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Plan B in Afghanistan

As the Taliban’s fighting and governing prowess improves, Sean Kay puts together a Plan B for Afghanistan over at Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel. Rather than expand the war’s aperture, Kay’s proposal is premised on restricting it to the areas where al-Qaeda’s mixture with the Taliban is most acute:

Shift from COIN to containment: Rather than a heavier presence, the United States should limit its military operations in southern Afghanistan and consolidate existing gains. Where possible, U.S. officials can negotiate with Taliban in the south if they will turn against global jihadists. Many Afghans supporting the Taliban can be bought out — requiring financial incentives to persuade and empower populations to reject extremism. While several years ago major troop increases could have worked in southern Afghanistan, more troops now may be dangerously counterproductive. Increased presence in the south risks pushing Taliban over the mountains and into nuclear armed Pakistan. Meanwhile, previously secure areas of northern Afghanistan are falling under Taliban and al Qaeda influence — encircling Kabul and threatening NATO supply lines.

Align strategy and tactics: Containment will not be easy against an unconventional threat. A softer footprint that emphasizes army and police training, economic progress in key cities, and supporting non-corrupt local leaders is the best route. Redeploying forces to consolidate gains in stable areas is a more effective use of troops than sustained combat operations. The promised civilian surge must be resourced, recruited, trained, exercised, and deployed. Continued pressure from Pakistan against the Taliban remains crucial. Counterterrorism efforts should be redoubled — mainly as an intelligence operation with military support. Pentagon and other planners need to develop clear operational concepts for an effective containment regime for southern Afghanistan — and, once established, implement plans for a steady decrease in overall troop numbers.

Couple of points here. First, the point about pushing the Taliban over the mountains back into Pakistan is what motivated Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) into calling for a withdrawal timetable, and it’s one that those who base support for the Afghanistan war on the dangers of Pakistan’s internal collapse rarely address. Second, it’s very hard to understand on this analysis why a Taliban that sees itself as winning would be willing to negotiate with the Kabul government or the NATO coalition, or why it would distance itself from al-Qaeda. It’s possible that fighting the Taliban won’t succeed in that goal either, but not fighting them offers little reason why the Taliban would change its behavior.

Third, and most important: Kay doesn’t get around to saying what “containing” the Taliban means, or what it requires. What’s the goal of containment? Does it mean accepting that the Taliban can have the run of various provinces, but no more than what it currently holds? When would a confrontation with Taliban forces be justified? Are we really talking about bifurcating Afghanistan between Kabul-controlled and Taliban-controlled areas, and buttressing the “green” zones that Kabul controls? If there’s a counterterrorism mission set to intensify, why would a populace that’s getting precious little from the U.S./Kabul coalition provide the intelligence tips necessary to sustain such missions? And what if, as Matthew Yglesias’ commenter DTM wonders, a greater, not smaller, troop presence is necessary for containment?

Yglesias himself observes:

The aim is basically to try to stabilize the situation, shore up the Afghan government, help defend the people who are friendly to us, and keep a lid on the Taliban. That, it seems to me, can accomplish a lot at a pretty reasonable price. The escalation alternative seems to me to drastically raise the costs we need to bare in exchange for some pretty small gains.

Kay’s plan is at least more rigorous than George Will’s column, so it seems odd that Will’s is getting more attention.

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