September 23, 2009 11:53AM

The Crystal Ball

Some comforting news regarding the Obama administration’s approach to the war in Afghanistan:

Among the alternatives being presented to Mr. Obama is Mr. Biden’s suggestion to revamp the strategy altogether. Instead of increasing troops, officials said, Mr. Biden proposed scaling back the overall American military presence. Rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics.

I'm an analyst, not a fortune teller, so anyone’s guess is as good as mine as far what course Obama will choose to take in Afghanistan. I will say, however, that I will not be surprised if the president decides to send more troops. For once I actually hope that he listens to Biden.

September 21, 2009 12:53PM

McChrystal’s Assessment

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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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September 21, 2009 9:45AM

Pakistan: More Aid, More Waste, More Fraud?

Pakistan long has tottered on the edge of being a failed state:  created amidst a bloody partition from India, suffered under ineffective democratic rule and disastrous military rule, destabilized through military suppression of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by dominant West Pakistan, dismembered in a losing war with India, misgoverned by a corrupt and wastrel government, linked to the most extremist Afghan factions during the Soviet occupation, allied with the later Taliban regime, and now destabilized by the war in Afghanistan.  Along the way the regime built nuclear weapons, turned a blind eye to A.Q. Khan's proliferation market, suppressed democracy, tolerated religious persecution, elected Asif Ali "Mr. Ten Percent" Zardari as president, and wasted billions of dollars in foreign (and especially American) aid.

Still the aid continues to flow.  But even the Obama administration has some concerns about ensuring that history does not repeat itself.  Reports the New York Times:

As the United States prepares to triple its aid package to Pakistan — to a proposed $1.5 billion over the next year — Obama administration officials are debating how much of the assistance should go directly to a government that has been widely accused of corruption, American and Pakistani officials say. A procession of Obama administration economic experts have visited Islamabad, the capital, in recent weeks to try to ensure both that the money will not be wasted by the government and that it will be more effective in winning the good will of a public increasingly hostile to the United States, according to officials involved with the project.

...The overhaul of American assistance, led by the State Department, comes amid increased urgency about an economic crisis that is intensifying social unrest in Pakistan, and about the willingness of the government there to sustain its fight against a raging insurgency in the northwest. It follows an assessment within the Obama administration that the amount of nonmilitary aid to the country in the past few years was inadequate and favored American contractors rather than Pakistani recipients, according to several of the American officials involved.

Rather than pouring more good money after bad, the U.S. should lift tariff barriers on Pakistani goods.  What the Pakistani people need is not more misnamed "foreign aid" funneled through corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies, but jobs.  Trade, not aid, will help create real, productive work, rather than political patronage positions.

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September 15, 2009 10:52AM

Pervasive Illiteracy in the Afghan National Army

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Matt Yglesias has a lot of smart things to say about the pervasive illiteracy plaguing the Afghan National Army. Upwards of 75 to 90 percent (according to varying estimates) of the ANA is illiterate.

As Ted Galen Carpenter and I argue in our recent Cato white paper Escaping the Graveyard of Empires: A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan, this lack of basic education prevents many officers from filling out arrest reports, equipment and supply requests, and arguing before a judge or prosecutor. And as Marine 1st Lt. Justin Greico argues, “Paperwork, evidence, processing—they don’t know how to do it…You can’t get a policeman to take a statement if he can’t read and write.”

Yglesias notes:

This strikes me as an object lesson in the importance of realistic goal-setting. The Afghan National Army is largely illiterate because Afghanistan is largely illiterate…we just need an ANA that’s not likely to be overrun by its adversaries. But if we have the more ambitious goal of created [sic] an effectively administered centralized state, then the lack of literacy becomes a huge problem. And a problem without an obvious solution on a realistic time frame [emphasis mine].

Such high levels of illiteracy serves to highlight the absurd idea that the United States has the resources (and the legitimacy) to “change entire societies,” in the words of retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel John Nagl. Eight years ago, Max Boot, fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, 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]

But as I highlighted yesterday at the Cato event “Should the United States Withdraw from Afghanistan?” (which you can view in its entirety here), policymakers must start narrowing their objectives in Afghanistan, a point Yglesias stresses above. Heck, as I argued yesterday, rational people in the United States are having difficulty convincing delusional types here in America that Barack Obama is their legitimate president. I am baffled by people who think that we have the power to increase the legitimacy of the Afghan government. It’s also ironic that many conservatives (possibly brainwashed by neo-con ideology) who oppose government intervention at home believe the U.S. government can bring about liberty and peace worldwide. These self-identified “conservatives” essentially have a faith in government planning.

Yet these conservatives share a view common among the political and military elite, which is that if America pours enough time and resources—possibly hundreds of thousands of troops for another 12 to 14 years—Washington could really turn Afghanistan around.

