Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Future of Afghanistan

Articles about the worsening of the military and political situation in Afghanistan are becoming distressingly commonplace. The situation is not at all helped by our insistence on bombing the hell out of Afghan civilians in our efforts to counter the Taliban insurgency. In an effort to counter the resurgent Taliban-hopefully without managing to kill more Afghans than the Taliban do-U.S. Marines are being shifted out of Iraq and to Afghanistan. At first glance bolstering our efforts in Afghanistan would appear to be the right course of action to take, but writing in the NY Times a couple of weeks back, Bartle Breese Bull argues that we should limit our goals in Afghanistan to ones that we can realistically obtain...and that this does not include building Afghanistan into some kind of stable and functioning democracy:

Destroying the Taliban regime after 9/11 was just and rational. And it was done in an effective and proportionate manner: over just six weeks in late 2001, with several hundred American special operatives on the ground, American air support and our allies in the Northern Alliance.

Since then, however, the mission has grown. Today there are 71,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, yet things are getting ever worse. There were 10 times as many armed attacks on international troops and civilian contractors in 2007 as there were in 2004. Every other measure of violence, from roadside bombs to suicide bombers, is also up dramatically. Our principal ally at the beginning of the war, the Northern Alliance, controlled more of the country at the end of 2001 than President Hamid Karzai, our current principal ally, effectively controls today.

The United States must certainly punish those who attack it and those who give sanctuary to such people. This is why the Afghan war has always had popular support. But our initial goals — dethroning the Taliban and disrupting Al Qaeda — have been as thoroughly accomplished as is possible given the porous frontier that Afghanistan shares with Pakistan.

Thus the creeping mission in Afghanistan has fed on a perception of four further American interests: the denial of sanctuary to global terrorists; the projection of American power in a sensitive part of the world; support for modernity in the global struggle for the Muslim mind; and cutting heroin exports. Each needs careful reconsideration.

Which he then goes on to do, arguing that essentially none of these goals can be achieved by an open-ended and massive commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan. His logic is compelling. Thus far stability and democracy (of a sort) in Afghanistan has been seen as the panacea to all four interests listed above, but the question is the feasibility of a stable government in Afghanistan that is capable of protecting itself from the Taliban, or capable of controlling the various warlords that still dominate Afghani politics. Frankly, a strong and democratic government in Afghanistan is probably impossible to achieve, at least without an completely open-ended occupation of Afghanistan (and probably not even then, given the nation's history.) So what goals can we achieve? At best, we can continue to deny the Taliban the ability to reassert themselves as the ruling power in Afghanistan, and we can continue to harass Taliban fighters and their Al Qaeda allies who move back and forth in and out of Afghanistan via Pakistan. Unfortunately, as long as Pakistan's Western provinces operate as something of a safe haven for the Taliban, they can continue to harass our troops, Afghan civilians and the Afghan government with spectacular raids and ambushes, suicide attacks, and assaults on remote outposts. Bull arrives at the crux of the problem, the porous border with Pakistan and the safe havens that the Taliban operate out of in Pakistan that we can do precious little about. Of course, fighting between the new Pakistan government and the Taliban has increased in recent weeks, and the uneasy "peace" that existed between Musharraf and the Taliban seems to evaporating. But counting on any government in Pakistan to completely eliminate a group that is highly supported by the mostly Pashtun residents of Western Pakistan, has proven to be stubbornly resistant on the battlefield and has the not-so-cover support of the Pakistani intelligence services is certainly expecting too much. It would appear that the ability of the Taliban to operate with some semblance of freedom out of Pakistan is a fact of life that we simply must grow accustomed to.

The question then is, what exactly should our focus in Afghanistan be? Bull appears to think the mission as it exists now, to harass the Taliban and maintain Karzai as the leader of Afghanistan, is all we can hope to accomplish. And although I'm full aware of the difficult strategic position we're in when it comes to Afghanistan, I just can't bring myself to agree fully with him. I do think additional troops can make a significant difference, and I'm more disturbed by the threat posed by a virtual safe haven for Al Qaeda's leadership (including bin Laden, who's still out there somewhere.) However, I agree with him that domestic political considerations make it easy to engage in the sort of mission creep that will see our goals in Afghanistan grow out of all proportion to our ability to achieve those goals. Bolstering the mission in Afghanistan will be justified not only by the language of security, but also by the language of democracy, thus helping to establish expectations for Afghanistan in the mind of the American public that we cannot possibly meet without being willing to occupy Afghanistan for decades (a necessity that will most certainly NOT be mentioned to the public.) I for one am willing to let things develop further. I'd like to see to what degree the government of Pakistan can control the Taliban, and I'd like to see what additional American and NATO forces can do to bolster security in Afghanistan. But we should all certainly understand that success in Afghanistan is far from a foregone conclusion, and that Afghanistan in ten years may look pretty much the same as it does now.

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