Today’s volleys in the domestic battle about Afghanistan

The battle continues, and heats up.  Prominent people are chaning sides.  Others double down, advocating that we expand the war.  The stakes are high.  Is the public paying attention?

Contents

  1. Three prominent conservatives turn against the war.
  2. General McChrystal expected to seek more troops
  3.  A debate in the Washington Post
  4. A clearer look at our alternatives
  5. The next chapter in Foust’s series about the case for Afghanistan
  6. Afterword and for more information

(1)  Three prominent conservatives turn against the war. 

I strongly recommend reading Peters article.

  1. Time to Get Out of Afghanistan“, George Will, op-ed in the Washington Post, 1 September 2009
  2. Trapping Ourselves in Afghanistan and Losing Focus on the Essential Mission“, Ralph Peters, Joint Force Quarterly, July 2009
  3. Mark Steyn, at National Review Online (muted objections, not explicit opposition)

(2)  Will DoD request more troops for Afghanistan?

U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Calls Situation ‘Serious’“, Washington Post, 1 September 2009 — “McChrystal Expected To Seek More Resources, But White House Is Wary.” Excerpt:

The administration has narrowly defined its goal as defeating al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and denying them sanctuary, but that in turn requires a sweeping counterinsurgency campaign aimed at protecting the Afghan population, establishing good governance and rebuilding the economy. 

Bernard Finel (American Security Project) on his blog calls this “Classic Doubletalk“:

See, it is no longer our goal to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland — it is just that our strategy requires that we do so in order to defeat AQ. And the rest of us are supposed to take this kind of argument seriously?

(3)  A debate in the Washington Post

Is the War in Afghanistan Worth Fighting?“, debate in the opion section of the Washington Post, 31 August 2009 — “The Post asked experts whether the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting. Below are contributions from John Nagl, Andrew J. Bacevich, Erin M. Simpson, Clint Douglas, Thomas H. Johnson and Danielle Pletka.”  Here are two excerpts.

(a)  Nagl starts off with his high card, which is a joker.

America has vital national security interests in Afghanistanthat make fighting there necessary. The key objectives of the campaign are preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a sanctuary for terrorists with global reach and ensuring that it does not become the catalyst for a broader regional security meltdown. Afghanistan also serves as a base from which the United States attacks al-Qaeda forces inside Pakistan and thus assists in the broader campaign against that terrorist organization — one that we clearly must win.

Most of this has been demolished elsewhere (go here for details).  To read his other online works, seee The Essential 4GW reading list: John Nagl.

But note the “Afghanistan as a base” from which to attack Pakistan.

  • If our strikes support the Pakistan government, why must we operate from Afghanistan (with its difficult logistics)?
  • If Pakistan’s government does not support these strikes, are we waging war on Pakistan?

For more on this see the article by Metz in section #4.

(b) Quote of the day from Danielle Pletka (American Enterprise Institute):

Worse still, for those who believe victory is worth achieving in Afghanistan, it’s not easy to pinpoint what victory looks like. It never has been. Nonetheless, Afghanistan has both strategic and moral value to the United States. And it is wise to remember that the price of failure is horribly high. We have failed before in Afghanistan and betrayed the trust of Afghans who believed America cared about them. After two decades and the rise of an al Qaeda homeland, we paid the price.

Really weak, IMO.  Here are some comments from Matthew Yglesias’ post about this:

Francisco The Man: “Jesus, it’s like these people aren’t even trying anymore. I wouldn’t accept this kind of thinking from my high school students.”

kafka: “Victory is easy to define: the last U.S. soldier leaving Afghanistan, never to return.”

theAmericanist: “The ARMY ROTC manual used to begin by stating that the first military principle is the principle of the objective: what, precisely, do you intend to achieve? Then you determine what you will require.”

(c)  Comment on this debate by Michael Cohen, Democracy Arsenal

By the way, you got to love the Washington Post. They have a debate on whether the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting and they get 5 people who think it is and 1 who doesn’t. Way to keep it even-handed guys.

