August 10, 2010 6:01PM

More Stephen Biddle on Afghanistan

In June I pointed to what I thought was an interesting article co-authored by CFR's Stephen Biddle that took a rather dim view of the prospects of fighting a counterinsurgency war on Hamid Karzai's behalf in Afghanistan.

CFR has posted a transcript of a media call from earlier today with Biddle, who's just returned from Afghanistan, hosted by Gideon Rose, the new editor of Foreign Affairs.  There are some interesting tidbits in there.  Try this, where Biddle has been working to try to push out well into the future any prospective date by which we can judge progress or a lack thereof in the fight:

ROSE: So what I hear you saying is that you have a Potter-Stewart version of a definition of success, but not a Potter-Stewart definition of failure.

In other words, at some point if it's working, you'll see the levels of violence come down; you'll see things start to stabilize and then you'll know things are going well. But if that hasn't happened yet, it's hard to distinguish between "It may happen down the road"; and "It's not going to happen."

BIDDLE: Yeah. And eventually, there's kind of a statute of limitations on this. I mean, you can't reasonable expect after five or six years to keep saying, well, it'll happen eventually.

So five or six more years would be too long.  (I should note that Biddle also suggests later in the interview that we need somehow to extend the U.S. presence in Iraq beyond the 2011 deadline in the existing Status of Forces Agreement in that country to prevent a meltdown from happening there.)  Next Biddle restates his argument that al Qaeda "safe havens" isn't a particularly good argument for continuing the war, but the prospect, which he admits is very unlikely, of a Pakistani collapse and al Qaeda somehow acquiring a deliverable nuclear weapon is.  Rose pushes back:

ROSE: See, that actually scares me more than if you had given the reverse answer, because however sort of relatively minor the Afghan danger would seem to be, the idea of fighting a nasty, ongoing, unsatisfying war simply for a domino theory aspect of what might happen in a neighboring state if the war doesn't go well, strikes me as so tenuous a connection that it really is going to be hard to justify. And I think over time, you might get into a political dynamic in which the -- if the war doesn't get -- the prospects don't seem to get any better, that the public might not find that convincing. Do you worry about that?

BIDDLE: Well, I mean, people use domino theory as pejorative wording when they oppose a war. The idea that states worry about the stability of their neighbors because they worry about the stability of their own country is ubiquitous in international politics. One of the central reasons why the United States got involved in the Balkans back in the 1990s was the fear that chaos in the Balkans could spread to our NATO neighbors and trading partners. You know, the United -- the Soviet Union was continuously worried about instability on its borders. This is a normal concern in international affairs. It's not like an imaginary ghost dreamed up by people who want to do Vietnam War revisionism.

ROSE: Understood entirely, although --

BIDDLE: I don't think that this is an absolute transcendent be-all and end-all threat to U.S. national security that we should be willing to pay any price and bear any burden in order to deal with. I've argued in the past -- and I continue to believe -- that Afghanistan is close call on the merits because the stakes, while important, are indirect and are not unlimited. And obviously the cost of waging this war is, you know, clearly high.

So what it boils down to, I think, is neither a slam dunk in favor of waging the war in which any reasonable person must surely think this is worth it, nor a slam dunk in which this war is obviously crazy and any reasonable person should think that we should get out tomorrow morning. I think what you end up with is a situation where the costs and the benefits are pretty close on the analytics and it boils down to a value judgment that reasonable people will make differently about how much cost should you be willing to bear to reduce how much of a threat.

Now, the threat here if the worst case scenario unfolds, is pretty serious. I mean, you may or may not have worried about nuclear weapons in Soviet hands during the Cold War. Bin Laden would probably use the things if he got them. And an American decision by a presidential administration that could reasonably have waged this war with some respectable prospect of success, but decided instead to withdraw -- if that scenario played itself out and Pakistan collapsed, bin Laden got a nuclear weapon and used it in the United States -- that would be regarded by generations of historians as the single biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of the nation.

Now, a variety of bad things have to happen in sequence for that worst case to play itself out. That's why I think this is a close call, rather than an obvious "do it" or an obvious "don't". But I think especially with respect to the guy in the Oval Office who has to bear the responsibility for this that I suspect that worst case looms fairly large, but I think all indications are that the president is pretty ambivalent about this, in part because I suspect he sees the costs and benefits as being closer on the margin than one would in some ways like.

But what really struck me about the interview was the fog-machine answer Biddle gave to a question from James Kitfield involving Karzai.  See if you do better with it than I did:

QUESTIONER: Hi, Stephen. You haven't talked about Karzai and his government. The most recent reports were that he's now pushing back against these anti-corruption task forces, raising the question once again of what kind of a partner he is. I'm just curious what kind of feedback you got while you were in the field about how cooperative his government was being, whether they were doing the things necessary to give people hope that they would fulfill their part of the bargain in counterinsurgency.

