Friday, July 9, 2010

Not Funny.

Instead of the usual "omigod-I-haven't-blogged-in-forever" I will just paste in my new article for Zahranicna Politika that has kept me busy, on a topic that has been a lot on my mind. Arguably I am not an expert on Afghanistan and therefore never had a strong view on what the US should do there, which has historically prevented me from writing about it. But that's really a cop out. If you care about something you can always become more informed and form a firmer opinion. And since the US military involvement in Afghanistan is the longest active war ever, and chances are it will be an increasingly important component of the political discourse, there are plenty of reasons to care about it. So after the recent faux pas with General McChrystal I read a lot of stuff from different people on the war and my article reflects a viewpoint that I formed as a result. Anyway, here it is.

Not Funny

The idea of a top US army general agreeing to be the subject of a magazine profile that ends up getting him fired seems almost comical. The hubris necessary to allow being followed and showcased by a magazine (one with a clear anti-war record, no less) and in the process opening up to a reporter who happily transcribed every incriminating quote - that just seems like something taken out of an episode of M.A.S.H., a black comedy TV show based on the Korean and Vietnam wars.

And yet, when General Stanley McChrystal was forced to resign from his position as Commander of US forces in Afghanistan due to a profile published in the Rolling Stone magazine, no one was laughing. Apart from comments mocking several civilian officials which were the reason why the article attracted attention in the first place and ultimately why McChrystal was replaced, the article offered a rather depressing portrayal of the state of affairs in Afghanistan and a rather scathing criticism of the whole operation, concluding with the following assessment: “So far, counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war. There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word "victory" when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.

And so, a mere 8 months since President Obama pledged to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan - upon McChrystal’s urging - this episode has forced many to reexamine the operation in Afghanistan.

Whether one agrees with the war or not, there are good reasons to believe that the current strategy of counterinsurgency (COIN) - a two pronged approach of taking over areas from insurgents, replacing them with Afghan government while infusing the local population with monetary aid - is not working. First, judging from the number of troops employed and lost, the vast expense, and the sheer amount of time spent in Afghanistan it seems like the US is simply not getting any smarter in fighting the insurgency. And even in the event of clearing an area from insurgents, the job is not over. One of the key components of the strategy is for the Afghan government to establish administration and ultimately take over security from US and NATO forces. Peter Galbraith, who served as deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to Afghanistan in 2009, wrote that this strategy can only work if the Afghan government can provide honest administration to win the loyalty of the local population. However, “in too many instances, the nominal government authorities are powerless, corrupt, working with both sides in the conflict, or all of the above. Karzai’s national government cannot remedy any of this. It is corrupt, ineffective, and widely seen as illegitimate.” Clearly, it doesn’t help that Hamid Karzai came to office through an election that was unmistakably fraudulent. And because the US embraced Karzai they are now relying on his government to fulfill a critical function, something it cannot do due to its shady origins.

The second prong of COIN - pouring aid to the local population - might not be effective and could be making the situation worse. Research by Andrew Wilder and Stuart Gordon on the ground in Afghanistan found “little evidence of aid projects winning hearts and minds or promoting stability.” What they observed was the main reason given by the Afghans they interviewed for the growing insurgency was the “corrupt and unjust government.” Additionally, they observed that “the single overriding criticism of aid was the strong belief that it was fueling massive corruption, which undermined some of the positive impacts it may have otherwise had.”

Still, even if the counterinsurgency strategy is not terribly effective, that doesn’t necessarily mean the US should pack up and leave. It is, however, instructive to ask, why is it that the US is in Afghanistan in the first place. One almost forgets that the answer is not “bringing peace and prosperity to the Afghans” but rather “9/11 and al-Qaeda”. In light of that original objective, it was interesting to hear the CIA director Leon Panetta recently admit that “we're looking at 50 to 100, maybe less” al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and that most of the terrorist network is operating from the western tribal region of Pakistan. Certainly, it seems odd to spend $100 billion in 2010 alone to target such a small group. Indeed the objective of the war seems to have shifted as the primary enemy fled to another country altogether. The US is no longer hunting down al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; instead they are making sure that Afghanistan can never again serve as the breeding ground for terrorism against the US.

For many who insist on US military presence in Afghanistan the need to prevent the creation of a security “vacuum” is probably the most compelling argument. Even those who oppose the war in principle, are hard pressed to advocate a withdrawal, often citing this reason. On the surface the argument makes sense: before 9/11, the Taliban harbored al-Qaeda; if the US were to withdraw from Afghanistan it would be leaving behind empty ground for the enemy to come back to. In other words, the US is stuck. In reality, it is not at all clear that the presence in Afghanistan did not contribute to a greater security threat by potentially destabilizing Pakistan. The last terrorist attempt in the US, after all, seems to have been organized by the Pakistani Taliban. Besides, even in the event of a complete success in Afghanistan (and, by extension, Pakistan) who is to say that al-Qaeda won’t find a new base somewhere - and if they do, how many countries can the US afford to invade, rebuild from scratch and immunize from potential terrorist-harboring - especially when the track record in Afghanistan is as terrible as it is?

In reality, it is hard to envision the US civilian leadership going against the recommendations of the military and suggest a withdrawal from Afghanistan any time soon - the politics of the situation offers little reward for wanting to skimp on counter terrorism measures and high costs for any potential failure. Our best hope, as Matthew Iglesias of the Center for American Progress Action Fund suggested, is that the leadership redefines success: instead of shooting for a full blown transformation in Afghanistan, they need to reframe the problem and stake out smaller achievable goals that will allow them to declare victory at some point in the foreseeable future and put them on track for downsizing the US involvement. Otherwise we might be looking at another Vietnam war - a lengthy expensive and painful conflict with no discernible accomplishment to speak of - except maybe some equivalent of M.A.S.H.

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