(4)  A clearer look at our alternatives

{Update:  the original version of this post did not accurately represent Metz’s article; this section has been rewritten}.

For a clearer analysis of our choices see “Destroy the Taliban’s Sanctuary“, Steven Metz (Prof, Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College),  Joint Force Quarterly, July 2009 — Excerpt (slightly reformated for clarity):

This leaves three options.

  • If eradicating the sanctuaries would, in fact, lead to the downfall of the Pakistani regime and if its survival is more important than stabilizing Afghanistan, Washington could continue the current policy…
  • If stabilizing Afghanistan and lowering the American burden there is the priority, then the US must give the Pakistani government a choice. It can either eradicate the Taliban sanctuaries within its territory or the Afghan government can have the UN declare the sanctuary a threat to regional peace and security, then ask the US to deal with it.

There is no doubt that such actions would challenge, and perhaps even threaten, the Pakistani government. But Islamabad cannot be both America’s friend and enemy at the same time. Our Afghan ally is at great risk because of Pakistan’s inaction. American military forces are killed by insurgents operating from their sanctuary in Pakistan.

  • Perhaps the best solution is disengagement from this embattled part of the world.

But if the United States elects to sustain its commitment to peace and stability in Afghanistan, the insurgent sanctuary must be destroyed.

(5)  The next chapter in Foust’s series about the case for Afghanistan

The Case for Afghanistan: (Recent) Historical Considerations“, Joshua Foust, Registan, 1 September 2009 — He never gets around to explaining why we should wage war in Afghanistan.  Other than, of course, the by now ritualistic references to 9-11 :

A policy of American disengagement, limited to occasional air strikes at terrorist compounds and funding proxy militias, not only did not deter the Taliban from supporting terrorist activity, it prevented the U.S. from stopping the 9/11 attacks.

This makes no sense, IMO. Where is the evidence that the Afghanistan Bases provided substantial support to the 9-11 terrorists (the 9-11 commission report says otherwise)?  How likely is it that the US government will again disengage and allow al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan?  These things were discussed in You can end our war in Afghanistan.

(6a)  Afterword

For information about this site see the About page, at the top of the right-side menu bar.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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(6b)  For more information about this topic

To see all posts about our new wars:

Some posts about the war in Afghanistan:

  1. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  2. Stratfor: “The Strategic Debate Over Afghanistan”, 13 May 2009
  3. Real experts review a presentation about the War (look here, if you’re looking for well-written analysis!), 21 June 2009
  4. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
  5. “War without end”, a great article by George Wilson, 27 June 2009
  6. “Strategic Calculus and the Afghan War” by George Friedman of Stratfor, 17 July 2009
  7. Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 1, 18 July 2009
  8. We are warned about Afghanistan, but choose not to listen (part 2), 19 July 2009
  9. Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 3, 20 July 2009

17 thoughts on “Today’s volleys in the domestic battle about Afghanistan

  1. There’s something to Steven Metz’ argument that needs to be addressed. I don’t agree with his position, but it exploits a point made here quite often about Pakistan, namely, the Pakistani government is too strong for the radicals (Taliban or whoever) to overthrow. If that government is strong enough, why couldn’t it also withstand a US incursion into the FATA? Doing so would also open an avenue for attacking al Qaeda.

    I don’t support his idea for several reasons: No definition of what “destroying the sanctuaries” entails… What manpower is required? Is this another COIN op or do we burn it all down? What’s the time line? etc. Also, it is too near term in it’s focus. There is considerable potential for blowback. The Pakistani people are angry with us, and the Taliban/ Pashtuns have gotten historical support from the ISI. Am I wrong that there are some ISI ties to 9/11 funding? Pakistan is not asking for this support, and might oppose us, probably covertly. And why wouldn’t al Qaeda just side slip us, as they did before? In short, this is the sort of harebrained thing that usually gets the US into unforeseen trouble. It’s also the sort of plan that gets supported against all common sense.

