The Missing Piece in Afghanistan Strategy
Check out this New York Times piece about the Afghanistan debate’s latest shifts in the White House. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are now on board with a 30,000-troop increase*, as is Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The president is said to be skeptical about any strategy predicated on the strength or performance of an Afghanistan government that returned itself to power through ballot theft and got away with it. For instance:
In the Situation Room meetings and other sessions, some officials have expressed deep reservations about President Hamid Karzai, who emerged the victor of a disputed Afghan election. They said there was no evidence that Mr. Karzai would carry through on promises to crack down on corruption or the drug trade or that his government was capable of training enough reliable Afghan troops and police officers for Mr. Obama to describe a credible exit strategy.
Officials said that although the president had no doubt about what large numbers of United States troops could achieve on their own in Afghanistan, he repeatedly asked questions during recent meetings on Afghanistan about whether a sizable American force might undercut the urgency of the preparations of the Afghan forces who are learning to stand up on their own.
“He’s simply not convinced yet that you can do a lasting counterinsurgency strategy if there is no one to hand it off to,” one participant said.
Blink and you’ll miss the implicit premise of the Obama administration’s strategy. Obama has described a long-term commitment to Pakistan and Afghanistan, something both countries arguably require for reassurance before doing all these things we want. But he also doesn’t want an open-ended war — all of which is ostensibly designed to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al-Qaeda. But what gets the United States from fighting in Afghanistan to a long-term commitment to Afghanistan without fighting? Capable Afghan security forces. OK, then.
But notice what that strategy doesn’t do. It doesn’t, on its own terms, have anything to do with al-Qaeda. The presumption is that a stable Afghanistan won’t be a place that provides strategic depth for al-Qaeda in Pakistan. And that might be right. But it’s not an offensive strategy against al-Qaeda. For all the strategy presumes, al-Qaeda could do absolutely nothing for the next few years while the U.S. trains Afghan soldiers and police. And then once the security handoff occurs, the U.S. could have a plausible transition to a peacetime relationship with Afghanistan — assume for a moment that’s realistic — with al-Qaeda still intact in Pakistan. What then?
On the one hand, a strategy that cares for the needs of an at-risk population — for security, for justice, for economic opportunity, for cultural expression — is one that probably provides a more durable obstacle to al-Qaeda, since it handles the “demand side” of why al-Qaeda attracts the passive support necessary for its survival. But on the other hand, that’s a very long term and indirect strategy on its own, akin to stopping the nutrient flow in the soil in order to kill a tree. The United States’ offensive tools against al-Qaeda in neighboring Pakistan are either direct CIA drone strikes or indirect attacks by the Pakistani military. If both countries shift to a posture of U.S. support over the next few years, then we’re looking at the real contours of Obama’s endgame in Afghanistan: containment. It might work, it might not. But no one’s describing it in these terms.
*Right, about that 30,000-troop number. Notice The Times doesn’t specify whether it includes any support troops, which will tick the number upward. As I wrote in my piece on Monday:
It is possible that support and logistical units could increase any troop number that the administration cites as the total estimate, as happened when President Bush announced a troop surge to Iraq of about 20,000 troops in January 2007 but about 28,000 new troops actually deployed.