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The Afghanistan Train Wreck

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The classic metaphor is watching two trains chug along toward each other in slow motion, knowing that they will collide head-on but being unable to do anything about it.  That's what the Administration's Afghanistan policy looks like. The president made his speech at West Point, declaring that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. That will bring the total up to about 100,000 U.S. troops in-country.  At the same time, he said that they would begin withdrawing in July 2011, barely a year after the last of them arrive. However, he added later in the speech, "Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground."  And there's the rub. No sooner had the speech been made than senior administration officials like the Secretary of Defense, the president's National Security Adviser, and the Commander of U.S. Central Command, were saying publicly that the president's withdrawal date isn't real. We could be there in significant strength for years after that date.

General Stanley McChrystal, our commander in Afghanistan, wants to expand Afghan army and police security forces to a total of 400,000. That was his original plan, and he's apparently sticking to it, even though President Obama told him that goal was too high. He won't have the troops and the time to do it, but if he doesn't do it, the chances are the Kabul government won't survive and the Taliban insurgency won't be contained after U.S. and NATO forces depart.

What vital U.S. interests are involved and how will they be furthered by additional expenditures of blood and treasure in Afghanistan? Hard to say, really. Propping up a corrupt regime in a backward country isn't a vital American interest. If that were to mean that al-Qaeda could no longer plan or inspire attacks against us because they couldn't operate from Afghanistan, that would be fine. But it doesn't mean that. They'll just go somewhere else; in fact, they've already decamped to Pakistan.  Stability in the region, particularly in nuclear-armed Pakistan, is a valid U.S. interest, however, it isn't clear that defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, assuming we can do it, will further stability in Pakistan. In fact, having driven al-Qaeda across the border into Pakistan has served only to further destabilize that chaotic country, and continued involvement in Afghanistan could make matters worse.

The more we know, the more we should be seriously concerned about the president's strategy for Afghanistan. At best, we'll muddle through for a few more years, then pull out long before the job is finished, assuming it can ever be finished. At worst, we'll suffer many more casualties and spend many billions more to achieve nothing more than we could have had by pulling out now.

Stephen Biddle, of the Council on Foreign Relations, made the following statement in congressional testimony:

Public support for the war in Afghanistan has been falling for much of the last year. The manifest corruption of Afghan elections last summer aggravated this decline, but it was ongoing well beforehand and stems from deeper causes. Americans have increasingly been asking fundamental questions about the war: do we have important interests at stake? Can we secure them? Will the cost of securing them be tolerable?…

This war is neither the obvious necessity that its strongest supporters claim, nor the clear loser that its opponents typically see. The war engages important, but indirect, U.S. interests. It will be expensive to wage properly, could require many years to resolve, and might ultimately fail even if waged vigorously, but failure is not guaranteed and the U.S. enjoys advantages that other outsiders in Afghanistan have not. “Middle way” options designed to secure our interests but cut our costs, moreover, have important shortcomings and are unlikely to offer an escape from these dilemmas.

…the balance of cost and risk suggests a war that is worth waging, but only barely – yet one worth waging vigorously if we are to do so at all. What is clearest, however, is that neither the case for the war nor the case against it is beyond challenge or without important counterarguments.

Biddle's statement is worth reading in full because it lays out clearly the challenges we face in Afghanistan and some of the options available.

As I noted in an earlier article, it's instructive to apply the principles of the Powell Doctrine to our strategy for Afghanistan. It falls short on all points.

Recommended reading:

"Assessing U.S. Options for Afghanistan", Stephen Biddle, CFR
"U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead," Colin L. Powell, Foreign Affairs, Winter 92/93
President Obama's Speech on Afghanistan (transcript), ABC News
"Obama aides fine-tune meaning of Afghan withdrawal date", CNN
"Work to be done", Editorial, The Washington Post
“With Obama’s strategy, Afghanistan looks like another Vietnam”, George McGovern, The Washington Post
"Assessing The Threat In Afghanistan", Peter Bergen, NPR
Interview with Colin Powell, The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC
"The Powell Doctrine", Doug DuBrin, PBS
"Powell Doctrine", Wikipedia
"The World Factbook: Afghanistan", CIA

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About Tom Carter

  • Irene Wagner

    Well, thanks for the article, too, Tom Carter. It’s good to be able to speak our minds.

    I wish ALL wars could be fought with words. Welcome to the BC fray!

  • Irene, you make a good point. Every time we kill a few terrorists and, by the way, their families and neighbors, we lose. That’s one of many good reasons we should stop fighting pointless ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the enemy simply relocates to more comfortable places.

  • Irene Wagner

    Maybe humanitarian aid should be the payload of every UAV, if they’re admired equally. We can roll everything manned right back home to the USA, then. What a silly idea!

