Another Afghan counterfactual

Another Afghan counterfactual

President Obama has reportedly ruled out a major reduction in U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and is still mulling over the military’s request for more troops. The LA Times says he’s looking for “middle ground” here, which would be consistent with Obama’s decision-making style. In this case, however, it’s the worst of a set of bad options. If things eventually go south (as I believe they will), he’ll get blamed for not giving the commanders enough to do the job and for incurring additional costs to no good purpose. Yet this approach also means he won’t the credit for taking a bold decision to cut our losses and get out. Does the phrase “stalemate machine” ring any bells?

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading the unclassified version of McChrystal report over the last few days, and it’s reinforcing my doubts. It’s admirably honest about the magnitude of the task, but after describing all the reasons why winning will be very difficult, it makes a rather breathtaking leap to the conclusion that a different strategy and adequate resources can turn things around (while prudently warning that “no strategy can guarantee success”). 

This got me thinking.

Imagine that the situation in Afghanistan were exactly what it is today — a corrupt government in Kabul with dubious legitimacy, the Taliban gaining strength, al Qaeda’s leaders still hiding out in northwest Pakistan, etc. — except that the U.S. military wasn’t there. And then ask yourself: would you be in favor of sending 100,000 or so American soldiers to fight and die there?

My views on this subject are clear, so feel free to discount what follows. But I doubt we would be having a serious debate about sending a large number of troops to Afghanistan if we weren’t there already. Instead, we would be treating Afghanistan the same way we treat most failed states. We’d express our concern, offer modest amounts of humanitarian assistance, we’d let the U.N. do its best, and if we thought al Qaeda was operating there, we’d go after them with special forces and Predators or other military assets. Just look at how we are currently dealing with Somalia or Yemen or Sudan and you get an idea of how we would be dealing with Afghanistan if were we not there already.

And notice that the scenario I’ve posited is actually more favorable than the one we are actually in. In this counterfactual, Kabul is losing on its own, whereas in reality, Kabul is losing even though there are 100,000 or so foreign troops already trying to help, at a cost that far exceeds the entire GDP of the country. At this point, nobody should be under no illusions about how hard this really is.

Of course, one can argue that the simple fact that we are already there fundamentally alters the strategic calculus. We wouldn’t intervene if we were starting from scratch today, but some will say that allowing ourselves to be defeated by the Taliban will have disastrous effects on our reputation and encourage bin Laden & Co. to believe they are winning.

Robert Kaplan takes this line in an op-ed in today’s New York Times, arguing that “an ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan is precisely what would lead to our decline, by demoralizing our military, signaling to our friends worldwide that we cannot be counted on and demonstrating that our enemies have greater resolve than we do. That is why we have no choice in Afghanistan but to add troops and continue to fight.”

This is an familiar line of argument, of course, even though the best scholarly studies of reputation and credibility have found that past behavior doesn’t have much effect on future credibility. Be that as it may, one could just as easily argue that U.S. credibility will be damaged far more if we squander another trillion dollars in Afghanistan and end up with a degraded and demoralized military and a population that is truly sick of overseas involvements.

Nonetheless, the main thrust of Kaplan’s piece is well worth pondering. He points out that while the United States is doing the heavy lifting in Afghanistan, the chief beneficiaries of success will be China (and to a lesser extent Russia and India). He notes that past empires declined “by allowing others to take advantage of its own exertions.” And his conclusion is right on the money: “history suggests that over time we can more easily preserve our standing in the world by using naval and airpower from a distance when intervening abroad. Afghanistan should be the very last place where we are a land-based meddler, caught up in internal Islamic conflict, helping the strategic ambitions of the Chinese and others.”

Needless to say, that’s not an argument for “seeking the middle ground.” That’s an argument for getting out as quickly and prudently as we can.