts.
With all of this in mind, I advocate the U.S. remaining militarily engaged in Afghanistan. Let me spell out this position in more detail. First, this engagement should be by request from the Afghan government, for the U.S. should avoid playing into the idea of an imperialist, occupying power that is so often propagated around the world.
Large-scale forward operations of clearing and holding areas ought to be abandoned. While these have been successful, there is no evidence that they are making the war more "winnable" for the U.S. or its Afghan allies. And after all, it just might be the case, as scholars like Robert Pape have suggested, that a hundred plus thousand American troops in Afghanistan are unintentionally a magnet for violence.
Third, more limited military and political goals require far fewer boots on the ground. The exact number of troops in Afghanistan should be determined by consultations between military leaders and Team Obama. Ideally, this type of mission would be conducted by special forces and related outfits in the military. This new approach would be much more cost-efficient for the U.S., which is important given such a weak and lackluster American economy. Additionally, a lighter footprint in Afghanistan probably would benefit U.S.-Afghan relations. It might mollify Afghans civilians who are skeptical, if not downright suspicious of American political and military motives. Plus, it would remove a nasty rhetorical tool Karzai frequently uses–that is, his tendency to score political points by painting the U.S. military as a colonizing force.
Fourth, as mentioned in prior posts but bears repeating, the military dimension must be coupled with strong diplomatic efforts from Team Obama. Washington needs to do a much, much better job of getting Pakistan on board with its goals in Afghanistan. And it needs to place pressure on Kabul to clean up its government, upgrade its capacity to deliver political goods to its citizens, and negotiate a deal with militants and other opponents who are willing to put down their arms and integrate into Afghan society.
What are your thoughts, Yohanes?