    A comment above says: Most of the Asian world despises weakness. They don’t respect compassion, principled restraint, or treaties.”

    Well, I know a Superpower’s gotta do what a Superpower’s gotta do. One thing it won’t do is brainwash me into dehumanizing an entire hemisphere.

    I’m not trivializing the threat of radical Islam. But really, does the typical local insurgent desperado despise weakness in us as much as he despises it in himself? His neighborhood’s been gutted, he’s seen friends and even women and kids blown up. He’s not going to forget all that any more than you’re going to forget all about 911. The rich fat evil Arab who’s running the show will run out of such desperadoes to use if the US finally starts to recognize their faces as human. Then the rich fat evil Arab can despise our compassion and “weakness” all he wants, as well he may. Who cares?

  • Baronius

    Again, STM nails it. Most of the Asian world despises weakness. They don’t respect compassion, principled restraint, or treaties. They respect strength even when they hate the way you use it. A country will respect nation-destroying more than nation-building. They might show anger, but they don’t feel anything, and on an intellectual level they simply recalculate the power relationships.

    We shouldn’t “use” our awareness of those facts. We should always demonstrate our decent Western compassion. It keeps us from becoming thugs, and it may persuade individuals of our merits. But we can’t forget that people admire our UAV’s as much as our humanitarian aid.

  • STM

    When the west wavers, that’s when this loose grouping of lunatics goes: “OK, paper tiger … we can do what we like”.

    Tom talks about people not knowing these countries, but one thing the Taliban – and the fighting Afghans in general – don’t respect is people who in their eyes might be running away.

    It’s also how the US has fallen into this position in the first place: by a historical reluctance since Vietnam to stick these things out once the ice-cream starts hitting the fan (Mogadishu, Beirut, the botched raid on Iran) or slow to move (the Balkans).

    In the past, that has just given these people more confidence to do what they were doing, secure in the knowledge that the US will make lots of noise but not do anything.

    At a certain point, US interests were going to be compromised in the most public way possible: that happened on 9/11.

    I don’t believe the US is a bully in the sense that most people understand the term but it’s absolutely right for the US to stand up for itself.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean nation-building as we know it.

    I saw a great quote once from an Arab leader who said the Arabs have a saying: “You better be nice to America or they’ll bring you democracy”.

    So don’t bring democracy or values that don’t jell.

    But the stick might have to used when and where required.

    Because Cannon’s right: they don’t want to negotiate, and they don’t care what we think.

    And one thing they all despise is weakness.

  • Cannonshop

    #2 Tom, you can’t negotiate with any reliability in this situation-the ‘insurgents’ aren’t some monolithic entity-they’re a crowd of loosely-confederated groups, some of whom despise one another almost as much as they despise Americans or Jews.

    A treaty that can’t be enforced is no treaty, and no agreement can be reached until and unless the problem children in the north Pakistani/south Afghan bush become unified by more than their hatred of the West.

    It’s like trying to remote-negotiate a peace between competing gangs-unless there’s a controlling syndicate with REAL control, you’re not going to get a peace. The only way to get a positive outcome, given Pakistan’s nukes, is for U.S forces to be the Anvil, and Paki forces to be the Hammer.

  • FitzBoodle

    Good arguments to raise BEFORE going to war.

  • Baronius

    I agree with everything STM has written. (Good job, STM!) I’d add one more thing: once a nation goes to war, the question of national interests is moot. It serves America’s interests to win in Afghanistan because losing any war, anywhere, reduces a nation’s credibility. While STM is right that there are specific benefits to the US from a stable Afghanistan, we can’t forget that power is measured by your ability to help your friends and destroy your enemies, and there are myriad benefits to geopolitical power.

  • STM

    Sorry Tom, can’t agree.

    Successful CoIN strategies are possible. They just require time and commitment.

    That means staying whether the voting public likes it or not, and doing it the right way.

    Which is: not like Vietnam.

  • I really didn’t want to get involved in this discussion – but I will, only to a point. Afghanistan is what America, using Pakistan as a condom state, turned it into. The Taliban got created because America sent then ally Osama bin Laden to train Aghanis to fight the Soviets – and he successfully taught the Wahhabi trash to the tough Pashtuns who live there, who have maintained their independence against all comers for centuries. This is what the Taliban is: Wahhabi philosophy merged with the Deobandi style of worship.

    The best weapon against the Taliban is not foreign soldiers: the best weapon against the Taliban is the Pashtunwali – the traditions of the Pashtun themselves. The best way that the West can accomplish this is not through militarized interference – (aided by private firms bankrupting the United States) – but through intensive aid (like medics) providing real benefits. These are the folks who can ingratiate themselves with the local Pashtun tribes, learning Pashto, for example, and do so even further by expressing a deep interest in the Pashtunwali – thus getting the locals to teach the foreigners as though the foreigners were the ones benefiting.

