Stephen M. Walt

“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”

As I’ve been blogging for months now, things don’t look good in Afghanistan. The commanding U.S. general, Stanley McChrystal apparently agrees. He’s completed his review and is calling for a radical change in U.S. strategy.   He says the situation is “serious,” but also that “success is achievable.” According to other reports, he intends to make ...

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Commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) US General Stanley McChrystal (C) visits an Afghan National Army compound at the Baraki Barak district in Logar Province on August 21, 2009. Contenders in the race to become Afghanistan's next president claimed August 21 to be heading for victory in polls acclaimed by the West but undermined by complaints of ballot-stuffing and low turnout. AFP PHOTO/MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)

As I’ve been blogging for months now, things don’t look good in Afghanistan. The commanding U.S. general, Stanley McChrystal apparently agrees. He’s completed his review and is calling for a radical change in U.S. strategy.   He says the situation is “serious,” but also that “success is achievable.” According to other reports, he intends to make a separate request for more troops in the near future. (And how many of you didn’t see that coming?)  

Over the weekend, we also learned that the Afghan election results are probably fraudulent, that current President Hamid Karzai is now bolstering his own legitimacy by highlighting his differences with Washington. Got that? The leader of the government we are propping up with billions of dollars of assistance and thousands of troops has discovered he can best make himself more popular by publicly quarreling with us, and by cutting deals with drug-dealing warlords at the same moment that U.S. forces are supposedly trying to crack down on them. Even a rather hawkish panel at the mainstream Brookings Institution was sounding pretty sober last week.

Alarm bells should be going off in your head at this point (and I wish they were going off in President Obama’s). These events all point to the central dilemma confronting our efforts in Afghanistan: we don’t understand the social and political dynamics there, the various actors involved have their own interests, loyalties, and agendas, the “government” — such as it is — is deeply corrupt, and we lack reliable instruments of leverage over many of the contending factions. As a result, virtually any step we take inevitably generates all sorts of unintended consequences.   

The recent election is a case in point: we worked hard to make it a success, in the hope that it would produce a more effective and accountable Afgan government and demonstrate that external assistance was having a positive impact. Obama was quick to praise the election after it occurred, but the widespread and credible accusations of fraud (plus the low turnout) suggest that the election we labored to bring about in fact made things worse. Instead of receiving a powerful new mandate, Karzai comes out of it looking more like Ahmadinejad. Even if he retains the presidency (still the most likely outcome), Karzai’s legitimacy has been further tarnished and his ability to conduct meaningful reforms will be virtually nil.

And please bear in mind that our current difficulties aren’t exactly new. The United States and NATO have had military forces in Afghanistan for nearly eight years. True, the outside effort was pretty half-hearted from 2003 to 2006 (due in part to the diversion of effort to Iraq), but increased force levels and attention in recent years hasn’t reversed the slide. This situation suggests that either we are pursuing the wrong objectives or we simply have no idea how to achieve them. What is needed is a much broader questioning of what we are doing over there, but questioning the mission itself wasn’t General McChrystal’s assignment. My guess is that a more fundamental rethinking will eventually take place, but not until more blood and treasure are expended.  

For an equally gloomy forecast, see veteran foreign affairs columnist William Pfaff here. And for those of you who like musical analogies, try this.

MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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