December 25, 2009


Afghanistan: What Could Work (Rory Stewart, 12/24/09, NY Review of Books)

There are, in reality, no inescapable connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. There are positive and negative effects of our Afghan operations on Pakistan, (positive, through increasing pressure on the Taliban; negative, through inflaming Islamist anti-US sentiment in Pakistan and driving "bad guys" over the border into Afghanistan). But the future of Pakistan will be determined predominantly by factors internal to Pakistan, such as the military, the feudal system, and the relationship between the institutions of Islam and the Pakistani state. Similarly, although al-Qaeda and the Taliban cooperate and share funding, they are still largely divided between a non-Afghan group focused on international terrorism and Afghan–Pakistani groups whose primary aim is to drive foreign troops from Afghanistan and spread Islamist rule in Pakistan. You could at least in theory defeat the Taliban without eliminating al-Qaeda, and the Taliban could return to power in Afghanistan without bringing back al-Qaeda.

The counterinsurgency strategy and surge in Iraq led to a drop in violence (against predictions), but the same will not happen in Afghanistan. The Iraq insurgency was the movement of a minority sectarian group, the Sunnis, whose supporters have been driven from most of the neighborhoods in the capital city and whose leaders were tribal figures with a long-standing relationship to the central government. The Shia-dominated Baghdad government was a powerful, credible force, from the majority ethnic and sectarian group, and was supported by mass political parties, with their own militias. The challenge for Petraeus and his predecessors in Iraq was to grasp this political opportunity; provide support, money, and status to the losing Sunni groups to separate them from al- Qaeda; and convince Nouri al-Maliki to disengage from some of the Shia militias and endorse the settlement. In Afghanistan, neither the Karzai government nor the Taliban have the history, the structure, or the incentives to foster such a deal.

Afghanistan contains a diffuse rural insurgency spread among a population of 30 million people, 80 percent of whom are scattered among 20,000 remote, often mountainous villages. It is different from Iraq, where the insurgency was largely centered around the flat urban areas surrounding Baghdad. Nor is it like the much smaller Malaya of the 1950s, where the British in their antiguerrilla operations were able to move villagers to walled and guarded camps. At least half of Afghanistan (a country almost the size of Texas) is now threatened by insurgency, and the COIN doctrine requires sufficient troops to secure and protect the population areas.

This is why the architects of the COIN doctrine are calling for a ratio of one "trained counterinsurgent" (a category that includes Afghans, if they have been given the necessary skills) for every fifty members of the population or a combined total that would amount in Afghanistan to 600,000 troops, if they intended to cover the country (though most theorists believe it is only necessary to cover half). The effective, legitimate Afghan government, on which the entire counterinsurgency strategy depends, shows little sign of emerging, in part because the international community lacks the skills, the knowledge, the legitimacy, or the patience to build a new nation. In short, COIN won't work on its own terms because of the lack of numbers and a credible Afghan partner and in absolute terms because of the difficulties of the country and its political structures.

But equally history does not doom the allies to absolute failure. The situation may not be that of Iraq in 2006 or Afghanistan in 1988, but neither is it Afghanistan in 1842, still less in 330 BC (even if we actually understood the victories of the Victorians or Alexander). Pakistan may not be a failed state and mullahs may not be a hand's breadth from its nukes; but Pakistan is facing serious instability and a moderate, constructive policy in Afghanistan could at least prevent Afghanistan from con- tributing further to its instability. The US and its NATO allies would be able to survive withdrawal from Afghanistan but it would be damaging to their reputations. While we cannot write a blank check to Afghans, we would like to prevent their country from falling into civil war, which would probably result in tens of thousands of deaths. It makes sense to stay, if we can maintain a realistic, affordable, and legitimate presence in Afghanistan and do some good.

It is difficult to find the appropriate language to express such insights. A moderate, light policy runs against a natural tendency to invest extravagantly in defending against even minor threats to our national security (the reverse of our systematic tendency to "lowball," i.e., to undercompensate for, or underprice, risk in our banking system or the environment). This partly reflects a general, ancient view of the "night watchman" state, involved not in internal regulation but in security. It is partly because terrorism seems a much more immediate and horrifying prospect than financial collapse, climate change, or threats to food security and is more directly linked to loss of life (even if the other issues ultimately may kill many more people). And our culture puts a very high value on life (though a higher value on the lives of our own citizens than on those of other nationals).

