We can win in Afghanistan, unless we lose in Washington
By Christian Brose The biggest question I brought into the Munich Security Conference this past weekend was, what is to be done in Afghanistan? I’ve been struck by how quickly U.S. public opinion has shifted from the “good war” to looming quagmire. In part this is because there’s more public focus now on the problem ...
By Christian Brose
The biggest question I brought into the Munich Security Conference this past weekend was, what is to be done in Afghanistan?
I’ve been struck by how quickly U.S. public opinion has shifted from the “good war” to looming quagmire. In part this is because there’s more public focus now on the problem and, with it, a growing recognition of just how hard it really is. The Obama administration is learning this too, and has thus sought to lower expectations after alleging that Bush over-promised and under-delivered. That move has only fed elite and popular fears, not assuaged them. For me, all this raised a lot of questions about what U.S. goals should be and what is really achievable, especially with so much else on our plate right now, both at home and abroad.
So I spent my weekend in Munich posing these questions to people who knew far more about the situation than I — senior military officials, ambassadors, South Asia specialists, and counterinsurgency experts. Here are a few points I took away:
1. We can win the war in Afghanistan. This, obviously, is most important. That said, it will be hard as hell and, even then, the chances of failure are still sobering. The question I asked repeatedly was, can we in good conscience send 30,000 more souls to fight in Afghanistan? Will they make a lasting difference? And the answer I got from nearly everyone was, yes –provided we fix our own organizational problems.
I consistently heard that a better designed and resourced counterinsurgency strategy can succeed in strengthening the Afghan National Army, beating back the Taliban, building up the Afghan state and society, and then passing off the security effort to them. For this to happen, though, the best thing we can do right now is to get out of our own way. As one retired senior military official told me, half of our problems are self-inflicted: muddled command structures, poor coordination, an embassy not fully on a war footing, lack of an integrated civil-military campaign plan, etc. One good idea I heard was to place a new U.S. headquarters in the south, where the fighting is toughest, so a senior American commander can run the alliance’s war effort there and in the east, thereby freeing up our commander in Kabul to focus on Afghanistan’s myriad other challenges.
By one theory I heard, the next 12 months is our window to reset our campaign: to make the necessary organizational changes, reinforce and reposition our troops, expand our civilian efforts, get more from our allies, and get our civilian and military forces in the right places — all while continuing to prosecute the war, of course. Then, the following two years will be the decisive period when the war will be won or lost. If we squander this initial 12-month window, however, we will have already lost.
2. We can lose Afghanistan in Washington. Obviously, maintaining and strengthening the very fickle public support for the war is key, especially when even more Americans start dying there. The surest way to lose the war, however, is to lower the bar on U.S. goals. In his Munich speech, Vice President Biden described the U.S. goal as “a stable Afghanistan that’s not a haven for terrorists.” Ambassador Holbrooke spoke of needing to revise U.S. goals entirely so as to make them “attainable.” OK. The problem is, in its eagerness to show just how willing it is to make hard choices, the Obama administration seems to be falling into the trap of making false choices.
The consensus among experts I spoke with this weekend was that moving toward a primarily counterterrorism strategy will not lead to the lasting stability we seek in Afghanistan. Instead, it is a recipe for creating Somalia in Central Asia and then hoping to manage the problem in the same flawed way: contain the bad guys in the country as best as possible and then whack them with Predator strikes and special forces whenever they pop their heads up. This may be the best we can or are willing to do in Somalia. But the cost of handling Afghanistan in the same way is much, much higher. It will destabilize the most volatile region in the world even more than it already is, and it will only increase the likelihood that we and our allies will get hit again.
What I heard again and again is that we may have to settle for a counterterrorism-focused mission, but that should be an unfortunate option of last resort, not our going-in policy. Furthermore, we should not allow resources to determine strategy, as this study suggests, which was one interpretation I heard for the administration’s recent statements walking back U.S. goals: The economy’s bad, and we have to do what we can. This gets it backwards. We should determine the optimal outcome we are confident we can accomplish, and then pay for it. After all, we still have a GDP of, what, $12 trillion? If our conception of strategic success is achievable, let’s not hide behind tightening budgets.
3. Lasting security requires democratic development. This builds on the previous point about not lowering our sights. Another question I asked everyone in Munich was, what kind of political order should we seek in Afghanistan? I hear so many tortured efforts, both by the administration and by commentators, to qualify our definition of the Afghan state: legitimate, accountable, non-corrupt, effective, law-abiding, rights-based, etc. — in short, anything but “democratic.” To me, this smacks of knee-jerk, “anything-but-Bush” fuzziness — unless, that is, someone in the administration or out of it is prepared to stand up and say that the nature of the Afghan regime has no bearing on our mission, and we’ll settle for whatever works.
