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Boston Review has again made a signal contribution to the debate on a pressing issue—this time with its symposium, anchored by the intrepid Nir Rosen’s thoughtful essay on the war in Afghanistan. I hope his analysis and the rejoinders gain a wide readership; there is precious little fresh thinking on Afghanistan, frenetic efforts notwithstanding. That the most visible and voluble discussions are so utterly conventional, and hence predictable, is a tragedy. It is not only Barack Obama’s presidency that could be defined by what happens in Afghanistan, but also the future of the United States, to say nothing of the Afghans. This war, which has already been underway for eight years, could turn into a much longer and more costly venture—one that crowds out urgent domestic problems.
The president and his advisers seek to reassure Americans that we will not be trapped in an Afghan quagmire, that there is an “exit strategy,” and that the troop increase is laying the groundwork for it. This is wishful thinking. The current Afghan surge is in fact a prelude to a larger surge, not, in any reasonable stretch of time anyway, a withdrawal. It is hard to believe that this keenly intelligent president does not see this pitfall, and even harder to discern why he is deepening the military commitment in Afghanistan if he does.
Obama is no doubt sincere about the arguments he has provided on behalf of the surge. If it fails, he will not be able to claim that the conditions necessitating a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign have disappeared. The military brass and the political right (in both parties) will, as they always do, ask for more troops. With an election looming it will be hard for the President to say no. Those who call for an even bigger effort will insist that, if we are not succeeding, it is because we are not trying hard enough, and they will deploy the imagery of 9/11 to press the case that there is no choice but to persist. Count on it.
Obama has himself to blame for some of the difficulty he is in, though, in fairness, he inherited the mess in Afghanistan. During his election campaign, he contrasted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defining the latter as the “good war,” the war of necessity, and the former as the misguided “war of choice.” A skilled politician, he understood the need to take the wind out of the sails of those who charged that he was not tough enough to be commander-in-chief and that he saw negotiations as a panacea. But the campaign is over and, as commander-in-chief, he is now in a tight corner, one from which his detractors will not allow him to escape. Worse, he has made their task easier by continuing to assert that the war in Afghanistan is an enterprise vital to preventing another major terrorist attack on the United States—an assertion that, incidentally, is widely affirmed in our public discourse and rarely challenged.
Nir Rosen does challenge it, and he is right to be pessimistic about COIN’s prospects, though he makes some slips as he advances his argument. One, for which Alexander Thier rightly takes him to task, is the claim that Afghanistan has not had a functioning government for 129 years. The “ungovernable Afghanistan” canard is repeated without surcease, even though anyone with a basic knowledge of that country’s history knows that it is flat wrong. Take just the period between 1945 and 1978: there was a functioning regime under both King Zahir Shah and Sardar Mohammed Daoud (the king’s cousin and former prime minister, who deposed him in 1973 and proclaimed a “republic”). These governments held the country together, and bloodletting and zealotry did not define Afghanistan’s politics as they do today. Zahir and Daoud ran the country in the best and, in my view, only feasible way: by devolving power beyond Kabul, limiting the writ of the government, co-opting tribal chieftains, and ensuring that, while the Pashtuns ran the show, the Tajiks and Uzbeks (and to a degree the Hazara) were not dispossessed.
Was Afghanistan a prosperous democracy back then? Certainly not. But it is a safe bet that most Afghans would return to that halcyon era after the hell they have endured for three decades. The real trouble—the supposed ungovernability of Afghanistan—began in 1978 after the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seized power following a coup by radical officers linked to the Party. In response, the mujahideen took up arms, and in December 1979 the Red Army marched in to save a communist regime that was at death’s door. Since 1978 Afghans have known nothing but war. By the time the Soviet army completed its withdrawal in 1989, some 1.5 million Afghans had been killed, and another five million refugees lived in squalor in Pakistan and Iran. But this nightmare must not be projected onto the country’s entire history.
The Taliban continues to use Pakistan as a redoubt and as a training and recruiting ground.
Afghanistan can be governed; whether the United Sates can create a government that can do the job is another matter entirely, no matter the fine minds that have been summoned to the cause.
Andrew Exum defends General Stanley McChrystal’s civilian advisors on the grounds that they are stellar academics (this should reassure us?) and chides Rosen for his dismissive depiction of them. Exum may be right about the advisors’ excellence as “defense-policy analysts,” but Rosen’s point, I believe, is a rather different one. He is arguing that few of them have a thoroughgoing knowledge of Afghanistan’s history or culture, to say nothing of its languages. Whatever their expertise, it is not Afghanistan. This is no small matter because it leaves us in the familiar and hazardous position of relying exclusively on technical know-how. As much as that kind of knowledge is celebrated in America, a sound policy in Afghanistan needs much more. Alas, our educational and military institutions have not done well when it comes to cultivating the understanding of non-European cultures and languages.
Rosen is understandably worried about this gap. Unfortunately, he allows a different gap to creep into his assessment, and so do most of the respondents: there is little discussion of Pakistan. For at least two reasons, Afghanistan’s travails cannot be separated from circumstances in Pakistan.
First, as long as the Taliban can crisscross the Afghan-Pakistan border, COIN is an iffy proposition at best. Because there is no evidence that the Pakistani Army wants to destroy the Taliban or its offshoots or has the ability to succeed were it to try, the Taliban will continue to use Pakistan as a redoubt and as a training and recruiting ground—indefinitely.
Second, the idea that increasing the number of attacks by American unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) against Taliban and al Qaeda centers will stanch the traffic is misguided. What such attacks will do—and are doing—is make Pakistanis irate at what they see as American disregard for the lives of noncombatants and for their country’s sovereignty. The United States is very unpopular in Pakistan, and Obama, who nonetheless has stepped up the UAV attacks, will not be able to achieve what he seeks in Afghanistan if the antagonism deepens.
