Biddle’s Take on Afghanistan: Vietnam-esque

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Thursday, July 30, 2009 at 6:48 pm

As mentioned in the previous post, Steve Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations recently returned from helping shape Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s 60-day review of Afghanistan war strategy. He shared his thoughts on a conference call with reporters this afternoon, and they weren’t encouraging.

Biddle published a piece in the American Interest recently that attracted a great deal of attention for conceding that the case for staying and fighting in Iraq is only marginally stronger than the case for leaving. On the call, he said he returned from Afghanistan still holding that equivocal perspective, but now “the situation is worse at the margins” than he previously thought. But the interests that justify the war, for Biddle, are not primarily about keeping Afghanistan from returning to a “state-scale haven” for international terrorism, they’re about keeping Pakistan stable. “If Afghanistan got no worse than it is today, our minimum national security interests are met,” he said. “The problem is if we were to leave today, I think the trajectory there would be substantially negative, and Afghanistan would get a lot worse.”

What’s to be done? Biddle said he was only going to speak for himself, but he said that overwhelmingly, the U.S. had to exercise “leverage” to “affect cost-benefit calculus of key officials” in the Afghan government, arguing that lack of political will to govern fairly and effectively was as much if not more of a problem than lack of capacity. For the security picture, Biddle argued that in the immediate term, McChrystal should pick a small number of “critical provinces” — Khost, Helmand and Kandahar — and throw “a lot more people, Afghan and U.S.” there. They would have between 12 and 24 months to secure the population there — not necessarily win, he said, but improve security. If they can’t, then he said he’d say it’s time to withdraw.

All this sounded like, well, Vietnam, to the call’s moderator, Gideon Rose. A war we have to fight not for direct U.S. national security interests but to stop neighboring countries from collapsing? “We’re only talking about one domino,” Biddle said, but he didn’t explain how securing Khost, Kandahar and Helmand would forestall the collapse of Pakistan next door. “But it’s an indirect rather than a direct goal,” Rose rejoindered. “In other words, you don’t care about Afghanistan as much as you care about Pakistan.”

“That is true,” Biddle said, contending that a withdrawal from Afghanistan that risked the fall of Pakistan would be viewed as a greater foreign-policy blunder than Iraq. “But isn’t that how we got… deeper into Vietnam?” Rose asked. “Because no one was willing to bite the bullet?” Biddle conceded the accuracy of a scary parallel.

I think that’s a very important analogy to keep in mind. I thought the analogy between Iraq and Vietnam was misguided and unhelpful. I think the analogy between Afghanistan and Vietnam is potentially a good deal closer. The underlying nature of this conflict is much closer to Vietnam than Iraq ever was. That doesn’t necessarily mean the same outcome is foreordained. And I think a central implication of all this for anyone who decides that this close call on the merits should not be resolved in favor of withdrawal is if you’re going to stay, you need to make darn sure that we get a better outcome than we did in Vietnam. That we fix some of the mistakes we  made then and we do it right this way.

Biddle considered the prospect of a purely counterterrorism strategy, but not for long. “This whole goal of al-Qaeda using Afghanistan to strike the United States is not inconsequential, but is the lesser challenge,” Biddle said about an alternative, counterterrorism-focused strategy. “Whatever you think drones can do to keep Osama bin Laden’s head down, and to keep he and Zawahiri ducking, and perhaps suppress his [strikes against] the United States as a result, those techniques are a very weak device for keeping the Karzai government in office in place and preventing its replacement by a Pashtun Taliban alternative that would be a threat to Pakistan.”

But it was not clear from Biddle’s remarks why an American public that supports an Afghanistan war as a defensive and retaliatory effort against al-Qaeda for 9/11 would support a war to keep the Karzai government in power and to forestall a potential threat to Pakistan.

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Comments

7 Comments

joshuafoust
Comment posted July 30, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

Wait, how is a “Pashtun Taliban alternative” government a threat to Pakistan? Wasn't our big anger at Pakistan that they were specifically supporting the Taliban through the ISI?

This is what happens when you hire security people who are ignorant of the local culture.


Afghanistan: Is Fred Kagan Still Cheerful? « The Stupidest Man on Earth
Pingback posted August 1, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

[...] 1, 2009 by Jari Okay, so we know Cordesman, Biddle and Exum (kinda) came back from Afghanistan gloomy if not outright dejected. But if there is one [...]


Guest
Comment posted August 6, 2009 @ 11:24 pm

“If Afghanistan got no worse than it is today, our minimum national security interests are met,” he said. “The problem is if we were to leave today, I think the trajectory there would be substantially negative, and Afghanistan would get a lot worse.”

The problem is, the US and UK are right now privately auctioning off nearly $500B in Afghan natural resources, world-class deposits of strategic metals, iron and coke, and oil & gas that would make Afghanistan energy independent for 100 years, if the World Bank would let them apply the $2.89B that China MCC paid for the copper deposits to a mere $1B oil refinery.

But they won't, they intend to steal everything for just enough royalties to keep the Karzai crime family, and ANA:ANP militia jackbooting the screaming population through starvation and disease, as Afghanistan is burnt down to a bankrupt smoking moonscape narcostate.