The fact is, democracy in Afghanistan is at once desired by most Afghans, desirable for U.S. interests, and attainable. One person in Munich pointed me toward this December 2008 polling by the Asia Foundation, which is astonishing. In essence, it shows that Afghans of all ethnicities and regions overwhelmingly think (still) that democracy is the best form of government, and the number one reason they list is that it will guarantee their rights — rights they’ve been denied for decades now.
Yes, Afghans are growing more and more frustrated with the coalition presence. But that, I was told, is mainly because of its perceived incompetence and role as the backer of an unpopular and ineffective Afghan government. Most problematic, one counterinsurgency expert told me, is Afghanistan’s unelected governors, who are appointed from Kabul, don’t understand the problems of their people, and aren’t accountable for fixing them. Thus, this expert suggested that the best thing we could do is hold provincial elections tomorrow, which may not always give power to nice guys, but at least they would be more legitimate in the eyes of the Afghans and better local partners for our counterinsurgency efforts. So the problem with Afghan politics may not be too much democracy, but not enough.
4. Be careful with Karzai. The Afghan president gave an awful speech in Munich. It was classic Karzai: 40 minutes of rambling happy talk. He explained, for example, that Afghanistan was not a “narco-state” but a “poppy-producing country.” This distinction was lost on me and most present. Many in Munich, however, thought the Obama administration has been too openly critical of Karzai. I am told that General Eikenberry, the next U.S. ambassador in Kabul, doesn’t get along particularly well with Karzai. Holbrooke, in his remarks in Munich, was dripping with contempt for Karzai, referring to his rejection of Paddy Ashdown as international reconstruction coordinator as a “fiasco.” While Karzai spoke, the look on James Jones’s face could only be described as repressed rage.
Now, it’s no secret that Karzai has increasingly become a failed (and corrupt) leader. And though anything is possible, the odds of him experiencing a Maliki-like transformation seem low. Still, Karzai is the elected president of Afghanistan, and good alternatives are not exactly in large supply. There remains a very good chance that he will be reelected in a few months, and the administration can’t afford to burn its bridges. I was told by one person who had worked with Karzai that he has to be pushed hard and persistently to do better, but this should be done quietly, the way Zalmay Khalilzad did when he was ambassador, or the way Ryan Crocker handled Maliki. Otherwise, we’ll alienate and possibly make worse the guy we could very well be stuck with whether we like it or not.
5. Our NATO allies aren’t tapped out, but don’t hold your breath. It’s right to continue pushing our allies to contribute more troops and to lift their restrictions on how and where they can fight. But the odds of, say, Germany allowing its more than 3,200 troops to operate anywhere but the relatively stable north of Afghanistan, and even then, not to go out at night or conduct foot patrols, is slim. That said, one senior U.S. diplomat told me that NATO allies will likely be willing and able to provide more support, possibly special forces and personnel for Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams, or OMLTs: embedded units that help to train and professionalize the Afghan National Army. (In our government’s acronym-loving lingo, OMLTs are pronounced “omelets,” which always conjures for me the image of NATO units cooking eggs for hardened Afghan fighters.)
6. General Petraeus’s speech was telling. While the administration pushes ahead with its 60-day review of Afghanistan policy, Petraeus basically laid out exactly what he thinks that policy should be:
First and foremost, our forces and those of our Afghan partners have to strive to secure and serve the population. We have to recognize that the Afghan people are the decisive “terrain.” And together withour Afghan partners, we have to work to provide the people security, to give them respect, to gain their support, and to facilitate the provision of basic services, the development of the Afghan Security Forces in the area, the promotion of local economic development, and the establishment of governance that includes links to the traditional leaders in society and is viewed as legitimate in the eyes of the people.
On a trip that left me more optimistic than I had been initially, one concern I take away is the tension that might emerge between Obama and Petraeus if the former wants to trim his sails and focus more on killing terrorists in Afghanistan while the latter wants to expand his efforts to foster population security. Not only would this be a tragic and detrimental outcome, it would be an ironic one: The general who Bush tapped in Iraq to jettison a losing counterterrorism approach in favor of a winning counterinsurgency strategy becoming the general who falls out of favor with Obama because he doesn’t want to do the reverse in Afghanistan.
Like everything with Afghanistan, this scenario is far from certain, and let’s hope it never comes to pass.
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