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Afghanistan Op-Eds: A Dual Containment Strategy

If you look at The New York Times op-ed page today, you have a Les Gelb piece on how to withdraw from Afghanistan and a joint Max Boot/Kagan family piece on how to succeed. Andrew Exum snarks that it feels like 2005 again, as those arguments by those authors were put forward about Iraq. Of course, Boot & the Kagans won that argument by virtue of the surge. But this one is filled with misunderstood terms on both sides.

First, the Boot/Kagans op-ed. The big problem with their piece is that it argues “we can succeed” without explaining what success is. In a just world, the op-ed editor at The Times would have sent the piece back with a note about not running it until the key term is defined. They’re more concerned with counting out the total requirements of U.S. troops for the country, practically speaking, but it’s impossible to judge troop requirements in the absence of a goal. Toning down the obnoxiousness of the claim that “defeatist hysteria [is] now gripping some in the American political elite” would be nice as well, since presumably they don’t want to call, oh, Defense Secretary Bob Gates a defeatist to his face. But you can’t always get what you want. (Oh, and new rule: those who argued for years about the singular primacy of the Iraq war to U.S. foreign policy don’t get to bemoan “years of chronic neglect” in Afghanistan.)

Instead, when you get past the overall fog of the piece, there are some useful suggestions. Most notably, they make a compelling case that the Afghanistan justice system is in disarray and requires a sustained effort to fix it. They don’t go this far, but a system that can’t adjudicate between who is and who isn’t a criminal or a terrorist on top of a sweep-’em-up detention approach is a surefire path to alienating the all-important Afghan population. And they make the crucial point that in order to eliminate the jihadist safe havens — supposedly the agreed-upon objective justifying our sustained presence — you need to have the complicity of the populace for things like providing intelligence, and the populace won’t provide that intelligence unless its basic needs are provided for by U.S., NATO and Afghan government forces. They might have done a better job of recognizing that no one is denying that point, but still, it’s important to note.

Now, Gelb’s piece. To his credit, he goes past the cant and points out that if Taliban elements can be cleaved from al-Qaeda, we won’t have a problem with them. But the big issue with Gelb’s piece is that he says we can get out of Afghanistan in three years and doesn’t explain how he calculates that. And that’s also a non-trivial problem, since it’s hard to match the scale of the problem with the approach outlined with the timeline envisioned. Why should we believe things will congeal as Gelb predicts?

Well, for one reason, he’s paying an unacknowledged tribute to the surge that he and I opposed by replicating one of its contemporaneously unheralded successes: it reduced the pool of enemies that the United States faced. Similarly, Gelb advocates bringing the Taliban into the government. One problem here: as much as Gelb rightfully points out that “no group is monolithic,” he doesn’t disaggregate who can and can’t be reconciled. But the Afghan government, who’d be the ones doing the reconciliation, has set some parameters: only mid-level commanders need apply. (Presumably whatever government comes after that of current Afghan President Hamid Karzai would have criteria for inclusion as well.) If Gelb is aware that the government has established that standard, it doesn’t show in his 0p-ed.

But Gelb also advocates a talk-while-fighting approach, and explicitly embraces a counterinsurgency strategy, which is probably going to be what the Obama administration will embrace as well. For instance:

[W]hile we should talk to the Taliban, Washington can’t rely on their word and so must fashion a credible deterrent. The more the Taliban set up shop inside Afghanistan, the more vulnerable they will be to American punishment. Taliban leaders must have good reason to fear America’s military reach. Their leaders could be hit by drones or air strikes. The same goes for their poppy fields, from which they derive considerable income. Most important, Mr. Obama must do what the Bush team inexplicably never seemed to succeed in doing — stop the flow of funds to the Taliban that comes mainly through the Arab Gulf states. At the same time, he could let some money trickle in to reward good behavior.

It would be silly to call that “defeatist,” but the B/Ks’ argument suggests they think it is.

Gelb makes a broader point about the need to establish a modus vivendi with Afghanistan’s neighbors to provide for post-U.S. security. That’s the sort of thing where you can actually get away with vagueness — until a working group gets off the ground, you don’t really have a good basis for saying whether different states’ interests conflict, or whether those conflicts can’t be overcome. As a generic proposal, it’s better to have that dialogue than to not have it.

So is this 2005 all over again? It doesn’t really look like it. Indeed, the complementary nature of both op-eds’ practical proposals suggests that there’s room for a consensus position on Afghanistan in a way that there never was, politically, on Iraq. Now if only we can stop thinking about Afghanistan through the prism of Iraq, we might actually reach it.

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