    By acting as if the Pashtun have something to offer other than guns and drugs, one can win them around to – their own traditions! This will work against the not that deep indoctrination of the Taliban.

  • STM, comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq or Afghanistan aren’t valid in detail. The comparison that is valid is between the fundamental decisions that were made then and are being made now at the highest levels to pursue the war. Very intelligent people who think they understand the countries and the people and think military power can be successfully applied through a combined counterinsurgency and nation-building strategy were wrong then, and I believe they’re wrong now.

    That’s why I strongly recommend reading (or re-reading) David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. The parallels are spooky.

  • I agree, Ruvy, with much of what you say, although I don’t see enrichment of contractors as a reason for being in Afghanistan and Iraq as much as a by-product that some are more than willing to take advantage of. I think we would be much better off, now and in the future, with less involvement of contractors. Part of the reason we’re doing it is because it helps keep the size of the military and, to some extent, the U.S. civilian presence artificially low.

    I agree that once we took the Iraqi military down and threw out Saddam, the military part of the effort should have been over, aside from a small residual force to protect diplomats, AID officials, etc. Same in Afghanistan once we took the Taliban down and, to some extent anyway, dealt with al-Qaeda.

    We aren’t going to build democracies in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and we aren’t even going to create competent, honest governments. I fear that if things continue the way they are, we’re just going to create even greater instability in the region and spawn more terrorists.

  • STM

    And I only agree with Ruvy up to a point.

    Yes, people are making money out of it.

    But how anyone can think that the US and its allies would want to be there unless they really, really had to be is beyond me.

    Which is how I feel about most of Ruvy’s views.

    Not all, but most …

  • STM

    I agree with some of what you say but troop numbers ARE an issue here … depending on what kind of troops and what the stated aim is. Genuine diplomatic engagement should be part of any other type of engagement, but in this case, unfortunately, it won’t work on its own.

    Which is all very well, but the Coalition’s policy in Afghanistan is already largely based on CoIn strategy and operations that are vastly different to the Vietnam experience – and combat deployments, even those of the US, are largely special forces-type units or those whose normal training takes them close to special forces capability, like the US Marines or, let’s say, the British, Australian and Canadian specialist army units (there are others too but let’s be honest here about which nations are doing most of the real fighting there in Helmand, the dangerous parts of Oruzgan, like the area around Tarin Kowt, and Kandahar, and importantly fighting of the type required) … and of course, the troops needed to support them (which is where much of the big number is going to come from anyway in the US deployment).

    Easy for us to say, I know, sitting here and not getting the living shit shot out of us but it’s important nevertheless the international Coalition stay the course in Afghanistan, even without real help (and wavering support) from some of the NATO countries that should know better, no matter how long it takes.

    Anyone who doubts that should watch some re-runs of al-Qaeda atrocities over the past decade, starting with airliners full of innocent Americans being crashed into skyscrapers full of innocent Americans. Then they should move on to the Madrid, Bali and London bombings just for a reminder of what else is possible.

    It’s not about destroying the Taliban so much as denying al-Qaeda the opportunity to take advantage of the Taliban’s hospitality and the general lawlessness of rural Afghanistan and the Pakistan border.

    One thing that has been learned over time (since WWII) is that CoIN needn’t be about huge numbers of strictly conventional troops like the Vietnam disaster – but takes a long time, requires commitment and needs to use the same or similar (but better) tactics as the insurgents to have any real chance of success. Numbers are important, but unless they are right kind of numbers, it’s irrelevant.

    The Russians did the same thing in Afghanistan that the US did in Vietnam – large deployments of conventional troops trained (mainly) to fight a conventional war – and it was a clusterfuck too. I see what’s happening there now as somewhat different. This will never be a Vietnam unless conventional-minded US military commanders get the run of the place and fall back into their old, stilted style of thinking.

    Blowing the shit out of the joint just won’t work.

    And to suggest that diplomacy alone will solve this problem is a nonsense. It’s also a nonsense to believe that instability in Afghanistan has been caused by this.

    The place hasn’t been stable for a long time.

    It might have seemed stable under the Taliban to some eyes, but that’s just the kind of stability that led a bunch of lunatics living in a cave and whose favoured headdress is the teatowel to plot and put into action some of the worst terrorist acts ever perpetrated without anyone knowing their real whereabouts. Let’s not kid ourselves that it won’t keep happening if everyone just leaves.

    Is that the kind of instability we want Afghanistan to go back to? Seriously?

