This article is a response to Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.
Nir Rosen is right: the Afghan surge will end badly; and surely President Obama is too knowledgeable to imagine it could end any differently. One of the few saving graces about the way he announced his decision to send to Afghanistan an additional 30,000 troopsnearly 50 times the size of the ill-fated Light Brigade under Lord Cardigan that fought at Balaclava, in 1854is that he studiously avoided using the word victory in the mission-defining speech he made to the nation on December 1.
Maybe the 30,000, and their 65,000 already-deployed comrades, will fare better than Lord Cardigans 600-odd. Lets sincerely hope so.
For several years, I have been watching NATOs bizarre, geography-defying venture in Afghanistan through the lens of world politics. Who, in NATO headquarters in Brussels, imagined that this alliance of Western nations could ever be the ideal tool with which to pacify and even, heaven forbid, nation-build in the very distant and landlocked mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan?
The logistics of deploying and sustaining a foreign fighting force in Afghanistanlet alone having them actually fight and win any, even minor, military campaignsare mind-boggling. Pentagon experts recently told the House Appropriations Subcommitte on Defense that the cost of delivering gasoline to the forward bases in Afghanistan averages $400 per gallon. That is because most gas must be shipped in via Pakistans Arabian Sea ports and trucked hundreds of miles through some of Pakistans most lawless areas before it reaches the equally lawless mountains of Afghanistan. In early December 2008, hundreds of NATO- and U.S.-led coalition vehicles were reportedly torched or looted by militants in northwestern Pakistan in one two-week period, leading the local contractors who were doing the hauling to halt their activities for a few days. One Pakistani trucking executive told The Daily Telegraphs Isambard Wilkinson that the Taliban was taking 30 percent of the goods from the hijacked trucks while 30 percent [was] shared by the drivers and transporters.
That logistical crisis pushed NATOs people to accelerate their negotiations on a new supply routeRussian Railways, through Russia and its former satellites. One can imagine the chuckles with which this news must have been greeted by survivors of Moscows own military (mis)adventure in Afghanistan.
But military materiel is not the only kind of freight that can be carried on railroads, and China, which shares a short (but very mountainous) border with Afghanistan, has its own plans for the country. They include a $3.5 billion deal, also concluded in 2008, to develop Afghanistans Aynak copper field and to construct an associated north-south railroad that will be Afghanistans first-ever nation-spanning railroad. (It will also, if it is ever completed, connect the far western reaches of Chinas own railroad systemthrough Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a couple of other Central Asian stansdirectly to the Arabian Sea. How convenient.)
Obama and his advisors seem to have concluded that from the U.S.-political point of view, an exit strategy must start with a troop surge.
Sometimes I think that the Chinese Communist Partys planners must be completely bemused to see so much of the U.S. political elite cheering on a force-escalation plan in Afghanistana plan that (a) is doomed to make, at best, little military difference or, at worst, risk catastrophe for U.S. forces, while (b) costing the U.S. taxpayer unbelievable amounts of money, and (c) further degrading the readiness and capabilities of the once-mighty American military with every week that the engagement continues.
So why has Barack Obama made what looks like such a counterproductive decision? Here, Rosen and I may disagree. His analysis omits what I think is central to the answer: domestic politics. Obama and his advisors seem to have concludedwith their prime reference point being the latter years of the Bush administrations experience in Iraqthat from the U.S.-political point of view, an exit strategy must start with a troop surge.
It was George Bush, remember, who in November 2008 signed the agreement with the Maliki government in Iraq that committed the United States to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. Bush was able to get away with that necessary but far-from-glamorous outcome in Iraq precisely because he and his people (including current Defense Secretary Robert Gates) had the swagger of the 2007 Surge behind them.
The United Statess long-drawn-out withdrawal from Iraq has not been going well for the Iraqi people. But from the U.S.-political viewpoint, it has been remarkably successful, mainly because nobody in the United States is much concerned about Iraq any more. The Bush-Gates decision to withdraw from the country let the air out of all those heated, Iraq-focused debates that once dominated the American national discourse. The whole sordid episode of our countrys involvement in (or more accurately, destruction of) Iraqs political system now sits somewhere between too embarrassing and too distasteful for most Americans to dwell on.
I fear, though, that leaving Afghanistan, just like staying there, will prove to be vastly more complicated than leaving Iraq. Not least because whenever Obama really starts drawing down in Afghanistanit has to be by the fall of 2012, doesnt it?our country will be that much weaker in every way than it was when the Bush-initiated withdrawal from Iraq began last year. But that is not all. Although Afghanistan constitutes nothing like the geostrategic prize that an intact Iraq once represented, it is nonethelesss located at a key intersection of competing world powers. Avoiding a conflagration in that whole portion of Central Asia, including nuclear-armed Pakistan, will require a very new kind of entente between the West and the rest. If leaders on both sides of that divide can act in an astute and visionary waya very big caveatthe result might be better for all the worlds peoples than a continuation of Western dominance could ever be.
In the meantime, Afghanistans 28 million people will continue to bear the primary costs of the ongoing war. That is particularly tragic, since we know the political outcome, after this Surge 2.0 is completed, will not be much different from what wise statecraft could have obtained today.
Helena Cobban blogs at JustWorldNews.org. Her latest book is Re-engage! America and the World After Bush.