Most of you have followed the series on the Afghanistan strategy debate at Abu Muqawama that was prompted by the Andrew Bacevich article or read the exchange I had with Dr. Bernard Finel or at the many other defense blogs talking Afghanistan. So many at once, that Dave Dilegge of SWJ asked everyone to chill out and lower the “noise”. Dilegge later explained on Dr. James Joyner’s OTB Radio program that he wasn’t trying to stifle debate so much as point out that the staff working for Gen. McChrystal that are trying to put together a strategic plan were feeling overwhelmed by the blizzard of contradictory expert and not-so-expert advice that was suddenly flying furiously in the blogosphere.
When we consider that a lot of the recent debate was of a “should we be there?” character rather than “what should we do now?”, Dave had a reasonable point. The military leadership in Afghanistan doesn’t have the luxury of asking the former question or any control over regional or national policy as it should be designed at the level of the NSC – they have to answer the second question.
In that spirit, I’ll try to offer a few concise thoughts on relating strategy to what should come next in Afghanistan.
1. Is there a strategic American interest in Afghanistan?:
Many anti-war and anti-COIN writers have pointed out that the U.S. does not have any intrinsic interests in Afghanistan. In a narrow sense, this is correct. Afghanistan has nothing we need and no economy to speak of. We abandoned Afghanistan after the end of the Soviet War and are there now only because al Qaida happened to be based there at the time of 9/11. Why not just leave again?
Afghanistan could properly be fitted into national strategy from two angles. A regional strategy for Central Asia and the Subcontinent or as part of a global strategy in the war against al Qaida. As the former task would be too complicated and slow to finesse from an interagency perspective, we should view Afghanistan in the context as a part of a global war against al Qaida. We need Afghanistan’s proximity to al Qaida in Pakistan’s border provinces in order to attack al Qaida effectively and to put continuous pressure on Pakistan’s government, elements of which which still sponsors the Taliban and, at least indirectly, al Qaida.
Can we do the same things from aircraft carriers? No? Then we need to be in Afghanistan, at least for a time.
2. Why is al Qaida so important and how will we know if we”win”?:
What makes al Qaida distinctive from all other Islamist terrorist-insurgencies is their transnational, strategic, analysis and commitment to struggle against the “far enemy” ( i.e. the US) and for the unification of the “ummah”. That’s really unique. Every other violent actor in the jihadisphere is really dedicated to their own particularist Islamist project of struggle – nationalist or secessionist – against the “near enemy” of their home country regimes. Like Lenin and Trotsky working for world revolution, Bin Laden and Zawahiri try to plan and make AQ an independent player on an international level, unlike HAMAS, Hezbollah, Salafist Call to Combat and various other Islamist armed groups. They have also, from time to time, managed to operationalize these ambitions and “project power” through major acts of terrorism around the world.
We “win” when Bin Laden, Zawahiri and their small cohort of “global revolutionary” jihadists are dead and their paradigm discredited in favor of “localist”, “near enemy” jihadists – who have always composed the vast majority of violent Islamist extremists. The latter are no threat to us, it is the commitment of Bin Laden and co. to their vision that represents a threat. When they are gone al Qaida is likely to be seen among Islamic radicals as a grand failed experiment.
3. What are America’s objectives in Afghanistan?:
Our goal should be that Afghanistan’s government and populace are hostile towards the return of al Qaida to their territory. That’s it.
4. How should we accomplish this objective?:
My perception is that we have tried three interrelated, interdependent but also competing policies in the last eight years in Afghanistan.
3. State Building
Counterterrorism has been the policy that we have been most effective at – disrupting al Qaida organizationally, keeping its leadership on the move and in flux, squeezing it financially and grinding away at it’s primary local ally, the Taliban. We should keep doing this and even become more aggressive as this is the policy closest to American national interest.
