Marc Lynch

Afghanistan Strategy Debate

Afghanistan Strategy Debate

My friend, CNAS colleague, and Gen. McChrystal review team member Andrew Exum has opened up Abu Muqawama for an online dialogue about the strategic rationale for the war in Afghanistan. Thus far he has posted very interesting comments from Scott Wedman, Bernard Finel, and somebody who thus far lacks a name (Ex, you should identify your contributors!). I’m glad that he’s doing so, even if this is a debate which should have happened months or years ago. If you’re interested in such questions, head on over there and join the fray.

I very rarely write about Afghanistan or Pakistan, primarily because it lies outside of the Arabic-speaking Middle East areas which I know well — I don’t speak the languages, I don’t have fine-grained local knowledge, I don’t follow the regional media. I can’t help noticing that such constraints don’t seem to stop anyone else, though. At any rate, I’m not going to join the new Iraq refugees and refocus on the AfPak policy debate. But since Exum has thrown open the question, Foreign Policy is launching its AfPak channel today, and I’m going to be seeing Richard Holbrooke’s team at the CAP event on Wednesday, I’ll throw out a few thoughts at least.

I have an open mind on these questions, want the U.S. mission to succeed, and have a great deal of confidence in the Obama national security team. I know that there have been a number of policy reviews at all levels of the government on Afghanistan strategy, and that most of the questions I can raise have already been discussed at one or the other. But at the same time, I find the strategic rationale for escalating the war in Afghanistan extremely thin, and the mismatch between avowed aims and available resources frighteningly wide. What are the strategic reasons for expanding the commitment in Afghanistan? Why should the US be committing to a project of armed state building now, in 2009?

I hope that the argument isn’t that it’s to prevent al-Qaeda from reconstituting itself in the Afghan safe havens. That’s a fool’s game. It makes sense to keep the pressure on al-Qaeda, but does that require "armed state building"?

Suppose the U.S. succeeded beyond all its wildest expectations, and turned Afghanistan into Nirvana on Earth, an orderly, high GDP nirvana with universal health care and a robust wireless network (and even suppose that it did this without the expense depriving Americans of the same things). So what? Al-Qaeda (or what we call al-Qaeda) could easily migrate to Somalia, to Yemen, deeper into Pakistan, into the Caucasus, into Africa — into a near infinite potential pool of ungoverned or semi-governed spaces with potentially supportive environments. Are we to commit the United States to bringing effective governance and free wireless to the entire world? On whose budget? To his credit, McChrystal adviser Steve Biddle raises all of these questions in his excellent American Interest article from last month — but in my view goes wrong by limiting the policy options to either full withdrawal or full commitment to COIN.

Another option which used to be on the table, as I understood it, was a much more narrowly focused policy of keeping the pressure on al-Qaeda while letting Afghan politics sort itself out. But from my distance, at least, it seems that this approach is being overwhelmed by those arguing for a much more expansive mission (as Michael Cohen has been documenting for a while under the category title "Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch"). And that worries me. I see why keeping al-Qaeda on the ropes matters. But I just don’t really see why trying to build an Afghan state is a significant American national interest, or that it can be done at a price commensurate to its significance.

I fear that the escalation of the war in Afghanistan is following a dangerous path of least resistance. Given the assignment to win the war in Afghanistan, of course a military which has been reshaped by its experience in Iraq will turn to COIN doctrine. Once the decision is made to apply a COIN approach, of course the military is going to ask for more troops there, and a long commitment, since it’s always been obvious that really doing COIN in Afghanistan would require vastly more troops than are currently deployed. And then, at each step of the way, there will be a strong tactical argument for expansion and a very difficult sell for any attempt to argue for restraint. Once that iron logic has been accepted, all else follows — and it becomes extremely difficult to reverse course.

But I remain far from convinced that COIN is the right approach, especially when compared not to total U.S. withdrawal but to a more minimalist strategy. The attraction of COIN seems to derive from learning only partial lessons from Iraq — conveniently forgetting that the "surge" and COIN were only one of a number of factors contributing to the changing conditions there, along with the Sunni turn against al-Qaeda which long predated the "surge" and the near-completion of sectarian cleansing in many urban areas, and that its long-term success in Iraq is far from guaranteed. And Afghanistan, as should be obvious, is very different from Iraq. Its advocates argue that this simply means that the approach needs to be adapted to the local conditions and the mission adequately resourced. I’m not at all convinced.

The best of the COIN-distas have generated tremendously innovative thinking about how to do COIN, and I’m confident that they will do their best to make this work. But that’s a very different question from whether COIN should be done in the first place. Exum does a service by providing a forum — at CNAS, home of some of that top COIN thinking — to bring these questions into sharper focus. So I’ll be following it with an open mind, and hope others do as well. I know what questions I’ll have ready for Holbrooke’s team if I get called on….