Biddle’s Take on Afghanistan: Vietnam-esque
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.