COIN is vital in Afghanistan – but not as an end in itself. If the US embarks upon some kind of 25 year Roman Legionary version of COIN on steroids, then we have gone badly astray. We need intelligence. We need cooperation and support from Afghans. We need Afghans to see the U.S. as a benefactor and al Qaida and the Taliban as bringers of woe and misery. That requires COIN with local U.S. and NATO commanders being given great flexibility – including with discretionary expenditure of funds and alteration of policy, without a mountain of red tape and second guessing in far distant capitals by bespectacled lawyers wearing silk ties and gold cuff links.
COIN is – like Afghanistan – a means to an end.
State Building is a cardinal part of COIN doctrine. I suggest that in terms of Afghanistan, we throw that premise out the window and just accept dealing with provincial and local elites who have real power (i.e. – armed men with guns, respect of local population, a clientela network of officials and notables). Afghanistan has rarely ever had a strong, centralized, state in its history and Afghans do not have high expectations of what Kabul can do for them. Trying to swim against that current, the sheer cultural and historical inertia it represents, is a waste of our time and money. While state building as an objective fascinates diplomats and the academic-NGO set, it is actually the least of our priorities and if we ever did build a strong state in Afghanistan, it’s first order of business would be to interfere in our making war on al Qaida and second, to kick us the hell out of their country.
If we have to build a state apparatus, let’s build them locally with a heavy emphasis on their stimulating economic activity and financing local, private, production of goods and establishing security forces composed of residents. That way, someday, if Afghanistan ever has a functioning national government, it will at least have a stream of revenue from levying taxes in relatively orderly provinces.
5. These seem like “minimalist” goals:
Yes. But in practice, quite large enough.
The problem with the asymmetric mismatch between the U.S. and it’s foes is that we bring so astronomical a flow of resources in our wake that we end up “growing” our enemies. Like parasites, they manage to feed off of our war effort against them. Afghanistan is so miserably poor that nearly everything we bring in to the country has relative market value. If you remember CNN clips of the U.S. retreat from Somalia, the last scene was the local warlord permitting impoverished Somalis to swarm over our abandoned base, the mob was gleefully seizing scraps of what most Americans would consider to be worthless crap.
That market differential inevitably breeds corruption when it comes to US. aid. It cannot be waved away any more than we can pretend supply and demand does not exist. While it is counterintuitive, less is more. Keeping our clients on bare sufficiency is more functional for our purposes then generosity.
That’s not just being pragmatic, its’ cheaper too. It makes no sense to spend a trillion (borrowed) dollars in a country whose GDP will not generate that kind of wealth in a thousand years.
6. What about “destabilizing” Pakistan?:
The primary destabilizer of Pakistan is the Pakistani government’s schizophrenic relationship with the extremist groups it creates, subsidizes, funds and trains to unleash on all its neighbors. When the Islamist hillbillies in FATA or their Punjabi and Kashmiri equivalents try to menace the interests of Pakistan’s wealthy elite, the “ineffectual” Pakistani Army and security services can move with a sudden, savage efficiency.
Anyone who thinks the Pakistani Taliban can come down from the hills and take over Islamabad has a very short historical memory of what the Pakistani Army did in Bangladesh before the latter’s independence.
7. When can the troops “go home”?:
To be blunt, we are not staying for four decades; it is not in American interests to make Afghanistan the 51st state. We stayed in Germany after WWII for 50 years only because it was Germany – the industrial and geopolitical heart of Europe. Afghanistan is not “Germany” to any country on earth except Pakistan (their “strategic depth” against an invasion by India). If we dial down our objectives to the simple obliteration of al Qaida, I suggest that our departure could take place within the few years time it would take to convince/squeeze Islamabad into seeing that path as the fastest, cheapest, way to get rid of a very large American presence in their backyard. Right now, Islamabad sees us setting up shop for generations to come and Pakistan’s generals are acting to frustrate that perceived goal as much as they dare.
Strategy involves making choices and accepting costs. What costs do you think the U.S. should be prepared to shoulder in solving the problem of Afghanistan ( either by staying or leaving)?
In the comments section, Slapout and Lexington Green have recommended some very good links that I would like to offer below.
Col. John Warden – Strategic Options: The West and Afghanistan
Dr. Stephen Biddle – Is It Worth It? The Difficult Case for War in Afghanistan