Monday, August 31, 2009

Don’t Listen to George Will

George Will writes in tomorrow’s Washington Post:

Genius, said de Gaulle, recalling Bismarck's decision to halt German forces
short of Paris in 1870, sometimes consists of knowing when to stop. Genius is
not required to recognize that in Afghanistan, when means now, before more
American valor, such as Allen's, is squandered.
And what would Will have us leave in our wake? He does not say. Abandoning Afghanistan as it stands would do nothing for Allen’s valor nor for the valor of the 1352 American and NATO forces killed in Afghanistan since our invasion nearly eight years ago.

The fact is, Afghanistan is a hash. The best opportunity the United States and NATO had for transforming that failed-state came in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. But instead of deploying the necessary troops, technicians, and funds to rebuild and reconstitute a functioning Afghan state, the Bush administration balked, distracted by a head-long drive to war with Iraq and fool hardy notions of transformed conflict.

Now, in the wake of at best irregular elections, the West is fighting from a position of weakness. We have managed to aggravate the famed Pashtu mistrust of outsiders by propping up a corrupt and ineffectual government. Our mismanagement of Afghanistan is grotesque: we’ve lost control of our (corrupt) man in Kabul; our meager deployment of resources under the Bush administration has convinced the populace that the Taliban are a better bet because they’re not going anywhere; and our reliance on artillery, air strikes, drones, and a ham-handed anti-narcotic campaign has driven rural Afghans into the Taliban’s ranks.

All is not lost, though. The Obama administration is clearly focused on Afghanistan. In marked contrast to the previous administration, President Obama appears not to be driven by ideological notions of victory without application of sufficient resources. And, as bloody as August was and 2009 has been, Afghanistan pales in comparison to Iraq at its bloodiest.

The Obama administration would do well to listen to Anthony Cordesman – the key in Afghanistan is, as it has always been, as it always is with counterinsurgency, to deploy not only sufficient troops to establish and maintain security, but to deploy enough civilians to rebuild the country and undercut the insurgents.

11 comments:

Colin said...

I'd like to see a cost-benefit analysis of our involvement in Afghanistan. How many lives is it worth? What is the goal?

Further, how many troops are required to adequately do the job? It's a mighty big country.

Is the payoff worth the investment in terms of lives and resources?

This isn't snark, I am looking for some serious answers.

Colin said...

Hmmm, maybe I should have read Will's column before responding. I think he raises some tough questions that don't lend themselves to facile answers. Even Cordesman concedes that limited victory will require years of further effort.

And this bit from Cordesman:

They must build the provincial, district and local government capabilities that the Kabul government cannot and will not build for them.

Take a medieval country and build all of its governing institutions for it? Yikes.

Ben said...

Obviously the cost-benefit analysis requires a goal definition. "Western Democracy" is not - I don't think - an achievable goal. Despite Will's hyperbolic declaration that Afghanistan has never had a functioning central government, that's not the case. It has just been a couple generation since anything approaching that has been in place. Again, leaving now as Will suggests is the only way to guarantee instability in Afghanistan (and likely in Pakistan, as well). I think his argument is driven by emotion and doesn't endeavor to tackle the difficulty of the problem - he's just throwing his hands in the air. Cordesman recognizes the challenges but he is at least constructive and knowledgeable.

Bret said...

the inability to achieve "liberal" democracy is not achievable in the near future, and is not the problem. the "liberal" in liberal democracy refers to constraints on power. the problem is the on the democracy, or distribution and exercise of power, side of the equation. forget pretensions to western democracy. in fact, the united states, and arguably afghanistan in the short term, would be better off by abandoning pretensions to democracy in afghanistan, period.

i admit it's a complicated task indeed to find a suitable faction to provide the functional, legitimate authoritarianism that is probably necessary for the nation and state building that needs to go on there. but that task is considerably less complicated than trying to build a state while continuously subjecting it to the uncertainty of democracy.

Colin said...

Again, leaving now as Will suggests is the only way to guarantee instability in Afghanistan (and likely in Pakistan, as well).

But aren't Afghanistan and Pakistan already unstable?

