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January 16, 2012

Between Victory and Defeat in Afghanistan

by Mike M

The always-thoughtful Anthony Cordesman’s important piece in the Post yesterday implicitly raises a critical question for the future of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

But it’s not the explicit question Cordesman is posing—what will be the amount and shape of U.S. resourcing of the Afghan government after 2014.  The answer to that question is in fact only a by-product of a larger question:  Is there any viable strategic end-state between “victory” and “defeat,” as traditionally conceived?

Because the unstated assumption of Cordesman’s logic thread—“if we don’t provide far more than $10 billion a year, the center won’t hold”—is that we’re still seeking “victory” according to some traditional definition.  Cordesman does use the dread “W” word (“win”), but more often raises the ultimate objectives by implication.  He’ll toss around the word “need”—Kabul “needs” X dollars—to achieve some indefinable goal.

But most of all, an unstated objective seems to hang in the background, looming like some party guest who has overstayed his welcome.  These discussions presume that our goal remains traditional “victory”—the creation of a stable, effective, legitimate central government; the defeat of the insurgency; political reconciliation; economic development; and so forth.  Policy questions are asked in light of what is necessary to make that happen.

It is right to be mindful of premature defeatism.  (Think Iraq, circa 2006; though premature triumphalism—Iraq circa 2009—may be just as dangerous.)  The Taliban’s reported offer to open a political offer in Qatar has the Surgists boasting that The Enemy is ready to cry uncle because of the beating they’re getting.  Yet the challenges with the Received Model of Victory seem at this point to be fatal.

  1. I am not aware of anyone intimately familiar with the situation in the ground who believes that the basis has been laid—by us, by Hamid Karzai, by dynamics on the ground, by fate, by history—for the sort of strong, stable, central government envisioned by the Received Model.  If anything the fragmentation of Afghan politics appears to be accelerating, partly under the influence of the 2014 timeline built into the U.S. strategy.
  2. Indeed the very notion of a coherent “insurgency” long ago gave way to a far more complex pattern of social violence, crime and sponsored power-seeking.  The balance among these factors is hard to judge, but it could be that the classic “insurgent” phase of afghan violence could easily (and tragically) transition into a new phase of rivalry and criminal enterprises.
  3. Integral to a theory of victory is control of safe havens.  There is even less prospect of this happening today than there was two or three years ago, for obvious reasons.
  4. Although this is speculation, if we take Bob Woodward’s book on White House deliberations seriously, we have every reason to believe that Vice President Biden’s recent ruminations on the Taliban reflect an underlying sentiment that U.S. efforts cannot disentangle the centuries-old conflicts, tribal grievances and criminal networks now bound up in what we call the “insurgency.”  Woodward reports long debates on what it means to “win,” with outcomes that produced President Obama’s “terms sheet”:  A nuanced view, to some; an obfuscation, to others.
  5. Cordesman’s suggested price tag for a muscular effort to back a transitioned war effort for a decade after 2014 is $140 billion.  At a time when Americans are seeing Social Security checks shaved back and U.S. public sector workers are getting pink slips, this is going to be a tough pill to swallow.

At the same time, “defeat” is not an option—politically even more than strategically.  Any president who “allows” Afghanistan to collapse into anarchy after ten years of hard effort will catch hell.

Strategically, anyone who brushes off further risk by saying “The Taliban and al Qaeda don’t get along” is trying to wish away genuine dangers.  While the Taliban has little prospect of seizing the country today—the ANSF is nothing like the rag-tag groups the Talbs overran in the mid-1990s—there is no denying the spider’s web of interactions between “insurgents,” criminal enterprises, tribes, and genuine radical terrorists.  The U.S. government claims that the Haqqanis maintain ties to al Qaeda; which is not to say the Haqqanis would rule a more unstable Afghanistan, or would allow a massive AQ training facility if they did.  But it is to suggest that the whole cocktail of militancy and radicalism has become a mutually-supporting network.  This is not a good thing, for us or for regional stability.  The argument that an Afghanistan spinning out of control could drag Pakistan with it—that the current safe havens dynamic could begin to work itself in reverse—sounds all too plausible.

But back to the question:  What does that mean, in terms of strategy?  So far we’ve been taking what amounts to a “hold the line” approach:  Keep enough U.S. troops in Afghanistan for as long as possible to beat down the insurgency as far as possible while we still can.  Knock off as many senior leaders, AQ and other, with drones.  Stir and continue.

But this can’t go on forever.  The local politics of night raids and drone strikes (which are, to be sure, mixed, but still overall costly) make them unsustainable at their current pace; and the domestic U.S. and global international legitimacy issues attached to an unending foreign COIN/CT campaign make it unsustainable as permanent strategy.  And the United States will not feel itself responsible for stabilizing a country just for the sake of it.

So:  Supposing we cannot “win” in a classic sense in Afghanistan.  Things are bound to get a lot messier after 2014.  Our current approaches have something to recommend them but won’t be able to continue at their current level.  Yet we cannot pack up and leave.

Which brings us back to what may be the key question, one that many analysts, dedicated to one or the other more resolute “answer,” don’t want to address in detail.  Is there an effective strategy to which U.S. instruments of power can be directed that would achieve essential U.S. interests—not only keeping al Qaeda in check, but also promoting the stability of Pakistan and the region as a whole—that falls in between traditional victory and defeat?

The betting here is that we’re going to find out, one way or the other.  The only question is whether we do so by default or design.

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