Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Winning In Afghanistan

In the post below, The Afghan Quagmire, I quote Bob Herbert quoting Andrew J. Bacevich, so it seems appropriate to read Bacevich's article and see what he says. The subtitle to the article entitled "Winning in Afghanistan" seems instructive: Victory there won't look like you think. Time to get out and give up on nation building. The article was published Dec 31, 2008.

Bacevich is a retired military man (Herbert calls him a retired Colonel; I've seen him on teevee and do recall him being a full colonel, or perhaps a lt. col. - his credentials are quite impressive: Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University. A graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, he received his Ph. D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University. Before joining the faculty of Boston University in 1998, he taught at West Point and at Johns Hopkins University according to his bio from BU).

He gets right to the point: Persisting on the present course—as both John McCain and Barack Obama have promised to do—will turn Operation Enduring Freedom into Operation Enduring Obligation. Afghanistan will become a sinkhole consuming resources neither the U.S. military nor the U.S. government can afford to waste.

The allied campaign in Afghanistan is now entering its eighth year.

So easy to lose track of that when so much attention is given to Iraq. While we wanted a quick victory in Afghanistan, that so much was devoted to the Iraq fight prevented such a victory.

The real problem is that Washington has misunderstood the nature of the challenge Afghanistan poses and misread America's interests there.

Afghanistan's total land area is 647,500 sq km (12.13% of that is arable).
Iraq's total land area is 437,072 sq km (13.12% of that is arable).

Afghanistan's population is 32,738,376.
Iraq's population is 28,221,180.

Bacevich states that Afghanistan is a much bigger country—nearly the size of Texas—and has a larger population that's just as fractious.Its population is 4.5 million greater than Iraq's, indeed, and its land area is nearly 50% larger. Further, he states that Afghanistan has a far lower literacy rate, an even less effective central government (not exactly a lofty standard) and aside from opium, produces nothing the rest of the world wants. That is in very significant contrast to Iraq's petroleum.

Meanwhile, the chief effect of allied military operations there so far has been not to defeat the radical Islamists but to push them across the Pakistani border. As a result, efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are contributing to the destabilization of Pakistan, with potentially devastating implications. September's bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad suggests that the extremists are growing emboldened. Today and for the foreseeable future, no country poses a greater potential threat to U.S. national security than does Pakistan. To risk the stability of that nuclear-armed state in the vain hope of salvaging Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake.

The article seems to have been written around October; no note is made of the attack in Mumbai. No matter; his points are pertinent and important.

Of course, it seems ludicrous to speak of Pakistan being (further) destabilized, considering how unstable it (always) is.

All this means that the proper U.S. priority for Afghanistan should be not to try harder but to change course. The war in Afghanistan (like the Iraq War) won't be won militarily. It can be settled—however imperfectly—only through politics.

Outside of politics for public consumption, how serious is anyone about the Afghan conflict being won? It seems to me that it is implicitly assumed that neutralization is the real aim. The Colonel must certainly understand politics.

The new U.S. president needs to realize that America's real political objective in Afghanistan is actually quite modest: to ensure that terrorist groups like Al Qaeda can't use it as a safe haven for launching attacks against the West. Accomplishing that won't require creating a modern, cohesive nation-state.

Indeed, the colonel does seem to understand politics.

U.S. officials tend to assume that power in Afghanistan ought to be exercised from Kabul. Yet the real influence in Afghanistan has traditionally rested with tribal leaders and warlords. Rather than challenge that tradition, Washington should work with it. Offered the right incentives, warlords can accomplish U.S. objectives more effectively and more cheaply than Western combat battalions. The basis of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan should therefore become decentralization and outsourcing, offering cash and other emoluments to local leaders who will collaborate with the United States in excluding terrorists from their territory.

Sounds similar to what seems to have become the policy in Iraq.

This doesn't mean Washington should blindly trust that warlords will become America's loyal partners. U.S. intelligence agencies should continue to watch Afghanistan closely, and the Pentagon should crush any jihadist activities that local powers fail to stop themselves. As with the Israelis in Gaza, periodic airstrikes may well be required to pre-empt brewing plots before they mature.

Does not seem the Colonel is stating a new approach to policy, though it does bear repeating.

Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University, and the author, most recently, of “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.”

I wonder if Governor Palin would, if she read, agree with that subtitle, considering her oft-repeated emphasis on American exceptionalism.

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