The problem is, America has become a kleptocracy, in the Soviet model, and our fifth estate has become pop idol sychophants, repeating trenchant propaganda from the Golpistas.


danielet
Comment posted September 10, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

The analogy to Vietnam is very much there, except that there are no invading forces from the North; the Taliban you see is what you get, Pakistan notwithstanding. Let's remember that what got LBJ to put in troops into Vietnam was Le Duan's decision to kill ARVN with invading forces from the North (PAVN) before the US makes up its minds to invade. All our troops did that was good was to hold back PAVN. To keep our casualties low we used ordnance on “our” Viets instead of troops, killing lots of civilians as in Afghnaistan. For the VC the people were the sea and its guerrillas were the fish. But as we blew to bits all of the VC's “Fortified Combat Villages,” the peasants ran for refuge to the cities where, according to Le Duc Tho, the VC had no infrastructure. Thanks to one fat wonderful old Jew, “Blowtorch” Bob Khomer, when the peasant sea flooded the cites, leaving the guerrilla fish high and dry, his CORDS operation resettled them. Thanks to Khomer, despite all the dummies in the military, CIA and AID, these people were settled and integrated; according to Hanoi they become “petites bourgeois” lost to the revolution, owing it a “blood debt,” hence the 1968 Tet Offensive against the cities. South Vietnam had undergone in a few years from 85% oppressed rural to a vibrant 75% urban. After that the war was ARVN vs. PAVN as the VCI was left to police action by the “little white mice” and Phoenix. By 1970 I was driving at night in the Mekong Delta and in I Corps because the local VCI did not consider me a worthwhile target for it to risk exposing its assassins to the local RFs/PFs and out CAP/MAT teams. All Hanoi could do, besides major dry season offensives was shoot Katushka rockets into the village market places at 10AM when the most peaseants were there. I will not go into the long story of how Hanoi eventually won. But I will say that it had more to do with domestic US politics than the Vietnam War per say. What I want to do here is point out that Biddle's simplistic either/or strategic arguements are rather a sad refection of how our commanders think. Afterall, they get more stars only from low casualties (ours) campaigns with large body counts (theirs) and so they just call in airstrikes because, well, that's how careerists get ahead. Biddle describes an alQaeda readout that was missed by some 10 massive JDAM bombs. He didn't stop to consider how much it costs to kill one Taliban for this nation of ours that's broke. Obviously, that's because the Pentagon feels it has to open its secrets to no one and that its budgets are beyond scrutiny. It is WORSE than the CIA in covering its tracks. But if we took all that biiiiiiiigggg money we spend killing Afghans to instead built MANUFACTURING cities in the Northwest where the Taliban does NOT YET control, a lot of the young men that now fight for dignity would vote with their feet to work for dignity. The factories could be EU controlled and the goods sold domestically and exported. The salaries could be high enough that they would send home a lot of cash, something you can't use in Taliban controlled areas. Trade cities in Central Asia have always been victims of the “mountain men” that violently pillage them. But productive salary and education producing cities would not attract as many suicde shahids as now do the corrupt rotten cities of Karzai. Instead, one brother would be willing to defend it while the other works to make enough money to feed the larger family. A war is not fought with kill or not kill. The Biddle either/ors are reflective of how the post-Cold War US went from dumb to dumber and on to dumbest in the eyes of the rest of the world. Americans suffer from the “ain't my kid goin' to Iraq” disconnect syndrome. As a result, Rumsfeld and his troll Cheney literally got away with murder under the leadership of the UNdecider wimpy cheerleader we voted twice captain of the football team. Dems are not worth spit unless they declassify everything and begin to hold people accountable. Until then they deserve all the mercenary screaming nuts at their Townhalls. If he goes with killer McChrystal any longer, this war will become Obama's War just as Bush's crooked economy is now Obama's. So expose the “top secret” lies and idiocies,” calling for a national reconsideration of how we can leave Afghnaistan to its neighbors (the Shanghai Accord) the way we are– FINALLY– leaving Iraq to its neighbors. Otherwise, this war that Rummy only meant to be a 9/11 bait-and-switch for Iraq– cannibalizing funds appropriated by Congress to get binLaden to start a war in Iraq and then argue: you can't leave our troops already in battle in Iraq unsupported– will become OBAMA'S WAR with all the concequences that come from killer leadership such as that which all through the last century proved counter-productive.


danielet
Comment posted January 1, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

Foust made a critical point: Pakistan-Pashtun relations were hot and heavy for a looooonnnng loooonnnng time. Just as resolution of Iraq will come about as result of REGIONAL accord once bull in china shop Odierno is brought home, Afghan crisis will be resolved at expense of Taliban once weasel in a china shop McChrystal is brought home. Besides exsanguinating ourselves obeying all these Pentagon careerists, we are also pushing Muslims everywhere to send shahids to avenge all the thousands of Muslims we kill each week out of fear and ignorance. YANGEE GO HOME for the sake of your mom and dad soldiers and the kids they were all forced to abandon because of war-evader Bush's “stop-loss” decree. Are we still a democracy or a panic-ocracy?


danielet
Comment posted January 1, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

Foust made a critical point: Pakistan-Pashtun relations were hot and heavy for a looooonnnng loooonnnng time. Just as resolution of Iraq will come about as result of REGIONAL accord once bull in china shop Odierno is brought home, Afghan crisis will be resolved at expense of Taliban once weasel in a china shop McChrystal is brought home. Besides exsanguinating ourselves obeying all these Pentagon careerists, we are also pushing Muslims everywhere to send shahids to avenge all the thousands of Muslims we kill each week out of fear and ignorance. YANGEE GO HOME for the sake of your mom and dad soldiers and the kids they were all forced to abandon because of war-evader Bush's “stop-loss” decree. Are we still a democracy or a panic-ocracy?


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