Tag: territory

More Fear-Mongering Claptrap from Max Boot

Max Boot, fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and perhaps one of America’s most radical neo-imperialists, eight years ago this month likened the Afghan mission to British colonial rule:

Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets…This was supposed to be ‘for the good of the natives,’ a phrase that once made progressives snort in derision, but may be taken more seriously after the left’s conversion (or, rather, reversion) in the 1990s to the cause of ‘humanitarian’ interventions. [emphasis mine]

Just yesterday, this “stay-the-course” proponent said President Obama should fight on in Afghanistan and properly resource the counterinsurgency mission. Sadly, Boot’s arguments are so faulty and disjointed that it is difficult to decide where to begin first. Here I go…

Boot believes that the coalition should properly resource the war effort. What does that even mean? What Boot neglects to tell his readers is that our current policy requires more troops than we could ever send. The metric for successful counterinsurgency missions suggested by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps would require 200,000 counterinsurgents in southern Afghanistan alone, and upwards of 650,000 in the country as a whole, for upwards of 12 to 14 years—not including the last eight. The time and resources required for assisting Afghanistan would not be accomplished within costs acceptable to American and NATO publics.

Another critical point that Boot fails to disclose is how recklessly ambitious the current mission is. The cost in blood and treasure that we would have to incur—coming on top of what we have already paid—far outweighs any possible benefits, even accepting the most optimistic estimates for the likelihood of success. The United States does not have the patience, cultural knowledge, or legitimacy to transform what is a deeply divided, poverty stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, non-corrupt, and stable electoral democracy. And even if Americans did commit several hundred thousand troops and decades of armed nation-building, success would hardly be guaranteed, especially in a country notoriously suspicious of outsiders and largely devoid of central authority. Western powers could invest hundreds of thousands of troops and twice or three times the materiel and money and still not create a functioning state. Even in the unlikely event that we forged a stable Afghanistan, al Qaeda might simply reposition its presence into other regions of the world.

Of course, America could narrow its objectives in Afghanistan to degrading al Qaeda’s capabilities. But Boot pooh-poohs this alternative, arguing, “Vice President Joe Biden favors a smaller-scale strategy that would employ high-tech weapons and special forces to kill terrorists from afar. But such a strategy has rarely, if ever, succeeded.” Boot’s example of where such a strategy has not succeeded? “It has been employed by Israel against Hamas and Hezbollah. The result: Hamas controls Gaza, and Hezbollah controls southern Lebanon. It has been employed by the U.S. in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The result: The Taliban controls western Pakistan and large swaths of eastern and southern Afghanistan.”

Equating the United States vis-à-vis al Qaeda to Israel vis-à-vis Hezbollah is a stretch. For one, the two political and security situations are wildly dissimilar. Afghanistan presents a liberation insurgency that includes indigenous groups attempting to expel a foreign occupier, while Hezbollah is a national insurgency of indigenous groups attempting to control the government of Lebanon. Moreover, one could make the argument that Hezbollah presents a pressing existential threat to Israel, whereas al Qaeda presents nothing in the way of an existential threat to the United States.

In addition, the strategy that Boot casually dismisses, that of targeting key militant conspirators, had a far-reaching effect in Iraq, and, according to authoritative sources, was quite possibly the biggest factor in reducing violence there. These operations were highly classified direct action activities, dubbed “collaborative warfare,” which combined intelligence intercepts with precision strikes to eliminate key insurgent leaders of the Shia and Sunni insurgency. Bob Woodward accounts these techniques in his book The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008.

Overall, I couldn’t disagree with Boot more. Instead of increasing troops, America should scale back its military presence. Rather than trying to protect Afghan villages from the Taliban, the United States should concentrate on al Qaeda cells in Pakistan through surgical tactic such as special forces operations, intelligence sharing, and Predator missile attacks when necessary. Whether al Qaeda coalesces in Sudan, in Yemen, or in Miami, Florida, our policy should not be to redesign a people’s way of life or tinker with the importance of their communal identity. Yet that is what Boot wants us to do in Afghanistan.

Sadly, people like Boot have lost sight of a crucial question: not about whether a state-building mission in Afghanistan is achievable, but whether it constitutes a vital U.S. national security interest. Central Asia holds little intrinsic strategic value to the United States, and America’s security will not necessarily be endangered even if an oppressive political faction takes over portions of Afghan territory. Given Afghanistan’s numerous challenges, and the fact that a protracted guerrilla war will weaken Western powers militarily and economically, the fundamental objective should be to get out of Afghanistan.

Other Countries as Ends-in-Themselves

Here in Babylon on the Potomac, most foreign policy discussions begin and end with the United States: How can we extend our control of the world?  Who is challenging us?  What problems might, say, a rising China, pose to American primacy?  We are, as Madeleine Albright asserted, the “indispensable nation.”  One popular scholar recently advanced the theory that the U.S. government is, and should be, the world’s government.  There’s a real refusal to recognize that we are, as a simple matter of fact, isolated by the blessings of geography and power.  We’re just not a 19th century continental European power, no matter how much we threat-inflate and conceive of ourselves as the only source of order in a disorderly world.

You’d think we’d be inclined to recognize the luxury that our isolation affords us, but you’d be wrong.  Consequently, in discussions about the rise of China, for example, U.S. analysts generally pose the question as a simple U.S. vs. China confrontation: How quickly can they challenge us?  Where should our “red lines” be?  Which allies will support us?  If our strategists were smart, they’d be thinking more creatively about offloading responsibility to countries that live more closely to China, and waiting to see how things progress.  While the ChiCom menace tends to get represented as ten feet tall in these discussions, the Chinese have a host of significant problems, including the internal unrest that has been on display recently, among others.

china-india-exerciseHigh on the list of “other problems” is China’s relationship with countries like India.  Much more so than the United States, countries like India and Japan have a lot to lose, potentially, from China’s rise.  Liberal international relations thinkers are right to point out the positive-sumness of economic relations between potential adversaries.  Economic ties between China and Taiwan, China and the U.S., China and Japan, are also positive forces that can help to moderate security competition.  That said, security itself is zero-sum.  Either you control your sea lines of communication or else another country does.  If another country does, bad things can happen to you, as, for example, Japan remembers all too well.

All of which is a long-winded way of introducing this excellent article by James Lamont and Amy Kazmin in the Financial Times.  Lamont and Kazmin highlight the growing unease in New Delhi about China.  Unease tends to crop up when a big powerful neighbor does things like claim whole provinces of your country as its own territory, as China does with the Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh.  (For more on this subject, see my talk on Capitol Hill from May 2008: video here.)

In fairness, the Bush administration did some smart things on this front, like trying to improve ties with India.  For years, U.S.-India relations had been tainted by a cold war mindset where we resented their association with the Non-aligned Movement.  (I think the India nuclear deal has a lot of downsides, but the intentions underpinning it were smart ones.)  Similarly, the Bush administration signed a joint agreement with Japan stating that a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan dispute is a “common strategic objective.”

But the important part will be beyond getting other countries to accept our goodies (the India nuclear deal) or sign a statement of interest (the joint Japan-US statement on Taiwan).  Those countries would rather, ceteris paribus, stand tall against China from over the shoulder of the United States.  The only way that we will get to a point where the countries with the most to lose pay the most for a hedge against China is for the United States to credibly commit to do less.  And on that front, there is a lot more work to be done.