Shadow Government

If the Afghanistan mission were at a fateful turning point, how would we know?

It sure feels like we are on a knife’s edge in Afghanistan, but I also know how hard it is to assess such things. And I know what it is like to be wrong. Those were my thoughts as I read the various accounts of the day’s developments in Afghanistan, and especially after reading this ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

It sure feels like we are on a knife’s edge in Afghanistan, but I also know how hard it is to assess such things. And I know what it is like to be wrong. Those were my thoughts as I read the various accounts of the day’s developments in Afghanistan, and especially after reading this quote from an unidentified "Western official":

A Western official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer his assessment, said he was hopeful that the anger over the shooting rampage could be overcome. The burning of Korans by U.S. troops on Feb. 20 — which American officials said was accidental — unleashed a wave of violent protests and prompted Afghan security forces to open fire on U.S. military trainers, but the fury subsided after a few days.

"Everyone said the burning of the Korans was a turning point," he said. "It came and it went. My best analysis is that everyone saw the abyss, and no one wanted to jump in."

That was eerily reminiscent of what Bush policymakers believed after the Golden Mosque bombing in February 2006. There was an immediate sectarian furor and then, as my former boss put it  in an interview with Bob Schieffer, the Iraqis appeared to step back:

Mr. Hadley: …So this is a society that has been tested for a while. The interesting point here is what conclusions the communities draw from this difficult week. They’ve stared into the abyss a bit. And I think they’ve all concluded that further violence, further tension between the communities is not in their interest. And our hope and our ambassador spoke about this this week that in this tragedy there actually is an opportunity where all the communities will decide that really it is in their mutual interest to avoid the violence, pull together and construct the kind of unity government that can move this country forward.

SCHIEFFER: So you’re saying they stared into the abyss. Are you saying this may be in some way bring them together?

Mr. HADLEY: That is the hope. Having seen — having been tested in this way, having seen what the terrorists are doing and trying to provoke the communities. What was interesting is all the statements from all the leaders was that this tactic would not succeed, that the communities were going to stay together and work together and to try and avoid violence and build a unity government.

As we now know, after abating briefly, the sectarian strife intensified throughout 2006 and within months Iraq was trapped in a vicious, self-sustaining cycle of sectarian violence.  It took the Bush-Petraeus-Crocker surge to break that and put Iraq on a more positive trajectory.

Viewed through the lens of U.S. policy options, Afghanistan may be in a more perilous situation. Obama has already tried a surge; I doubt he could go to that option again even if he wanted to, which he shows no interest in doing.

The alternative that appears to be gaining momentum inside the Administration involves speeding the transition to Afghan control (ironically, precisely what the Baker-Hamilton Commission recommended as the alternative to the Iraq surge back in 2006), and relying on  counter-terrorism operations by U.S. forces to protect core U.S. interests. However, as Steve Biddle points out, that option is based on "unrealistic assumptions."   

Specifically, advocates of this accelerated transition option have somehow convinced themselves that once we hand over the mission to Afghan leaders, we can step back from expensive nation-building while maintaining precision-strike counter-terrorism operations.  But the Afghan leaders hate most those counter-terrorism operations and like most our expensive commitment to nation-building. Why would they be more inclined to allow us to do what they hate when we have curtailed what they most want?

Of course, our national interest in continuing counter-terrorism strike missions will not wane, so the more realistic choice after transition will be this unpalatable set of options: (1) defer to Afghan concerns, at the cost of an ever-enlarging sanctuary for the terrorist network; (2) shift to longer-range counter-terrorism strikes, ones that do not rely on host-nation support. The problems with #1 are obvious. The problems with #2 are that longer-range strikes are also less precise, so they will involve more civilian casualties, thus inflaming Afghan concerns still further. They are also likely to inflame our NATO allies, who are already queasy about the more precise drone-strikes.

We may be at the worst kind of turning point: One where every turn leads to a worse situation.

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