We would prefer, therefore, to believe that any war in which we engage is a vital threat to our very existence—in which case the odds of victory are irrelevant and any sacrifice is justified. And there must be a defined end. It would be difficult for a president to argue that we should sacrifice lives without winning in order to prevent something worse (although we build dams when we can't control the flow of water and employ a police force when we can't end crime).

We would be revolted by someone who tried to calculate how many lives the objectives in Afghanistan were worth (fifty? a thousand?). And these are all healthy intuitions: we would not want to be in a world where lives were treated simply as units, to which we assigned a definite and explicit expendable value in a grand cost-benefit analysis. But these intuitions still reinforce an all-or-nothing approach to foreign policy.

The simple process of naming our past and present strategies already generates and restricts our response. Thus by naming operations in Afghanistan a counterinsurgency, we may feel compelled to deploy one trained counterinsurgent for every fifty members of the population; by labeling our approach "an Afghanistan–Pakistan strategy," we imply that our actions in Afghanistan are vital to the security of Pakistan; by putting the Taliban in the category of those pursuing a global jihad, we conclude that we cannot negotiate with them; by naming Afghanistan a terrorist safe haven or a failed state, we conclude that failure (or even a light "footprint") is not an option.

Obama deftly avoided all these words and traps in his speech, perhaps because he has become aware of their extreme implications. There was no talk of victory. His aim was no longer to defeat but to contain the Taliban: to "deny it the ability to overthrow the government." He explicitly rejected a long "nation-building project." He talked not of eliminating but of keeping the pressure on al-Qaeda. He did not speak of a moral obligation to the Afghan people. He did not specify any necessary logical connections between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He asserted that "there's no imminent threat of the [Afghan] government being overthrown." He emphasized that "we will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens." He did not draw parallels with the surge in Iraq. And most strikingly of all, whereas he had referred four times in March to insurgency, now he stated that "unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency."

Such moderate analysis disappointed those who wanted a call to arms. The West Point cadets in the audience yawned, stared at the floor, and clapped only halfheartedly. Bush's surge in Iraq was a troop increase of only 20 percent; Obama's contributions to Afghanistan since he took office will more than double US troop presence on the ground. Bush spoke at a time of overwhelming public opposition to the war and with one of the lowest popularity ratings ever recorded; but it was Bush, not Obama, who spoke about determination, commitment, victory, and doing whatever it takes. Obama sounded like those he criticized for wanting to "simply maintain a status quo in which we muddle through."

But this moderate tone gains Obama the leverage that Bush lacked. As long as the US asserted that Afghanistan was an existential threat, the front line in the war on terror, and that, therefore, failure was not an option, the US had no leverage over Karzai. The worse Afghanistan behaved—the more drugs it grew and terrorists it fostered—the more money it received. If it sorted out its act, it risked being relegated to a minor charitable recipient like Tajikistan. A senior Afghan official warned me this year "to stop referring to us as a humanitarian crisis: we must be the number one terrorist threat in the world, because if we are not we won't get any money." By asserting convincingly that Afghanistan is not the be-all and end-all and that the US could always ultimately withdraw, Obama escapes this codependent trap and regains some leverage over the Afghan government. In his politer words:

It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

But perhaps even more importantly, defining a more moderate and limited strategy gives him leverage over his own generals. By refusing to endorse or use the language of counterinsurgency in the speech, he escapes their doctrinal logic. By no longer committing the US to defeating the Taliban or state-building, he dramatically reduces the objectives and the costs of the mission. By talking about costs, the fragility of public support, and other priorities, he reminds the generals why this surge must be the last. All of this serves to "cap" the troop increases at current levels and provide the justification for beginning to reduce numbers in 2011.

But the brilliance of its moderate arguments cannot overcome that statement about withdrawal. With seven words, "our troops will begin to come home," he loses leverage over the Taliban, as well as leverage he had gained over Karzai and the generals. It is a cautious, lawyerly statement, expressed again as "[we will] begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011." It sets no final exit date or numbers. But the Afghan students who were watching the speech with me ignored these nuances and saw it only as departure.

This may be fatal for Obama's ambition to "open the door" to the Taliban. The lighter, more political, and less but still robust militarized presence that his argument implies could facilitate a deal with the Taliban, if it appeared semi-permanent. As the President asserted, the Taliban are not that strong. They have nothing like the strength or appeal that they had in 1995. They cannot take the capital, let alone recapture the country. There is strong opposition to their presence, particularly in the center and the north of the country. Their only hope is to negotiate. But the Taliban need to acknowledge this. And the only way they will is if they believe that we are not going to allow the Kabul government to collapse.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 25, 2009 8:41 AM
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