Monday, October 19, 2009

Afghanistan II - What's the Plan?

Militant Taliban on the road out of Kabul, Afg...Image by Carl Montgomery via Flickr

The decision to invade Afghanistan was aimed at the destruction of Al Qaida as an effective force able to stage complex and large scale terrorist activities, deny it a secure base and simultaneously to drive the Taliban from power. Al Qaida has since been marginalized and since the invasion has been unable to mount any form of coordinated, serious attack against the US. They are no longer a threat to the US and no longer have a base of operations in Afghanistan such as existed under the protection of the Taliban.

The Taliban were driven from power by US and allied forces. There was no effective follow-thru and soon, the Repblican administration abandoned the hunt for Osama bin Laden and allowed the rural areas to become havens for the Taliban. The US is now paying the price for the misjudgements of the Bush administration in Afghanistan and the choice to turn its eye, efforts and money on Iraq.

The Taliban are resurgent and effective. The country is dangerously corrupt. Karzai is more the mayor of Kabul than president. The recent election was shot thru with fraud and after a recount, a new election is likely. General McChrystal's solution is a major troop surge of at least 40,000 while NATO allies have had enough and will send no more. They want an exit strategy. What alternatives does the new Obama administration have after inheriting a shattered foreign policy, shattered economic policy at home and questionable support from NATO allies?

First, there is the McChrystal alternative. It is not surprising for the general in charge to see the effects of more than six years of indifference to the mission and ask for more troops. But will more boots on the ground really make a difference? That is highly unlikely. The Taliban know that the US will not be in place forever and they can afford to wait. The US treasury cannot continue to absorb endless wars, whether justified or not. And the US cannot continue to sacrifice its military on what very well may be an unwinable war in the conventional sense. Historically there would be no precedent for military victory.

However, putting an additional 40,000 troops into Afghanistan will smack of an occupation. More troops is not better. In fact, it will antagonize the Afghans and serve as a rallying cry for the Taliban. Far more effective would be highly trained special forces that are used to pinpoint targets and terrorist bases to disrupt and destroy Taliban operations. Coupled with an effort to make sure that aid is meaningful - rebuilding infrastructure for example - would go a long way to removing the attraction of the Taliban and deflate any propaganda characterizing the war as an occupation.

Second, the Obama administration has already dialed down the effort to eradicate opium poppy production. This was a misguided effort as all it did was drive poor farmers into the hands of the Taliban. Opium growing accounts for a third of the Afghan economy. No substitute was offered and destruction of the fields meant destruction of the family. It was a foolish policy and the Obama administraton should continue its targeted opium field destruction policy while significantly raising the level of effort to give farmers alternatives so they and their families don't have to choose between starvation and the Taliban.

Third, and most importantly, it is clear that somewhere in 2005 - 2006 the US slowly slipped into a nation-building mission. This was a huge error and needs to be rapidly reversed.

Afghanistan has never been a nation - so there is nothing to rebuild - and the US should not be in that business. Nation building requires the assent of the population and they must do it themselves. The Bush administration indulged in an alarming tendency to lecture other nations and peoples. How has that worked out? It is absurd to believe that anything the US does can result in a viable, cohesive Afghanistan when its entire history is one of tribal rivalry which only seems to come together when a foreign presence descends on Herat or Kabul be it Persia, the Mongols, England, Russia or the US. It is truly the 'graveyard of empires'. None have succeeded. None.

The choices facing the Obama administration are stark and not of its making. Eight years of mismanagement and myth building will not be fixed quickly. President Obama must ignore the conventional wisdom that permeates the Washington village. It has been consistently and deadly wrong for eight years - and not just in Afghanistan.

Everyone wants success but is unable to define it. Richard Holbrook defined success as "knowing it when we see it". Really? What are the goals? Who exactly, is the enemy? I respect Ambassador Holbrook enormously, but I certainly hope that "we'll know it when we see it" is not the definition of success being adopted by this administration. The US needs an exit strategy - an end game - and not one for a long-term engagement with significant military forces.

The internal political problems that the Obama administration faces regarding Afghanistan are one of "damned if you do and damned if you don't". It is abundantly clear that the Republican opposition is not interested in engagement and debate and is simply going to try and tear down, obstruct and damage this administration in any way possible, including fear, obfuscation and outright lies. They will need to be steamrolled. Period.

Granting General McChrystal the troops he claims is necessary for victory - or at least to stabilize the situation - is not necessarilly what is needed. Again, a significantly larger military footpring will achieve the opposite effect with the population. Additional troops of this magnitude will make it impossible to disangage and will be used to justify more troops and money. It has happened before and is a disease that seems to infect American foreign policy.

Fewer troops with a narrow mission of containing and destroying Al Qaida is much more practical than a massive ground war against the Taliban. At the same time,the United States should increase international assistance to Afghanistan under UN supervision. The aid should target the creation of sustainable development, particularly in rural areas. Furthermore, continuing to target opium producers directly tied to the Taliban is a viable policy while providing income-producing alternatives to all the rest would reduce the growing antipathy toward the US.

The Obama administration needs to brush aside the wise old men who pontificate every Sunday on television and in the rapidly shrinking print media who suggest that if only the US had enough troops and enough time, we could build a nation. The US could stay in Afghanistan for a thousand years and it would not achieve its definition of success if the definition is the creation of some sort of Jeffersonian democracy.

Next, I want to discuss the larger picture. Iran, Russia, Europe and Israel.

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