For its part, the Pakistani Army does not trust the United States. It does not believe that the United States will hang in for the long haul—Pakistanis have not forgotten that the United States departed the scene once the Soviet Army retreated from Afghanistan. And the Pakistanis are rattled by the strategic alignment underway between the United States and India, Washington’s favorite “emerging power.” It is hardly surprising, then, that the military and intelligence services, which remain the loci of power in Pakistan, are in no mood to take big risks on behalf of the United States.
Obama’s main goal in Afghanistan—preventing a Taliban takeover—is not shared in the Pakistani military-intelligence complex, which worries most about reversion to what had been the pattern in Afghanistan for several decades leading up to the collapse of the last PDPA government: pro-Indian governments in Kabul. That the Indians are again deeply involved in Afghanistan, with America’s blessing, constitutes a real problem for Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence. When the Taliban came to power—its rise and triumph owing substantially to support from Pakistan—India’s two-front advantage ended, and Pakistan’s generals and spymasters have no intention of allowing India to regain it and place Pakistan in a vise. This is why Pakistan will not burn its bridges with the Taliban, no matter the reassurances they offer visiting American dignitaries and experts. Pakistan has a history with the Taliban and its leaders believe that they can handle a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. If one were to look at the world through their eyes, one could hardly blame them for holding these views.
Obama is mistaken if he expects NATO to come through in Afghanistan. If more troops are required, the United States will provide them, not the rest of NATO.
These realities make for a big difference between Iraq and Afghanistan. The contrast is important because those who back the troop increase in Afghanistan invariably point to the successes of the Iraq surge. But even at its height, the Iraqi insurgency never had a robust state sponsor or a neighboring reservoir of foreign recruits comparable to what the Taliban has in Pakistan. This means that the Taliban will prove a much tougher customer and that it is a mistake to think that what the first surge did can be replicated in Afghanistan.
The troop increase in Iraq did make a difference, but four other factors were at play, and none is present in Afghanistan. First, the leaders of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency decided to break with al Qaeda, which proved to be an intrusive and pitiless foreign creature. Second, those same leaders defected to the Americans, a shift that was underway before the surge, actually. The Taliban is not being crippled by defection, nor is it likely to be (I suggested in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that Obama try buying off ofpliable Taliban instead of adding troops; I was wrong). Third, unlike Iraq’s Sunni insurgents, the Taliban is rooted in its country’s largest group, the Pashtuns. And finally, ethno-religious cleansing in Iraq produced segregated neighborhoods and regions that reduced the killing, making the work of the troops considerably easier.
Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan relies on an influx of additional NATO troops. But NATO is done for as a military alliance, except in some formal sense, and its efforts to redefine its mission as extra-European have divided the alliance just as its expansion has made it less coherent. Consider the mutiny against the War in Iraq that occurred within NATO, with France and Germany orchestrating the opposition.
Obama is mistaken if he expects NATO to come through in Afghanistan. Despite all the talk of “coalition forces” and the existence of the International Security Assistance Force, most of the burden of fighting in Afghanistan is being borne by the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, and Canada. The last two will soon leave, and not a single NATO country will cough up troops with the sort of permissive rules of engagement needed to substantially empower the COIN campaign—the currently promised increments will come with all manner of fine print. That in turn will ensure that the force-to-space ratio in Texas-sized Afghanistan will favor the Taliban. Hence the current pledges from the alliance are misleading. Should this surge prove insufficient and more troops be required, the United States will provide them, not the rest of NATO.
The war in Afghanistan raises larger issues about America’s role in the world, and Andrew Bacevich addresses them with his customary acumen and candor. My views track substantially with his, but in this instance there is a practical flaw in his argument. Obama has a lot on his plate and cannot reasonably be expected to revise the grand strategy that the United States has followed since the onset of the Cold War. The essence of this strategy is that the United States must serve as Madeleine Albright’s “indispensable nation”: it must be everywhere and keep all sorts of balances, offer constant and credible reassurances to the weak-kneed, and mount regular “stabilization” operations. Despite all of the reassessment of U.S. policy undertaken since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and notwithstanding changing world conditions and American capacity, these assumptions, which dominate both political parties, remain in place. Calls for a fundamental reassessment are attacked as irresponsible, isolationist, naïve, or all three. That way lies chaos, say defenders of the status quo.
This axiom is backed by a complex of powerful, albeit disparate, interests. They are found in the academy, think tanks, corporations, assorted interest groups, Congress, and the national-security bureaucracy, and they will fight tooth and nail to preserve its essential elements. Any wholesale transformation of American strategy will involve a long battle, and the chances of success are not great (though a disaster in Afghanistan may prove a catalyst), especially as Obama agrees with many of the principles of that strategy. But even were he to reject the solipsistic policies in place, now is not the best time, from a political standpoint, to remake grand strategy. There is simply too much else to be done. Besides, events in Afghanistan will not stand still while the United States refashions its relationship with the world.
A final thought. The forum, especially Rosen’s piece, exhibits a weakness that almost all critiques of Obama’s Afghan initiatives do: it is long on what should not be done and what is being done incorrectly and woefully short on what should be done given where we are in Afghanistan. Obama’s critics must do much better on the latter front if they are to be taken as seriously as they wish to be.
Rajan Menon is the director of the Grand Strategy Program at Defense Priorities, Spitzer Professor Emeritus at the Powell School of City College of New York, and a senior research fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies. He is the author (with Eugene Rumer) of Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order (MIT Press, 2015).
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