  2. FM: “He never gets around to explaining why we should wage war in Afghanistan.

    That’s because, much like my other posts in the series, I am describing the support for the case before making it. Much like in writing an essay, one has his thesis, but each individual supporting argument does not in and of itself argue the totality of that thesis.

    And I think I should note — again — that I have not come out and said whether THE MILITARY is best suited to secure America’s interests in Afghanistan. I am just trying to describe what America’s interests are—so far, from a strategic and now historical perspective (and obviously in a brief, sketch form).

    Other comments I’ve made attacking the sudden opposition to the war are different—like with Mark Steyn suddenly discovering his sense of skepticism and a desire for a limited outcome now that a Democrat is in charge. I note that your stance remains consistent and principled, which is why I continue to engage with it.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: It is essential to remember that these things are beyond the edge of the known. Theory and history are guides, like sailing by the stars in unknown seas. Which is why this is a debate.

  3. Let me point out that I have opposed American involvement in Afghanistan for a number of years, particularly the neo-surge. My JFQ article was simply to make the point that IF we want to seriously prosecute counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, the Pakistan sanctuary must be eliminated. In fact, I feel that is one reason why we should not be doing counterinsurgency in Afghanistan–because to do it effectively would expand the conflict.

    In other words, we should either do it right or not do it at all. I don’t think that doing it right is worth the cost. If the goal is to prevent Afghanistan from serving as an AQ base, there are much more effective ways of doing that other than trying to give Afghanistan something it has never had in history–effective central governance. If the objective is to prevent AQ from capturing Pakistani nuclear weapons, there are also more effective ways of doing that.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for this correction. My reference to your article did not adequately represent what you said. I have added as an excerpt the last several paragraphs of your article — and substantially revised the text.

  4. Dr. Metz:

    Thanks for the clarification. FWIW, I agree with you after reading your post here. It was difficult to catch this tone in the JFQ article; I misread it as advocacy.

  5. Comment #3: “There’s something to Steven Metz’ argument that needs to be addressed. I don’t agree with his position, but it exploits a point made here quite often about Pakistan, namely, the Pakistani government is too strong for the radicals (Taliban or whoever) to overthrow. If that government is strong enough, why couldn’t it also withstand a US incursion into the FATA?”

    Because a US invasion would fatally undermine the legitimacy of Islamabad. Just ask Lon Nol about how that works.

    The most interesting conflict in the Af-pak war isn’t the Taliban vs US. Looking at Taliban history the US has no chance there. Its between the central government of Pakistan who sees an opportunity to extract booty from the US and the US who’s single minded drive for a military solution is constantly pushing Pakistan towards the edge.

  6. The notion of sanctuaries springs from the 2nd generation belief that all wars are really primarily about men and material. It’s a mode of thinking deeply engrained. And the fact that they always seem to be just outside the reach of the military makes them an excellent excuse for inevitable failure.

    I see very little evidence that even the most basic elements of strategy: such as the goal of the insurgent to escalate the war while the “government” needs to de-escalate it, are understood in this debate. Instead it’s become a 2nd generation accounting exercise to see if we can afford the bullets.

    But even if the cost was zero the path to success never lies in fulfilling the opponents goals. And one of Al Queada’s goals is the expand the war as much as possible.

    The reality is that a strategic body blow o Al Queada would be a peace treaty with the Taliban, but can you imagine the uproar in the US simply because that’s not how success is defined. And so the death march to failure proceeds blindly onwards.

  7. But the Taliban “is” a second generation insurgency. I’ve been saying for a decade that all insurgencies may not rely on physical sanctuary, but I suggest that it would be a mistake to conclude that NONE do.

  8. To me the answer is to state that the continuing pain and suffering to the Afghan people exceeds any gain they could realize, and the accrual of blame to the US negates any gain the US could realize. Thus the US should remove itself from the direct equation, and provide indirect and humanitarian support to the Afghans.

    If the Taliban prevail and allow an Al Quaida resurgence, deal with it then, decisively, before it has a chance to attack America or its allies.