BIDDLE: Well -- and, of course, it's a mixed bag. His stated policy is strongly anti-corruption oriented. Lots of his actual behaviors are much less so. I think there's a tendency in the U.S. debate, though, to want to set the relationship with Karzai up as either he's a good guy and an adequate partner or he is hopeless and he's an inadequate partner. We just can't succeed unless this guy is changed or has some moment of transformation.

And that's not normally the way counterinsurgencies go. I mean, you always have an inadequate partner in counterinsurgency. That's why there's an insurgency to counter. (Scattered laughter.) If the host government were good at this, we wouldn't have to be involved in the first place. So you inevitably at least start with a partner that, by definition, has serious legitimacy problems often involving corruption.

If you're going to succeed, that means changing the behavior of the host government and changing behaviors that the host government doesn't want to change. I mean, normally the legitimacy problem that gave rise to the insurgency in the first place was some sort of unrepresentative distribution of power or wealth or resources in the country benefitting one subgroup to the exclusion of others who then turned to insurgents for succor and hope.

The people who are benefitting from this normally want to keep benefitting from this and they resist and they push back when the outside counterinsurgent tries to get them to reform because that reform means less benefits for their subgroup. So you normally get pushback, and that's exactly what we're seeing and it's exactly what we should expect.

And if we're going to succeed, the right metaphor for this, it seems to me, is a tug of war. We can expect Karzai to pull back on the other side of the rope all the time because he believes that his political self-interest requires him to rely on groups that are benefitting from corruption and abuse of power to keep himself in office.

When we tell him to get rid of these people and clean all this up, he thinks it's a threat to his own tenure in office and he'll resist. We have to pull him in the other direction.

And in principle, we have plenty of resources with which to do that. We do thousands of things in Afghanistan every day. The Karzai government's survival is utterly dependent on this, and we can turn them on or turn them off singly or in combination as necessary to generate leverage to gradually win the tug of war. But we're not going to win it all of a sudden one morning.

I mean, every day, we're going to roll out of bed and we're going to have to pull Karzai a little further in our direction and he's going to pull back again. And so there are going to be periodic episodes where he tries to shut down some anti-corruption agency that we think is doing a great job, and we have to pull him back in the direction of being more forceful in reforming his government than he otherwise wants to be.

I think, in principle, we have the resources to do that effectively, given the enormous expenditure of resources we do in this country. But we have to be very careful with how we do it. We've tended to be on this kind of pendulum oscillation between extremes with Karzai.

The Bush administration was much too cozy with the guy. They tended to be something close to a policy of all carrots and no sticks because they thought Karzai was a hero and an ally and shouldn't be coerced. The Obama administration came into office believing that that was a mistake and crashed down on him with lots and lots of sticks and not much in the way of carrots, and the sticks were delivered publicly in ways that were domestically humiliating to Karzai. That didn't work so well, and so the administration has changed course again.

What I think we need is a tack toward the center and an avoidance of these extremes, where we don't give up on sticks. We have to use leverage or we're not going to succeed in this. If we do not get reform of the host government, this campaign will fail and that's not going to happen without the use, of course, of sticks, but the sticks have to be private rather than public and they have to be done in a sequence that makes sense.

I mean, for example, let's take the corruption problem. To fix -- to get the corruption problem under control, let's say, rather than fixed, because I don't want to imply that the right level of corruption in Afghanistan is zero, but to get the corruption problem under control, eventually it's going to require some big asks of Hamid Karzai. He's going to have to accept the removal or prosecution of some senior people in the country, in all likelihood. That's not the best way to start the process.

A lot of the money that flows into corrupt activity in Afghanistan comes from us. It comes from our own contracting, which goes to fuel malign actor networks in the country that at the end of the day are substantially hurting our prospects by making people in Afghanistan turn to the Taliban for protection. The right way to start the process is by reducing our own contribution to the problem, by reforming the way we do contracting, for example, in a way that causes us to provide less fuel and ammunition to the malign actor networks that are undermining our counter-insurgency prospects to the degree that we are.

As we do that, we in turn weaken the political power of malign actors within the country because we deny them funds. I mean, you can think of money as the hydraulic fluid that enables the political machines that are these malign actor networks in the country to do work. A lot of that money and hydraulic fluid is coming from us. If we shut off the flow into the system, we reduce the hydraulic pressure within the machine and we reduce its ability to do political work. And that in turn makes the eventual ask of Karzai easier.

So I -- doing things in the right sequence, and doing things privately and not publicly are both important, it seems to me. And last but not least, doing things in ways that support Karzai's political future in the country rather than damaging it is helpful. Part of that's a matter of trying not to criticize him publicly by U.S. government officials, wherever it can be avoided. Part of it is a matter of supporting his own better instincts wherever we can.

Again, Karzai is on public record repeatedly as supporting anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan. Now, obviously, in a variety of ways, the Afghan government's behavior has been inconsistent on this, but wherever possible, it seems to me, we ought to help Karzai carry out his own stated policies, which are substantially anti-corruption in nature.

Does that do it for you?