However, there is a reason why the war in Afghanistan ranks at or near the bottom of polls tracking issues important to the American public, and why most Americans who do have an opinion about the war oppose it (57 percent in the latest CNN poll released on Sept. 1) and oppose sending more combat troops (56 percent in the McClatchy-Ipsos survey, also released on Sept. 1). It’s because Americans understand intuitively that the question about Afghanistan is not about whether it is winnable, but whether it constitutes a vital national security interest. An essential national debate about whether we really want to double down in Afghanistan has yet take place. America still does not have a clearly articulated goal. This is why the conventional wisdom surrounding the war—about whether we can build key institutions and create a legitimate political system—is not so much misguided as it is misplaced.

The issue is not about whether we can rebuild Afghanistan but whether we should. On both accounts the mission looks troubling, but this distinction is often times overlooked.

August 20, 2009 8:52AM

Majority of Americans Say Afghan War Not Worth Fighting

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According to a recent Washington Post-ABC Poll, the majority of Americans say the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting.

Usually, I don’t take kindly to polling data; they are ephemeral snapshots of public opinion that fluctuate with the prevailing political winds. But I will say (as I’ve said before) that Central Asia holds little intrinsic strategic value to the United States. In that respect, I can understand why Americans are growing skeptical of continuing what’s become an “aimless absurdity.”

America’s flagging support for the war comes as millions of Afghans head to the polls to elect their next president. Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, is the front-runner, but if he is unable to secure more than 50% of the vote there will be a run-off scheduled for early October. Given the pervasive levels of corruption within his own government, if Karzai ends up winning, America and the international community might be perceived as propping up an illegitimate government; however, if Karzai loses, it might further alienate the country’s largest minority group, the Pashtuns, among whom Karzai, and the Taliban, pull most of their support.

This morning, New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall writes from Kabul, “initial reports from witnesses suggested that the turnout was uneven, with higher participation in the relatively peaceful north than in the troubled south.”

Before the elections, Taliban militants, mainly concentrated in the southern and eastern provinces but now spreading to the north, threatened to cut off fingers marked with purple ink used to indicate when someone casts a vote. Ms. Gall writes: “In the southern city of Kandahar, witnesses said, insurgents hanged two people because their fingers were marked with indelible ink used to denote that they had voted.” Wow! Maybe the elections will be a watershed moment in Afghanistan’s history: the democracy experiment comes as a death sentence.

On a lighter note, there are already allegations of voter fraud. An inspection of the rolls revealed the name of an unlikely voter, “Britney Jamilia Spears,” one of a number of phantom voters.

Many people would agree that the atmosphere surrounding Afghanistan's presidential elections is analogous to the country as a whole: dysfunctional. Candidates are forging alliances with warlords; tribal elders are being offered jobs, territory, and forgiveness of past sins to secure their allegiance; and Britney Spears is a registered Afghan voter. It’s about time that America narrow its objectives and start bringing the military mission to a close.

August 18, 2009 4:59PM

Tell Me How This Ends

Yesterday, President Obama defended his new approach to the war in Afghanistan. According to the president, our strategy is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies. In order to accomplish this goal, Obama’s strategy indicates we must create a functioning national state there.

Why?

Beltway orthodoxy tells us it’s because extremists will emerge in ungoverned parts of the world and attack the United States. As my colleagues Justin Logan and Chris Preble point out here, there’s reason to doubt whether state failure or poor governance in itself poses a threat.

But responsible leaders would be upfront about the expected costs of our policy: to transform what is a deeply divided, poverty stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, non-corrupt, stable democracy would require a multi-decade commitment—and even then there’d be no assurance of success.

Why Afghanistan’s form of governance directly implicates America’s security, or why it demands the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops to police it are questions rarely asked let alone addressed.

August 18, 2009 8:43AM

Afghanistan Now Is Truly Barack Obama’s War

Afghanistan is voting for president. Unfortunately, the outcome, even if a fair result, is unlikely to matter much. The war will continue.

In 2008 President Barack Obama was seen as the anti-war candidate.  In fact, his reputation reflected his prescient opposition to the Iraq war, but he said little to suggest that he was out of sync with Washington's interventionist consensus.

We see his status quo foreign policies with his support for continued NATO expansion as well as maintaining American garrisons around the globe, including in South Korea and Japan.  But his escalation in Afghanistan most obviously demonstrates that he is a man of the interventionist left.

He is now making it clear that Afghanistan is his war.  Reports Reuters:

President Barack Obama will seek to shore up U.S. public support for the war in Afghanistan on Monday just days before an Afghan presidential election widely seen as a major test of his revamped strategy.

Obama will address a military veterans group in Phoenix at a time when U.S. combat deaths are rising amid a troop buildup against a resurgent Taliban, and polls show a softening of public backing for the eight-year-old war.

Hoping to reassure Americans, Obama is expected to sketch out why he believes the Afghanistan policy he unveiled earlier this year is working and why the United States must remain committed to stabilizing the war-ravaged country.

The political risks for him are enormous.  Anything bad that happens in Iraq can be blamed on George W. Bush.  But any failure in America's nation-building mission in Afghanistan -- and failure is the most likely outcome in any nation-building in Afghanistan -- will be seen as his responsibility.

And American and other coalition military personnel, as well as the Afghan people, will pay the price.