    Provided the US learns the lessons of Vietnam (which is what the author is trying to allude to I think), it’s winnable despite how it looks. And it actually also needs to be won – but that can’t possibly happen unless there is enough commitment to stay the course.

    Why do half a job, then leave, and worse, leave the bulk of the Afghan people to the same fate as before??

    What’s the use of the sacrifice so far if that’s the case?

  • Sorry to spoil the high tea, gentlemen. Truth can burn sometimes.

  • Thank you for asking, Tom.

    It is rather simple. This war in Afghanistan, like the war in Iraq, has been very profitable for a number of firms in the States which specialize in – well, war.

    Once Saddam Hussein was overthrown, and certainly once he was captured, it was time to pull out of Iraq. They are still there, doing who knows what? I don’t know what the hell the Americans are doing rooting around in Afghanistan. Aside from a few medics who actually do some real good, your government isn’t doing jack shit there. They stuck in a Unocal exec (one of Bush’s friends) as prez, and certain firms, who must remain unnamed (because of possible conflicts of interest – my conflicts of interest), are making a fortune over there, while American soldiers die.

    Other than keeping those firms rolling in dough, there is no discernible reason for your soldiers to be there. Period.

    I suspect the same is true for Iraq.

    In other words, to put it bluntly, when you follow the money, you find out that somebody is making a fortune out of war – the fact that your government is being bankrupted is apparently irrelevant.

    This makes the misuse of the Marines that Smedley Butler documented decades ago look like sweetness and light! At least your government wasn’t being bankrupted to serve some damned corporate board in 1933!!

  • Ruvy, I’d be interested in your take on what the main issues are.


  • John Lake

    I’d like to make a point here.
    I truly believe that many of most Americans believe that the word “insurgent” applies to belligerent forces coming from a distance to rebel within a distant region. This is suggested by the supposed partial root, “surge”.
    The American government has taken full advantage of this misunderstanding. One American General, whose name I can’t locate, had the courage to release that in fact an “insurgent” is a “Local man in a pickup truck, with a shotgun.” Following research, I found that to be true. An insurgent is defined by all sources as
    “1 : a person who revolts against civil authority or an established government; especially : a rebel not recognized as a belligerent
    2 : one who acts contrary to the policies and decisions of one’s own political party
    an attempt by a group of people to take control of their country by force.
    finally:(legal dictionary)
    International law a person or group that rises in revolt against an established government or authority but whose conduct does not amount to belligerency ”
    In fact there is no suggestion of “coming from far away”.
    So, if you already knew that, forgive me. I think it’s important. Insurgences are not “surging in” to cause trouble. They are local people opposing what they may be opposing.
    In some cases they may be opposing militaristic expansionism from foreign nations.

  • Such a pleasure reading two gentlemen politely discussing the surface of an issue – without getting to the main issues at all.

    But I wouldn’t want to spoil any of this – it’s like watching high tea….

  • Glenn, I certainly agree with your last paragraph. I would begin withdrawing troops, not increasing the numbers, and focus on diplomacy, development assistance to the extent they will accept it, and offshore power and special operations to combat terrorist elements that might attack the U.S. and our interests.

    I understand the rest of what you’re saying, but I think there’s an equal or greater chance that our operations in Afghanistan will further de-stabilize Pakistan. We’ve already driven al-Qaeda into Pakistan, and that problem will continue. Whether the Pakistani military will mount sustained opposition to them is another question. There’s also a basic problem of instability in Pakistan no matter what the U.S. does.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Welcome, Tom –

    Like most other Americans, this retired Navy man would be happy to pull all our troops home. However, it was pointed out after the Taliban’s (or was it al-Qaeda’s? I can’t recall offhand) offensive in Pakistan this summer, it became obvious that they were a serious threat to Pakistani stability and sovereignty (and nuclear weapons).

    I also remember watching an interview with a Pakistani Army official who said that if the U.S. troops leave, the insurgents will once more be able to avoid the Pakistani military by staging their attacks from the mountains of Afghanistan.

    In other words, what we’re essentially doing is securing (as best we can) the Afghan side of the border, while the Pakistani military consolidates the northern provinces of Pakistan and tries to uproot the majority of the insurgents.

    For the above reason – and that reason alone – I agree with the president’s plan. If Pakistan fails to take advantage of our presence securing the Afghan side of the border and fails to establish stability in their northern provinces, then we’re wasting our time (and blood and treasure).

    Personally, I think a more effective route would be to mount a diplomatic offensive and back it up with dollars (at even half the cost of what Afghanistan’s costing us now) to bring our enemies closer to us, make them need us, and then use this as an opportunity to dry up the funding that keeps al-Qaeda in business.