What are the costs of leaving Afghanistan? How would that harm the US? And would it be more harmful than staying in Afghanistan, which is guaranteed to costs further lives and treasure?

In thinking about this I am reminded of Somalia, which is the world's #1 failed state. It's also a country that was abandoned by the US in the early 1990s. Did that really cost the US much or come back to haunt us? Well, there has been a pirate problem, but that seems a lot easier to deal with than rebuilding Somali society.

Let's also remember that Al Qaeda set up shop in Afghanistan when it was stable, not unstable.

Serious question: Why not just leave Afghanistan and then reserve the right to take military action in the country if AQ returns and sets up bases?

Ben said...

In thinking about this I am reminded of Somalia, which is the world's #1 failed state. It's also a country that was abandoned by the US in the early 1990s. Did that really cost the US much or come back to haunt us? Well, there has been a pirate problem . . .

And of course there were the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998. The perpetrators of those crimes had links to both Al Qaeda and Somalia. The instability of Somalia has been of sufficient concern to the United States to warrant deployment of American troops in Djibouti; US air, arms and intelligence support to Ethiopia during its invasion of Somalia; and, as you say, there is that whole piracy problem.

Yes, Pakistan and Afghanistan are unstable but the goal here is to render some stability - we guarantee failure in that regard by leaving.

Joshua Wolf said...

Glad to see more of you are reading this blog! Keep it up Ben!

Colin said...

What is the link between the Africa embassy bombers and Somalia? The only connection I was able to come up with is that Mohammed Odeh helped train one of the warlord's troops there in 1993 -- which is when US troops were involved in the country. I'm not aware of Somalis rallying to the Al Qaeda cause and carrying out attacks against US interests or the country serving as an AQ safe harbor.

It still seems to me that deploying several hundred troops to Djibouti and coordinating with the Ethiopians is infinitely preferable to a forced re-ordering of Somali society.

Returning to Afghanistan, again for me it ultimately comes down to the cost benefit analysis. If you could guarantee a stable and peaceful country with reasonably democratic standards at a cost of, say, 100 troop deaths and $100 billion (numbers I am pulling out of thin air) then it might be a worthwhile bargain. But I have a strong suspicion that the cost is going to be far higher, while providing dubious value.

When one considers that Aghanistan is even more backwards than Iraq, has far more difficult geography and similar levels of corruption (that is to say, endemic) it doesn't give me a lot of cause for optimism.

Ben said...

But your cost-benefit analysis is incomplete. Implicit in your comments is that we might leave Afghanistan and suffer no consequences - this, I think, is overly optimistic at best.

So, what's your policy prescription? Leave and what? What would you do?

Colin said...

But your cost-benefit analysis is incomplete. Implicit in your comments is that we might leave Afghanistan and suffer no consequences - this, I think, is overly optimistic at best.

I don't have an answer for this. In fact in one of my posts I specifically said, "What are the costs of leaving Afghanistan? How would that harm the US?"

While I am sure that there would be costs, they don't strike me as obvious or outweighing the costs of staying in the country.

So, what's your policy prescription? Leave and what? What would you do?

I think we have to pull out. We went into the country in order to kill Al Qaeda and pretty much did that. Then it became nation building, which doesn't seem to be going so well, with violence up, Karzai appearing increasingly corrupt and the deputy intelligence minister assassinated just this week.

Based on this article our current approach seems to be driving away some natural allies:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125183668667977283.html

I don't think that we simply lack the necessary troops, it seems that the mission is just fundamentally flawed. The government is corrupt, the Paks and Persians don't want us there, the people seem primarily beholden to their tribe rather than the nation, etc. etc.

I would love nothing more than a democratic Afghanistan that respects human rights. But it's hard for me to see that happening.

I'm reminded of the fact that the post-Civil War South didn't even embrace human rights and real democracy for 100 years after that conflict, so how can we transform a country halfway around the world?

I'm open to being convinced that a stable, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan is workable at a reasonable cost. But right now I'm not seeing it.

Colin said...

I think that some very good points are made here:

http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2009/09/04/myth-v-fact-afghanistan/