The Economist is featuring an online debate this week around the proposition "This house believes that the war in Afghanistan is winnable." John Nagl of the Center for a New American Security agrees. Peter Galbraith takes the opposing view.
The organizers of the event invited me to contribute my two cents. Excerpts of my essay ("Featured Guest," on the right side of the page) are posted below:
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The appropriate question is not whether the war is winnable. If we define victory narrowly, if we are willing to apply the resources necessary to have a reasonable chance of success, and if we have capable and credible partners, then of course the war is winnable. Any war is winnable under these conditions.
None of these conditions exist in Afghanistan, however. Our mission is too broadly construed. Our resources are constrained. The patience of the American people has worn thin. And our Afghan partners are unreliable and unpopular with their own people.
Given this, the better question is whether the resources that we have already ploughed into Afghanistan, and those that would be required in the medium to long term, could be better spent elsewhere. They most certainly could be.
America and its allies must narrow their focus in Afghanistan. Rather than asking if the war is winnable, we should ask instead if the war is worth winning. And we should look for alternative approaches that do not require us to transform what is a deeply divided, poverty stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, cohesive and stable electoral democracy.
If we start from the proposition that victory is all that matters, we are setting ourselves up for ruin. We can expect an endless series of calls to plough still more resources—more troops, more civilian experts and more money, much more money—into Afghanistan. Such demands demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the public's tolerance for an open-ended mission with ill-defined goals.
More importantly, a disdain for a focused strategy that balances ends, ways and means betrays an inability to think strategically about the range of challenges facing America today. After having already spent more than eight and a half years in Afghanistan, pursuing a win-at-all-costs strategy only weakens our ability to deal with other security challenges elsewhere in the world.
Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton, among other administration officials, indicated this weekend that the July 2011 date for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan should not be interpreted as an exit strategy, but as a "ramp rather than a cliff." It now appears the president will not be obligated to adhere to any withdrawal date and can adjust as he deems fit.
President Obama's decision to include a withdrawal date in his speech sends a mixed message to allies and enemies about America's commitment to the region. It is a misguided effort to placate the American public's waning support for the mission. Obama should instead be looking for ways to leave Afghanistan, not excuses to dig us in deeper.
Essentially, the strategy is to apply the Iraq model to Afghanistan: a rapid infusion of troops followed by a painfully slow withdrawal. Of course, that strategy is premised on the hope that everything will run smoothly. There is little reason to believe it will.
In the end, the strategy aimed at defeating the Taliban and securing Afghanistan will never be perfect. Instead, a strategy of narrowly defined objectives that center on our original mission in entering the country—disrupting al Qaeda—is the only policy that is acceptable given the costs that the U.S. will incur.
There are two things that President Obama's plan won't do: win the war, or end the war.
While all Americans hope that the mission in Afghanistan will turn out well, the U.S. military's counterinsurgency doctrine says that stabilizing a country the size of Afghanistan would require far more troops than the most wild-eyed hawk has proposed: about 600,000 troops. An additional 30 to 40,000 troops isn't just a case of too little, too late; it holds almost no prospect of winning the war. Accordingly, this likely won't be the last prime-time address in which the president proposes sending many more troops to Afghanistan; my greatest fear is that this is only the first of many.
But we shouldn't just commit still more troops. President Obama should have recognized that the goals he set forth in March went too far. A better strategic review would have revisited our core objectives and assumptions. It would have focused on a narrower set of achievable objectives that are directly connected to vital U.S. security interests—chiefly disrupting al Qaeda's ability to do harm—and that would have left the rebuilding of Afghanistan to Afghans, not Americans. President Obama's national security team seems not to have even considered this course. Instead, the administration focused on repackaging the same grandiose strategy.
Secretary of Defense Gates fixed on the dilemma several weeks ago when he pondered aloud: "How do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that this is not open-ended?"
It turns out you can't. The president's decision to deepen our commitment to Afghanistan while simultaneously promising an exit is ultimately absurd on its face.
I'd be surprised if any foreign policy analyst would bet his or her next paycheck that this is going to work. I wouldn't.
A. It's encouraging to see Rahm Emanuel and John Kerry saying that we shouldn't up force levels in Afghanistan without a reliable partner. But if we shouldn't send 40,000 more troops to prop up a crooked government, why keep the 68,000 we have there? A focused counter-terrorism mission would require far less than that.
