Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Those Nagging Foreign Policy Questions

Last night I discussed our need to have a broad conversation on the limits of American power and how our foreign policy goals should be shaped by those limits. This applies to any number of foreign policy conundrums we find ourselves facing as a nation, but nowhere is this question more urgent than in Afghanistan, where we find ourselves bracing for a long war that will consume vastly more resources than it has to this point, with no clear exit strategy or signs of victory (does that all sound familiar?) There are two questions that come to mind when we approach the feasibility of fighting in Afghanistan. First, can we afford what it would cost us to "win" in Afghanistan?

Unless [Fred Kagan's] views have changed over the past year and a half, Kagan seems to think that the "war on terror" - defined as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - must be "won" no matter the cost.

This kind of Bush-era strategic laziness has got to go. Containing international terrorism needs to be recast as a high priority among several in our national security strategy, rather than George W. Bush's "defining ideological struggle of the 21st century" or Senator McCain's phrase, "transcendent challenge."

Those of us who question whether throwing more troops, money, and political capital into Afghanistan makes sense need to point out the opportunity costs of an escalation and we need to challenge folks like Frederick Kagan and others to explain how much their plan will cost and why it is worth spending our limited resources in Afghanistan instead of addressing our other interests at home and around the globe.

Of course, we can't hope to answer that question without an honest assessment of what we hope to achieve in Afghanistan? Democracy? A stable state? A state free of the Taliban, or a state that integrates elements (or all) of the Taliban? Or are we hoping simply to deny the Taliban their victory, however long that may take? Each of these goals require a different amount of resources. Since the overarching goal is protecting America from future terrorist attacks, we must ask if securing Afghanistan (and necessarily Pakistan to some extent) is the best way to go about that. Or are we better served spending the billions of month we'll spend on war in Afghanistan on counter-intelligence, securing our borders, or paying someone else to fight the Taliban?

The second question that arises then is, can we actually hope to achieve any of these goals? The default position on Afghanistan that the administration and most American proponents of the war seem to have adopted is that we must "defeat" the Taliban; prevent them from returning to power and destroy the ability of their allies in Al Qaeda from plotting and launching future attacks from safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In his review of counter-insurgent David Kilcullen's book, Andrew Bacevich arrives at this conclusion (via Abu Muquwama):

Here we arrive at the nub of the matter. According to a currently fashionable view, the chief operative lesson of the Iraq War is that counterinsurgency works, with U.S. forces having now mastered the best practices required to prevail in conflicts of this nature. Those who adhere to this view expect the Long War to bring more such challenges, with the neglected Afghan conflict even now presenting itself as next in line. Given this prospect, they want the Pentagon to gear itself up for a succession of such trials, enshrining counterinsurgency as the preferred American way of war in place of discredited concepts like “shock and awe.” Doing so will have large implications for how defense dollars are distributed among the various armed services and for how U.S. forces are trained, equipped and configured. Ask yourself how many fighter-bombers or nuclear submarines it takes to establish an effective government presence in each of Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages and you get the gist of what this might imply.

Yet given the costs of Iraq—now second only to World War II as the most expensive war in all U.S. history—and given the way previous efforts to pacify the Afghan countryside have fared, how much should we expect to spend in redeeming Afghanistan’s forty thousand villages? Having completed that task five or ten years hence, how many other villages in Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Egypt will require similar ministrations? And how many more accidental guerrillas will we inadvertently create along the way?

Kilcullen the apostate knows full well that an approach that hinges on wholesale societal transformation makes no sense. The consummate counterinsurgency professional understands that the application of technique, however skillful, will not suffice to salvage the Long War. Yet as someone deeply invested in that conflict, he cannot bring himself to acknowledge the conclusion to which his own analysis points: the very concept of waging a Long War as the antidote to Islamism is fundamentally and irrevocably flawed.

If counterinsurgency is useful chiefly for digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in, then why not simply avoid the holes? Why play al-Qaeda’s game? Why persist in waging the Long War when that war makes no sense?

Bacevich is right to wonder whether or not the new adherence to counter-insurgency (fashionably notated in military circles as COIN) presents with a feasible method of defeating enemies like the Taliban. Proponents of COIN point to the success of Iraq, but everyone knows that we were lucky that Al Qaeda overplayed it's hand and we were able to turn the Sunni tribes against them and convince them to buy into a national government (for now at least.) That likelihood of repeating that feat in Afghanistan is considerably lower thanks to vastly different circumstances on the ground. The Soviets waged something of a counter-insurgency themselves, though brutally so, and failed to subdue Afghanistan. Of course we benefit from the Taliban having already demonstrated the unpleasantness of their rule; many Afghans would rather not see the Taliban return to power. But how long do the Taliban need merely hang around before the option of having the Taliban in control of a peaceful country starts to look acceptable to the average Afghan civilian?

I'm sure these questions are all being asked by people at all levels of the military and the Obama administration. The problem is, proponents of escalation in Afghanistan seem to accept that if we simply  spend enough money, apply enough force, use the right tactics and stay long enough, we can subdue the Taliban (or at least they argue in the alternative that we can't afford not to subdue the Taliban.) But such assurances seem to ignore a long history of failed counter-insurgencies, among which we have one very noteworthy failure of our own.

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