More unwarranted optimism about Afghanistan

More unwarranted optimism about Afghanistan

Over at FP‘s new National Security Channel, reporter Gordon Lubold has a lengthy interview with U.S. Afghan commander John Allen. Allen offers a pretty upbeat assessment: He says the Afghan National Security Force "is really taking over much more of the fighting than it has done in the past," adding that our Security Force Assistance Teams are "really accelerating that." He doesn’t actually come out and say we’re going to win (or even try to define what "victory" would look like), but his bottom line is simple: "the campaign is on track."

But to where? I thought Obama made a bad mistake when he decided to escalate in Afghanistan, but this is another one of those issues where I’d love to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, I’ve heard nothing but upbeat assessments from U.S. commanders ever since Obama took office, which makes me more than a little skeptical about Allen’s testimony now. Back in January 2010, for example, former U.S. commander Stanley McChrystal told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that he "believed we had turned the tide." His successor, General David Petraeus, issued a similarly optimistic assessment a year later, though it was at odds with U.S. intelligence assessments and followed by a major increase in the overall level of violence.

Well, it’s déjà vu all over again: Today, despite a dramatic increase in "green on blue" attacks (i.e., attacks by Afghan security forces on U.S. or ISAF personnel) and the announced departure of other U.S. allies, the latest American commander continues to portray our efforts in a positive light, especially with respect to the progress made by Afghan security forces. But you might have missed the fact that the DoD quietly lowered the bar for the latter, by eliminating the category of "independent" (meaning that a unit that can operate on its own) from the ratings system used to assess Afghan forces. Now the top ranking is "independent with advisors," which allows us to describe more Afghan units as "top rated." And even with these lower standards, less than ten percent of Afghan units are rated as capable of being able to operate semi-independently.

In one sense, Allen’s optimism is neither surprising nor objectionable. You’re not going to hear the U.S. commander tell a reporter that things aren’t going well, because that is hardly the best way to inspire your troops to greater effort. Plus, the "surge" in Afghanistan was not designed to fix all of that unfortunate country’s problems; it was intended either to 1) provide a fig leaf for a U.S. withdrawal, 2) inflict enough pain on the Taliban so that they’d cut a deal, or 3) buy a bit of time to build up Afghan security forces, at which point we’d get the hell out. Notice that these various goals aren’t mutually exclusive, but none of them constitutes "victory."

And that’s been the problem in Afghanistan all along. The original rationale for being there disappeared once Al Qaeda fled the country and metastasized to other areas. It never made much sense to spend $100 billion plus per year on a country whose entire GDP was less than 20 percent of that figure, especially once it became clear that the Karzai government was irredeemably corrupt and mostly incompetent and equally clear that we had no idea how to "nation-build" there ourselves. Plus, our main adversaries could always avoid us by slipping over the border into Pakistan or melting back into the local population. They knew we’d eventually go home, at which point Afghanistan’s future will be determined by the Afghans themselves. As it should be.

In short, General Allen’s testimony is precisely what you’d expect him to say, and thus doesn’t really doesn’t tell you much of anything at all. But his optimism stands in sharp contrast to the assessment you’ll find in a book like Rajiv Chandraksekaran’s Little America, which I’ve just been reading. I hope Allen is right, that the ANSF really is making headlong progress, and that it will be up to the task of providing security once we are gone. But I wouldn’t bet on it.The only consolation — if you’re not Afghan, that is — is that it won’t matter much to us one way or the other.