Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thoughts on Afghanistan

Anyone reading this blog may have noticed that I haven't taken a strong position on the Afghanistan strategy debate. This is unusual for me, as I almost always have a clear viewpoint on major foreign policy issues, particularly ones that involve military affairs. So I thought I'd write something about why Afghanistan is an exception.

I thought the original "light footprint" approach of the Bush administration was the correct one, and initially it was highly successful. We worked in conjunction with the locals to drive out the Taliban & Al Qaeda, and put a friendly regime in power. Unfortunately, as with much the Bush administration did, rather than sticking to clear, achievable objectives, we then embarked on a grandiose nation-building project that involved not only trying to democratize and unify a backward society of feuding tribes, but a massive rebuilding & investment process. Afghanistan is further complicated by the presence of a multi-national coalition, in which only a few members actually pull their weight, and most importantly of all, the situation in neighboring Pakistan.

The current debate on what to do now is basically split between two camps, those who favor a counterinsurgency strategy, similar to that pursued by General Petraeus in Iraq. and those who advocate what has come to be called a counterterrorism strategy. Outside those main camps are those who would like to see a U.S. withdrawal. Here's how I see it, and why I haven't taken a strong position either way. 

The Bush administration basically backed the U.S. into a corner in Afghanistan. It committed our power and prestige to the nation-building process. Any withdrawal before we stabilize the situation in some way would be seen as a major defeat and would lead to all sorts of consequences. I dismiss the notion of withdrawal out of hand under the current circumstances. My instinct tells me to favor the counterterrorism strategy. Things have not gone well in the last eight years in Afghanistan. From what I have seen, the attempt to build a central state with an effective military is failing. The Karzai government has less legitimacy than ever before, is uncooperative in many areas, and horribly corrupt. The situation on the Pakistani border, combined with the internal conditions in Pakistan, appear to make the border an unsolvable problem for the foreseeable future. I am predisposed to favor a strategy that minimizes the use of U.S. troops, and simply kills the enemy wherever we can find him. I oppose wasting U.S. resources on the corrupt and ineffective Afghan government. I don't care in the slightest about promoting democracy in Afghanistan, and believe our policy should be predicated on U.S. interests, not Afghan ones. So why am I not a big advocate of the counterterrorism strategy? 

My hesitation about the counterterrorism strategy stems from two main things. First, I don't see it as a solution. Because of the situation on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and because of the nature of the Afghan government, it seems to be a recipe for an endless U.S. involvement. I think that building up the Afghan military while we concentrate on striking terrorists is, at this point, a pipe-dream for reasons I already mentioned -- primarily the inherent weakness of the central government. In other words, I think that the counterterrorism strategy is a method of trying to manage the situation, rather than one which aims toward some sort of victory or solution to the many problems we face. Secondly, my experience with the Iraq surge gives me pause. I was highly skeptical of the surge when it was proposed, but its obvious success gives me greater inclination to consider a counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan, despite the differences in the overall situation of the two countries. It seems to offer the only real hope for stabilizing Afghanistan, or at least improving our position. But I'm still skeptical, because Afghanistan isn't Iraq. 


  1. A key aspect missing in this debate so far is what would happen to Pakistan if the US changed to a 'light footprint'. The Pakistan military has actually had some success in limiting the capacity of the Pakistani Taliban and are about to launch a serious offensive in Waziristan against these forces. If the US chooses a lighter footprint in Afghanistan these Pakistani Taliban will have the Afghan south as a haven away from the Pakistani military offensive. I largely agree with your pessimism regarding the situation, but I can actually see a pincer move (our increase of troops and Pakistan's) causing the Taliban and Al Qaeda a major headache, and possible significant defeat.

  2. Yes, the situation in Pakistan is, and should be, a huge consideration in our strategy. And that's a good point about Pakistani Taliban being able to use Afghanistan as a haven.

    I'm afraid that whatever way the administration chooses to go, it might involve the ever popular political approach: the half-measure. For example, trying a counterinsurgency strategy while refusing to send enough troops to give it a real chance of success, or declaring a counterterrorism policy, yet keeping basically the same force level, and trying to have it both ways.

  3. This 'half measure' is what I fear Obama will do. I seriously believe that Obama thinks that if he goes in with tens of thousands of more troops this will define his presidency and the 2012 election, and he simply does not want that. I would like to think the US president would look beyond this, but....

  4. You seem to have a clear idea of the difference between these two strategies. Can you give or point to some clear explanation of what they are and how they differ?

  5. It's actually pretty complicated and there is some overlap between the two approaches. But here's a brief explanation from last month in the Christian Science Monitor.