    I don’t see any upside to staying the course at the cost of US and Afghan lives, over the cost of leaving then re-intervening in the future. In one case, we are there the full ten years (for example), in the other, we go back in after ten years. Sounds like a 10 to 1 ratio in lives and $. I know that is over simplified, but to me no good can come of staying there further.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Which is why we need to be very sure that the people involved want our help. It’s not enough to get permission from a puppet government to wage war on their people, on their land.

  9. If we are willing to blow some money on Afghanistan, there are alternatives to guns and steel. Show up with tractors, fuel for same, fertilizer, PVC pipe, pumps, and little or no cash. It’s hard to redirect these even if you are infinitely corrupt. Put this stuff directly into the hands of farmers, not the city boys.

    We wring our hands over how Hamas gets love and respect, hearts and minds, by serving the needs of the community. With us it’s always guns, guns, and more guns. Security first. Can’t have improved agriculture without security. Here’s an idea; try it. In 1930, tractors were a big deal in our country. Trust me, they’ll be a big deal over there.
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    Fabuis Maximus repiles: The Marshall Plan — the solution most policy-makers are too smart and sophisticated to try.

  10. bc: we’ve tried this program in Colombia for a decade and I would say no matter what the UN says any decrease in cocaine production has just as much to do with weaker government presence in the surrounding Andean nations as much as it does with alternate development policies and US trained forces. on top of that, we are no closer, IMO, to our goal of ending cocaine production and consumption, Colombia is still in the midst of a multi-actor civil war, and still has all the problems of corrupt governance, human rights violations, etc. etc.

    So my question is, why will these efforts be more successful in Afghanistan? I agree with you that we cannot view development as security-centric. Security, governance, economy–these are things that grow and improve at the same time, and one is not a prerequisite for the others. But George Will has a compelling point in his op-ed–that kind of development takes decades, will require more boots on the ground in terms of military and civilians, and will not be cheap. We do not have the political will, patience, or capital to carry it out, and it is debatable if we ever will.

  11. Thanks underscore:
    Always top down. Always a goal, drug trade suppression, state building, whatever. Why can’t we loosen up, and act mano a’ mano, at a grass roots level, no cash, and just help them, period. No strategic goals, no grand plan. I think this is what I hear Karzai saying, or trying to say. Give each farmer a tractor, or maybe a solar panel, cell phone, and laptop, so he can educate his kids through the internet. Be creative. My point is, bottom up, not top down. Corruption will shred the program to bits if you insist on top down.

  12. I’d like to see an review of Afgh on a district level .
    If you only had little snippets from , say ,Disneyland and Detroit , the Amish and Chicago Folk – not even tied into a map – could you devise policies for the US ?

  13. Recommend Greg Mortensen and David Relin, Three Cups of Tea:One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace….One School at a Time, an account (of a well known mountain=climber born and raised in Tanzania by his missionary parents) how one man has shown dramatic courage, modesty and persistence to build, equip and support dozens of schools for young children in remote parts of remote Afghanistan and Pakistan. From this account you may draw conclusions about what we should be doing with our non-functioning State department, which has been run by one doofus after another since George Schultz who was powerless, but at least very intelligent and astute, and braindead AID programs.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: A great book.

  14. Comment #14: “Always top down. Always a goal, drug trade suppression, state building, whatever. Why can’t we loosen up, and act mano a’ mano, at a grass roots level, no cash, and just help them, period. No strategic goals, no grand plan. I think this is what I hear Karzai saying, or trying to say. Give each farmer a tractor, or maybe a solar panel, cell phone, and laptop, so he can educate his kids through the internet. Be creative. My point is, bottom up, not top down. Corruption will shred the program to bits if you insist on top down.”

    Another sure sign things are going south is when people start saying… strategy it’s just too hard lets concentrate on the things we are good at, tactics, mc donalds, wonder weapons, whatever.

    But there is also an element of thruth in what you say a basic part of putting in place change in complex situations/organisations is plan top down implement bottom up.

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