B. According to Dexter Filkins’ article in the New York Times Magazine, the war in Iraq taught General Stanley McChrystal the following:
No situation, no matter how dire, is ever irredeemable — if you have the time, resources and the correct strategy. In the spring of 2006, Iraq seemed lost. The dead were piling up. The society was disintegrating. One possible conclusion was that it was time for the United States to cut its losses in a country that it never truly understood. But the American military believed it had found a strategy that worked, and it hung in there, and it finally turned the tide.
What’s interesting about this claim is its utter confidence in the potential efficacy of US military power -- it is not just necessary to solving Iraq’s problems, but sufficient. If this view is right, Iraqis themselves, and their civil war, were unnecessary to the limited political reconciliation that occurred there.
Filkins, surprisingly, seems to agree, depicting the evolution of the war this way:
For four years, the American military had tried to crush the Iraqi insurgency and got the opposite: the insurgency bloomed, and the country imploded. By refocusing their efforts on protecting Iraqi civilians, American troops were able to cut off the insurgents from their base of support. Then the Americans struck peace deals with tens of thousands of former fighters — the phenomenon known as the Sunni Awakening — while at the same time fashioning a formidable Iraqi army. After a bloody first push, violence in Iraq dropped to its lowest levels since the war began.
Note the use of the word “then” preceding the sentence about peace deals. It carries a heavy load. Filkins wants to say that the hearts and mind theory of counterinsurgency caused the Anbar Awakening. But he offers no real causal story about how they are connected; he just says that one happened and then the other.
Another view, one that leaves Iraqis some agency, is that the growth of the al Qaeda Iraq and the progress of the civil war changed the Sunni insurgents’ strategic calculus, such that they decided to cooperate with Americans to gain locally. And that in turn, limited violence. U.S. forces had a role in this -- the covert killing campaign that McChrystal led and Filkins chronicles probably pressured insurgents and weakened AQI, for one. But the deals -- the awakening -- began well before the troop surge and before David Petraeus took command and tried to implement a new counterinsurgency doctrine. The key American decision was willingness to play ball with insurgent groups. This decision had little to do with winning hearts and minds via population security and increased troop levels. And by empowering forces at odds with the central government, it contradicted the goal of state-building in Iraq, at least in the short-term.
I obviously agree with the latter view. Our dependence on local politics limits what we can accomplish in counterinsurgency. We can certainly affect what happens in Afghanistan, but it is hubris to think we control it.
Filkins also quotes McChrystal on Afghanistan's effect on Pakistan:
“If we are good here, it will have a good effect on Pakistan,” he told me. “But if we fail here, Pakistan will not be able to solve their problems — it would be like burning leaves on a windy day next door.
It's sensible to conclude chaos nearby is unhelpful to stability in Pakistan, but it goes way too far to say that Afghanistan's stability is necessary to Pakistan's, which has been fairly stable for long periods while Afghanistan was not. What's more, as Robert Pape argues, it is likely that U.S. forces are a cause of insurgency in both countries.
In his review of the war in Afghanistan, states that “failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months)—while Afghan security capacity matures—risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”
I would hope that Congress and the American people hold McChrystal to his “12 month” prediction, because if President Obama sticks to McChrystal’s ambitious strategy, U.S. forces could remain in Central Asia for decades.
McChrystal argues that the U.S. military must devote more effort to interacting with the local population and elevating the importance of governance. How? Does America defeat the Taliban in order to build an Afghan state, or does America build an Afghan state in order to defeat the Taliban? Winning the support of the population through a substantial investment in civilian reconstruction cannot take place without some semblance of stability on the ground. The mission’s multi-disciplinary approach (“an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign”) is understandable, but oftentimes its feasibility is simply assumed.
Unfortunately, the United States has drifted into an amorphous nation building mission with unlimited scope and unlimited duration. Our objective must be narrowed to disrupting al Qaeda. To accomplish that goal, America does not need to transform Afghanistan into a stable, modern, democratic society with a strong central government in Kabul—or forcibly democratize the country, as our current mission would have us do, or as McChrystal states “Elevat[ing] the importance of governance.” These goals cannot be achieved at a reasonable cost in blood and treasure in a reasonable amount of time—let alone the next 12 months.
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